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Conceptualizing Monsters

October 28, 2014

Monsters!  They show up in many RPGS – including sci-fi.  What makes a good monster?  Well, it depends on the role that the monster fills in play:

True Monsters – Monsters that induce fear and revulsion

Enemies – Monsters that exist to be fought or defeated

Aliens – Sentients whose interactions in play are primarily to highlight a completely alien way of thinking

People – In many cases the monsters are just sentients of a different species that operate more or less as any other characters world.

Now, be aware, that many times in RPGs monsters are described a certain way, but actually play out in a very different way – take the classic vampire.  In many games, vampires are described as True Monsters, but in play turn out to be simply Enemies or People.

True Monsters

A True Monster is not something to be fought – it’s something to be escaped.  To be sure, much of the media that involves True Monsters may have people trying to fight or overcome it at the end, but it’s the most desperate of victories – it’s not like anyone goes in thinking the odds are anywhere close to on their side.  

This is not a matter of stats and math – it’s a matter of the monster has to have invoked two feelings in the audience (in this case, the players) to really be a True Monster:

Helplessness or Vulnerability

What makes it feel desperate is that you pretty much feel like you don’t have any tools or methods that will work.  And that you’re never safe.

Horror stories usually do this through showing that the monster is either immune, doesn’t die, or has a plan already in place for anything you might do.  The monster just “shows up” in places – behind you, in the car, under your bed, even if you’re in a locked room, etc.

Revulsion

Revulsion can be physical, emotional, and/or mental.  Physical revulsion is often gross looking monsters, but also in things like body horror where the monster invades your body or transforms it.  Emotional and mental revulsion can be a highly disturbing philosophy or worldview, and often also mirrors abusive and dysfunctional relationship behaviors.

You’ll notice that this easily covers things like serial killers in movies or books as much as The Thing or Alien.

True Monsters usually do not work well with tabletop RPGs that expect long campaigns, that have players assigned to 1 character, and also, where players expect to be able to fight back against the monsters.   The hardest part is that the best stories in other media that use True Monsters have an escalation by the protagonists – they try harder, they get more clever, and the monster keeps revealing more and more about how bad it is – until you reach a climax.  A lot of planning and editing go around figuring out how to get that together and the climactic point – in tabletop RPGs you don’t have that level of prediction nor the ability to re-edit things.

For this reason, many monsters that are conceived as True Monsters in a game, at least how they’re described, end up actually just defaulting to Enemies.

Enemies

Enemies exist to be defeated.  These monsters might be “scary” in the sense they have effective tactics, hard-to-defend-against powers, or big math behind their stats, but they are intended to be defeated.  Even if players don’t know specifically what these monsters can do, if the campaign is built around the expectation of a lot of combat encounters well-balanced, the players will assume every threat is an enemy – a defeatable threat.

Enemy monsters mostly rely on invoking two things in play:

A Memorable Gimmick

The enemy does something unique that makes players recognize that fighting monster X is different than fighting monster Y.  A lot of boredom in long term fight-y games is that monsters mostly boil down to hitpoint sponges with bigger attacks, but nothing tactically or strategically different.  A unique gimmick forces players to consider their options to some level.

Respectable Threat

A respectable threat is one that the players can’t walk through on auto-pilot.  They have to make some choices or decisions and pay attention to really win.

Since most RPGs involve lots of fighting, most monsters are effectively enemies.   Actually, in a lot of RPGs, even most NPCs basically boil down to enemies as well.

Aliens

Aliens are sentients that primarily exist in your game to show off a completely alien way of thinking.  Although I’m using the word “Aliens” this could be ghosts, vampires, bio-engineered humans, someone who has studied the number Pi too deeply, robots, and so on.

Aliens produce often a combination of wonder and horror, depending on what their alien thinking is like.  This is not to say they never get used in combat, but rather, it’s not the primary form of interaction.  This is often the other way serial killers often get used in modern fiction -looking into their head, having them spout philosophy or manifestos of twisted values, etc.  Part of the horror in aliens is when you start being able to see how what they’re doing makes perfect sense, but the values and path of logic to get there is very very ‘wrong’, and the horror is that you have to put your own mind into that space to see it.

Aliens are also pretty hard to fit into a lot of games if only because familiarity destroys novelty – they stop seeming so alien after a while.  The alien values have to constantly pressure the protagonists and cause conflict.  When we see this in many movies or books, the point is to have the alien reveal their way of thinking and the climax is a shocking realization of what their values are (“How to serve man”) and then the story ends.

The problematic use of Aliens to avoid at all cost is classic racism.  A lot of media turns people into aliens by throwing deeply distorted stereotypes on them to make it seem “natural” that the targeted people think in illogical and irrational ways.  (“Look the unarmed Black guy is trying to rush down a cop from over 100 feet away even though he’s being shot at! Because Black people just are violent with no self preservation!”).  Or even visually people become inhuman appearing.

People

In a lot of media, we simply have sentient species that are just different looking with slight cultural value differences – nothing so drastic as to threaten co-existence.   These “monsters” aren’t really monsters at all, they may have special powers or whatever, but they think functionally the same as humans, with minor shifts in predilections, speech patterns, etc.

This is fairly much the default in games where you have a cosmopolitan setting, whether it’s fantasy’s “demi-humans” or sci-fi’s alien federation.  This is also the trend of a lot of modern stories – vampires are just sexy people who live a long time, ghosts are people stuck halfway between here and there, werewolves are people with a problem that kicks in semi-regularly, etc.

In a lot of ways, this is the other side of the racism issue – when you have media that excludes real world populations but inserts fantastic species that serve as “stand-ins”, you have the problem where the real world people are made too alien to include but blue furry aliens, blue skinned bio-engineered workers, special service androids, or house elves, are considered characters we can relate to.  In other words – real humans are too scary, fake stand ins that aren’t angry, hurt or upset, we can feel sorry for them.

In Your Games

I list out these 4 ideas because it’s very easy to start with one idea, and quickly find it drifting into not actually playing that way.

Some of it is mechanical – a lot of people point out deities or things like otherworldly beings shouldn’t have stats at all – they simply DO things.  If you put stats on a creature, then it has to get filtered through the mechanics, and a lot of games are mechanically designed to deal with Enemies, not True Monsters.

Some of it is the play styles and assumptions of your group.  If the players expect everything to be a fight they can take on, everything might as well be an Enemy.  This also includes games where the creatures were supposed to be People.  You can see where the Enemy vs. People divide is a lot at the heart of the classic D&D issue of alignment.

Some of it is moment-to-moment – if you want to invoke revulsion, you have to remember to narrate it.  It might be hard to remember if you’re too busy thinking about initiative scores and juggling numbers.  It might be hard to remember to do if the players are excitedly throwing 5 different things they want to do at the same time in your face.  If you want to invoke helplessness or vulnerability, you need to think about how to frame things in threatening ways, which might not be something you can easily remember when you’re trying to think of what “would” happen next.

Some of it is structural in the big sense – if characters die and players sit around for an hour doing nothing, is that fun?  If the big reveal of what the monster is or does pretty much is the climax, what happens next?  How do you pace these things?  Etc.

Having a good idea of this helps you plan what fits in your game, what your mechanics will support, whether your players will understand, and how you need to stay focused on using the monster, and not finding that you’ve drifted into a different idea that what you wanted.

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