Wednesday, June 24, 2015

Monster Archaeology II - Nomads, Pirates, Cavemen & Mermen


In an earlier post I considered some the first half of the 1st and longest entry in the 1970’s Whitebox edition of Dungeons & Dragons from the perspective of bestiary as implied setting and with an emphasis on how I would model these foes in my own Fallen Empire setting.  Monsters & Treasure contains several other types of “Men” as adversaries, all in large numbers and all more or less fitting into two mechanical categories the “Bandit” model for an average combatant and the “Berserker” category for exceptionally dangerous types.  It’s noteworthy that the real deadliness of these “Berserkers” is far greater under the original Chainmail rules in that they receive a huge bonus (or extra dice – it’s unclear to me) when fighting normal soldiers.  A band of berserkers can tear through a normal Chainmail unit. This ability is less when facing adventurers, but the danger of a +2 bonus in Original Dungeons and Dragons is not to be underestimated.  There are also cavemen, but cavemen are strange, something distinctly outside the rest of the "men" entries.  Reading this list of human foes I also suspect that the miniatures available to Gygax were a major influence.

Maybe this guy can lead those nomad raiders?

Nomads are an uninteresting addition to the list of monsters in Monsters & Treasure, and like Buccaneers and Pirates seem to be a way of placing bandits on different terrain encounter tables.  Nomads of course are horse focused bandits riding out of the desert or plains. Nothing especially interesting, just another element of Gygax’s “Celestial Emporium of Benevolent Knowledge” (look it up) approach to monster taxonomy that focus on the weapon mixes of identical enemy units with a wargammer’s specificity. 

Though when thinking about the earliest editions of Dungeons and Dragons and their monster lists it’s worthwhile to remember that the game was envisioned as a variety of fantastical miniature battle and at the time of the White Box fantasy miniatures were hard to come by. Miniatures for Arabian riders, Mongols and bandit types were likely far easier to find, or already at hand.  This lack of fantasy miniatures is taken to its amusing peak in the December 1975 Strategic Review (issue 5) article “Sturmgeschutz and Sorcery” where Gygax provides a plan report and conversion rules for a game involving a WWII German patrol encountering the monstrous retinue of an evil wizard.  Nomads and the general focus on ‘men’ and humanoid monsters as enemies in the White Box are likely the result of this lack of monster models.

However, this isn’t to say that humans shouldn’t be a common enemy in contemporary games.  Most fantasy table top game settings present humanity as very common in the game world, with cities, empires and villages, while monsters skulk in ruins or crouch in the hinterlands.  With the number of humans in game worlds, and their evident power to keep their lands mostly free of monsters it makes sense that a large number of encounters in the wilderness will be with bands of armed men. I personally don’t find that making these encounters fit with stereotyped historical models is especially useful.  Just as not every mob of Berserkers needs to be Norse raider rip offs, not every Nomad has to mesh with Arab or Turkic/Mongol models.

Saturday, June 20, 2015

Making a Beast - Making Large Monsters More Effective

One of the things I’ve noticed in running and playing classic tabletop games for some time is how ineffective large dangerous ‘monsters’ are.  Fantastical beasts such as Owlbears and even Dragons are often less dangerous to adventurers under the older dungeons and Dragons rules then a pack of humanoids or bandits. 

HMS Apollyon Diabolic Abomination - A "Starfish" - Beast Candidate
I remember worrying one time about a ‘brown bear’ encounter being the first encounter by a new party in ASE.  There were four adventurers against a bear with 4 HD or so and a couple of dangerous attacks.  I figured it’d be a fairly tough fight.  It took two rounds before 20 odd HP of bear was being skinned and the choice cuts buried to take back to town. The party was smart, they peppered the innocent beast with arrows and bolts while it was standing near its lair and growling – displaying deadly claws (just as the ‘mildly hostile’ roll on the reaction die suggested it might), and then the adventurers charged in to surround the poor injured thing and cut it down before it could attack.  This sort of tactics and results might make sense for big mundane animals like a bear, it’s pretty much how are ancestors hunted the things after all (also with dogs, but that’s a murder hobo staple as well), but it seems awfully anti-climactic for mythical beasts of legend to go down in a couple of rounds, mobbed under by a pack of bec de corbin wielding hoodlums.

The ravening power of an enraged mythological beast should be a near unstoppable torrent of violence and ferocity, and even with group tactics the creature should be dangerous, faster, stronger and more tenacious then any normal creature and especially the sentients that have invaded its territory.  It don’t want the giant dangerous creatures my players face to feel like stacks of HP to be whittled down, I want them to be frightening and worthy of respect, requiring cunning to overcome commensurate with the wealth in magical hides, teeth bones and meat that they provide.

Since a beast is something that is not especially intelligent, I would like to make out thinking these monsters the real trick.  Luring them into enclosed spaces and traps for example rather than simply slugging it out with them.  Slugging it out should be very dangerous.

Tuesday, June 9, 2015

Thoughts on Fantasy Africa


A Current Cover of Saunders' Imaro - Pretty Swords & Sorcery
I recently had a chance to discuss 'bad fantasy novels' with a friend and he mentioned that he was interested in the Soul & Sorcery genre of fantasy, something I had no idea even existed.  Soul & Sorcery is a genre of Sword & Sorcery pulp fiction written by black authors starting in the late 1970's as an alternative to "Western" Fantasy with it's use of Celtic, Norse and Arthurian mythology as world-building tools, and also as a way to counter some of the retrograde racial attitudes and depictions found in Sword's & Sorcery - like those in Conan (which was written mostly in the eugenics obsessed 1930's).  Soul & Sorcery, or at least the Imaro stories I read, doesn't really feel, or perhaps it shouldn't really feel, like a genre of it's own - it's simply a Sword & Sorcery tale set in a mythical Africa, rather then a mythical Europe. 

Soul & Sorcery is an interesting sub-genre of fantasy in that it is both very different from standard Sword & Sorcery and very much the same.  I picked up "Imaro" by Charles R. Saunders - a collection of the first Imaro stories available for kindle and fairly cheap. Imaro seems to have been the birth of the genre, with the first Imaro story published in 1975.  Imaro the character and the stories involving him are very much a homage, reworking or retelling of Conan stories.  The title hero, Imaro, is in the Conan mold - "massively thewed" and a dangerous fighter with a somewhat gloomy outlook and tendency towards anger. Imaro battles sorcerers, their necromantic creations and dangerous animals, but the savannahs and jungles he wanders are very different then Conan's forests and icy plains.  Saunders has taken effort to make Imaro's world distinctly African, and this provides the interest in what would otherwise be fairly formulaic (though quite readable) Swords & Sorcery stories.  Imaro represents a "reskinning" (perhaps that's not the best term here) of Howard and his imitators that is pretty charming because it is different.  I also suspect Imaro is as light on historical/mythological fidelity to it's East African source material as Conan is to it's Northern European, but that's likely for the best given that Imaro is a straightforward set of stories about triumphing over evil wizards.

Imaro is set entirely in a fictitious fantasy Africa, about as closely linked to the real world as Howard's fictionalized Fantasy Europe/Hyboria, where the hero begins in a fictional Southern or Eastern African (seemingly a fictionalized fantasy Masai/Bantu/Zulu) and moves Northward though various African biomes and broadly sketched fantasy version of historical African cultures.  It is interesting to compare Saunder's fantasy Africa to Burrough's fantasy Africa, and note how much more alive Saunders' feels.  Burroughs' Africa is a set-piece jungle and occasional set-piece savannah inhabited by cookie cutter 'savages' of the noble and good or cannibal and evil variety.  Ignoring how these stereotypical depictions are a mark of the era of Burroughs writing and how this aspect of the Tarzan stories might be off-putting to modern readers, I think there's a useful lesson about world building here.  Saunders clearly had more knowledge about Africa the place and historical African peoples then Burroughs did, and it shows to his advantage in depicting a fantastic version of the place (or part of it - part of Burroughs problem is imagining an 'Africa' that is a single jungle filled expanse rather then a huge continent).  Now I'm not suggesting that Imaro can be looked at for any historical facts, any more then Conan will tell you about the Celts, but having taken the time to look at the technology and culture of the ancient peoples he is modelling his fantasy on, Saunders can add context and details that makes sense - the savannah folks are nomadic hunters and herders who live in easy to transport hide domes and value cattle greatly while the jungle people live mostly by fishing and gardening along the riverbanks and reside in conical houses of clay and thatch.  These details, seemingly pulled from historical sources, make sense and so can be readily understood without having to remember a great deal of fantastic vocabulary or world specific oddness. They are also details, and so give the reader a better understanding of Saunders' world building then Burroughs endless villages of huts built around a giant cooking pot.