Tuesday, September 28, 2010

A Thought Experiment

I mentioned yesterday that I've been busying myself with the thought experiment suggested by Scott at Huge Ruined Pile. I've decided to use Leigh Brackett's "The Black Amazon of Mars" as inspirational material (as suggested by Moldvay in his appendix). I'd like to share some of the results:


The hero, Eric John Stark agrees to take a powerful artifact — a talisman — back to a city in the north. The city, called Kushat, guards the Gates of Death but the inhabitants have long forgotten what lay beyond or why they keep vigil. After a barbarian horde sacks the city, Stark takes it upon himself to go through the Gates in order to prevent one of the distraught Kushatites from letting loose the great evil that lay beyond. This evil is an ancient civilization antithetical to humanity. Dependent on cold, its empire, if restored, would make the world uninhabitable for human kind. Stark learns the secret of the talisman, beats back (but does not destroy) the evil and returns to civilization to help the people of Kushat remember why it keeps vigil at the Gates of Death.


This story takes place in the polar regions, at the edge of civilization where bandits and barbarian tribes are constant dangers. There is a bit of a Keep on the Borderlands feel, with the city being an outpost of civilization in the wilderness; however, Kushat is a very key and powerful city state, because it controls the water on a dry planet. Thus, the city has significant strategic value for the rest of civilization.

In addition, the landscape is dotted with the ancient remains of the empire once ruled by the creatures beyond the Gate of Death. They are described as towers with multi-level cities beneath. In other words, there are dungeons aplenty to explore, all of which might hide relics of an ancient, evil civilization. A megadungeon may not be out of the question — at one point, Stark describes his descent into the main city beyond the Gate, calling each successive layer beneath the ice a "level." He goes as far as the "third level" with many more beneath that.


The evil creatures beyond the Gate of Death are described by Brackett:
They had no faces, but they watched. They were eyeless but not blind, earless, but not without hearing. The inquisitive tendrils that formed their sensory organs stirred and shifted like the petals of ungodly flowers, and the color of them was the white frost-fire that dances on the snow.
Their touch is so cold as to painfully numb the flesh it comes in contact with. They have devices that create cold waves that paralyze their victims, and a crystal that can encase its victims in ice dooming them to a slow, frozen death.

Keeping in mind that I am using Brackett as inspiration and not trying to duplicate her version of Mars exactly and that the goal of this exercise is to only use Moldvay's Basic D&D as is with minimal house rules, I am not going to stat these cold creatures up. Rather, I will substitute an existing Moldvay monster for them.

Given the tendrils and the ability to petrify and given that Scott has pointed out that they have their own language, civilization and culture in Moldvay, I will be using Medusae as my stand-in for Brackett's cold creatures. Though I am not going to change the mechanics of the Medusae, I will be fiddling with their special effects. As with Brackett's creatures, they will be frost-fire white and their petrification gaze will be by intense cold and ice rather than stone.

This opens a thematic door which has far-reaching implications for the special effects of various mechanics in Moldvay's D&D. Firstly, it equates Chaos with cold (and by association, darkness). Indeed, Stark was able to fight off these creatures with the intense heat of a device the talisman allowed him to use. Thus, Law is equated with warmth (and by association light). This suggests a cosmology of Light vs. Dark (nicely suiting my own religious proclivities) and that the special effect of Turning takes the form of producing waves of light and heat to keep the undead (those creatures totally allied with/produced from the cold and dark) at bay, and even destroy them if powerful enough.

It also suggests that there is an entire classification of creatures (of which undead are a part) that manifest as cold. Given the Medusae's petrification powers, and given that this is expressed as intense cold and ice, I am going to interpret all paralyzation/petrification powers as having the same kind of special effect. Thus, the following are all somehow spawns of the Medusae:
  • Carrion Crawler
  • Gelatinous Cube
  • Ghoul
  • Thoul
  • Other Undead
In addition, since "turned into stone" has shifted to "turned into ice" the following also are creations/spawns of Medusae:
  • Living Statues
  • Gargoyles
Given that Thouls are described as a magical combination of a Ghoul, a Hobgoblin and a Troll, it would seem that the humanoid population would be allied with and even interested in transforming themselves to become more like their Medusae masters. This also allows for a buffer zone between Civilization and the Medusae, which serves two purposes. Firstly, it creates a mystery as to the identity of the puppet masters and who is responsible for this ancient, evil civilization. Secondly, it allows for lower level characters to have something reasonable to go up against.

In addition, White Dragons are somehow connected to Medusae (are Medusae a larval stage of dragon reproduction?).

The barbarian tribes on Brackett's Mars did not ride horses, but rather giant reptiles. Since Moldvay specifically mentions "lost world" areas in some of the monster descriptions, I am going to use these giant reptiles as an excuse to have a kind of "lost world" theme to the wilderness around the edges of civilization. Thus, the following monsters can be found there:
  • White Ape
  • Giant Bats
  • Cave Bear
  • Berserker (Stark himself seems to be one)
  • Sabre Tooth Tiger
  • Giant Insects
  • Giant Lizards
  • Lizardmen
  • Neanderthals
  • Giant Snakes
  • Stirges
  • Troglodytes
These two categories (cold-allies and lost-worlders) make up the bulk of the monsters found in and around the adventure area.

Of the rest, the following are (with the exception of lycanthropes) not mentioned by Brackett in the story, but can be thematically categorized if Dopplegangers are understood to be the remnant of an ancient alien invasion that were defeated by the Medusae (and are thus their ancient foe). They are all somehow "stuck" in between shapes. Thus, they are either experiments by Dopplegangers or are Doppleganger descendants who got "frozen" in a particular form (probably from exposure to the Medusae and their allies):
  • Harpy
  • Lycanthropes
  • Minotaur
  • Owl Bear
  • Rust Monster (I could see these being related to Dopplegangers as Carrion Crawlers are related to Medusae).
Of what remains, all of the human "monsters" can obviously be found and there are several fungus/mold creatures that logically would inhabit abandoned dungeon areas. The rest are, shall we say, "thematically challenged":
  • Dragons (other than white)
  • Dwarves, Elves and Halflings (Brackett's world is definitely human-centric)
  • Gnomes
  • Pixies
  • Sprites
  • Shadows (though they fit nicely into "darkness" they are specifically not undead and are immune to turning)
It is quite amazing how easy (and fun!) this was — to create the foundation of an entire campaign, with a suggested history, a pair of implied mysteries, a cosmology and several thematically grouped monsters using only a novella and Moldvay's Basic D&D. I've been so excited about the smorgasbord of OSR/OGL material out there, that I had lost sight of the elegant simplicity and flexibility of this game.


Erin Smale said...

This is brilliant, Dave. Exactly the sort of exercise I believe Moldvay/Cook DMs were expected to undertake, but may have eschewed because of the B/X stress on fantasy.

I believe some would say your campaign recalls the early flavour of the LBBs. I say it's a stellar example of how versatile B/X really was and is. Elegant, simple, and flexible indeed!

Great post!

FrDave said...


Thanks for the kind words.

rainswept said...

I concur with Erin. This was well done.