Sunday, November 25, 2012

Looking back at the Creature Crucible series

Way back in the heyday of classic D&D, when the RPG shelves at the book store were adorned with boxed rule sets with covers by Larry Elmore, Gazetteers of the Known World nations, and B and X series adventure modules, I stumbled upon something a bit different and was immediately enthralled.  What I had found was a book promising to open up all sorts of creatures as player character races.  The book was Tall Tales of the Wee Folk, the first in the Creature Crucible series, which focused on fairy and woodland creatures, and included rules for playing as dryads, centaurs, hsiao*, pixies, sprites, or even treants, plus a selection of entirely new creatures including leprechauns, brownies, and pookas.  

I've since learned that the idea of monsters as player characters was not really new, going all the way back to the original edition of the game.  Even not knowing that, my early campaigns featured monsters as leveled NPCs who traveled with the player character party for a while - a few gnomes, a neanderthal, a phanaton from the Isle of Dread, using the Dwarf, Fighter, and Halfling class details, respectively.  As far as I know, though, this was the first supplement to really go all the way as far as detailing "monster" races for use as PCs.

Besides the new PC race/classes, the supplement included new spells, tons of background information on the races and the fairy court, some NPCs of the new classes, a setting (a fleshing-out of the Dreamlands magic point first introduced in the Elves of Alfheim Gazetteer), and a separate booklet of adventures featuring the new character classes.  The feel of the supplement draws heavily on the fairy folklore of the British Isles with a hearty dash of Shakespeare (while managing to fit the creatures of different origins, like the centaur, dryad, and faun, pretty seamlessly into the mix.)  True, it was sort of a "lite" version, downplaying the more sinister side often displayed by fairies in folklore, but it was still breaking pretty new ground for published D&D material.

Next came Top Ballista, which took a more gonzo route, giving us the flying city of Serraine (completely with magically-propelled gnomish airplanes and a Top Gun-flavored flying academy), plus gnomes, gremlins, harpies, and assorted other new PC fodder.   It represented a sharp departure from the tropes of classic fantasy, but since the setting was modular and mobile, it could easily be dropped into just about any campaign world, and the new classes worked just fine in more of a pure fantasy setting, too.

The Sea People sketched out the undersea kingdoms beneath the waves of the Known World's Sea of Dread and peopled them with PC and NPC merfolk, nixies, tritons, shark-kin, aquatic elves, and other water-breathing oddities.  More so than the other books in the series, this one was best suited for a campaign in the provided setting, and of little use outside it. 

Finally, there was Night Howlers, allowing players the option to play a character infected with lycanthropy (or to continue to play one unfortunate enough to be infected in the course of the campaign.)  In accordance with now-established formula, it detailed the Valley of the Wolves in the Principalities of Glantri and explored the society and politics of Glantrian werewolves. 

How useful the new classes and settings were depended a lot on the particular campaign, but they certainly offered a very different style and flavor from the usual human and demi-human-centric fare of the core rules.  Many of the classes offered entirely new special abilities, from the dryad's ability to shapechange to plant form, to the pooka's time manipulation and the gremlin's chaotic aura.  Even relatively mundane abilities like flying and water breathing clearly distinguished those characters from traditional sorts and opened up new adventuring and role-playing possibilities.

The greatest weakness of the Creature Crucible series was in balance between the classes, especially with regard to the original classes.  Player-creature classes tended to be a fair bit more powerful than traditional human and demi-human PCs, and often subsumed virtually all the powers of one of the old classes and topped them off with new abilities.

Part of this was due to an unfortunate (in my opinion) design decision to hew closely to each class's original monster description and the rules for monsters in general.  Player creatures used the attack tables for monsters of their Hit Dice, which meant an improvement of one point per level, outpacing the Fighter.  Player creatures almost universally had d8 Hit Dice, making them equal to the toughest classes in the original game, simply because all monsters use d8 for hit dice.  (A few creatures, those whose normal monster stats gave them less than a full Hit Die, used d4, but these were very much the minority.)  Quite a few start with more than one HD, and since all begin at or below "normal monster" level rather than 1st level, many ended up with ten or more HD by name level.  A pipsqueak pixie under these rules racked up a cool 10d8 by 9th level, better than a human fighter, and attacks as a 10 HD monster (THAC0 10) compared to a 9th level fighter's THAC0 of 15!  Throw in flight and invisibility, and the only reason ever to play a fighter is the ability to deal more damage - a pixie-sized sword is a 1d4 weapon.

Unfortunately that's not the worst of it.  The warrior sidhe class from the Wee Folk supplement has d8 hit dice, the ability to use any weapon or armor (provided they're not made of iron or steel), an elf-like ability to combine fighting and spell casting, invisibility, water breathing, and advancement to 36th level!  That's overpowered even by player-creature standards, and more than enough to give any of the original classes a justifiable inferiority complex. 

Some monster-to-PC options just seem ill-advised all the way around.  The sphinx from Top Ballista combines big Hit Dice, a tough natural AC, spell casting, natural attacks better than any weapon, and weapon and spell immunity, and then attempts to counterbalance that with gargantuan XP requirements.  The sphinx needs 300,000 XP for its first advancement!  The result is not only unbalanced, but nigh unplayable, considering that conventional characters will have left name level in the dust before the sphinx gets off square one.

Even back in my teens and twenties, I recognized how unbalanced some of this stuff was, and disallowed quite a few of the more wildly out-of-whack classes.  We also used the attack tables for the character class that most closely approximated the creature's style rather than the monster attack tables. Those tweaks helped keep the traditional classes viable alongside their player creature comrades, although the near-universal d8 hit die for the monster PCs meant that any of them tended to be more survivable at 1st level than anything but fighters and dwarves.  This added incentive to try a player creature instead of a traditional PC didn't bother me too much at the time, since it was an explicit objective to add some variety to the campaign roster, but I still consider it a design flaw.

With a little more discretion as to the types of monsters selected for conversion, and a more flexible mindset (i.e. not committed to exactly duplicating the stats for the "monster" version of a creature when designing its character stats) these supplements could have been a lot better.  Nonetheless, they did fulfill the purpose of adding some welcome spice to the campaign and I still have some fond memories of a few favorite player creatures.  Many an adventure wouldn't have been quite the same without Elmore the hsiao*, Lewis the guinea pig pooka, and Tonguie the gremlin. 

*For those unfamiliar with the classic D&D bestiary, hsiao are the quintessential "wise owls" - literally, being sapient giant owls capable of casting cleric spells.