Friday, November 28, 2014

Wizards of the Coasts' Monsters I Want to Fight - Thallids (part 1)

Fallen Empires is one of my favorite Magic: the Gathering sets, and the thallids are probably my favorite monsters from the set.  Fallen Empires is set on an island, Sarpadia, which is undergoing a period of cooling that's being caused by an apocalyptic foreign war.

Figure 1 - "Thallid" by Ron Spencer
Figure 2 - "Thallid Devourer" by Ron Spencer

The cooling period that Sarpadia is undergoing is similar to Europe's Little Ice Age, circa 1550-1850, when crop yields fell, some northern areas became uninhabitable, and sea ice became a navigational challenge.  Unbeknownst to anyone on Sarpadia, their cooling period doesn't have any natural cause - it's the aftermath of the Brothers' War depicted in the Antiquities set.  The Brother's War was a WWI analog, featuring very large scale combat using magical and mechanical superweapons, and involving massive environmental despoilation due to resource extraction, manufacturing pollution, and the after-effects of the fighting.

Figure 3 - "Night Soil" by Sandra Everingham

In the Fallen Empires set, shorter summers, longer winters, and lower crop yields have forced the Sarpadian elves to find a new food source (supplementing what was presumably a diet of game, berries, edible shoots, and other arborial fodder.)  The elves have started cultivating edible fungus, but their experiments have gotten away from them, giving rise to a new lifeform, the thallids.

Figure 4 - "Night Soil" by Drew Tucker

The thallids are motile fungi of at least animal intelligence.  They have escaped the elves' attempts to domesticate them, started competing with the elves for their traditional food sources, and become a danger to travelers and villagers alike within the forest.  (The closest analogy I can think of is if, in response to global warming, we bred modern cattle into something like hippopotami, who then escaped their pens and began rampaging across the countryside.)

Figure 5 - "Feral Thallid" by Rob Alexander

Thallids seem to possess a collective intelligence, similar to ants and other social insects, which seems appropriate for fungal lifeforms, considering that the mushrooms we see are sometimes only the most visible tips of mile-long underground organisms.  Also like ants, or at least like leaf-cutter ants, thallids appear to collect fodder to compost and let rot, with the fungal growth from the rot piles serving as both a food source and a reproductive medium.  Different thallids specialize in different tasks, and a number of them appear to be specialized for combat.  As represented in the cards, thallids also reproduce by budding off smaller undifferentiated versions of themselves, called saprolings.

Figure 6 - "Night Soil" by Heather Hudson
Figure 7 - "Thorn Thallid" by Heather Hudson

I love the idea of thallids.  They're a bit like Christopher Priest's triffids, but their fungal, rather than vegetal, origin makes them seem even more insidious and menacing.  In response to climate change, the elves tried to create a new food source, and ended up creating their likely successors.  They bred an enemy that was utterly independent of them, indifferent to them, and able to outlast them in the coming winter.  Not only could the elves probably not defeat the thallids, (and for the thallids, anything less than a total defeat is tantamount to a victory), but their war against the thallids made all their problems caused by climate change worse.  They still needed more food and a long-term plan for survival, but now they also faced a serious competitor for land, living space, and whatever fresh greenery remained.

Figure 8 - "Thallid" by Daniel Gelon
Figure 9 - "Thorn Thallid" by Daniel Gelon

The appearance of the first thallids seems to have been decided by the individual artists.  Ron Spencer's "Thallid" and "Thallid Devourer" (figures 1 & 2) and Sandra Everingham's "Night Soil" (figure 3) have a very ropy, knit-together quality that makes the thallid body appear to be just an appendage of a much larger organism.  Spencer's depictions are, I think, my favorite representations of the thallids, and they strongly shape how I think of them.

Figure 10 - "Thorn Thallid" by Mark Tedin

Drew Tucker's "Night Soil" (figure 4), Rob Alexander's "Feral Thallid" (figure 5), and Heather Hudson's "Night Soil" and "Thorn Thallid" (figures 6 & 7) combine both an insectoid and reptilian feel.  Tucker's saproling, in particular, looks almost frog-like, while Alexander's thallid has a feline quality.  I especially like the animal quality of these images, because they make the thallids feel potentially cunning, like they might be smarter than us without being sentient, at least about the things they know best.

Figure 11 - "Fungal Bloom" by Daniel Gelon

In contrast, Daniel Gelon's "Thallid" and "Thorn Thallid" (figures 8 & 9) and Mark Tedin's "Thorn Thallid (figure 10) have an otherworldly, alien appearance, almost like octopi, but with entirely un-animal-like eyes.

Figure 12 - "Spore Flower" by Margaret Organ Kean

Gelon is the only artist to envision the thallids as stationary, both in his depiction of the thorn thallid and in his "Fungal Bloom," (figure 11) although Margaret Organ-Kean's "Spore Flower" (figure 12) makes the thallids an invisible, but menacing presence, and suggests the possibility of them escaping the forest.

Figure 13 - "Thallid" by Edward Beard Jr

The only early depictions of the thallids that I don't especially care for are Edward Beard Jr's "Thallid" (figure 13) and Jesper Myrfors' "Thallid" and "Thorn Thallid" (figures 14 & 15).  Beard's hairy-looking thallid might be intended to evoke something plant- or moss-like, but it's never really looked fungal to me.  Myrfors' thallids do look like fungus, but they seem tiny and smurf-like to me, and both seem somehow too humanoid, not animalistic enough for my tastes.

Figure 14 - "Thallid" by Jesper Myrfors
Figure 15 - "Thorn Thallid" by Jesper Myrfors

If either Beard's or Myrfors' visions had dominated or become the house style, I doubt I would have liked the thallids as much as I do.  Myrfors offers us another vision of mushroom-headed humanoids, akin to Jeff Vandermeer's graycaps, and a half-dozen similar beasts, including DCC's Shrooman (DCC 426).  Beard gives us a hairy green cyclops, something like a yeti or Looney Tunes' Gossamer.  His vision seems more suited to a single, unique monster than to a whole race.  If Beard's monster reproduces, it seems like it should be at sword-point, when the misfortune of being sliced in half turns into the fortune asexual reproduction.  I might like to fight one of Beard's monsters, but I wouldn't want it to be the template for the other thallids.

Figure 16 - "Fungusaur" by Daniel Gelon

As a bonus I've also included Daniel Gelon's and Heather Hudson's "Fungusaur" images (figures 16 & 17).  These depict a different fungal monster.  Unlike the thallids, the fungusaur is decidedly not part of an ecosystem or community.  It appears to be a unique monster, and one that grows itself, rather than growing offspring, as part of its life-cycle.  The fungusaur is a direction not taken.  While the thallids are not meant to be perfectly human-like in appearance or intelligence, neither are they intended to be mindless brutes, or to single-mindedly pursue their hunger.  What makes thallids frightening is that they might be smarter than they seem, and they already seem unnervingly smart for things that were only ever bred to be eaten.  The fungusaur is a landmark, it is unmissably huge.  The thallids are human-scale, and they are camouflaged.  An individual thallid might be hidden behind the next tree, and an entire forest of them might be hidden just beyond.  Collectively, the thallids are much, much bigger than the fungusaur, but their size is distributed, spread out across an entire countryside.  And while the fungusaur might escape its cave and grow big as a mountain, the thallids have already escaped, and they might grow as big as the whole island, and there might not be enough room for you both.

Figure 17 - "Fungusaur" by Heather Hudson

All images used here are copyright Wizards of the Coast, and used without permission, for fair use purposes.

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

DCC House Rule - Lucky Weapon

I'm planning to add a house-rule to the Dungeon Crawl Classics games I referee to modify the DCC Warrior's "lucky weapon."  In the rules as written, Warriors permanently add their starting 1st level Luck modifier to attack rolls for a weapon of their choice.

On the one hand, I like that this is a new take on older mechanic's like the Ranger's "favored weapon" or the Fighter's "weapon specialization."  On the other hand, I have the same objections to it that I have to DCC's "lucky roll" - only about a quarter of Warriors get an actually-lucky weapon, while half get no modifier at all, and another quarter get an un-lucky weapon.

The rules as written also mention that Warriors should be able to perform weapon-specific Mighty Deeds of Arms with each type of weapon.  No weapon-specific Deeds are given in the rules; instead it's recommended that each referee write their own weapon-specific Deed for each weapon.  My objection to that is that it's a lot of extra writing before you can even get started.

So, my house rule is that at 1st level, each Warrior chooses a lucky weapon.  Warriors receive a permanent +1 bonus to attack rolls and damage rolls with their lucky weapon, regardless of their starting Luck score.  In addition, a Warrior automatically knows one weapon-specific Deed for their lucky weapon.  (A warrior might be able to learn additional weapon-specific Deeds, but only if they "quest for it.")

As with my house-rule on "lucky rolls," if a referee felt that Warriors with very high Luck scores deserved a larger bonus, that would probably work fine, although in that case, I would probably recommend returning to modifying only the attack roll, since a +2 or +3 damage bonus, in addition to the bonus for exceptional Strength, is quite a lot for the few characters it would affect.

Sunday, October 12, 2014

My Pointcrawl Contest Victory

Chris Kutalik of the Hill Cantons blog recently announced a contest to design a location for his upcoming pointcrawl adventure "The Slumbering Ursine Dunes."  Potential prizes included having your location included in the finished adventure, and receiving a wargame from Chris' personal collection.

The winners were announced even more recently, and my entry won second place!

You can read my completed entry by clicking the link below.  If you want to wait to see it in the finished adventure, or at the gaming table, then allow me to leave just the following picture to whet your imagination.

"Castoroides" by Charles R.Knight,via Wikimedia

Tuesday, October 7, 2014

Public Domain Art - Warwick Goble's "Indian Myths and Legends"

Warwick Goble is one of my favorite public domain artists.  These illustrations are from Donald Alexander MacKenzie's Indian Myths and Legends.
"Sita finds Rama among lotus blooms"
"Shantanu meets the Goddess Ganga"
"Arjuna and the river nymph"
"The ordeal of Queen Draupadi"
"The return of the heroes slain in battle"
"Damayanti and the swan"
"Damayanti chooses a husband"
"Rama spurns the demon lover"

Thursday, August 7, 2014

DCC House Rule - Lucky Roll

In the Dungeon Crawl Classics games I referee, I've been playing with a house-rule that modifies DCC's "lucky roll."  In the rules as written, characters permanently add their starting Luck modifier to one randomly selected type of roll.

My objection to the rule as written is that for most characters, their supposedly-lucky roll is either going to be unmodified, or it's actually going to be an un-lucky roll because they have a negative modifier.  Nearly half of all starting characters, 48%, have no Luck modifiers because their Luck scores are between 9-12. Another quarter, about 26%, have negative Luck modifiers because their Luck scores are 3-8.  Using the rule as written, only about 1 in 4 starting characters have a "lucky roll" that's actually lucky.

So, my house rule is that all characters receive a permanent +1 bonus to their "lucky roll," regardless of their starting Luck score.

If a referee felt that this rule deprived characters with extremely high Luck scores of the larger bonus they'd receive under the original rule, she could choose to let those characters receive the superior bonus granted by their higher Luck modifier.  That change would only affect about 5% of starting characters though, because only about 1 in 20 would begin with Luck scores 16-18.