Sunday, April 16, 2017

Dungeons and Dragons: "Exotic Monsters" part 1

            I have played Dungeons and Dragons for more than 15 years.  Lately, I have not had access to any other players and so I have just been kicking around ideas that normally would be in a game and instead I am just going to post them on my blog.  This is going to be a reoccurring thing as I just keep hammering out things and not all of them can be turned into elements in my “random fantasy novel ideas” folder.

Last Time
            My last Dungeons and Dragons entry was part 3 of a series on the Defense mechanics in 3rd Edition and several suggestions from me on how to do things differently.  Here are all three parts: Part 1, Part 2, and Part 3.
            I should also note that I have just bought the base 3 books of 5th Edition and will be playing a game of it soon.  I like what I see for the most part (the art is excellent) but that might just be the idea of getting to play again after so long.  Anyway, on with the very soft and fluffy topic of making monsters weirder without altering their statistics.

What Have I Got: Some Boring Monsters
            This is the sort of thing I didn’t even notice when I started into the fantasy and science fiction genres when I was much younger.  Monsters in all their varieties are exotic by their nature.  Be they the hodgepodge of parts like a Chimera, the thudding simplicity of the Purple Worm, or the elegant menace of the classic Vampire, monsters are cool.

            After years of surrounding myself with these genres I have noticed somethings that start to feel a little drab, and then problem I was having started to come together.  The idea being that monsters could be more exotic than I had seen portrayed in Dungeons and Dragons.  This makes sense, DnD is basic (it used to have Basic in the name) and it is up to the creativity of GG’s and players to grow the world with their own touches.  That is what I have been doing and I will illustrate how you too can draw inspiration for this.
            I am kind of getting a head of myself, what do I mean by boring?  Mostly my vision of boring had to do with the life cycles of monsters.  That many of the creatures (humanoids) more often than not exist in lives like much like those of humans.  Two people of the opposite sexes copulate and make a baby, that baby grows, learns, they themselves breed, then they age, and eventually die.  That life cycle is true of goblins, orcs, and nearly anything else barring Aberrations, and Aberrations were the first things to draw my attention to other possibilities.

Lords of Madness
            The life cycle of Mind Flayers is terrifying.  They cut open the head of a human, insert an alien tadpole spawned from a giant brain with tentacles and after and ungodly transformation that human is warped into a Mind Flayer.  Purple skin, tentacle mouth, and psychic powers all from alien brain surgery.

"Brains?  More like creatine fool.  Need to get swoll!"
            How this process was carried out when Mind Flayers first appeared on this plane is a mystery, considering humans didn’t exist at the time and Gith were the only humanoid race the book discusses.  Maybe Gith are human enough for it to all work out?  Regardless, this was something intentionally strange and unnerving.  Mind Flayers were meant to be set apart from other creatures in the game not only by their look and mindset, but also in how they exist at all. Along with the other monsters discussed in the book, Abeloths and Beholders being the most iconic, Mind Flayers were made fun and different via this exotic trait.
            What I found so interesting was how a creature could be totally dependent on another species to procreate, Mind Flayers are more a perversion of humanity by some hostile external mutation than it was its own existence.  This got me looking into the topic and I started to look at monsters and species that do not give birth, they instead manufacture their progeny.  Let’s first start with a character that is beloved, and more importantly a good guy.

Doctor Who: “So you are like the son/clone of someone important?”
            I like “Doctor Who”.  It is perhaps the best iteration of a Mary Sue character in popular fiction.  The universe is huge (though often derivative of both other things and itself), the opponents are menacing (when they aren’t silly or pathetic), and the dialogue and stories are often well assembled and pop with energy (when they are not garbage).  It is a good science fiction show (whenever it isn’t being god awful).
            That being said, I have come to find out the live action show jettisons a lot of really creative and interesting material from the comics, the books, and even older episodes of the live action show.  One of these ideas was that of the Looms.

It might be a little impractical to have your species breed entirely via giant tube technology.
            When Time Lord society took over Galifrey under the leadership of the inventor of regeneration (the process by which Time Lords are nearly immortal), Lord Rassilon created what could be considered 3-D printers of people.  These were called Looms.  Each family would have a Loom and those individuals printed off by the thing, created by blending various genetic data from all of the existing members’ regenerations, would be considered cousins to each other and the descendants of all those members who had passed on before.  This is a creative and alien social structure.  It’s fun.
            It was hinted that the Doctor is descended from a being called “The Other” who was the third founding father of Time Lord Society, I do not think this is ever confirmed and with all of this stuff flushed down the drain in favor of them just being people who live regular lives I doubt it will be brought up at all in the live action series.  So, I guess we are all just supposed to shrug and say, “who cares, whatever”.
            The reason I bring this up is that it is an illustration of how a human seeming, personable, and beloved character can be exceptionally alien in many interesting ways when it comes to family structure and how they view themselves in the context of their social order.  Dungeons and Dragons talks about how Elves value personal freedom and Dwarves value their clans, but… Elves and Dwarves still have kids and parents and their families are not all cousins born from the same giant mechanical womb.
            This is an example of how a familiar and heroic character can be strange.  How can that be applied to DnD?

Eberron: “You know what would be cool?”
            I am not going to pretend I know what was going thru the creators’ heads when they started really synthesizing the disparate bits of creativity into a workable alloy of awesome that became the definitive setting of 3rd Edition Dungeons and Dragons but I can imagine one conversation sounded something like this:
“You know what would be cool?”
“A playable race of robots.”
“Woah?  I was going to say ordering in pizza, but let’s talk about your thing while we wait.”
            If any of you people reading this know Keith Baker, try asking him if that is how it initially went down and then tell me if I am close.   Also, tell him I admire his creative prowess.
This is the Creation Forge.
Anybody else wondering why "Breath of the Wild" shrines have such a similar look?
            The Warforged are a race of quasi-living golems created whole cloth in magical forges that pressed them out like pewter wargame miniatures to fight a war.  The idea of a sexless society that was created in a state of adulthood and whose life was entirely defined by combat and the morally dubious position of having no value as individual beyond their disposable nature as soldiers is awesome and could be the basis of entire series of books resembling “I, Robot” or “Ex Machina”.
            Regardless of the accuracy of that, I contend that the playable race of robots called the Warforged are one of the coolest things ever.  I like the premise of their existence so much I have modified them to fit my own games both in DnD and in Science Fiction games and have added my own levels of pathos, like groups of them trying to build a giant clockwork computer to calculate the formula of a soul so they can all have one and start to ruminate on their place in the world and ensure themselves a place in the afterlife.
            I like robots.
            While magical technology might not fit in every (or even most campaigns) the idea that these critters do not have spiritual successors in other settings (seriously, “why are the robots not in Spelljammer?”) baffles me.  I do feel that ideas like these should be looked into in more GG’s self-made game worlds.
            So, what is the idea behind this sort of alien life cycle in fiction?

Othering: How to make something different
            Rather than give too much of an explanation of what Othering entails I will link to a video that can explain it better, but I can give this short blurb to explain it quickly.  Othering is the process of using simple physical and cultural markers to make the subject exotic and strange to the audience in order to make them less sympathetic.  Othering can be done in reverse, giving traits we think of as positive, big Disney-esc eyes, soft smooth fur, or boobs to aliens in order to make them easier to identify with.
            In TV show’s that have to produce lots of aliens often the most othering you will probably see is something like the Andorians from “Star Trek” or the Narn from “Babylon 5”.  In movies, the most “Othered” monsters are probably the bugs from “Starship Troopers” who are giant monsters presented without any redeeming traits in spite of ostensibly being a space faring intelligent society, the othering of the bugs is even directly referenced in the movie as many people find the idea of the bugs being in anyway intelligent “offensive”.

"I'm from the Home Owners Association."
"I have to tell you that your unpermitted settlement has to be brought up to code."
"Your mailbox is the wrong shade of white."
            The best example of an alien society being created specifically to be a sympathetic victim of human aggression has to be the Na’Vi from James Cameron’s “Avatar”, or as I call it, “the most over rated movie that ever existed”.  This video, done by Mr. Plinkett talks about the process of making the Na’Vi comically sympathetic.
            Elves, Dwarves, and Halflings are hardly othered at all.  They are basically just humans with slightly different views on certain cultural touchstones.  Honestly, the world views of Dwarves of Elves are so similar in presentation the idea that they are in any sort of rivalry at all kind of strange.  The only thing they seem to disagree on is preferred housing type which should keep them out of each other’s’ hair entirely as no Dwarf wants to live in a tree house and no Elf wants to live in a cave.  Aside from that they are both long perspective taking, artisan revering, friends of humanity.

My Own: How I integrated some of these ideas of Manufacturing
            First things first, I put in a lot of Warforged material.  They are typically in the background of nearly any campaign I run or are referenced in my own lore but beyond that I try and apply their ideas in a more sticky-goo kind of way.
            Warforged are very clean.  Metal, wood, some leather, but they are machines.  They come out of their forge clean and assembled and ready to go.  They do not emerge screaming and covered in Amniotic Fluid.  I chose to make a race that was all about being sticky, gross, and covered in fluid.  I made Goblins much grosser.
This is not the most crisp of resolution.
            The Goblin Pits of Io-Rach were an idea put forth in the 3rd Edition of “The Book of Vile Darkness”.  The idea behind them was that goblins had gathered vats of mutagen in big pits and lowered in warriors to transform them into more fit weapons of war.  I decided to not just make this a weapons program, but a part of the goblin life cycle.
            Goblins are not born; they have no sex or gender.  They emerge as squealing children from pools of ooze created by enough goblins dying in close proximity to pollute and corrupt the land they died in.  Goblins have short lifespans maturing to full after only 2 years and passing of old age when they are in their 20’s, at which point their remains go to a goblin graveyard/birth-pool and dissolve down to help new goblins emerge.
            Goblins have worked to refine the process over the years and “Matrons” of the society know what piles of rotten fruit and meat to add to best speed the process along, and the know that retrieving goblin corpses is useful, but not critical, a half dozen dead goblins and enough bushels of rotting beans can breed 20 goblins in a year with proper Kid-Gardening (it is a pun on Kindergarten).
            Breeding for certain traits still escapes them, goblins are by and large rather uniform, but some interesting permutations can be found with the right applications of magic at the right time.  Black skin from unhallowed areas, albinos from areas known for having lots of wild flowers, blue skin if the process is done in a clean processing facility (this also results in goblins that learn faster and live a little longer), and if enough blood of elves is put into the mixture their ears come out longer.

Let's look at the designs of the two biggest tabletop renditions of this common monster.
Pathfinder wins.  It is not that the art on the right is bad, it is good.  It is just not nearly as interesting.
(Follow that link it is a blog about the art in the 5th Edition Monster manual and is pretty good.)
            Not enough mixtures have been tried in any controlled experiment to completely understand the process but that has more to do with the short lives of goblins who can’t monitor multi-generational eugenics.  Elves and other long lived races don’t want to conduct studies and actively destroy breeding areas where they find them, seeing the goblins as akin to rodents.
            Sometimes massive battles that leave numerous goblins dead will lead to the sound of mewling infant goblins appearing from the bloody muck after a few days.  It is a gross and unpleasant cleanup of such areas.

The Beg for Attention:
            I hope you liked this look at goblins created via processing their dead and strange chemical mixtures, next time I will continue to look at strange life cycles in genre fiction and how some of those ideas can be applied to Dungeons and Dragons to make the settings more exotic without taking them too far from their quasi-feudal era settings.
            If you have any suggestions for strange monster permutations that you have used in your games share them in the comments.  If you have other examples put them in the comments to.  And if you are a fan of “Doctor Who” that resents my calling the Doctor a Mary Sue, give it a couple minutes of thought and then decide what it is about that comment that irks you, and then blast me.
            Have Fun!

Bonus: Some first impressions of 5th Edition
            I want to also take a moment to point out the definite design upgrade to the Aboleths in the 5th edition Monster Manual.  In all my years of playing 3rd Edition I had no desire to use an Aboleth because their illustration in the 3rd edition Monster Manual was so unmenacing.  I had no idea they were even supposed to be something other than a strange fish, or even that they were gigantic because there is nothing in their art that indicates their size, but in the new edition they change from big green fish to scary toothed Old One.
There is no sense of scale.
I know it is cliche to put a skull in every illustration to show how big a monster is, but could you have put in SOMETHING.
As is it just looks like a weird fish.
Again, no sense of scale.  BUT, in this instance it isn't needed because the thing is coded as a threat by the teeth.
It screams "I'm DANGEROUS!"
            If you like or hate this please take the time to comment, +1, share on Twitter, Tumblr, or Facebook, and otherwise distribute my opinion to the world.  I would appreciate it.

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