Friday, March 29, 2019

Re-Working The Black Eagle (P.2)

Before I continue, allow me to take a moment to address the question "Why bother?" Am I simply writing to denigrate these products of 20-30 years ago? To show how I could have "done it better?" No, not really. I actually believe you can still get use out of these products...they provide a ready-made campaign setting to start with (as my friends and I used the Greyhawk maps in the past: we kept the geography and city names and made up all the rest). But more than that, there WAS a lot of thought, effort, and creativity that was poured into these books (the Gazeteers especially), and while I might not have the same taste for the material that I once had (if I ever did), I can at least APPRECIATE the work that was done even as I mine what material I can from the writings. At least these booklets are spurring my imagination; they're making me think.

[and some people, upon reading these ideas, might actually WANT the Disney-ish cartoon villains for their own campaign...perhaps they, like me, have small children they want to introduce to D&D. If any of this encourages people to go back and acquire these old books, maybe even run an older edition of D&D...well, so much the better. And if they still want to adapt the material to their own 5E or Pathfinder campaign? Well, at least I'm encouraging folks to read and think and explore and experiment and we definitely need more of that in our world, IMO]

So picking up where I left off: here are a few ideas I've had for re-skinning the "Black Eagle" to make the character more interesting to me. I write these down to record my ideas (so I don't forget) and to offer possibilities for others. They may be just as trite and tropey as what TSR did back in the day, but at least they're different...and I like these ones better.

Baron Black Eagle as Vlad the Impaler: Karameikos has a certain "Hollywood Transylvania" vibe going on with its nosferatu lords, misty forests, and forbidding mountains. Why not go whole hog and model Ludwig after the voivode of Wallachia himself, Vlad Tepes? I've read more than a couple books on Vlad over the years (fiction and non-), but I find his most colorful portrayal in the film Bram Stoker's Dracula. The man was indeed cruel and bloodthirsty, with a penchant for torture and brutality; Ludwig's "depredations" positively pale in comparison.

Blood drinking? Sure.
Vlad ruled Wallachia during the 15th century, a border territory of the Holy Roman Empire that changed hands with the Ottoman Turks multiple times. He spent most of his adult life in battle, mostly on the side of Christendom (as a youth, he had been a political hostage of the Turks, from which he learned their language fluently and achieved his first reign in Wallachia at the head of a Turkish fighting force). There are many posited reasons for his terror tactics, but from his own words a good portion of this was to inspire fear in a tremendous enemy against whose might he stood little chance (also fear in his own people, who might well have preferred religious conversion to destruction and bloodshed). He was killed in battle with the Ottomans, who hacked his body into small pieces.

It would be very easy to reskin the "Black Eagle" as the "Young Dragon," using the monstrous humanoids of western Karameikos as a stand-in for the Ottoman Empire.  A strong warlord would be considered a necessary evil by Archduke Stefan, and model why Ludwig is allowed to operate in the fashion he does. Keep in mind the reason (in B/X) that a fighter is granted the title of "baron;" the character must be of sufficient level (9th) and be able to keep a territory controlled and cleared of monsters. As the Halag was awarded to Ludwig/Vlad as a fiefdom, he must have demonstrated sufficient ability to the duke.

Baron Black Eagle as Aethelwulf: now that it's available for streaming (and my wife's gotten into the show), I've finally been able to get back to watching the television series Vikings. Despite some historical inaccuracies (mostly the specific timeline of events; for example, Ragnar's first attack of Paris in 845 was basically a "walk-in touchdown" while the famous siege when Count Odo successfully repelled the Norsemen was 40 years later against the historic Rollo) I find the show both fascinating and interesting, especially the way it dramatizes the events of the 9th century in light of the politics and (especially) religion/faith of the time.

Banner still has
a black eagle.
Aethelwulf, son of the scheming King Egbert, is another excellent inspiration for a Black Eagle reskin. In this case we have another brutal warlord, faced with repelling invasions of humanoids (this time a stand in for the Norsemen), but here we have a motivation based as much on piety and faith as on the need to stem the invasion. Only humans can become clerics in B/X...this is a little explored concept in most campaigns. While Ludwig/Vlad is a sadistic tyrant fighting for his life, Ludwig/Aethelwulf sees himself as a holy crusader, battling the enemies of the Lord. Note that he is no "paladin" (such do not exist in B/X anyway), but a devout soldier tasked with a bloody mission. While Vlad would be a tool of the archduke, Aethelwulf is a tool of both his sovereign and his church...and which side will win out in the end (if either)? Note also that demihuman characters (dwarves, elves, halflings) would fall into the "nonhuman" hatred of such an individual...the refugees found in Luln would be demihumans driven from the Barony and their human friends ("sympathizers"). The Black Eagle would see himself as a "good" person, doing God's will, and even if he had the ambitions of Egbert, he'd more likely be going about them in the usual fashion (i.e. making political alliances through marriage to the Archduke's daughter, rather than open warfare).

Baron Black Eagle as King Haggard: as I've written before, I love Peter S. Beagle's novel The Last Unicorn, and for whatever reason I am particularly fond of the animated version of King Haggard (voiced by Christopher Lee). I wouldn't mind adopting the character wholesale to replace Baron Ludwig, age and all. Halag would become Hagsgate; "Fort Doom" could keep its name (a fitting euphemism for Haggard's dire keep), though it would retain the witch's curse from the novel. Heck, I'd probably add the Red Bull and adopted son Lir to the mix. I like a little fantasy whimsy (as I've written before), and King Haggard is plenty callous and dangerous without making him all mustache-twirly. He should be more of a "force of nature" in the campaign than an outright antagonist.

Described as "seventy
years old, or eighty,
or more."
I'd probably put him back about 10-15 years before the events detailed in the novel. Lir would be around, but only a small child; Haggard and his retainers would still be old, if maybe not quite so ancient. Hagsgate would look more like Nulb than a post-apocalyptic, almost-ghost town. And, of course, Haggard would still possess his "magician's magician" Mabruk, replacing Bargle in the campaign. Perhaps Mabruk would still possess the power to delight the grim lord with his magic. In such a scenario as this, the dynamics between the barony and the capital would probably need to change: I see Haggard as having come to the region many years before Archduke Stefan (though probably still from Thyatis) appointed governor/sentinel/warlord who chose to live far outside the bounds of the more populated Specularum due to his particular misanthropy.

Will not be driven away
by halflings. He eats halflings.
Baron Black Eagle as Gregor Clegane: this one is pretty easy, though the stat line will need to change a bit (I'm fine modeling "The Mountain" as a 12th level fighter, but Strength 18 is definitely required...possibly more). Once again we go back to the "brutal but necessary" warlord protecting the Grand Duchy's border, but here's a villain that everyone can really hate, as he's so hateful. In this incarnation, Duke Stefan plays the role of King Robert "Look the other way" Baratheon (or Tywin Lannister if you want your Archduke to be a scheming manipulator). Clegane is the worst kind of robber knight; he is a man without code or honor, with no sense of duty, paying only lip service to liege and faith as it allows him to do that which he wishes to do. He has no loyalty, not even to his own family or retainers (he murdered his own father to assume his title; he killed his own man for snoring too loudly). Clegane lives only to fulfill his basest passions and momentary whims. He slays his warhorse, a very expensive piece of horseflesh, in a flash of anger at losing a joust.

And yet, Ludwig/Clegane has the title and power and fighting prowess that allows a man of such horrible character to not only survive but thrive in a savage, brutal world. Other lords and would-be kings WANT him on their side, because of the terror he instills in their enemies, because of the threat he poses, should they decide to let him off the leash. Like star athletes that have committed despicable acts off the field, people still want The Mountain on their team; definitely better to have him on your side than fighting against you! However, he has no designs on the throne...I prefer this option for the Black Eagle if there are other vying factions in Karameikos (allowing Ludwig/Clegane to act as wild card). He's a man of "simple pleasures," after all.

Beloved by all...except
the French.
Baron Black Eagle as Black Prince Edward: finally, we have the idea of the Black Eagle as an actual, honest-to-goodness hero (or whatever passes for one in a pseudo-medieval period)...a warlord trying to be chivalrous even as tries to be a strong leader for his people. All those rumors about the Black Eagle? Slander. "Fort Doom?" Called that because every prior-appointed baron met their deaths fighting humanoids. Reputation for cruelty? He is hated and feared by his enemies because he is O So Good at what he does. The "black eagle" is simply his banner...or perhaps the baron is a black (i.e. dark skinned) man who happens to use an eagle in his heraldry. Ludwig the "black" Eagle...get it?

In this scenario, Baron Ludwig gets his bad press from his rivals at court (i.e. other barons, nobles of Karameikos) who are vying for the attention/largesse of the Archduke. Alternatively, the rumors could be spread by Duke Stefan himself, keeping in mind that he's ruling a conquered people who have no great love for him (oh, wait...I haven't gotten to that post yet). Maybe the Black Eagle is descended from Traladar nobility or perhaps he is "half-blooded." Maybe he has married into a once-noble Traladaran house, despite his Thyatian roots, "going native" and earning the epithet "black eagle" (like "black sheep") based on the Imperial crest of Thyatis. Such an individual might be loved (or better respected anyway) by the indigenous people of the region, and a focal point for rebellion and the eventual overthrow of Duke Stefan. Being from Luln, the player characters might have more reason to discern truth from the scandal (Lulnish refugees either being from other areas of Thyatian control or victims of humanoid raids and looking to the Black Eagle for protection). That would make for a more interesting campaign then simply overthrowing "Bargle's boss."

But then, I find ALL these alternatives "more interesting" (which is why I bothered to write them down). Derivative? Sure...but fun in a way that "Bwahaha! I'll throw you in my dungeon and feed you to Bargle!" just isn't. Not for me, anyway.

[hmm...I don't think any of these guys are the type to even use dungeons. Torture, sure, but generally "to the death" and in spectacular, public fashion. Only Ludwig/Haggard is likely to drop a character in an oubliette...and then just to forget about him]


  1. In my dad's game we eventually did overthrow the black eagle. When I reintroduce the baron in my game I'm going to have him be the first barons son who was raised by his native traladaran mother, so he Is more loyal to the traladarans and his native right to rule from his mother's side than to the Duke in specularum. He may possibly become the source of a nationalistic Independence movement.

  2. An amalgam of some of these also opens up the possibility of the Black Eagle Baron as the Operative from Serenity. He knows he is a monster and knows that the things that he does are evil, but he does them because he sees them as necessary and so that no one else has to. This characterization could even have him doing this out of loyalty to Stephen (who he sees as naive) even as the Archduke works against him.

  3. Everything about this post is a winner.

  4. Given the economics of the Barony, and the fact there is sufficient managed firewood and forest timber for a small percentage of the total populace, the region is suffering under rationing.

  5. Great post! I especially like the idea suggested above by FrDave to create an amalgamation of two or more of these individuals. Nice job!

    1. @ Bill (and Fr. Dave):

      There’s already a bit of overlap because I’m drawing from the same place (the B/X description) for all of them. I mean, it’s all well and good to say “everything you know about the Black Eagle is a lie,” but why not say SOME of it is true (or more true than you’d like) and spinning it in a way that’s a bit less trite.

      Not that I’m saying my ideas are incredibly original or anything...
      ; )