Welcome to my second series of Monster-themed deep dives!
In these posts, my 7-year-old son Xander and I will dig down into the what’s good and great in the Fantasy AGE Bestiary. In each post you’ll see some original art from Xan alongside observations, new plot hooks, and other miscellany about the monsters of the week.
One of the things I like about the Bestiary is that the creatures are often horrors in the traditional sense. You won’t find a tribe of Orcs in here… no, these are the stuff of nightmare. Xander was flipping through the book this afternoon and I was reminded of how downright creepy some of the listings are. I’m looking at you, Eldritch Crown!
Back when Xander and I did the 5E Monster Manual I often pointed out that we wouldn’t do every single creature. (If we’d done that, we’d never have finished!) But since this is a much shorter book, I’m going to commit to covering everything. I suppose if one of the listings is so perfect that I don’t have any value to add, I’ll tip my cap and move on!
Okay, enough with the preamble…
Let’s talk monsters!
Hailing from Welsh mythology, the Afanc is a lake monster par excellence. In this listing it’s transmogrified, at least in the art, into more of an Eastern dragon… except for that unwholesome eye arrangement. Somehow those peepers speak to me of demons and spiders at the same time. I love how this listing hews to the source material in many ways, right down to its ability to Thrash everyone near it with a stunt. Threat: Major indeed.
I think the ultimate horror for a group of players would be to hurled into the water with one of these. I’d definitely create a Hazard for fighting one of these in its own element, as well as tilting the Attack Modifiers in its direction. Don’t be afraid to pit the Afanc’s healthy Strength (Intimidation) against the PCs’ Willpower (Courage) to create fear effects.
The Adventure Hooks here are solid… the first two (The Lake Dragon and Virgin Sacrifices) are as much a social challenge as anything else. The last (Danger Rising) turns the Afanc into an environmental disaster; I played with a very similar idea when I was writing about D&D’s Sahuagin.
Thinking about the Afanc as a lake monster put me in the mind of Loch Ness. So here are a couple of hooks to go along with the ones in the book…
Don’t Poke Nessie
A group of scholars want to see if the legends of a local lake monster are true. The locals are opposed to the expedition, claiming that [insert culture hero here] gave their life to put the thing into a slumber generations ago. They aren’t anxious to see it stirred up again. Of course the team of “top men” dismisses this as mere superstition.
There are several ways to involve the PCs. Any casters might have been hired on for their knowledge or unique abilities, with the more physical characters brought in for pathfinding and security. If you want to have some fun with this, you might have them hired as the second team in to find out what in the hell happened to the first team. (How much they’re told in that scenario, I’ll leave up to you!)
Hide and Seek
Here’s a riff on the above that leans on humor more than horror. The idea is the same; there’s a lake monster that a bunch of experts want to examine, but the townies have a soft spot for their beastie. They don’t want it poked and prodded. If your PCs are of a particular bent, they get hired to hide “Nessie” from the pompous scholars. Play this strictly for light-hearted laughs… or the dark humor of tricking the outsiders into the Afanc’s belly.
Then something swept down across the stars and struck the sward near him. Twisting about, he saw it—the winged one!
With fearful speed it was rushing upon him, and in that instant Conan had only a confused impression of a gigantic manlike shape hurtling along on bowed and stunted legs; of huge hairy arms outstretching misshapen black-nailed paws; of a malformed head, in whose broad face the only features recognizable as such were a pair of blood-red eyes. It was a thing neither man, beast, nor devil, imbued with characteristics subhuman as well as characteristics superhuman. — The Queen of the Black Coast by Robert E. Howard
I can’t look at the Ahool without thinking of one of the very best Conan stories, Queen of the Black Coast, in which Conan kills a flying ape demon thing for murdering his lover, Bêlit. In fact, Robert E. Howard might have actually been thinking about the Ahool of legend when he wrote it. His story was published in 1934, and the Ahool was “reported” in Java in 1925 and ’27 by Dr. Ernest Bartels. Since then it’s passed into cryptid lore. Dr. Bartels said that the creature made a cry that sounded like A Hool!, and how can you not add that to your game?
This listing is just packed with goodies. Ahool might travel in packs, there might be a huge version of it, sometimes people worship them as gods. But, wait, could it be a demon? Sure!
I don’t have any Adventure Hooks to add… but my favorite of this set is On Deadly Wings. The idea of the rich turning their backs on a killer that’s preying on the “‘undesirables’ in the city’s poorer districts” might have a special resonance for some right now. The hook doesn’t suggest this, but it would be interesting to up the ante by having an Ahool pluck a fat cat from his pleasure barge, scattering bits of him in the nicer parts of town.
Of note are the Ahool’s ability to operate in total darkness (Sonic Sight) and to issue a terrifying Screech. This is an ambush predator tailor-made for terror. It’s fun to create a slow build with nasties like this. Rumor, evidence of attack, attack even when precautions are taken, etc., … good horror is about teasing it out. Don’t get to the punchline too fast!
If you want to make a city seem exotic, consider using domesticated Ahool. Perhaps there’s a town full of wizards where Ahools carry elevator cages around to towers that are only accessible from the air. The locals are utterly blasé about the whole thing, but it’s hard not to stare. And it’s all perfectly safe, except when it isn’t! In general I like the gesture of taking something terrifying in one context, and making it almost mundane in another. In a fantasy world I think it highlights how astonishingly different communities can be.
Despite the Amarok’s ferocious nature, this is an often playful write-up. Check out The Better to See Them With… Adventure Hook. The gang teases the “the big bad wolf” angle but never comes right out and says it. It would be fun to to see how long it takes your players to catch on to the joke while trying to help Scarlet investigate her grandmother’s disappearance.
The Amarok hails from Inuit myth where it’s large and powerful like a direwolf, but the tales about it give it a supernatural aura. In one story there’s the suggestion that “nothing remains concealed” from the Amarok. This is nicely supported in the stat block by the Amarok’s high Perception (5) and it’s suite of Per-based focuses (Hearing, Tracking, Smelling).
In another story an Amarok helps a small “stunted” young boy attain physical strength by wrestling him. So, there’s the suggestion that the Amarok has secrets to share or wisdom to give to its humanoid counterparts.
I like the first Adventure Hook, Brotherhood of the Wolf, which suggests an uneasy detente between a town and a Amarok community. (Also, if you’ve never seen Christopher Gans’ film of the same name, you owe it to yourself to watch it, even if it means buying it.) In any case, in the Brotherhood hook, the PCs are brought in to broker a deal. The folks in the community are just too scared to approach the Amarok themselves. Here’s another take on that theme…
A Tale of Two Cities
For generations a humanoid town on the frontier has thrived alongside a sophisticated Amarok pack. The two communities have worked side by side to keep the various horrors from the wild lands at bay. The town provides the Amarok with livestock during lean times, and the Amarok serve as scouts and shock troops against the myriad threats they encounter. Recently, though, someone has been sowing dissent between the two peoples. A townsperson has been mangled in a clumsy attempt to simulate an Amarok attack, and a Amarok has been maimed by a carelessly placed bear trap. As an objective third party, the PCs are brought in to investigate.
Who does the rising tension serve? A mastermind plotting from deep in the woods? The forces of “civilization” that find the current arrangements barbaric and an impediment to progress? Or a plot from within to seize power from existing authorities?
The Ammit is a composite creature, not uncommon in mythology, that combines several other “normal” beasts: the hippo, the lion, and the crocodile. Based on its build, it’s the ultimate terror of the lake shore and river bank. It’s the living embodiment of “don’t go in the water.” (And it’s the sort of thing that keeps my PCs from ever taking a swim in all but the most desperate circumstances.)
If you mine the source material you’ll find a wealth of material to bring to the table. Ammit, a goddess/demon in the ancient Egyptian religion, lived near the scales of justice in the underworld. She’d devour any heart she found to be impure. Her epithets included, The Eater of Hearts, Devourer of the Dead, and Great of Death… all suitable as whispered nicknames when the Ammit arrives in the waters of your game. Admit it, don’t you want to have an NPC scream, “Flee, flee, it’s the Eater of Hearts!” just before he gets snatched from the mudflats?
The Great Ammit Drive
Here’s an idea that came to me as I considered this listing. Imagine a spell, or magic item, or even a traditional technique that allows Ammits to be herded. Stampeding Ammits would be a devastating weapon. Driving a herd of these at an enemy city caught unawares would be a brutal, but risky, tactic. If the herd is turned away, then it will likely turn on its master, but imagine what 50 or 100 of these could do running through a typical fantasy capital. Bedlam!
You could go a couple of different ways with this. Perhaps the PCs have been hired to defend a city and this is their first big test. Or maybe they’ve done a job for the Queen, and they were just getting ready to leave town, then Boom! Either way the PCs have to blunt the onslaught. (There are cool roleplaying possibilities here… do they protect their monied bosses or the crowded slums? No matter what, they can’t cover all bases.)
If it fits the tone of your game, you might send the party out on a search and destroy mission. The Queen’s spies have heard of this shaman and his plans. Our “heroes” are hired to go out and assassinate him. Each time they fail a more and more important city gets overrun.
The Running of the Ammits
Perhaps a city was once overrun by such a horde in the distant past, and now it keeps half a dozen or so lean and mean Ammits on hand for a yearly reenactment of the city’s survival! There are a lot of ways to riff on this…
- One or more of the PCs has enough of a reputation that they are invited to participate, after signing the fantasy equivalent of a waiver, of course;
- When strangers (our party) arrive on the day of the contest, they are forced to participate;
- The sickly son or daughter of a local noble is obsessed with running with the Ammits. Some of the PCs are hired to protect them during the event. Of course other factions in town want to see their charge dead, so the Ammits may be the least of their problems.
It feels good to be off and running! Xander and I should be able to keep to our weekly schedule as school ramps up next week. It’s back to remote learning again, which I’m not thrilled about, but it feels like the right thing to do. Hey, at least Xander won’t ever say, “But I hardly knew my Dad growing up.”
See you next week!
Until then, stay safe, and stay sane…