The Monster Conundrum- The Known or Unknown?

There have been a good many posts by people about monsters in RPGs. After reading these posts (and there are some amazing ideas in here)  I am now considering that my next RPG project will be to redesign my MM the way I want (I do this already, but I tend to do it on an individual basis and then not keep notes on it..  like an idiot..).

Here are links to the posts I’ve been reading-

Monsters and Manuals

Roles, Rules, and Rolls (Ghosts and Poltergeists)

Roles, Rules, and Rolls (Mummies and Wights)

Roles, Rules, and Rolls (Shadows)

Roles, Rules, and Rolls (Ghouls)

Playing D&D w/ Pornstars- Alphabetical Monster Thing

Playing D&D w/ Pornstars- Neofiend Folio

Read through these when you get a chance, if you haven’t already, because there are some truly awesome ideas here.

While reading these posts a battle waged in my head about the varied approaches taken and suggested by Noisms, Zak, Roger the GS, and even though I haven’t seen a post about this subject I’m even throwing James Raggi here because of his approach to monsters in LotFP (see his Referee guide).

I completely understand where Noisms and Raggi are coming from; wanting unpredictable and new monsters.  I know the annoyance and slight disappointment when you describe your monster (maybe accidentally let the name slip) and a person shouts, “Troll!  I get out my acid!”  And another says, “I start preparing X fire spell of impending and sizzling doom!”  It’s annoying..  And it can frost the butthole a bit.

How can this situation be handled?

I tend to ask the player why they would be reaching for X, Y, and Z if there is no reason why their players would have encountered or heard of a Troll before.  One way I would allow it is if the play can convince me that they would know (IE- as a guard who patrolled the forest, I encountered one in my travels or father told me, etc) I may grant it to them, however I would be wary if players pulled this all the time, and obviously the exotic the creature less likely that this would happen.  I know that some players may get pissy with that, and you can tell them to take a flying leap.

Let’s look at The Thing as an example (I’ll probably be referencing this movie a couple times).  The Thing is an unknown (ignore the, “It was frozen in ice for 10,000 years” bit).  I’m talking about it being unknown after the Norwegians and McReady’s team.  The Thing, in a way, won.  No one knows about it.

So here’s where, for me, the dichotomy comes to play.  There is a power in presenting players with a truly unique and unknown enemy, but I think at the same time there is a power that is lost by going to something foreign from the players.

Zak states that he has the same issue with his girls that I have had, and I’m sure many of us have.  Again I’ll point to The Thing.  Let’s look at the two scenes when, I think, the creature is at its most exposed and grotesque.  If you haven’t seen The Thing- do yourself a favor and see it.  This movie is a life changing horror movie.  The first scene is when Norris is on the examining table and the doctor uses a defibrillator on him.  The creature attacks, bites off his arms, and then transform into this grotesque amalgamation of all sorts of weird shit.  It’s fucking horrifying.  But why..  because I’m seeing it.  If you were try to explain that to players, they may get some semblance of it, and get a cringe, but it is SO foreign to the player’s minds that it wouldn’t work to the full effect that you, as the GM, are attempting to facilitate.  A picture would be needed.  They’d see it and then you’d get an ample reaction.

Yep..  Pretty terrifying.

The second scene is at the end when Palmer walks away from McReady to set the dynamite charges.  The Thing comes up to him and puts his hand to his face and you see his fingers digging and melding into Palmers flesh.  You hear Palmer choke, gasp, and sputter.  Completely alone and vulnerable.  Describing this aspect of The Thing WORKS because the player’s can see it happening to them.  The thought of some creature burrowing into your face and melding with you and taking over your faucets is terrifying.

Personally, and I may be wrong on this, I think more fear and unease is created when the player has at least a familiarity with the beastie (on some level).  Describing a glistening giant spider with long legs descending from the ceiling towards the players with its pincers dripping a mucus-like substance is going to invoke much more unease or fear than the first description of The Thing.

The second thing about slightly known enemies, and this may only be for novice/casual players (I know this works well on mine and from what I’ve read of Zak’s blog it seems to his- but I just stating what I’ve read and that may not be the case at all), is if I were to describe a beautiful woman walking gracefully into view, exposing her profile, and on her head was a wriggling mop of snakes the players would have a reaction.  “Oh shit!  A Medusa!”  There would be a scramble to shut their eyes and figure out how to survive.  There would be unease, fear, and engagement, because the players know what is at stake.  They know what it will cost them should they lose.

For the battle-hardened players of yore, yes this does cause a problem.  The whole “been there, seen that, killed it, AND took its treasure” attitude.  How do you combat that?  How do you instill fear in those who have been killing Trolls for 30 years?  I think here is where Noisms and Raggi are aiming at.

I think throwing constantly unknown and unrecognizable monsters will eventually become stale though as well.  In the end the unknown terrible Thing is a classification of monster in its own right and all that is unfamiliar will fall into that category.

I think another way that this can be combated is the approach taken by Roger the GS over at Roles, Rules, and Rolls (look at the links above).  He has charts that randomize the abilities of the undead.  This could be used on any number of enemies.  Put the players up against a Troll and watch them start to panic because the beastie is NOT weak against acid and fire and it has infect pustules that burst and burn the players when attacked (because that was what was rolled on the chart).  That will keep them on their toes.

Obviously in the Monster Manuals or Monster Companions or Monster Petting Shops or whatever it is that you’re using for inspiration there are rare and unique monsters.  As Raggi says you don’t want your monsters to turn into a petting zoo, so you want to keep them understated.  I think most GM’s do an approach where they select a few of the animal intelligence beasties (aside from the natural animals- wolves, lions, etc) and a few of the humanoid monsters (Orcs, Trolls, Bugbears, etc) and have them, for lack of a better term, be staples.  They are still uncommon, but people know of them through folklore, tales, etc.  They are still terrifying but it creates enemies that go bump in the night that the village talks about in fear and worry and then the lesser known and more terrifying creatures cause absolute panic and dread when they make their presence known.

Knowledge is power because it can diminish the Boogeyman.  Yet even when explained children still fear him.  Adults still fear the dark.  I know what a spider is.  I know what they can or cannot do to a person.  That doesn’t stop me from throwing up my hands and screaming like a little girl when I find one crawling at me in my fucking car.  I’ll stand toe to toe with someone bullying me, but you put a spider on me and I whimper.  Man I am is what I am.

Yeah... About all I have to say about that..

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About wrathofzombie

I am a History major attending a community college until I can get more financial aid and attend a four year school. I am living in NJ with my girlfriend who is currently wrapping up on obtaining her PhD in Toxicology. I love Star Wars, Role-playing, video games, working out, reading, writing, and hanging with my girlfriend, dog (Perfect), and two kittens (Birch and Brambles). My main focus on this site will be my discussion of Role-playing games and ideas and hopefully contribute something worth a damn. View all posts by wrathofzombie

7 responses to “The Monster Conundrum- The Known or Unknown?

  • Chuck

    Some of the same thoughts run thru my over burdened brain. I look at two ways.
    Unknown Monsters ala The Thing. The PC’s just have to learn via trial and error.
    Unique Monsters: These are things of legend and like most legends there is all sorts of information about them. Some is accurate, some inaccurate and some is conflicting. Just look at the real world lore about vampires all the stuff about them.

  • anarkeith

    I agree with Chuck. I often reskin 4e monsters. Sometimes that means a power gets used out of context (I narrate it to make it fit the flavor), and has an unusual affect on the situation. It makes my players take a second look at what they’re dealing with. (I think shattering their assumptions is good.)

    I’m gonna have to take a look at those links (as this might have been said already), but the other thing I’d suggest is to add something to the situation that prevents the go-to solution (e.g., the troll is holding a villager’s kid, or there is an alkaline miasma in the air that causes a backblast when acid is exposed to it. Something like that.)

    The most effective way i’ve found to invoke fear in players is the massive first shot. Something that brutalizes their resources and makes them reconsider their headlong rush into the situation. Yeah, it’s game-mechanical rather than the artistically-flavored approach you’re looking for, but it works. Of course, you can look at player’s phobias too, and be satisfied with giving them the heebee jeebies one at a time…

  • wrathofzombie

    @ Chuck- I agree w/ the conflicting information about a creature and it is something I have utilized in the past, and plan to do more so now in the future.

    As for the trial and error on the Thing- yes that would work (for those who survive) but I can see that becoming a tiring game of cat and mouse if it gets over used. Instead of disarming a bomb it just becomes a game of Tetris… or worse.. Farmville;)

    @anarkeith- I agree that front loading is a good idea (Lich opening up with fear blast and then a disintegrating ray will certainly put a player on their toes). There is a two edged sword here. I agree that enemies are going to open w/ big shit because they are attempting to thwart/kill the characters. I front load from time to time, but I don’t like doing it every time because I think that frustrates players and again, it can become old.

    Basically a healthy mix of all the above stated stuff is what is needed (for me at least).

  • John Johnson

    I like reskinning. I tend to agree with the major point of your article which is that it’s hard to be scared of something that you can’t relate to. Someone completely unexposed to firearms might not know to be scared when a gun is pointed at them.

    However that can also work in your favor. Imagine a wizard who mutters and casts a spell. As he speaks you can see the shadows gather around his hands and fingers. One by one pieces of shadow break off and come flying at you. When it hits you experience a cold that cuts to the bone, leaving you gasping and feeling much weaker.

    Or I could say “The wizard casts magic missile”.

    Personally I’d find the former much creepier, even if the effect is the same.

  • wrathofzombie

    Oh I agree that description, above everything, is important. Your description of magic missile (awesome btw) fits in with my example of The Thing absorbing Palmer. It is easier to see and for the players to be afraid in that the Wizard is a human (or demi-human) and what he is doing is affecting them directly.

    Describing a creature that is so inhuman and alien is hard for the players to imagine until they see it (picture).

    I’m not advocating not using foreign alien inhuman monsters, but I would do it only on occasion. I think that these strange creatures would eventually become just as trite as others when not used sparingly.

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