Monday, January 11, 2021

Goin' Through the Fiend Folio Part 4 (Dakon to Dune Stalker)

A bit of a long one today! Lots of critters here, including some of the best in the Folio!

The dakon is not a very good creature to start off with. Its just a nice ape that can talk... Personally I would just use a real ape, or at the very least the fantastical "white apes" from Barsoom/Lovecraft/Moldvay. I've had good intelligent baboons in my games, but would probably never use a fictional intelligent good ape.

Now the dakon is also one where I can show off the original Fiend Factory version and oh my god this illustration makes me love this thing. The dakon is described as a "shabby ape" in both the Factory and Folio versions, but only this one really shows off that shabbiness. It looks disgusting, almost mangy and matted, with a humanlike face on a weird bearlike body with human feet. This thing does not look like an ape at all, it just looks like a mess and I love that. My above one star rating is for the Folio version of the dakon, but just this illustration alone makes me love the dakon considerably more... though I don't know if I would commit to giving it three stars. Maybe 2.5

Dark Creeper
Now this is what I'm talking about! The dark creeper is definitely a weird one... a race of squat humanoids wrapped up in dark clothes that are all conniving thieves, can feel the presence of magical items, can create supernatural darkness, and spontaneously combust when killed. The ability to detect magical items is a bit weird and honestly kinda unnecessary, but I really love the magical darkness and death combustion stuff. I like the little note that they hide their treasure in the folds and pockets of their cloaks, its a nice little touch! I think if the players discover that they usually keep their treasure on their person and that they spontaneously combust when killed they would be encouraged to find better ways to get that treasure than murder. Gotta have treasure be damaged by fire! The note about their language being incomprehensible isn't great in my opinion... you lose out on the opportunity to negotiate with them, at least in their native language.

Dark Stalker
Did the dark creeper really need a special distinct group of overlords? Especially as a completely separate monster. This isn't like how goblins have goblin kings of so and so hit dice mentioned in their description. They don't look as interesting visually as the dark creeper, and in many ways they're just "what if the dark creeper but More"... in addition to being able to make darkness, they also make fog, instead of just catching on fire, they explode like a fireball spell. Not super necessary. I will say though, the note about them basically practicing eugenics to keep themselves above and apart from the dark creepers is interesting. I think this would be super interesting if you really leaned into it; a society of cut-throat murderers and thieves dominated by an imposing hierarchy made even stronger by actual eugenics. Too bad the Folio doesn't lean into it very much.

Death Dog
Not super special or unique honestly, but pretty fun nonetheless! Just weird two-headed dogs that hate you and want you dead. I like the disease that slowly kills you; I think I would give the two heads visible filth on them, spit festering with bacteria, perhaps like an exaggerated komodo dragon. The note about them usually aiming for the legs is nice, but honestly I don't think it needed much of an explanation, I think most dogs would just do that anyway. The little thing about them being descended from the actual mythical dog Cerberus is wild, I kinda wish it was more than just an offhand reference.

Death Knight
There honestly isn't much going on with this one but I kinda have a soft spot for it. I definitely appreciate there being a fighter equivalent to the lich's undead wizard! The lengthy sections describing all of the spells it can use is a bit unwieldy and weird, and I much prefer the notes mentioning that there are only twelve of the death knights in the entire world and that they were probably made by Demogorgon. Wouldn't it be super cool to lean more into that prince of demons angle? Maybe they have a baboon motif? I just like baboons to be honest. Them being immune to turning sucks, I never like it when there are undead monsters that are immune to turning. It is already such a situational power, why would you restrict it even more!! I think the death knight is great conceptually, but I would probably prefer it if each of the twelve death knights were presented as unique NPCs, each with their own personality. Obviously that would have considerably stretched things out here in the Folio, but it could be an interesting idea to pursue outside of it.

Not going to provide a rating to the category of demons as a whole, although there are some interesting ideas here. Demons being able to pop between planes at will except for the material plane is cool, and demon amulets are cool too. Though I don't think I would use it as a super common thing... they feel a little too similar to lich phylacteries and I would prefer the more folkloric vibe of being able to control a demon by knowing its true name, rather than controlling them by having their amulet. Just my thoughts I guess.

Lolth (Demon Queen of Spiders)
Honestly, for a demon spider elf woman, you would think I would love Lolth. And I definitely do love the concept of Lolth in general... its just her presentation here that is incredibly underwhelming. Not much about her powers or abilities really stands out... she has normal spider stuff (spider webs), she can cast a bunch of spells, she can't be hit by most nonmagical weaponry. I honestly like the illustration at least, though I do think it isn't a black widow (the spider she is compared to in the text), and I do kinda wish it was more spiderlike. She just isn't that special sadly... but the concept of a demon spider elf woman is strong enough for me to give her a pretty good rating. I would reinterpret her for my games honestly. I probably wouldn't even have her be a monster you can just kill! Her being distant and imposing and truly supernatural would be much better.

The denzelian is just a new slime that eats rocks. The explanatory notes about their reproductive behaviors is interesting but really not that necessary. I always like having eggs and other animal bits be treasure, so that is a welcome addition, but I don't quite see much reason to use the denzelian in particular.

I feel the same about the new notes about devils as I do about the additional notes for demons. The talisman is the same as the amulet, there is a lot of stuff that is pretty unnecessary about damage types, I do kind of appreciate the notes about what happens when you kill a devil on the prime material plane, but really it isn't that interesting.

Styx Devil
Really underwhelming. The styx devil doesn't even really have much unique about it. I think they should have leaned more into styx devils kidnapping people to take them back to hell. I always like having combats that don't just automatically end with full death on one side or the other. But well, after noting that the styx devil will kidnap people to take to hell, they also say they sometimes just tour the material plane to kill all humans in their path. Boring.

Devil Dog
This is just a normal dog. No, not even that, a normal dog would be much more interesting. No, these are normal dogs that always want you dead and will not stop until that happens or they die. Awful. At least with a normal dog or wolf or hyena or what have you there are still nonviolent ways to get around them. But no, devil dogs "always jump for the throat". Their special powers are all things that a normal dog/wolf could very well have: knocking people unconscious on a "critical hit" and having howling/baying that causes fear. None of that is super natural in nature. Pretty sure if you get injured enough normally you get knocked out, and pretty sure people can be afraid of normal wolf howling anyway. Please just use a normal dog.

Dire Corby
I love these weirdos!! If I'm being completely honest, its just the image; I love love love the concept of these horrid birdmen running at you in the dark screeching DOOM DOOM DOOM!!! I don't like the note that they always attack and always fight to the death. I think that works well when used sparingly (I like OD&D and B/X berserkers despite them also always fighting and never checking morale), but personally I think that the dire corby would be better served without that little bit. The big thing that makes me think the perpetual fighting to the death should be scrapped is the note at the end of the description that there was once open warfare between them and giant bats, but that there is now an uneasy truce. That is such a fun detail! Players should be able to place themselves into the squabbles between the dire corbies and the giant bats over their caverns. Diplomacy would be so fun with these wacky guys. The drawing is super underwhelming though, I wish it was better.

One of the best monsters in the Folio, hands down. I definitely concur with the idea of "attack every part of the character sheet", and the disenchanter is a fantastic example of that. Just like the rust monster, the disenchanter targets player items, but instead of destroying iron armors or weapons, it saps the magic out of magical armor and weapons. It using a trunk to do that is fun, but if it feeds primarily on magic then why does it have a mouth too? On the one hand, it'd be fun if it had some kind of leech mouth on the end of the trunk that sucks up magic, on the other hand what if its mouth also has magic-sapping properties and its teeth can serve the same function? The note about nobody ever finding their lairs is a missed opportunity, I feel. Also, why no mention of the disenchanter having an effect on magic-users? What if every hit of the disenchanter's snout takes off one level of magic experience... that would be awful for players, but it would definitely be a unique challenge (albeit one similar to undead level drain). I would probably not have it take any of the other things the wizard gets for being a certain level, just the spellcasting.

The disenchanter originally features in the Fiend Factory column, with this delightfully emaciated drawing. I adore how the trunk ends with a growth almost like a vacuum cleaner, that's a lovely detail. The description is essentially the same, though Don Turnbull's editor commentary is absolutely beautiful: "I like to think it makes a vulgar slurping noise while in the process of eating enchantment, with perhaps even a soft and reverent belch if it particularly appreciates the quality of the magic it has just devoured." 

Okay, I know I've railed against using these monsters that are basically just slight variations on real life animals, but the doombat is that done well. I really like the barb-lined tail as an attack, and the utility of the loud sonar screech that makes it impossible to cast spells and makes to-hit worse but doesn't actually deal damage. I think more monsters should have combat abilities that don't just deal damage. Otherwise, this is kinda just the same as a normal giant bat.

Now the Fiend Factory doombat is rather interesting! Unlike the Folio doombat, the Factory doombat is an undead giant bat, and the lash of its barbed tail paralyzes you a la the touch of a ghoul. I have no clue why they completely dropped the undead angle in the transition to the Fiend Folio. An undead giant bat with a paralytic tail is much more interesting than a normal giant bat that just has a tail attack and a sonar shriek. If the Folio doombat was closer to this rendition, it would have five stars. This is a great monster!

Oriental Dragons
I was originally going to rate these all separately, but they're such a weird part of the fiend folio. As far as I can tell, none of them are based on actual Chinese legends except for the Shen Lung and T'ien Lung, which is uh definitely a point against them as a whole, since 2/3 of them are completely made up. I also find it especially strange since the gold dragon from the Monster Manual was based primarily on notable east Asian dragons like the tianlong. I think these would be much better if they were the default dragons in a setting at the very least. There is considerably more distinct between the different "oriental" dragon types present here than there are between the chromatic and metallic dragons of the Monster Manual, and they aren't so neatly divided between "good" and "evil" which is nice.

Here are some individual things about them that I like, just to be fair:
I really like that the Li Lung (earth dragon) has the ability to create earthquakes instead of having a breath weapon, and I definitely think that more dragons or otherwise large monsters should be unique powers like that instead of even more breath weapons. I like that the Lung Wang (sea dragon) demands tribute from travellers, it makes them feel like a folkloric hazard that has to be contended with rather than just a monster to fight. I like that no arthropod can ever go closer than 60' to the Shen Lung, I think that could be really interesting if bugs feature prominently in your games (which they often do in mine). I like that the T'ien Lung eats opals and pearls and that you can gain the favor of them by feeding them some of those gems. These are all really good things to give creatures, and as I said above, if these were the only dragons in a game, I think they would be fantastic creatures. But they are marred by not really cleaving close to legendary origins, featuring a lot of orientalization of east Asian culture, and being somewhat redundant with other dragons in AD&D.

An alright fish. Not really all that special. Personally, I wouldn't use it when there are real life animals that already pose a potential hazard to people passing through water. Lionfish with their extravagant barbs, cone snails with their venomous "sting", etc etc. I like having speculative fantasy ecosystems in D&D game worlds, but I really do think that you should ideally exhaust your options of real world animals before making up new ones. Real world biology will always be more interesting and have more touchstones for players than animals with little connection to reality!

Dune Stalker
I really don't like the dune stalker illustration. I've consistently skipped over this weird comic book looking fool when I've read through the Folio in the past, mostly entirely due to how underwhelming I find it to be. But the concept of an emaciated violent mutant humanoid that wanders the desert is incredible, as evidenced by how often creatures like that have featured in post apocalyptic science fiction. Its mode of attack is also really really cool: instead of attacking you with its claws (which you might think, given they are so sharp in the illustration), the dune stalker attacks with sonic vibrations, most intense when the mutant gives a "kiss of death", sending violent vibrations through the body by its lips making contact with skin. This weirdo wouldn't feel out of place in Gamma World, and I love it for that, even if the drawing is boring.

But wait, what's that? The dune stalker was one of the earliest Fiend Factory monsters? It technically even predates the Fiend Factory column? Well, let's get a good look at what it was like back then.

OH MY GOD I LOVE IT SO MUCH. The dune stalker was the second monster ever published by Don Turnbull in White Dwarf, and this earlier illustration just exudes soooo much more character. It looks almost pitiful, so emaciated and malformed and with a look of shock or surprise on its face. Its teeth are black, almost like they are rotten. Its fingers seem to wriggle around in the air like they are desperately searching for something to wrap around. And not to mention that the beautiful frame that the drawing is placed in adds so much character too. The Factory description is really just a more barebones version of the Folio one; Fiend Factory mentions that magic-users create them, while the Folio just makes a reference to them being often summoned by evil magicians, the sonic vibration attack is still explained, etc. Personally, I would just make the dune stalker be a race of mutants who wander the wilderness, rather than something summoned by sorcerers, but that's just me I guess.

1 comment:

  1. Huh, never knew about the original WD doombats being undead, definitely something I oughta bring up to my friend for her undead-oriented campaign.