Monday, September 26, 2016

Demogorgon delights

Now DnD seems to have slipped into the mainstream consciousness and my kids are interested again in adventuring in the World of Greyhawk, it's re-kindled my own grognard love of the original game. I will admit that it gave me a buzz when the lads slapped down a miniature of the 'demogorgon' on the tabletop in the introduction and entered into the discussion of defence versus assault.

Now die-hard OD&D players such as my grey-haired self would never presume that the mighty Prince of Demons would be vaguely concerned about a Fireball. After all, demons take half-damage from fire, and the Prince has 95% magic resistance, so you'd need a 20th level magic-user to have a 50/50 hope of actually sizzling him, and then he'd need to fail a save to take even half of the 20d6 damage!

I've been fascinated by Demogorgon since I first bought the Monster Manual in 1983. The characters in my various campaigns over my teen years never got close to the power level needed to trouble him (my brother Dan's characters took down Lolth in Q1, but this is a different level). And when you look at him, he really is the toughest bugger in the original MM:

200 hit points; AC -8, needing +2 weapons or better to hit (not that you'd be coming near him with anything less than a Holy Avenger); the aforementioned Demon saves and magic resistance. And whilst you're trying to chop him up as your mage sobs like a little girl in the corner, he gets some beast powers back...

He has two mandrill heads, which together use a hypnotic gaze which automatically mesmerise you if you're less than 15th level/ hit dice. The individual heads can beguile, or cause insanity. The Demogorgon's tentacles do a measly d6 damage with a rot that makes arms drop of in 6 minutes (with a quarter of the hit points), and the tail drains 1-4 levels. Ouch.

If so inclined DG can use a raft of powers, such as power word stun, telekinese, use psychic powers, levitate, polymorph, throw up a Wall of Ice. And if he doesn't fancy getting his tentacles grubby, he can Gate in his Crew: demons galore, up to type VI beasties.

Despite being a part of Greyhawk, DG and most of his demon lord friends never appeared in adventures during my time in First. Along with Orcus he was one of the original demon lords developed for the game in Eldritch Wizardry in the 70s. Their rivalry set a tone throughout the incarnations and DnD editions of the Demon Lords. Orcus, to me, was all about that artefact wand which I recall using in an early campaign.

I never played 2nd to 4th, but as I understand the Demogorgon character evolved in depth, especially when Planescape hit in the 90s (for second, I assume). The 3rd edition had a campaign focused on his machinations, specifically the opposing plots of his two heads! What a cool concept, the ultimate split-personality demon. From there he featured in some big adventures (in Dragon magazine) wherein the players could actually have a dust-off with DG in the Abyss!

My brother has recently bought 5th, and I'm considering investing myself once I've played the classic set of modules with my kids (in order, U1-3, T1-4, S2, S4, A1-4, G1-3, D1-3, Q1.... and maybe WG6 for a giggle, to take them then through the Greyhawk Wars and then maybe some of those 2nd edition Vecna/ Rary ones). I hear that there's a campaign in 5th, Out of the Abyss, where DG pops up through a rift into the Underdark below the Forgotten Realms. As it's 1st to 15th level, I assume DG is still a bad-ass, and you get to try and fight with eyes closed against him the end. So perhaps my childhood love affair with a two headed mandrill dude isn't quite finished yet....

Sunday, September 4, 2016

Demogorgons and Debbie

It should come as no surprise to those that read my alternate monthly blog that Stranger Things was a massive hit with me. For those who haven’t seen the smash Netflix hit of the summer, it tells the tale of mid-80s rural America and four young friends, one of whom goes missing. The story unfolds as a homage to 80s sci-fi horror a la John Carpenter and Stephen King, with a dash of Spielberg BMX riding fun to glue it together.
Image from
Now apart from the obvious nostalgia value for me (with regards the music, style and every 80s film I ever loved) you’d be wondering why a Brit growing up in Northern England (just south of the Wall) in the early 80s would relate to somewhere in the US mid-west with an alcoholic sheriff called Hopper? Well the clatter of polyhedral dice and the furious debate about whether to fireball or defend against the Demogorgon should solve that mystery as quick as Scooby Doo. Dungeons and Dragons, in all its first edition glory.
(If you haven’t watched the series yet, be wary of some minor spoilers below!)
Image from
I blogged in June about my childhood love of the hobby, and the influence it had on my writing, and indeed the writing of many others. Undoubtedly it had similar influences on the Duffer brothers who wrote and directed the eight episode story. The first five minutes of episode 1 capture much of what invigorated so many with the hobby:  the friendships, the excitement, the imagination. As a narrative device it works perfectly for the series.  The three remaining friends use their interest in fantasy and science fiction to rationalise the increasingly bizarre events of psychic powers, parallel universes (explained brilliantly), and… monsters. The repeat reference to the monster as ‘Demogorgon’ is a real nod to the 1st Edition DnD, before concern that all fantasy gamers were Satanists purged the following editions of demons and devils. In the version played in the show, Demogorgon is the Prince of all demons, in the lowest levels of the Abyss. His two mandrill heads and tentacles made for an awesome miniature, which was slammed onto the table in that epic first minute of the show, and that reappeared as a way of explaining ‘monsters’ to El in a later episode. To the players it is the ultimate monster to be conquered, and the banter between the friends is whether against such a creature it is better to defend or attack. It is this dilemma that drives the series through to its incredible finale.
Demogorgon figure: image from
In my childhood experience of DnD I only experienced a mild amount of teasing and mockery. Our close knit group who played, both when I lived in Leeds and later Peterborough, weren’t especially ‘outcasts’ or ‘alternative.’ Perhaps at that time, the UK was more acceptant of stranger hobbies. We all collected comics, loved sci-fi, played DnD, some had computers (ZX Spectrums, Atari, VIC 20s), most of us liked music we taped off the radio. The bullying that the three friends experience in the show is only partly related to their love of DnD, in that it gives the bullies recourse to call them names and mock their close friendships.
And of course the general perception of DnD at the time in both UK and the US wasn’t entirely rosy. Much in the way that the moral majority rallied against heavy metal music, alleging its influence on the youth of America’s moral upbringing, mental stability and suicide rates, DnD came into the righteous cross-hairs. The now infamous Jack Chick comic strip, Dark Dungeons, tells the tale of Debbie whose participation in DnD games led to her involvement in a coven mainly to get her father to buy DnD books and miniatures. The DnD provoked suicide of a friend then brought Debbie back to Christianity and redemption. The strip culminates in a good old book burning, perhaps with some Harry Potter books tossed on to help the pyre (of course I’m being facetious, as Harry Potter book burning was a product of more recent enlightened times).

The unfortunate Debbie in Dark Dungeons. Image from
As amusing as it seems now, there was serious anti-DnD propaganda back in the 80s, and even the famed Tom Hanks starred in the TVM Mazes and Monsters in 1982, wherein a latent psychotic illness is unlocked by the fantasy game, Mazes and Monsters, with tragic results. The film was based mainly on the sensationalism surrounding the disappearance of a student at MSU. The80s were replete with pressure groups against DnD, in some cases driven by religious sentiments and the perception of DnD as an occult phenomenon, and in some cases bereavements and tragedy. Authors jumped on the bandwagon, associating a horrific murder with the fact the perpetrator (Chris Pritchard)was a Dungeon Master (and playing down his drug and alcohol addiction, and desire to inherit $2 million).
Yet most studies don’t indicate that players of role playing games have any higher rates of mental illness, suicide, or depression, but such studies are often ignored in the media. Did it appeal to the geekier cross-section of society? Certainly, as back then they would have been the ones with the imaginations, and the creativity to enjoy it fully. Nowadays these would be the same children and teenagers stereotyped as gamers, the same ones unfairly mocked about hunting Pokemons by a society determined to deride anyone else’s interests and fun!
Yet it is these traits, of imagination, creativity, and ultimately comradery and friendship which are the core of the heroes in Stranger Things. It’s these characteristics that lead them to accept El, and to search for their missing friend when everyone else has given up. And that’s the message in Stranger Things, and that’s one of the keys of its success—Demogorgon or no.

(As an end-note, the series has got my kids fired up about playing old school DnD again, ironically dragging them away from the aforementioned Pokemon!!).