The Sea Devils (1997)
Skip Williams (TSR)
Since the Illithiad gained me a boatload of unexpected entertainment and a newfound respect for Rpg-heavyweight and Moonglum to Cook’s Elric Bruce Cordell, I figured I might as well check out the rest of relatively short lived Monstrous Arcana Series, which provided one fluffsplat with three linked adventures for various entries in the DnD bestiary. This one is, however, not by Bruce Cordell, but by 3rd edition co-designer Skip Williams. Fucking mistake.
Sea Devils concerns the life cycle, abilities, culture, psychology and anatomy of the dreaded Sahuagin and is, regrettably, less interesting then its predecessor. I blame the nature of the Sahuagin. The Illithid (or Mind Flayer to the politically incorrect) is a Lovecraftian terror, with vast alien intellect and incomprehensible motivation; Its powers are subtle and insidious. It can control minds, it avoids direct confrontation. It plots in darkness and works through catspaws. It speaks to the imagination and thus delving deeper into its culture and civilization can add much to a slow burner horror or investigative adventure.
Not so the Sahuagin. When you come down to it, the Sahuagin is an orc. A smart orc. With a photographic memory, 4 claw attacks & a bite, longevity and a fondness for poison darts. But still an orc. It will do orc things. It will raid coastal towns or kidnap sailors. It will do this in a smart fashion, with ruthlessness and terrifying efficiency. But it does not lend itself as well to a more in depth study of its culture since players are going to end up murdering them in all but the most Sahuagin-centric campaigns. I can envision someone running a prolonged game where you discover the identity of a mind flayer plot to extinguish the sun and restore the glorious Eternal Empire but a prolonged game of battling Sahuagin seems less brimming with potential.
The actual book more or less follows the format of the Illithiad, just not as interesting. We follow the writings of some wizard on his quest for rare sea creatures and his encounters with the Sahuagin and thus the in-universe reason for the book is established. Whatever. The book proceeds naturally from general overview, anatomy, lifecycle, abilities (and thus delicious crunch that can, for the most part, be found in the monstrous manual), history, culture, sample village, technology & architecture, special rules for priestesses and a reprint of underwater fucking rules. This book is long-winded, bloated and filled with trivial detail. A paragraph alone is spent on their larynx, for example. The art is gorgeous however, as was the case with the Illithiad.
I called Sahuagin super-orcs and that is what they are, in essence. Apex predator aquatic humanoids. Excellent sense of smell, darkvision, thick scales providing natural AC, average intelligence above that of a human (which has some interesting implications) and immortality. Yes. They are immortal (though you may rest assured they stop growing after their 600th year). Sahuagin culture as it is described is so fucking lethal no one has actually tested that but voila, immortal orcs. What was that? You wanted to sneak up on them using invisibility like a little bitch? Wrong move maggot! Sahuagin can detect weak electrical fields and sense vibrations, allowing them to detect invisibility within a 30 ft. radius! You just got your shit wrecked! Oh you they failed their morale? 50% chance of them going into blood frenzy and fighting to the death with no fear shitface! Yeah! And they are friends with sharks.
I guess it is well done that the Sahuagin, for all its strengths, has a reasonable number of vulnerabilities as well, including magical fire, bright light, fresh water and a fear of arcane magic, allowing intelligent players to exploit these various weaknesses to great tactical advantage.
There is a lack of subtlety to the species that makes this detailed anthropological treatment moot, just give me a page on the MM and I am set. It’s just too blunt. Entertainment? Gladiatorial Combat. Religion? Giant Shark-God of Hunting and Eating. Torture? Yes. Stance towards anything that is not at least part shark? Food! Preferred weaponry? Tridents and nets and other sea stuff. We get it. They are evil shark men.
We are treated to a chapter (Abilities!) with unnecessarily complicated rules for pinning people with tridents or grappling them with nets, Touch AC and grappling rules before there was such a thing, a bizarre table for Sahuagin vision ranges depending on the time of day, weather conditions and type of water that I guaran-fucking-tee has never seen use since its publication in 1997, an even more useless table to determine the exact range of their hearing and some nice notes with accompanying rules for their shark charming abilities (will not be used since that can be handled offscreen unless there happens to be a friendly shark nearby I guess) and the mysterious Deepsong ability that allows tribes of Sahuagin to communicate across great distances. Great but…fluff.
And now to the good part of the book the chapters on History & Culture (i.e the information that we could not just pull from the Monstrous Manual). As with the Illithiad, they try to keep the origins of the beastie somewhat vague so the GM has some mystery to be discovered, though with the Sea Devil I do not know why anyone would bother. It is pretty clear it and you are not going to get along. Kill it with fire already. Some interesting hints of blood connections with elves are provided, but what of it? At least the chapter ends as all chapters should, with stats for the avatar of a murderous shark god.
Sahuagin culture is pretty much what you would expect from a race of shark men. Just imagine an underwater mixture of the Spartans, the Tharks (Barsoom silly) and the Sith and you have got it. A nice mixture of Social Darwinism and collectivism. Advancement happens through duels to the death, failure or betrayal of the community is punished by death, and racial purity is maintained by feeding the deformed to sharks. Creatures are categorized as either “Sahuagin,” “Enemy” or “Food.” Popular entertainment consists of storytelling, formal duels, and watching captured slaves fight to death in arenas (not unlike Belgium).
The section on Sahuagin society is actually useful and would aid you in properly running a scenario against the Sahuagin, for which I award some kudos. Shit like this would be even more useful if Sahuagin psychology enabled them to be diplomatic and you could run a sort of “Last of the Sea Devils” campaign starring Tom Cruise as he befriends the noble shark men and gains their respect but the way they are written such scenarios are unlikely and Sahuagin are just monsters. All this stuff is kind of neat but working it into your campaign is going to be tricky. Still, these sections are actually worthwhile and interesting, if heavy on the fluff.
The sample village is pretty useful and can be thrown into any campaign, needing only an objective and minor elaboration in order for it to be utilized as is (add any GM worth his salt disclaimer etc. etc.), though if I must be critical I feel it suffers a bit from the simulationist, quasi-realistic feel 2e was so in love with at the cost of exciting things. Still, elements like a captive giant octopus and the odd hard to transport giant marble slab worth 15.000 gp ensure some fun may be had.
The section on Sahuagin technology is boring and adds nothing. The Illithiad section was great because it covered all sorts of bizarre, alien devices. This one covers minor underwater variants of existing technologies and spends time explaining Sahuagin underwater construction. Oooh, underwater magical grease to ensure your painstakingly forged iron weaponry does not rust. Bleh. The odd ink bomb or Sahuagin naval vessel are alright but this entire section is dull. Half a page on straps and nets. Fuck off.
In similar fashion, the section on Sahuagin priestesses, a special caste among Sea Devils, is lukewarm. New abilities provided unto them do not inspire awe and dread and details on the initiation ritual are nice but ultimately, just more fluff.
It ends with a whimper, a reprint of underwater combat rules (did they have to pad this shit out some more? The reprint of psionics rules in the Illithiad was annoying by itself but this takes the cake) and two monsters, both only tangentially related to the Sea Devils (the eel-like Anguilians whose relationship with the Sahuagin is never really explored and Sharkweres because why the fuck not). Curtain closes.
Pros: Nice detailed look on Sahuagin origins, behaviour and culture allows you to fully flesh the noble Sea devil in your elfgame. Good art.
Cons: Endless padding, cruff and uninteresting details. Half the book feels like it just reprints information from other sources. Many Gm’s will find the Sahuagin unsuitable for such a detailed anthropological treatment. Who runs a campaign centred around Sahuagin? No seriously, I am asking. Drop a line in the comments section.
Final Verdict: Ultimately, I cannot recommend The Sea Devils, even to dedicated Sahuagin fans (should they exist). It really provides depressingly little information beyond the 2e monstrous manual entry, which was 2 pages. While the sections on the culture and history might help flesh out your use of the Sahuagin a little bit, I don’t see this book improving your portrayal of the noble sharkmen all that much beyond the entry in the monstrous manual. Pages and pages of useless detail on Sahuagin larynxes and underwater crossbows do not a good supplement make. Even as a coffee-table book it is in every way inferior to its predecessor. Even where it is not boring it does not inspire the GM to creature fun scenarios or encounters like the Illithiad does. I recommend one emulates the first name of the designer and Skip this book (delirious laughter, spilling of whiskey, mad piping, flashes of colour, eyes without life, maggots crawling through rotting flesh, faceless Loraine Williams slowly walking through rusting amusement park while covered in napalm, piles of severed children’s arms etc. etc.). 3 out of 10 Sahuagin Belt Pouches.