Heroes and Monsters

In much of fantasy, particularly RPGs and videogames, both hero and monsters are very generic terms, typically applied to any protagonists and fictional creatures. But historically, in ancient myths and medieval tales, the concepts of a “Hero” or a “Monster” have much more specific meanings that give them a greatly heightened significance on a metaphysical scale. Heroes and monsters are not merely exceptional people or creatures, but typically unique individuals that exist outside the common rules of the natural world. They are supernatural beings that break the rules of ordinary life.

Conan the Cimmerian fighting the ape-beast Thak in the mansion of the Red Priest Nabonidus.

While I was looking at the spells available to mages in Dragonbane and how their existence would impact the worldbuilding of a campaign, one spell in particular that stood out to me was Resurrection. It is of course a very powerful ability to raise the dead, but under the rules of Dragonbane, an animism mage focusing on healing powers could get access to it very quickly after just two advances in the Animism skill. And there are no limits on who can be resurrected other than the time that has passed since the target has died. To counter this potency, each casting of Resurrection permanently reduces the Willpower attribute of the mage, which can not be recovered.  If we take the rules of the game as they are written as the internal logic by which the campaign world operates, then any mages with healing spells find themselves in the situation where they could save any 8 to 16 people brought to them from death by sacrificing their own mind. How would they even make the choices which people to bring back to life and to which ones they refuse this service to? And even if a player playing a mage with this spell comes to a decision, this would be a philosophical problem with gigantic implications for the worldbuilding of any Dragonbane campaign. Which I am pretty sure the writer of this spell had no intention to be relevant. There are surely many ways to work around that, but something that came to my mind is that perhaps the Resurrection spell does not work on most ordinary people and can only be used to resurrect a small number of exceptional individuals.

Which brings us back to Heroes. At the most basic level, classical heroes of myth are larger than life individuals who have an exceptional impact on their society and regional history. Quite often their exceptional cunning and wisdom and their superhuman fighting skills and resilience are attributed to a divine heritage, being the children or grandchildren of gods. They are not just brave or lucky or unusually well talented and trained, there is something about their inherent nature that is supernatural. This supernatural quality could be what is necessary for the Resurrection spell to work in a Dragonbane campaign. It can work of course on all PCs, but also on powerful priests and sorcerers and even kings and famous knights. And as it happens, there already is a mechanical element in the Dragonbane rules that establishes such a difference between minion and boss NPCs. Willpower Points are something that only PCs and boss NPCs have, but minion NPCs don’t.

Similarly, not every creature in Dragonbane is a monster. A dragon, manticore, or giant is a monster, while orcs, goblins, skeletons explicitly have the Non-Monster trait. The rules for monsters are quite different from those of non-monster creatures and ordinary animals. They never have to make attack rolls and can not be parried, so any PCs attacked by a monster have to either use their action for the round to attempt to dodge or automatically take damage. Monsters also typically have several actions per round, a table with several different special attacks that usually has at least one fear effect, and players can not use the Persuade skill on them. Monsters are clearly something very different from large and ferocious animals.

I really like this approach to super-human people and supernatural monsters to create a stronger feel of Sword & Sorcery in a campaign. It encourages to use “Monsters” more sparingly and have each of them be at least a major setpiece of the adventures they appear in, rather than as a simple way to avoid too much repetitiveness in long stretches of repeated fights. Dragonbane is not a system meant for classic dungeon crawls like B/X, where going from room to room to deal with a new threat behind every door and corner is the name of the game. I’m really looking forward to see how this will play out in practice and how it will impact the feel and presentation of Kaendor.

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