Thursday, 16 April 2015

Give a man a monster, and he'll game for one day; teach a man to create a monster, and he shall game forever.

My facetious take on an old proverb may be irreverent but it's true. I have in my collection tomes upon tomes, filled with monsters. My collection begins with the monsters presented in the 3 little brown booklets of Original Dungeons & Dragons. Add in the supplements like Greyhawk and Blackmooor and it's beginning to feel like Advanced Dungeons & Dragons. But why stop there? There is the Basic and Expert box set by Tom Moldvay and David Cook. There are real some goodies within, and of course we must not forget the aforementioned AD&D monster manuals. For good measure I also have the OSRIC rulebook and the Astonishing Swordsmen & Sorcerers of Hyperborea box set (both being representative of the content emerging from the OSR). Both of these present unique monsters, drawn from fandom or from the pages of Lovecraftian et al, tales. The 2nd edition Monstrous Manual sits next to them on my shelf, and again, is filled with a menagerie of options. I gave away my 3rd edition books some time ago, but again, we have similar monsters represented therein, and some different. I skipped 4th edition entirely, so cannot comment on that. Finally my 5th edition Monster Manual contains some of the classics we've all grown to love. I could throw in the adventures and other supplements I own: boxsets, modules, and my recently acquired Lamentations of the Flame Princess products (Carcosa, Isle of the Unknown, A Red & Pleasant Land). At this point you may be begging me to stop; and I shall.

These are all resources at my disposal, yet I'm inevitably drawn to my own imaginings when it comes to the various underworld (or wilderness) horrors appearing in my games. Don't get me wrong, I liberally borrow from the manuals I own, but when constructing my campaigns my position is always 'flavour first'. In many respects the system one plays is irrelevant, so long as it works for those at the table. The Internet is proof there is no definitive answer as to which system is inherently 'better'. Forums, blogs, websites, videos, and so on, are filled with nerd-raged fans proselytising the virtues of their edition of choice. At least it cannot be said of this subculture that we are passionless people. So play whatever you want, and be sure to have fun. The issue remains however, if whatever is being run is not working for you in your role as the DM. Nearly two years ago I started writing a Pathfinder campaign (which has concluded recently). My biggest frustration with that particular system was that it took so damn long to stat everything out. It interrupted my workflow and creativity. 'I would continue writing, but I need to work out NPC X's skill distribution'. Yeah. Not fun. Inevitably too, the flavour of the game was imposed by the ruleset I was using: I wanted a low magic, and somewhat underpowered campaign, yet mechanically and aesthetically this was a real stumbling block. In my opinion I ultimately failed in my mission, but you'd have to ask my players their opinion on the matter. Sure we had a good time, but it wasn't quite what I was attempting to achieve. The system got in the way.

The draw of simpler systems, whereby one can compose a stat block within 5 minutes has some real appeal in comparison. I can conceive of a monster, think 'damn that's awesome', and have it on paper within a very short duration. I can then continue my debased preparations, cackling occasionally as I scheme of the various horrors soon to be assailing my adventurers. Dungeons & Dragons from the outset, it seems to me, has always been about creativity and freedom. Creativity to conceive fantasy worlds of one's own devising, and to inhabit it with people and creatures. Imagine fiefdoms and baronies, or a race of alien overlords who enslave humanity for their own unknowable agendas. The geography is up for negotiation. Want a mountain here? Sure. This is a cave inhabited by men who farm giant worms? Sure. Even the physics and laws we must obey on Earth can be bypassed, manipulated or even ignored. Planets exist only as they're needed, or a campaign can exist purely within a flat-earth concept. Magic enables planar travel, invisibility and ultra-healing where in our world we say 'impossible!' The freedom within D&D, comes from exploring these worlds. A bank teller, an IT expert, a CEO and a taxi driver can set aside their 'mundane' identities for a few hours and be something they never were/are in reality, yet somehow represents them in an uncanny way.

Which brings me back to where we started: our rulebooks, our supplements, the products we purchase and the dice we use should be subservient to us. They are there to inspire, to motivate and enable our games as we envision them. They are not there to become a burden or a blockage to what we are trying to achieve. TSR's slogan used to be 'Products of your Imagination'. In other words, the system should disappear into the background, as your imagination gives birth to, and takes precedence over, your collective gaming experiences.

So go... Find a system that is effective in design and implementation, and enabling of the flexibility you need. Imagine those monsters, create those worlds, and you too shall game forever young grasshopper.