Saturday, January 10, 2015

Rethinking the Golem

Changes sometimes have to be made.

Traditionally, there are two things necessary to create a golem: coin in the tens of thousands and a few spells. That is the entirety of the process.  Details about what costs what are maddeningly vague.

Consider this description for the creation of an homonculous (the most detailed example I could find):

"When an homonculous is desired, the magic-user must hire an alchemist, and the latter will require 1-4 weeks to create fluids for forming the creature.  This will cost 1 pint of the magic-user's blood and 500-2000 gold pieces.  The magic-user must then cast a mending spell, a mirror image and a wizard eye upon the fluid to form the homonculous."

60 words.  It is things like this that makes me appreciate the cold-stone hatred people feel for AD&D.

Just what the hell are 'fluids'?  Why do I need to hire an alchemist?  Does this include when I've passed 15th level as a mage?  Are there leveled alchemists?  Why is the local alchemist fine with my constructing a monster?  Why does it have to be my pint of blood and not the alchemists?  Is it because I'm casting the spell?  What if I use a scroll?  Shouldn't I need to pint of blood of the writer of the scroll?  I can understand having to cast some sort of spell to prove the wizard is of a certain strength or power, but why those spells?  Surely a wider range of spells will do.

It is this kind of half-assed design that teaches young DMs to rebuff questions with, "Because I said so."  What other answer are you going to give?

I have never had a character make any serious effort towards the creation of a golem.  I've had a few characters who chanced into a golem manual and considered it, but they've all come to the same conclusion: "Huge numbers of gold pieces for a creature that's guaranteed to go berserk?  Um, no."

The math whiz who invented the golem berserk rule in the original Monster Manual probably thought this was very clever:

"Once created, the clay golem is under the command of the cleric who created it.  Each melee round the clay golem is in combat there is a 1% cumulative chance that it will be imbued with a chaotic evil spirit.  If this happens, the clay golem will immediately pass from the control of the cleric and attacks [sic] any living thing . . ."

On the surface, this sounds like a very small chance.  However, given the nature of random die rolls, the golem will probably go loony within 14 rounds (1% + 2% + 3% + 4% . . .).  Get out your hundred sided and see how long you can go.

I did.  I had 10 tries at it and these are the results: 13 rounds, 14 rounds, 10 rounds, 8 rounds, 22 rounds, 7 rounds, 12 rounds, 16 rounds, 6 rounds and 10 rounds.

The clay golem requires 50,000 g.p. to make (including the 30,000 g.p. vestments, which I presume are resuable).  Even taking my best result, I am paying 2,272 g.p. per round of combat.  For something that attacks once per round (though it has two hands) for 3-30 damage and some nice immunities.  That is going to become an extra problem in short order.  That price seems a little steep.

It's a double-edged sword, isn't it?  We have to jack the price up to keep the creatures rare and we have to make them dangerous to use so that players will think twice.  Yet with these rules a player would have to be an idiot to build a golem.  As an enemy, it doesn't matter if I can hit the golem . . . all I need is 10 to 20 terrified low-level minions to keep the golem swinging - the survivors of which I'll pull back the moment the golem goes postal.  Then the party can deal with the golem's instantly very inconvenient immunities.

I want to rethink the golem, which means rethinking the principles upon which the golem is based.

The golem's inescapable insanity is based upon a Kabbalist myth, invented to teach a lesson to students: don't fuck with nature, because nature will get you.  The same myth has been employed ever since, from Frankenstein and 2001: A Space Odyssey to Skynet in the Terminator series, the creators of the Matrix and whatever recent version of I, Robot that is set to be released in 2015.

(that's always a sore spot with me, as Isaac Asimov's set of robot short stories is a total, well-conceived subversion of this agonized trope)

In reality, we know this trope is crap.  We fuck with nature all the time and somehow nature never bites us in the ass.  We manage to bite ourselves in the ass quite a lot (what with dumping into rivers and ignoring global warming and all that), but the results we're getting from our actions are measurable, logical results, not the principles of nature reasserting itself just because.  There are no special contingency rules in nature that state, "If you try to do something that will make a lot of people feel squicky, the science will fail and the technology will run amuck, destroying everyone."

People used to make that argument against artificial hearts.  Think about that.  Artificial hearts were decried because they would turn ordinary people into monsters.

A rethink of golems must begin with the tale of the Sorcerer's Apprentice (Goethe anticipated me by two hundred years plus).  In the hands of the know-nothing apprentice, the ignorant, science is a dangerous, wild element that seems impossible to contain.  When the wise sorcerer appears, however, the spell is easily broken.

Naturally, most choose to read the poem in terms of man-versus-god, pounding Goethe into the 16th century rather than the 18th.  Man plays with nature and gets in trouble; God appears and bails him out.  This is a rather ridiculous read for someone contemporary with Voltaire, Rousseau and Byron.  Moreover, Goethe's version of the tale is based upon a pagan original, written by the satirist Lucian (think John Cleese after 50).

The lesson is changed from "do not fuck with nature" to "don't fuck with nature unless you know what you're doing."  Problems begin when the ignorant get involved - not because we did something we shouldn't have been doing.  The first is a limit in ability.  The second is a limit in thinking.

That's why I want to toss out everything to do with golems based upon a strict reading of mythology. It makes a nice story for frightening children, but the guidelines are useless for game play.  The golem must be viewed as a rational construct . . . not a doomed failure predestined to be possessed by a random spirit.  The problem should not be in the construct itself, but in the maker.

Speaking of contemporaries of Byron, I wish people would actually read Frankenstein before discussing it.  The failure isn't in the monster, it is in the creator, who is so pathetically weak about his own efforts that he mistreats and drives the monster away, rather than showing love for it.  As the monster hides, it first has the opportunity to see what love and kindness are - then it has these things brutally denied to it.  In hating the monster, it is made into a MONSTER, that then sets out to take its revenge upon Frankenstein and then the world.  It isn't a monster because it is made of dead flesh.  It is a monster because of how it is treated.

According to story, Mary Shelley wrote the book while living with her husband Percy and Byron, who were her audience when she first read the book aloud.  But I digress.

The other change that I'm set to take in creating golems is to steal the ability away from mages and clerics.  These classes already have enough choices and fundamentally I believe they're in the wrong camp where it comes to thinking golems.

Golems are made of earth, stone, metal, wood, bone, natural 'fluids' and so on.  They are made of nature.  It makes so much more sense to me that if a golem is going to live in harmony with nature, it must be created by a class that understands nature.  That is why my golems are found in the sage abilities of druids.

Been thinking about this all week.  Hopefully, writing this post has helped clear my head and I can start building rules about golems now.  All I have written right now in the wiki is "Content to follow."


VeronaKid said...

This is very intriguing territory. I'd very much enjoy a re-think of the rules that allowed for both characters to put golems into use (much more interesting than yet-another-man-at-arms as an NPC) or for DM's to use as a monstrous encounter. A high-level sorcerer using a small party of constructs, perhaps with the power to heal or re-form them once damaged. . . sounds fun.

Spazalicious Chaos said...

A simple fix that I use is having the creator of the construct summon a monster and bargain for services, with a physical form (the golems body and abilities) as the opening bid from the player. Sure, players can strip the summoned being of their free will or even their minds (my npc golem crafters have even made this common practice!) or otherwise try to cheat and get a better deal from the summoned critter. That is just deal making, and the being summoned will likely try to do the same. But the end result of a successful bargain is a golem, which may or may not turn on the user (determined by is the monster was an asshat and/or realizes it got a crap deal), might be negotiated with by others (even non-magical people, but can still use the same stats.

Alexis Smolensk said...

It works, Spazalicious, but it makes the golem no different from a demon in character and design (even if its a demon riding in a golem-car, it's still basically a demon).

I updated the link on the blog to the golem on my wiki; have a look there for the golem's nature.

Blaine H. said...

Our group over the years has toyed with and serious explored golem creation quite a lot through multiple editions. We came to the same conclusion, the rules as written were terrible and no one wanted to actually use them. People asked the same questions, why this exact combination? The old stand by of 'because I said so' or 'some old bastard at TSR said so in ages past' did not float. Tradition does not last in the face of harsh analysis.

Instead of looking at it as something of nature, we turned the eye of science and industry towards the problem. If we are making a stone golem, what is the difference between granite and sedimentary rocks? Could we interlace and make composite material golems? Why are we limited to using the spells listed in the book if we can find comparable spells in other manuals that could give similar effects?

These questions and more came up. We hit upon the idea of 'Why can't we cast from a scroll?" and other ideas. How rare are the materials and how difficult is it to make? How much of that cost to create is arbitrary and can be whittled away with good RP, logic, analysis, or mitigated if the various sources are controlled via vassals and similar powers?

Long story short, the rules proved woefully insufficient as they were and post rebuild, we had a rather complex system that complete did not resemble D&D but it produced a golem creation system that non-mages and clerics could actually make use of golems, without having to be bound to ancient myth or the arbitrary idiocy of TSR hack writers in days long past.

JB said...

I'm on board with the druid thing, so long as "call lightning" is a necessary ingredient to activating said golem.
; )

Blaine H. said...

What if you can create lightning through alternate means? Staves, wands, the iconic giant lightning rod during a thunderstorm... all of those are potential means to generate a rather substantial means of energy fast.

Alexis Smolensk said...

Whenever possible (as with the mandragora), I will be detailing the sort of magic needed to invigorate the golem, rather than specific spells. In the case of the mandragora, any communicating/charm spell would work - the list given is primarily to offer a range within which the DM should operate.

So, yes - lightning of any variety, including NATURAL lightning.

Scarbrow said...

Interesting. I had never thought as golems as more than mindless goons, mere pawns in the hands of enemies and so. But then, I am a son of 3.0. Never gave a thought to actually creating one.

However, once you've presented this way, I'm surprised you didn't touch the concept of "a player is creating life". Not a mindless construction, but an NPC/ally/soldier/what gives, which is potentially not going to be destroyed in a few rounds/days. What is the position of the churches vis-a-vis mere secular people creating life, a gift usually restricted, or thought to be restricted, to the gods themselves? The potential for conflict is immense. Oh, boy... now I want to play with this. Thank you Alexis. You're always the inspiration.

Alexis Smolensk said...


Be sure to read this page from my wiki.