Saturday, September 17, 2016

What makes a monster?

Traps, monsters and treasure.  The big three of fantasy roleplaying.

Today I’m going to talk about Monsters. In full disclosure this was heavily inspired by another blog I’d read some time ago, and if I can ever find the article I’ll edit this and give credit where credit is due.

The quintessential monster of fantasy lore is the Dragon.  You don’t even have to look beyond the title of the world’s most famous roleplaying game, Dungeons and Dragons, to find them.  Why is this, perhaps because they are the combination of all the things primal man most feared in a predator. 
Combine the tearing claws of a Jaguar, the needle teeth of a wolf, the armored hide of a lizard, the ability to fly and strike from above like a raptor, a gigantic size that would make man’s tools seem feeble, and above all an inherent ability to produce on of the most amazing things to primitive man- fire.  The dragon is not only the sum of everything we fear, but greater than each of its individual parts. 
It is the culmination of the fear of a mighty predator.  This is different than fear of death in battle by another human being.  Because unlike being killed in combat by man where death is the end, in combat vs. a dragon death is just the end of your life.  This is followed by being eaten, chewed up, digested, and eventually being no more than a pile of dung.  

You might ask, so what?  You’re still dead at the end.  Physiologically it does two things.  One is that it is a reminder that we are not on the top of the food chain in a fantasy setting.  The second is that there isn’t much reasoning with a predator.  Sure there might be some dialog as a precursor, be it a dragon, vampire or other intelligent foe, but this is more akin to a cat playing with a mouse from their point of view.
This is the primary motive I like to have for my monsters.  With the starting point of humans=food I go from there.  I am more concerned about this than I am about is the monster “evil” 

Then there is alien intelligence.  Again this motive may be thought of as evil, but the point isn’t about food. However generally the outcome is the same or worse as they creature is making decisions completely out of line with the world it is existing in. A creature whose very nature cannot be comprehended by the human mind and drives others to madness is a threat to the PCs and the surrounding area, even if its very nature is that of a docile herbivore.  A creature with a hive mind that expects the humans it encounters to be part of a hive mind as well. These can be just as much a threat and a horror to the characters as one that means them to be food, but for completely different reasons.  The players don’t have to ever find out the “logic” behind the actions, and sometimes this is for the best as it keep mystery for both the characters and the players.  (As often I have found once a player identifies a pattern of behavior or reasoning for a monster it is far less frightening or interesting).

So what about evil monsters then?  Surely some actions of monsters from the predator motive above are considered evil, and there is some cross over in the choices they make- but these are more an offshoot of thinking of the PCs and other denizens of the world as food at some level.  I tend to relegate evil to the peer group of the players.  In most games this means other humans/demi-humans but may extend out if we are playing vampires/werewolves or things traditionally thought of as ‘monsters’ (thank you World of Darkness).  At any rate, evil is a conscious choice by individuals to exploit others for personal gain. 

The thing I have never cared for is the civilizing of monsters. The most common version of this I have found is the “noble orc” stereotype.  Making them an extreme warrior culture or so forth that is general just “misunderstood”.   If I want to have that in my games I can just make another human culture.  We do pretty good at misunderstanding each other already, or finding reasons to hate and fight each other even when we do understand each othe


  1. Curious then. How would you identify Smaug? He's one of my more favorite villains/ dragons because, by my interpretation, he is evil for amusement, and looks at food as a side benefit to his love of being cruel rather than primary motivator.

  2. I agree that Smaug’s prime motivator wasn’t food, but Smaug would I feel still fits under the category as monster as predator. Being an intelligent monster he has many other surface motives- his love of gold, and as you say evil for amusement, he doesn’t lament or gloat over the taste of man or dwarf flesh. However, his position of arrogance comes from his position of power on top of the mountain, as the supreme predator in the area. He is so confident in his position that food is not a primary motivator. While we can attribute many evil characteristics to him (and many other monsters) I think this is akin to a cat playing with a mouse. The cat may choose to eat the mouse, kill it for entertainment, or just let it escape because it is board. If the cat was hungry though, the mouse would have just been eaten, and not even played with. The choice though is the cat’s, not the mouse’s. The people of Dale were afraid of Smaug because they realized their position as the mouse in the relationship.