In this installment of Design & Development
, we speak with designer Steven Townsend about another of his creations appearing in Monster Vault: Threats to the Nentir Vale
. The boggle was first previewed in May’s Ampersand
column: "Children sometimes tell of "bogeymen" that follow them, lurking in the corners of their vision only to vanish when confronted. Parents dismiss such stories as phantoms of an overactive imagination—until the boggle snatches the child away."
For more on this threat, first download the boggle—and then read on for Steve’s design work on this creature!
The Boggle’s Roots: In the Game, and in Folklore
My 4th Edition design for the boggle is a relatively straight translation of its AD&D versions with a few nuances. Like its predecessors from previous editions, the 4E boggle is a slippery thief that can teleport short distances and create holes in space to steal what it wishes. It keeps its fire resistance and its viscous sweat. And like the boggles of old, this one is not terribly intelligent, but it is extremely devious and cunning.
Still… the original monster never really grabbed me; I don’t think I ever used them, and nobody’s ever told me a story of their “totally incredible and life-changing boggle encounter.” So I felt there was some work to be done casting the spotlight onto this nasty little wretch.
When I write up a monster for D&D, I begin by researching the monster’s folk roots, notable appearances in pop culture, and its previous D&D incarnations. I think I talked a little about this last year when we discussed the catoblepas. I want each monster to fully encompass its original concept from folklore, and where the folklore is scant, I’ll add flourishes that heighten and bolster its essential nature without straying too far from the (story) role the creature should occupy. I think the catoblepas, kraken, and nymphs from Monster Manual 3 are good examples of that (links provided for additional insights on that process).
Looking into the boggle’s folk roots, I found that it shares the same lineage as the boggart, bogie, and bogeyman—they’re all variations on the same creature—typically cast as a malicious fairy, spirit, or goblin that uses its powers for mischief. In regard to its larger pop culture and literary aspects, the monsters (as boggarts) were used prominently in Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban; however, J.K. Rowling reinvented them as shapechangers that take the form of one’s darkest fear. While that worked well for their role in the Harry Potter series, it didn’t seem to fit organically with the creature from folklore or the previous D&D versions, so I eschewed that recent popular reference in favor of the old-school approach. Besides, it seemed there weren’t nearly enough nasty unseelie fey in the game up till now, so I tried to hammer that home with the boggles. Like the boggarts and bogies of lore, these wicked little fey delight in playing malicious—and sometimes deadly—tricks on mortals.
Developing the Boggle for Today’s Game
I feel that the only new developments in the boggle are a stronger story connection to its folk roots and new ways to use its old-school dimension-folding abilities. I see these as flourishes and strengthening elements, but I think such elements make all the difference in making the creature interesting. I tried to change them from a boring monster I didn’t care about into a creature I’d never get tired of using to harass characters. I really tried to bring out their annoying elements, such as their penchant for malicious pranks and their exceptional thieving and teleporting abilities.
What draws me to the banderhobb and the boggle? I think those monsters hearken back to an older tradition of fantasy and folklore that I’ve always appreciated. Sometimes I (perhaps incorrectly) suppose that we D&D gamers forget where our fantasy tradition came from, and some of us know very little about it (i.e. me as a teenager). Thus we end up creating monsters, classes, and other game elements that are derivative of our own D&D lore, inaccessible to all but the initiated. Then those monsters, classes, etc., don’t get used because they weren’t rooted in something deeper, something we subconsciously connect to in fantasy, myth, or pop culture. That’s it in a nutshell.
The banderhobb is a new monster to D&D, but it’s also not. It’s familiar, like the horrific goblins of children’s stories. Oublivae too—I’m pretty happy with her as an original creation, but even she’s rooted in deeper traditional elements. Finding that connection isn’t easy to do—in fact, I think it’s really hard—but I feel it’s worth it. So tackling a traditional folktale monster like the boggle was an attractive prospect for me.
Guilty pleasure: Early on when Chris Perkins was going over the outline for the book, he commented that in the AD&D Monster Manual 2 entry, the boggle looked a lot like Gollum—the Hildebrandt brothers or Ralph Bakshi rendering I think—and as AMC would have you believe, I am a big Gollum fan.
Speaking of Gollum, when we meet him in The Hobbit, he’s living beneath the Misty Mountains, occasionally strangling goblins and eating them. Chris Perkins had the notion that the boggle might be a pet for the Daggerburg Goblins found elsewhere in the MVNV product. Musing on this a while, I considered designating the boggle as a kind of fey goblin—something that could understand their language but was a lot more savage and wild. Its D&D roots would certainly support that concept without interfering with its folk roots as a mischievous unseelie fey.
The Boggle and the Banderhobb
I didn’t expressly define the boggle as a goblin because I wanted it to retain its independence as a wicked fey with its own distinct identity. But I think it’s related—a goblin cousin, if you will. Likewise, the banderhobb is inspired from the goblins that populate my own homebrew campaign. And although I didn’t formally or mechanically categorize either the banderhobb or the boggle as goblins, both travel between dimensions, both understand the goblin language, and both use their powers to take things (and people); banderhobbs are shadow goblins and boggles are fey goblins, and that’s their connection. I wanted to differentiate them while allowing them keep their own distinct identities as monsters; however, if DMs want to connect those dots and make them subject to things that affect goblins mechanically, that’s completely at the DM’s discretion. I think it’d be a good idea for some campaigns, not so much for others. I leave it up to the DM.
A note about differentiating related creatures: Though I want to somewhat tenuously link the banderhobb to the boggle, I think it’s important to distinguish their contrasting mood and feel. I was discussing the importance of mood and tone with the wandering tower; in the case of the banderhobb and the boggle, I tried to nail the tone of each creature in the first couple sentences of the monster entry.
For instance, the banderhobb entry begins:
"As the day recedes, shadows lengthen over the world like grasping claws. That's when the banderhobbs come. Beneath the stars, in the dead of moonless nights, they march in ones and twos from the land of death and darkness."
And the boggle entry sets down the tone for that monster this way:
"Boggle comes and boggle goes,
Steals your rings and stamps your toes.
Turn around the compass rose,
Where it went to, no one knows.'
—Fallcrest children’s rhyme
From the language of the first two sentences, you know basically what you’re supposed to do with those monsters: As shadow creatures, banderhobbs are ominous horrors from beyond. They can’t speak and don’t reason—they simply show up out of nowhere and drag you away into the land of shadow, and you disappear, never to be seen or heard from again. They’re dark, inscrutable monsters. Boggles, on the other hand, carry quite a different tone. They’re nasty little goblin-fey that ambush, sabotage, steal, harry, prank, and annoy.
Design Considerations, for a Trickster
It’s safe to say that most of the mechanics I design come from story first. I tend to create something to fill a story need and almost never the other way around—it’s just the way I operate: I love creating cool mechanics, but I don’t really do it arbitrarily.
Once I’d committed to the idea of boggles as malicious/mischievous fey—the role they’ve traditionally occupied—I began thinking of tricks they could play on people. I’d already done the research and written the text, so all that remained was to come up with mechanics that fit the story. Somewhere along the line I created an ability that I called a “trick.” This inspired me to give each boggle a unique trick they could do—something that would trip up the PCs and fill the boggle with glee. With the “trick” as the central mechanical attack concept around the boggle, I built a set of tricks for each. If you’re looking at the stats right now you may note that in the final version the boggle body snatcher seems to have lost its trick (it reached through a hole in space and grabbed you, and could also pull you through the hole as a separate action). I would guess the trick was replaced with its current power due to the awkwardness of ruling a long distance grab… through a dimensional portal.
I got a little carried away once I connected with the trick mechanic. I figured I could come up with excuses to have several different types of boggles—controller, lurker, skirmisher, artillery—so I happily went down that road, making tricks that would accommodate each.
If you were to ask me what my favorite part of the boggle entry is, however, the bit that I was most excited about, it’s the little rhyme at the beginning. It’s the piece of the boggle entry that delighted me the most. It says everything I wanted to say about the boggle in the least amount of space—to me it’s the cherry on top of the slimy, sweaty, fire-resistant boggle sundae.
On Humans and Monsters
The more I think about it, the more I recall that for this book we were assigned monsters—we didn’t pick them. So the monsters I got were a combination of luck and making the best of what I was given. Some of my particular favorites from the ones I got to work on were the boggle, wandering tower, penanggalan, and hounds of ill omen. I also did the drakes (both felldrakes and dark drakes), the Grey Company, Mages of Saruun, Tigerclaw Barbarians, Raven Roost Bandits, and the white dragon Bitterstrike. I did the forest battle map and the encounters with the boggles and the wandering tower (yeah, those two are obviously coming out as my faves).
I think the humanoid groups were a little more challenging to design. No, not to design them—but to make their stories as interesting as the monsters. In the case of the Mages of Saruun, I had to research them in all the places they’re mentioned, get the facts straight without any serious omissions, and try to push the points that made them the most interesting. Some of the others were names and concepts I was free to develop on my own, like the Grey Company and the Tigerclaw Barbarians, and there are elements of those groups I was really happy with. But in a popularity contest, the hounds, penanggalan, wandering tower, boggle, etc., are going to win every time. I’m very pleased with the accompanying stories and “heightening elements” I tried to introduce in those monsters, making their story elements compelling and their mechanics exciting—those were creatures I grew up with back in the day.
Ironically, in my home games, the most interesting elements aren’t monsters but rather individual (usually human) NPCs. To give you an idea, in 2004 one of the players (Second City star Shad Kunkle!) came to our game with a big book under his arm.
Shad said, “You need to read this book because it is just like the game you’re running.”
Thus I read A Game of Thrones, and I said “Dang… this is what I’ve been trying to do for so long, only better than I’ve been doing it.”
I love monsters dearly, but in my estimation there’s no match for a complicated, conflicted human PC or NPC run by a good player or DM. But those game elements only take off over time, in the midst of a dynamic story; what makes them interesting is their choices, and such deeds don’t translate well as small paragraphs in a monster book. Monsters, on the other hand, are larger than life. They bring their game up front. I guess what I’m saying here is that the humanoid encounter groups (the ones with leaders—like the Grey Company and the Tigerclaw Barbarians) are like fine wines—they’ll mature over time in the course of a good campaign. Monsters with a solid mood, feel, story, and tone, on the other hand, are ready to jump into the game right away and start tearing things up.