Biomancy and Monster Mashing

AD&D Player Character Record Sheets

Hm. I still have these things down in the basement

Today we have a question/request from Derek.

I have a request. Could you please write a book on magical biotechnology and monster creation (as in spellcasters who make monsters, not GM monster design)?

Looking at most of the existing examples in d20 land I find most of them lacking. There are plenty of good ideas but there isn’t a single source that I can say “that is the best of the best”. I know you guys know your stuff and obviously can write at the lengths the subject needs. What I am hoping for is a fantasy version of GURPS Biotech for d20.

Might you consider this?


Well… maybe.

I’m just not sure there’s really that much material to cover from an in-character prospective without adding a lot of assumptions – which would greatly limit what d20 worlds it would work in.

The basic trouble is that d20 has very little in the way of ground-rule physics or biology – and what little there is often varies from setting to setting. Some settings are grounded in real-world physics and biology (although how firmly varies a lot). Others use classical western or eastern “elements” and planar traits. Others use variant natural laws. Some use narrative structure and the “rule of cool” rather than any serious physics of any kind.

Quite a few more settings never really bother to actually tell you anything about their physics.

In basic d20 “biology” you can have living rocks, dreams, masses of hot gas, nexi or psionic energies, spells, ethical concepts, memes, vortexes of rippling interdimensional overlays, computer programs, suits of empty armor, concepts ripped from raw chaos by their own wills that sustain themselves by believing that they exist, and even odder things. Sadly, the standard d20 rules never really define what makes some of those things “alive” and others not – and when settings do it varies from one to the next.

d20 doesn’t define what makes a species either, and – by default – lets pretty much everything interbreed. When a character’s grandparents can include a ghost, a fire, a dwarf, and a dragon, you know that whatever “rules”there are are pretty loose anyway. Alchemy, occult hybridization, fertility spells, psionic gene-splicing, transformations, bombardment with mutagenic rays, genetic engineering, enchantment-based monster-building… in d20 terms all of those amount to “I carry out a complex ritual or use a high-powered effect – and out pops a new species or special power in an existing creature”. While the exact requirements are dependent on what a given setting allows in the way of special powers and how inheritance works in it, that’s setting stuff – not base rules.

I’ve even seen settings where you can use hypnosis, or biofeedback, or dreams, or supertech so advanced that “logic” does not apply, or donning costumes, or quick-and-easy rituals, or pocket gizmos to change people’s forms – and transformation is an everyday thing.

In d20 a gravely wounded dragon might fall into a pit of slime where – rather than perishing – it’s supernatural life force might infuse the slime, even as the slime slowly consumed it’s flesh. From the pit might rise a mass of slime wrapped around the dragon’s original bones – still alive, and still the dragon, but with the game masters new “slime beast” template applied to make it a new and even more terrible type of creature.

Other GM’s will just say “It’s dead. Where are you looking for loot?”.

Thus Eclipse and The Practical Enchanter offer quite a few ways to create new species and other ways to shapeshift or to add powers to your character – but don’t even try to define what a species actually is. If they did, they’d be incompatible with a lot of settings. Similarly, either will lets you build all kinds of “bioware”/“cyberware”/ “charmware”/“mutations” (or whatever you want to call things) – but those are just special effects and modifiers stacked on top of the same base mechanics.

After all, if you want to swim faster, you could apply telekinetic thrust, call on friendly water spirits, secrete friction-reducing oil from your skin, wear a swimsuit with the same purpose, unfold membranes to provide better propulsion, learn to swim more effectively, user cyberware turbines in your feet, use a boosting spell, or a hundred other things – but they’re all special effects for “faster movement, limited to swimming, and possibly with an additional limitation to represent some restrictive facet of the special effects”.

And the special effects available are, once again, purely setting-dependent. The actual mechanics amount to asking the local game master “How can I transform creatures into new species in this setting? Hm… looks like I can qualify for this method pretty easily … Would you accept this creature? No? What needs tweaking?” – or a similar question for installing special powers.

We could try to define d20 “life” too – probably as “an entity powered by positive energy with some way of expending a portion or it acting and some way of collecting more” – but that’s fairly circular, since the properties of “positive energy” aren’t entirely clear either except save for having something to do with life.

Besides, substitute “negative energy” and you have a definition of the undead. Substitute “magical” or “psionic” for “positive” and you’re talking about constructs – or at least the ones that aren’t being inhabited by more normal spirits.

I suppose we could do something resembling the “Monster Blood” articles, and look at what kinds of things you can do with general creature types – but in d20 that usually just takes you to “Aberration” and “anything goes!”. At least as far as building new powers and creatures goes, Eclipse will let you do that nicely – which at least would make that part easy.

Given all of that, I’m not quite sure of what you really want. Ergo, it’s time for a look at GURPS: Biotech, where we have…

  • Basic Principles of Biotech: Unfortunately, as we’ve noted, in d20, biology doesn’t have any basic principles. Masses of Rock can produce offspring with Humans. Stuff lives becaus

    e it’s full of positive energy – maybe. Some d20 worlds have genes and inheritance. Some have morphogenic fields. Some have gods who decree species. Some have spiritual patterns. Some have other things. Others (most really) never say.

  • Human Genetic Engineering. Once again, solidly based on (inapplicable) real-world biology – and what if your player-characters are all dragons? Or ghosts? Or alien insectoids? Or made of living metal?
  • Biomods and Metamorphosis. In d20 – and ESPECIALLY in Eclipse – you can just buy that stuff. You want an innate “biological” ability to breath underwater, or spit acid, or walk between dimensions? Sure. Develop a psychic power or spend the points. You’ve got it.
  • Mans Best Friends – genetically modifying other species. Covering industrial processes, useful microbes, germ warfare, weapon-creatures, upgraded animals, and living structures. Most of that is fairly meaningless to d20 adventurers – or already covered by common effects like animal companions, the Awaken spell, and similar magics. Biowarfare might take out masses of peasants – but Adventurers will just cure themselves and go to avenge all those dying peasants.
  • Immortality Incorporated – ways to extend your life and avoid death. Trouble is, a determined d20 character can already rise from the dead and outlive their home universe.
  • To wind up we have Characters and Corporations and a few appendixes – covering some extremely setting-specific information such as black-marked organ prices, biotech jobs and characters, and special modifiers for simulating Biotech in GURPS. The setting-specific stuff is just that, while the modifiers are things that you can already do in Eclipse.

The trouble with emulating that book is fundamentally that – at it’s heart – GURPS tries to simulate a setting that’s firmly grounded in reality – not one where a living rock with no internal structure at all can just happen to mate with a ghost and produce a half-ghost earth-beast. Most of GURPS: Biotech is about limits on what you can do – and how to exploit the rules of biology to push them a bit in some fairly limited ways.

d20 in general really doesn’t have those limits, even if some of them apply in specific settings. It says that pretty much ANYTHING is possible. This is, after all, a game where the corpses of stillborn gods rise as undead horrors capable of destroying cities. The only real generally applicable rule there is “Whatever the game master is willing to put up with”.

I’ll continue thinking about it of course – but I suspect that the bulk of such a book would be general discussion, and I’m better at crunch.

One Response

  1. I didn’t mean GURPS Biotech literally. I meant something of that caliber. A(n almost) and all/be all of biotechnology (both on characters and for monster creation by characters) for d20. Spell, feats, magic items, (many) examples of creature design- including failures. It is amazing how biotech has changed in D&D/d20 over the years.

    Imagine 21 (from 84) had rules that would produce the most warped, unusable monsters most of the time. And that is with 4th through 7th level spells.

    The merlane kit in Dragon 237 allowed the player to get what he wanted more or less but there was some serious weaknesses (most of which I like)- no abjuration spells (so the merlane could be eaten by his creation), most of the creatures are sterile, the one spell that does make new species takes a lot of time and there are kinks, unwanted changes (unfortunately not described so I used Gamma World’s mutations).

    The 3e stuff either saps sanity (ug), producing monsters without thought to what is actually making them up (Netbook of Feats, Legends of High Fantasy’s ritual skill*), limits what the player can make in terms of creature powers (okay, but not much sense behind why and how) or hybridizes different creatures. And there is nothing about parasites and little about grafts (3 supplements that I know of, all very different).

    *Yes, I hate to say it, but making basilisks and dragons with a DC 20 ritual check makes them too easy to engineer, shows no difference between the creatures and what needs to be done to make them. It is a good start but it needs a lot of modifiers just for monster creation.

    You have created about a dozen different spells and skills that make monsters between LHF, Eclipse, TPE and Paths. But none of them have the nitty gritty of what makes one monster different from another. What I am asking for is a book on those differences and how they influence the methods of monster creation and character manipulation.

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