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Bling V: I’ve Got My Eye On You

April 16, 2020 7 comments

The eye has been a symbol of protection since ancient Egyptian times, and quite possibly longer. To this day, fishermen in many parts of the Mediterranean paint eyes on the bows of their boats, and all over the world, stylized eyes made of glass are worn as pendants or hung from rear-view mirrors.

Trad

A few antique and traditional designs.

And then, of course, there’s the Eye of Sauron. The Egyptian goddess Sekhmet was called the Eye of Ra when she nearly destroyed the world at his behest. And when you think about it, doesn’t the Death Star look a lot like an eye, shooting a deadly glance at the unfortunate planet Alderaan like an angry god?

Evil

You’ve heard the expression “looking daggers”? That’s nothing.

In the course of looking at other interesting bits of bling, I came across a lot of rings set with eyes. The eye is a potent motif with a number of possible interpretations and functions, and I started thinking about what such these rings might do, if they were found by characters in a fantasy roleplaying campaign. Feel free to take, use, and adapt any ideas that appeal to you – and if you have any ideas of your own, please share them in the comments section.

Protection

Most game rules include rings or amulets of protection, and some of them might incorporate an eye motif.

Vision

The wearer gains some form of enhanced vision. This might be night vision or dark vision, or immunity to visual illusions, or a bonus to spotting secret doors, traps, and other hidden things, or a bonus to general perception skills, or even an all-of-the-above option like D&D’s true seeing. 

Alternatively, the ring might simply function as a third eye, allowing the wearer to peek around a corner or over a wall without risking their whole head.

Gaze Weapon

From the petrifying gaze of Medusa and the basilisk to the death glance of the catoblepas to the D&D beholder’s terrifying array of attacks, gaze weapons are well known in fantasy games, and a ring with an eye might be capable of using one of them – especially if the eye is from the creature in question, and not simply made of glass.

Beast

If those were real monster eyes, what might they do?

Divination

The eye might be capable of seeing through time, showing the scene as it was in the past – or possibly the future. The wearer would be well advised to close their own eyes while using this ability: otherwise they may see past and present overlaid upon one another in a very disorienting way.

Alternatively, the ring might see through space rather than time, allowing the wearer to see a distant place to which the ring is bonded. This might be a specific place, or it might be the location of another ring with which this one is paired. Or the ring might function like a crystal ball, showing visions in the wearer’s mind rather than in its own depths.

Detection

The eye sees into hearts and souls, showing it wearer the subject’s alignment or intentions in the form of a colored aura. Most fantasy games include spells and items that detect good and evil, and any necessary rules can be adapted from them.

Or perhaps the eye sees magical auras, allowing the wearer to detect magical items and residues of magical energy. Magical energies of different types might show up as different colored auras.

Unspeakable Evil

Instead of helping its wearer, the ring might be working for a distant evil, like an evil deity or a demon prince. This being might give rings to cult leaders and other favored servants, watching over them through the magical eye. If things look particularly grim for the cultists, and their role in the Big Evil Plan is critical, perhaps the deity or demon can possess the ring’s wearer – or manifest through their body in a suitably spectacular and disturbing way – and join the fight in person.

Eyelid

With some powers, it’s good to be able to shut them off.

Pictures borrowed from around the Internet. All images copyright their original owners.

It Don’t Mean a Thing if it Ain’t Got That Bling

If you like this kind of post, you’ll also want to see these:

Armillary Rings: Handy for astronomers, astrologers, and navigators.

Compartment Rings: Hide your true allegiance, or carry a secret message.

Poison Rings: An old classic.

Gun Rings: Add more punch to your punch.

Miscellany: No theme, but lots of possibilities.

Let us Bling: A Ring for Clerics that unfolds into a portable shrine.

Making Monsters: Chupacabra

March 7, 2020 3 comments

Thanks to everyone for your responses to my earlier posts on the Jersey Devil and the Water Leaper. I’m continually developing my system-agnostic monster description format, and I’m grateful to everyone who has helped so far. Soon I hope to make the official #secretprojects announcement and you’ll see what my plans are, and how you can help further. Meanwhile, as always, I would love to know how you think the format could be improved. Let me know in the comments section.

The chupacabra (Spanish: “goat sucker”) is a creature with a fairly short history. According to Wikipedia, it was first reported in Puerto Rico in 1995. Since then, sightings and attacks on livestock have been reported from Maine to Chile and as far afield as Russia and India.

In the real world, the mystery has been solved. The sightings were of coyotes or dogs suffering from severe mange, which altered their normal appearance. I blogged about that some time ago: here’s a link.

In a fantasy or horror setting, though the Chupacabra could be a completely new kind of creature, just as the various reports suggest. Or one could take a middle-road approach. A Chupacabra was once a dog, a coyote, or some other kind of canid, but it was changed by exposure to toxic waste, or a virus (perhaps the dreaded zombie virus), or through exposure to particular magical energies, or some other force. The possibilities are endless, but I have tried to cover a broad range in this description.

 

The Chupacabra

 

Sometimes called goat-suckers, these predators are as big as a medium-sized dog. Their skin is grayish and slightly loose. Their backs are sharply ridged and some have spines erupting from their vertebrae.

They stalk the night, attacking livestock under cover of darkness. They retreat from bright light, and will not normally attack humans unless cornered. However, it has been known for a pack of the creatures to attack a lone child or a sick or wounded traveler.

The bite of a Chupacabra will infect any canid with a virus. Transformation will begin in 24-48 hours and last for 2-3 days. First, the unfortunate victim becomes savage and unpredictable, losing the ability to recognize its former friends and owners. Then it loses its fur and the skin of its face draws back, leaving it with a permanent snarl. Unless shut in somewhere, the new Chupacabra will abandon its former life to join its maker – or to live out the rest of its existence alone.

 

 


 

 

RANGE

chupacabra_padayachee

Image by Alvin Padayachee. Wikimedia Commons

Real World: Puerto Rico, North and South America. Normally alone.

Fantasy World: Warm temperate and high desert. Lone or pack (2d6).

 

TYPE: Animal

 

SIZE: Small (3ft/1m long)

 

MOVEMENT

Run: 50 feet (15m) per round

 

ATTRIBUTES

Strength: Animal, small (e.g. medium dog, coyote, wolf)

Dexterity/Agility: Animal, small (e.g. medium dog, coyote, wolf)

Constitution: Animal, small (e.g. medium dog, coyote, wolf)

Intelligence: Animal, small (e.g. medium dog, coyote, wolf)

Willpower: Animal, small (e.g. medium dog, coyote, wolf)

Hit Points/Health: Animal, small (e.g. medium dog, coyote, wolf)

 

ATTACKS

Bite: Animal, small to medium (e.g. medium dog, wolf)

 

WEAKNESSES

Light Sensitivity (Optional): Repelled by daylight and strong light sources.

 

SPECIAL ABILITIES

Spines (Optional): Sharp spines, up to 1 foot/30 cm long, erupt from the creature’s vertebrae. They confer a slight armor advantage against attacks from that direction. Any character trying to grapple the creature must make an appropriate skill or attribute test (wrestling, dexterity/agility, or similar) each round: failure means the character suffers damage as from a successful dagger or short sword attack.

Virus (Optional): Bite carries a virus, requiring the victim to make a constitution save or similar roll or suffer effects according to their species. Canids begin to transform into Chupacabras. Humans may transform into the humanoid form of the creature (see below). Other species suffer wound infection, fever, and/or other symptoms according to what the chosen game’s rules support.

Undead (Optional): The Chupacabra has all the normal traits and weaknesses associated with corporeal undead in the chosen rule system. If in doubt, use zombies as a model. Its bite carries a form of the zombie virus. If a saving throw vs. disease or other suitable test is failed, a canid will become a Chupacabra and a human or humanoid will become a zombie.

 

Humanoid Chupacabras

 

Chupacabras

Image by user LeCire. Wikimedia Commons.

A human (or humanoid) bitten by a Chupacabra may be transformed by the virus that the creature carries. All hair falls out, and the skin becomes warty, dry, and scaly – not reptilian as in some artists’ impressions, although it may appear reptilian at a distance in bad light. Eyes become deeply sunk in the sockets, giving an appearance of large, black eyes in poor light. Spines may erupt from the back.

The character’s mental attribute scores drop to the same level as those of a canid Chupacabra, and most mental skills are lost. He or she loses all memories and ceases to recognize friends or family. Fear and hunger are the only drives. All saves against fear suffer a severe penalty (-30 in a percentile system). The victim gains night vision at the same level as a dog or cat, but daylight or equivalent illumination causes severe discomfort and fear.

The unfortunate victim keeps to the shadows, avoiding all kinds of threats and surviving by scavenging and killing small livestock such as chickens, sheep, and goats.

There is no known cure for the condition, either in humans or in animals. Researching the condition and developing a cure will be a very difficult task, requiring a high level of medical and/or traditional healing skills. At the GM’s option, powerful healing or curse-removing magic may be effective.

 

 

 


 

Links

Wikipedia

Cryptid Wiki

Humanoid Chupacabra: a d20 System adaptation

A 5e adaptation

NPR discussion of the real-world answer to the mystery

 

Making Monsters: Leap Day Edition

February 29, 2020 3 comments

Thanks to everyone for your response to my earlier post on the Jersey Devil. Before too long, it will be getting and update and expansion as I work toward the ideal format for a system-agnostic monster description. Soon I hope to make the official #secretprojects announcement and you’ll see what my plans are, and how you can help.

Here’s another monster – and today being Leap Day, I’ve gone for the Water Leaper from Welsh folklore. I’ve changed the format a little, and as always I would love to know how it could be improved. Let me know in the comments section.

 

The Water Leaper

 

Water leapers, known as llamhigyn y dwr (pronounced roughly “thlamheegin uh duwr”) in their native Wales, look something like large toads with wings (sometimes bat-like, and sometimes like those of a flying fish) instead of front legs and a long, sinuous tail instead of back legs. Their broad mouths are full of very sharp teeth. Their bodies are 2-3 feet long, with tails twice as long again.

They will attack almost anything, and regularly destroy the nets and lines of local fishermen. They also attack swimmers and livestock drinking at the water’s edge.

Water leapers have been known to try to knock fishermen out of their boats by deliberately leaping at them. They can emit a piercing shriek which can startle an unwary fisherman or animal, making their attack easier. In the water, up to 12 of the creatures can attack a human-sized victim at the same time.

Their pack attacks show a rudimentary organization. For instance, they may spread out and attack a target from all sides at once. One creature may stand a little way off and shriek just as the others are swimming or leaping to the attack.

Water leapers can live on lake fish, but their appetites are so voracious that they quickly deplete the fish stocks in any lake they inhabit. They seem to prefer the meat of sheep, cattle, and humans. They have no natural enemies apart from enraged fishermen and deadlier water monsters such as lake worms and water horses.

 


 

Water_leaper

Painting by Brian Froud. Used without permission: no challenge to copyright intended.

 

RANGE

Real World: Wales: swamps and ponds. Lone or pack (3d4).

Fantasy World: Temperate marshes and ponds. Lone or pack (3d4).

 

TYPE: Animal

 

SIZE: Small (3ft/1m long)

 

MOVEMENT

Swim: 25 feet (7.5m) per round

Glide: 30 feet (9m) per round. Must spend at least 2 consecutive rounds swimming before being able to fly.

Crawl: 5 feet (1.5m) per round.

 

ATTRIBUTES

Strength: Animal, small (e.g. cat, fox, or small to medium dog)

Dexterity/Agility: Animal, small (e.g. cat, fox, or small to medium dog)

Constitution: Animal, small (e.g. cat, fox, or small to medium dog)

Intelligence: Animal, small (e.g. cat, fox, or small to medium dog)

Willpower: Animal, small (e.g. cat, fox, or small to medium dog)

Hit Points/Health: Animal, small (e.g. cat, fox, or small to medium dog)

 

ATACKS

Bite: Animal, small (e.g. cat, fox, or small to medium dog)

Buffet: Only usable when gliding. Ignores armour. Knockdown, based on creature’s Strength, resisted by victim’s Dexterity/Agility. No damage, but the second and subsequent hits in a round cause a cumulative penalty to the victim’s Dexterity/Agility as the victim fights to keep their balance. Used to knock victims out of boats and into the water.

Shriek: Startle, based on creature’s Willpower, resisted by victim’s Willpower. Range/Area of Effect 30 yard/meter radius centered on creature’s position. Startled characters act last in the next turn and suffer a mild (e.g. 10%) penalty to all actions. Critical success on the creature’s part, or critical failure on the victim’s part, causes a Fear result in addition.

 

WEAKNESSES

No special weaknesses.

 

SPECIAL ABILITIES

Stinger (Optional): Some reports of water leapers give them a barb or stinger at the end of their tail. This gives the water leaper one additional attack per round, causing damage as a dagger. In the case of a stinger, the attack also causes mild poison damage, like the venom of a small, mildly venomous snake.

 


 

Links

Cryptid Wiki

A d20 System adaptation

A 5e adaptation

 

A Bit of Bling

February 19, 2020 6 comments

Astronomical Ring

Here’s an interesting little trinket for a scholarly character: a ring that opens up into an armillary sphere. In a game I was running, a piece like this would allow a character a small bonus to skill rolls in astronomy and astrology, and perhaps a time bonus as well, since it would help the character make the necessary calculations more quickly. If the ring were magic, the bonuses might be even higher, all the way up to instant, error-free success every time.

I found this image on Pinterest, and it turns out that rings like this are available from a number of retailers at quite reasonable prices. If you like the idea of owning one, for cosplay or LARPing or just for fun, a search for “armillary sphere ring” or “astronomical ring” should find you plenty of options.

The My Modern Met web site has short article on armillary rings, which includes photos of some items from the British Museum’s collection. Here is a link.

In the Old World of WFRP, rings like this might have variants that chart the movement of the Chaos moon Morrslieb, and allow cult magi to make the sort of calculations that could get a person burned. The Enemy in Shadows Companion, now available as a PDF and coming soon in dead-tree format, includes a chapter on the dreaded Purple Hand cult which includes a new Cult Magus career.

It Don’t Mean a Thing if it Ain’t Got That Bling

If you like this kind of post, you’ll also want to see these:

Compartment Rings: Hide your true allegiance, or carry a secret message.

Poison Rings: An old classic.

Gun Rings: Add more punch to your punch.

Eye Rings: Protection, divination, gaze weapons, and more.

Miscellany: No theme, but lots of possibilities.

Let us Bling: A Ring for Clerics that unfolds into a portable shrine.

Monster-Based Adventures

February 15, 2020 2 comments

There is a whole class of adventure that revolves around a single monster. This type of adventure first came to prominence in the early 1980s with the publication of Call of Cthulhu: its investigative style mainly involved trying to find out which creature from the Mythos was responsible for a situation, learning how to deal with it, and managing the final conflict so that it was defeated or banished – and hopefully not too many investigators went too mad in the process.

With the current resurgence of interest in folk horror roleplaying games, this seems like a good time to take a look at the design and plotting of monster-centric adventures. I have been a fan of folklore and folk horror for decades, and I expect these games will provide players with a wide range of interesting and challenging creatures, not all of which will succumb to a simple shotgun blast.

 

Monster-Based Adventures vs. Monster Encounters

 

Monster-based adventures are different from monster encounters – even boss-monster encounters – in several important ways.

The first is that a monster encounter is not complete in itself, but invariably forms a part of a larger adventure. Even if it is a one-shot encounter designed to be dropped into an existing campaign or adventure, it is not an adventure in its own right.

A monster encounter normally begins with the party meeting the monster, whereas that is the third act in a monster-based adventure. Both showcase the monster’s nature and abilities, but a monster-based adventure includes a research and investigation phase, and players usually come out of the adventure having learned more about the creature and the setting that a simple encounter has to offer.

Here are my thoughts on this kind of adventure. I’m sure you have ideas of your own, and your own favorite monster-based adventures. Let me know about them in the comments section.

A monster-based adventure consists of three distinct phases, each with its own particular design considerations:

 

Phase 1: Effects

The adventure starts with a report reaching the player characters that something unusual is happening somewhere. Their informant may be a friend or acquaintance of one of the characters, or a stranger who has heard of their reputation for solving mysteries.

Reports are fragmentary and may be contradictory. The only thing that is clear is that something is wrong.

The PCs have an opportunity to do some library research on the reported incidents and the local area, and may be able to form some suspicions. Once they are as prepared as they can be, they set out for the site of the incidents to conduct the second phase of their investigation.

Design Tasks: Choose the monster. Chart its arrival in the area and its actions after arriving. Decide what evidence is left behind, and what witnesses and survivors might say. Think of several other causes that would leave similar traces, and create at least 2-3 red herrings. Pick an NPC who contacts the PCs, and create a player handout of the letter, email, text, or other communication that starts the adventure for them. List the research resources available to the PCs and the information they can recover. Make sure each piece of information has a named source and a relevant skill test to recover it.

 

Phase 2: Investigation

In this phase, the PCs examine the evidence on the ground and interview witnesses, starting with the person who first contacted them. They add to the information they gathered in Phase 1 and have the opportunity to refine their theories on the nature of the monster. They may find that the situation has grown worse since they received the first reports.

During this phase, the PCs must formulate their plan to deal with the monster. If they are too slow, the GM may decide to have the monster take the initiative, attacking before they are ready for it.

Design Tasks: Map the local area, including all relevant locations and sites of attacks. Create all necessary NPCs. Give each one a starting attitude toward the PCs and a list of information they can convey. Note that information need not be accurate, as long as it is believed by the NPC in question. If an NPC has a reason to lie to the PCs, make sure any false information fits the NPC’s character and motivation. Wherever physical evidence may be found, create a way for the PCs to find the spot (a local guide, for example, or a chance of stumbling on the spot by themselves), a list of evidence (e.g. tracks, bloodstains, etc.), and the skill checks required to spot each piece of evidence. Do the same for documentary evidence from local libraries, church records, etc. Create a backup source or informant to get the PCs on the right track if they fail to piece the clues together properly.

 

Phase 3: Confrontation

The final phase is the encounter with the monster. If the PCs have researched and reconnoitered properly, they can give themselves a tactical advantage. If they have not, the monster may have the upper hand, at least initially. Intelligent monsters may fortify their lair and/or keep watch for attackers. Aggressive monsters may take the fight to the PCs at the first opportunity. Some monsters, especially those from folklore, can only be defeated by certain means, such as silver bullets or blessed weapons. Some intelligent monsters might be open to persuasion or a bargain, which is far less risky than combat. The adventure is over when the monster is killed, driven away, or defeated by some other means.

Design Tasks: Re-read the monster description and design the time and place of the climactic encounter. Also draw up contingency plans in case the players encounter the monster under different circumstances. Sketch out the aftermath of the monster’s defeat: whether it is permanently destroyed, whether it may return, and what precautions may be taken for the future. Reckon experience points and other rewards (increased knowledge, NPC contacts, etc.) for a successful conclusion.

 

Did You Say Folk Horror?

 

Yes, I did. Over the last few months I have become aware of at least two new and forthcoming folk horror RPGs, and they both look interesting. Here are links:

Solemn Vale

Set in the UK in the 1970s. The British film industry produced a lot of good horror at that time. https://dirtyvortex.net/solemn-vale/

Solemn Vale

Vaesen

Set in Sweden in the 19th century, and based on the art of award-winning illustrator Johan Egerkrans. https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/1192053011/vaesen-nordic-horror-roleplaying

Vaesen cover

Making Monsters: The Jersey Devil

February 5, 2020 13 comments

 

Recently I have posted about my favorite RPG monster books, both those I worked on and those I didn’t. These posts sparked some great discussions both here and on various social media platforms, as people shared their favorite volumes and their must-have, nice-to-have, and wow-look-at-this features of existing game bestiaries.

I have also hinted, here and there, that I am working on a couple of #secretprojects, which I hope will come to fruition over the next year or so. As some people have guessed, the first one concerns monsters.

More details will be released as things firm up, but right now I would like to ask you, my beloved readers, for your help. One of the things I want to achieve with this project is the development of a systemless format for presenting game stats, and the description of the Jersey Devil that follows includes my first attempt at doing so. The objective is to describe a creature’s attributes and abilities in such a way that GMs of any game will find it easy to develop stats for their particular rule set.

So read this, play with it, and let me know what you think. In this version I have opted for a comparative method, likening the creature’s stats to those of an average human or a common animal. There are other, crunchier methods, but I think this is the clearest and the easiest to use. Tell me if I’m right, and tell me how you would go about improving it.

I don’t want to frame this request as a competition, and I’m not in a position to offer prizes or rewards – yet – but as the project grows and takes shape I expect that to change, and I hope to be able to acknowledge and possibly reward those contributions that I found most valuable.

If all goes as planned, this will be the start of a fun ride. Are you in?

 

The Jersey Devil

Jersey_Devil_Philadelphia_Post_1909

An image from the Philadelphia Evening Bulletin, based on sightings of the 1909 hoax devil. Borrowed from the Philadelphia Inquirer’s website.

 

RANGE

Real World: North America, specifically the Pine Barrens of New Jersey. After 1735. Unique.

Fantasy World: Temperate pine woodlands. Encountered singly or in groups of 2-6.

 

TYPE

Local Legend, devil, or animal.

 

ATTRIBUTES

Strength: Human range, high end

Dexterity/Agility: Human range, high end

Constitution: Human range, average

Intelligence: Animal, superior (e.g. dog)

Willpower: Animal, superior (e.g. dog)

Hit Points/Health: Animal, medium (e.g. horse)

 

ATACKS

Bite: Animal, medium (e.g. wolf)

Trample: Animal, medium (e.g. horse)

 

WEAKNESSES

No special weaknesses

 

SPECIAL ABILITIES

Fly: Large, slow (e.g. wyvern)

Cause fear: Supernatural, demonic

Growl: Enhance fear effect


 

Sometimes known as the Leeds Devil, the Jersey Devil is rumored to inhabit the Pine Barrens of southern New Jersey. Those who have seen it describe it as eight feet tall with a long neck, crane-like legs ending in hooves, large bat-like wings, and a head like that of a deer or a dog. It is a vicious creature with a taste for human flesh.

There are many tales of the creature’s origins. Most connect it to a local merchant named Leeds and his wife Deborah. According to the most common story, Mrs. Leeds was in labor with her thirteenth child in 1735. Some say she was a witch and the child’s father was the Devil. Others say that she was unhappy to find herself pregnant for a thirteenth time and cursed her baby with the words “may it be a devil.”

Other stories view the Jersey devil as a divine punishment upon its parents: for Mr. Leeds’ harsh treatment of the family’s servants, or for Mrs. Leeds’ refusal to renounce her Quaker faith in favor of her husband’s Puritanism. A final version tells that, despite its appearance, Deborah Leeds cared for her monstrous offspring until her death, when it flew into the swamps of the Pine Barrens and has remained there ever since.

All versions of the story agree that the baby was a monster. It killed the midwife – and everyone else in the house, in some versions – fled up the chimney, and has been haunting the Pine Barrens ever since. Attempts to track down the Leeds family or their descendants have failed, and the tales cannot be verified. The beast was seen multiple times in 1909, and ever since it has been world famous – but no one has ever captured it.

 

A Tale Grown in the Telling

regal-jersey-devil-taylors

A Quaker tract denouncing the Leeds family.

 

Daniel Leeds ran a publishing business, which included almanacs. Local Quakers objected to them because they included astrological information. A feud began, with each side publishing pamphlets that used stronger and stronger language. After Daniel Leeds died in 1720, the Quakers accused Daniel’s son Titan Leeds of being “Satan’s harbinger.” Also, the Leeds family crest featured birds, but they are easy to mistake for bat-winged devils if badly drawn.

This may be the origin of the Jersey Devil, but its tale remained obscure for almost 200 years. The creature gained its current fame in 1909, when the owner of a private museum in Philadelphia organized a publicity stunt. A kangaroo was fitted with fake wings and sightings were staged around New Jersey. The plan was to announce that the Jersey Devil had been captured and put the disguised kangaroo on display. Ever since then, pictures and descriptions of the Jersey Devil have all looked very like a kangaroo with wings.

 

Almanac

The Leeds family crest and the cover of one of Titan Leeds’s almanacs. It is just possible to interpret the badly-drawn birds as horned, winged devils.

 

Links

The Skeptical Inquirer published a piece on the Leeds family and the Jersey Devil in 2013, which is worth reading.

The Philadelphia Inquirer covered the 1909 hoax in detail on its 110th anniversary.

My Top Five Monster Books (that I worked on)

January 25, 2020 10 comments

In an earlier post, I wrote about my love for monsters and picked out a few of my favorite rpg monster books. A lot of you got back to me with your own favorites, either in the comments section or through Facebook or other means, and now I have quite a few more books to look at – so thanks for that!

This time, I’ll be looking at some monster books that I’ve written or co-written. I’ll explain what I hoped to achieve with each one, and you can judge for yourselves how well I succeeded or failed. As always, I’d love to have your thoughts on each one, especially what you think would have made it better.

There’s more to this request than simple nostalgia, or a need for validation. You see, I’m gearing up for a new project (more than one, in fact: #secretprojects) and I’m studying previous rpg monsters books to figure out what features turn a good one into a great one. I’ll be issuing a formal announcement about the project some time in the next few weeks, but until then, tell me what would make a monster book irresistible to you. What are the must-haves, what are the cut-aboves, and what are the mind-blowing, come-look-at-this, can-you-believe-it features that turn a monster treatment into something that you have to use as soon as you can, and that you will talk about for the rest of your gaming career?

 

Creatures of Freeport

 

Creatures of Freeport

https://greenroninstore.com/products/creatures-of-freeport-pdf

A great attraction of this project was the opportunity to work with my friend Keith Baker. Before Keith created Eberron, Gloom, and the other games that have made him rightly famous, we worked together in a video game studio in Boulder, Colorado. We were both impressed by Green Ronin’s Freeport setting: I mean, D&D with pirates – what’s not to love? I had been thinking of ways to expand and improve the way monsters are covered in tabletop rpgs ever since my Games Workshop days, and Keith was a whiz at the complex process of creating monster stats for the 3.5/d20 system.

We added three sections to the standard treatment. The first set out the kind of information about the creature that might be available on a successful knowledge check, the second covered various magical, alchemical, and other uses for the dead creature’s remains, and the third presented a selection of adventure hooks.

The book got some good reviews, and we were both quite happy with it. But I’m still left with the feeling that it is possible to do better.

 

Atlas of the Walking Dead

 

Atlas of the Walking Dead

https://www.drivethrurpg.com/product/566/Atlas-of-the-Walking-Dead?affiliate_id=386172

Eden Studios’ zombie survival-horror game All Flesh Must Be Eaten came out just at the start of that heady (brain-y?) period in which zombie horror began to take over the zeitgeist. Since the undead have always been one of my favorite classes of monsters, I jumped at the chance to pitch them a monster book.

I took myth and folklore as my starting point here. Over the years, I had read an enormous amount on the subject, especially on the creatures of folklore around the world. I found that the walking dead – which I defined as all kinds of corporeal undead, not just zombies – broke down into a number of classes, with variants from different parts of the world. For each type, I started with a short piece of atmospheric fiction to set the scene, defined the base creature in terms of the game’s rules, and added a short section on variants. In many cases it was necessary to define new traits (Aspects in the game’s lingo), and as in Creatures of Freeport I finished up with a selection of adventure hooks.

 

GURPS Faerie

 

GURPS Faerie

http://www.sjgames.com/gurps/books/faerie/

Like all the GURPS worldbooks, this was as much a setting as a bestiary. Faeries are found across the world under a range of local names, and like the walking dead they break down into a number of distinct types. In addition to chapters on faerie lands, faerie magic, and faerie nature, I wrote a chapter of templates for the various types with variants on each. Following the format established by previous monster-centric sourcebooks for GURPS, a chapter on campaigns and adventures took the place of adventure seeds per template.

I like this book because faeries are another favorite class of monsters, and because it allowed me to examine their folkloric context in greater depth than a bestiary-style book would have permitted. Faerie is a tone as much as a class of monster, with its own feel and its own tropes, and to neglect this would have been to do the subject matter a grave injustice – and who knows, possibly to suffer spoiled milk and bedbugs for the rest of my life!

 

Werewolves: A Hunter’s Guide

 

Werewolves cover

https://ospreypublishing.com/werewolves-a-hunter-s-guide

Is this an rpg monster book, really? There’s not a rule or a game stat in sight, but I think of all the Dark Osprey line as systemless rpg sourcebooks. I took the example set by line editor (and future designer of the excellent fantasy skirmish game Frostgrave) Joe McCullough in his book Zombies: A Hunter’s Guide, and set my werewolf book in the same alternate reality.

Although I already knew quite a bit about werewolves, the research for this book led me to the conclusion that there are at least five distinct kinds. Each one got a chapter, supported by case studies drawn (mostly) from genuine historical and mythological sources, and I took a couple of chapters to shoot a glance at other shapeshifters (such as Japanese hengeyokai and Indian weretigers) and to invent various organizations that hunt and/or study werewolves. Of course, I covered werewolves at war, from Norse ulfhednar to the ever-popular Nazi werewolves and various Cold War spin-offs from Nazi research in that area.

The viewpoint is from contemporary urban fantasy rather than medieval fantasy, but that made a nice change, and I didn’t think that it lessened the book’s usefulness for rpgs set in any time or place. It is not aimed at any particular rules set, so there is some work for the GM to do, but I still hope that it offers a good source of information and ideas.

 

Colonial Gothic Bestiary

 

Colonial Gothic Bestiary

https://www.rogue-games.net/bestiary

Colonial Gothic is a very nice historical-fantasy game published by Rogue Games. I met Rogue’s head honcho Richard Iorio years ago when we were both working on the Hogshead Publishing booth at GenCon, and when he published Colonial Gothic I got in touch. A solid monster book is an essential part of an rpg’s core, and I aimed to provide one in the Colonial Gothic Bestiary.

As monster books go, it’s fairly unambitious. The aim was to cover a large number of critters go provide the GM with options, rather than to look at a smaller number in detail. What I like most about it is the way that it reflects the setting in its blend of North American wildlife, Native American folklore monsters, fearsome critters from tall tales, and Old World monsters that might believably have come across with the colonists.

 


 

So there you have it – or them. I will look forward to hearing your views, and discussing what features make a monster treatment really shine. And as soon as I can, I’ll be lifting the curtain on my #secretprojects. Bye for now!

My Top Five RPG Monster Books

January 18, 2020 13 comments

Ever since I saw Ray Harryhausen’s skeletons in Jason and the Argonauts on my parents’ black-and-white TV, I have been obsessed with monsters – especially those from myth and folklore. In my first D&D game, I played two thief characters, both of them killed by a minotaur. In the Games Workshop printing of the basic rulebook, I saw other names I recognized, and I was hooked right away.

I still love monsters, mythology and folklore, and monster books are still among my favorite types of tabletop roleplaying supplement. In this post I will discuss some of my favorites, looking especially at what each one offers the reader beyond the basic description and stat block.

Some of these are old – very old, but then so am I! – and there may very well be newer, even better books out there that I have not yet seen. If that’s the case, let me know! The comments section is right there at the bottom of the page. I’ll look forward to reading your views, and discussing what makes a monster book good, or great, or amazing.

So here they are, in no particular order:

Monster Manual 3.5

 

D&D Dungeons & Dragons Monster Manual tabletop roleplaying rpg monsters Wizards of the Coast TSR

The original Monster Manual from 1977 was a landmark product in many ways, and just about every monster supplement published since has been influenced by it. Still, the 3.5 edition is better in my opinion. This is for three main reasons:

First, each monster description includes a ‘Combat’ section which covers the creature’s combat-related abilities and its preferred tactics. This makes it far easier to design encounters and run combats.

Second, the chapters at the back of the book – Improving Monsters, Making Monsters, and Monster Feats – make the book far more than just another collection of creatures. Following their instructions, the DM can customize monsters and create new monsters, providing the sort of endless variety that will keep players on their toes.

Finally, the list of monsters by challenge rating saves a lot of trouble when creating adventures. Page for page, it might even be the most valuable part of the book.

Today, no self-respecting monster book would be without these three features, and that makes the 3.5 Monster Manual something of a milestone.

Buy it at DriveThruRPG.

 

Petersen’s Field Guide to Lovecraftian Horrors

 

Petersen Chaosium, Cthulhu Mythos roleplaying tabletop rpg horrors monsters Lovecraft

There are Cthulhu Mythos monster books aplenty, but Petersen’s Field Guide stands out. It starts with a jokey-looking flowchart titled “Identifying Monsters of the Mythos” which is actually very useful indeed.

Fifty-three full colour spreads describe monsters in detail, including brief notes on their habitat, distribution, life and habits, and distinguishing features. A full-page main image is supplemented by sketches and notes illustrating different life stages and other peculiarities, as well as a human image for scale reference.

The lack of game stats is both a positive and a negative feature. On the one hand, they are something that readers expect in a monster book published by a game company; on the other, their absence makes the book system-independent. There are a lot of Mythos-based games on the market, from Call of Cthulhu to Delta Green to Arkham Horror, and their various rulebooks provide game stats for  pretty much all of the creatures covered here.

The book ends with an extensive bibliography, covering game supplements, fiction, and other sources. The section headed “Bibliography for Other Monsters” winks at the reader, for its contents are entirely fictional. However, it makes a great list of documents for player characters to find in-game.

One very nice touch is the provision of initial letters on the page edge. This makes it very quick and easy to riffle through to the creature you are looking for.

Buy it from Chaosium.com.

 

Old World Bestiary

 

Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay Old World Bestiary 2nd edition tabletop roleplaying rpg WFRP momnsters

I’m allowed to like this one, because I didn’t work on it. Packed full of grimdark Warhammer atmosphere, it is broken into two parts. The first presents common knowledge about various creatures, consisting of equal parts useful information, rumor, and prejudice, while the second, aimed at the GM, contains the more familiar descriptions, stat blocks, and rules for Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay’s second edition rules.

The presentation works well enough, and although it can sometimes be annoying having to flip back and forth to find everything on a particular creature, the atmospheric material is gold for a GM who needs something to tell a player who just made a successful Lore or Research roll. Another nice feature is the appendix of hit location tables for different body plans.

Buy it at DriveThruRPG.

 

GURPS Fantasy Folk

 

GURPS Fantasy Folk Steve Jackson Games Tabletop Roleplaying rpg Monsters

Fantasy Folk differs from a standard monster book (such as GURPS Fantasy Bestiary) in that it looks in depth at 24 races, providing enough detail on each one’s ecology, culture, and politics to create an almost endless variety of NPCs from each– and player characters too, if desired.

Centaurs, great eagles, and other non-humanoid races are covered in addition to the usual elves, dwarves, goblins, and so on. Best of all, each race is provided with a worked example of a character – essentially a detailed NPC, ready to go – and a selection of adventure seeds.

While most GMs will not use every single race in this book, it offers a solid starting-point for developing races for use in a campaign. Better still – and perhaps without meaning to – it provides a template for describing fantasy races of one’s own, which is far better than starting from a blank screen.

Buy it from Steve Jackson Games.

 

Trollpak

 

Trollpak Chaosium RungeQuest Glorantha tabletop roleplaying rpg troll

Chaosium’s Trollpak for RuneQuest was one of the first tabletop roleplaying supplements to describe a single race in detail, and it is still worth reading if you can find a copy. The boxed set consists of three booklets: Uz Lore (“Uz” being the trolls’ name for themselves) covers their nature and history, The Book of Uz presents rules and information on playing troll characters, and Into Uzdom is a selection of adventures. Also included are two more adventures and a 22” x 17” map of the troll heartlands.

Both atmospheric and useful, Trollpak sets a standard that is hard to beat even now, and anyone planning a single-race roleplaying supplement would be well advised to study it. There is much here worth plundering.

Buy it from Chaosium.com.

 

Honorable Mentions

In addition to these five, I have to mention two series of magazine articles that, to my mind, significantly advanced the art and craft of rpg monster descriptions.

The “Ecology of…” series in Dragon magazine established a very good format for looking at monsters in greater details than the Monster Manual allowed. Sections on history (including, where appropriate, a short box on the creature’s origins in myth and folklore), physiology, psychology and society, and lair design offer invaluable information to the DM, and notes on the creature’s presence in various D&D campaign settings are useful to those who set their campaigns there. The sweetest meat, though, is saved for last: options for developing advanced versions of the creature, with at least one worked example. Like GURPS Fantasy Folk, these articles also establish a template which can be used for developing monsters of your own, which can only enhance both the monsters and the campaign setting.

Before the first “Ecology” article appeared in Dragon, though, TSR’s British arm published a short-lived magazine called Imagine. It ran to only thirty issues but contained a lot of innovative material – including the “Brief Encounters” articles. These presented a single new monster using a showcase encounter which was specially written to demonstrate everything that was new and interesting about it. Brief Encounters continued in Imagine’s even shorter-lived successor, the indie magazine GM Publications, and when most of the staff from both magazines joined Games Workshop, there was talk of re-using the format for Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay. However, the only published fruit of this effort was “Terror in the Darkness” in White Dwarf 108, which introduced a creature from the Warhammer 40,000 Rogue Trader rulebook to the Old World. More about that here.


 

These are my particular favorites, and I’m sure you will have your favorites too. I’m sure I have missed a great many very fine monster books, particularly given the way tabletop rpgs have proliferated in recent years. So don’t be shy – let me know about your favorites in the comments section. I’m always up for discovering a new monster book.

At some time in the future, too, I will set modesty aside and look at some of the monster books that I’ve worked on over the years, explaining what I was trying to achieve with each one and discussing how well I succeeded – or didn’t. (I did. It’s here.)

I’m looking forward to reading your comments and suggestions!

The Twelve Books of Christmas: Part Eight

December 20, 2018 12 comments

My eighth book of Christmas is another mythology title: Thor: Viking God of Thunder, which was my first title for Osprey’s Myths and Legends series.

Thor

The original sources for Norse mythology are surprisingly limited, so I had the space in this book to retell all of the major stories in which Thor takes part, and to mention those in which he is a secondary character. It was interesting to see how, in the Christian era, the myths were shorn of religious content and became, effectively, early superhero stories: Thor’s battles with the giants of Jotunheim read very similarly to the ’60s slugfests of Marvel and DC comics.

This comes as no surprise, of course, considering Thor’s success as a superhero in recent decades. Marvel was not the first publisher to use him in comics, but the Marvel Thor is the most enduring version. In addition, he has given his name to a radioactive element (Thorium), several Norwegian and German warships, and two American rocket systems.

Most notoriously, of course, Thor’s hammer has been adopted as a symbol by some neo-Nazi and white supremacist groups, following the swastika – a universal design which in Scandinavia represented one of Thor’s thunderbolts – which was co-opted by the Nazi Party in 1920. We would all do well to remember that these are stolen emblems, and those who use them have no right to them – and equally, that not all those who use them are racists or fascists.

Here is what some reviewers had to say about the book:

“If this book is any indication of the quality of this new series, readers are in for a treat.”
– Kirkus (starred review)

This book is a nice, concise, beginning look at the legends of Thor. All tales that include him are at least briefly mentioned here, though most are told in full with extra bits of information to add depth to the reader’s understanding.
– Goodreads

Like all Osprey titles, the book is gorgeously illustrated, and the plates by Miguel Coimbra are outstanding.

The book’s page on the Osprey web site is here. Links to various online retailers can be found on the My Books page.

Tomorrow, and every day until Christmas, I will be covering another title. If you’re not done with your Christmas shopping, or if you are expecting to receive some gift tokens, take a look: you might find something you like.

Click here for Part One: Colonial Horrors.

Click here for Part Two: Nazi Moonbase.

Click here for Part Three: Werewolves – A Hunter’s Guide.

Click here for Part Four: Theseus and the Minotaur.

Click here for Part Five: The New Hero.

Click here for Part Six: Knights Templar – A Secret History.

Click here for Part Seven: The Lion and the Aardvark.

Click here for Part Nine: Tales of the Frozen City.

Click here for Part Ten: Blood and Honor.

Click here for Part Eleven: The Dirge of Reason.

Click here for Part Twelve: More Deadly than the Male.

 

The Twelve Books of Christmas: Part Seven

December 19, 2018 11 comments

My seventh book of Christmas is another multi-author anthology from the excellent Stone Skin Press. In The Lion and the Aardvark, no fewer than seventy authors give their takes on Aesop-style fables for the modern age. While all of the stories will raise a wry smile from adult readers, most also make nice bedtime stories for the young’uns, teaching them a few things about pride, critical thinking, and other important matters just as Aesop’s originals did.

Aesop cover

My contribution was a tale I called “The Lemmings and the Sea,” which was based on a story my dad told me when I was small: that lemmings threw themselves of cliffs not to commit mass suicide, but out of overconfidence: after all, they had successfully crossed every body of water they had encountered so far. I turned that idea into a story about the risks of following leaders uncritically when they urge us to stay the course.

Here is what some reviewers said about it:

Another solid anthology product from Stone Skin Press. If you haven’t been reading  their collections, I strongly recommend you do so.
 – Goodreads

“I have always loved Æsop’s Fables, so leaped upon a modern collection of similar tales with eager glee! And I have not been disappointed.”
– DriveThruRPG

…and the book’s page on the Stone Skin Press web site is here. Links to various online retailers can be found on the My Books page.

Tomorrow, and every day until Christmas, I will be covering another title. If you’re not done with your Christmas shopping, or if you are expecting to receive some gift tokens, take a look: you might find something you like.

Click here for Part One: Colonial Horrors.

Click here for Part Two: Nazi Moonbase.

Click here for Part Three: Werewolves – A Hunter’s Guide.

Click here for Part Four: Theseus and the Minotaur.

Click here for Part Five: The New Hero.

Click here for Part Six: Knights Templar – A Secret History.

Click here for Part Eight: Thor – Viking God of Thunder.

Click here for Part Nine: Tales of the Frozen City.

Click here for Part Ten: Blood and Honor.

Click here for Part Eleven: The Dirge of Reason.

Click here for Part Twelve: More Deadly than the Male.