[Games Anatomy] The Most Monstrous Thing Of All’s The Artwork

By popular demand (two whole people asked for it! two distinct, individual people!), this week’s Games Anatomy will continue carving the meat from the bones of the Original Dungeons and Dragons. In a way I’m quite grateful as I frankly don’t have the time to tackle a large book during the week any more; there may be some changes coming to this Saturday slot soon, depending on how the workload of my New Job (TM) develops and whether Mists of Pandaria is any good.

Until then: Monsters and Treasure!

Let’s get something out of the way right now. The art in these books is, erm, charmingly homegrown at the best of times. That’s forgiveable, given the age of the products. It’s early days, TSR is a small publisher, and the industry standard that all RPGs must be glossy, shiny, full-colour, faux-parchment wallet-busters is fortunately far in the future. Unfortunately, elegantly drawn, richly detailed and gorgeously shaded monochrome art is also far in the future. Basically, many of the pieces which make me and others wonder if early TSR had any standards whatsoever for illustrations appear in this slim volume. At 42 pages it is a very slim volume, too. It manages any sort of depth by embodying two Gygaxian principles; firstly, it doesn’t mess about with slabs of text describing what a skeleton warrior is, and secondly, stuff is rammed in everywhere and anywhere it’ll fit.

It starts off, for instance, with a giant reference table covering the available monsters, the number of monsters appearing, their armour class, movement rates, hit dice, percentage hiding off in some nearby lair and a quick reference on where to look for their treasure. There’s a loose organising principle; all the goblin-ish things are together, then all the undead, then all the big gnarly mythical beasties, then a sort of trailing off-period, and then all of a sudden ‘horse’ and ‘mold’ occur in quick succession, as if the list just went to pot once they decided to put Purple Worm after Dragon. They do appear in the same order in the book though, which is nice. Incidentally, the ‘number encountered’ is very much at wargame scale – the number of gnolls, for instance, is set to 30-300, with a universal note suggesting that it should be scaled down to suit the party and is mostly included for out-door encounters.

At first glance, that suggests a wargame-like scale of encounter, and you might be thinking “what’s my four-man party going to be doing fighting thirty plus orcs?” I invite you to consider in your calculations that the party might conceivably have henchpersons and hirelings, extending their numbers significantly; that the game was developed for significantly larger groups than frequently appear today; and that we are after all playing a wargame supplement. At second glance, it suggests a group being fulfilled by attack-rolling their way through three hundred gnolls for an entire four-hour session of play, which I found hard to envisage at first, but then I thought no, that might involve some serious tactical jiggery-pokery, map-drawing and planning of gnoll management, and actually most of my groups except the most drama-studenty would probably get off on that to some extent, especially the current mob who play a lot of boardgames and may enjoy all those hex-based movement shenanigans…

Some of the biggest, scariest monsters can make multiple attacks; this is done very tidily, they’re basically allowed to roll a number of attacks equal to their hit dice, and add the modifier to their hit dice to one of them (so a Troll with 6+3 hit dice would make six attack rolls and add 3 to one of them).

Scads and scads of the following material is dedicated to short, mechanics-focused descriptions of each beastie in turn. Bandits have quite a complex entry, detailing the makeup of large bandit groups, the odds of individuals possessing magic items or class levels; Goblins have a very simple one explaining how daylight affects their attack and morale rolls and how they’ll always go for dwarves if they have the choice. How economical is that? Dragons get a whacking great entry, dealing with how to subdue rather than kill them, a table of correspondences for colours of dragon with the elements and various kinds of damage, and a note regarding the shapechanging, spellcasting golden dragons. No prizes for guessing who’s the developer’s favourite here – but hell, it’s a dragon, it’s the king of monsters, and it’s all expressed in terms of Things You Can Do rather than Things You Should Know Before Doing. Some of the weirder stuff, like the Black Pudding, receives notes on incorporation from Mr. Gygax; the Pudding in question is ‘another member of the clean-up crew and nuisance monster’, which dissolve organic material and wrought metal but leave stone intact and need to be burned off; chopping at it with swords will just create more Pudding.

And Hark eats them for breakfast, dammit!

So, that’s the Monsters; what of the Treasure? Well, Treasure is organised into Types A-I, and these Types form one side of yet another look-up table. Each Treasure Type has a percentile chance of containing thousands of gold, silver or copper pieces, gems and jewellery, and either maps or magic. If I’m rolling for a Treasure Type B monster, for instance, it has a 50% chance of yielding 1-8 thousand copper pieces, a 25% chance of 1-6 thousand silver pieces, a 25% chance of 1-3 thousand gold pieces, a 25% chance of 1-6 gems/jewellery and a 10% chance of magic weapons or armour.

It sounds more complicated than it is, although heaven alone knows what you’re going to DO with all that gold. Then again, Type B treasure appears attached to things like Hydras and Ghouls; things which are likely to have claimed many lives in the past and consequently have a large lair filled with loot, possibly representing the climax to an extended adventure or session of play. It’s conceivable that clearing the ghoul nest probably should set your characters up for life, given that 2d12 of the little buggers will be lurking therein with their ‘save or get paralysed’ touch and their bad habit of turning you into them. I get the impression that you’re not going to see Type A unless, let’s see – yes, as I thought, Type A treasure is the preserve of Men and Centaurs, i.e. settled, civilised, organised opponents fought in staggeringly large numbers.

I think the Treasure Types, which at first glance seem arbitrary and gamey, serve well as evidence for what this game is actually like. My respect for the creators of D&D continues to grow as I work my way through their first essay in the form; though it’s confusingly laid out and, at first, clashes with my expectations, thinking about what it is and where it came from and how my sessions of play actually tend to go never fails to reveal the insight and intelligence with which it’s been put together.

I will add only that I find the magic swords – which have an alignment (and tendency to physically hurt a wielder of different alignment), an Intelligence and an Egoism (which threaten to take over the wielder, adjusting their alignment and personality – very early Moorcock) – are entertaining, appealing and perilous, while the various magical staves seem to turn wizards into terrifyingly dangerous, albeit unreliable, opponents. I’m particularly fond of the Staff of Withering, which ages those struck by it ten years for every blow. Marvellous stuff.

Next week, I’ll be doing a number on Volume Three; The Underworld and Wilderness Adventures.

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