Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Monstrous Imagination

Thinking about monsters today.

Not sure why. Maybe because Jim at Lamentations of the Flame Princess has been saying interesting things about good and evil, my thoughts turn to monsters.

This in spite of the fact that there really aren't many monsters in our current D&D campaign. Rogues. Scoundrels. Criminals. Miscreants. Murderers. Yes, those. But few are really monstrous. Monsters just don't fit in the heist / caper style game we're running. Even Monster Manual "monsters" mostly aren't really monsters at all in our game. So far, the few which have appeared (the troglodytes, the salamander, the gargoyles, the white ape, the shimmering daemon spirit, the sprites) have basically been people. Cruel people, potentially, but mostly not even that. The troglodytes were slaves. Now they're working odd jobs in the Sump. The gargoyles may or may not be up to no good, but no more so than the rest of the populace. The salamander? Mean spirited, vengeful, even chaotic evil, but still more of a person than a monster, in a lot of ways. And that's the way I want it in the rainy city.

But still, today, I find myself thinking about monsters. What works for me in a monster, and what doesn't. So I thought I'd talk about it a bit.

Monsters that are
Let's start with an example of what works. The blogosphere gives us this one, and for me, it's a hell of a thing: Chris's "Orcish Atavisms" at Vaults of Nagoh. Take a look at that thing if you haven't seen it already. Wayne Barlowe's art is certainly part of what makes it monstrous. But only part. What's more monstrous is that this creature is a degenerate thing of orcish stock. Deformed. Retarded. But an orc, nonetheless. And orcs use these deformed kin as guard animals, food, and breeding stock. The orcish atavism is monstrous, certainly. But more than that, it makes orcs monstrous, a difficult thing after all their years as familiar low-level cannon fodder.

Here's another example, this one from a non-gaming source. Cordwainer Smith's Scanners, from the 1950 short story "Scanners Live in Vain." Scanners are human, but what they've volunteered to have done to themselves is monstrous. Their job is monstrous. If you haven't read the story, I recommend it. (The text is available online here.) If you have read the story, you probably know where I'm coming from when I say that Scanners are monsters.

These are the monsters I've been thinking about today. I'd like to find some examples of good, truly monstrous monsters from D&D, but I'm going to dodge that for the moment (and maybe ask you to do it for me). Instead I'm going to take the easy way out for the rest of the post and talk about what does not really strike me as monstrous.

Monsters that aren't
This is a much easier job. Let's start with the big boys -- Lovecraftian horrors out of space.

Too familiar. It's not their fault, I know. But after thirty odd years as gaming mainstays, I know them too well. They hardly seem alien at all any more (an unfortunate irony). A lot of effort has been put in to keep them fresh and scary, perhaps most recently in Ken Hite's multiple re-imaginings in Trail of Cthulhu, which I enjoyed reading. And any familiar monster can potentially be made fresh again by reimagining it or just putting it in the right context. But for me, Lovecraftian horrors aren't especially monstrous these days, in spite of some laudable attempts to refresh them.

Here's another approach that doesn't work for me. The "dark" "demonic" monster. You know this guy. He's probably red or green or black, or maybe he's just pale. Like this bunch of yahoos. If he's humanoid, he's totally ripped and leathery and wearing black leather, or maybe really into chains. If he's lucky, he looks like Oderus Urungus. Sometimes he's gross. Maybe he's rotting. Maybe his internal organs are showing. Maybe he's got bugs all over him. Sometimes he's too fat. He did his internship in evil with the guy from the Saw movies. Evil is basically a matter of proper accessorizing for this monster -- even his horrible acts are affectations. Video games are probably the worst offender in this area, but RPGs have a long and storied history of trading in dark, demonic evil guys, too.

I should probably add that I'm not above including these guys in an adventure:
DM: Black smoke billows forth from the depths of the hellish furnace. A freakish red devil steps out of the smoke with a vile grin. He has a bloody pitchfork in one hand and a fistful of ephedrine in the other. He laughs and kills a baby.
Party Fighter: I ask him where he gets his ephedrine. I have a big tourney coming up.
Of course, as with so many things in gaming, YMMV. So that's why I'd like to turn the question to you. What monsters just work for you, are really monstrous, either from RPGs or from fiction? How about monsters that just don't do it for some reason?

Thursday, June 25, 2009

Personalities of the Rainy City -- Part III

  • Vengus Ult: Of course he does not peddle the wares of the guild. He is more a seller of tinctures and unguents.
  • Garmoud "The Bloody Handed": The city's lone master of the mysterious spell "Drenal's Stone Flame." He leaves nothing to chance when making a pact. He needs to know that he can trust you...
  • Regulus: An old school chum of Vengus Ult's, where by chum is meant "he too was at the school while Vengus was there. He knows that Vengus can be trusted. Vengus was always easy to keep an eye on. Arriving with his membership patch from the guild torn from his fine guild robes, he is a desperate man with something to hide. Will Vengus hide it for him, just for a little while?
  • Maleficus: Membership Enforcer for the guild. Have you seen Regulus lately? He has stolen important alchemical ingredients from the guild hall itself. You will, of course, let us know if you learn of Regulus's whereabouts. The guild will look kindly upon such cooperation.
  • Habitus Helveticus: His dashing messengers are the talk of the town. Oh the magics he must be casting to give them such fleetness of foot!
  • Ianus Tut: Newcomer to the city who has set up a manse at the bottom of Embassy Row. At all social gatherings, he speaks openly and freely of his plan to move up to the top of the Row. He's going up in the world. It is said when he arrived in the city he was seen wearing leather armor and walking through walls. This is unconfirmed and wholly scandalous rumor, he will assure you.
  • Ianus Tut's Neighbors: Recently their precious family heirlooms have been going missing. But it wouldn't be proper to blame such things on one's noble neighbors, of course, who must be people of honor to live in Embassy Row.
  • A Gargoyle on an Important Errand: Rumor has it that a gargoyle flying through a stormy night dropped a magic sword onto the cobblestone streets of the Tower Cliffs District.
  • An Unnamed Wizard's Servant: When an unnamed wizard's servant picked up the blade, he was compelled to strike down the nearest man. Now both servant and blade have vanished.
  • Schwiller: The boatman. He was out just last night and saw Vengus's old friend Jaelin the charmer out with a strange companion heading to the Mids, riding in a luxury raft with a roof. Oh, he didn't have time for old Schwiller's boat, no.
  • Jaelin the Charmer: Who knows what business he had with the shadowy stranger in the Mids. Schwiller would not care to speculate, not being the rumour-mongering sort.
  • A Scarred Stranger who Accompanied Jaelin the Charmer on some Errand Last Night: A newcomer to town, perhaps a refugee from a fallen world. No one knows what business he had with Jaelin the Charmer in the Mids.
  • Vassili, a Wizard of No Small Renown: Though his townhouse manse was broken into just last night, still he is out on the town once more with his faithful friends and companions for a night of debauchery. Tonight the angle of his hat looks particularly jaunty.
  • A Gargoyle Passing Overhead: He isn't circling, just passing by. Unless it's a very large circle. But surely he is not watching you.
  • Paintings of Wizards with Jaunty Hats and Prominent Noses: They cry out describing the intruders in Vassili's hall. Two men. One riding on the back of the other whose feet scarcely touch the ground. Hooded both. Faces obscured. One wearing a cloth kitchen napkin as a bandit mask, eyes hidden by alchemist's goggles. The other his right hand wrapped in a bloodstained rag.
  • A Great White Ape Dressed in Servant's Attire: Bored he looked, slouching in the drinking lounge on the second floor of Vassili's manse. Beside him, a half empty bottle of cognac. Around him drinks of every sort, some with a bluish glow.
  • A Dozen Sprites All Trapped in Bottles: Yes, they'll help you find the basement if only you will free them. No, they don't know what the pool of black water in the garden is. They make it a policy not to drink from magic pools. They thank you for your directions to a more hospital part of town. This "Sump" sounds quite nice.
  • The Shimmering Whirling Guardian: Not fast enough to catch a fairy. Not smart enough to see two grown men sneaking past while it swats at the sprites.
  • Schwiller's Boy, Jens: The quiet type. He'll gladly give you a ride back to the wharves. No questions asked.

Friday, June 5, 2009

A link to the compiled list of one page dungeon entries

I'm putting together a folder on my computer with all the one-page dungeon entries as people share them. What a fantastic resource this contest has become.

So to simplify life, here's my own local link to the Chatty DM's compiled list of entries. Posting it here increases the chance that I'll find it again next time I want to check it for more updates!

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Inspiring Images

I'm a visual person. I spend a lot of time browsing art and illustration forums and blogs, and images I've found on them have given life to campaign ideas I already had and inspired new ones. One of the first things I imagine when I think about a campaign setting is "What does it look like?"

Which is why there are few blogs I follow as closely as Golden Age Comic Book Stories. For the last couple years, "Mr. Door Tree" has posted good-sized, high-quality scans of great art almost every day. His archives are a treasure trove of inspiration. Looking for romantic high fantasy? N.C. Wyeth's King Arthur and The White Company illustrations are a good place to start. Looking for something a little more sword and sorcery? Michael J. Kaluta's illustrations of Robert E. Howard's Swords of Shahrazar are one place to look, and you can't go wrong with a gallery of classic Weird Tales covers or Virgil Finlay's interior illustrations: 1936 -- gallery 1 and gallery 2; 1937 -- gallery 3), either. Maybe you're interested in space opera and science fiction? Buck Rogers and Flash Gordon are here, and they're not alone.

There's so much more. The art ranges from pulp art to Disney to Harvey Kurzman to Charles Addams. When I first stumbled across the blog over a year ago, I spent hours in the archives. Now... well, I'd probaby lose most of a day's work.

It's always hard when posting a link to know whether everyone else already knows about it, or whether people are hearing about it for the first time. Golden Age Comic Book Stories is a much higher traffice blog than mine, but if even one person is hearing about it here for the first time, it's worth my time to link to it.

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Traveller -- suggested readings for a space marine?

I've rolled up a four-term former space marine for an upcoming Traveller game, and I'm looking for inspirational readings. Starship Troopers is a no brainer -- I've never read it, and it's an obvious place to start. A friend, Bill, also suggested the novel The Short-Timers, by Gustav Hasford. It turns out that the full text of the book is available from the author's website, but I'll probably end up checking it out of the library.

Any other suggestions?

I'm open to fiction or non-fiction, and I'm not concerned about the politics of the recommended book. (Movies are fine as well, but I'd be less likely to get around to watching a movie than I would to checking out a book.)