Aberrant insect harbingers from Grim Hollow by Ghostfire Games
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Joe Raso: [00:00:00] As the adventurers walk down the dark stairwell they notice scrabbling sounds coming from perhaps within the walls themselves and in the darkness, there’s movement stirring in the bottom of the steps. You see forms slowly coming into focus, which are small worm like creatures and, for many in, your group, there’s probably a bit of a revulsion cuz it reminds you of centipedes that writhe together and start flowing up the steps towards you.
Lucas: Welcome to Making a Monster, the bite-sized podcast where game designers show us their favorite monster and we discover how it works, why it works, and what it means. I’m Lucas Zellers.
Monsters are often simply a matter of scale. Many of nature’s most perfect predators are simply too small to be any threat to humans, and some of history’s most famous monsters are those too big for what we perceive as their place in the natural order. Designer Joe Raso showed his keen eye for how this works in the context of D&D with his aberrant insect harbinger, the mukad.
So Joe, your title has changed a couple of times since I’ve known you.
Joe Raso: My official title right now is writing coordinator for Ghostfire Games. That was effective as of. Wow end of March this year. Prior to that, I started doing freelance writing for a bunch of RPG folks. I guess I went full time in July of that last year. Before that I was just doing my own work on DMS Guild, in addition to my day job, so to speak. But I’m, I’m fully vested in the whole RPG space at this point.
Lucas: I think you and I we’re sort of in each other’s orbit circa 2019. [00:02:00] And I, I think back in December, we had talked about getting you on the podcast for the Dunwood project.
Dunwood is a forest in D&D’s Forgotten Realms setting that feels a lot like Tolkien’s Mirkwood or the balanced growth and decay of the green-black Witherbloom College of magic in Magic the Gathering’s Strixhaven University. In real-world terms, this would be an old-growth forest, a term coined in the 1940s to describe the later stages of stand development with truly massive trees, multiple canopy layers blocking the sun, and a forest floor covered in large dead woody material. These are forests that feel more like oceans, and the oldest of them sheltered the last vestiges of Ice Age megafauna like bush-antlered deer and dire wolves.
In lore, Dunwood is a part of a region called the Great Dale.
Joe Raso: The first big effort that I did was, um, The Great Dale Campaign Guide. It’s a, a Forgotten Realms source book. It was sort of paying homage to a third edition production, um, that I really loved called, um, Why the heck, I can’t remember the name of the production right now. Oh, the, the Unapproachable East. I got a suggestion to reach out to some other folks and me building a little source guide, um, expansion to bring things up to fifth edition, over period of two or three weeks exploded. 12 authors or 10 authors. I can’t remember the number I had, um, and a a hundred plus source book that, that I ended up producing.
Um, my first real effort that big, it was it. I really shouldn’t have done it, cuz it was, it was way too way too large, but it was a fantastic. Learning experience for me. So that was, that was the first big one.
Lucas: Joe’s work on Dunwood and other projects over [00:04:00] the past few years led him to become a contributor for the 5th edition setting Grim Hollow.
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Joe Raso: Grim Hollow is a grimdark sort of horror based campaign that Ghostfire games has produced. And I felt astoundingly, astoundingly, astoundingly, lucky. Um, when Sean me Merwin asked if I’d like to contribute a bunch of monsters to the to this monster book that they’re creating for that setting,
Lucas: Oh, so this is in progress right now.
Joe Raso: It it’s in delivery actually. Yeah, I, I did the actual writing for this last. Oh, what was it? in the June, June, July timeframe is when I, when I was working on, on these Grim Hollow creatures. And I think the, the products are actually showing up in people’s doorsteps in the last month or so. So I haven’t got my hard copy yet, but I’ve, I’ve, I’ve seen the seen the, the PDF, which is pretty fantastic.
Lucas: You’ve dropped a buzzword and I’m all about breaking those apart and figuring out what that means. What does grimdark mean to you, especially in the context of what Grim Hollow is trying to do and be?
Joe Raso: For me, grimdark means stories that fear and dread are a key component and the survival of the heroes is not necessarily guaranteed as opposed to uh, heroic fantasy where, um, you’re, you’re dealing with giant threats and ultimately you expect the heroes to, to survive in the end victoriously. Um, in, in a grimdark setting. I, I don’t think that’s the assumption. I, I think it’s, we hope that they’ll get through whatever terrible onslaught that they’re going through. Um, but it’s, it’s perilous might be the good, the correct word to use for that. Um, overwhelming. Bad stuff is, [00:06:00] is maybe the, the simpler way.
Lucas: Yeah, What I’ve heard from people who have played older editions is that they have somewhat of a more adversarial relationship between player and DM and mechanics and character than fifth edition does such that fifth edition is kind of, kinder to, to player characters. It leans more into the heroic fantasy element of this. Does that jive with your experience? And do you think Grim Hollow might be a return to that sort of attitude from older editions?
Joe Raso: Possibly that that might be a nice way to look at it. I think the earlier editions, it was the, the game was still being figured out by everybody, in my opinion, um, where you, it was the first time you, you had these role playing games available to the public, to purchase and, and play with.
And it was such a different or change to what, um, everybody had experienced up to that point. I mean, I I’d played risk. I’d played all the typical board games. So to actually play a game that didn’t have a board on it, um, was a bit of a leap for, for most folks. And I think whenever you go into something new, you, you hold onto pieces of things that you understand.
And in all those board games, it’s usually a person versus a person. So I could see the default assumption being the, the dungeon master against the players as here’s your challenge. I’m trying to defeat you and the, the players. Okay. We’re gonna try to, to overcome that. So I, I can see how a grimdark theme might echo some of that same setup.
Um, and yeah, I agree in, in the. The more modern game of fifth edition, the storytelling bit is much, um, greater piece of it where, you’re looking to see how can I get my group to play a fun and exciting story and get them through it and engaged There’s almost always combat involved depending on your group, obviously, but, um, it’s, [00:08:00] that shared group experience.
Whereas in the earlier days, I, I saw it as, yeah. We’re gonna try to get through this thing and hopefully the DM won’t kill us. Um,
Lucas: When we’re talking about Grim Hollow is there kind of a hook for this setting?
Is there a thing that is peculiar to the way that this works? A thing that makes Grim Hollow what it is?
Joe Raso: It’s very much a dark setting the gods have somewhat disappeared because of a terrible that’s gone on. So there’s, their surrogates have kind of tried to pick up the mantle, but, um, overall the, the world itself is in a, a terrible state where I think fear and just survival are a key aspect of this setting. They’ve got a lot of different uh, regions that explore certain areas. Like there’s a, a vampire controlled area and sort of, rougher savage northern Viking ish type region along with others. But in general, the, the world itself is, is a, a dreadful, scary place.
Lucas: Let’s talk about one of the monsters that you’ve made. Okay. Pronounce this for me. If you can, the mukad?
Joe Raso: Yeah, in my head I pronounced it mukad, but, um, mukad sounds fantastic. Um,
Lucas: Well, we’re going with authorial intent because you happen to be here. So.
Joe Raso: Well, clearly mukad, if you don’t get it, you’re you’re uh, no I’ve, accepted that, um, all the fantasy names and words that I’ve read for the last 20 or 30 years. The, the way it sounds in my head is not the way most other people would pronounce it. Um, and so I’m quite happy for people to come up with their own interpretations.
Lucas: Do you know why that is? Is that just a quirk of the genre or?
Joe Raso: I, I, I don’t know. I, I don’t know if it’s the genre. I don’t know if it’s my own background. Um, I, I suspect it’s probably a combination of both. Both my parents are Hungarian, actually. You’d think that with [00:10:00] the name Raso is, is Italian, but, um, my both folks are from there.
And so I, when I write often I, I’m trying to come up with a, a, a strange fantasy name and I’ll, I’ll think of a, sort of a Hungarian term. And I realize I can’t actually translate the sound properly because there’s certain vowels or consonants that don’t translate into English terribly well. Um, so that’s probably the same thing what happened with, with this name?
Lucas: That’s fantastic.
Joe Raso: Well, yeah, I mean, I’ve seen many times people suggest using Google translate to take a, a word from one language and shove it into the, to another. I kind of use my vague understanding of Hungarian to, oh, well, how Hungarian language speakers that might read my work and go, oh, that’s, that’s almost like, would dad say, that thing and then I’ll sort of twist the, the letters around. It’s the cheat that I do when I’m writing.
When Sean originally asked me to contribute monsters, one of the things he was hoping for was more urban based creatures that would threaten players. So I was trying to think of creatures that could sort of scrabble away in the darkness of some large building, like somehow how hidden in the walls. There’s a, there’s these unnatural beasts that are, are scheming in the darkness and you better not go down that dark place, cuz uh, they’ll decide to use you to, to some nefarious end.
Lucas: I had in the house that I grew up with an unfinished basement, so like cold rock walls and. I think you’ve nailed it. Like that is the feeling that I get here of there are grubs in the walls. I mean like this is D and D so these aren’t just grubs.
Joe Raso: Of course not.
Lucas: Uh, what makes this different, what is, what makes a mukad what it is?
Joe Raso: One of the, I guess the concepts for [00:12:00] the, setting is the Ather kindred. It’s this very esque villain godlike creature in the background that slumbers away. Um, and people dread the time that it’ll awaken and come back and devastate the land again.
Um, so I figured, well just because the master god or whatever, this giant beast entity is, is slumbering doesn’t mean his foot soldiers aren’t doing something currently. So I wanted to create a tier one challenge that would start to pull in some of that. Um, I guess C’thulhu-esque feel of a strange unknown entity that could potentially overwhelm or, or hurt the, the populace at large is kind of where I was coming from with it.
Lucas: What makes them good at filling that role?
Joe Raso: I think a tunneling aspect where they, they could hide through, um, the walls and, and, um, be hidden in sort of public, um, structures per se. The attacks of these monsters are sort of psychically charged where they’re they unleash bursts of energy that, um, will stun or paralyze the victims that they’re going to use.
I think I had the larger one, be somewhat more intelligent than you would expect for a, from a sort of centipede-like creature.
Lucas: yeah. Intelligence 10,
Joe Raso: So just an average.
Lucas: yeah. but still like, this is a full on sapient being.
Joe Raso: Yes. Yeah. And so that was the, the idea to have this animalistic thing but smart enough that it would be able to stare you in the eyes.
Lucas: So let’s talk about why we had to make a suite of these things because one of the fundamental truths of Dungeons and Dragons and most role playing games is that characters, i.e. heroes, level up and monsters do not. You just fight [00:14:00] bigger and bigger monsters. So this is, it reads as though you have laid these out in the order of their life cycle. Is that fair to say?
Joe Raso: Yeah, I think so. For me the life cycle, wasn’t, they’re either larva or they transform into the whatever creature. I, I was thinking of insects in terms of, you know, how an ant colony might be managing their brood. They have eggs and then they become grubs. And then the grubs eventually transform into the more adult form. When I was thinking about this, I thought, okay, I’ll have these, these larval grubs then the transformed versions of them with. Depending on their specialization, they would have different capabilities. One might be stronger than another. And, and then the big master progenitor that’s actually creating all the little, little bugs, um, would be the, the, the one that’s toughest to take on.
I, I want to make sure that all of the more sort of a, a tier one threat. I almost feel like there’s not enough tier one threats that really can scare, um, creatures or parties. I wanted a whole suite. So if a, a DM created a, a set of adventures that they’d have enough of a toolbox that they could create, you know, a first encounter where, oh, what the heck are these little things?
And then, then slowly the, the adventures would follow the, the clues and discover where the, the source of the infestation actually was.
Lucas: Yeah, this is a really classic storytelling structure that you have coded into this series of stat blocks I mean, my favorite example is Bruce Lee’s I think it was Game of Death where he started at the bottom of this tower and he fought his way up to the top. Only you’ve done it in reverse that you start in the basement and then you work your way lower and lower to the terrible truth at the bottom.
Joe Raso: It’s such a common trope that it’s, if you can set the pieces up for DMS to use, then it makes their job easier. As a game designer, that’s. That’s what I’m trying to do is give all the tools to let [00:16:00] someone at their own table, make the game that they want.
Um, and so if you have a lot of options, then you, there’s a bunch of different ways that you can, can approach the game for your own table. Cause every table’s different, somebody just wants to. Go head first at the big bad guy. And let’s, don’t worry about the lead up, whereas others love that slow uncovering of the truth and, and figuring out what the mystery is. So I wanted to make sure that you could play it however you wished.
Lucas: So anytime you say C’thulhu I have to do another like buzzword thing wherein. I call it the Lovecraft protocol that even for his time, Lovecraft was a problematic person. And the genre that he created has far exceeded his personal ideology in order to create something that I think people are, are using to find a lot of truth and make some really interesting statements about the way the world does and should work.
Was that part of your design scheme or did that just sort of happen when you created the mukad? Does this tell you anything about the way the world works when you work through it?
Joe Raso: Um, C’thulhu has a whole bunch of baggage left for, for sure. But it’s, it’s a shorthand from a design perspective in that, for me, it’s, it’s this unknowable, evil that can’t be understood, even if you try and if you try then it’s likely gonna cause you grief in the end. And probably the demise of whoever is trying to understand whatever that is.
Um, and I guess I wanted these beasties to be similar. They’re this thing that you as humans or humanoids can never really fully understand. You just know that they have intentions that are associated with this evil monstrosity that’s caused horror havoc in the world already. So if you come across them, it’s not terribly ambiguous in terms of, is this a humanoid with [00:18:00] good intentions?
This is a big nasty that has no moral compass that’s gonna challenge whether or not what you’re doing is correct. And I mean, that’s the easy way to how do I say this? Um, I think there’s a, a challenge, um, particularly , in the modern game where we’re realizing that there’s so many nasty nasty is the wrong word, but ill-advised approaches to how, um, creatures and threats are presented in the game itself. Um, and. Sometimes you just want to play the game and not have to be in a moral quandary of am I really presenting this correctly? And so I wanted to make sure that the creature, the threat you presented here is unquestionably something that you could go up against.
Um, I don’t know if the, I answered your question there
Lucas: No, absolutely. For me, part of the magic of the show is grappling with some of those questions and figuring out, like, is it a monster really? And who’s the, you know, it’s, it’s a very old kind of subversion. To the point that subverting it is. You know, it’s wrapping around back on itself.
But I have had a lot of people talk about, you know, the role of catharsis in this game. And just being able to say, very clearly this is wrong and we’re gonna stop it. And the value that that has for a player experience.
Assuming that the mukad have their way and nothing stops them, what happens?
Joe Raso: What happens? Uh, They will do whatever mystical scribblings in the darkness that these unnatural beings do and help bring about the, the Ather kindred again, which is that slumbering unknowable evil beast that had previously destroyed their gods and created the terrible setting as it was. So it’s almost like, if you don’t stop these guys, then the already grimdark setting might, [00:20:00] might get worse.
Lucas: Any of these attacks or features or traits that you were particularly proud of that resonated with people who play tested this or, or other designers that you worked on it with?
Joe Raso: I like the thematic way that I’ve woven some of the bits in here, cuz I was trying to replicate, um, real world creatures a little bit where you’ve got insects that, oh, they’ve a spider has trapped some insect for it to devour it doesn’t do it right away it sort of paralyzes it and webs it in some coating to, to ingest that it’s leisure later on. So it, I mean, I wanted that sort of disgusting kinda, um, feel for these creatures as well. Like something where it’s using you to, um, propagate itself and it doesn’t care what’s suffering or whatever is gonna happen to the creature that it’s captured.
So the progenitor has this etheric incubation, um, ability where it takes a paralyzed creature and wraps it in a cocoon and basically injects it with, little bug worms that erupt somewhat later to, to devour whoever the poor and fortunate, um, beast is inside it kind of thing. So I, I kind of like that, that it, it, it replicates sort of things that actually happen in the small insect world that we have, but kind of blown up to the, the heroic challenges that, that players are gonna face.
Lucas: It goes from a swarm of tiny creatures to the mukad progenitor, a large aberration, lawful evil, interesting choice. Alignment has become a tricky subject since the so-called Tasha apocalypse back in December of 21. So, just out of curiosity, did you have any conversations about alignment here or, or any sort of deliberate way of [00:22:00] what how to represent these guys that way?
Joe Raso: Um, no, I, I, I don’t, I don’t remember having any discussions on the design of related to the alignment bit. For me it was, um, trying to describe the creature, um, in terms of how it functions. And I, I saw it very much as a group entity, it’s this, this swarm of beasts. So they’re, they’re following the directions of the, the big, bad progenitor guy.
They’re not following individual aims or, or doing some choice that furthers their own direction. It’s the, whatever the big beastie says is what the entire swarm infestation is trying to accomplish. So that’s kind of the lawful bit for me is that, that ordered decision making the fact that there’s someone at the top describing what’s going on and the, the followers doing that to their ability. The evil bit is that, Hey, they’re, they’re not really caring what their actions do to others around them. There is no, um, sort of moral compass for them. They’re just following this, this evil plan to bring back their, their a or kindred over overlord or whatever the, the beast is.
Lucas: Fantastic. Yeah. I’m always trying to get to the bottom of how useful that alignment chart is. And this is a good example.
Joe Raso: Yeah, I think it’s just, it’s, it’s a tool. Anything that you use in a D&D game, I would hope DMs feel comfortable on throwing out the window if they don’t like it. so for me, it’s, shorthand to say, okay, how does this monster work and what are the intentions of it. And I think the recent, um, 5E sort of style design choices that they’ve made with newer things by saying usually, or I can’t remember the actual words that they they have in terms of the, the alignment, um, perspective, um, is, is I think helpful [00:24:00] for some people that.
May maybe are newer to the game. I think if, if you’ve played the game for a while you realize, um, all rules are optional. Um,
Lucas: Yeah, you always had that permission.
Joe Raso: Yeah, but I, completely understand why WotC’s kind of going down the, the path they are is it’s. How do you make the game as accessible as you can to, to new folks coming in?
So you do that by giving him guidance if they, they haven’t had that before. So I, have no issue with the way that the, the alignment’s being presented.
Lucas: Thanks for listening to Making a Monster. If you like what you’ve heard and you want to support the show, please share it with the people you play games with. I’m approaching 50 episodes covering monsters from all over the tabletop RPG map, so there is something for everyone. Your recommendation goes a long way to letting people trust me with their time and attention, and it’s a way to start great conversations about why we play the games we do and why they mean so much to us.
You can also join the show’s email subscriber list to get extra bonuses like the stat blocks for the mukad family tree and other monsters featured on the show. It’s a great addition to any campaign, and a fascinating introduction to the Ether Kindred and the Grim Hollow campaign setting. Just go to scintilla dot studio slash monster or follow the link in the description to get your copy of these monsters from the Grim Hollow, with art by Anastassia Grigorieva.
Joe Raso: She’s done a fantastic job on, on illustrating these creatures. They look appropriately horrendously disgusting. Um,
Lucas: awful and I hate them. And that is a high compliment.
how do I find Grim Hollow?
Joe Raso: That’s a great question and [00:26:00] you’d think I would’ve prepared. Um, so, Ghostfires website has a store on it where you’re able to they have for sale both the, this monster grimoire and the, the campaign and player guides that sort of flesh out the world as well.
Lucas: If someone wants to get in touch with you specifically and what you do on web and who you are and how you think about things, how do they do that?
Joe Raso: Probably the best way to do that is follow me on Twitter. My handles at underscore Joe underscore Raso, R a S O. I have a, a blog that I’m horribly behind on. I think for a while I was, doing it once a month, but it’s been a number of months since I’ve done it. That’s scheming DM, wordpress.com is the, the full if you type the scheming DM, you, you probably find it. Um, but yeah, Twitter’s probably the best way to, to get hold of my crazy thoughts.