Sunday, June 29, 2014

The Monsters of Seven Voyages of Zylarthen, Part I

Once I had decided to create Zylarthen (or the original effort that became Zylarthen), one of the most basic questions was which set of monsters to include. I had two goals, and I didn’t initially know whether I could satisfy them both: 1. Make the list such that it would distinguish Zylarthen from the competition, as well as if possible constituting a worthwhile improvement or at least alternative to the standard canonical list. And 2. Be as faithful as possible to the original OD&D monster offerings.

The most obvious first pass idea was to include all and only those monsters explained and “statted” in the 1974 Monsters & Treasure. But it was quickly apparent that there were a number of problems with this. First of all, the list is actually quite short compared to what most of us are used to—only 60 creatures long if the subgroups are not counted—and it doesn’t include many of the monsters that we now think of as canonical—Carrion Crawlers, Stirges, Mind Flayers, Shriekers—some of which first appeared in Greyhawk or The Strategic Review. Second, using the original basic list seemed, well, sort of boring and had been done by at least one of the other clones. What exactly would be the point of rewriting the blubs for the 100 odd original creatures and setting out the same stats? Granted, one might be able to make some of the information a bit clearer than the original, but one would in turn lose some of the brilliant Gygaxian turns of phrase. What would be the purpose of a Zylarthen monster book, other than just to, well, have such a book with the “Zylarthen” label on it to go with the game?

The next thing that came to mind was to include all the monsters from Monsters & Treasure, The Strategic Review and the three (or possibly four, if one includes Gods, Demi-Gods and Heroes) supplements. This would in effect have created simply a leaner OD&D version of the Monster Manual. That’s actually the primary reason I rejected it. Plus there were many monsters that seemed inappropriate to include in a small booklet, such as the numerous aquatic offerings of Blackmoor. It just seemed counter to the tone of the game to include the full parade of those watery creatures.
For a month or so I toyed with the idea of including every creature mentioned in the above sources, including all of the unstatted animals (giant and otherwise) in the wilderness encounter tables at the back of Eldritch Wizardry. I even started to research these animals so that their blurbs would be more “realistic”. (Do Jaguars generally live alone? How many cubs do they have?). It’s true that this would have created something a bit different from the Monster Manual, but its distinguishing feature would have been that 50% of it would be extremely boring. Fortunately I saw the light and scrapped that idea.

Well, why not just take the monsters I liked from OD&D and leave out the boring or silly ones, you ask? Swords & Wizardry basically does this, to give one example. The answer is that I guess it just offended my sense of historical symmetry. I wanted my effort to be in certain ways hyper-faithful to the original game, and so just picking and choosing seemed arbitrary to me—“house-ruley” as opposed to historically grounded.

At some point I sort of had an epiphany to draw a line at roughly the fall of 1975. This would have the virtue that it snagged most of the non-3 LBB’s members of the canon including 15+ from the first four issues of The Strategic Review, while avoiding Blackmoor, which was published a few weeks later. But to make it interesting I pretty much always knew that I wanted to describe every being or monster mentioned. This would include the “missing monsters” briefly mentioned in or after the wandering monster tables in The Underworld and Wilderness Adventures—Mammoths, Dinosaurs, Robots, Martians, Giant Whatevers, etc.—but also those gals and guys oddly appearing only in play examples and illustrations—Witches, Amazons and Barbarians—as well as the “historical” entities that some people hardly even notice—Vikings and Turcopoles. To make it even more interesting, some of the offerings that first appeared in Greyhawk would later be presented sort of differently in AD&D. So going back to the original presentation would make them seem “new”. For example, I think the NPC Druids of Greyhawk are implicitly a bit scarier (and historically based—with “barbaric followers”) than the sort of new-age semi-peaceful nature freaks that they became later. Though, I admit I sort of scarified them up for Zylarthen. (I think this sort of Druid has a basis in the actual history or at least the old myths constructed from that history—think Wicker Man—though I concede the question is controversial. Don’t kill me, Druid lovers.)
I expanded on the implicit potential of “Flyers” in The Underworld and Wilderness Adventures—adding such giant flying bugs as Bumblebees, Moths and Locusts (the “sexist” comment in the description of one of those creatures was meant in fun and to see whether anyone was listening)—as well as adding what I called “True Wraiths” from Chainmail.

One of the most noticeable features of Zylarthen was the substitution of player-character Thieves for Clerics. This was not merely because I subjectively didn’t like Clerics but because I thought having Clerics as player-characters was inconsistent with the overall tone of OD&D. But they very much remain as important "monsters". Among other things, one may encounter Evil Priests who employ the Finger of Death. Also consistent (in my mind) was adding a collection of gods (without stats) side by side with the other creatures. Not to seem too full of myself but it seemed to me that OD&D should have done this (and not by giving them stats in a separate supplement). Having a diversity of gods ready to occasionally interact with humans was implicit in the setting, I think. Interestingly, even though the gods only occupy a few pages, every reviewer has mentioned them. I didn’t expect this, as including them was almost an afterthought—but it was a choice I am increasingly very satisfied with.

Coming up with “alternative” level names, especially for evil non-player characters was fun. In my view, that was one of the really neat things about original OD&D. Who wouldn’t rather see “Thaumaturgists” or “Swashbucklers” in a random monster table than “5th level Fighters” or “5th level Magic-Users”? As much as I respect Gygax, I thought some of the original level titles were slightly silly and random—Vicars?—but the idea was cool. The online OED as well as some other dictionaries and etymologies were quite helpful in my efforts. The “restriction” of not copying most of the level titles (partly for legal reasons) actually ended up being quite liberating.

Finally, for the selections of “Soldiers” I added some types (and kept others, such as Turcopoles), again trying to be consistent with the original vibe. Though OD&D was supposedly and explicitly “Medieval” I felt there was a strong implicit classical, Byzantine and middle-eastern influence. So, partly to spice up the Chainmail survivals—Medium Foot, Heavy Foot, and so on—I renamed or redefined some of them as Hoplites, Cataphracts, Elf Legionnaires, etc. (There is a prize for anyone who correctly identifies what a Cheirosiphoneer is!)

The guiding philosophy was not to subjectively add things but to be faithful to the spirit if not the (sometimes neglected) letter of the original. I hope I succeeded.

What’s old can be new again!

Notes on Illustrations:
  1. An Iron Golem, drawn by John D. Batten, 78 years before the publication of Monsters & Treasure, in Book of Monsters, p. 32. From  The Beguiling of Talus, from “The Argonauts,” in  Jacobs, Joseph, The Book of Wonder Voyages, New York: Knickerbocker Press, 1919, orig. 1896, p. 84.
  2. An Invisible Stalker in the act of, well, stalking, in Book of Monsters, p. 35. From  Jack With His Invisible Coat, from “Jack the Giant Killer,” in  Jacobs, Joseph, English Fairy Tales, illustrated by John Dickson Batten, New York: G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 1892, orig. 1890, p. 117.
  3. A Unicorn "staying in shape", in Book of Monsters, p. 59. From  The Unicorn, from “A Dozen at a Blow,” in  Jacobs, Joseph, Europa’s Fairy Book, by Joseph Jacobs, illustrated by John Dickson Batten, New York: Knickerbocker Press, 1916, p. 81.
  4. A boy hugging a dog. I thought it appropriate to end the Book of Monsters on a positive note (p. 64). From ”Morraha,” in More Celtic Fairy Tales, p. 92.