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Thursday, August 2, 2012

Why Monsters?

Noisms posted about how humans are more monstrous than any monster you could imagine. Richard replied with an essay about what monsters are for.

I mostly agree with Richard's response, although I can see an argument for why a focus on human villainy is better in some ways. Easy to describe, easy to believe, and if you do toss in a rare non-human menace, it will stand out all the more.

But I disagree with Noism's premise that human monsters are worse than imagined monsters. Unless you are doing a crappy job of characterization, a human monster is at least theoretically able to be reasoned with, or threatened, or appeased, or maybe just able to be swayed emotionally in one way or another. And if your "monsters" are just humans disguised as goblins or the like, human monsters will be a better choice.

But what makes a "real" monster monstrous is not the horrible physical things it does, like murder and torture, but the fact that it is implacable and uncanny. We've trivialized the undead a bit, but there's still a horrific core to the concept that no historical inhuman behavior has ever come close to. Sure, torture, cannibalism, and murder are frightening, but think about how you'd react if you really saw an actual skleton walking towards you. It would be far more frightening, even if it never threatened you, because it violates everything you think you know about the universe. And if it does threaten you, somehow you know that threatening it back with bodily harm isn't going to help. How do you kill the dead, assuming there's no guarantee that any legendary methods even work?

The same applies to any other kind of "real" monster, in the sense of something that violates your understanding. We're jaded, because we've read every Monster Manual and memorized the stats, strengths and weaknesses of various monsters, but all you really need to do to top any purely human horror is remove any certainty.


  1. Corollary: If your humans are to be monsters, you have to make *them* implacable and uncanny.

  2. An argument for the Random Esoteric Monster Generator approach. Though more tentacles is not the only requirement. You also need tension, like in Alien, where you don't see the monster, but you know it is hunting you.

  3. In my last game session, my players faced 2 zombies with their first level characters and 7 henchmen. One of the zombies was cut down by a henchman, the other got peppered with arrows. Then the henchmen who had cut down the other zombie was picked up by his neck, held aloft, and had his neck snapped by the second zombie. This really scared the players.

    First of all, they did not know that they faced zombies. I did not once use the word zombie. I said they were corpses who were upright and moving. They really liked it when one of their henchmen decapitated the first of these monsters, thinking him more powerful than the others they had. They really got scared when the same henchman was slain.

    Description is key. I rolled a d20 and it hit, I rolled for damage and it killed the henchmen. But the /way/ it killed him made them do a double take. They really only stood and continued to fight because the henchmen made their morale check, did not panic and stayed put with determination written grimly on their faces. After the battle was over, one of the players said a few words about their fallen brave and skillful henchmen who had died fighting.

    It was a good encounter which I think they'll remember for quite a while...

  4. a focus on human villainy is better in some ways. Easy to describe, easy to believe, and if you do toss in a rare non-human menace, it will stand out all the more

    having been trained on Cthulhu, this is exactly my default approach.
    I try never to give out information to players beyond what their PCs can see/hear/smell etc, and I never name monsters on the first encounter, and I play with uncertainty and so on and it seems to work well. Agree completely that the uncanny is key, as is the sense of helplessness, of your habitual tools being useless.
    ...which in game terms means the best monsters require creative thinking.