Tuesday, September 24, 2019

Monster Mythology

Where to even start with this book. There are things about it that are so bad I could fill out a thousand word rant without breaking a sweat. There are also things that are so good that I could rapturously gush over them indefinitely. Also there's some mediocre stuff too, so it's got the whole gamut covered.

I feel like I've been overly negative lately, so let's just start with the good and maybe meander our way down to the bad as we get towards the end. I will share with you the single most brilliant sentence ever written for any edition of Dungeons & Dragons. Fair warning - this is going to seem a little bit backhanded, because Monster Mythology clearly didn't know what they had, but I mean this in all sincerity. Hell, I've had this book for more than 20 years and I only just now noticed it, so I'm hardly one to cast aspersions.
Alone of all the nonhuman races, their gods have the precious power of conferring returned life to those who have fallen; the spells raise dead and resurrection are known only to these priests and those of humanity.
That's from the introduction to the chapter about the demihuman pantheons. Remember when I said in my Complete Book of Humanoids review that anyone who could define the difference between a demihuman and a humanoid would have to be a D&D genius? I didn't realize at the time that I was being literal.

I mean, just let that stew around in your head a little. The thing that makes a species demihuman is . . . the ability to return the dead to life. There are creatures out there every bit as sapient, but they lack this spark of magic, so for them death is final. Two classes of people - one who needs not fear death and another whose days are numbered. The first group lives beautiful, prosperous lives in elegant tree villages, intricately carved cavern vaults, bucolic country villages, or really anywhere else rich in the blessings of the earth. The second group ekes out an existence in barren wastelands, sewers, haunted ruins, or really anywhere else that is only marginally fit for habitation. And the groups are at eternal war, separated by irreconcilable racial divisions.

The first group is "good" and the second group is "evil," but who is assigning those labels?

I can't be alone in seeing this, right? That this one sentence is a whole campaign pitch, the sort of thing you put at the center of your worldbuilding and let inform the bulk of your design decisions. That's the only reason I didn't choose it as my Ukss contribution. It's too big of an idea. D&D 3rd edition had this thing where its art is described as "dungeonpunk," but this is the real dungeonpunk.

You're a goblin. You're born into a world that's rigged against you. The very metaphysics of life itself mean that you're never going to be one of the beautiful people. You'll never have what they have. But you and your people, you've found the gaps in the system. The places they don't want. The things that are too broken down, dirty, and dangerous for them to even acknowledge.

Of course, of course, these places aren't safe forever. Their system doesn't allow any scrap of value to remain overlooked for long. When they start pushing in to your lands, you push back. You'll die. They won't. But they'll have to live in a world they don't completely control.

Monster Mythology doesn't develop this idea. In fact, it's never mentioned again. But I don't think this is just me pulling a single sentence out of context and going inappropriately gaga over it. There's a bit of that, sure, but it's not the only example of the book being insightful and recklessly creative as part of a throw-away line that's only brought up once.

The story of the first gnomish blimp is that a gnome culture hero stole the tail from the god of the lizard-folk and cured it into a giant balloon. The god of the derro (evil dwarves) doesn't have "priests," instead he directs his people by choosing particular pregnancies and magically manipulating  the fetuses during gestation to create a caste of mystically potent leaders.

Amman, the god of giants, is dual-natured. His dreams provide the substance for base matter, but he's also an earthy father to the giant race, visiting the mortal world to find lovers and then using his magic to ensure he only has sons - a move that he comes to regret when he meets the daughter that was hidden from him and realizes his vanity and sexism is the reason so many giants are cruel and aggressive.

I'd say, as a rough estimate, that about 30% of this book is genuinely great, doing AD&D-style "generic" fantasy as well as it's ever been done. Which gets us into Monster Mythology's deepest structural flaw (although not the worst thing about it - that would be the oddly pointless dig it makes about East Asian mythology: "Obviously, selecting the Chinese or Japanese pantheons is a step likely only to be taken by a DM who, with his players, wishes to adventure in an Oriental game world and setting." Obviously.)

When I say "structural flaw" I mean something that is fundamental to the conception of the book itself. The writing mostly ranges from good to great, so I'm guessing the reason this exists is an editorial mandate. I imagine the writer was given certain instructions when he was hired and those instructions inexplicably sabotaged the whole book. It was well-executed, but poorly conceived.

No delicate way to put this - Monster Mythology has too many gods. They aren't bad, per se, but they do weigh down the book and steal focus away from the strongest entries. Do we really need three bugbear gods? Hell, do we even need one? Bugbears aren't really a thing. Hey, AD&D, stop trying to make bugbears happen.

It often feels like Monster Mythology is going down a checklist, looking at the Monstrous Manual page-by-page and creating a new god for every intelligent species it finds. The selkies have a god!

That's not intrinsically an absurd idea. Selkies are an affecting myth. They're seals who can shed their skins to become human. They visit land and sometimes fall in love with a human, but are inevitably called back to the sea. Or maybe the human falls in love with them and tries to force them to stay by stealing and hiding their skin.

It touches on some really potent themes. You've got two worlds, in close physical proximity, but largely inaccessible to one another. Your main characters transgress the boundary of those worlds, discovering new things about themselves and the world around them that they've taken for granted. There is romance, heartache, and betrayal. You could get a lot of mileage out of centering a goddess in this narrative. It is the sort of passionate mystery play out of which religions are built.

Surminare, the selkie goddes, has half a page devoted to her. Of that, half is reserved for the game stats of her avatar. It's a more efficient use of space than 1e's Legends & Lore, but not by much.

Being confined to 1-2 paragraph of description means that most of the gods in this book just wind up feeling like large and powerful versions of whatever species they're the god of. Surminare is just a selkie who happens to be a Paladin/Druid. Kurtulmak is a boss kobold (though, with kobolds specifically, "our god is a bigger, pettier kobold" is actually an apt bit of characterization). You could easily reskin the bulk of this book to be about high-level humanoid adventurers and very little would be lost.

Ironically, it is the "hero" entries that often wind up feeling the most godlike, probably because they're on average longer, in order to explain why this mortal person deserves to be listed alongside the gods.

Yet there are some real gems here. If you dropped the "these are the gods of monstrous humanoids" angle, you could assemble a really stellar pantheon out of the highlights.

The lesser entries are not bad. You could use them as a starting point in developing some memorable divine antagonists/allies for your game. But if, say, the weaker two-thirds had been ripped out and their space cannibalized to extend the entries of the best of the gods? Or, hell, if avatar stats had been left out entirely so the average entry could nearly double in length? We would at this very moment be having the "does this book live up to its legendary reputation" conversation.

In the end, Monster Mythology is merely very good. It's rare to see an rpg book this densely packed with useable ideas. It's only 128 pages, but it has enough interesting stuff inside it to fuel dozens of campaigns. A true forgotten gem.

Ukss Contribution: I'm going to have to choose a god, aren't I. That's not a problem, really. There's been a god-shaped hole in Ukss for awhile. The real problem here is narrowing it down to just one.

My instincts run towards the gnomish pantheon. In this book, they are largely wasted space. They're overly specific and theologically simplistic. But, you could make a great trickster deity out of them if you treated them as a composite entity. If they're distinct aspects/moods of a single being, then that being feels a lot like a god should, especially if you put them all in the body of Chiktikka Fastpaws, the gnomish nature god's racoon familiar.

I'm just not sure that counts as a contribution. I'd be grabbing a lot of stuff at once and then fundamentally rewriting it. It's always a bit fuzzy how much of that is okay.

So instead I'll go with my runner up - The Great Mother. She's the Beholder goddess who "mates" with monsters and demons by eating them and then laying eggs that hatch into a million and one types of beholder. I think a spooky, floating fertility goddess in the shape of an all-consuming orb manages to capture the unique tenor of terrifying awe that I associate with the divine.

1 comment:

  1. So, there's nothing in the text of those resurrection spells granted to priests of the "right" gods that says they can only target demihumans or humans. A powerful cleric who is generous, compassionate, manipulative, oppressive, or any combination thereof, can return members of the humanoid races to life. Now it's a boon granted to the elite that the elite can dispense as desired to the lesser folk. And that makes it *even more punk*.

    Also, I dig the terrifying fertility goddess.