Friday, February 22, 2013

Monsters of Myth

When we start talking about "Monsters of Myth" (also the name of the fine OSRIC monster supplement), Dave "Sham" Bowman broke down the category as follows:
Manticoras, Hydras, Chimeras, Wyverns, Dragons, Gargoyles, Lycanthropes, Purple Worms, Sea Monsters, Minotaurs
This is a good list, hitting many of the core mythological creatures that D&D has long featured. Greek and Roman myth and various diverse ancient and medieval ideas have been so thoroughly plundered that it feels downright derivative (or at best, a duplication of work) to go back to them for yet another round of inspiration. Gygax and Arneson thoroughly cemented the various monsters of heraldry and heroism into the "default" fantasy world, unfortunately almost to the level of cliché.

What I've found interesting, as anyone who's read Dungeon Crawl #1 will know, are the monsters of more recent vintage. That's a hodag in the picture, and damn if the thing - it's supposed to have lived in rural Wisconsin - doesn't look like a D&D creature. So I made it into one. (It felt particularly right since TSR, like the hodag, was from Wisconsin.) The myths of America are less well-trod and a bit weirder, since we're getting into the realms of cryptozoology and urban legends.

Living as I do in New Jersey, and having grown up in the regions that were changing from rural to suburban near Philadelphia, I went camping a lot as a kid. And when you're ten years old and sleeping out in the Pine Barrens, the Jersey Devil is the damn scariest thing in the world. You can walk by the kind of creepy old half-abandoned cabins that just seem like they could have been the birthplace of the abomination offspring of a woman and the devil, that fled out of the house as soon as it was born. Every twig snapping, even if it's just another kid going to take a leak, pings your senses and makes you certain that there's something out there in the woods. A shadow moving, even if it's the most coincidental thing, as you're gathered around the campfire sends shivers down your spine.

This classic picture of the Jersey Devil doesn't inspire the kind of fear we had, and I am thinking for my D&D adaptation of it I'd like something a bit more ... threatening. Not like a monster on a metal album cover, but something that's just a bit less goofy. We didn't think it was a muscle-bound horror, it was frightening because we thought it was real. And lurking somewhere out there in the pine forests, flying above us, able to take any of us out at any time. Camping in the cool night air it's a hell of a thought, and of course fodder for the most gruesome tales.

Fear of these monsters is fear of the unknown. It's rooted in the fact that there's something out there and you don't know what it is, but it can strike you dead in an instant. Even someone in chain mail with a sword would not relish an encounter with the Jersey Devil, or the hodag for that matter. It's a kind of horror that I think takes a subtle touch, often times more like the creepiness that you get in the X-Files than splatter horror or Cthulhuesque entities.

Really I do think there should be some element of a horror game to Dungeons & Dragons. All this time thinking about monsters has really rammed it home for me that, hey, these are monsters, any single one of which could be the subject of a horror film itself. And really it's a game about characters becoming heroic in the face of these monsters, even if the horror is primarily in the fact that so many fights end in character death.

At the same time, I want to adapt cryptids in ways that aren't overly reliant on the "solo horror monster" model that I see as working well for creatures like the Jersey Devil. There are well-worn variants, many of which have fairly popular variants: the lake monster like the Loch Ness monster or Champ in Lake Champlain, the dog-like monsters like the Chupacabra, or the humanoids like Sasquatch. I'd like to dig a little further into more types of cryptids in future entries, including their implications in play, and after that talk about the other kind of American myths, the Native American mythologies.


  1. There are so many unsung monsters out there. I remember going through the Encyclopedia of Vampires and writing up all manner of vampiric variants and vampire-like beasts - Alps, Bibi, etc..

    The Americas spawned a good number of folk beasts like the hodag, jackalope, Jersey Devil, moth man, Sasquatch, and countless Native Americans spooks that carried over.

    The potential here hasn't been completely missed by the gaming industry and, while not OSR, Pathfinder made it a point to draw from classic sources in their adventures even doing a version of the Jersey Devil.

    1. Well of course nothing's new under the sun. I'm just trying to tease out here some interesting wrinkles on the D&D experience and found myself going back to my childhood and remembering how as kids we were actually scared that the Jersey Devil was in the woods. I'd like to get that kind of a vibe into some D&D monsters, and I think American folklore is a good place for that.

    2. Oh it's a great idea!

      I guess my point was more of a "great minds..." sort of thing.

      I look forward to seeing more.


  2. Great post. I've been thinking about monsters from fairy tales and folklore as a source for new low HD monsters, and included an American one, the Hoop Snake, in a table of 1 HP monsters. There's a lot of neat stuff out there, and some of it can be ambiguously dangerous - might reward or penalize the characters, depending on the situation.

    1. That's funny, I actually had an encounter in the first session of my new campaign with a creature that does exactly that: if you are nice to it, you are under the effects of a Bless spell for a day; if you're mean to it, you are under Curse for a day.

    2. I love using faerie folk and faerie tale style encounters as low-level role-play encounters. Put the players into some sort of lesser morality play spurred on by some grumpy sprite or some such.

      Had a game where an old man was fishing and asked the party to help him catch this fish so he could eat. The fish, of course was magical and good, and the old man was actually some fey creature in disguise.

      These sorts of things are great for applying some interesting encounters to low level adventures where the monsters are pretty bleh if you just fight your way through.


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