Monday, December 19, 2016

Converting Warhammer Monsters into m20 Part IV: Grand Alliance of Death

Ah, the Undead.  Along with demons, my favorite monster type, both for the same reason: because they are such classics of supernatural horror, dating back to long before the existence of the genre in folklore and mythology.  I notice that the Grand Alliance of Death is not as complete as the list was when I looked at it in even in this post earlier.  Many of the Tomb Kings Egyptian flavored miniatures are gone, like the Necrosphinx and Warsphinx, for instance, or the Ushabti, or the Sepulchral Stalkers and Necropolis Knights.  While... I don't like that, because I thought they were pretty cool miniatures, they were admittedly less "classic" and much more unique to the setting, so it's probably OK that I don't use them.  If for whatever reason I ever need something like that, I'll whip them up based on my flesh golem stats (curiously, I see that I have a flesh golem, but no other kinds of golems.  I think golems in D&D start to get pretty ridiculous, but it's not like an animated statue of some kind isn't pretty darn iconic by now.  Another minor hole to fill, I suppose.  Sigh.)

Another of my hobbies is linguistics, and it actually comes into play with the Warhammer undead army lists.  There are a number of creatures that are called -gheists: the terrorgheist, the vargheist, etc.  What is a gheist?  It's a word Games Workshop made up, but it's also obviously a derivative of the German word Geist.  Geist is a very old Germanic word that predates the German language specifically; based on *gaistaz, a proto-Germanic word that all of the daughter languages of common Germanic inherited.  This includes Flemish gheest and Dutch geest, and as you'd expect, Old English, a very close relative of those latter, has gast.  This has evolved in two directions in modern english: ghost and ghast (as in ghastly.  Although the fantasy genre has coined the neologism ghast as a kind of undead monster, in reality it's just the same word as ghost with a fossilized vowel, and is only used as an adjective or adverb.)  Geist is well-known to English speakers too, although it's not often recognized as the same word reflected in German rather than English, and it's better known to us as part of a few conjoined words that are loanwords into English: poltergeist, for instance ("noisy ghost" or zeitgeist ("communal spirit.")  The latter shows one curious development in English; starting in the 17th century, the Latin derived word spirit became commonplace as well and although ghost and spirit can be used interchangeably in some contexts, in others they no longer can be.  The phrase "Spirit of '76" means something very different than the "Ghost of '76" would mean, but in prior times—and still in German—they did not; ghost was a word a bit more expansive in meaning and could have meant both things.

However, clearly Games Workshop just took the [h] in the English version of the word and added it to the German version of the word to get gheist.  Curiously, they also use ghast as a suffix; the morghast, for instance, uses the Tolkien prefix mor- "dark, black" which also sounds an awful lot like the Latin mortis, mortem—the word for death.  Depending on which it's meant to convey, and I doubt that they necessarily gave it too much thought and if they did, they probably enjoyed the same double entendre that Tolkien himself no doubt did with his word element mor, the morghasts are black ghosts or death ghosts.  In order to avoid trampling on Games Workshop I/P I'll need to do something similar in coming up with unique names, I suppose, but I'll figure something out as we go.

Anyway, all of this is to say, as I did in the earlier post linked above, that I think that there is a bit of a problem in fantasy monster lists, especially with regards to undead: there's too many of them, with too many unique names, that all tread on the same territory.  And although FANTASY HACK is supposed to be, compared to my other efforts with regard to m20, more specifically a conversion of D&D, I will yet hold firm to this concept.  I don't want spectres and wraiths and allips and ghosts and banshees and spooks and who knows what else as separate monster entries if they're all conceptually exactly the same.  My ghost entry, for instance, has several a la carte options for special abilities so that it can replicate any of the above as needed.  I've got plenty of corporeal undead already, and I'm not sure that creating more just to have subtle differences between them and subtle power level differences is wise.  In fact, as much fun as I've had making up new monster stat lines and adding them to my list, I'm also not completely convinced that doing so was necessarily a good move—I might have been better served by keeping most of this stuff as blog posts, or at most as a new Appendix IV: Totally Unnecessary Additional Monsters That You Could (and Should) Have Just Made Up Yourself.  Many of my "new" statlines were really just copied from already existing statlines and modified very, very little.

Well, what's done is done, now.  I'll keep them, but especially with regards to the undead, I'm going to be very judicious in terms of what I add, and I'm going to make sure that what I add is truly unique—or I'm not adding it.  I'm not going to do my usual and go through the entire list model by model (in part because I already did that in the prior post which I linked earlier) but in part because of my particular thoughts on undead especially.  Rather, I'm going to stat up three or four new critters and I'll have a little discussion about undead and categories in general, and where they would all tend to fit together.

The Grand Alliance of Death

In very general terms, undead can be divided into five categories.

Corporeal Undead—Individualists.  This is the vampire archetype; it's a person who sold his soul in a Faustian bargain and represents the temptation of such Faustian bargains.  Dracula (of Bram Stoker fame) is the epitome of it, of course, but any and every "sexy vampire" fits the same bill.  The lich represents a different kind of temptation, but generally fits the same mold.  As I've said earlier, in any kind of dark fantasy where magic is unnatural and hostile to humanity setting, as I tend to prefer, sorcerers need to overcome their natural human limitations by becoming both more and less than human.  Liches and vampires thus represent two sides of the same coin; vampires maintain the illusion of humanity while becoming monsters dependent on mortals for their sustenance, while liches simply walk away from humanity entirely and become something less.  The greatest of sorcerers (The Lady, fer instance) can overcome both weaknesses, but most are stuck with one of the two weaknesses; either a withered, corpse-like appearance from the abandonment of their humanity, or the insatiable blood-lust and dependence on humans for "food." Most of the "generals" of the Warhammer armies are one of the two: Mannfred, Neferata, Arkhan, even Nagash himself.  Necromancers are themselves the "larval" versions of one of the two; a mortal sorcerer allied with the forces of undeath but not yet advanced enough to have become either a vampire or lich. The various vampire lord "anonymous" generals fit this profile as well, although back when the Tomb Kings army was around, they tended to be more commanded by liches.  A fairly recent development in Warhammer are the Ghoul Kings, but the Ghoul Kings are really nothing more than vampires who are a little more "gross" than the traditionally attractive archetype.  Nosferatu rather than Dracula, fer instance.  Maybe mummies can also fit here (instead of the next category) depending on how you interpret them.  The fictional Imhotep is clearly an individualized corporeal undead, but the priests that are animated to fight with Brendan Frasier are more like wights and belong below.

Corporeal Undead—Savages. Some corporeal undead are a great deal more savage and "monster-like" than even the vampires or liches.  The rank and file ghouls are a good example of this; it's not even 100% clear that they're undead per se, or merely associated with them because of their charnal cannibalistic tendencies (although that depends on the setting; the origin of the word is Middle Eastern folklore, where the ghul is nothing more than an Arabic vampire.  Brought to the West during the era of peak Orientalism when novels like Vathek and 1,001 Arabian Nights were at their highest popularity, it's been a staple of many fantasy settings since as a more bestial, flesh-eating rather than blood-drinking, savage and nearly mindless kind of undead.)  The barrow-wights of Tolkien, which are borrowed from Norse mythological draugr—specifically the haugbui versions, which are confined to barrows or tombs are another great example.  These give us the wights in more recent fantasy settings.  Compared to vampires like Dracula or Nosferatu, again, these are relatively lacking in free will, and are more like mindless, hostile monstrous creatures than "characters" per se.  The folkloric traditions are really indistinguishable from those that led to the the creation of the vampire archetype as we recognize it today, although of course they've diverged from there, so this distinction is more of a spectrum than a binary.  At the lower end of this spectrum, you get stuff as simple as the lowly automatons of animated skeletons and zombies.

I've said before, but I'll reiterate; I actually like less of a Walking Dead style zombie and more of a The Serpent and the Rainbow style Haitian zombie.  I also like the concept of really dangerous zombies that are not unlike those in Herbert West—Reanimator although as that is largely a retelling of Frankenstein, it can perhaps best represent these types of zombies as very savage-acting flesh golems (this is, indeed, why I had flesh golems but no other types in the rules.)  While the former category is best represented in my FANTASY HACK rules by vampires and liches (and maybe the mummy, although I'd give them the ability to cast spells like a lich to really make them "pop" if so) this category is represented by ghouls, flesh golems, skeletons and the wight.  If you want more "shambling" type zombies, just use the skeleton stats.

Incorporeal Undead. While there's a somewhat bewildering array of these types of creatures in D&D proper: spectres, ghosts, banshees, wraiths, allips, etc. there really isn't in my opinion any need of more than one.  They're all ghosts according to my rules, and you can pick special abilities as desired.  You could even modify them to represent something as potent as a ringwraith by giving them the same lich-like spell-casting and use a number of them to represent its abilities: The Withering of the Haunter and Blasphemous Piping of Azathoth for the Black Breath, etc. A number of miniatures from the Warhammer army represent this: cairn and hex wraiths, the spirit host, the tomb banshee, and the weird ghostly forms that carry the Mortis Engine and Coven Throne.

Truly Monstrous Undead Creatures. These are more a feature of later fantasy settings rather than older tradition, but the notion of real monsters that were never human in any conceivable fashion is a pretty cool addition to the undead canon.  The whole routine where Harry Dresden reanimates "Sue" the T. rex and rides it into battle against a force of necromancers in Chicago in Dead Beat is one of my favorite scenes from a book ever written, and is a great example of a somewhat less extravagant version of the idea.  The Warhammer army list really shines in this category, although I see that my own monster list does not.  The dread abyssals, for instance, are terrible creations of pure necromancy; bone-like monsters of huge size that fly, buoyed by the souls of all those who they have devoured, who are trapped in ethereal skulls that remain stuffed into the massive, barrel-like rib cages of the monsters. The morghasts are the former heralds and psychopomps of formerly benevolent death gods, stolen and enslaved into undead servitude by Nagash—or in other words, they're undead angels. There are vargheists (and the larger varghulf) and vargoyles, and the crypt flayers, all representations of the image of vampires turning into bat-winged, harpy-like monstrosities.  I'm not 100% sure what the difference between these various monsters in Warhammer are, even after reading the entries, to be honest.  Some are vampires that devolved into ravening monsters and are unable to retain their human form, some are just ghouls with bat wings.  but honestly, conceptually I don't see that those are significantly different ideas.  Var- as a prefix is interesting; it seems to have been borrowed from the Old Norse vargr where it meant wolf, but more particularly mythological wolf creatures, such as Fenris-wolf, or Sköll and Hati.  It is Anglicized somtimes as varg, but more commonly as warg—which should be familiar to anyone who's ever read Tolkien.

Finally, there are the zombie dragons (which are pretty self-explanatory) and the terrorgheists, my favorite of the big, behemoth undead monsters—a skeletal dragon-like monster that has an aura of death about it and turns into a swarm of bats on its death (that's a great idea!)

This is where I need to add a few stats, is in this category, but like I said, when I migrate them to my FANTASY HACK document, I'll want unique names for them, not the Warhammer specific ones.

Associated Monsters.  Some creatures are not really undead themselves, but seem to be associated with undead from literature and folklore.  Wolves, werewolves, bats, even rats, etc. all seem to fit here.  From the Warhammer list, there are animated wolf skeletons and "fell bats".  It occurs to me that some kind of giant bat is a classic fantasy trope that I don't have, but then again the eagle stats work just fine, I think.  If you want really gigantic bats use the stats for a pterodactyl.

Anyway, here's a new monster stat.  I think the rest can be interpolated easily enough from existing stats:

FELL GHAST: AC: 20 HD: 18d12 (130 hp) AT: Bite +18 (2d10+4), 2 claws +18 (d10+3) STR: +12 DEX: +3 MND: -1 S: flies,undead immunities, cast at will with no penalty Blasphemous Piping of Azathoth DC 19, when the fell ghast reaches 0 hit points or less, it turns into a bat swarm as per the monster entry.

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