Armagideon Time

While I was going to shelve Role-Playing with the Changes for the duration of the Halloween Countdown, the next item on the feature’s chronological to-do list just so happened to dovetail quite nicely with the spooky season theme.

I got into Dungeons & Dragons at the extreme tail end of the game’s faddish high-water mark of the early-to-mid Eighties. All my classmates who’d dabbled with the game had moved on to other hobbies, while toy stores the local mall chain hobby shop had undertaken a steep retrenchment of their RPG inventories. There was a flood of material available at fire-sale prices, and yet I flying blind when it came to sifting through it all. I knew there was a difference between plain ol’ D&D and the “Advanced” rules, but remained ignorant of the specifics apart from the fact that once came in box sets and one came in a series of expensive hardcover sourcebooks.

In the face of such a confusing array of options, I did what I typically do in these situations — I impulse-bought anything that looked cool and wouldn’t break my budget. The first and most noteworthy of those purchases was the AD&D 1st Edition Fiend Folio.

The book was a hardbound encyclopedia of fan-created creatures submitted to White Dwarf back when TSR and Games Workshop had a strategic alliance. These amateur monstrosities shared space with a small contingent of entries pulled from official TSR modules, such as the popular and problematic Drow.

The stat listings and entries contained ample mention of mechanics and spells that were utterly alien to kid whose familiarity with D&D was limited to the Basic Set, but there was enough shared DNA between the systems that I was able to justify dropping four bucks (at the Burlington Mall Kay-Bee) for a hardcover tome full of new things to pit against my gaming group.

What I didn’t understand, I was able to shoehorn in through some really bizarre rules contortions. For example, my ignorance about “hit dice” meant that I treated the stat as the creature’s hit point total — meaning that a high-level death knight was on par with a second level fighter, health-wise.

The first thing I did when I brought the Fiend Folio home was to sketch out a supermassive dungeon into which I attempted to cram as many of the sourcebook’s coolest (from the perspective of a fourteen year old boy) monsters as possible. There were Crypt Things living next door to Slaad Knights living next door to carbuncles living next door to Xvarts, all without any regard to narrative logic or fantasy ecology. It was a complete and utter mess, but Lil Bro and my cousin didn’t seem to mind as the slew their way to easy windfalls of treasure and experience.

I understand the diminishing returns of fun and satisfaction that come with beginner lootfests, but there’s something beautifully pure in their sloppy enthusiastic abandon. There’s no minimaxing or metagaming, just a whole lot of joyous absurdity that tends to get bled out of more conscientiously formal RPG runs.

The acquisition of Fiend Folio coincided with the peak of my artistic aspirations, and its gritty-Brity illustrative style (especially the Russ Nicholson stuff) loomed large over my own illustrative efforts. It was a constant companion at the private work table I was granted for being one of the “serious” students in my 9th grade art class. I spend hour after classroom hour re-interpreting (or just plain copying) the illustrations in pencil, tempera, pen-and-ink, and terra cotta.

I was absolutely enraptured by Fiend Folio‘s sizable contingent of undead creatures, who weren’t afraid to express their desiccated or putrid majesty in starkly skritchy monochrome. The masterpiece was a clay sculpture of a maggot-riddled (via repurposed garlic press) Son of Kyuss that my teacher submitted to the Boston Globe Scholastic Art contest.

It didn’t win, because critics are afraid of true visionaries. It got smashed to bits after I accidentally dropped in on the sidewalk trying to cart it home on the last day of class.

My original Fiend Folio was stolen by someone (most likely the gorehound metalhead who was the other “serious” student) in my art class. I replaced it a couple months later with an identically priced copy picked up at a Kay-Bee in Nashua during a family day trip.

Of all the monstrous compendiums released for the various RPGs I’ve played over the decades, the Fiend Folio remains my all-time favorite. The creatures are so strange and off-beat compared to the ones in the two original Monster Manuals, and I’ve never used a Gelatinous Cube or Rust Monster in a dungeon when I could throw in an Adherer to similar effect.

When I eventually abandoned D&D in favor of Warhammer Fantasy Role Play, I made a serious attempt to import some of my favorite fiends into the latter system. Fragmentary evidence of that unfinished and ill-advised effort can be found on bits of loose-leaf paper wedged between certain pages of my replacement folio.

Recommended Listening: Bound & Gagged – Personal Monsters (from the A Wicked Good Time compilation, 1981)

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This is Boston, not No Wave.

Related posts:

  1. Halloween Countdown: October 4 – The worm turns
  2. Halloween Countdown: October 21 – Forgotten myths
  3. Halloween Countdown: Day 8 – Dead channel

3 Responses to “Halloween Countdown: Day 3 – I’ll never figure out”

  1. SJB

    Of note, Bill Willingham provide some of the illustrations

  2. Cygnia

    I remember them blatantly ripping off from Froud’s “Faeries” for some of the mephit designs.

  3. E.T.Smith

    My very first rpg book was a 1st edition Monster Manual … the purpose of which I thoroughly misapprehended. I understood it was a description and categorization of monsters; that made it cool, so that’s why I got it. But I didn’t understand it had anything to do with a *game*, rather I interpreted it as a clinical quantification of monsters for it’s own sake, mysterious yet (somehow) scholarly definitive statements about the capabilities of vampires and dragons that were objectively true no matter the context. You’d think I’d have been clued in by the blatant game stats, but those scanned as no more arcane than the attributes listed on baseball cards.

    To be fair to my pre-teen self the interpretation wasn’t entirely random, lots of stuff like that was floating around at the time written with “in-setting” voice, spaceship guides like the Terran Trade Authority series and endless “strange mystery” books about ghosts and cryptids with similar catalog structures. Even plenty of stuff like the “Down in the Dungeon” art book that deliberately emulated D&D style in the wake of the fad.

    Now, just because it seems germane, here’s a fellow making his own personalized illuminations of a Monster Manual:

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