Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Monsters Versus Aliens

What is the difference between a Monster of the Medieval Fantasy variety and an Alien of the Sci-Fi/Space Adventure tradition?

Numerous blogs before me have addressed this issue and I'm sure many will after today but I was thinking about it and I have a blog so I figured I'd give my two cents on the subject.

Honestly, I see them as fundamentally different from an atmosphere and purpose angle, at least as it relates to RPGs.

A Monster is a creature of myth and folklore that represents humanity's fears, brings to light a trait in the human character or otherwise illustrates a lesson or failing in our collective experience. It is this description which makes me so fascinated by medieval bestiaries and less than enamoured of the D&D versions of monsters. Unlike the lesson in humility of yore that the Manticore represented, the D&D Manticore is a big thing with sharp teeth that you kill for stuff. The story of the Minotaur is a story of a unique creature resulting from a most unique situation that mirrored political and social elements between Greece and Crete. In D&D its a big thing with sharp horns that you kill for stuff.

I digress...the thing about monsters is, for them to be monstrous in my opinion, you can't know too much about them. They shouldn't, in a manner of speaking, make too much sense. Descriptions of monsters with No. Appearing, Alignment, % in Lair and the like do the Monster a disservice. Monsters are weird, mysterious, menacing and information on them differs to region to region and storyteller to storyteller.

As awesome as the old Dragon Magazine 'Ecology of...' articles were I eventually started to really dislike them. You want to know the Ecology of the Tarasque? Fine, here it is; Twenty minutes after a Tarasque comes into your region there is no ecology. Everything is dead. This thing is a ~#$king Monster! A Monster doesn't belong in your local ecology. Its an X-Factor, an afront to or freak of nature. Monsters are supernatural speed bumps on the road to evolution that Darwin missed on his last drive by.

Aliens on the other hand are a whole Aliens need to make sense. They need to fit. They need to be a part of the package that includes an exoplanet's temperature, weather conditions and terrain. If a 50 ft long serpentine Dragon weighing in excess of 5 tons (about the height of a T-Rex but lighter in my mind) moves stealthily through a misty forest no one shouts "How? Where does it find enough food to support its size? How can it fly with that size wingspan and a weight of 5 tons?". Its a Dragon. Its there. Now run for your lives! If that were an Alien though it would need a darn good reason to be where it is. This makes Aliens much harder to design than Monsters but to me much more rewarding.

If an Alien works, it not only becomes a memorable element of an adventure but it makes the whole planet the PCs are on seem more real. Every time I've used a really good Alien my players are all, "Whoah now I get it. Its perfectly adapted to swim through this muck/climb this mountain/detect us without visual senses, etc. We need to change tactics!" They remember the planets and their unusual conditions as well as their encounter because these elements are intrinsically related.

An Alien is all about how it fits in to the world it lives in. A Monster, at least to me, is all about how it doesn't.

Barking Alien


  1. Hey Barking Alien: I came by to say hello and also, thank you for coming by my blog and joining. Interesting post you just did, read it through. That's what I love about these blogs, we can talk about anything. I look forward to reading more of your posts. Until next time, Happy Gaming and of course, Happy Eating.

  2. Thanks Wisk, same to you and I look forward to doing both. lol

  3. I think your distinction makes sense and for me it begins with purpose - "Monsters" are mainly there to be fought or overcome in some way. "Aliens" are intended to be a part of the landscape - they might be an opponent, or a complication, or an ally, or a provider of services. In D&D terms it's like the difference between monster and NPC - one implies an opponent and one implies much more.

    Plus there are still "Monsters" in a Science Fiction game - In Trek it could be anything from the Space Amoeba to the Mugato.

    I suppose screen time is a factor too - Monsters in my games need to make sense for a session. Aliens are usually intended to be a permanent part of the campaign, for good or ill.

  4. Assuming by alien, you are talking about Rancors and Tauntauns more than Rodians and Twileks; then yes I think this is a useful dichotomy.

    However, intelligent species may very well venture into the bizarre because they can have radically different mentalism.

  5. I think we call agree that both monsters AND aliens need to be destroyed, yes? Preferably with phasers set to disintegrate.

    /excellent observation BTW, I concur!

  6. I like that thinking on what a monster is especially, the idea that human nature is part of its nature.

    Perhaps the issue is simply our classification: monsters belong to 'fantasy' and are therefore fantastical, even inscrutable, while aliens belong to 'science' fiction and so must be comprehensible at some immediate level.

    That said, I do think both monsters and aliens as a fictional element share a great deal, and of course not only the possibility they can be destroyed.

  7. In the old days, a "monster" was whatever race your DM wouldn't let you play or anything you had to kill/spy on/bribe in that night's adventure; often "randomly" encountered.

    An "alien" was whatever race your GM wouldn't let you play or anything you had to neutralize/catalog/negotiate with in that night's adventure; often "randomly" encountered.

    A "mutant" was a special situation, as usually half the party were mutants, anyway. You had to oppose/explore/do business with damn near everything around you. As long as it was sapient, you treated it very differently from known threats possessing lesser faculties. Ya can't negotiate with a radhound. Maybe that's why I've always enjoyed Post Apocalyptic settings the most: you could be anything, you could encounter anything, but your lack of resources always made it a challenge just to make it through to the next day of a very hostile environment.

  8. Wow. I'm surprised (and happily so) that this post garnered so much attention. Here's a few responses and additional thoughts...

    Another major difference between Monsters and Aliens and one that really illustrates what I am talking about is the reaction to them and what PCs are often supposed to do about them.

    When a Monster is discovered to be in an area, the locale villagers will hire PC adventurers to get rid of it. Usually this means kill it. Why? Well, usually its dangerous. However, how do we know its dangerous? Did it eat someone? Has it consumed a herd of cattle or run off with some sheep? Or, is it just foregin to the environment and therefore unnatural and frightening. Usually, however else you answer the above questions, you will normally concur that the Monster is a foreign organism that is believed deadly to the organisms native to that region.

    Aliens are native to their environment and very often we are not. Regardless of what the definition of the word 'Alien' really is, we (Humans or allied PC species like Rodians, Vulcans or whathaveyou) are often entering their environments to learn about them. While we may fight them, often the goal is opposite to that of a Monster encounter. We want to learn about the Alien. We want to encounter new and interesting Aliens. We want to be rid of the Monster.

    @Blacksteel and Greg Christopher - Indeed I am referring to the non-starfaring, government running, civilization building extraterrestrials when I say Alien in this context. On a related note...

    @Porky - There are definitely Fantasy Aliens and Sci-Fi monsters. The latter is easy to identify but the former is harder. Faeries I think would be the closest thing that comes to mind, though Djinn, Elementals and similar spirit creatures could qualify.

    @RavenFeast - I learn something new about you all the time Allen. I never knew you were a big Post-Apocalypse fan. Why than have we never played Gamma World? Curious.

    At the same time some of what your saying has little or no bearing on my version of Fantasy and Sci-Fi gaming where players can be pretty much anything on the planet(s). lol

  9. @BA - 1)"Why than have we never played Gamma World? Curious." Why? I tried, but no one was ever interested, so I stopped. Pretty simple, really.

    2) "pretty much anything" Yes, you run that way, but I was gaming for, what 20 years before we ever met? ;)

  10. 1) Really? Interesting. I am serious when I say this is the first time I've heard it from you. Whether that's just because it never came up or I'm obtuse I'm not sure. Let me think on this a bit.

    2) Well whose fault is that now really? Who told you to game without me? ^_^

  11. [pulling out his pump-action shotgun]
    Hicks: I like to keep this handy... for close encounters.
    Frost: I heard *that.*

    Interesting article. Star Wars falls into that trap of confusing aliens with monsters.

  12. A very interesting article. In fact, I've cited you as a source in a blog post of my own, if you're interested: