Sunday, 4 January 2015

The Observers' Book of Monsters

I've been quite excited by the posts on The Disoriented Ranger that Jens has been posting about his new idea, ''The Lost Song of the Niebelungs". It seems to me that what Jens is attempting to do is to tailor D&D for a Volkswandrung/'Dark Age' setting of Seigfried, Beowulf etc.

Because Jens is doing hard stuff like trying to see how character advancement works and trying to find suitable names for attributes, whereas I just do crazy things like tell him heroes need to be adopted by Dwarves, I'm just riffing off the idea of setting a game in Early Medieval Europe. That was one of the settings I tried to make D&D work in, back in the day, as an 'Arthurian' campaign.

So, because I can just make stuff tangentally connected to someone else's project, I thought I'd show some of my latest silliness. I have made some maps for a hypothetical 'Observer's Book of Monstrers'. For those who don't know the Observer's Books, they were a series of field-guides to various subjects (Birds, Aircraft, Football...) published in the UK from the 1930s onwards. And thinking about what monsters might live in different parts of Europe (for Jens' game, of course) got me thinking about how to show the distribution of monsters and thus the 'Observer's Book of Monsters' was born... a new topic which I'm going to be adding to over coming months I suspect.

Maybe not terribly accurate but I had fun making them. I am quite prepared to consider doing this in a more disciplined and organised way, however. If anybody wants to say 'no! What you have failed to take into account is the Spanish Centaur found in depictions from the 3rd Century BC from Guadalquivir...' or whatever, I'm quite prepared to listen.

I'm not looking forward to mapping the distribution of the European (or Common) Goblin however. I suspect that's 'all over the place'.


  1. This is a great idea and not silly at all! Definitely something that will come in handy in the future. I'm really looking forward to more of this. I'd also be interested to hear more about that dark Ages setting you are talking about.

    And I didn't forget about the ideas of heroes adopted by dwarves. A random family tree will be part of the character creation and I already have some ideas how it could happen (if on rare occasions ...). Check this out:

    Part 2 is still at large, but would have been about using 3d6 ... The idea so far is to use that mechanic for creating family trees. It'll just work the other way around (the top of the hierarchy in the example would be the bottom for the family tree ...) and the fringe results could very well result in an orphan raised by dwarves or some such thing ...

    Keep firing this stuff in my direction, if inspiration hits you. I really appreciate it and it already produced this great post of yours!

  2. Thanks Jens, I'll certainly keep up with 'The Observer's Book of Monsters', because it makes me laugh. It's more fun doing the maps than the monster write-ups though, but I have learned some things about Centaurs. If I have any good ideas, I'll certainly pass them on - you can probably have some of my not-so-good ideas too!

    I like the idea of using the hierarchy-generation method to derive family trees - I'd have to see it in practice though before I can fully grasp it. It seems to me that the way it is, it might be a way of producing a famous great-grandfather (for example) and then generations of descendants (so the PC's cousins, basically).

    1. Yeah, I'm not quite sure which way is best, but I'll make sure that all those characters at the table will be related one way or another (pairs and triplets between different rolls would do that trick). So far I've only decided to with 3d6 per character and a low-is-good routine for the results (the higher the result, the further away is a character from someone important ...). We'll see.

      As for the Observer's Book of Monsters, I look forward to more of it!

  3. Crete would be pretty rough territory. They used to enslave the Greeks on the regular when the Greeks were still basically inbred goat-herders, so as they died out and Greek culture progressed, legends describing Cretans as monsters began to pop up. That's also where the term 'cretin' came from I think. There would at least be gorgons (the things D&D calls medusas, not the iron bull monsters it calls gorgons), minotaurs (the people of Crete worshipped bulls as well as a snake goddess), and cyclopses. My only reason for including that last one is that the stones of Cretan palaces were described by the Greeks as "cyclopean," which only meant they were so huge that only a cyclops could have moved them.

  4. The term 'cretin' comes from Swiss French and means 'Christian', Christian. And 'cyclopean' architecture exists throughout the Mediterranean - particularly, the Greek mainland (Mycenae, Tiryns, Argos, Athens), Sicily, Cyprus, Sardinia (the Nuraghi towers) and the Balearics. I have a feeling Malta too, though I haven't found any examples yet. I also haven't found any examples on Crete. I can't find any reference to the complex at Knossos for example being described as cyclopean. Though it's possible that the Cyclopes lived in all these places, the myths pretty firmly put them on Sicily; it could be that cyclopean archictects (they were described variously as pastoral herdsmen and the helpers of Hephaestus at his forge, so at least some of them knew about what we might call 'technology') travelled around to build these wonderful fortifications. If they did, I will for the moment assume they did so from Sicily. But I'm open to evidence that they were thought to live elsewhere.

    The Gorgons were described as living on an island in the west, after they were banished by Athena. But the Gorgon myths are very confused - in one version the 'snake hair' is a particular curse of Medusa (hence the 'Medusae' of D&D) and the D&D 'Gorgons' come from other descriptions of the three Gorgon sisters as having boar-tusks and brass claws. I can't find any stories linking them to Crete, though looking on wiki there is an image of a monster-faced Minoan sea-goddess from the tombs at Mochlos. The oldest known image of a Gorgon comes from Asia Minor aparently, and another old image comes from Corfu.

    I will however make Crete the abode of more than one minotaur. D&D has them as a species not just a one-off, so it makes sense to think that 'the Minotaur' slain by Theseus had kin on Crete.

    1. ... though, checking up, there are early Gorgon depictions from Crete. But (much as I wasn't planning to put them in Asia Minor and Corfu solely because of the depictions from those places), that doesn't mean they actually lived there - just that Cretan sailors (obviously, the Minoans were great sailors, having a sea-empire that dominated the mainland in the mythic past) had encountered Gorgons (Medusae...) before. At the moment, I'm minded to make that in the Western Med rather than the Eastern.

    2. See if it was me then "'cyclopean' architecture exists throughout the Mediterranean" would mean "there were cyclopses all throughout the Mediterranean" but I can see why you would prefer to narrow it down. Are you thinking of expanding this for the rest of the world later, or just more or less sticking to Europe?
      -captain cretin

    3. Thanks for the reply, Christian. I have to admit I'm not being entirely consistent. If you look at the 'Centaur' distribution, there are some in NE Scotland - because there are depictions of Centaurs on Pictish symbol-stones - but I'm going to exclue Gorgons from being everywhere in the Mediterranean, even though there are depictions of them throughout the Mediterranean. Likewise as you point out, there's a lot of 'cyclopean' architecture, so why not cyclopes elsewhere?

      In my defence - I want to get away from 'everything exists everywhere'. That's the default setting for D&D and that's what I'm trying to counter. No rocs in Shetland, no dryads in China, no minotaurs in Mexico (if they didn't have cows, how would they have minotaurs?). So I'm trying to limit things to relatively small ranges (incidently, why I'm not looking forward to more ubiquitous monsters of the Goblin/Orc type, or even Elves).

      The other thing is, I need to have some kind of 'time fix'. My assumption is that the distributions will reflect a mythologised mid-first millenium AD world, as I started doing this in response to Jens' 'Lost Songs of the Nibelungs'. It may well be that the cyclopean architecture was built by cyclopes living in those places, so that the Nuraghi towers and the cities of mainland Greece were actual 'cities of the cyclopes' - but that was perhaps 2000 years before the period I'm focussing on. I'm not sure about the Nuraghi towers though, they seem to have stopped being built by the 2nd century AD, but if I can find later examples, I'll probably add Sardinia to the cyclopes' territory for c. AD400.

      Because of how and why I started this, I've just done a few test-maps for European/Mediterranean monsters. Jens' setting is pseudo-European, so that's where I started. I certainly plan to add the ranges for other monsters in different parts of the world, but haven't yet downloaded suitable maps. If you have any suggestions, especially for monsters in the Basic/Expert D&D books, I'd be very happy to hear them.