Lessons from The Fortress Unvanquishable

Once upon a time, there was an evil sorcerer by the name of Gaznak, and he hid himself away in a mighty fortress, a dwelling that could only be vanquished by the sword of Sacnoth. The sword Sacnoth was not yet forged, for the sword was Tharagavverug’s spine, and his flesh was like iron and steel, and such a creature could scarce be harmed. Arrows and swords bounced off his hide, and a dozen warriors could not prevail against him, but still the dragon had one weakness: hunger.

And the magician of Allathurion answered: “He is the dragon-crocodile who haunts the Northern marshes and ravages the homesteads by their marge. And the hide of his back is of steel, and his under parts are of iron; but along the midst of his back, over his spine, there lies a narrow strip of unearthly steel. This strip of steel is Sacnoth, and it may be neither cleft nor molten, and there is nothing in the world that may avail to break it, nor even leave a scratch upon its surface. It is of the length of a good sword, and of the breadth thereof. Shouldst thou prevail against Tharagavverug, his hide may be melted away from Sacnoth in a furnace; but there is only one thing that may sharpen Sacnoth’s edge, and this is one of Tharagavverug’s own steel eyes; and the other eye thou must fasten to Sacnoth’s hilt, and it will watch for thee. But it is a hard task to vanquish Tharagavverug, for no sword can pierce his hide; his back cannot be broken, and he can neither burn nor drown. In one way only can Tharagavverug die, and that is by starving.”

Then sorrow fell upon Leothric, but the magician spoke on:

“If a man drive Tharagavverug away from his food with a stick for three days, he will starve on the third day at sunset. And though he is not vulnerable, yet in one spot he may take hurt, for his nose is only of lead. A sword would merely lay bare the uncleavable bronze beneath, but if his nose be smitten constantly with a stick he will always recoil from the pain, and thus may Tharagavverug, to left and right, be driven away from his food.”

Then Leothric said: “What is Tharagavverug’s food?”

And the magician of Allathurion said: “His food is men.”

“The Fortress Unvanquishable, Save for Sacnoth” is a story I encourage everyone to read. It is not a marvelous bit of prose, but it is enjoyable, and more importantly, it details some interesting thoughts for monstrous creatures that most RPGers get wrong. To the average gamer, power lies in numbers, the bigger the better. Afflict your foes with penalties and stack bonus upon bonus, and now you have a mighty character. But “The Fortress Unvanquishable, Save for Sacnoth” gives a very different concept of power.

The +1 Sword of Sacnoth
The sword Sacnoth is not a glowing magical sword. It does not grant +12d6 damage and an expanded critical range. Instead, its primary power is that it allows the wielder to engage the mighty sorcerer Gaznak in combat. Effectively, its power is entirely plot-dependent, and that is precisely how magic items ought to be handled. Sacnoth is a prized weapon because it offers its wielder permission to do the impossible: to enter in the impregnable fortress and slay Gaznak. (Spoilers: Leothric kills Gaznak.) No one else can do that, not even the magician of Allathurion, and thus the man who possesses Sacnoth possesses a greater power than anyone in the story.

This stands apart from D&D’s approach to magical weapons which add bonuses to attack and damage. Consider the vorpal sword, another magical blade from literature, but one that made it into our beloved hobby. The rules for this weapon have varied from edition to edition, but the mechanics are similar: roll a critical hit and sever your foe’s head. Sadly, it’s a much less interesting weapon than Sacnoth because of D&D’s treatment of the weapon; it is just another weapon to be collected by the fighter, and despite its fantastical properties, it will be stored somewhere when the fighter has to deal with a creature immune to its deadly properties (an ettin, perhaps, or a gelatinous cube).

Despite this, the vorpal sword gets a much fairer shake as a magic item in D&D than many others. The vorpal sword has a unique and memorable special property to it, one much more becoming of a magical item than a +1 or +2. (Another +3 axe? Yawn. I took Weapon Focus: Longsword anyhow.) The reason that the vorpal sword is an interesting magic item is that it’s unique. It has a special ability to it, one that isn’t replicated anywhere else (the Sword of Sharpness does, kind of, but nobody remembers that one). Transforming the vorpal sword into just another weapon steals all the fantastic from it:

vorpal

There are good reasons to do this, mind you, especially for game balance reasons. You don’t want the party to make it through the Tomb of Horrors to encounter Acererak only to have him killed in a single round when the fighter gets a lucky attack roll. (Or do you? It really depends on the type of game you’re playing.) More importantly, the above version of the vorpal blade–now made into a generic “vorpal weapon” instead of the iconic sword–robs the item of its uniqueness, turning it into a totally forgettable magic item.

The Dragon-Crocodile’s Wrath
Moreover, consider the trials that Leothric faces in gaining the sword: it is an ordeal to slay Tharagavverug, a creature who is nearly invulnerable. As gamers, we tend to view Tharagavverug as a powerful dragon, except he’s not how we think of powerful. He’s monstrous and hard to kill, but it’s not because of his 73 AC hide. If we view the story as an RPG adventure–and I think we certainly should, as it encompasses the hero’s journey–the DM flatly says, “You cannot hurt Tharagavverug with your sword. It won’t work.”

Most players would cry foul at such treatment. If Tharagavverug’s a monster, surely someone can kill him. In RPG mechanics, Tharagavverug might have damage resistance against non-magical weapons, or he might impose a stiff penalty on attack rolls. But there’s something to be said for Tharagavverug’s non-numeric power.

Moreover, the magician of Allathurion demonstrates good GMing: giving the players a way forward. To use the parlance of Dungeon World and Apocalypse World: “Tell them the requirements or consequences and ask.”

There’s no quicker way to sour players on interesting critters like Tharagavverug than to let them come up against them and “neener” their abilities. Oh, you rolled a natural 20? Ah, what a shame, this dragon-crocodile cannot be harmed by your sword. Now, does a 29 hit your AC? Okay, take 18 damage.

The golden rule of monster design: if it has stats, it can be killed. Never underestimate the canny ability of players to exploit a weakness or loophole to whittle down their opposition, especially those tricky wizards. (No matter how high a monster’s saves, it has a 5% chance of rolling a 1.) If you have a “puzzle” monster that needs to be thought through, don’t give it stats or it’s going to wind up a red paste. On the other hand, if you don’t give a monster stats, then let the players know upfront that they aren’t going to stab their way out of this one.

The closest analog in D&D is the Tarrasque, the mighty foe who has been diminished since earlier editions. In days past, the Tarrasque’s bite had a chance to tear off limbs, and a wish or miracle spell was required to permanently end its existence, and even then the Tarrasque might survive. Now, it seems that the Tarrasque has been reduced to a bag of hit points that is relatively easy to kill. The 4e version of the monster was legendarily bad and susceptible to stunlock; the 5e version has improved in this regard, but it is still merely a melee monstrosity without any of the quirks like the aforementioned crocodragon. Without the rules-breaking nonsense like the wish spell requirement, the once-mighty creature loses much of its uniqueness.

A Note on Bards
As a final thought on “The Fortress Unvanquishable”:

There Gaznak slept, and around him sat his magical musicians, all playing upon strings. And, even sleeping, Gaznak was clad in armour, and only his wrists and face and neck were bare….

Then the magicians played a deathspell on their strings, and there arose a humming along the blade of Sacnoth as he turned the spell aside. When Leothric dropped not down, and they heard the humming of Sacnoth, the magicians arose and fled, all wailing, as they went, upon their strings.

Bards are badass.