Wednesday, February 17, 2021

(AD&D 2e)Van Richten's Monster Hunter's Compendium Volume 1

 What is Ravenloft, even?

No, really. I enjoyed Van Richten's Monster Hunter's Compendium, but every so often the narrator, Van Helsing Richten would veer off-topic to speculate about his world's metaphysics, and it would always be some kind of bullshit. These little asides usually took the form of "travelers from distant lands tell me that" [this thing we're talking about exists in a form that isn't the most pessimistic possible interpretation of the phenomenon] "but personally, I don't believe it." And taken together, they just make Ravenloft seem like a massive bummer.

In one of the more explicit out-of-character examples, a sidebar explains that the chance of contracting lycanthropy in Ravenloft is 2% per hit point of damage dealt to you by a werebeast's natural weapons, in contrast to the normal 1% chance per hit point. And I guess that the horror is supposed to come from that extra 1%, but honestly, the whole thing seems a little forced to me. I've just gotten done fighting a werewolf and the DM tells me to roll a percentile die against 32%, but I'm supposed to be shocked because I only took 16 points of damage. "Whoa 'Domain of Dread' is right."

I don't want to be too hard on Ravenloft here. Actually, most of what I've seen of its general mood and atmosphere, I've enjoyed. It's just that it has a certain tendency towards absolutism that undermines horror just as often as it supports it. I think I get what they were going for "there is no escaping your fate," but in practice, it comes off as lacking nuance. If you stumble, you're doomed, so the dread only lasts until you make your first mistake. I think if you want to encourage people to dwell in the shadows, you have to demonstrate that it's easier to survive in the margins than it is in either the light or the dark.

Take flesh golems, for example. They always turn evil and kill their creators. And that's a little weird. According to "The Created" section, Ravenloft is a world where sufficiently obsessed and driven people can stitch together dead bodies to bring them a semblance of life. This is one of those ad hoc mechanics that exist only because AD&D is very . . . precise about its spell-casting and magic item creation systems, and thus there needs to be a new rule to allow for magical setting elements outside that framework, but the practical upshot is that the plot of Frankenstein is constantly playing out throughout the world of Ravenloft.

Except that it's always the plot of Frankenstein. Van Richten even breaks it down for us. The Created have five developmental milestones - Dependence, Confusion, Betrayal, Contempt, and Hatred. They always happen in that precise order, because every flesh golem has the same personality and the same dynamic with its creator. The only thing that varies is the pace.

The question I have to ask is "why bother with the repetition?" Flesh golem is an entry in the Monstrous Manual, but that doesn't mean it has to be a whole class of creatures. You could just use it as a unique, one-off adventure and then rely on the rest of the book to provide diversity.

Or, I suppose, you could just use the flesh golem in a variety of different ways.  Van Richten's Monster Hunter's Compendium is actually pretty good at providing a bunch of mechanical options for variant golem. You can build golems that channel dark spirits or the ghosts of the dead, that incorporate monster parts or have strange magical powers. It's a shame, then, that the book doesn't offer support for using the creatures in a similar variety of story or setting roles.

You've got this world full of frankensteins, but you don't have one who is an innocent exploited by their creator, or who sincerely loves their creator, but lacks the emotional and social context to express that love appropriately, or who forges a genuine connection with a community, only to be persecuted by a fanatical monster hunter. The flesh golem may be a recreation of your neglectful father or the hypothetical daughter you could never have thanks to your wife's infertility, but they will always be rejected by society for their ugliness and eventually turn on you for not being perfectly supportive.

I think the worst thing you could say about Van Richten's Monster Hunter's Compendium is that it fails to transcend the assumptions it's inherited from AD&D. It is a compendium for "monster hunters" and thus when it talks about vampires or werewolves or golems, it is as monsters - i.e. creatures for the PCs to track down and kill. Maybe you're going to cure a werewolf or transplant a golem's brain back into its original body, but even those situations are, like, 75% monster hunting and 25% hoping an NPC makes its savings throws.

However, within those limitations, it's a pretty awesome book. Its conceit of being a series of excerpts from Van Richten's journal helps set a mood, and the good doctor's various anecdotes offer plenty of inspiration for dickish new ways to use these creatures against the PCs. Sometimes, it leans a little too far into the metagamey - it will often suggest mixing up a creature's weaknesses to keep the players on their toes - but it is generally persuasive when it talks up its monsters as terrifying threats. And, if it can occasionally be guilty of AD&D's general biological essentialism (fucking alignments are the worst), it also encourages both players and DMs to think of monsters as individuals.

Oh, wait, there's one more thing I wanted to roast this book about:

"There are a small number of vampires that have an entirely unquenchable thirst for blood."
It does that thing again. The one that goes back at least as far as Grand Duchy of Karameikos where it takes the single most defining trait of vampires as a creature type and treats it as a modification to D&D's inexplicable decision to make "vampires" into creatures that punch away your experience levels.

That's sort of the paradox of this series, though. It is trying something new and genuinely interesting with its monster presentation, but it also has this hidebound fidelity to two decades worth of ad hoc rules decisions from its parent game. It's why we've got pages worth of discourse about dealing with the gaseous form power, strict numerical rules for werewolf contagion, and a needless distinction between golems created by mad scientists and golems created by spells.

And yet, far all that, I really enjoyed reading this book. There's two more in the series and I'm looking forward to them, even if I think volume 1 front-loaded the headline monsters (vampires and werewolves in one book? with a very strong 3rd slot - none of the other lineups even comes close to this level of iconic).

Ukss Contribution: One of the more frustrating aspects of this book was the werebeast section. It was clearly going for a genre thing, and I respect that, but it listed a staggering number of potential were-animals (18! including badgers, coyotes, and walruses) and then made the aggravating choice to depict them all as horror-movie werewolves - vicious anthrophages who spread their curse through the wounds they leave behind.

Maybe it's just a matter of 20+ years passing since the book was written, and tastes in fantasy changing, but it broke my heart to see all the different types of werebeasts consigned to the role of villains. Like, werewolves I get, because that's a trope, but for Van Richten's Monster Hunter's Compendium to slander my poor, beautiful werebears in such a way - unforgivable.

Fortunately, this is the one and only time the ooc-rules text makes a point to directly contradict Van Richten's narration ("Dr Van Richten's zealotry to rid his world of evil is laudable, but his bias against lycanthropes is colored"). Werebears in Ravenloft can, in fact, have a good alignment, though hilariously the mechanics sidebar goes on to state that those wereboars might be corrupted to evil if they consume human flesh.

This has to be a thing, right? Like somewhere in the rules for alignment there's an exception for lycanthropes engaging in normal predatory behavior. Otherwise "your character cannot remain good-aligned if they hunt, kill, and devour intelligent creatures" is one of those "no shit" statements. Your DM lays the restriction on you and you sigh, "okay, I'll try to remember that arbitrary rule, but I want the record to show that my werebear should be able to snack on all the schoolchildren he wants and still be thought of as basically a decent guy."

Anyway, the Ukss choice is the noble, non-cannibal werebear.

No comments:

Post a Comment