Thursday, March 28, 2019

Re-Working The Black Eagle (P.1)

In my prior post on the human communities of Karameikos I provided the only description of Baron Ludwig "Black Eagle" von Hendriks found/detailed in the B/X rulebooks.  With the advent of Mentzer's Expert rules, this character begins to morph into something very specific: a caricature in the same vein as any mustache-twirling cartoon villain. The first thing that changes is the basic description itself, with subtle semantic differences. No longer does it state the "the Baron may have possible connections with evil slavers and disreputable mercenaries;" instead it says "the Baron may have connections with evil slavers and mercenaries" (possible has been removed and the deletion of the adjective implies the mercenaries are evil as well). No longer are his troops used to "quell (subdue, silence) dissent," instead he uses them to "stifle (suffocate, choke) dissent." Finally, the Baron's garrison is no longer used to "crush attacking non-humans" (the barony exists as a buffer zone between the capital and a combo of lycanthrope-plagued Wereskalot, goblin foothills, and marshy coastline), but instead simply to "crush attackers," implying the Black Eagle has no specific beef with non-humans.

The rest of the Mentzer expert set makes it clear that the Baron is up to nefarious behavior, as his "spies and agents" include Bargle the Infamous, unrepentant murderer and villain from the Mentzer basic set. Much internet ink has been spilled about this particular "bad guy" and I will, a later post.

1984s Mentzer Companion set provides a war-game scenario involving the Black Eagle as a means to test its mass combat rules. Here, Baron Ludwig, chafing under "the yoke of restraint" from the Archduke (oh, boy) decides to march on Stefan, fielding a force comprised of 200 Black Eagle guardsmen and 400-1000 monstrous humanoids (the exact number being variable as chosen by the DM). As the Companion rules are meant for high level characters, the scenario and presumed result (the "fall of the Black Eagle") is not accounted for in later publications...the inference is that DMs keep the Black Eagle barony a source of villainy for low- to mid- level PCs campaigning in Karameikos.

1986 is the date GAZ1 is published and here we get the culmination of the character in Allston's description of Baron Ludwig as the "aggressive and theatrical first cousin" of Duke Stefan, who pretended to be an "upright, eager, and very lawful follower" of the Duke, right up until he was awarded his barony in the newly colonized (conquered) Duchy. Here are some excerpts:

From GAZ1 (with Bargle)
"...von Hendriks is about as unlikeable human being as you can find. He's arrogant, easily enraged, easily soothed or distracted; he's a casual killer but fond of formal torture; he lies so often and so profusely that he cannot remember the truth, he is, in short, insane."

"Ludwig would be a handsome man if not for shifting eyes, oily mannerisms, and arrogant sneer. He dresses entirely in black (even his armor is enameled black)."

"He seized Halag, the largest force [even though this was unnecessary]...once it was conquered, he celebrated by announcing to the population his appointment as its new baron. He renamed the village "Fort Doom" to suit his sense of the theatrical, dubbing the barony the "Black Eagle Barony" after his ancestral coat of arms."

"The Black Eagle Baron is an archetypal villain...whenever you need an untrustworthy, dishonorable, compelling villain, you have Ludwig von Hendriks."

Ludwig II, architect of the
Disney Castle.
Personally, I don't find much "compelling" about this NPC...he is a Disney character stuffed into a Bavarian doublet (the Black Eagle symbol was a symbol of the German kings for centuries; the character echoes some elements of Ludwig the Mad). The 1994 (2nd edition) campaign setting Karameikos: Kingdom of Adventure mostly copies and repeats the information in GAZ1, only advancing the timeline 10 years and overthrowing the Baron through an invading hobbit army, driving the guy into exile, and making him more ridiculous (I'll get my revenge against you, Stefan! And your little halfling thugs!).


First off, while it's not a bad (or even "contrived") idea to set up rival political factions within a region, this idea of one (or a handful of) good, benevolent ruler versus one bad apple is just a little too "small time" for me. Even in a world of demonic high priests and supernatural evil, it's too least for humans.

Plus, it's boring. We've all seen it before. It's Alan Rickman as the Sheriff of Nottingham or Basil Rathbone as Guy of Gisbourne. It's Jafar from Disney's Aladdin or Scar from The Lion King. It's been done...the relative/close advisor who's just waiting for their chance at the throne. And it's silly: does this guy really want to rule over a territory of orcs and goblins? Is this Baltar from the original Battlestar Galactica, content to be hated by his own species and hang with the robots? Do we need another fantasy fascist? We've seen fantasy Nazis before (it's called Star Wars...or any pulp film set circa WWII)...but in a pseudo-medieval setting like your average D&D campaign it's kind of anticlimactic. I mean, most feudal warlords were cut from the "crushing iron fist" cloth.

And that, by the way, is true across eras and cultures. The average peasant-type, whether you're talking Europe or Asia or Mesoamerica, was just happy to survive...when you weren't worried about the planting and the harvest and the winter, chances are you were hoping (and praying) that your lord wouldn't be going to war...with anyone! You'd rather have the back-breaking tribute and taxes then have to worry about raids and battles screwing up your life (let alone conscripting your strongest laborers for a certain death). In a time before there were train timetables to worry about, life was a lot harder, and governments far more tyrannical, than those found in your average fascist regime. Hell, even your religions were brutal, unjust, and merciless!

[we'll talk about the "benevolent" and "beloved" Duke Stefan in a later post]

The BECMI era of D&D could get away with this particular spin of antagonist because of the time in which it was written, the mission of TSR at the time, and the demographic for which it was written. For me...a middle-aged, armchair historian with a taste for B/X and a little more ain't enough.  I don't need the "grimdark fantasy" of Warhammer where every town street is a river of filth, horse dung, and emptied chamber pots, but I do require something more interesting than what Karameikos is serving up...and because I'd like to go back to Luln as the PCs' starting place (rather than the idyllic town of Threshold), this character of Baron Ludwig character needs an overhaul.

I have a few specific ideas/concepts in mind, but as this "preamble" has already run long I'll roll them out in a new post.

[to be continued]


  1. Interesting. It sounds like B/X was leaving it up to the DM to decide how evil the Baron was, but BECMI wanted to try to shove a charicature down everybody's throats.

    1. @ Kevin:

      I don’t know if I’d characterize it exactly like that. But BECMI seems to have been genuinely aimed at a younger audience, and it might have been felt that “more tools” needed to be provided. If nothing else, remember that the mid-80s was when when we start to see many published “campaign settings,” and the GAZ series was just another form of that.

  2. You can't design what you don't understand. I can't think of ANY medieval or renaissance examples of people conquering a region and willy nilly renaming it. Books were expensive and it would mean every book in the barony would still have the old name. I wasn't like hitting find and replace.

    It is a shame that we have to return again and again to the well of "evil." Why not say that Ludwig's grandfather used to have absolute control over the barony in exchange for a tribute, but that Stefan's father broke the agreement, and now Ludwig wants Stefan to honor it again, and is ready to pay the tribute. Stefan wants a larger tribute, that Ludwig isn't willing to pay ... with both men having a just cause and both men being stubborn about admitting to the other. This makes both men potentially interesting, friendly to meet for the party, giving them the dilemma of not knowing who to support, etc., etc. Must everything be framed in a way a 7 y.o. understands?

    1. Of course not (unless you're running the game for small children...which I hope to be doing in the near future!).
      ; )

  3. This bothered me ever so slightly when I got GAZ1 when I was about 11. It was too simplistic for me then. A rare miss from Frank.

    Then again, X4 and X5 (?) was a fight against Ayatollah Khameni, so maybe it was the zeitgeist.

    Like Alex above I would have liked all the various barons to be basically equally awful with some exceptions instead of one bad guy off on the edge of the map and mostly decent rulers.

    I always played Thincol with a cult of the emperor vibe... until the characters met him and realized he was just the most ruthless of jerks. Maybe Ludwig is the other way - he suffers from bad press because the Grand Duke needs a bogeyman?

  4. I see Ludvig Von Hendriks as Tywin Lannister with less money. Good enough fit for me.

    1. I put forth Tywin as a possible alternative for Duke Stefan, but I agree he's a good fit in the Black Eagle Barony, too.