The key to great monster design?

One of my favorite parts about roleplaying game is the creation of new monsters. Sometimes you look at a monster and think “I want to do something just as great”, but since there are already literally thousands of fictional creatures that have been made up by writers in the past 100 years, it always seems very difficult to come up with something that doesn’t look like an almost-copy of something else.

I’ve been looking over a lot of monsters from RPG monster books, videogames, and movies over the last years and found that really outstanding monsters are no accidents. If a monster becomes popular with fans or even a famous part of culture is not entirely up to luck and there are some things they pretty much all have in common and do not actually require being a creative genius.

The first discovery I made is that great monsters are never about their looks or their abilities, but about their behavior. Perhaps let’s call this Yora’s First Law of Monsters: “Monster behavior is more important than appearance or powers.” Yes, the alien from Alien looks really cool and it certainly helps for making it famous, but what makes it so great in the movies is not what it can do, but how it acts. The actual powers are not very interesting at all. It is fast, kills with a bite, and its blood is acid. As monster abilities go, that is very basic and even rather bland. It becomes a great monster because of the way in which the characters of the movies interact with it. It climbs on ceilings, sneaks around silently, and waits in the dark for the perfect opportunity to strike. It doesn’t actually fight very well and is quite easily killed in a direct confrontation. But it doesn’t allow you to face it in a direct confrontation and that’s what makes all the difference.

Going through some Dungeons & Dragons monster books again yesterday, I discovered Yora’s Second Law of Monsters: “Great monsters have a backstory.” With monsters in movies and novels, a great part of the plot is about revealing the story behind the monster and discovering its origin. It’s not very pronounced in Alien, but it’s still there. The eggs in the derilict ship, the dead pilot, the attack on Kane, and the eventual emergence of the alien are all clues that are hinting on the creature to be much more than just a regular alien animal. Someone once transported a whole shipload of those eggs and must have been aware of what they are, but was still unable to contain the threat. That hints at something more going on and that in turn makes the creature itself much more interesting. At the Mountains of Madness introduced two of Lovecrafts most famous creatures, and it’s really all a big mystery story about revealing their parts in a much larger picture. A a counter example, Robert Howard had Conan fight a lot of big dangerous monsters in his stories, but none of them ever really made it big. They are just scary looking things with teeth and slimy tentacles. They work for the stories, but they don’t inspire at all. Worms of the Earth is often mentioned as one of his best stories and the worms work well for the plot, but it doesn’t really seem as if there would be much more to them than that. One creature that Howard created did make it big. The serpentmen from Kull. The yuan ti from Dungeons & Dragons and the naga from Warcraft are among my favorite monsters, but they are really just remakes of Howards serpentmen. Other than taking the shape of humans with the lower body of a snake, they have almost nothing in common with the creature from Asian myth. And what makes the serpentmen different from most other monsters Howard created? They have a backstory. They have goals, they have motivations, and they are integrated in the history of the world.

This seems particularly important to me when creating new monsters for roleplaying games. When you read through monster books, the vast majority of the creatures are just very bland. They have an appearance, some abilities, and very often that is it. Two sentences about the kind of environment in which they live does not suffice to make them cool or interesting. Because there’s no plot hooks in that. What are you supposed to do with a big flying white snake that makes ordinary objects come to life? It has a look, it has powers, but what does it do? When it comes to having players confront a monster in a game, I made the observation that very often reputation makes a huge difference. A telepathic monster that can stun people with its mind might be interesting and challenging to fight. But that’s usually nothing compared to “Holy Shit! It’s a mind flayer! We’re so screwed…” Surprising the players with something completely unexpected is nice sometimes, but just as often you’re getting a lot of excitement if the players are already aware of the creatures reputation. If you create a new creature that is yet unknown, try to put a lot of hints about what it can do and make the other people of the game world be terribly afraid of it. Nobody is going to get super exited about the news that there is a pack of weird critters at the edge of the village that is known as a nuisance. Have the villagers get into a total panic because they have heard many stories about the creature and they don’t believe anyone could possibly save them. That is going to get the players a lot more excited as well.

Idols for Sword & Sorcery BECMI

Reading in the Dungeons & Dragons Rules Cylopedia today, I got reminded of the relics again, which had been introduced in the Companion Set. In B/X and BECMI, only humans can take the cleric and thief classes. All dwarf and halfling characters and NPCs have the abilities of fighters and all elves the abilities of both fighters and magic-users. AD&D made the concession that these demihuman races can have NPC clerics, but in the Basic and Expert sets they have no access to cleric magic at all. To get them access to healing magic and protection against undead, the Companion Set introduced the relics. For the elves, the relic is a Tree of Life, for the dwarves it’s a magic force, and for the halflings a magic fire bowl.

Each relic has a single keeper, who is a regular NPC of that race, but who has access to special powers provided by the relic. He is able to cast spells that heal wounds, cure blindness and disease, neutralize poisons, and identify magic items. In addition to that, the relic is constantly using the Turn Undead ability of a 15th level cleric with a radius of 360 feet. Which is powerful to turn everything except for lichs and instantly destroys everything up to and including vampires. The keeper can use the spells almost unlimited, but every time he does the radius of the Turn Undead area shrinks by 5 feet and only returns by 5 feet per day. So the keeper has a very strong incentive to always try to keep the power of the relic close to its maximum and not cast cure serious wounds on every little bruise.

151217For my Ancient Lands setting I’ve never been happy with clerics, as their abilities really don’t fit as stand-ins for tribal shamans at all. Keepers are a totally different story though. They recieve their powers from a specifc object tied to a specific place, which serves as a conduit for divine powers. And it has a strong resemblance to many animistic religions and traditions. In the technical terms of antropology, the relics are idols. They are physical objects in which the divine force resides and which priests and worshipers visit in person to communicate with the deity. It is a temporary or permanent home of the deity and in some cases it’s actual body. I belive even in Greek religion it was believed that the deity is actually present in the statue that represents it in its temple. In other places, these idols are natural features, like mountains, springs, or unusual large trees or rocks.

In the RC, all elven relics are Trees of Life and all dwarven relics forges, and they all grant the same spells to their keepers. But that really doesn’t have to be that way. Not only can you easily change the appearance of each relic, you can also easily add a few more spells to their reportoire. Also, the Turn Undead effect could be replaced with a different power that is permanently active. The wonderful thing about it is, that it works at every level. It works for a small village shrine that simply has an idol for the spirit of the lake that lies next to it, and you can also have an idol inside a huge temple within a large city, which channels the divine power of the sun to the high priests. By chosing different appearances and powers for each idol, every local cult becomes unique and can have quite different means to protect itself against harm. Instead of a Turn Undead aura, the keeper could be given the ability to raise ring of growth of plants with a 360 feet radius around the idol, to raise and lower an impenetrable wall of briars as it is needed. You could have a shrine in a fortress that constantly puts a bless spell on any defenders on its walls. An a deranged cult that worships a horrific entity from the Underworld might have an idol that utterly defies description. In wilderness locations, an idol could take the form of a magic spring, a waterfall, or a giant tree. Or really anything you can imagine.

I think these idols probably work best if you don’t have any cleric characters at all in the setting. I personally would allow mages to learn cure light wounds as a 2nd level spell and neutralize poison as a 4th level spell, since player characters tend to get into trouble far away from any settlement and you generally don’t want to have the party constantly commuting back and forth during adventures. But any other cleric spells, like restoration, cure blindness, and raise dead, should only be available as miracles granted by the gods if a ritual is performed before their idol. And since most of these gods would just be relatively minor spirits of the land, not even all of them might be able to perform all of these. To raise someone from death, it wouldn’t be out of place to have the party travel to visit the archdruid at the oldest tree in the heart of the forest, or to descent into the Underworld to find an ancient shrine where a powerful demon is being held imprisoned.

Starting at high Hit Points

One peculiar thing about Dungeons & Dragons, and especially in the older editions, is that characters at first and second level are extremely fragile because they have very little hit points and even a single hit by a pretty minor foe can easily lead to instant death, even if the character had been uninjured. A common reason I’ve seen people give for this is the idea of “Zero to Hero”, where you start as an absolute nobody with no skill at all and have to work your way up to become someone. But at some closer examination, that is not really the case. First level fighters are already elite warriors who are standing well above all regular soldiers, mercenaries, bandits, and other professional full-time warriors, many of which have been at that job for years or decades. Except for commanders, all soldiers in B/X or AD&D are simply “Normal Men” or “0 level men-at-atms”. A first level fighter has a better chance to hit, better saving throws, and also has a Constitution score that can get him additional hit points. You’re not a nobody, you’re already starting as someone who has come farther than all regular people will ever get.

As characters go from 1st to 2nd level, their average hit points double, and depending on how your dice fell, they might even tripple. Yet enemies are still dealing pretty much the same damage, so that is a huge jump in your odds to survive. In some recent games, like Barbarians of Lemuria, Dragon Age, and Atlantis, hit points for starting characters are handled quite differently. You start at a pretty decent number but then increase your maximum number of hit points only at a relatively modest pace. I wonder how that would change D&D?

One simple idea would be to reduce the type of hit die by one step for each class and then give all characters a number of bonus hit points equal to twice the maximum hit die result. An AD&D thief would start with 8+1d4 hp (9-12) instead of 1d6 hp (1-6) and a figher with 16+1d8 hp (17-24) instead of 1d10 hp (1-10). If you leave the amount of damage dealt by enemies unchanged this should change gameplay at lower levels quite significantly. Ignoring healing spells and potions (which 1st level parties would have almost no access to), staying power would increase about an average of four times. As you go to higher levels, that initial boost becomes increasingly less significant and you probably wouldn’t notice the difference between 9d10 hp (average 50) and 9d8+16 hp (average 56). If survival at low levels becomes significantly easier and groups can take on much larger numbers of enemies, but you got almost no difference at higher levels, it also quite likely would change the perception of how high-level play becomes either easier or harder.

However, that would mean that 1st level characters are able to deal with much larger numbers of low-level monsters at once, and I am not sure if I’d want them to be that heroic. One solution would be to also give all the monsters bonus hit points. Perhaps equal to the maximum result of one hit die (8). That would mean one on one fights are unlikely to end at the first hit and usually take two or three to win. This would be closer to what the games I mentioned above are doing.

I’d really like to try that out and see what happens.

The Ancient Lands as a Frontier Setting

I’ve been interested in making my own campaign setting for probably 10 years or so, originally starting with the idea of detailing the elven realms of Eaerlann and Illefarn from the Forgotten Realms as they would have been 4,000 years in the past. I had been playing a Neverwinter Nights campaign online, which was set around the High Forest and involved some 100 regular players. I also became one of the assistant DMs and main map builder for the forest areas. My own character belonged to a gang of elven and half-elven rangers and druids (which had a bit of a nonviolent feud with another group of elven wizards and clerics that was much more LG high elves compared to our CN scoundrels), and since then it’s always been my goal to make a true wilderness campaign that deals entirely with druids, rangers, spirits, and monsters.

And I have to admit, in all these years I never really found an answer to the question how one would actually pull that off well. Now I feel that I’ve reached the conclusion that the actual answer is: You don’t.

The wilderness does offer plenty of challenges and obstacles to overcome, but it’s really poorly equipped to provide the players with goals. The wilderness is something you move through, but neither the source of adventures nor the destination. There might be ways to actually pull it off, but for the kinds of heroic activities I have in mind, each adventure needs to start in the frontier. It would be very difficult to have an ocean campaign without ports or a desert campaign without a single oasis. No matter how interesting your wilderness is, it does not create adventures. People create adventures. Anything that happens in the wilderness isn’t really of any concern to the players until it starts to affect people. The forest is on fire? The whole valley drowned by a flood? Move out of the way, crisis averted, threat overcome. Nothing to see here. Move along.

I’ve been of the opinion that good settings are not defined by their environment, any locations, or their history, but entirely by the people who currently inhabit it and the way they interact. You could call it the Mass Effect paradigm, as that’s usually the example I give as a perfect execution of this principle. You don’t know anything about the planets you visit and almost no specifics about their history, but you pretty soon figure out what makes the people tick and that leads to the best videogame RPGs I’ve ever come across. It’s obvious in hindsight, but if this is what interests and fascinates me the most about settings then it obviously should also be part of the approach to adventures. If the world is about the people, then the adventures also need to be about people. And the next closest place to the wilderness that has good numbers of people is the frontier.

Continue reading

Reworking the Ancient Lands: The Red River

One of the major changes I made when I shuffled around some parts of the Ancient Lands earlier this month, was the completely removal of the grass covered plains of Senkand on both sides of the Red River, which formed the border between the more classic fantasy style North and the Southeast Asian inspired South.. One reason was that it broke up the single continous, world-spanning forest I had in mind for the setting, but I also learned that you usually don’t have any large dry regions on the eastern coasts of continents. (Arabia and Texas being exceptions because both Persia and the Southern United States are somehow interfering with oceanic winds going from the equator to the pole, as they would have to go over land instead of following the coast.) I wasn’t really sure what to do with this region instead, and in a way that supports the style and the themes of the setting. But I think I got it now.

coloradoThe Grand Canyon seems like a perfect match for the kind of environment I need. It’s huge. It’s impressive. It’s exotic looking. And it also is majestic while still being quite desolate and quiet. At least it looks like that in pictures. Not quite sure if would be actually possible to have vast forest growing right up to the canyons edges, but I don’t think there are a lot of people who would know that either. And it looks cool. So what? It also makes for a nice homeland for the Ruyaki dark elves, for which I still didn’t have a lot of ideas other than somehow basing them on the Redoran from Morrowind.

morrowind_fan_art_-_5Another change I decided to make is to drop the idea of an overland route from the Falden lands on the Inner Sea to the Eylahen lands in the North. Since it would cut directly through the giant, mystical, and unexplored forest of the northern lands, it wouldn’t really seem that giant, mystical, and unexplored anymore. Not a big loss, since I didn’t rally have any ideas what to do with this huge major highway stright through pretty much blank space on the map.

This means that all contact between the Falden and the Eylahen would now have to happen by taking ships all the way around the ocean coast. It also means that the Kaas tribes would only have any contact with the rest of the Ancient Lands through the Eylahen territories, which is an interesting new development for me. One could reasonably say that I am way overthinking things here and putting way too much detail into things nobody will ever notice, but I really like it when I have such high degrees of consistency. And it also happens to help me come up with ideas. Working with complete freedom is quite hard. Once you have several geographic and cultural limitations in place, good ideas actually come a lot easier, as you can build on something that is already there. Where there used to be a white void on the map, staring up and you and waiting for you to do something, the map now is starting to ask specific questions that it wants you to answer. And that’s usually when I come up with my best ideas.

Simple Treasure table for B/X

While I am generally a fan of having characters gain experience based not only on the amount of enemies they defeat in battle but also on how many treasures they retrieved during the adventure, dealing with individual gold pieces always seemed too fiddly to me.

My preffered way to handle treasure both in regard to wealth and encumbrance is to use a simple unit of “1 treasure”. As long as characters still have 1 treasure, they can buy any items and services of trivial costs, such as food, drink, a room in an inn, most weapons, and so on. Anything that is too expensive for most common people to affort cost 1 treasure, such as a horse, chainmal armor, or a boat. As a rule of thumb, every treasure is worth about 100 gold pieces and can consists either of a bag of coins, a large golden cup, a crown, or whatever else the GM wants to describe it like. It also counts as 1 item for calculating encumbrance. (A character carrying items numbering up to their Strength score are unencumbred and can carry twice as much being lightly encumbred and three times as much being heavily encumbred.)

The treasure tables in the Basic and Expert sets of Dungeons & Dragons give various chances and amounts for different types of coins and gems, so using this alternative treasure system while retaining the same rate of experience gain requires some conversion work.

Which I did. Here’s the result.

snapshot123Type J and type P to S are not on this table as their average results are way below 100 gp.

Zeb Cook on Sandbox campaigns

While doing a full readthrough of the 1980 Expert Set, I came upon this little paragraph in the Introduction chapter. (Which probably a huge number of people never read.)

Most important, the characters in the wilderness campaign do not exist in a vacuum. The DM should have events going on elsewhere that may affect (or be affected by) the actions of the players. There may be any number of “plots” going on at once, and the DM should try to involve each player in some chain of events. These should develop logically from the actions of those involved. It is important not to force the action to a pre-determined conclusion. The plot lines can always be adjusted for the actions of the players.

Emphasis not mine.

This isn’t any world shattering wisdom here, but you could easily call it the most condensed explanation of the current consensus regarding sandbox campaigns, especially among OSR grognards. Even with all the dozens of articles written on the topic and probably thousands of forum posts, it doesn’t really seem like we’ve discovered anything truly new about the understanding of how these types of games work. It’s all aready there, 35 years ago. This quote even predates the release of X1: The Isle of Dread by a few months, so he was talking about something most people actually hadn’t heard of before.

Strange that I’ve never seen this quote in any discussions about sandbox campaigns before.

Ancient Lands: Factions

As much attention is usually given to races, cities, and countries when it comes to fantasy settings, I think the most important thing that has a much bigger impact on the overall feel and dynamics of the world are the power groups and other factions that inhabit it. You rarely have dealings with a race or a country, and these don’t really have any shared goals as a whole. In a work about the politics and wars of kings and other rulers, you kind of have things happen between countries, but in practice it’s almost all happening between members of different courts, which really are just one of many types of factions. There are many classic types of generic organizations in fantasy, such as thieves guilds, wizard colleges, great churches, lorekeepers/spies, or medieval megacorporations (Forgotten Realms has a lot of those.) For the Ancient Lands, many of these standard factions don’t really work, as it’s a bronze age setting primarily inhabited by tribal people living in remote villages in the wilds. Can’t really have a thieves guild in a 200 people village or a continent spanning state church when everyone is worshiping the spirits of the land they live on. Coming up with ideas for factions that do work in such a setting was a bit challenging at first and I had been creating a number of groups that I’ve since discarded again. But taking a count of the groups I already have, I realized that this is already quite extensive and easily enough for a setting of this scale.


Probably as close as you can get to a real good guys faction. The Druids are a lose and informal association of hundreds of shamans north of the Inner Sea. Most of them belong to the elven Falden, but the influence of the group reaches to all the neighboring tribes, which includes the Eylahen, the northern and southern Skeyn, the human Vandren, and even some Brana kaas and Takari dark elves. The goal of the Druids is to fight the spread of sorcery. Sorcery is a very potent form of magic that can defy the normal rules of nature, but its use sickens the lands and all creatures that inhabit it. To the druids that price is much too high for all the great wonders sorcerers can create, and they are doing everything in their power to prevent the sorcerous arts from spreading and if possible end the practice of all sorcery in the Ancient Lands forever. While in some regions almost all shamans are affiliated with the Druids, their actual numbers are relatively low. But all of them can call upon all the warriors of their clans if they feel the need is great enough to risk the protection of their villages, which makes them potentially one of the greatest powers in the Ancient Lands. But usually most druids simply exchange information with each other and only deal with sorcery that directly threatens their homes. However, when the threat seems great, they often call together druids from neighboring clans to face the danger together, before it grows too big to be able to destroy them one by one.


Sorcerers are even fewer in numbers than the Druids and have even much less organization or shared goals. Most of the time it’s just a single sorcerer and his apprentices working entirely alone, with perhaps some friendly but distant contact with other sorcerers to compare their work. As most people fear them and the Druids have a strong presence in many regions, sorcerers are usually very secretive, living in isolation from the rest of society or practicing their art in secret. Few people are able to tell the difference between a sorcerer and a reclusive, but ordinary witch, as long as they keep the destructive effects from becoming too apparent. Sorcerers are not inherently evil, but all of them are highly ambitious and at least to some degree reckless, and very well aware that many people would prefer to see them dead if they could get an opportunity. Fear of their sorcerous powers is what keeps most common people from turning against them, and most sorcerers cultivate a reputation of being very dangerous opponents.

While sorcerers usually live in secret or are feared enough to become untouchable, the elven Neshanen of Senkand are one of the very few tribes where sorcerers have some form of acceptance and often wield considerable respect and power. Almost all sorcerers come from noble families and are frequently involved in local politics and and members of courts. Unsurprisingly, the Neshanen have a somewhat doubious reputation among the other tribes, but are also among the most educated and sophisticated people who produce many of the finest goods in the Ancient Lands. And since some of that knowledge comes from the work of sorcerers, the common Neshanen are much more willing to accept their presence in their towns and cities. Continue reading

Why so little love for Group Initiative?

Among the many great things of Basic D&D, one that stands out the most for me is the initiative system. I find it so much better than the commonly used by other editions and even most B/X clones.

A wonderful thing about group initiative is that it completely removes the whole work of remembering the initiative order. I absolutely hate it to scribble down a list of all the PCs and enemies in the correct order at the beginning of each fight. That’s always a minute or so of interruption doing something tedious, right at the most exciting moment of the game. The alternative is to write down the names in advance and make a row of numbers with the initiative counts, but then you easily skip someone by accident all the time. (At least I do.) With group initiative that doesn’t matter. You roll two d6 at the beginning of each round and then everyone goes in whatever order they want.

But I think something even much more important is happening on the player side. Everyone is paying attention all the time and taking turns much faster. Nobody is sitting around three numbers until their number comes up.
The players who decide the fastest what they want to do go first, and those who take longer do their thinking while everyone else is taking their turn. And everyone needs to pay attention during the whole enemy turn, because the next turn is always their turn.

I’ve been using this system for a while, and it’s just so much more fun to run the game, and I believe for the players as well. Why doesn’t everyone use it and most games go with individual initiative counts instead? Even such otherwise great games as Basic Fantasy and Lamentations of the Flame Princess and wonderful ones like Spears of the Dawn and Barbarians of Lemuria (not a B/X clone, but still) go with the cumbersome initiative count system. Which to me really has always been one of the most annoying thing about running games.

Ancient Lands: The Sakaya

The Sakaya are a group of people from many different tribes who live countless small villages in the Vestanen Mountains, regarding all of each others as equals, regardless of their birth. They are lead by mystics who preserve and spread the teachings of their founders, which emphazise equality, humility, self-sufficiency, and excelling at ones talents. They have no nobles and no slaves and also do not worship any gods or spirits, but they make regular sacrifices to the local spirits as tribute for beeing allowed to live and work on their land.

zvezda-6408-1-72-japanese-warrior-monks-archersThough the Sakaya regard each other as equals and all their villages and monasteries are forbidden from fighting among themselves, each community has its own warriors to defend against raiders and stealing of their land by other clans. Some communities consists entirely of warriors known as Sakaya-kera, who were founded to come to the aid of villages under attack by superior foes. The Sakaya-kera often take work as mercenaries for other clans, as fighting is their profession and it is not appropriate for them to seek other work when their talents are not needed by the Sakaya. Sixty years ago a commander brought many of these groups together to fight not for some foreign lord, but for their own glory and to capture wealth for the Sakaya. Since then the Sakaya-kera have become one of the strongest and most feared armies in the Ancient Lands. Usually they are spread out as individual companies doing mercenary work, but will often come together as groups of many hundreds or thousands for a raid against a wealthy city before dispersing again. If the High Commander sends out a call, he can gather an army that rivals the troops of the Mayaka king.

Warrior_monks_02The Sakaya are intended as one of the major power groups in the Ancient Lands. The original order plays only a relatively minor role, being mostly confined to small villages and monasteries in the Vestanen Mountains, where they live relatively isolated from the rest of the world. The Sakaya-kera on the other hand are one of the big military powerhouses. They have a headquarter and a commander, but just like the villages and monasteries, each company is highly autonomous and follows the teachings of the founders as they see fit. Since they often recruit new members wherever they find promising candidates and usually have no mystics among their numbers, many Sakaya-kera only know the principles of doing what you do best and not submitting to the rule of any nobles or priests. The other villages and monasteries, including their own warriors, don’t approve of the Sakaya-keras plundering of rich towns and cities, and few of the loot ever actually makes it back to them. But as there is no single ruler who could rein in the High Commander, they are not able to do anything about it. Since most people outside the Vestanen Mountains only have encounters with Sakaya-kera, the Sakaya as a whole have a rather low reputation throughout the Ancient Lands and often don’t use their traditional armor and symbols when visiting other lands.