Welcome to my second series of Monster-themed deep dives! In these posts, my son, Xander (7), and I will dig down into the what’s good and great in the Fantasy AGE Bestiary. Each week you’ll see some original art from Xan alongside observations, plot hooks, and other miscellany about each creature.
I made some cool discoveries this week, so…
Let’s talk monsters!
It’s always fun to have a hive creature to play with! The Bakwanee are listed as a Minor Threat, but that’ll quickly escalate as you bring in more and more of them. (Xander got stung for the first time today by a bunch of wasps, and he can tell you that these sorts of critters only come by the swarm.)
Based on hours of reading bug books with Xander, there’s one thing I would encourage you, Dear Reader, to tweak about this listing. A lot of creepy crawlers produce and spray nasty chemicals, most notably the Bombardier Beetle. Here’s a great little factoid from the fine folks at Wikipedia:
… when disturbed, they eject a hot noxious chemical spray from the tip of the abdomen with a popping sound. The spray is produced from a reaction between two chemical compounds, hydroquinone and hydrogen peroxide, which are stored in two reservoirs in the beetle’s abdomen. When the aqueous solution of hydroquinones and hydrogen peroxide reaches the vestibule, catalysts facilitate the decomposition of the hydrogen peroxide and the oxidation of the hydroquinone. Heat from the reaction brings the mixture to near the boiling point of water and produces gas that drives the ejection. The damage caused can be fatal to attacking insects. Some bombardier beetles can direct the spray in a wide range of directions.
So, yeah, binary chemical agent with thermal reaction! I’d replace the Fire Bakwanee’s gout of flame with a scorching chemical squirt. It’s more thematically appropriate for a bug, and does’t actually require you to change the mechanics… just the special effects.
The Insects from the Stars angle put me in the mind of the Mi-Go from the Cthulhu Mythos. Check out their appearance in Lovecraft’s The Whisperer in the Darkness for more ideas. Apparently the Delta Green RPG developed the Mi-Go as a faction with a caste system, etc., so that’s another possible source of material if you want to turn the Bakwanee into a more nefarious threat.
I appreciate the adventure hooks listed here, but I’m particularly fond of Scouting Party. Sometimes a session can lack a sense of urgency, but the need to round up every single Bakwanee scout should add some piquancy to your play!
Here’s my own take on a Bakwanee hook. It’s a fun way to spice up your bog-standard dungeon delve…
Kicking the Hornet’s Nest
What if the PCs get some really nice loot down in the dungeon, but manage to inadvertently release a dormant hive of Bakwanee across the land?
Everything’s fine until they get the gorgeous, gem-encrusted statuette of an insectoid figure into the sunlight. Then there’s a low shudder under the earth. First a few and then tens, or hundreds?, of Bakwanee start to roil out of a distant hole in the ground. Do they just head for the nearest town, or start chasing the party? Does putting the statuette back fix things somehow? Or is the cat already out of the bag? Do the locals realize that the PCs have stirred this horde up? Are there even enough locals left to care?
This is the first time a “classic” monster appears in the Bestiary. It’s a creature with a history, having been first described by Roman writers. During my research I discovered that none other than Leonardo de Vinci wrote about the Basilisk in his Bestiary…
The basilisk is so exceedingly cruel that when it cannot kill animals with the venom of its gaze it turns towards the herbs and plants, and looking fixedly upon them makes them wither.
Talk about a bad attitude!
The most interesting thing about this listing is that it envisions the Basilisk as a Poison Elemental. Between its Venomous Gaze and Aura of Poison stunts, there’s a method to deliver poison to any and everyone on the battlefield. Dealing with a Basilisk is going to hurt one way or another, as befits its status as a Major Threat.
The adventure hooks show a nice variety of story possibilities. Mystery of the Abbey feels like a fantasy-enabled Cadfael episode. Certainly Brother Cadfael’s knack with pharmacology would come in handy for this one. The Poisoned Harvest hook uses the “monster as environmental hazard” gesture that I’m so fond of. I always like to give the heroes a chance to be heroes. A town full of sickened children is a more powerful motivator than a pile of gold.
I have a riff on the A Deadly Cure hook that I think would up the ante… I call it The Once and Future Sting.
Instead of the populace being under threat as in A Deadly Cure, a beloved monarch has been poisoned by an assassin’s dart. The court alchemist identifies the toxin as Basilisk venom. Our poor ruler is in for a slow, agonizing death unless our heroes can come to the rescue. The cure can only be synthesized from the venom’s source. So, they must track down the Basilisk in question, vanquish it, and get back with the Basilisk’s blood before the monarch dies. Of course, they’ll have to do this as the assassin dogs them every step of the way…
Creatures like the Beastkin are starting to fall into place for me since I’ve discovered that Chris Pramas was the primary designer and writer on the Black Industries version of Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay. WHFRP is the OG of “grim” fantasy role-playing, at least in my mind, and there’s a definite grimdark edge to many of the monsters in the Bestiary. For my money, there are far worse IPs to pay homage to.
The Beastkin have a nice “touched by chaos” feel. After a little poking around, it looks like they have a notional relationship with WHFRP’s Beastmen, sometimes referred to as Chaos Beastmen. They too have “corrupted” animal features mixed unwholesomely with those of humans. There’s an excellent Beastkin Characteristics chart that you should take advantage of if you’re going use them. It’s a just a small chart, but it’d be great if other creature collections took this approach. A chart like this gives each Beastkin a unique appearance, and also provides mechanical weight to make each one a little different in play. If you really want to make them bespoke, consider expanding the Characteristics chart.
As it is this listing gives a GM lots to play around with. I’d definitely want to explore the inner nature of the Beastkin. Are they merely animals, or something more? Can they be encouraged to coexist peacefully with what we call civilization? Are they monolithic, or do they have a myriad of cultures that go unexamined by their more “settled” and perhaps presumptuous neighbors?
It would be interesting to send the PCs out with a simple mandate, only for them to discover that the situation on the ground is much more complex than they thought. Getting hired to hunt down a band of marauding Beastkin could lead to the discovery of a religious or political situation that can’t, or shouldn’t, be solved with force…
I don’t have an adventure hook to offer here, but I’d encourage reworking With This Axe, He Rules. Another one of my favorite story gestures is the chickens come home to roost. This hook points out that the ground the settlers are currently on used to be Beastkin land. It’d be interesting to build an option for the players to assist the Beastkin in finding the axe of their legendary hero if it means a peaceful resolution to the situation. In this tweak, the “uncounted victories” that the axe is supposed to grant might be against a common foe, perhaps someone or something that the “civilized” lands aren’t even aware of… yet.
The source material for the Bouda is a traditional belief in the “hyena-man” who can transform himself back and forth by force of will, or by rubbing himself with a stick. Apparently this folklore has currency in parts of the Near East, but is most prominent in North Africa and the region called the Horn of Africa. Each manifestation of this story comes with its own particulars.
For example, in Ethiopia there’s a belief that blacksmiths have this ability since they are secretly witches and wizards. This concept is alluded to in the hook called, naturally enough, The Blacksmith. In this hook a blacksmith falls under suspicion in a small town… and it turns out he is up to something fishy, but he’s no Bouda. This just seems so real to me. The sketchy person is up to something, just not what anyone thought. The wrinkle, which you know if you’ve read this listing, is that there is a Bouda family in the town that are now terrified of being found out.
The Bouda of Ethiopian folklore are also said to desecrate graves at midnight, as in the Grave Robbers hook. In that hook the PCs investigate the grisly desecration of a local cemetery. The local priest is upset and wants the culprits brought to justice. The trail leads to the discovery of a hunger-addled Bouda family… and it’s up to the PCs to decide how to resolve things.
What I really like about this listing is that most Bouda appear to be just “going along to get along.” They don’t want to start any trouble, they just want to have enough to eat and to be left alone. They typically only turn to consuming humanoids out of desperation. They want to do their thing without being singled out for attack and abuse. I mean who doesn’t?
Players are conditioned (or do they condition themselves?) to think that everything that’s hidden is part of a conspiracy that needs to be rooted out and destroyed. These hooks interrogate that assumption in the best possible way.
I suspect that fantasy gaming’s fascination with the giant burrowing worm can be drawn straight back to Frank Herbert’s Dune. The Sandworm makes a big impression, and Dune would have been very much in the air when Dave & Gary were playing around with what would become D&D.
The Burrower might not be quite Sandworm grade, but since size isn’t a mechanical feature in Fantasy AGE, you can certainly say it’s vast. (It has that Large and in Charge quality after all.) It is extremely brawny, Strength 9 with Might, and has a giant batch of Health, 110 points. It’s the first Dire threat in the book, and it jumps off the page as a heavyweight foe. You can always scale these down (a lot!) for use with lower level adventurers.
One of the things I like about this listing is that Seph Calingian, a merchant quoted in the flavor text, appears as an NPC in one of the adventure hooks. I love the idea of keeping a character “alive” across the whole listing. You already have a bit of an idea of who he is when you bring him to the table as a driving force behind The Gauntlet. I’m hoping other write-ups in the Bestiary have this feature. It’s slick and it works.
Having played around with the big worm concept when I wrote about D&D’s Purple Worm, I can tell you that the hooks here only scratch the surface. Take this for example…
Worm Oil Salesman
A “wizard” shows up in a mining town making clams that he, and he alone!, can increase the profitability of the mine a hundred fold. He uses magic to summon a Burrower and shows how he’s trained the creature to dig tunnels to order. Impressed, the owner pays him a large advance. Unfortunately the wizard celebrates through the night and shows up the next morning with a hangover. When he goes to summon the Burrower again, he gets a step in the ritual wrong, and it swallows him whole.
It disappears into the tunnels where it systematically starts picking off miners one by one. It isn’t long before everybody quits. Since the mine is the engine of the regional economy, people start to suffer almost immediately. The mine owner, desperate for help, puts out a call for someone, anyone, to rid the mine of the beast… for a small stake in future profits, of course.
If the PCs answer the call, they must go down and face this thing on its own turf. Do they treat this like a straightforward dungeon delve, or do they research the creature in the hopes of running it off or luring it away? Has the Burrower unearthed a vein of something fabulously rare that will draw unwelcome attention to the mine? Has it dredged up something dangerous and long forgotten?
Xander starts back to school (remotely) on Thursday. As much extra work as it is, and as much as I’d love to have my time back during the week, I’m just as glad he’ll be home. I’m not seeing encouraging signs where kids have gone back to school. COVID can mess you up in a lot of ways, and I’m not anxious to have a personal experience of that.
Anyway, the school recommended that we get Xander some headphones… so that should create an environment where I can get a little work done. My professor wife is gearing up to do a lot of remote teaching, so she’s not going to have much time to help out with homeschool. I’m getting into the mindset that Xander will be remote all year. It’s going to be a challenge, but there it is; I don’t really see things getting better quickly around here.
It could be a lot worse for us.
I’ve got a growing group of online gaming buddies, and I’m staying focused on being grateful for what we’ve got.
As far as the Bestiary goes, Xander and I are already well into the C listings, so we’ll be back with more in a week!
Until then, stay safe, and stay sane…