Tuesday, April 29, 2014
Hybrids, Random or Otherwise
I’m going to come out and say that there are only two reasons to mix the parts of two or more creatures together to make a new monster: function and theme. The gryphon can be used to illustrate both: it’s a lion with the foreparts and wings of an eagle, which adds the function of flight to what would otherwise just be predatory quadruped. But, on the other hand, the lion embodies the theme of noble or regal nature, in the medieval mind, so to a certain extant the gryphon is a king of the skies, or king among fantastic beasts, used in the heraldic arms of kings.
You can see it also in the form of many traditional demons: basically human or humanoid, with the head and occassionally other features of a beast to represent the theme of animal nature, plus bat wings. Why a bat, and not a butterfly? Because bats suggest the night and the darkness, where scary things are.
The owlbear works because the bear part adds the function of the bear hug to the owl, which is more exclusively carnivorous than a bear. Presumably, the owl head should also add a function of nocturnal activity and the ability to see in darkness, but I don’t recall this being mentioned, originally.
Where some D&D monsters fall short is that there’s no sense to the combinations: the extra or replacement body part doesn’t provide a distinctive function or theme. That’s what makes such monsters feel random. The same applies to non-nybrid beasts with added powers. A hippo that can shriek to shatter glass makes no sense. In a sense, it’s tied to the idea of player skill vs. character skill: there ought to be visual cues, either body parts, embellishments, or behavior, about any abilities the monster has. The traditional idea that bears can hug/crush their opponents helps players to decide what to do about that owlbear, even if they have never seen an owlbear before. If you see a chicken with the tail of a skunk, players should assume that the new creature has a stench-based attack or defense… if it doesn’t, or if it shoots laser beams from its eyes instead, that’s a let-down and kind of a cheat.