Over the last few months I've been slowly unpacking the thinking that went into the 1990s indie RPG Forge Out of Chaos. The character creation system had a few neat ideas, combat mechanics were sturdy, the magic system bristled with interesting implications. It's time to look at the 'Monster Manual' at the back of the book. It's not going to be fun - I warn you in advance, the monsters are a very pedestrian selection - but even failures of creativity can be revealing. So let's dive in.
"You're gonna need a bigger boat"
There are 75 monsters listed; a suspiciously tidy number that makes me wonder whether it was set in advance as a target quota. They're listed alphabetically, but I find it helpful to lump them into some meaningful categories of my own.
These are real-world animals that also exist in Forge's fantasy setting of Juravia. There are only two: Grizzly Bears and Wolves (although Guard Dogs, Hawks and Horses get some stats in the Equipment section on pp33-34). It's a bit disappointing. The rules reference habitats like jungles, deserts, polar mountains and swamps, so it would have made sense to see, oh I dunno, maybe Tigers and Crocodiles in here too. The omission is telling. The Kibbe Brothers might pay lip service to exotic climates and terrains in the text, but their imaginations reside in underground dungeons and the Northern European/North American woodlands that must be crossed to reach the dungeon entrance.
We shall meet this odd truncating of perspective again in this section of the book. It doesn't occur to the authors that the Bestiary might need to include cobras and panthers, elephants, hippopotamuses and baboons. The focus is resolutely Euro-centric. Given that there is a whole school of Attack Magic (Beast Magic) devoted to mastering wild animals, it short-changes the already-underpowered Beast Mages that more wild animals are not included.
Wolves, then: with 20+1d6HP, an Attack Value of 3 and 2d4 damage from a bite, a Wolf is a good match for an armoured warrior with a spear. That's one big, mean Wolf! With 50+1d6HP, AV 7 and two claws for 2d4+3 each, Grizzlies are things of terror - although, to be fair, that's what grizzlies really are. The point being, these are the ordinary animals and they are dangerous to fight. Good job Beast Magic lets you tame and recruit them.
Grizzlies (left) and Wolves (right)
Both beasts are accompanied by text that (redundantly) reiterates the information from the stat block - although, now that I think of it, the early versions of D&D did this too, so maybe the authors just thought this to be appropriate style for a monster manual. They also note the chance these animals will leave you alone if you don't mess with them (80% for the Bear, 75% for the Wolf - I cannot vouch for the truth behind these probabilities) which makes a refreshing change from the old convention of animals in RPGs attacking on sight. We also learn that bear pelts fetch 80gp but there has to be a better way of earning money than trying to kill one of these things.
With 20 creatures, this is the largest category, which reveals a lot about how the authors view their fantasy world. Some RPGs devote their pages to adversaries who are fairies, or sub-species of troll, or gun-wielding bunnies, but the biggest threat to life and prosperity in Juravia seems to be giant, mutated animals. There are super-sized versions of Rats and Spiders (of course), but also Boars, Snakes, Lizards and various massive Beetles. Giant birds seem a particular fixation, especially the flightless ones, or small flappy ones that have stingers or drain blood. There are poisonous bats and fiery bats and acid-spitting frogs.
What are these misshapen critters doing in the setting? Forge's back-cover blurb describes a post-apocalyptic setting: "Once beautiful landscapes are now swamps, desolate wastes and jagged mountains. The calm and gentle rain has turned to fierce storms of fire and ice. Nothing of paradise survived the Banishment. Not even the gods." That sounds a hell of a setting, quite literally, and these gigantic monstrosities do fit with its vibe. One gets the impression that, at some point in its development, Forge was intended to be like Gamma World, which was TSR's 1978 D&D-clone in a futuristic world with radioactive mutants and killer robots.
Gamma World: the absurd beast is a Yexil and it eats manufactured clothing, which is more imaginative than anything Forge's giant beasts have to offer.
If the Wolves and Bears of Juravia are terrifying opponents, the giant mutated critters are altogether more manageable. A Giant Boar has only 15+1d6HP and an Attack Value of 4, dealing 2d4 damage, making it less intimidating than a Wolf. A few other creatures are slightly more alarming. The Tursk is a two-headed snake that makes you lose initiative with its hypnotic swaying then bites you - twice! - at Attack Value 10 (yikes!) for 2d6 damage each time. Now that is definitely unpleasant.
A couple of creatures do add flavour to the setting. Mul-Hounds are armoured mastiffs with 100% Tracking Skills that can issue a howl that terrifies listeners so badly they suffer -5 to Attack Value. I could see Evil Bad Guys employing them to chase down Player Characters. With 30+2d6HP, AV 7 and a bite for 2d6 damage, a single Mul-Hound will overpower a single adventurer most of the time. Mevoshks are massive snakes with a venom that paralyses victims who suffocate in 10 minutes unless a Brye Leaf antidote is applied: nice to see variation on the old 'Save vs Poison or Die Immediately' conceit. Juldanni are 10' tall T-Rexes that Higmoni (the orc-like race) ride into battle - something that definitely catches the imagination but there are no rules for PC Higmoni acquiring these and surely they're a better fit to be tamed by the reptilian Kithsara? Keva are big horned herbivores that yield spectacular leather; not really 'monsters', but you wish there was more information on animals that add to the texture of life in Juravia.
Left to right: Tursk, Mul-Hound, Juldanni: the stat blocks don't have much nuance but at least they're simple.
The distinction I'm making here is a bit hard to pin down, but these creatures seem to be more magical or otherworldly than the previous carnivorous birds, gigantic beetles and scaly dogs: more like monsters from a fantasy setting than refugees from Gamma World.
There's familiar fantasy fodder here: Dragons of course, as well as Basilisks, Griffons, Hydras, Manticores, Phoenixes and Unicorns. There are creatures with evocative names (Ji-Amyds are the noble giant eagles) and dull names (Slime Dragons). Many of these have their origins in the now-banished gods, who created them as weapons in their wars or defenders of their sacred places (the lovely Shonril are birds with healing powers).
Despite their divine origin, what's striking about these creatures is how resolutely un-mystical they are. They might look like creatures of heraldry and fable, they might be products of divine creativity, but they're just big animals. Basilisks don't turn you to stone: they're just very venomous, very massive snakes. Griffons have two heads and can serve as steeds, but they're not intelligent or loyal. Manticores have human-like faces but they're just "ravenous carnivores." Unicorns are horses with horns: they don't have feelings for virginal maidens.
Even Dragons "rely on brute strength to destroy their victims" and in terms of magic they are "reduced to a few incantations." These are not the numinous, tragic dragons of Ursula Leguin's Earthsea, nor the proud, wily dragons of Tolkien's Middle-Earth. They're just psychopathic flying lizards.
No chatting with Forge's Dragons
Nonetheless, Forge does ring a few changes. Forge's Dragons are "the most powerful creatures known to exist in the land of Juravia" and their stat block backs this up. With over 300HP, an Armour Rating of 20 and AV 18, they're almost off-the-scale. Their fiery breath deals 5d10 actual damage - it bypasses armour and toasts you inside. Since they can detect invisible creature (take that, Smaug!), it's hard to see how PCs will ever bring down one of these things.
A Dragon. Ouch!
It's nice to see Dragons reinstated as the ultimate enemy in Fantasy RPGs. Poor old D&D Dragons were long ago overshadowed by more terrible foes, but D&D expansions like 1990's Draconomicon started beefing them up, a process consolidated by D&D 5th Edition, so Forge is in step with (or even foreshadowing) a direction D&D would take, by putting these iconic monsters at the apex of deadliness.
But in other ways, Forge's Dragons have been demoted. Gary Gygax's interpretation of D&D's monsters was prosaic in the extreme and he established the game's penchant for turning the creatures of myth and fable into big angry animals, but even Gygax afforded Dragons some measure of dignity: some could talk, some could cast spells, you didn't have to fight them to the death. Forge dithers between two origins for Dragons: they are creations of the ferocious god Marda sent to plague the world or the end-state of powerful Beast Mages who've moved beyond mortality. Either way, they're all about the senseless destruction.
The only fantastic beast interpreted in a novel way is the Phoenix, which is a creature that lives in lava pools, but whose blood confers lifelong immunity to fire: consequently, they've been hunted to near-extinction (presumably by adventurers who want to take down a Dragon). I appreciate the attempt to do something different with a familiar fantasy trope, but once again, a creature rich in symbolism and spiritual suggestion (it's a metaphor for immortality and rebirth!) has been turned into an animal with quirky attributes. Even J.K. Rowling - an author almost as much a stranger to romance as Gary Gygax - treats phoenixes with (slightly) more reverence than this ("Fascinating creatures, phoenixes. They can carry immensely heavy loads, their tears have healing powers, and they make highly faithful pets").
Couldn't finish it.
This is my term for monsters who might just as well be categorized as "bastards" - they're intelligent but senselessly evil, either because they're alien demons, divine scourges or just irredeemably horrible jerks. They make up the second-largest category after Mutated Beasts, 19 of them, which sets the grim tone for the post-apocalyptic world of Juravia.
As usual, there are many standard fantasy critters and familiar D&D imports: Gargoyles, Harpies, Medusas, Trolls and Werewolves. Mermaids are in there too, but these are the the man-eating type.
The curious theme we detected earlier crops up here too. The Mermaids aren't beautiful and don't lure sailors to a tragic doom with their song: they're just beasts with claws and fangs that pounce on sailors who fall into the water. The Harpies don't 'charm' you with their song: they just inflict sonic damage with it. The Trolls don't regenerate: they're just very strong. Everything romantic, eerie or symbolic has been stripped away and replaced by fight, fight, fight...
Part of me is intrigued by this. There's something bracing about throwing away the facade of Romanticism and revealing horrible monsters for what they really are: carnivorous predators around whom silly myths have grown up, which veteran adventurers know to ignore. But the cumulative effect is very reductive if it isn't balanced by a contrary imaginative impulse. For example, in Call of Cthulhu the creatures of folklore are usually exposed to be alien predators rather than faerie spirits, but this is balanced by the Gothic panoply of the 'Cthulhu Mythos' with its gulfs of time and cyclopean architecture. Forge lacks anything to serve as a foil to its relentless reductionism.
At least Medusas are everything you would expect, especially since they are the snake-bodied gorgons of Clash of the Titans (1981 or, if you absolutely insist, 2010) and they still turn you to stone. With 80+3d6HP, Armour Rating 8 and AV7 they're a real handful. Alas, they don't come with wickedly creaking compound bows.
The shuddering stop-motion animation gives Ray Harryhausen's Medusa the quality of nightmare.
There are Cavashas which have four tentacles for legs and Kesharus which have four tentacles for arms: they sound Lovecraftian but they're just combat mooks really. More promising, the Necromers are necromantic spiders that turn people into Zombies: a sort of blend of Shelob and the Spiders of Metebelis 3 from Doctor Who. The best art award goes to Nagdus, which look like drowned corpses but can mutate their blubbery bodies to imitate other creatures; more Doctor Who inspiration seems to be at work, perhaps this time the Zygons.
Nagdu (left) and Zygon (right): blubbery shapeshifters
But the Nagdus don't do anything with their shapeshifting powers. They're not infiltrating society. They just get the drop on you, latch on with their ghastly sucker mouths and drain your blood. Blood-draining is a big theme among Forge monsters.
None of the 'demonics' are actually demons - none are from Hell. This is a world abandoned by the Divine, remember? But the best demonics at least hail from strange dimensions. Gura-Shen are malevolent shadows with psychic shrieks that are bound to a place; they are a step up from standard bite/claw monsters. Dungwalas have a terrible name but manage to be genuinely creepy: evil mists, they paralyse you with dread then suffocate you, consume you, then vanish while they digest you, which takes a fortnight. Now that's what we want. Players will quake when those things approach, which is why I put one in my adaptation of the Zenopus Dungeon.
But the most innovative monster in the collection is the Doppelganger, which succeeds in departing radically from its D&D namesake. This is an invisible shade (I hesitate to call it a 'spirit' since there are no spiritual things in this compendium) that latches onto a victim, drains their Stamina over many days, then cocoons itself within their corpse, transforming it into a new monster called a Limris. The Limris is more like the D&D Doppelganger, since it can shapeshift, but it can also mentally dominate weaker minds, acquiring an army of psionically-subdued slaves. They fill the role that Mind Flayers occupy in AD&D. Unfortunately, as with Nagdus, the Limris doesn't seem to have an agenda beyond eating people. They don't try to take over civilisation; they're just enemies you fight inside dungeons. But that aside, the Doppelganger/Limris entity is by far the most imaginative monster in the set.
Doppelgangers (left) have a nasty suffocation attack if you mess with their cocoon; the Limris (right) has the obligatory claws but "special" refers to its psionic attack.
Undead are really a sub-type of Demonic, since they're inherently hostile jackasses. Given the prominence of Necros the god of Death in Forge's foundational myth, you'd expect the bestiary to be full of them, but the selection is pedestrian, Skeletons, Giant Skeletons, Zombies, Vampires and Magouls (why Magouls? why not Ghouls? why?).
None of these deviate much from the D&D template, right down to Skeletons resisting edged weapons and Zombies resisting blunt ones. There are no incorporeal undead (no spirits in Forge, remember?). Magouls (why? why???) lack the paralysing powers of D&D Ghouls (the First Rule of Forge: make-stuff-less-interesting) and all Vampires are high-level Necromancers who have moved beyond humanity. This makes Vampires automatically sorcerers but, since they are not bearers of a vampiric contagion, it takes away a lot of the dread that we feel for them.
Artist Don Garvey clearly got a kick out of drawing Magouls (that name! argh! WHY?)
The rules lump these creatures together as Humanoids, but I prefer C.S. Lewis' term Hnau, meaning sentient, reasoning species with a sense of right and wrong (as opposed to the Demonics, who just love evil).
There are 10 Hnau in the bestiary, including familiar Centaurs, Cyclopes, Cy-Ebs (Satyrs), Geleb (Lizard Men), Giants, Minotaurs, Ogres and Yetis. The same anti-Romantic sensibility is at work as before. Centaurs get some ethnographic detail (their males get aggressively drunk and the females flirt with outsiders to provoke them to jealousy) but the classical role of Centaurs as healers, teachers and prophets is missing. Similarly, Cyclopes are not master smiths and engineers, just big one-eyed giants. The proper Giants are not the fallen demigods of Greek and Norse mythology and lack even the diversity and occasional nobility of the D&D templates: they are enormous brutes with leathery skin, rather like the Game of Thrones Giants but without even their barbaric dignity.
There are a couple of original additions. Frost Heaves have a terrible name but are essentially ice-goblins: Yetis hunt and eat them. Fireborne are copper-skinned efreet who radiate heat and are immune to fire - you would imagine they earn a living hunting Phoenixes or hiring themselves out as Dragon-slayers but the connection goes unexplored.
It becomes clear that three of the PC races also serve as 'monsters': the ersatz-Klingon Berserkers, pug-faced Higmoni and monocular Ghantus are clearly the 'bad guys' that PCs will be fighting. The authors introduce the Bestiary with an appeal for nuance: there is "no distinction between good and evil in living creatures" so it is "usually wise for adventurers to speak with the humanoids they encounter" because "it is even possible that the humanoids are friendly" (p162).
But this is empty piety, really. The Bestiary offers little or no advice about what the different Hnau want or believe. Giants can be bribed with wine and the frothy sexual dynamics of Centaurs might be exploited by canny PCs, but what exactly you would talk to Fireborne or Frost Heaves about, what they value, how they feel about each other and about humans, none of this is explored: as a GM, you are on your own when it comes to non-combat resolutions to these encounters.
Plants, Parasites and Novelty Monsters
Mutant Plants also add to the Gamma World vibe of Forge. There are six, with three being tentacular, constrict-y things and the other three being different types of molds. These are foreshadowed in the book's mythology chapter, introducing Galignen, the god of Disease, and his children, "the magic-wielding molds and fungi that dwell in the deepest, darkest caverns." If you were hoping for Swamp Thing, you will be disappointed, but Power Moss does absorb Spell Points out of Magic used against it and use them to cast its own offensive spells, including mind control and horrible lung infections. Skill Moss permanently drains percentage Skill points from passing characters and defends itself with poisonous spores; if you defeat it, its roots are either toxic (75%) or confer 1-100% in a random Skill.
I can't help feeling there's a missed opportunity here to make Galignen's children the distinctive nemeses of Forge: toadstool people, shambling compost heaps, gestalt intelligences in root networks, tree-folk, cactus-men and bloodthirsty dryads would have been much more engaging than giant flightless birds as far as filling up the wilderness with unpleasant monsters goes.
The Parasites are microscopic infestations that drain magical energy, Intellect or Stamina and rust weapons and armour. It is striking that these are all material creatures, just very small ones: they are not spirits. Forge's commitment to its materialistic outlook goes really deep.
The novelty monsters are as silly as the ones in D&D, but some concession to realism is at work. Bloodrils look like stalactites and drop from the ceiling but they are really a type of blood-draining crab; Gemrils are evil coral; Nemrises are acid-spitting crabs (so many monster-crabs...); the Stone Mimic paralyses you and sucks you into a wall; and the Shrieking Stone is, well, a stone that shrieks if you pass too close: it's just like the shrieking toadstools in D&D except that, in keeping with Forge's philosophy that everything should hurt, the shrieks cause damage as well as attracting other monsters..
Monsters Without Romance
As the blog title says, the Bestiary is pretty banal. Not many of these monsters are worth adapting for other games. It's nice to see Medusas with snake-bodies, super-tough Dragons are always welcome; only the Doppelganger/Limris has a genuinely interesting life-cycle and makes a distinctive contribution to a campaign, although the Dungwala is a good example of a low-powered monster that will strike fear into even quite powerful PCs.
But on the positive side, the monster stat blocks are simple and easy to deploy at the drop of a hat. Conversion from D&D is pretty easy. I've added a conversion system over on the MONSTERS tab of this site.
This means a Cockatrice (if you want to referee Bury My Tusks At Broken Jaw) would have 30+1d6 HP, Attack Value 5, Armour Rating 3, peck for 1d3 damage (petrification on failed Save vs Death), Saving Throw 14+ and Speed 2/6.
More interesting is Forge's unusual aesthetic, this wholesale rejection of the spiritual and otherworldly: is this deliberate artistic choice or unconscious preference? Not only is Juravia a world where the gods have been banished, it seems to be a world without spirits, ghosts, demons, angels, faeries or mystical entities of any sort. All the Undead are corporeal; the very few non-corporeal monsters all seem to be microscopic parasites or extra-dimensional aliens. When creatures of myth and fable appear, they are stripped of their romantic properties: Mermaids are simple cannibals, Harpies don't mesmerise, Trolls don't regenerate, Pheonixes don't rebirth in flames, Basilisks don't kill with a glance; Giants are overgrown Neanderthals, Dragons are rampaging lizards; only the Medusa retains her fabled magical attack.
Instead, the Bestiary reads more like the monster list for a post-holocaust SF RPG, with giant birds and lizards and savage creatures of fang and claw.
It certainly seems like a conscious design choice, except that, other than the back cover blurb, the rules nowhere state a post-holocaust theme for the game. Indeed, the published scenarios and world sourcebook don't explore this sort of genre at all. Maybe the ideas for Forge evolved in the writing of the game; perhaps it started as a post-holocaust fantasy RPG but developed into a broader, more universal sort of fantasy RPG in its final version, but no one thought to update the monsters.
I like the post-holocaust setting and I think that's how I'll run with Forge: more Gamma World than World of Greyhawk. However, this sort of setting creates its own problems. If you rip all the romance, mysticism and spirituality out of the monsters and races, you need to inject it back again somewhere else.
Gamma World (1978) is a good example of how to do this. TSR's 'D&D-with-mutants' RPG replaces the flavourful and suggestive creatures of art and myth with Badders (mutated badgers!), Hoops (killer bunnies!) and the sock-eating Yexil described earlier. There are giant radioactive moths, enormous six-legged horses and giant trees with exploding seed pods. Some of these creatures raise a laugh, some are absurdist delights and a few have a sort of demented appeal as antagonists, but there's no awe or wonder at work.
Instead, Gamma World directs the PCs to explore the ruins of the Ancients (i.e. our homes and cities) and uncover our everyday objects as cherished treasures. Standing in the shattered ruins of Stoke-on-Trent, trying to figure out how to use a toaster, has its own bleak romance. Then there are the 'Cryptic Alliances' which are organisations of humans and mutants pursuing their own vision of a renewed world: the Knights of Genetic Purity oppose all mutants, the Archivists venerate the most trivial pieces of Ancient technology, the Restorationists want to unite human and mutant in the project of rebuilding the world, the Followers of the Voice think surviving computer AIs should rule the world. Even the most fascistic and deluded of these groups have a certain nobility of purpose and the best of them are intensely idealistic. It may be a world where giant bunnies carry assault rifles, but those bunnies have a cause they are prepared to die for.
Would you care to hear about our lord and saviour, Bugs Bunny?
Forge lacks anything like this. The rules don't hint of any vast ruins to explore: the former mansions, playgrounds, shrines, prisons and torture chambers of the now-departed gods. The only universal cults are those of saintly Berethenu and warlike Grom, but neither is given any political agenda and it's not suggested that the 'monsters' join their ranks.
Gamma World's authors, James Ward and Gary Jaquet, were wiser than the Kibbe Brothers in this regard: they understood that a RPG doesn't have to stand or fall by its monsters, but if the monsters don't carry the emotional and philosophical weight of the game, then something else has to. You can play a very unsophisticated D&D campaign but it will still have moments of genuine grandeur when you encounter a Cloud Giant in his floating palace, a magnificently evil Ancient Red Dragon that can talk and cast spells, a Dryad who symbolises unspoilt nature, an actual honest-to-goodness ghost of a dead person. None of this can happen in Forge. You just run up against the hideous denizens of a world abandoned by God and kill them, one at a time.
Forge needs a setting that is compelling enough to compensate for its banal monsters; ideally a setting that draws upon the poignant, death-of-God themes in its anti-Romantic mythology and makes sense of this Monster Manual mish-mash of mutants and depowered demigods. Unfortunately, the scenarios and worldbook published for Forge tried to take the game off in a rather more conventional direction. For me, this explains the game's failure to find an audience. If you're going to play standard quasi-feudal fantasy RPGs, you want to confront the spine-tingling creatures of myth and legend. If the game offers you only degraded versions of these antagonists, it had better have something even better up its sleeve - and a cool magic system won't cut it.
30 Minute Dungeons
Essays on Forge
I'm a teacher and a writer and I love board games and RPGs. I got into D&D back in the '70s with Eric Holmes' 'Blue Book' set and I've started writing my own OSR-inspired games - as well as fantasy and supernatural fiction..