There are dangers so great, so primal and powerful, they are referred to as elder evils. These include worms that walk, ancient sea monsters—and even an evil moon: the world born dead! This month, we speak with Robert Schwalb, one of the designers for the latest sourcebook, Elder Evils!
Wizards of the Coast: How would you define the “elder” of Elder Evils? Are these villains in the vein of Cthulhu-esque (or Cloverfield, according to some rumors) Old Ones—beings of ancient and powerful evil?
Robert Schwalb: Lords of Madness established the concept of elder evils as a collection of entities anathema to life, living things, and the ordered “reality” of D&D’s cosmology. Venerated almost as gods by the aboleths, the elder evils reflect the beliefs and attitudes of those vile aberrations, encapsulating their motivations in raw personifications of corruption, mutation, wickedness, and, above all, destruction.
Elder Evils builds on this foundation, but expands the concept to encompass all sorts of entropic beings, beyond those found in the aboleth “pantheon” to include a whole host of hideous entities. In some cases, the elder evils are very much inspired by Lovecraft, while others drift a bit further from tentacles and eyeballs to create a different sort of ruin. Generally, elder evils are all beings bred from the same cosmic horror soup, and are capable of cleansing your world of all living things. Where elder evils deviate from the Azathoths and Cthulhus out there is that there is a slim hope, a faint chance player characters will have the stuff needed to avert the annihilation of all that they know.
Wizards of the Coast: Since this book follows September’s Exemplars of Evil, what can you tell us of the relation between the two? Does Elder Evils look to continue where Exemplars leaves off, in terms of advancing the threats to parties?
Robert Schwalb: Exemplars of Evil and Elder Evils work together nicely. The chapter on the Tolstoff twins foreshadows the events in the Worm that Walks chapter. As well, many of the villains presented in Exemplars work well as minions, rivals, and campaign NPCs that might seek to hasten the end promised by the elder evil or even work with the PCs to avert a terrifying conclusion. This said, both books set out to different things. Exemplars is a toolbox for building campaign villains, adversaries that can shape the mood and plot of a campaign. Elder Evils sets out to cap your campaign. It provides a memorable and potentially destructive end that gives DMs the tools to tie up all the threads in one truly cataclysmic event.
Wizards of the Coast: Last time I asked what set the exemplars apart from one another; let me ask the same question here. Aside from Challenge Ratings, just who are these elder evils, and what makes them unique from one another?
Robert Schwalb: Elder evils seek to do irreparable damage to your world, but how they go about it and the form their end results takes go a long way to distinguish these threats from one another. Take Father Llymic for example. Written by the insane and just-as-twisted-as-me Jason Bulmahn, Llymic embodies the dangers posed by opening gates to the Far Realm, exploring how the Outside taints and corrupts the living. In this instance, Father Llymic strives to extinguish the sun and condemn the world to become a frozen realm infested with chittering hordes of crystalline creatures.
Pandorym, written by Mike McArtor, stands at the other end of the spectrum. This dread being seeks nothing more than the total annihilation of all gods. Originally created to be a doomsday weapon, a sentient magic item whose objective was deicide, it was separated, body from mind, to avert the devastation it would unleash if allowed to fulfill its purpose.
Each chapter approaches the subject of catastrophic campaign endings in a different way, as demonstrated by the differences of tone, style, and sensibilities of its authors. In addition to Bulmahn’s Father Llymic and McArtos’s Pandorym, there’s also James Jacob’s Sertruous, an exiled obyrith who rules and corrupts legions of yuan-ti thralls. Rhia Wolf penned the Hulks of Zoretha, strange monoliths that lay in wait for the appointed hour when they will clear the world to make way for their dreadful brood. Anthony Pryor brings us Leviathan, a terrifying sea monster that girds the world, its dreams spawning maddening monsters and stirrings can wreaking havoc with the land and sea.
We also have Greg Gordon’s Ragnorra, the Mother of Monsters, a terrifying abomination that seeds worlds with her hideous offspring in horrible collisions of her malformed form and the planets she blesses. Wrapping the book is a return to an old school elder evil, the abomination called Zargon the Returner. Inspired by the classic adventure, B4: Lost City, Zargon hungers to drown the world in its slime and its had just about enough of its ziggurat prison. No matter what your interest is in the dark and disturbing, if you want to kill your world, this book helps you do it in style.
Wizards of the Coast: Material within Elder Evils ties them to signs of apocalypse. How would you go about introducing these signs? And, apocalyptic as they sound, do these signs (and the elder evils themselves) herald a role as campaign-enders? In other words, with 4th Edition on the horizon, were these villains designed with the specific intent to end current 3.5 campaigns, or do they harbor other motives?
Robert Schwalb: Signs of the apocalypse serve several purposes. They warn PCs and their allies that something nasty approaches, giving them time to prepare for the inevitable. Signs also provide the PCs the means to identify the nature of the threat, and once revealed, perhaps find someway to stop the threat before it arrives/awakens/is released. Signs also act as lures; they draw the PCs into plots involving the elder evils. When conjuration (healing) spells stop working, it’s in everyone’s interest to figure out why. Finally, signs give you the tools to alter the rules of your world, giving you logical methods for removing gods, continents, removing a race, adding a new race, warping magic, and so on.
I think the best way to introduce a sign is to do it gradually. Start as early in the campaign as you can to give the PCs the chance to feel its effects. The sign intensifies at whatever speed you want, though I recommend linking the sign’s strength to the average party level since the characters will develop the abilities and possibly acquire the equipment needed to deal with its effects. The sign should be at its strongest when the PCs battle the elder evil so you can really drive home what’s at stake should the heroes fail.
As far as ending 3.5 campaigns is concerned, yeah, I suppose so. At Gen Con, two Gen Cons ago, Gwendolyn Kestrel and Chris Perkins approached me about leading the design on this book. Naturally, they said nothing about 4E, though even then I had an idea that something big was coming down the pipe. So while I had no information about the edition change, I went with my gut and shaped my design to this end just in case.
Wizards of the Coast: Let’s take a look at some of these evils. One of which, Atropus, is described as something of a cursed world! How might a party of adventurers come across such an enemy, and if they did—what could they possibly do against it?
Robert Schwalb: Atropus is one of my favorites and as with all of the elder evils in this book, the concept originated with none other than Bruce Cordell (really, you shouldn’t be surprised). Atropus, the world born dead, is a moonlet, the severed head of some ancient beings slick with the afterbirth of creation. It floats through the gulfs of space, entering a deteriorating orbit until it rubs against your world. Once contact occurs, it wipes out all life, transforming the planet into a dead husk.
You can’t fight Atropus. It’s impossible. It’s a moonlet for Vecna’s sake! However, it does have a weakness. Roaming about its filthy surface is its focus, a massive undead being that houses the essence of the elder evil. The solution to dealing with this elder evil then is to fly to the moonlet either when it’s in the atmosphere (which is usually very bad for your world) or in space (which is very bad for you). There, you fight against the angels of decay and other horrors also inhabit the moonlet until you do something to draw the focus’s attention. If you manage to kill it (good luck), the moonlet thinks twice about kissing your planet and zooms off into the depths of space until it can refashion a new focus and seek out an easier world. Unfortunately, its flight carries whatever is on it, so unless you have some failsafe method of quick extraction, you might find yourself 40,000 miles from your world before you know it. Fighting Atropus is nasty work.
Wizards of the Coast: Another elder evil we may have seen something of before, correct? I’m referring to Kyuss, the worm that walks. What led to his inclusion here, and what connection or further development does his appearance have to his adventure path material?
Robert Schwalb: The original outline called for the Worm that Walks, but didn’t make any overt connections to Kyuss. During the initial design, I could have gone another direction, but darn it, I’m a huge fan of the Age of Worms (I’m still running it in fact) and I just couldn’t pass up the chance to pay homage to the great designers, artists, editors, and everyone else at Paizo involved with the production of that campaign.
The Worm that Walks chapter can be used on its own or as a campaign expansion of the Dungeon Magazine adventure series, giving fans who want more Kyuss goodness an opportunity to revisit some of the horrors found in Age of Worms as well as to spark more interest in the storyline and turn more attention to that excellent campaign. This said, it was important for the chapter to stand on its own, so while it deals with many of the themes and challenges of Age of Worms, this chapter allows you to bind it to any setting, any world, and any ongoing campaign.
Wizards of the Coast: Aside from the two we’ve mentioned, do you have any personal favorites from among the elder evils, if forced to choose? From the evils you designed, what inspiration might have led to their fiendish creation?
Robert Schwalb: Honestly, even with a chainsaw hovering over my neck, I love all of the elder evils equally. While I’m naturally partial to my own creations, I can’t deny the disturbing approach taken by my fellow writers. Each designer brought to the table their own vision on the unsettling and produced really sexy results.
I take a lot of inspiration from fantasy, fantasy-horror, and cosmic horror. Lovecraft immediately springs to mind, both in print and film, but so too does Robert E Howard. Always a fan of the Defenders comics—you know, the ones that had superheroes fighting gods, demons, cosmic threats—I can’t deny that some of those issues colored my design choices. As well, whenever I hit a wall, I just needed to drop in some Behemoth, Vader, or Slayer into the old CD Rom and the juices flowed once more.
Honestly though, the greatest wellspring of ideas for this book came from D&D books. Gary Gygax’s Forgotten Temple of Tharizdun, Lost Caverns of Tsojcanth, and of course the Temple of Elemental Evil, Erik Mona and Company’s Age of Worms, Tom Moldvay’s B4: Lost City, Monte Cook’s Labyrinth of Madness all sparked ideas, but it was Bruce Cordell’s Gates of Firestorm Peak and Return to the Tomb of Horrors that really got my imagination cooking.
Wizards of the Coast: Beyond the elder evils themselves, there’s also a wealth of feats and malelific properties—were these designed to ornament evil NPCs, as a boon to evil PCs, or a bit of each?
Robert Schwalb: Without a doubt, the feats and malefic properties are intended for NPCs. In lieu of granting spells (elder evils are anti-gods after all), each elder evil bestows a bonus vile feat to its mortal minions. There are a number of vile feats already—Exemplars of Evil, Book of Vile Darkness, Champions of Ruin, Fiendish Codex I and Heroes of Horror—but I designed a few more to synch up with the characteristics and natures of the elder evils presented.
Malefic properties are sort of like a god’s salient abilities (Deities & Demigods and Faiths & Pantheons). They provide a powerful benefit to the elder evil to allows it to maul, kill, or repel divine powers, making elder evils real threats to your campaign’s pantheon and world. Oh, and for those folks who think red dragons kick sand in the faces of elder evils, I think the malefic properties, legions of followers, and the ability to add a dozen or so Hit Dice should quash any doubts about their nastiness.
Wizards of the Coast: Exemplars of Evil followed up with the online enhancement, Lawbringer Hemtose. Might we see an enhancement for Elder Evils as well, and if so, what further evil might be in store?
Robert Schwalb: We have great stuff to support Elder Evils. First comes the Shadow of Shothragot, an enhancement that ties Exemplars to Elder Evils to strengthen the links between the books. After this we have a brand spanking new elder evil name Shothragot, who is in fact a self-aware fragment of Tharizdun himself. Finally, we have the Essence of Evil, a challenging adventure for a group of 20th-level adventurers that takes the heroes inside an elder evil as they search for a way to stop it from taking the chains off Tharizdun. What better treats could you ask for than appalling evil, cruel monsters, and the destruction of your campaign setting for the holiday season?