Sunday, April 23, 2017

Dungeons and Dragons: "Exotic Monsters" part 2

            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
            Last time I started talking about the idea of making monsters (particularly humanoid monsters) different in such a way as to make them more alien to the players without having to alter the rules of how those creatures play.
            Creating new statistics can be arduous, especially to new GG’s, what is more, focusing on one particular set of rules tends to make these discussions of Dungeons and Dragons and fantasy writing in general less accessible (at least, that is the excuse I give for why part 3 of the “Defense” series has fewer views than any other entry in all of my DnD blogs).  But, let me just say something quickly about new mechanics or statistics.

Something Quickly about Mechanics and Statistics.
            And easy way to make a monster unique is to give them an ability that sets them apart from the rest of the encounters in a game.  The boss that not only has lots of hit points and devastating attacks but the encounter happens in a unique location (lava castle), has an attack strategy that forces the players to rethink how they attack (you need to learn how to gun parry and dodge forward or the side if you want to beat Father Gascoigne in “Bloodborne”, his attacks move him forward enough that dodging backward does not remove you from the area he is attacking), or the villain has a particular weakness that needs to be exploited (use the Light Arrows to blind and the Master Sword to kill Ganon at the end of “Ocarina of Time”).

I unironically recall thinking graphics would never get better.

            These alterations challenge the players to master mechanics and skills beyond what they would typically be expected; to recognize that strategies that have worked before are not working; and to shift resources and effort toward something that shows an impact.
            As a general rule, you ALWAYS need a story reason to justify why a creature or character has abilities previously unseen in its kin.  If the Gelatinous Cube is flying thru the air, be ready to offer an explanation, “It swallowed a spice rack full of potions, one of those potions granted flight, the bottle stopper has either just now dissolved allowing the monster to fly or the Cube’s biology has been permanently altered by the potion to allow flight.”
            In contrast to that rule, you DO NOT ALWAYS need changes in statistics to reflect a change in in the story.  Sometimes the acquisition of an artifact or the uncovering of an important archeological site does not result in a change in a character’s ability to hit things with a sword.  For instance, let’s say that Thomas the Hobgoblin is a Captain in his army and discovers the lost homeland of his people, numerous statues, documents, art, and cultural history make him a “powerful” force in hobgoblin society, but he is just as easy to kill as any other Hobgoblin.  Sometimes the only “statistics” that change are how many minions they command or how devastated their people would feel if you were to kill them.
            Colonel Thomas the hobgoblin might be a capable officer who thru luck, intelligence, or intuition did something important, but it didn’t give him super strength, magical powers, or an invulnerability to everything but weapons that are painted blue.  He is still just a guy who can be pummeled to death.  Don’t make the mistake thinking that all the boss monsters have to be “special” in the sense of rules, and do not make the mistake of not explaining why “special” bosses have their strange abilities, even if it is just BS no one will be able replicate ever again.
            On to pointing out instances of weirdness in fiction.

Warhammer and Warhammer 40K: “Our (insert monster here) is different.”
            While one could point to each of these properties as being a kitchen sink approach to their respective genre, they do this with such bald-faced sincerity and a gung-ho immunity to self-awareness that I can’t help but kind of love them.
            Warhammer has their derivative elements, they have their imaginative elements, and they have REALLY EXPENSIVE BOOKS AND TOYS.  Fucking hell Britain, why do you need all this nerd money?  Is it for Brexit?  Did Games Workshop foresee Brexit and get as much geek coinage as they could while the getting was good?
            I digress….
            I found two creative parts of these properties, one each and figured I would point to them as yet another example of how you can do a society with a totally different social order can be utilized in a game’s lore.
Not pictured: Lizardmen breeding.
            In Warhammer, there are the Spawning Pools of the Lizardmen.  Slann, Saurus, Skinks, and Kroxigors are all monstrous humanoids that emerge in mass from sacred pools aligning with astrological timing.  Tadpoles plop out of these pools after days of spawning and eat bugs to balloon their growth as quickly as possible, emerging completely once they have fully developed as lizardmen.

            In the dark millennium of 40K, Orks are psychic fungus… Good lord that sounds silly… That bud off of large plant like masses and grow into the various flavor of ork.  Thru a constant state of war… Excuse me, “WAAAARRRGH!” …  Only the strongest of Orks grow to be true warlords, and among the strongest and most dangerous of monsters in the galaxy.
            Ork growth is boosted by the psychic power of their peers.  A self-fulfilling prophecy, as an Ork survives battle after battle they become looked up to and revered by the other orks and thus becomes powered up by their psychic energy, making them tougher and able to survive more fights, and more revered, and more psychically powered, and bigger, and so on.
            I point to both of these because they are not straight up manufacturing of creatures like my examples from last week, but instead have a distinct communal interaction.  There is a social order at work that gives a physiological imperative to its members.
            The spawning pools of the Lizardmen need to be protected to be spawned into, the pools require numerous environmental factors to function properly, and they create a social gathering point that must be protected for the safety of the species.  They can’t just move that shit to the frozen north or to a desert.  Their biology requires certain conditions.
            On the contrast, orks can go anywhere and they do spill out across the galaxy invading everywhere and fighting everyone, but they are powered up by other orks and emboldened via that hostile action.  More “WAAAARRRGH!” means more chance for glory and more growth to wage more “WAAAARRRGH!”  It is a biological imperative that would explain the Orcs of Dungeons and Dragons being the go to opponents of most civilized society far better than them just being barbaric and violent.  It would also provide an in-game explanation for making more powerful orcs beyond giving out class levels.  Such a change would have the side effect of getting rid of half-orcs… Which honestly could be jettisoned without losing too much, I personally do not see their inclusion as critical, but that is just me.

Lord of the Rings: Working in the Slime Pits of Isengard
            I consider the “birth” of the first Uruk-Hai, Lurtz to be an iconic moment in the “Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring”.  These are movies built on iconic moments and that scene still sticks out to me.  It instantly establishes that this monster birthed of filth and violence is a powerful and menacing opponent that will pursue the heroes.
            The creation of the first Uruk-Hai in the movie is seen as some kind of experiment and Lurtz is fully formed, not entirely clear of self and purpose, but possessed of a singular instinct toward killing.  This is a spin from the books in which the Uruk-Hai were more traditionally bred for war, but as Peter Jackson was working with a compressed time scale for the movie he chose to have breeding pits creating monsters.

"We must seize the means of production."

            I like this change.  I generally like all the changes made for the movie.  I was never able to get thru the “Lord of the Rings” books (if you want to know the furthest I ever made it I can answer you with a link to this song).  The creation of monsters makes them more alien, more apart from the natural world they are destroying with their war, more of a threat to the natural world beyond the sight of Saruman’s Tower.  This goes back to last week’s discussion of othering, as these guys are about as “Othered” as they can be.
            The Uruk-Hai are still humanoid, they still use weaponry, they have language, and can be understood as a thinking/feeling/planning threat.  They are however, so dirty, violent, thuggish, simple, and driven by base desires of hunger and fear that the audience doesn’t have to feel bad watching them be slaughtered by the train car load.
            Having the bad minions born from ooze of pure evil is perhaps the easiest possible way to establish that they can be killed without concern for the moral implications.  Which is good because they are on the receiving end of a freaking genocide by all the prettier (white) races of Middle Earth at the end of the series and… Let’s not go into the eugenics esc subtext of Tolkien’s world.
Would have been that hard.  Just take one guy from the bad guy races and have him be a good guy.
Heck, have a bunch, have them all be worthy of going to the Undying Lands at the end. Redemption for the ORCS!

My Own: How I integrated some of these ideas
            How I do Giants is a little different.  In my self-created world Giants are a manifestation of the planet’s natural magics.
            The natural energies of the world, Mana flows thru the world along the ley lines, a well-known of but often misunderstood lattice that patterns the planet.  Druids map these paths and have a habit of building conduits into this energy for the purposes of studying the pattern of the lines, they call the ley lines, “Life Web”.
            Sometimes this energy pools in particular areas.  More often just causing things like fairy circles to appear, maybe even an elemental to pop into our world.  But, a particularly large pool forms into the birth of a giant.
            The type of giant is based on the environment the energy pooled in.  Tundra produces Ice Giants for instance.  Hills, mountains, rocky steppes, or the bottom of the sea all of these places filter and concentrate different mana to birth a giant which rips up out of the ground blessed with some awareness but mostly living like Enkidu the wild man until their full senses and ancestral memory takes hold.
            Giants have an awareness of the world via their connection to the Life Web and eventually grow savvy to their surrounding via this preternatural sense of the world.  They recall weapons and crafts and language and eventually transform into full-fledged living and thinking beings.  The process takes less time if they are found and taught by others of their kind.

And over time, they will become even more a manifestation of the elements.
             In my game the Giants of the continent had joined a great alliance of other races, Catfolk, Humans, Warforged, and Goblins to defeat and push off an invading empire from a neighboring continent.  You might ask, “Why would they bother?”  Because they had to.
            This invading nation was known for their civil engineering, architecture, and roads.  Roads are the “Life Web” of urbanism, cities, and the tamed world, when they are built long enough and strong enough can cause disruptions in the world’s ley lines.  Too many roads can prevent mana from pooling in enough quantity to make a giant and can inhibit their connection to their ancestral knowledge.
            This alteration to giants was done to explain their diversity and it would explain why they need to come into conflict with particular groups of humans.  They have a biological instinct to combat the construction of cities and roads.  They have a vested interest in keeping the world wild and dangerous to humanoids because that is the realm that they dominate.
            This is why Hill Giants are typically the dumbest and weakest of giants, hills are relatively friendly to construction by small humanoids and thus the Hill Giants were being driven into a state of weakness and might go extinct.  Meanwhile the frozen or mountainous areas of the world rarely had any paths that were not buried or destroyed by snow falls and avalanches, so their ley lines were free and flowing.  That also explains the non-existence of Plains or Flatlands Giants.
            Giants are not without civilization in my game though.  There were instances of Giants building cities, but their architecture made note of any ley lines and could even direct the energy more efficiently to pool and generate more giants.

            I like Giants as an image.  Powerful, enigmatic, and chilling out.  The Giants of “Skyrim” are kind of my quintessential example of what I am looking for when I don’t bother to integrate them into the rules of DnD.  That the massive humanoids stick to their own thing, you don’t see any of their children, any gender roles, and all of their language and art is simple and swirling patterns that are not conveying anything to the smaller races, but might have substantive meaning to them.
            Instances in which the Giants come into conflict almost always involve them defending their territory/livestock or you are helping a backstabbing orc try to curry favor with a demonic patron.  I like how these creatures at once feel completely a part of the world and yet are kept at a distance from all of the regular humanoid events.  They are like deer or flowers; they are a part of the terrain.
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The Beg for Attention:
            These giants and last week’s goblins are all I have for now in regards to making monsters a bit stranger, I think these ideas are good places to start from as both of these monster types are encountered in numerous games, one at low levels and the other at middle to higher levels, the players would be able to see the differences but not all at once which might alienate them.  Gotta ease them into the strange.
            If you have any suggestions for other monsters you would like to see changed, or other instances of monsters in pop-culture or myth that require unusual conditions to exist share in the comments, I feel this is the easiest topic in the world to expand upon and will almost certainly return to it.
            Regardless of strangeness feel free to just write one or two monsters you enjoy in the comments.  Have fun.

First impressions of 5th Edition
            I contrast my vision of Giants with what I have seen of them in 5th Edition so far, I hate how Dungeons and Dragons is utilizing Giants now.  Strict deference given to some kind of hierarchy not based on any ideology, need, desire, or threat?  What is the point of saying “Hill Giants always defer to Frost Giants”?  What is the point of having Giants be united as some sort of racial caste system?  How does that help any story?  I can’t believe I am saying this, but 4th Edition did it much better as giant would eventually grow into titans of the elements they embodied, that fits with my ideas near perfectly.
Can I ask why they made Fire Giants look so much like Ganondorf?

            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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