Friday, April 9, 2010

Let's Talk About "M" Monsters

Writing about all the monsters in alphabetical order soothes my unquiet mind.

So, M's....


Somebody sent Mandy a copy of All Known Metal Bands. There are five bands called Manticore. That's how cool the word "manticore" is.

It almost doesn't even matter what the actual monster is like, if it's called a manticore you know that it's badass, and you know that telling everyone how you slew it with mighty and vorpal blows will transfer said badassness to you.

In truth, what it looks like is someone about eleven years old and male got ahold of a sphinx and decided it was boring so drew batwings and tail spikes on it. Being eleven myself, I wholly approve.

Footnote: The manticore picture in the D&D 4 Monster Manual is actually pretty good.


There are no known metal bands named "Masher". When you have a word that means "one who crushes violently" and still no metal band is willing to touch it, you know you've got yourself a sucky word. They couldn't even get anyone to illustrate it. And get this-it doesn't even mash. Its gimmick is actually poisonous spines. Poor masher.


There is a metal band called "Mastodon", and they're sometimes good. Also, the word "mastodon" means "tit-tooth". (I just sat down and I'm too lazy to get up and check to see if there's a band called "tit-tooth".) Mastodons alone are just too hairy fo
r my taste, but severed mastodon heads are awesome.


Unlike the Greeks, we can actually look at the medusa. Then the question becomes which one to go with: elegant medusa, fierce medusa, snake tail medusa, human legged medusa, mutant medusa, I think I want to use them all.


"There are many types of men which are commonly encountered in the wilderness or in dungeons, always appearing in groups..."

J'ai une âme solitaire." Apparently not when playing D&D.

That is perhaps the most bizarre fantasy in the whole game.


In the Manual, a female merman is, curiously. called a merwoman. Mermen are of course boring, mermaids aren't. Why is that? Perhaps because the idea of exerting martial force with only a tail for leverage doesn't quite click. A mermale might make a convincing wizard or something.

Mermaids themselves are ripe for evilization, the cannibalisic mermaid is all kinds of wrong and so, wedded to ideas painting them as distant untouchable magic creatures, a scheming one is even more frightening.


"The killer mimics do not speak, but the other breeds have their own language and can usually speak several other tongues such as common, orcish, etc. For consideration they will usually tell a party about what they have seen nearby."

There's an episode of Frasier where Fraiser is trying to go see a movie the idea is that it's a ridiculously pretentious boring obscure foreign film. I forget the name of it but the idea was it was narrated by a stool that had been sitting in the living room of a German family for generations and the stool tells all about what it's seen. Reading this bit about the mimic makes that seem like kind of actually a nice idea, especially if what the stool just saw was like a three headed succubus chewing up someone's soul and spitting it into a giant slug's mouth rather than--say--Wilhelm teaching little Werner how to re-sole a work boot.

Mind Flayer

Probably because of the terrible sub-comic book-y pictures accompanying the original mind flayer entry it took about forever for me to realize that mind flayers were supposed to be some sort of Cthulianized humanoids and not just dumb Star Trek aliens in robes. I think the brain-extracting thing didn't really help. I mean, I'm all for brain-extracting tentacles but it seems to me the mind flayer should be an absolutely static mound of weirdness in opulent clothes that just points to you and you go mad with the realization of your insignificance in the vast and inhospitable universe. All this rushing around and zapping people with wavy lines seems undignified.


What is it about minotaurs? I think it may have something to do with the fact that, unlike a lion-headed person or a tiger-headed person or a snake-headed person the bull suddenly seems more capable and dangerous as a humanoid. The snake has lost its coils, the cat has lost its claws, whereas the bull has gained believably muscled fists and still can stand credibly on its hind hooves.

Writing this around Passover reminds me that the minotaur also has something of the aspect of the freed slave. The bull's eyes and face seem not restrained by its new body but genuinely raised up, able to do to us all the things we did to it, all the things it diffidently dreamed of while pulling our carts and mulling around our slaughter pens. What looks like fatalistic boredom in the face of the bull seems like resigned and unpersuadeably righteous anger in the face of the minotaur.


The form of conflict suggested by the original entries in the Monster Manual for slimes, molds, oozes, etc is essentially medical. How do I identify this thing and which spell specifically will work against it? It's hard to see this being that fun more than once or twice. These creatures seem most interesting when used as a tool by some other, more sophisticated monster.


The morkoth makes no sense on several levels. It hypnotizes you into coming close and then it bites you but if you come within 6" the hypnotism wears off yet still there's a description of what happens if it tries to bite you if you're hypnotized. What the fuck? But, really, this is--as has been pointed out before--the least of it. It lives in a hypnotic underwater maze and looks like mutant parrot. It seems like this would be way better as a poem than a D&D adventure.


Seeing as how they are strong, agile, and not panicked by fire, the mule would appear to be the ideal dungeon accessory. Unfortunately, as soon as you bring one into a dungeon the mood police come and decapitate it.


The problem with mummies is we're more familiar with cartoon versions of them than with what they actually look like. Real mummies, particularly ones from outside Egypt--like the bog people or the Chachapoya mummies (pictured) are among the most fucked up looking real things ever. If I know for sure that this is what's in the player's mind when I sic some rotting remains on them then my job is half done already.

Mantis, giant

Unlike a lot of insects, a mantis doesn't seem disgusting. Its relatively upright posture makes it seem almost human or at least more human, but it nevertheless seems absolutely cruel.

The decapitation thing is in no way surprising. This is my go-to Awful Insect. The praying part is like a Shaolin monk whose absolute stillness is a threat directly proportional to the speed with which he will annihilate you if you disturb his meditation.


We maybe didn't need the Monster Manual 2 to give us the concept of a large animal only made very small but still it's a useful idea. I see them appearing in the center of an excited ring of toothless gamblers in a city on a pseudo-Mediterranean coast. Tiny wolf versus tiny rhino and kept in fascinating cages or terraria.


Fungi are disgusting. Mushroom people are ridiculous. Again--like the mummy--the challenge is freeing the creature from our cartoony associations or at least letting the creepy and the cartoony intermingle in an interesting way. Like in Alice in Wonderland (the real one I mean).

I think it's important that they be slow-moving yet somehow still credibly threatening. I think goblins using them as riding beasts and steering them by pressure on their big flat heads is a way to go. It might give them pathos.

image credits: The Conan cover's by Barry Windsor-Smith, the black and white medusa is me, I don't know who did the excellent medusa at the top, sorry, let me know an I'll add a credit.


squidman said...

Mastodon are awesome, too bad about their last album.

Mastodons, on the other hand, are awesome because of the Frazetta painting.

Btw. does the All Knowing Book list any Vecna bands?

Zanazaz said...

Oohhh...if there is a Metal band, it had best be called Hand of Vecna, because that sounds so much cooler. Well, it sounds cool to me. Eye of Vecna, not so much coolness...

thekelvingreen said...

I recognise the medusa artist, but I can't place the name, sorry.

fishlemons said...

i really like your Mind Flayer and Minotaur descriptions

Marty Runyon said...

Two comments in one!

1) My favorite manticore of all time is the one from the cover of The Shamutanti Hills. I was fascinated by the monster as a child.

2) It's because of your Minotaur entry and ones like it that make me so interested in your alphabet series. Thanks for such a great spin on what normally would be tired old monsters.

Blair said...

I only acknowledge the bestial black/death Manticore!

There's a great part in "The Worm Ouroboros" where the protagonists smear themselves with manticore brains in order to ward off further manticore attacks.

Zak Sabbath said...


there's no Vecna, hand of vecna or eye of vecna, but they also left out AC/DC so I don;t entirely trust that book.

Dan said...

I'm really enjoying this series of posts. I can relate a lot to your approach; an irritation at synonym creep, a habit of looking for origins in 'real world' myth as a way to find what is actual interesting about a particular entry. Also your anthropological and pscyhological insights - the Minotaur-as-freed-slave is an inspired observation about that particular archetype which I have not come across before.

Two that you skipped for M which I kind of like: the Moonbeast, which has a nice sword-and-planets ring to it and the Mooncalf which seems both Lovecraftian and vaguely biblical (due to the Golden Calf maybe).

Keep up the good work!

Unknown said...

I believe Masher was a 1940s slang term for someone who rubs up against people in public, in crowded streets, on buses, etc, for sexual pleasure (aka frotteurism). It's obscure now, but you may remember the granny in Sylvester and Tweety cartoons beating Sylvester with an umbrella and calling him a masher. Maybe if you just went with this and get rid of the poison spikes you'd have something.

Also, ELP's Manticore from Tarkus is the best because it is so badly drawn.

Adam Dickstein said...

The traditional myth/folklore version of the Manticore is wingless, though just as creepy and deadly. In addition, it didn't shoot out its 'tail spikes' in video-gamey fashion as is sometimes depicted.

Even a basic wiki search gives you the original story in a nutshell.

I have to imagine that the Morkoth is yet another example of Gary finding a Kaiju toy and placing it on the table in front of his gaming group's PC miniatures. It very, very closely resembles one of the villainous monsters that fought Ultraman (or maybe it was Ultra Seven. I'd have to look it up...).

StephenB said...

Minotaur are an "official" playable race in 4e. My prayers have been answered.

Tom said...

There is a really fantastic Japanese film called Matango or Attack Of The Mushroom People that you really should watch.

Tom said...

Heck the Minotaur was a playable race in 1e. At least once Dragonlance Adventures came out. Remarkable how little time it took for Krynn Minotaurs to start showing up in other worlds.

Tom said...

Also worth noting that the Minotaur Lizard is an actual lizard species (Like the Gecko, or Gila Monster) so I'd presume the D&D version just looks like a really big version of it.

Anonymous said...

I'm absolutely loving your Monsters Alphabet series, and your blog in general. Stuff like the entry for "Minotaur" - magic.

And I'm really enjoying "I Hit it With My Axe" on The Escapist as well. Anything with music from The Sword is instantly amazing.

Anonymous said...

And if I ever start a Metal band, I promise to name it Masher (or maybe Masherr, with an umlaut over the "a")

StephenB said...

That's right Tom I had completely forgotten about the original Krynn minos... I used to own that book!

thekelvingreen said...

In a game I ran many, many years ago, the minotaur race was a result of an ancient god doing that whole shapechange/rape twofer of which ancient gods were so enamoured. The dwarves later enslaved this race, as they knew a good deal when they saw it.

A Spartacus-style slave revolt (instigated by time-travelling player-characters, naturally) led to the fall of the dwarven empires, and the independence of the minotaur race, so that when the present-day of the campaign rolls around, you've got dwarf refugees wandering around the map, and minotaurs living in the old dwarf cities. The dwarves have inherent racist tendencies and ancient grudges towards the bull-men, while the minotaurs have the spiky attitude of a bunch of freed slaves, combined with a sense of superiority from rediscovering their divine origins.

Chris Chalfant said...

I find myconids work best as purveyors of hallucination-inducing herbs and spores which cause their adventurous users to unlock memories of past lives and, with them, long forgotten powers and arcane knowledge.

mordicai said...

Holy rightclick Batman, that second mummy (covering its eyes) is truly grand. I agree that the less Star Trek & the more Lovecraft the mindflayers, the better-- Science Fantasy is a solid way to go but you have to be cautious at points not to let one side overwhelm the other.

Manticores though! We killed a nesting mother once & kept the cub...all it did was whisper hate & promises of murder. It was the best pet ever.

mordicai said...

Blair-- the fight with the manticore in Worm Oroborous is maybe my favorite written action scene ever. The way it clambors on the rocks like an ape, the whole bloody disaster, the sheer deadliness of the thing...yeah. I really like that passage.

Anonymous said...

Hey Zak - one thing about merfolk you might find interesting (since you seem to take interest in the visual representations of these monsters) is their tails. I find there are two "schools" of merfolk tails - the "bent-knee" tail, which just looks like someone in a cheap Halloween costume, and then the more sinuous, flexible tail, like a real fish. I prefer the latter, myself. Any thoughts?

Rick Marshall said...

For another take on mermaids, see the film Creature Features: She Creature. It's not perfect, but it has its joys.

Medusas are one of many D&D monsters weakened by Gygaxian naturalism. They benefit from rich religious overtones that saturate them with deep wrongness. Medusa herself symbolized the true face of hubris, a beauty who claimed to be more beautiful than Athena, thus earning her fate of having her skin-deep beauty overlaid with her true face—her soul's ugly pride—as a warning to the rest of us about the repulsiveness of hubris. Likewise, Howard's Child of Set is creepy as hell in that story, The God in the Bowl, as a hideous abomination sent as a divine assassin, but whose face is impossibly beautiful.

Big McStrongmuscle said...

I love myconids, although I use a slightly different version than the one in MM2.

They are these creepy things so alien that they don't even use any of the senses we are familiar with. Their behaviors don't even make sense at first glance. They seem laughably unthreatening and very slow to wrath, but terrifying and utterly implacable once they finally get the idea that you are A Problem and Must Be Removed. Also, any monster this weird must have a horrifying reproductive cycle - ideally somehow involving corpses or laying eggs in people. A typical encounter with mushroom men in my campaign goes as follows:

Party walks into a random dungeon room. A dozen or so little shroomlets, about 3-4 feet tall, are painting the walls with weird gross-smelling blue goop, then mixing spores into it. Party gets curious, says hello. No response. They wave. No response. They poke one. Slimy and gross, but it pays no attention. They steal one of their buckets or shovels, and one of the workers turns to look helplessly up at them, waiting patiently for the PCs to return its stuff.

Then, usually, some poor schmuck decides to get cute. They kill it. It puts up no resistance, and spores fly out from the gaping death-wound, alerting all the others that danger is present. The others calmly gather up their tools and leave in an orderly, rapid fashion. The party goes, "Cool, we got them to do something," then usually slaughters the rest of them.

But then the Distress spores waft back to the lair. All the tiny workers drop what they are doing and organize a lot of little group hugs for about an hour. When this time has passed, each group has fused into a single entity - a hulking monster the size of an ogre whose sole purpose is to destroy threats to the colony and any person - or if necessary, piece of architecture - that gets in their way.

They crash in a single-minded deadly stampede through whole sublevels of the dungeon, hunting down any creature marked by the death-spores of the little workers and pounding it into mash. When their rampage is over, they drag the corpses of anyone they've slain back to the colony, and mash them up into the blue goop. The giant ones separate after awhile, and then the workers once again start painting the walls and planting new young myconids in the foul paste that remains of your flesh.

These days, my players generally flee at the first sight of the little ones.

And God help you if you find the king. You don't rate being called king of the fungus monsters unless you are a partly-sessile behemoth that occupies an entire damn room.

Mark Harris said...

Mushroom men - I like the creepy approach of mycons in Star Control 2.
smart, philosophical, near incomprehensible. Divide the universe into three objects - "mycon", things that can be turned into mycon, and things that cannot be turned into mycon.
And they are politely keen (so very very keen) to allow you to become mycon.