Monday, February 20, 2012

Gamer ADD: Fiend Folio Part 4

The Wilderness Personified

One of the interesting consequences of having the name Dungeons & Dragons is that regardless of whether or not a particular edition is geared toward introductory characters who have no business even talking to a dragon, dragons have to be part of the game. I have mused about this before, one of the striking things about Moldvay’s Basic Edition is that the average HD of the monsters is 3+1. The Holmes edition is even nastier with an average HD of 4+4. There are meant to be monsters that are way beyond the ability of low-level PCs to deal with. Dragons fit that bill.

Though dragons do show up in the FF, they are of a whole different cloth than the now familiar chromatic and metallic dragons of traditional D&D, who personify the great powers of good and evil, who speak with ancient wisdom and hate; who might be able to cast spells and even polymorph into human form to walk among their lessors. The dragons of the FF are inspired more by the Eastern conception of the mythical beasts and every single one of them is some shade of neutral.

Whereas the chromatic and metallic dragons are characterized by their breath weapons, the powers of FF dragons are characterized by the ability to manipulate nature itself. Earthquakes, burning water, weather control, control scaled animals and ice storms can all be found in the flavor texts. Some of these creatures can do these things at will. In other words, FF dragons seem to personify the cruel indifference of nature when natural disasters reduce humanity to dust.

This calls attention to the sheer number of creatures within the FF that have some kind of elemental-type of flavor or power. Those that might appear on the Wandering Monsters Tables of a Basic edition include:
  • Fire Newt
  • Fire Snake
  • Hoar Fox
  • Ice Lizard
  • Mephit
  • Shocker
  • Thoqqua
  • Thork
  • Ice Troll
  • Vortex
Given that the FF also details five Elemental Princes of Evil, it is fair to say that monsters are personifications of Fallen Nature itself. They are the face and hands of The Wilderness fighting the incursion of Civilization. At the center of all of this are those terrifying and indifferent dragons, who personify natural disasters. PCs, then, represent humanity’s attempts (in vain?) to understand, control and minimize the impact of nature itself even as nature fights back.

Though the classic trope of Civilization vs. The Wilderness is part and parcel to virtually every edition of the game, this particular version (again) has more in common pulp science fiction than it does with traditional D&D game worlds. Whereas Greyhawk is all about Good vs. Evil and St. Cuthbert vs. Iuz, the implied world of a Basic Edition using the FF for monsters suggests a world in the distant future where humanity is not just struggling against chaos and evil, but against the inevitability of its own demise — a dying earth ready to be consumed by the fire of a red giant star or a long forgotten space colony on the verge of being hurled into the void. In this context, PCs don’t necessarily represent heroes, but rather that glorious human defiance in face of inexorable defeat. It is a dark and depressing vision, but with that defiance comes a small glimmer of hope and maybe even the possibility of not just survival, but victory.

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