Monday, October 17, 2011

Undead Anonymous Week Begins: Golems and Other Automatons

Hi, my name is David. I am a GM, and I have overused the undead as adversaries in role-playing games.

I'm sick of zombies.

I'm sick of vampires.

I'm sick of ghouls, which everyone else calls zombies but we know what they really are.

Popular culture has developed an Undead Bubble. The glut of zombie films and vampire romance novels have diluted the concept of the walking dead as a threat. We've seen it all before: get the priest, aim for the head, kill it with fire, yadda yadda yadda. It is amazing how something that by definition is unnatural has become so... mundane. For an RPG, the use of undead in an adventure just doesn't have the same level of menace that it used to. We need something new to put our players on edge. Or at the very least, to use what else is already available to scare the crap out of them.

Golems and Other Automatons

The Golem of Prague
There is something that is just plain creepy about things moving that aren't meant to move under their own power. Maybe it stems from childhood memories of the creepy doll that stared at you with a creepy smile while you slept. One staple of horror stories is the inanimate object come to life. Even in real life, we tend to jump away when a commercial on TV has a sudden increase in volume or a car behind us has a misfire. When things don't behave the way they should, we get unnerved. So why is it when the same stuff occurs in a non-horror RPG, it doesn't have the same effect?

Personal Theory Alert: I think part of the problem stems from GMs tending to blatantly state what a creature is to the party, even though the PCs may have never seen nor heard of anything like it in their lives. Would the average peasant farmer know the difference between an ogre and a hill giant if they never seen either one and judged the creature solely on it's appearance. The same applies to the "golem" family of creatures. The moment you tell the party that they are facing a golem, they go instantly know that it was created by some wizard and it becomes just another bag of experience points to be claimed. But what if we went with a different name that was a better description of how the creature looked, instead of what the monster books say it's called? For example:

Don't Call Them Straw Golems, Call them Scarecrows

With the exception of The Wizard of Oz, scarecrows conjure up images of sinister creatures. Both Marvel and DC have villains named after these things. And in the case of the latter, he's an enemy of Batman! Even though modern versions of the scarecrow no longer look like people, the image of the man of straw in raggedy clothes is still with us. So why not use this image for the weakest of the golems?

Imagine the looks on the PCs faces when they come upon a field just after dusk and see dozens of scarecrows coming off their posts and walking intently towards them. The party will likely still throw their flaming oil at, but not before the cleric likely wastes a turn undead attempt.

Forget Wood Golems, be a Puppet Master!

Quick show of hands. How many of you saw the image to the left and immediately knew where I was going with this?

Put your hands down, I can't see you.

Sorry, lame joke.

Golems are traditionally used as brutes in RPGs. They are either the boss' heavy hitter, or the guardian of something. That is because most golems are huge. But wood golems tend to be smaller than most humans. Some, when inert, resemble dolls and can be carried surreptitiously into an enemy stronghold with none the wiser. Once inside, they are free to do whatever they were sent to do. Add little things like knives for hands and you have a formula for terror.

If You're Gonna Use Flesh Golems, Invoke the Most famous One

I have a weird confession. I have never seen any Frankenstein movie save Mel Brooks' Young Frankenstein. However, I have read the book by Mary Shelley. Both the book and film have an interesting take on a man who tries to play God and bring the dead back to life. It is clear that the flesh golem is intended to invoke the image of the notorious monster of the story, but rarely is this ever played out in gaming. Whether you prefer the mute creature with the brain of a psychotic criminal, or the tortured soul determined to avenge itself on it's creator for cursing it with existence, the story of Frankenstein is too powerful an image to not use when introducing flesh golems into your game. Even if you have to go so far as to commit the geek faux pas of calling the creature Frankenstein (the title refers to the doctor, not the monster), you are more likely get the players to react as if they are facing something legendary.

These are just a few ideas for using golems in your campaign. Whether the PCs face an army of straw-stuffed scarecrows, or a single iron colossus, a GM needs to be able to invoke the threat of the creature with more than just knowing it's THAC0 and hit points.

Tomorrow: Vermin!

1 comment:

  1. Ah, I've been looking forward to this. And you did not disappoint.

    IF I have anything to add, it's simply this. Even the bruiser staples of Clay, Stone and Iron golems are not as limited in the nature of horror as people think. While everyone invokes the traditional man-shaped figure for them, those golems more than anything are crafted creatures, built by design to become animate guardians. Why would you necessarily make them human-looking?

    Stone can be anything from abstract designs to intricate statuary. Iron the same, with the added bonus that with the size of them, you can disguise them as other metalworking. A furnace that rises up from the ground to try and grab people to place them in the fire? Just saying...