Tuesday, 10 March 2020

This Post Mentions Swanmays

Swanmays are one of that gang of monsters I tend to think of as symbolic of D&D during its Silver and, more prominently, Bronze ages, when the role of the DM was increasingly conceptualised as being to include the PCs in what was basically an interactive story of his or her own making. (This group of monsters also includes things like the lammasu, couatl, and sphinx.) That is, their presentation in the 2nd edition Monstrous Manual results in an ever-present temptation to the DM to give them a prominent role in the story, to use them as a walking 'quest dispenser' for the PCs, or - worse - deploy them as a GMPC to wander around with the party and keep them on track so that they don't stray too far from whatever it is they are supposed to be doing.

(The clear inspirations for this kind of character are Beorn and Aragorn - powerful helpers who step in to aid our heroes at crucial moments.)

But that's not to say they're irredeemable; rather, they are a concept crying out for reskinning, reformulating and rethinking. Perhaps the easiest and best way to do this is to give them prefixes.

War swanmay and Chaos swanmay have their appeal, but in the comments on my post about dungeon scavengers from the other day, somebody commented that you can turn anything into a dungeon scavenger by putting 'blind cave-' in front of its name. So I'm going to make the case for blind cave swanmay, because it so nicely illustrates the power that comes from randomly putting words together. What is a blind cave swanmay? First, you have to explain why there is a swanmay in a cave, and then you have a vision of blind, flightless (or flighted and echolocating?) swans eating fungus from the bottoms of vast but shallow underground lakes, cut off from the outside world by dark eons of isolation. You then have to imagine what a blind cave swanmay looks like, and then your imagination conjures up an albino woman with blank eyes (perhaps covered in skin), able to hear and smell her way through the blackness, and determined at all costs to preserve the peace and isolation of her flock. And then you have to think about what might threaten it, and then you have local noblemen on the surface who prize the feathers of a blind swan for their regalia, or orcs down below who present such feathers to their females as a prelude to mating. And all of a sudden you have the concept for an extended area of a dungeon map and its connections to the outside world and/or the rest of the dungeon which practically writes itself.

You can play the prefix game with more or less any prefix you like (as well as war-, chaos-, and blind cave-, there's also stuff like winter-, fire-, lightning-, magma-, etc.; magma zaratan, anyone? Lightning zombie? Fire yeti?). The thing to remember is that you're not coming up with the name of the monster necessarily, because the results in that respect are frequently very cheesy and 4e-ish indeed. The blind cave swanmay doesn't have to be what you call the thing for the players, in other words - it can have a more sensible in-setting name than that. It's the concept that matters. Try it and see.

1 comment:

  1. Dire- is my favourite prefix. What does it mean, specifically? Big and angry? Vaguely evil? Dire hits that banal/fantasy sweet spot.