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-
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.
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.