Gamebook store

Friday, 13 October 2017

The jackboot of stats

Another misguided attempt at writing up creature stats, this time for the Questworld pack I worked on for Games Workshop in the early 1980s. While playtesting one of the scenarios, Oliver Johnson had mentioned the Forest of the Serug - a typically evocative throwaway reference. I was intrigued and couldn't let it go. I kept coming up with abilities and spells for the Serug, dimly realizing each time that by doing so I was spoiling the mystery that made them so effective. (A point made very eloquently by JC in a comment to my recent post about Dunsany's gnoles.)

It's like all those Edwardian hunters who, confronted with the gob-smacking scale and profusion of wildlife in the tropics, let fly with both barrels. They had an emotion they needed to express, but they were going entirely the wrong way about it.

So my advice: use the stats for anything you like, but it will always be the undefined parts of your roleplaying world that most captivate the players.


The Serug are a very ancient and mysterious species, rarely encountered, living only in certain areas of the forest named after them. Local woodsmen will sell information about the Serug, but for the most part this consists of half-truths or outright fabrication.

The principal characteristic of the Serug is their murderous whimsy. If they decide to interfere with a party of travellers (roughly 20% chance of this each day that the party spends in a Serug area), they will avoid a direct assault. Instead, they may use crafty diversions to divide the party and then pick off stragglers, or extinguish campfires with magic and make a fleeting night raid. The party may catch a glimpse of sinuous draconic forms , long many-jointed limbs, a hooked beak or snout – but no clear description should be given.

Characters will almost certainly never learn, therefore, that the Serug dwell in a network of tunnels and chambers under the forest roots, built millennia ago when the species was still relatively sane. The tunnels are very low, and have sudden twists and slopes which make them difficult for any but the Serug to use. Entrances are usually within the hollow trunks of trees, and very well concealed.

The Serug can use all normal battle magic, and also have their own spells for raising a ground-mist, controlling forest creatures, and obfuscating or entangling a trail. They see well in darkness, and so prefer to fight at night if at all. In melee a Serug will strike twice a round, once with its weapon, once with beak or claw. The usual battle tactic is to concentrate most of their efforts against one or two individuals, then disengage when they have inflicted enough damage.

The following are some of the more commonly held beliefs concern­ing the Serug. Most are false:

  1. The Serug live on the moon and climb down to the ground using the tallest trees.
  2. A Serug is only visible when stationary.
  3. The Serug are actually a race of mad elves.
  4. Having draconic ancestry, the Serug never harm dragonnewts.
  5. There are no Serug, only men wearing costumes to frighten off interlopers.
  6. The Serug are giant spiders.
  7. The Serug are phantasms of the mind, and anyone seeing them will go mad.
  8. The Serug will not attack anyone carrying sprigs of dried heather.
  9. The Serug can only be hurt by fire.
  10. The Serug will always leave one member of any group alive to tell the tale.

Players may hear any of these as tavern rumours. Only the last is in correct, though the referee may choose to have others derive from a kernel of truth.

ARMOUR: 4 point skin.
SPELLS: Any— typically about six spells per individual
SKILLS: Climbing 90%; Jumping 90%; Set Ambush 75%; Perception 80%; Stealth 80%

I'll leave the last word to Kirk Douglas:


  1. I appreciate the effort it likely took to create the stat-bloc and flavor text. It's always cool to get a view into that process. Again my biggest difficult is that this creature uses a system I'll likely never play or run for a setting I'll likely never play or run it in. If I was going to use this creature, I'd probably check whatever game I was running for the stat-bloc of a baboon (which is what the picture above most resembles to me), boost its intelligence and give it scales for armor and spell-casting abilities.

    1. The picture is by Sidney Sime, presumably for one of Dunsany's stories. However, the point of the post is that stats in any system will only ruin the effect. Sometimes I wonder if anybody actually reads these things.

    2. Well, sure, but a cat that is dead and alive at the same in a state of quantum superposition is always going to be more interesting than a cat that's just dead or a cat that's alive.

      Stats in a game make something real. Reality is almost always going to be less interesting than whatever we imagine before encountering that reality.

    3. Not always. If you're encountering a natural adversary, a platoon of soldiers, say, there can be surprises in the encounter, but the use of stats isn't going to spoil anything. The problem comes when you are actively trying to create a sense of mystery, and then the stats can only wreck the effect. It's why, in game settings that include magic, I almost never allow player-character sorcerers.

    4. Is it coincidental that this ruckus occurred on Friday the 13th? I think not...

    5. The way the world is going, every day is Friday the 13th !

    6. My favorite "magic system" is the one used for the sub-setting of Orrorsh in TORG, which is called the Occult. The base template of the Occult is a kind of "wish parser." You decide the effect that you want to accomplish and build a ritual around that effect.

      Suppose you want to enchant a wooden stake to kill a vampyre. You might start with a stake, better yet a stake cut from a branch of an apple tree growing in a church yard. You'll carve runes into the stake. Let it steep for an entire night in a mixture of holy water and garlic oil taken from garlic grown in a garden of one of the vampyre's victims. Then let it dry in the sunlight over the course of a day. Basically, the more hoops you set for yourself to jump through, the more likely the ritual will do what you want.

      Oh and the stake you just enchanted will only work as a magic weapon against the one vampyre you enchanted it to work against. If you want to kill a different vampyre, you'll need to make a different weapon with a different ritual. And as the GM, I won't tell you the difficulty number. You'll just have to make your best guess. And as such, you'll likely overbuild your ritual and make it harder on yourself than I ever would.

    7. Sounds a little like the Maelstrom magic system, except with the added nice touch of not knowing the difficulty.

    8. Orrorsh is the Horror reality in TORG. As a matter of course, I never tell my players the difficulty of anything there. The most basic fear being that of the unknown and all that.