Tuesday, April 2, 2019

B is for Bargle the Infamous

[over the course of the month of April, I shall be posting a topic for each letter of the alphabet, sequentially, for every day of the week except Sunday. Our topic for this year's #AtoZchallengeRevamping the Grand Duchy of Karameikos in a way that doesn't disregard it's B/X roots]

B is for Bargle the Infamous. Told you I'd get to him eventually.

D&D players who came into the hobby with the Frank Mentzer edition of Basic D&D (circa 1983) should all be familiar with Bargle: the evil magician lairing at the dungeons of Castle Mistamere who magic missiles your cleric companion, Aleena. Beginning with Mentzer's Expert book, we learn that Bargle is an agent of the Baron "Black Eagle" von Hendriks, and is residing in the ruins north of Threshold (the player characters' presumed "home base") in order to spy on the Duke and (presumably) his goody-good followers like Patriarch Sherlane. GAZ1 gives Bargle a stat-line, a brief history, and the statement "Every campaign needs a thoroughly evil magic-user villain, and Bargle fits the bill." Oh, Allston...too many comic books, man.

It's not that I disagree with the notion that evil wizards can be cool/fun, it's just that the concept is so trite, so banal these days...and the unfortunately named "Bargle" (sounds like a portmanteau of "Barf" and "Gargle") is about as by-the-numbers as you get. SnarfQuest's Suthaze had more personality than this guy.

I was trying to think back to the last time the idea of an evil wizard antagonist was actually interesting. Evil magic in myth and folklore often takes the form of a (female) witch: Circe, Morgan le Fay, Baba Yaga, that crone in the candy house (Hansel and Gretel). Yeah, there are some antagonists in pulp literature who use sorcery and "black magic," but a lot of them are more of the "evil high priest" variety that get played up in the earliest edition of OD&D. Most wizards in pre-D&D fiction tend to be good guys or (at worst) elemental "forces of nature" that are neutral unless trifled with (and many stories contain the lesson don't f around with these dudes). Khemsa from Howard's Conan tale "The People of the Black Circle" is one of the best examples of an "evil magician," but he's less of an antagonist than a complex character (and co-protagonist) of the story.

[there aren't any evil wizards in Tolkien. Sauron is a fallen angel, the witch-king is an undead lord powered by magic, and Sauruman is more of a tragic figure]

I guess old "youth fantasy" is where I see more evil wizards of the Bargle-type. Lloyd Alexander. Susan Cooper. Paul Fisher (though he was writing post-D&D). Yes, Bakshi's Wizards had Blackwolf, but he is far more interesting (both as a post-apocalyptic mutant and in his use of technology and propaganda) than the typical "Bwah-hah-hah!" evil magician. Theleb K'aarna (of Michael Moorcock's Elric stories) is probably the last, best use of this particular type of wizard...perhaps because (again, like Khemsa) we're allowed to glimpse his side of the conflict in some stories.

Bargle's not to my taste, but there are a couple things I find interesting about him. One is his youth: GAZ1 describes him as being about 30 years old (and whenever an NPC's that make use of longevity potions are generally noted, along with their actual age). Considering that he's only been practicing magic since the age of 14...and grew up on the streets of Specularum...we can presume he has lived his entire life under the reign of Archduke Stefan in occupied Traldara. He is probably a native Traladaran, perhaps orphaned shortly after birth when one or both parents were killed in the Marilenev revolt. Certainly Bargle's committed murder and heinous acts since then, but he might have a good-sized axe to grind against the Thyatians and the Duke in particular. This makes him a far more intriguing character than the lazy-crazy trickster/murderer portrayed in the books.

The other thing that's interesting is his additional spell knowledge: Bargle possesses more spells than Karameikos's head wizard (because he's killed and robbed spell books from foreign magic-users he's come across over the years)...which gives player characters a real reason for being on friendly (or, at least) working terms with the "evil" wizard. What is it worth to a PC to be able to learn spells like ice storm, disintegrate, and mass invisibility, rather than spending the time and resources to engage in spell research? No, of course this isn't suggested by the text (no heroic PC would ever work with Bargle! Gooeavens!) instead implying that Bargle has extra spells to make him a more formidable foe for the PCs to (inevitably) defeat.

The point is semi-moot anyway: this series is supposed to be about revamping the Grand Duchy for B/X play, and Bargle never appeared in B/X. The idea of "court magicians" doesn't appeal all that much to me anyway...perhaps due to my experiences with Ars Magica, or the humorous disdain the concept is treated with in Robert Asprin's Myth- books. Do I need some sort of pet henchmage for the Black Eagle? Probably not. And yet as I said in the beginning of this post "evil wizards" can be fun...if they're not so run-of-the-mill boring.

Here are a couple-few ideas for including a Bargleish antagonist in Karameikos:

Pilgrim Without Ethics: if you want a wandering "do-badder" type, I'd check out Marion Zimmer Bradley's Lythande stories. Not for Lythande herself, but rather for her Blue Star brethren (Rabben the Half-Handed, Beccolo the Goat Ravisher). They're a good example of what a dangerous mage is, and how, regardless of a character's alignment, powerful magic-users have a tendency to consider themselves ABOVE the law. It's a bit of the Crowley philosophy: Do As Thou Will (and who cares if anyone gets hurt).

This kind of character has an outlook that denies compassion: they sacrificed much for their craft, why should they give a damn for others? Have others made similar sacrifices when they could have? If not, that's on them...it's not up to the mage to pretend to care about their suffering. Only the weak suffer, and those without magic are no more than toads to be toyed with. While I wouldn't go so far as to say these magicians have such a thing as "personal honor," their egos are absolutely huge, and revenge versus slights is a major motivator (even unto their downfall). It's old school sorcery 101, really (of the pulp variety).

Demoniac Evil: or you can go "whole hog" with the supernatural evil and make your wizard a demon worshipper. Unlike deities, demons and devils don't grant spells, so I've never really gotten the connection between "evil high priests" and "clerics." Best to leave such worship to wizards of the more insane sort.

Couldn't find a good image. Here's
the toy version. Much better animated.
Funny enough, my personal favorite example of this is the animated character Kelek from the old Dungeons & Dragons cartoon. The show doesn't actually say he's a demon worshipper but his worship and attempts to appease the eight armed statue of diabolic visage by maiming unicorns kind of screams "follower of dark gods" to me. No, demons don't grant spells but they do (sometimes) grant favors...plus being long-lived they have lots of "secret knowledge" (perhaps new spells or the location of power magic items) in exchange for blood sacrifices. Make your Bargle something really scary.

You really don't want to see him in better light.
Visage of the Beast: hell, why not make your evil mage even scarier and make him a twisted piece of corruption, like the sorcerer Xusia. The idea of supernatural evil corrupting one's flesh as well as one's soul isn't hugely original...you see it in everywhere from modern fantasy (David Chandler) to gaming (Warhammer) to Old School religious texts (the "mark of the beast" etc.). But showing what twisted, dark magic can do to you is a tone setter for your campaign...and gives PC magic-users something to think about when they come across such a figure.

[sure, sure...some might say Xusia was a lich, not a human. I'm inclined to disagree]

Morgana le Fay: again, in the style of Marion Zimmer Bradley (yes, I'm aware she was a horrible person; her books were still influential). Why does the power behind the throne have to be some maniacal, beardy court magus, when you could have an enchanting, manipulative witch? How about even an unassuming housewife (or presumed trophy squeeze/eye candy). Your pseudo-medieval campaign setting is probably all egalitarian when it comes to the sexes, but it needn't be (except with regard to player characters...player characters stand outside the social norms). Even if she isn't hiding behind (and/or because of) the patriarchy, your female "Bargle" might simply feel it's safer to keep a low profile (less chance of being hunted down by a pack of bloodthirsty adventurers).

There really isn't enough representation. An evil sorceress is as good as a dude any day of the week. Want the distaff version of Xusia to play advisor to your Black Eagle? How about the crone/mother of Alan Rickman's "Sheriff of Nottingham" (from Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves). Oo-oo...so many things to say about that film. Hell, use an evil version of Lythande...I won't care. Promise!

Court Buffoon: I know that when I suggested re-skinning the Black Eagle as King Haggard the other day, I also put forth the idea of using the "magician's magician," Mabruk, in place of Bargle. While there's some merit to the idea, I keep coming back to the same question, namely 'What self-respecting wizard would rather be performing as a trained monkey than out on adventures?'

"Magic, do as thou will!"
Well, how about an incompetent one? Enter Schmendrick, last of the Red Hot Swamis. Back when I was toying around with the idea of a Krull campaign setting (circa 2009), I came up with some "magical mishap" rules to better mimic Ergo the Magnificent (another fine incompetent). I'd probably end up adapting something like that for NPC (only!) magic-users of the "comic relief" variety. "Failed wizards," I guess I'd call them, and they'd only be encountered rarely...as most such blunderers would likely blow themselves up in short order.

All right, that's enough for tonight. Back at it again tomorrow.


  1. Some really good ideas here. My first encounter with Bargle was from the Mentzer set, and being a kid, my conception of him was heavily influenced by Saturday morning cartoons (as may have been intended).

    These ideas are much better than a Gargamel/Skeletor pastiche.

  2. How do you consider Bargle Evil? He isnt granted any form of Trial. Aleena decides that a random bearded wizard in a Dungeon is Bargle and hatches a plan to ambush and kill him. Aleena on the other hand is a religious fanatic enforcing her own brand of justice-death by Aleena's mace. Bargle is basically an Outlaw. In the war against monarchy and Theocracy and justice dispensed from the killing blow of a mace that makes him Robin hood, and we only have Aleena's word that this is even Bargle. He is a bearded wizard of at least 7th level armed with charm person, magic missile, sleep, invisibility. In the expert book the minimum level for a wizard who teaches magic to potential magic users is 7th level. This could be the local wizard and Aleena is exterminating him in an attack of opportunity.

    1. @ Sean:

      While I agree that Aleena could be considered an unreliable narrator, the text in the DMs book notes specifically that Bargle is a Chaotic magic-user of 7th level (with Chaotic being strongly associated with "evil"); in the text of later books, this is solidified.

      That being said, it's certainly an interesting idea to make Aleena a Guy of Gisborne type (Patriarch Sherlane, ruler of Threshold, is her uncle, per GAZ1, so I guess this would make the PCs' hometown the hotbed of the Theocracy?). I suppose it's a little weird (to me) that clerics with powers that seem fairly "holy" in nature (curing the sick, turning the undead) would be cast as the bad guys in a campaign, but there's probably a way to spin that.

      Down with the Authority! Right, Pullman?
      ; )

  3. Starting with B/X and not getting into BECMI until much, much later I was never on the "Bargle hate" bandwagon. Yeah I knew of him, but wrote him of as less of an NPC and more of a Plot Device.

    1. Yeah, I think I only ever heard of Bargle towards the end of Paizo's run with Dungeon magazine, in the adventure "Get Bargle". If I had ever heard of him before that, it was only in passing, and I knew nothing about him except maybe that he was an evil wizard. I know I never heard of Aleena until relatively recently.

    2. Nice post. I have but one question. Isn't the toy pictured above actually the evil magic-user Kelek (as seen in the Shady Dragon Inn accessory)? Kewl either way. Bargle was never what I considered a real villain, but he was a troublemaker.