Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Imaginable Monsters, Sci-Fi Monsters, etc.


So when I posted about the moat dragon, Mathew Slepin wrote this:

This brings up some interesting issues; among them is Player Expectation.

On the one hand, I totally get the idea of using Player Expectation for effect--the "Oh, shit! It's a Beholder!" thing. And clearly there has been decades of expectation now since the game first codified certain monsters.

But on the other hand, the original players had no expectations. They wouldn't know what that eyeball-thing was. And that's how I tend to play--I like to change the monsters enough that you get a general reaction of "Oh shit! What is that thing!". With the consequent expectations only occurring after some experiences.

Anyway, so, yeah, new and totally unexpected monsters are good.

On the other hand, D&D is a game of imagination. You sit around a table and all imagine the same thing. I tend to assume that the more concrete and detailed this shared imagining is, the more fun the game is. And it's easy to imagine something everybody knows, like a minotaur. Ok, team, synchronize imaginations...we're all imaginging a guy with a bull's head? Ok, let's go...

The trick to making new things in fantastic scenarios interesting is, I think, making new things out of parts that are easy for your players to imagine.

The handsnake is a new monster, but it's just a hand--which we all have--and a snake--and we all know what a snake is. This makes it to imagine than, say, that. And, perhaps more importantly, easier to remember than that.

Looking at these two articles about creating "monsters with traction", what surprises me is that they fail to note this--or at least note it enough.

The most successful D&D monsters that don't come from old folklore and myth tend to be ones that, visually, fit the "made-of-identifiable-parts" rule: the beholder (a big floating eye with eyestalks), the mind flayer (a guy with an octopus for a head), the demon princes. (As do most of the monsters that do come from folklore and myth that have traction--the medusa, the couatl, etc.).

The otyugh and the umber hulk and the xorn aren't as popular for a reason. (The even less popular catoblepas and leucrotta, while arguably made of identifiable parts, are harder to convincingly describe--and, more importantly, to consistently picture while playing.) People who remember them tend to be people who grew up with them and so have seen the picture.

That's because the other way to make a new monster imaginable is to make well-known images of them--that's why the githyanki has traction and the githzerai (from the same book but not in full color on the cover) doesn't.

Primal Symbolic Stuff

Making a monster out of eyes or snakes doesn't just make it easy to imagine, on some level, things like eyes and snakes (and wolves and stags and bats and bears) mean something to the human unconscious. They create uncanny semi-recognitions. It's familiar, but wrong which is creepy. In a good way.

It's no coincedence that fantastic monsters work best when they refer to symbols that are psychologically important to people because, the fact is medusas and dragons and cyclopses really did emerge from human psychology.

Fantastic Monsters Vs. Sci-Fi Monsters

Now, all this sounds reasonable, but it all goes out the window in sci-fi where it's a mark of both creativity and "realism" (in the hard-SF sense) to make monsters that don't look like anything we're familiar with.

This is a weird situation for the artist who wants to create something compelling. In sci-fi movies it's no problem--the thing's on the screen where you can see it so the only restriction is the budget. In sci-fi books, the best authors--the Phillip K. Dicks and the Ballards--actually use the undescribability of the aliens to their advantage. It's not really that a Vug or a Vogon is truly indescribable, more that, in literature, there's often little, aesthetically, to be gained from a detailed description.

(Lovecraft--and sci-fi horror in general--is an interesting middle case--we all know he combined sci-fi with the fantastic, but he also combined the emotions associated with them. That is, he explored the primal and recognizable emotion of being horrified by that which is fundamentally unrecognizable. The undescribable is alien, but the fear of that which is alien is not alien.)

In an RPG, despite it not being a visual medium, there is much to be gained from having a creature be describable--whatever it is, players need to know how much space it takes up, how many weapons it can hold, how hard it'd be to knock it over, etc. etc.

This "monster imaginability factor" has had a considerable effect on sci-fi gamers. Consider the most popular sci-fi games:

In Star Trek and Star Wars, the aliens are familiar from the big and little screens.

In Shadowrun and Warhammer 40k, the aliens are, largely, based on familiar fantasy races (eldar are elves, etc.) and in Warhammer 40k, once unfamiliar aliens started being introduced, they always had miniatures made with them to reinforce their visual identities. (The ones that didn't disappeared--Catachan devil? Jokaero?)

Rifts is a mash-up game, so pretty much everything in it was familiar from another source. Even the splugorths are basically Lovecraftian old ones. The original things in Rifts that have any "traction" are backed up by copious illustrations (the glitter boy, for example). Other iconic pieces of Rifts--dog-boys, skelebots, skull-walkers--are all made of identifiable parts.

Traveller was originally a meet-whatever-the-hell-you-can-imagine-in-space game, but the races that were thoroughly catalogued and illustrated by the game's authors quickly came to dominate the game and a continuity got created. These races were mostly familiar looking--wolfpeople, lionpeople, lizardpeople etc.

Bold, Sweeping, Conclusion with Surprisingly Broad Implications

I think, in general, this may be why D&D is still more popular than its sci-fi competitors despite the fact that sci-fi is theoretically always a more hip and groovy and flexible and accessible and popular genre than the fantastic. It's because RPGs are about imagination, and one of the most fundamental ideas in truly good sci-fi is getting to see the totally unimaginable and that fundamental idea is difficult to pull off week after week in a game of imagination, and it is impossible to put in a game book because as soon as you do, the players can imagine it.

On the other hand, the fantastic is about moving toward the primal and the primal is somewhere inside all of us. Either as "basic desires and symbols and what they imply" or as in "stuff that happened a long time ago". A dragon is an inkblot that the human race has been staring at for 300,000 years. Players don't mind the unexpected and the alien in D&D, but they also welcome the chance to confront dragons, because that means something to them already.

In other words, sci-fi is more about the possible, and the fantastic is more about the psychological.* Sci-fi is about what might be out there, the fantastic is about what might be in here. Sci-fi is about the difference between what is and what could be and the fantastic is about the difference between what is and what we think is.

Neither is a more noble or useful pursuit than the other, but there may be reasons (other than the obvious historical one) that the latter genre has survived more totally among the fans of a game of imagination than it has in any other medium. And why it has survived better than any other genre in that medium.

*This is perhaps why, in the hands of a hack, sci-fi tends toward cold invention-of-the-monthery and, in the hands of a hack, the fantastic tends toward sentimentality and wish-fulfillment.

Hey bloggers, I got a question--my little skeleton head doesn't pop up in the list of "people following this blog" for othe peoples blogs I'm following, even though they're on my blogroll and on the blog reader for this blog. Like if I go to Monsters and Manuals there's no Zak S under "Followers". Is the idea I have to get a gmail account and subscribe to the blog thru that in order for that to happen? Let me know. If so, just know that's not happening, so even though my head isn't there, I'm probably still reading your blog.

images: shadow king by Jiri Trnka, spider by Manny Schongut, other pictures by me.


  1. Nice post and I agree with the whole thing.

    I might clarify that when I said that I wanted the monsters to be unrecognizable, I didn't mean in the sense that it's super weird. I meant something more like it is recognizable to the player (and, I guess, the character) as a monster, even a familiar monster type--a trollishy thing, a dragony thing, whatever. But they can't put a precise taxonomy to it, nor it's Hit Dice, Armour Class, and Special Attacks. They can tell it's a some kind of ogreish thing--big, strong, fanged--but they don't know how tough or not it is.

  2. I think you might have to set up a google account.

    Re: human psychology, it's been noted that suspicion/fear of snakes is a noticeable phenomenon in all human cultures (more so than would be warranted by the mere fact of the danger their poison poses). Seems we're hard wired to find them creepy. This is why snakes and snake-like things make great monsters.

    I wrote about human universals like that in my blog once but it was ages ago and I can't be bothered searching for the link.

  3. A picture is worth a thousand E-Ps, No, wait, that's not right. A picture is worth three paragraphs of flavor text? A +2 reaction adjustment? Something?

    "The trick to making new things in fantastic scenarios interesting is, I think, making new things out of parts that are easy for your players to imagine.

    The handsnake is a new monster, but it's just a hand--which we all have--and a snake--and we all know what a snake is. This makes it easier to imagine"

    Just so, Zak. The majority ofthe monsters on my blog have been inspired by an illustration, or bit of art, that I've just happened to run across whilst trawling the internet.
    I have plenty of others that I've made up out of wholecloth, but I suck at illustration, and having a good visual representation for the players makes a far stronger impression than descriptive text alone.

    The handsnake is a particular favorite because it lends itself to charades-like interaction between the DM and players. If you want something funny, inflict a recurring handsnake NPC on the players. I use my own hand to stand in for the handsnake and force them to try and figure out what the hell the mix of sign language, rude gestures, and shadow animals is supposed to mean.

    "What the hell, man? It just keeps flipping me off and throwing Dios. I don't know what it wants!"

  4. Why is it when (some)other forumists/bloggers go on about theory, they use lots of words but say nothing and make me angry.

    But, when I read your theory posts I go, "Yeah, sounds about right."

    [You also use lots(too many?) words, but aren't being a pompus douche about them so I can deal]

  5. Matthew--yeah, i figured, it just made me think

    noisms--yeah, isaw that on like david attenborough or something--i also saw there's this subspecies/tribe of monkeys that has a "word"--a sound they make--that they only ever use when there;s a snake.

    yeah, my only regret is that once you use an Eye of Dread, you really can't use a handsnake (or vice versa) for a while. I have that problem with similar mosnters all the time.


  6. I've got that same pic (as the first one) tucked away in my DM folder to use in one of my next couple sessions!

  7. Meandering through this blog 3 years in the future and I saw this, clicked one of the picture links, and felt it needed this: