Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Creature Features

Two recent posts on the ol' gaming blogosphere discussing the subject of monsters, from two very different angles, got me thinking about the subject myself.

As with any post involving D&D and other medieval fantasy RPGs, I must first note that I don't normally play those particular games. I've always been more of a sci-fi gamer and the design and use of extrasolar life forms is often very different from the typical fantasy monster (though it doesn't have to be. It just seems that way to me and perhaps that will be the subject of another post).

My issues with D&D monsters have always been two fold.

First, its way too easy and common for players to learn all about the monsters you, the GM, are using since they're reading the same monster book you are.

Second, like magic, gods and many other elements of D&D, there is very little feeling of the fantastic and magical in their portrayal or descriptions as presented. Once you have quantified 'number appearing' and 'chance in lair' data, the creature is best suited for an appearance on Animal Planet and not the mysterious and adventure filled reaches of your imagination.

Based on the above, I would say that, IMHO, customized and/or original monsters, at least once in a while, are not only recommended, they're necessary.

Alexis of The Tao of D&D says "Using the same old monsters all these years doesn’t seem to bore the parties I run. Yes, they’re goblins, and yes the party knows all there is to know about goblins – their weapons, their armor, the ease with which they are killed."

That's awesome but its not the experience I've had. After 32 years of gaming, its highly unlikely I would get three words into the description of a standard D&D monster before my players either yawned or said, "Oh that's an X. Must've killed over 5000 of those. I've pretty much memorized their stats...". Standard goblins not only bore my players, they got bored of them 15-20 years ago. My own goblins draw on the folklore of various nations and are different from region to region as a result. A knowledge of world mythology will likely help you defeat them much more then information in any rulebook.

Then of course there is my natural desire to create new things. I just love creating new magic items, strange cultures, fantastic locations and new spells so why would monsters be any different.

Sometimes it is merely a new coat of paint on an old beast but it adds flavor and atmosphere to the world I've created. Case in point, the Kargas is a creature of the folklore of the Turks and Northern India that is sometimes described as a great bird similar to a Roc (or Rokh, Rukh) but more often compared to the Griffin. Since the region of my world the PCs were in was similar to medieval Turkey and border a land like Ancient Persia, I decided to use the Kargas as a replacement for the Hippogriff, Pegasus or other flying steed in part of the adventure that required such creatures. Not far from the region where the Kargas were encountered, the PCs overhead tales of Peryton and so they perceived the Kargas as both a fantastic and yet logical creature for the area.

Anyway, the point is that monsters are simply another kind of obstacle to deal with or character to interact with. I highly encourage GMs everywhere to put as much energy and creativity into monster design as you would any other element of your game. If you're going to go out of your way to create your own Megadungeon, you better well fill it with a few of your own monsters. Make it memorable not just because its but because its big and unique.

Barking Alien


  1. You're not having the experience I'm having with goblins, I might guess, because I am not relying on the "goblin" to carry the encounter. It is what the goblins are doing, saying to each other or the party, the agenda they're carrying out or their intrinsic presence within the design of the campaign that encourages parties to care more about the circumstance than the creature in it. Monsters are not just an obstacle. Monsters are people too.

    Thank you for the call out.

    1. This is an interesting response, oddly to an 11 year old post. Better late than never I always say!

      It is not so much that the monsters I am referring to are not 'people' (depending on the monster of course. In this case 'goblins' by way of example). It is simply that in addition to what they are doing and saying, the creature being encountered should also - if at all possible - be interesting in its own right.

      I wholeheartedly agree that monsters are not just obstacles (er, unless that is what they were design for and intended to be but that's another subject). What they are though, at least for me, is setting color and texture in addition to whatever other purpose they have in ones setting. The same white walls day in and day out can grow tiresome. A fresh coat of paint or other change in design can liven things up is all I'm suggesting.