Sunday, June 16, 2013

The Impact of Unique Monsters

There's a school of thought in the Old School movement that says that monsters generally should be unique things. I understand this impulse even though I don't subscribe to that school of thought - mainly because I love books of monsters. Lamentations of the Flame Princess and the recent "Psychedelic Adventures" series by Geoffrey McKinney have gone the furthest in seeing this through, although there are discussions to this effect by others. Seeing Better Than Any Man, the LotFP Free RPG Day release, has sort of cemented some of my thoughts on this.

One result of this is that there are, well, unique monsters. These are cool, because they're always new and different. Sometimes they follow themes, such as the animal-like creations in Geoffrey McKinney's Isle of the Unknown and Dungeon of the Unknown. (The former is usable as a virtual bestiary on its own.) Other times they're just truly bizarre things, like some of the creatures of Better Than Any Man. There are plenty of good routes to go here, and between Matt Finch and James Raggi's books for designing monsters, there are good resources to go any of them.

The second thing you see in these modules is a lot more human antagonists. It's quite easy, and indeed some people champion the idea, to have the entire cursus honorum of humanoids replaced by humans of various aspects and types. Bandits, brigands, cavemen, berserkers, and so on become more important, as do unique humans with class levels. It makes a world where some humans are the worst monsters of all. At the same time, I've found that parties are less likely to charge blindly into combat with humans instead of at least attempting parley, so it's a mixed bag overall.

The last thing we see is a lot of giant animals. Mutant animals, magic animals, animals that are extra vicious for one reason or another, insects, mammals, reptiles, arachnids - pretty much running the gamut. The tendency to do this is pretty universal among the modules I've reviewed, and it has interesting world-building implications. Why is the world full of giant/mutant/magic animals? Does it have hybrids like owlbears? Where do beast-men fit in all of this? The questions are interesting. One thing I'd like to see is fantasy fauna - that is, animals that are mundane but otherworldly - sort of a fantasy equivalent of the thoat, calot etc of Barsoom. It'd make these a bit more varied.

On the whole, I enjoy the modules that use this approach. They're fresh and different, and have useful ideas. But as a great lover of monster books I can't go along with the idea, even though I enjoy the fruits of their creations. The diversity in all this is really one of the best things about the Old School gaming movement today.


  1. I've found that parties are less likely to charge blindly into combat with humans

    That's generally a good thing, right?

    For myself, I prefer a mixture. A few selected bestiary creatures, plus many unique monsters to keep the players interested and guessing. For example, my Pahvelorn has dragons, wyverns, many classic undead, and purple worms, but no goblinoids have been discovered so far.

    McKinney's Carcosa has mummies, oozes, slimes, and dinosaurs, but not many other classic monsters.

    Also, I would say that one of the primary weaknesses of many classic bestiary monsters is that players are less likely to take them seriously if you use the traditional name, especially for weaker monsters. Use them as is, but only by description, and they can be much more interesting in play, because players need to base their decisions entirely on what happens in play rather than what they know about the creature from reading the monster manual.

    1. Yes, it's a good thing, as long as that's your intent. I'm not really distinguishing good versus bad as much as looking at the implications of a design decision.

      I think the recognition factor for bestiary monsters is one of the things that makes people feel like they're playing a version of familiar D&D. To some degree isn't knowing monsters a part of "player skill"? So - while there is some validity of introducing new monsters, refusing to use the standbys at all is saying that player skill should be avoided if it's common.

    2. my planet psychon full of this so i am guilty of much of this - old stormbringer is explicit - beasts of law normal animals - chaos ones hybrid mish mash ups and mutants - i rarely use monster books - look up hd occasionally as prep and for powers - wikepedia my main MM - perhaps weird science fantasy has at some psuedoscientific materialist monster evolution and humanism part of genre - tukemal and barsoom keep looking better

    3. Memorizing the monster manual is not player skill. It is system mastery, just like knowing what all the synergistic feats in 3E are. In my opinion, at least.

      I don't think there's anything wrong with using the classics (there are lots of classic mosters I adore), but if you use them unaltered it can get a bit stale... sometimes at least.

  2. There was another discussion about the level of "wierdness" in a game. I've always felt that it is impossible to create in the players a sense of wonder if everything they see is wondrous. This is true of monsters. If every monster a party meets is unique then being unique isn't particularly interesting.

    As far as monster books, I wonder how long it would take a party to meet one of every monster from the MM, MM2, and FF in the same campaign.

  3. One of the things I like about using other mythologies in RPGs, such as Japanese or Greek or Tekumelani, is bringing in new monsters that are not unique (meaning there's only one of them), but common to that world.

    Fighting Oni in a Samurai campaign or a flock of Kayi on Tekumel is a great change of pace.


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