Sunday, April 29, 2012

Keepin' it (Un)Real

"Hey Moth, why don't you use published campaign settings to make life easier?"

Good question. There are tons of them out there and they all have some genuine value. But...

My own perception is that many of the "classic" campaign settings are little more than a jumbled re-creation of our own world - but with a fantasy flair. Playing a fantasy version of Europe and Asia was fun for a while - but I get sick of fantasy Vikings vs. fantasy Brits really fast. This is one reason why I don't run or play Forgotten Realms, Mystara, Greyhawk, etc. Besides, the names Gary Gygax came up with for places and people make my brain hurt. No disrespect intended to Our Founder, but I actually prefer Blackmoor over Greyhawk.

"If you don't want a pointless jumble of every trite and exploited ancient or medieval society that ever existed, what do you want?"

Something else.

Probably not a good enough response. Okay, we'll go this route.

I'm a bit sick of Europe - but not ALL of Europe. For example, I'd like to see more Irish, Scot, and Welsh flavor in a game. Fewer kings and queens and more counts or lairds. Less goblins and ogres in favor of more tricksy fae or malicious hags. Some truly mythic heroes or adventures. Weird magic and convoluted curses.

I'd also like to see more Eastern European influences. Russian folklore springs immediately to mind as a fantastic source of inspiration. What adventurer in their right mind would not pee their breeches at the sight of Baba Yaga? Go ahead and try to kill that giant...but you'll have to find his heart first.

Asia? Yeah, we've done China and Japan to death. What about Malaysia? Cambodia? Thailand? The ruins alone would get me interested.

I want something new and exotic. Something to make me think. Why dredge Ancient Egypt up again for the umpteenth time when Mesopotamia, Chaldea, Babylon, and Assyria are just waiting to be introduced to the hapless and jaded players? You'll finally get to use those shedus and lammasus, at the very least.

By simply crossing one or two borders away from the standard fantasy-inspired civilizations of the usual campaign worlds, we can explore something new...but still enticingly familiar. Yes, I acknowledge that most players are reluctant to step too far from their cultural comfort zones. That's one reason I tend to propose delving into the lesser-used cultures rather than inventing new ones entirely from scratch.

Here's a brief inspirational film list (in no particular order) of what I'm talking about:

The Jungle Book (1994). Specifically, the lost temple where King Louie and Kaa can be found.
The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor. Mostly for Shangri-La.
Princess Mononoke: For almost everything.
Lara Croft: Tomb Raider. Mainly for the Cambodian temple and living statues within. The Siberian set is cool too.
Sinbad (Ray Harryhausen). Any of the three older films and most of the contents.
Castle in the Sky. Also for just about everything.
Disney's Atlantis. The depiction of the remnants of Atlantean civilization piques my interest.
The Golden Child. Lots of cool non-stereotypical Eastern references.

There's no need to go totally gonzo or bizarre with a fantasy setting to make it exotic or "new." In fact, I suggest not getting too esoteric or weird. Using Incan or Olmec influences instead of Aztec or Mayan can be enough to introduce a unique Mesoamerican campaign to the average player. Emphasizing the Welsh influences on Arthurian legend can help fashion a truly new-seeming Medieval Britain setting. What about an Italian Renaissance environment instead of England or France? An Arabian Nights-inspired setting that borrows from Abbasid or Persian influences as well as the more familiar tales added by outside translations.

The various editions of the D&D game give us a rich source of monsters from just about every world culture. Many of these monsters deserve a setting suited to their origins. Beyond the typical creatures of folklore and Greek or Norse myth, we can also explore the possibilities of the banshee, efreeti, hag, manticore, or sphinx. Later monsters can be adapted, such as the lammasu, naga, or rakshasa. Even a classic monster like the elemental can benefit from a bit of cultural influence. After all, certain other cultures acknowledged elements different from the four given to us by the Greeks. Void elemental, anybody?

Do we really need another minotaur maze or vampire crypt? Almost every culture has a version of the vampire to unleash upon an unsuspecting party of adventurers. How can such undead horrors be turned or defeated? Let's find out.

Saturday, April 14, 2012

Shattered Sky - Monstrous Musings

Still chipping away at the forthcoming Shattered Sky Rulebook but a new job is taking a lot of my time and energy. So, I'd like to present a few more thoughts and examples along the lines of monster creation and adaptation for the setting. For a DM like me, giving the players new or unusual monsters to confront is a big attraction. More than many other details, the monsters of a story or a setting help define the scope and flavor of the whole. When I think of Middle-Earth or many of its erstwhile imitators (you know who you are), I think of some shadowy Dark Lord. When I consider Narnia or Oz, a wicked witch springs to mind. Dragonlance has its dragons. Ravenloft has its rav - no, sorry...Ravenloft has its gothic horror staples like vampires, werewolves, mummies, and reanimated corpses.

Anyway, monsters are vital to a successful game. A great hero needs an equally terrible villain to oppose and vanquish. That villain needs minions to test the strength and resolve of the hero - and to generally act as instruments of terror. Plus, a memorable and capable lieutenant can pose almost as much of a threat and a challenge as the dark master he or she serves. Where would Sauron be without the Witch King and those ravening hordes of orcs? That's right, all alone high atop his tower with a commanding view of the sprawling dominions of Man.

Dungeons and Dragons is famous for challenging and memorable monsters, but it is also filled with mediocre throwaway creatures often used for sword fodder or forgettable one-off encounters. This is a good thing. Those monsters are necessary...but they also serve as excellent frameworks for even greater purposes. Oh - you want an example?

The crypt thing was always one of my immediate favorites from the original Fiend Folio. Was it the fantastic Russ Nicholson art? Was it the sneaky, tricksy nature of the monster itself? Was it the fact that we were given a skeletal monster that was stated very clearly (despite D20 retconning) to be "not undead?" I can't choose just one reason, but that sucker started showing up in my dungeons at an embarrassing rate. But, being me, instead of shrugging off the inevitable questions about the sudden proliferation of teleporting robed skeletons in chairs, I started to create a crypt thing subculture where I asked myself the hard questions like: "Where the hell are all these crypt things coming from?"

This led me to create two secret societies, a new demideity for my setting, some new magic stuff, a new subplot for my campaign, some new monsters, and so on...and so on. Did I eventually jump on the crypt-thing-as-undead bandwagon? Yes, I did. I couldn't help myself, really. Sorry, Roger Musson.

In my campaign setting, the crypt thing was merely a lesser member of a society of undead masterminds. The bigwigs (bigskulls?) of this group were the crypt dooms. I also created a type of rogue crypt thing called a vault thing. Finally, I considered an alternate form for the monster known as the crypt thing. I think I blame Mr. Nicholson's excellent drawing - look at those cool folds and layers - for the inspiration of making the robes the actual monster, with the skeleton as merely a kind of manikin to support the robe and provide a separate target for kill-happy adventurers. Did this lead me to include a cabal of cloaker-like masterminds for this convoluted plot device? You bet your Scroll of Protection From Undead it did. And, in one fell swoop, the crypt thing was no longer undead - again. Plus - it was nothing like what the players who were sneaking peeks at the Fiend Folio thought it was. Because...I also have a secret love for the cloaker as a fun monster for my campaign setting. But, that's possibly another blog entry entirely.

Why am I talking about AD&D monsters in my B/X blog? Because they convert so nicely to these rules and serve as excellent creatures upon which to base an entire adventure or series. I happen to enjoy using two or more monsters in conjunction to baffle and bother the heroes. Zombies covered in yellow mold? Don't mind if I do! Grimlocks with leashed basilisks as hunting beasts? Giddy-up! Animated skeletons shrouded in the folds of a special breed of necromantic cloaker? I'm all yours! Besides, I think it makes the game more fun for all involved. The players get to face a classic monster, but in such a way that they are sure to receive a surprise or two. That, and the DM gets to actually present an encounter where the players don't necessarily have the full stat block and descriptive text of all monsters involved memorized down to the last hit die. And - they will be monsters that already exist in the books the DM already has. No need to create a new critter from scratch or add more and more obscure references to an already-laden book shelf. Get more return from those existing investments, I say.