Saturday, 13 January 2018

Dungeons & Dragons for Vegans

Before I spread any disinformation, let me clarify the title: Obviously no decent, neutral good vegan would go around killing and/or eating treants and myconids and other intelligent creatures, just because they happen to be more plant matter than animal. You simply don't eat anything with a mind. But it did strike me as funny that I, as a vegan, would happen to get a little obsessed with the vegetable portions of the Monster Manual, and the title came from that.

40 years of treants. Click to embiggen.

But this is an interest that predates my vegetarianism and later veganism by a couple of years. I had had been roleplaying as a player for years, when in 2002 I bought the Planescape setting, my first roleplaying book purchase other than core rules. I set about writing up my very first attempt at a serious campaign of my own, based out of Sigil. The campaign didn't last more than 2 or 3 sessions, and most of my prose-heavy, illustrated notes were never put to much use, directly. What's relevant to this post is that I'd borrowed someone's Monstrous Manual to help me plan my campaign, and it was the first time I'd ever sat down to read the whole book. And what grabbed my attention the most were the plant and fungus creatures.

Why had we never played with these before, I wondered. Why did we always fight the same orcs and goblins, when there were these crazy, weird, interesting things instead? They're all so different from each other, and from anything else, with the clever, detailed ecologies and cultures that 2nd Edition monsters were written with (and which, sadly, later editions tended to neglect). Better still, many of the plant and fungus creatures worked logically together as a whole symbiotic ecosystem of different things that could kill (or at least challenge) the player characters. I thought these fit in especially well with the natural weirdness of Planescape, so it was a perfect idea for me to start exploring, though I've since found that interesting plant creatures can work well in just about any sort of genre or setting. I'll occasionally steal one of these for non-D&D roleplaying, especially science fiction games, when I need something weird and surprising.

Perhaps what I liked most about the more humanoid plant/fungus creatures was that they often weren't automatically Evil combat monsters (which are always just a little boring to me), but could be interacted with more civilly - BUT it would necessarily be weird, alien interaction. I felt, and still feel, that this is a great way to make challenging NPCs for players to talk to, especially in tense, urgent situations. (When Rhys-Davies portrayed Treebeard on screen not long after I'd written that first campaign, it went some way to illustrating to me how effectively that sort of alien plant-mind storytelling could be done, so clearly I was far from being the first person to think of it.)

I had been thinking about all of this again recently, and somehow I got curious about how 5th Edition had affected my old favourites. That got me wondering how they compared across all other editions. And that, inevitably, led me to spend a week researching a spreadsheet of every plant, fungus or algae creature that's been officially published by TSR and Wizards of the Coast. I threw in Pathfinder too, partly because it's an unusually popular D&D variant, and partly because Paizo have made it so easy to find all their monster stats and descriptions online, so it was minimal extra effort for me. It turns out that some of Pathfinder's original additions to this collection are pretty nifty.

My rule of thumb for deciding what to include on my list was whether the real world equivalent of a creature would mindlessly stay fixed in place (plant-like), or whether it would intelligently wiggle itself around (animal-like), or perhaps neither. In short, I was playing animal-vegetable-mineral with the Monster Manuals. Anything explicitly described as a form of plant, fungus or algae, I included (and I'll collectively call those 'vegemonsters' here, for simplicity). Excluding anything from the animal kingdom was easy. I also excluded constructs, mineral-based creatures, energy beings, and entities of pure magic (including elementals). Slimes and oozes made me stop and think. The clearest descriptions of these all compare them with real world bacterial colonies, which might look vaguely plant-like at a macroscopic level, but are made up of wiggling things on the microscopic level, so I excluded them. The other notable anomaly is the dryad, which has been in the game since the very start, but which only 4th Edition describes as being an actual plant; all other editions call them plant-adjacent fey spirit things.

Myconids, in glorious 5th Ed quality illustration
Comparing the editions has been interesting. The main reason my spreadsheet has the 'Shape' column is that I was concerned that different editions were renaming practically the same species multiple times, with only small stat changes. Lumping them together by approximate body shape helped me to narrow that problem down, and highlight, for example, all of the tree-man things that seem a lot like treants, but which aren't named as treants. Creative GMs can decide for themselves what to do with this sort of duplication, but I can see why some were a little unnecessary and were eventually abandoned by TSR/WotC.

Treants were the first plant creatures in the game, originally named ents (until Tolkien sued) way back in the pre-D&D Chainmail rules (1971). Yellow mold joined treants in the earliest D&D core rules (1974). But it was the Greyhawk supplement (1975) that first pointed out creative ways to use all manner of plants as traps, though it offers basically no real rules or detailed explanations of these. The 1977 Basic D&D rules did very little with this idea, while the parallel 1977 Advanced D&D 1st Edition rules expanded on the early Greyhawk suggestions greatly. AD&D 1st Ed codified a number of plant and fungus creatures that could do what the earlier edition had hinted at, and more, especially in its Monster Manual 2.

AD&D 2nd Edition (1989) picked up everything from 1st edition, and then went nuts, pushing its total statted vegemonsters to over 100, many in the core Monstrous Manual (and its Monstrous Compendia predecessors), but also in the setting-specific expansions that followed over the course of the 1990s. I note that the Planescape setting (1994) that first nudged me into exploring this only added two new types of its own to the pile, though its razorvine is unusually distinctive and iconic to the setting. I'm not aware of any other setting that has its own defining species of plant like that, and it's not even an intelligent plant! The Dark Sun setting (1991) necessarily needed a variety of much more unusual desert plants, with more complicated justifications, to replace the default temperate species of traditional D&D settings. And the horror theme of the Ravenloft setting (1990) allowed for a few more dangerous and nasty vegemonsters.

3rd Edition (2000) trimmed back the vegemonsters a lot. Its first Monster Manual only had half a dozen different kinds, though the Monster Manual 2 caught up with quite a lot more. 3rd Ed is also notable as the first edition to officially drop the venerable yellow mold (which still hasn't returned in later editions), leaving the treant as the only one in my spreadsheet to be found in every single edition of D&D. The new Eberron setting (2004) added some nice new stuff to the game (no new vegemonsters, since they focused so much on constructs), but neglecting most other published settings in this and subsequent editions led to a much greater net loss of official content of all sorts.

4th Edition (2008) hated creative and interesting monsters in general, cutting back on all sorts of creatures, especially ones that didn't have obvious combat roles. Note that the 4th Ed Monster Manual had a lazy habit of giving a pair of alternate stat blocks for many monsters, with very little decent justification for why they would exist in different forms with different abilities. The bottom line is that the 4th Ed Monster Manual only really has around half as many different species as it pretends to, and this is reflected in my spreadsheet too. Though my spreadsheet counts each stat block separately, I only count 4 real distinct species of vegemonsters from that book, 5 if you count their peculiar (and possible mistaken) change to the dryad. This edition was clearly a regression, in several senses.

5th Edition (2014) is still relatively new, with only two main monster books out so far (including the very interesting Volo's Guide, which would make an excellent birthday present for me), but I'm pleased to see that there's been at least some recovery of previously abandoned vegemonsters, with especially detailed write-ups for the myconids and vegepygmies. I don't expect future expansions will include every single vegemonster from past editions, but I do hope they'll bring back some of the better ones, as well as introducing some creative original types. Even if they don't, I'm glad to see that they're at least getting comfortable with fluff and lore again.

Roleplaying isn't about rules and stats, those are just a handy framework. What first grabbed my attention about gas spores and shriekers and russet mold and obliviax, over 15 years ago, was not their number of hit dice nor their XP value. What made them interesting was the weirdness of plants with their own agency, and the deep and unusual descriptions that someone had written for each. And from that I, as a new GM, could begin to see how to use them in interesting, unexpected ways. Obviously I adapted them to suit my own needs, as a good GM should, because lore is not dogma. But I would always much rather start from a fully fleshed out and contextualised idea, than from a dry pile of stats and special abilities. Making up stats is the easy part; if I want to make up my own totally original creatures, the rules crunch is not what'll slow me down. But when I don't want to have to make up my own creatures from scratch (which is the point of having a Monster Manual), then I want them to be fully pre-cooked for me, not half-baked. 2nd Ed got this right, more often than not. 3rd and 4th didn't understand it. I hope that 5th and beyond will get it better and better.