Making of a Monster


What makes a monster so monstrous? Whutaguy explores the question by talking to the monsters themselves. That's right, it's time for MackTalk. Today's topic: Monsters and the Adventurers Who Fear Them. With special appearances by the Alien, Freddy Krueger and He That Shall Not Be Named.

Mack: "Welcome back to MackTalk. Today's topic if you are just joining us is Monsters and the Adventurers Who Fear Them. Our first guest is Sir Deu from the Adventurer's Guild. Tell us Sir, may I call you that? What has your experience been with monsters?"

Sir Deu: "Well Mack, I've been adventuring for close to 30 years, I must have fought close to a hundred thousand monsters in that time."

Mack: "Really? Was that difficult? Weren't you scared?"

Monsters that appear in groups... very often lose their monstrous quality.

Sir Deu: "Not really. At first my player had some trepidation, but eventually he figured out that most monsters have a weakness and once you know it its easily exploited, so you see, it was mostly a matter of figuring out what to use against which. For example, I like the long sword against goblins and kobolds because I can usually kill one with each swing and the single handed weapon allows me to use the shield against their larger numbers. Against orcs and bugbears, I prefer my great sword. The beasties are a bit tougher so I need the higher damage to keep up the 1 per round kill rate, but since they are generally fewer in number I don't need the shield as much."

Monsters that appear in groups and appear frequently very often lose their monstrous quality. Many games which provide a comprehensive volume of enemy creatures fall to this problem as the players also read the volume and determine the best tactics to use against a given race. The Loch Ness Monster, the Abominable Snowman, and Bigfoot allegedly appear in singles, occasionally pairs. Almost all horror books and films feature 1 antagonist (at least in the first release, the sequels may add more). If a creature appears in 3 or more it has become part of a society and loses some of its abnormality. The individuals will have leaders, communication and tactics.

Mack: "Our next guest comes to us from deep space, where I'm told no one can hear you scream. Unfortunately our guest doesn't speak English so our translation expert will help out. Please give a big welcome to Ridley Scott's Alien."

Sir Deu: "What in the nine hells is that thing? It doesn't look like any monster in my player's Cyclopedia Statistica."

Mack: "Alien, welcome to the show. Could you explain to Sir Deu and our audience what it is that makes you monstrous?"

Translator for Alien: "Thanks Mack. It's an honor to be here. What gives me credibility as a creature of horror, as I prefer to be called, or monster in the common vernacular is that I do not look generic. You can tell right away that I am not just another guy in a rubber suit. My appearance is hard and wet. I've got a bit of a saliva problem and more teeth than a trailer park. Also if you observe, I don't walk as much as skitter."

Monstrous appearance should not be typical.

Two each arms, legs and eyes with 1 head, mouth and nose is pretty typical. Monstrous appearance should not be typical. It doesn't have to be completely novel, but if certain features occur where they are unexpected, it removes much of the humanness from it. Lovecraft described a picture of Cthulhu as "A pulpy, tentacled head surmounted a grotesque and scaly body with rudimentary wings." Encounters can be made more monstrous by adding appendages, organs, and orifices. Skin/scales/feathers/protoplasmic membrane over a non- or semi-anthropomorphic frame should make the entity more otherworldly. Alter or remove symmetry to shake things up. Use tentacles, claws, pincers, hooves, springs or pseudo-pods rather than traditional arms and legs. Use different modes of ambulation to move about.

Sir Deu: "'re big and fast and uglier than my mother-in-law, but I could probably kill you with my sword, since you work alone."

Alien: "Excepting the acid blood of course"

Sir Deu: "Acid blood? Errr:"

Mack: "This brings us to our third guest. He's an anthromorph who works nights over on Elm Street. Won't you all welcome Mr. Frederick Krueger?"

Freddy: "Mr. Krueger is much too formal. Call me Freddy, all the kids do."

Mack: "Ok, Freddy it is. Alien has been telling us of the importance of appearance in gaining a reputation as a monster, but you've got quite a reputation of your own and outside of some scarring, a generally unwashed look, and that glove, you look pretty harmless to me."

Freddy: "Well Mack, that's because you are seeing me while you are awake."

Mack: "I hope we're all awake, we need the ratings. In all seriousness though, how else would we see you but when were awake.

Freddy: "I have the ability to manifest myself within a persons dream and kill them there, and we all know that if you die in a dream, you don't wake up. Like hitting the ground after falling."

Sir Deu: "Is this guy for real? It's even easier to kill things in dreams than in real life. And that glove is no match for Sweet Jeanine here." (Pats sword)

Freddy: "I'm certain that would be true, except I'm not known for following the rules of physics as you and the creatures of 'your' dreams know them. I can fly, stretch, change shape, multiply, regenerate and a host of other things you can only dream about."

Monsters can do things mortals dream about.

Monsters can do things mortals dream about. Monsters have powers, above and beyond appearance. The powers of a monster may include: Psionic effects; increased skills, attributes or abilities; immunities, resistances or recovery enhancements; and extra or special attacks; movement capabilities. Not all monsters will have all of these but almost all will have more than 1. Freddy's ability to inhabit dreams gives him power over physics, which his victims could also do, but it is his home turf, giving him a serious advantage. In theory Neo (Matrix) could do everything Agent Smith could, but Agent Smith's familiarity with the system was to his benefit.

Sir Deu: "Multiply? Regen-gen-generate? Fly? Bubububub" (begins to gibber)

Mack: "Oh my! It seems that Sir Deu is having a seizure of some sort. While our medical staff checks him out, let's talk to our final guest. Via satellite, from his tomb in Lost R'lyeh, our staff psychiatrist, Great Cthulhu. Thanks for joining us today Dr. C."

Cthulhu: "Not a problem Mack. What we're seeing here with Sir Deu is a common problem with encountering true monsters. As you know I travel to many conventions and it's really amazing, to me anyway, the number of people that think fright checks and sanity rolls are just a tool to limit the capability of their characters. They joke about 'oooh, a tentacle, I'm losing my mind' and justify these hurtful remarks with 'I just don't get the whole squid thing.' Many of these are players who are only dealing with the mechanic of the game and not the impossibility of the existence such creatures. They do not perceive the game-world shaking implications of the existence of creatures such as myself."

Mack: "Is there anything that can be done to help these poor players let their characters see beyond the meat of the monster? Is there an 800 number we can call and make a donation to some foundation to find a cure?"

Cthulhu: "Sadly no. There are no foundations dedicating to helping players understand what their character is witnessing and there will be no cure in my lifetime. And we all know that 'That is not dead which can eternal lie, and with strange eons even death may die'."

Unless one witnesses the unbelievable, one will tend to discredit it...

One of the problems with unique or very rare monsters is that, people who have not experienced it will not accept it, or at least not the true horror of the nasty beast. If Matthew Broderick called you to describe his encounter with Godzilla most likely you would either think he was pulling your leg or completely insane. This, and the lack of credible witnesses, prevents a great number of monster sightings from being recorded and publicized. Characters that have experienced similar impossibility will be more sympathetic. Unless one witnesses the unbelievable, one will tend to discredit it, and unless one has been witness to this, it is hard to role-play one who has, hence the sanity rules in Call of Cthulhu and fright checks in GURPS.

Mack: "Well, that's about all we have time for today. If you are or know a familiar who has been sexually abused by his or her wizard, have them call XXX-XXX-*#*#. I leave you with this Parting Shot. Monsters are horrific, unearthly, or impossible beings and should not be confused with an evil species such as orcs or goblins, especially not a species that is a possible player race. They should have abilities or powers beyond that of normal creatures, and more is not better when it comes to number encountered or number in existence. A quality monster will be remembered by the player and repeat encounters will be avoided by the character. Thank you all for watching."

Announcer: "Guests of MackTalk stay at luxurious Arkham Asylum. Mr. Krueger's wardrobe found in the furnace."

Quotations are from The Call of Cthulhu by H.P. Lovecraft and Cabal by Clive Barker. Call of Cthulhu is an RPG product from Chaosium and GURPS is a product of Steve Jackson Games. Statements and opinions are those of Mr. MacKenzie and might not represent the views of anyone, ever. Celebrity guests were impersonated, like you wouldn't have guessed."

nicely done, kudos.

"Rubber suits" can still be scary, too!

I find that many GMs don't play demi-humans to their full potential. Think about the typical kobold/goblin/orc tribe for the moment. These guys are survivors -- they'd have to be to live in the harsh environment and society that they do. The may not be intelligent in the literate sense, but they have a keen cunning, instincts and experience as hunters and warriors... and they're nasty little buggers.

Demihumans (orcs, kobolds, goblins, etc - hereafter referred to as "goblins") are often played as the "rush up and attack" type, but they would never do that, especially against a strong opponent. A weak race would recognize when they are outclassed. They would never go toe-to-to with a heavily armed warband (ie- the PCs). Instead, they would take advantage of the environment, tactics and anything else to get the upper hand.

1) Numbers - As mentioned, goblinkind aren't going to attack head on without the clear upper hand. If there are 5 PCs, you can be darn sure they wouldn't make a move without at least 10 or probably 15 or more. Even with a numbers advantage, they're not going to attack head on. They'll use the same tactics they would in a hunting pack.

2) Tactics - As with hunting, they'll use numbers and environmental familiarity as their tools. Ambushes, flanking maneuvers, missile attacks, hit & fade attacks and isolating single opponents will be their M.O... Make them hit from afar and disappear into the woods when they encounter any resistance, only to regroup and attack later when their opponent's guard is down. No mano et mano encounters. They'd never let the PCs get that close.

3) Dirty fighting - Why go against the PCs directly when sneak attacks and nuisance tactics will work wonders? Don't go against humans in the day -- sneak in at night and slit a throat or two, steal supplies, and create chaos. Granted, no GM wants to kill a PC in their sleep; instead off a henchman or two. Scatter the horses (the goblins can hunt one of the scattered horses as the PCs try to round up the others -- a week of meals for a tribal village!). Stealing supplies means the PCs will have other survival worries than just the goblins. Have them attack from ambush and then run off. Not every battle needs to be to the death. Consider poison missiles... Nothing too deadly, since it would be the same as what they'd use to hunt game -- a paralytic or similar agent (something that could be later eaten safely if cooked).

After a while, you could start to penalize the PCs for lost sleep and such, since they will be on edge after a number of night raids over the course of many days. After a few nuisances attacks, the PCs will become annoyed, but this will be good for the players. They may gripe at first, but they will become involved. They will start to plan counter-tactics. They will be interested. What would have been a no-brain encounter for a bunch of 3rd level (or possibly even 5th, if played right) PCs, will become something dangerous. They will start to see the goblins with new respect and understand that they present a true challenge.

Lastly, to make the whole encounter truly memorable, you might let the goblins get away with it. Perhaps after they've taken a horse or two, killed a hireling and taken supplies that the party will need, they just fade away into the forest happy with their spoils of war... And the PCs learn a valuable lesson -- that being "good" doesn't necessarily insure a victory. The players will wonder how they let a bunch of low level cannon fodder get the best of them. But they will now be fearful of what may lie in wait in the future.

excellent point, which is valid with other creatures, as well.

Humorous, pleasurable to read, and clever in getting its points across. Thanks for this, Whutaguy.

Snazzy bit of writing there, Whutaguy!

Very nicely done in clean style.

In response to Waldos comments about rubber suits being scary.

I am not saying that orcs, goblins, kobolds, Klingons and dust bunnies cannot be an "opponent of quality". I certaintly know that well designed and deployed npc groups can be a threat regardless of actual statistics.

What I am saying is that when "monsters" such as these reach such "popularity" that any school-child can recognize them, they aren't monsters. Iraqi insurgents are a viable threat to well trained soldiers, but they are not monsters. On the other hand, the monster under a 3-year-olds bed might only be a rhino, but becasue of the childs non-understanding, it IS a monster. To him.

The marines in Aliens had fought BEMs before, but the Xeno scared the crap out of them. My point was just that "monster" is thrown about too casually in most RPGs. The farmer should RUN into town screaming hysterically about the attacking monsters, rather than entering at a brisk walk and mentioning that "them orcs is eatin' my cattle again"

Why treat orcs as scary, bizzare, unfamiliar beasts?
They can be like any other fantasy would the farmer react if a band of human bandits started eating his cattle (or stealing it, or whatever)? or when a grizzly bear starts doing that?

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I follow what you're saying now, Whataguy -- you're talking about introducing something novel which the players haven't seen before (and perhaps haven't memorized the stats) to keep them on their toes.

That's a good idea, but one that probably needs to be used in moderation. A GM doesn't want to start an monster "Arms Race"... I.E. -- keep having to find more and more obscure opponents out of various monster manuals in order to keep things interesting... but pulling something scary out from time to time is a good idea.

However, if the PCs are treating the Orcs a "ho hum... just another Orc", using my tactics will rapidly make them sit up and take notice (and treat all rubber-suits with more respect in the future).

Zipdrive writes:
Why treat orcs as scary, bizzare, unfamiliar beasts?

Warning: Tangent Ahead

I suppose that depends on the campaign. In my worlds, there is often a difference between the civilized and frontier areas. People on the edge of civilization may see orcs much differently from the "city folk". To use a (bad) analogy, consider the American Indians. To frontier settlers living in the wild, they were often thought to be savage and dangerous. In some cases it was true, in most not... but the point was is that they were feared because people didn't actually encounter them that often (if at all) and one only heard stories about the those who fought the whites for their land. If you were a settler on the frontier, you were scared that they might come in the night to kill your family.

To city folk, however, Indians weren't feared but were more of a curiosity. You didn't think they'd come in the night to raid your home, but you might be either curious or slightly concerned if you saw one walking down the street... but the presence of the law in your town meant you probably wouldn't have outright fear. (I'm not implying Native Americans were law-less but just referring to how people of the era thought of them).

You could apply this to any time period or setting -- the Huns to the Roman world, the Spartans to the Atheneans, Klingons to Federation, or any other "warrior group" living nearby a (so-called) "civilized group".

Anyway, the point is -- how often does a frontier farmer actually encounter an Orc? How often does a city dweller? You have to consider the reaction of NPCs based on both their familiarity with the race and the reputation of the race.

So Zipdrive, the short anwser to your question is that Orcs might be scary, unfamiliar beasts in some game worlds... or they might be the slightly smellier next door neighbor. Depends on how human-centric the game world is (or even individual countries / cities in it) as well as the differences between the "civilized" lands and the wild lands. The average farmer may never have needed to scare off much more than a fox or lone wolf from his livestock.

so, you're agreeing with me, then? :)

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It's not really an agree vs disagree... Depends on the GM and gameworld. In my world, most farmers would have never encountered an orc and would see them as quite frightening. In the human lands, they may have heard stories about the "savage beasts", but that's about as much knowledge as a local would have about them.

On the frontier areas though, they may not be quite as exotic (though possibly still quite feared if there isn't a detente between the humans and the local orc tribe).

The reactions in a world with more interspecies socialization would probably be much different... and they'd get no more of a reaction than seeing a Latino, Asian or [East] Indian on the streets in the U.S. They're just another citizen going about their business.

Warning: Another Tangent Ahead

I'm very careful about including real world social commentary in my game world, but a more heterogeneous fantasy society could make for some interesting intereactions. What if an orc tribe on the outskirts of a kingdom were to raze a town killing all within, young or old? How would the other races view the orcs living lawfully within the kingdom? They may be regular tax-paying, law-abiding citizen in the country, but may then be looked upon and treated with suspicion. What if the PC were friends with or had a member of the race in question in the party? (It might not be orcs.) What if the king's guard started bringing in the race "for questioning" and they were either detained indefinitely, or cordoned off into "containment camps"?

Anyway, I don't mean to get too heavy, but human beings face forms of racism all the time in an "enlightened" society -- imagine how bad speciesism could get.

Postscript: If players have a pre-disposition to distrust a certain race (ie- orcs, goblins, etc), make the target race one of the "good" ones... Eco-terrorist Elves, fanatical Dwarves (ala Fight Club) or socially repressed Halflings. There are so many directions in which to take this idea. It could even be a set up... The village may have been purposefully attacked by mercenaries and the King (or other ruling class) just want to create a scape goat.

quick note:
In the Shadowrun core books they mention how "traditional" racism evaporated after Elves, Dwarves, Orks and Trolls came into being, or, "why fear that darker-skinned man when that THING with the horns is standing on the street corner"

- reading this signature is silly -

This thred got interesting, and I agree with Waldo's long tangent (*the first one) on how orcs,goblins,kobolds etc should be treated as much more then one-shot hack-n-slash badguys who run up and die within a few rounds. people fear these types of "crude" in my game (they are called crude , no matter the race, and are seen to be all equally related to bad deeds by humans in the past).

In our game there are evil halflings (called halfees) who are not much stronger or smarter then a band of clever goblins. They hunt in pacts, they steal from what they can, they kill when easy and run when challenged. Not one of these halfees are above 1 hit-die (actually getting 1d6 hitpoints, not 1d8). the roving band that is often encountered in the past 5 games is a group of 25 halfees lead by a halfee leader called "Woodspider". These little nasties have only confronted the party directly once (last game) where they jumped out on two party memebers who were hunting away from the rest of the party. 13 halfees jumped out, with woodspider, demanding all the tresure and food that the two party memebers had to have on them. 13 vs 2 seemed easy prey so they finally took a chance and attacked out right. but that was only after months of them tracking the party, leaving little 1-2 point damage traps n snares (knowing there were no clerics with the group), they chased much of the animals away from the hunters before they would go hunt for food, they did hit-n-run far away attacks and even led wolves to the party with meats they actually stole from the party.

After a few months, the party was living off of what little food they could find, trying to heal wounds from traps, slowing travel time down greatly looking for traps as they walked, hungry, dirty, has been horrible for the party.

Now the party is levels 3-6, and not one halfee has more then 6 hitpoints...but the party spends each day worrying about the halfee's location and plans. They spend alot of time trying to protect thier horses and NPCs they hired to drive their wagons and help with travling. The halfees are a great "monster" cus no player has ever encountered evil halflings in my realm, these wild-deep-wood psychos are a small group-tribe that no one has ever seen. They do not treat them as "halfings" laughing at the weakness of such a small people. They do not treat them as common or harmless...

I find all monsters have the ability to be dangerous and scary if the GM does one simple thing: "Treat each creature like a living thing that wants to live at all costs"

I find that most GMs treat little monsters as things that are here to attack and lame. Treat each creature like a life that dont want to any cost (unless suicidal or without fear of death). No monster wants to die, stop putting them in situations that have no chance of ending with anything but the death of these weaker NPC monsters. Its that easy.

Interesting race. Do they have a home or are they nomadic in their pursuit of prey? What about the females? Also, do the Woodspiders have any inherent magical ability or do they have something like a shaman (with a few low level spells)?

Hmmm... still, a neat idea. I like the hit-n-run tactics and how you have them keeping game away from the hunters. Clever.

This is why the player with the half-orc character never understood the townfolks' reaction when he came into town. Even with the other PCs supporting him, most towns would still try to drive such a beast out of their simple lives.

He scared the children, too. Ah, I can still hear the screams...

The Halfees do have a base location. They live on the hills of the northern beaches of "Qwom", but this interaction between players and halfees is taking place about 30 days hike from that place.

The Halfee society is not too complex, but very stable for such evil little buggers. What the party has learned about the halfee's world is that they survive off of stealing, barter with the local Kenku, and that even though the Elvs do not approve of the halfee's evil ways, its known that halfee/elf trade does exist on some level.

The halfees have no shamen or cleric (in my world there is less then 1000 casting clerics, out of them all the highest cleric level in the world is currently 15, and thats the head of the good church. A NPC). They have not been a unified evil race for very long, perhaps about 400 years now, not long enough to earn a bond with any true evil god (like drow who have worshiped my evil gods for thousands of years), and the evil behind the halfee way has cuased any watchful good god to turn from the tribe of midget monsters.

They trade mostly human goods to the Kenku of the forest, and in return they get both added protection and and whatever the kenku are willing to trade that they also stole.

The travling group led by Woodspider, is a hunting party. the tribe is very dependant on these hunting parties. they bring in new foods, new metals, stolen weapons, cloth, leathers and whatever else humans often carry. Since the Halfees have long since left the traditional way of halfling life, they have degenerated into parasites of passerbyes. They are quick to exploit lost or wandering groups, but they do not hunt close to home. They never risk the chance of leading a group back home where they wouldn't have such a good chance at hiding or minipulating parties like they do in the deep forests.

The hunting parties travel far, set up wait, and then prey on those who dare cross the forest.

Scaring off game in a local area is an old elven trick of my realm, and they do it to keep animals from being hunted incorrectly (im my realm, elves eat meat once a year and the animals offer themselvs up to the hunters out of graditude for yearly protection and services to the woods), they simply make the area void of animals worth hunting so travlers or whomever do not come hunting in the forest. The Halfees do this in a not-so-rangeresk way mind you, but the trick has been used before.

The woodspider clan is a crafty one...but one thing they do NOT do is take chances that seem to be a gamble. They "risk nothing, gain whatever falls of the wagon" (common saying to the halfee people). Losing one halfee is not acceptable, and returning with wounded or dead clan's men is considered a disgrace and a failure no matter what is retrieved in the hunting. Its just not profit if the clan lost willing hunters in the process. they will do anything to hurt, slow or weaken prey.

The next trick is going to be even more deadly. the halfees have captured a local owlbear's cub (putting the mother to sleep with poison darts and then getting a day's head start running with the cub). after draining the cub of blood, they will splash the party with the blood, moments before three halfees lead the mother to the party. The mother (who has been following the cub's sent)will react in rage at the sent of her dead child....and then we know whats happening next.

The whole part of playing the halfees correctly is being clever in a sick way. being devious and underhanded. If they make a move, its one that the party will say "man...those bastards are just evil".

Thats how they stand out...thats why they will talk about woodspider and his men for years to come. I love the little buggers, and the party is hating them for it...

Sif, that is soem of the best villiany I've seen in a while, particularly with the owlbear's blood. I'm gonna hve to try that some time.

Wickedly yours,