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.


  1. I look forward to your cloaker-centric post. O have always enjoyed using them in my adventures. Somewhere in storage I think I still have my workup of a sewer adapted version, the cloacaer. I may bhave to dig out that particular treasure.

  2. I may be evil but, you, sir, are eeeeevil.

    Oh, bhave.

  3. A Crypt-thing society? Awesome!

  4. I am happy to meet another Crypt-o-fan.

    I'll also share a few of my notes here:

    Lords of the Crypt

    Background: Long ago, a secretive cabal of necromancers and conjurors, known as The Abronti (probably the name of an influential family), sought knowledge of the source of necromancy and the fabled “realm of the dead” mentioned in rotting texts. This realm was said to be a distant plane of darkness and hate that provided the unhallowed energies animating all undead. The captured records of this cabal do not record any success in this exploration, but they do provide sketchy details of what is believed to be the origin of the Crypt Lords.

    Crypt Doom: Web-shrouded mummified and semi-skeletal undead that forms the council of crypt lords; a ruling body that maintains the bindings of all crypt things and that punishes the rogue vault things. Can see and speak through any crypt thing. Tend to float instead of walk. Pronounce a malediction upon worthy foes. Wounds created by their claws do not heal naturally and can infect the victim with a disease that causes degeneration of joints and muscles, until the target is unable to move normally. Retain the “teleport other” ability of other crypt things and can use dimension door themselves. These creatures often retreat to a shadowy half-world of their own to plot and meet in full council. When an entire council convenes, they are capable of powerful ritual magic. The original crypt dooms were a cabal of necromancers and conjurers that sought lost secrets of ancient necromancers in long-sealed tombs. Some of these searchers never returned from their quest, at least not as they were.