Tuesday, April 13, 2010

O Monsters Are Not Like You and I

It's time for the Alphabetical Monster Thing.

Maybe it's just me, but I notice is a faint hint of linguistic family resemblance lurking under the O monsters--O monsters are notable for their otherness. They are more likely to be neutral than evil, but are always decisively separated from humans by some quality suggesting they come from a different world. Odd, other, outside. A word that begins with o is a thing that comes together only after an empty and open moment.

Demons are self-evidently like us--they are us taken to extremes--as are halflings and giants and imps and demon dogs and hellcats and vampires. The "o" monsters suggest the DNA trail is all different--or at least that some point-of-genetic-no-return has been passed. They don't want what we want.


I like the obliviax a lot. It's moss and it eats your memories and turns into you. The best part is the only way to get your memories back is to eat the moss. You can get someone else's memories by eating the moss. This is a great all-purpose plot hook injector especially if you have the kind of players who will put anything in their mouth so long as they found it in a vial.

Ochre jelly

Pick a color, pick a synonym for goo, pick a weakness, look you've invented a new monster! Green slime, gray ooze, black pudding, I'm sick of it. I'm protesting it. Especially since I just got that Lankmar book and got reminded about how cool Cold Woman is. Now that's an interesting ooze.

Octopus, giant

Like a lot of the giant ordinary animals, the entry for the giant octopus has a fairly complex set of special rules--in this particular case, for dealing with the octopus' tentacles. (Many of the other animals have systems for what to do if you are swallowed whole.)

I don't automatically think this is a bad thing, at least in principal. If you are a DM with time to prepare, setting different monsters up as if they are their own special minigame can be kind of interesting--especially if taken to an extreme. Each encounter can be just a whole new thing. I mean, that's how combat is presented in novels--each as a unique challenge requiring the hero to completely re-orient him/herself. You have to be fast to avoid the octopus' tentacles, tough to survive the stomach acids of the giant Slorr, wise to see where the displacer beast really is...

In other news, in case you're wondering, according the Manual, the giant squid is in all ways tougher than the giant octopus though the octopus can squirt ink and camouflage itself.

As for the beast itself, I've spent a lot of time looking at octopuses and I feel there's something inherently round and bubbly and feckless about octopi and other cephalopods such that, despite their weirdness and alieness, they often seem sort of innocent (vampyroteuthis infernalis notwithstanding). I feel like I have to give any octopus I use a toothy mouth on each sucker or some other sinister mutation--otherwise the girls are likely to decide to try to tame it and keep it as a pet, mount, or "friend".


Ogres are stupid, ogres are hungry, ogres are lonely. If they are not lonely, then they are in a tribe, and if they are in a tribe the lonely hungry weirdo aspect, which is perhaps the most interesting aspect--falls by the wayside and they just become sort of big bad guys.

So what's the difference between and ogre and a giant--not in D&D terms, but in terms of what you think when you hear them? The giant's hunger and primitiveness seem incidental and perhaps even optional--the giant's theme is bigness and weird scale, giant homes, giant pets--the ogres primitiveness is absolutely essential to its identity--the ogre has to have heads on spikes and giant warthogs for pets and has to be hunched over. (Mandy always imagines ogres as being bigger than giants.) Point is: an ogre is intractable, insatiable, unreformable, irredeemable, uncivilizable, and definitely cannibalistic. A giant isn't necessarily any of those things.

Are ogres unlike us? I think the thing is: we desperately hope they are unlike us. We would like to get away from neanderthality. They make us anxious in a way that monkeys don't. I would let a monkey into my home so much faster than I would one of those wax morons behind the glass in a natural history museum. A monkey is like some cousin you only see at weddings, over in the corner unsuccessfully stacking hors d'oeuvres or knee-deep in cake--they're funny, they've got character, they're harmless. But the ogre? The ogre is like a brother with some tragic, moany, drooly and brutal mental problem. Sitting very close, and very closely related. And we do not want it to be.

Ogre mage

Obviously all that about the ogre makes the ogre magi difficult for me to wrap my head around. Basically an ogre mage was D&D's interpretation of an oni before oriental adventures D&D introduced a monster called the oni (like the original monk and the gold dragon were sort of half-assed stabs at Asian ideas that would get fleshed out later) (D&D 4 has just gone ahead and replaced Ogre Mages with Oni).

Anyway the point is, for me anyway, the ogre mage makes no sense with the western connotations of the word ogre. An oni is a big crazy tusked fat thing kind of like a demon but definitely large and physical and with a face like a face on a samurai mask. The magic use is sort of incidental. This is a big, primal creature or spirit that is more made of magic than it is a magic user. Like the plain old ogre it is wild and insatiable, unlike the ogre it is part of a metaphysical web, often tying it to a specific position within a spiritual hierarchy or to a physical place, and almost always to a system of taboos.

Moreover, the ogre is a metaphor for that which is feral and wild within humans whereas the oni is about the inherent wildness and feralness of nature personified in a semi-human form. I have yet to see any version of the ogre mage that seemed like anything other than a marriage of lexical conviennce between these two profoundly different ideas. The ogre is the idea of a human gone wrong and wild, whereas the oni is about things that are perfectly natural in their wildness yet take human form. Or to put it another way, both are feral, but in the ogre the feralness is a failure or falling away, whereas in the oni, the feralness is to be respected as well as feared.


Thanks to Peter Jackson, "orc" is no longer merely a term but actually a word. That is: an idea I can refer to via a verbal designation and expect other people who speak English to know what I'm talking about regardless of what they do on the weekends. The other edge it has over "kobold" (despite that word having a more organic etymology) is that "orc" is actually a pretty good word.

So lets look at that word "orc": J.R.R. Tolkien--who invented the word (in its current usage--thanks comments)--was, against his better judgement, a 20th century writer, and "orc" is--despite his best efforts--a 20th century word. It has less magic in it than "goblin": an orc won't be turning a baby into a loaf of bread or live in a river of liquid spiderwebs. Another thing is: orcs obviously grunt. The word sounds like a grunt. Nothing called orc could possibly not grunt.

This subconscious thread ties the pig-faced orcs so beloved of old school fetishists to Jackson's athletic cannibals. Mundane, greedy, shameless--pigs are a 20th century animal: Orwell knew it, as did Hunter Thompson. Maybe Tolkien knew it, too. Snorting and unenchanted--no wonder they hate elves.


Like I said in the entry for neo-otyugh, this thing is fine if you have a decent mini to go with it. The kind of thing that might spill out of the mouth of a vomiter (maybe named after the noise it makes as it comes out).

Owl, giant

The frighteningness of an owl doesn't depend on physical intimidation but on the alien inner world implied by those eyes. "The owls are not what they seem" (Twin Peaks) "It's not an owl" (Paranormal Activity). Making an owl bigger is a little like making Jason in his hockey mask bigger--the wrong trait is being exaggerated.

That said, I like a giant owl much better than a giant eagle, and there's nothing wrong with giant owls as elements of the environment--I just don't want anyone trying to convince me they're extra scary because they're big.


I admit it's fun to say "owlbear" but seriously fuck this monster.


mordicai said...

Ogre Mages always seemed very faerie tale to me. I think Bluebeard is an Ogre Mage, the prototypical one. I think The Beast (of "& Beauty) is an Ogre Mage. I think Ogre Mage is the monstrous husband.

thekelvingreen said...

The owlbears in the Sega game Phantasy Star were a brown eyeball with wings. I've never been able to figure out why they were so different.

Unknown said...

I always thought owlbears would be cooler if they were reversed - rather than a giant owl head on a bear body, it should be a giant owl with a bear's head and maybe feet.

James Maliszewski said...

I've always kind of looked at ogre magi as an early example of a monster that toys with player expectations. "Everyone knows" ogres are dumb and brutish, so making one a magic-user is intended to catch players by surprise. I genuinely think the oni connection was largely superficial, something Gary or whoever added to give a veneer of "realism" to what likely originated for very game-specific reasons.

For what it's worth, my ogre magi aren't in any way "Japanese," despite the MM entry. I play them as weird ogre "mutants," who've somehow gained higher intelligence, magical powers, and a tendency toward order (their alignment is Lawful Evil rather than Chaotic), which is why "normal" ogres hate and fear them.

Adam Dickstein said...

The word 'Ork' does have magical and mythical origins, just not the kind we would expect given its current frame of reference.

Thanks to Tolkien, Gygax, Jackson and World of Warcraft, not to mention Warhammer, even thouse usually in the know about obscure mythical monsters will forever equate 'Orc' with "various races of tough and warlike humanoid creatures in various fantasy settings." (Searching Google for 'Orc' Wiki entry).

In Greek Mythology, an Ork was a type of sea monster. It is mentioned in the Legends of Charlemagne as part of Bulfinch's Mythology (the collected works of Thomas Bulfinch).

Talysman said...

I also like to think of Orc in terms of William Blake's Red Orc, a savage, rebellious god.

As for Ogre Magi, when I think "magic-using ogre", my first thought is the shape-changing ogre from Puss in Boots.

Jeffrey Runokivi said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
olvidado said...

You seem to credit Tolkien overmuch: he did not in any sense invent the word "orc", nor did Jackson make it a "word", it having been in use for centuries before either took first breath. Sylvester's _Deuine Weekes_ as translated by G de S du Bartas gave, II. i. 337, "Insatiate Orque, that euen at one repast, Almost all creatures in the World would waste" in 1605. Jump forward 51 years and find Holland's _Don Zara_, I. i. 6, with "Who at one stroke didst pare away three heads from off the shoulders of an Orke, begotten by an Incubus." In 1854, Putnam's Monthly for October had a remark about "The elves and the nickers, the orcs and the giants"; and in 1865, Kingsley's _Hereward_, I. i. 71, "But beyond, things unspeakable--dragons, giants, orcs,". All precede Tolkien's use in 1937 and beyond. In a letter c. 1954, Tolkien noted that as he used it, "the word is as far as I am concerned actually derived from Old English", yet it is not so. The Old English, orcneas, has more the meaning of evil spirits or walking dead, thus in Beowulf, ealle onwocon, eotenas ond ylfe ond orcneas, swylce gigantas, þa wið Gode wunnon ("all were born, ogres and elves and evil phantoms and the giants too who strove with god"; the old English eoten used here in the plural is derived from the proto-Germanic etunaz, which also gave rise to OE "ent" [D&D "treant"] and Old Norse "jotunn", while eoten itself is the etymological origin of "ettin"). Whereas the orc as generally understood in western literature is more from Italian orco, a man-eating giant, derived, like ogre itself, from Latin Orcus. See the OED.

Furthering the amusement, orc is also a _verb_, meaning to make an orc or monster of, attested as early as 1631 in Fletcher's _Sicelides_, "I Orkt you once, and Ile fit you for a Cupid."

@Barking Alien - the orc sea monster is still in use today as the name of the Orca, the killer whale. It's distinguished in OED as a different use and etymology of the orc under consideration here (the sea creature being orc1, the humanoid, orc2).

Ursca said...

There's a theory that the word 'Ogre' comes from the Byzantine 'Ogur', for Hungarian. Which always made me think of them as something like this.

And owls are horrifying. Especially after reading The Owl Service by Alan Garner. Also the tower of flints in Gormenghast and Lord Groan. And Mrs Frisby and the Rats of NIMH. Oh and Squirrel Nutkin by Beatrix Potter.

You laugh! But read that story again and suddenly you see a whole new side to it. The squirrels sail to an island every year to collect the nuts that grow there, and in order to supplicate the owl that lives there they bring sacrifices of mice and small animals for the owl. Yeah, the same animals that are wearing clothes and making pies in the other stories. Of course Squirrel Nutkin annoys it and gets his tail bitten off as a result, which I feel is getting off lightly, considering.

Zak Sabbath said...


but i still maintain that "orc" wasn't really a "word" in the sense of "a commonly understood verbal designation for an idea that i can assume other english speakers my age generally understand" until the movies came out.

Gabriel Idaho said...

Mind sharing your thoughts concerning Gravity's Rainbow and D&D?

Pere Ubu said...

WHICH Lankhmar book? I've been trying to locate Cold Woman in the canon for ages!

Zak Sabbath said...

@tom maybe later

cold woman's in Deities and Demigods and Lankhmar: City of Adventure

SirAllen said...

The only ogre mage my players ever faced was, of course, named Mr. Sparkle. That's all I have to add, and for that I apologize.

Zzarchov said...

I like Owlbear, though I think it could use another name.

Its a big mammal predator mixed with a scary avian predator.

Owlbear is just another variant on the eagle-lion(griffon) and still way cooler than the fucked-up-duck-beaver-thing(Platypus)

Chris said...

@Pere Ubu: The Cold Woman has a bit part in the story Stardock in the Swords against Wizardry collection. I'm not sure if it reappears elsewhere, although somewhere in Swords against Ice Magic would seem the obvious place...

Menace 3 Society said...

As someone who as studied Japanese drama, I wish to disagree with just about everything you say about the venerable Ogre Mage.

In the first place, it isn't really a random coincidence that it got tagged as an ogre. "Ogre" was a common translation of 鬼 in the past because "demon", like "devil" associated too strongly with Christian themes. Though Buddhism interpreted 鬼 as being the inhabitants of Buddhist hell, their possession of magic powers don't always seem to be associated with hellishness, or even diabolical, just cruel, bloodthirsty, and inimical to human suffering. They have magical qualities, sure—but this is Japan, where even goldfish are magical.

Secondly, 鬼 are in some ways MORE uncomfortably like us, since in many legends and especially Noh dramas, characters who behave viciously or lose control of themselves may TURN INTO 鬼. See, for example, Dojoji, the legend of Ajari Joan, etc. Actually, this would make a really cool mechanic for treating clerics who disregard their religion's strictures: not only do they risk losing their powers, but they could even lose their humanity as well. Although, knowing your players, that might be considered a reward, not a punishment...

Adam Thornton said...

Well, time for my otyugh story, because, really, when else?

So, back in 1999 (maybe 2000) I was just getting rolling on what would be the Nine Hills Dairy campaign.

The thing is, the Dairy controls the supply of the Black Cheese (like a tainted meat, overpoweringly delicious, yet nauseating, so that the eaters eat, and vomit, and eat again, until they fall exhausted), except that it was also a powerful laxative (so in that sense, an antiheroin).

The Dairy would get a village hooked on the Cheese, and in the bottom of the taverns' privies, they would plant modified Otyughs with needle-tentacles that would inject the hapless crapper with the Back Orifice Virus, which would make them susceptible to remote control (I told you this was 1999).

The grandiosely-named Hamlet of Village, where this took place, was a mash-up of 2600 and William S. Burroughs. It was great fun. It was also totally ignored by my players, who decided to go to work for Nine Hills rather than their opponents, Halo Farms.

Except for Buddy the Druid, who just turned into a Cheese Fiend.

Anyway, my point: otyughs are cool in an anal-violation-on-the-toilet kinda way. Don't sell them short.

Rick Marshall said...

Agreed about the Anglo-Saxon origins of orc, but I hold a heretical view that it did not come from Latin or Greek but rather from Orkney, dating back to a possibly mythological time when the Orkney Islanders were mighty sea pirates who ruled the Atlantic coasts and scared the classical Greeks away from passing the rocks of Gibraltar.

Whether or not it's true, it's an interesting idea. Although the modern conception of orcs as crude might-makes-right personified is very handy, I like the alternative idea of orcs as primarily mighty sea pirates who terrify every other sea-faring people.


Also, snaps for the octopus, much of whose nervous-system control resides not in their central brain but in each of their arms, making each arm like a semi-independent creature. Having nine quasi-brains all working on a problem; now that's parallel processing.

They are MUCH smarter than squids, cool though squids undoubtedly are. On the other hand, much weirdness of octopus behavior makes sense if their arms can each decide to do something different.

Also, octopus psychology is so different from ours. That octopuses can squeeze themselves through narrow fissures is amazing, that their bodies are so much more liquid than solid, and that they can move that fluid around within themselves so much more dramatically and voluntarily than we do. There's evidence that they see everything outside themselves also in terms of flows (reasonable for an aquatic creature). Imagine how they see us.

Imagine, too, being that smart but only living for a couple years. Innocents indeed.

Tom Fitzgerald said...

Orcs are cool as long as they aren't green. Bright green football hooligan orcs are something I can't stand. Without them Warhammer would be unsullied in its awesomeness.

@Adam Thornton

Great story. Yes, otyughs are cool in that particular way which is why I don't go to the toilet in the dark.

thekelvingreen said...

I love bright green football hooligan orks! They're what make the Warhammer settings distinctive. Well, them and the grime and mud and political corruption and religious intolerance and the diseases and the Aztec space lizards and the rat men.

Anonymous said...

Octopi certainly are cute and cuddly. And smart, as Rick has already mentioned. Much smarter than their ten-armed cousins. Some subspecies also have poisonous bite. And they often like to travel across the land, being the smart and curious sort.
As to the word "orc" - it certainly was an understandable word for people who were interested in fantasy stuff like, I don't know, D&D long before the movies.

Dan said...

In fairie-tale terms, ogres are a symbol of cannibalism (kind of like the wendigo in Algonquian culture), but especially cannibalistic adults in relation to children (I always think of Francisco de Goya's painting of Saturn). If you look at most ogres or ogre-like behaviour in Grimm's and similar sources, then often the ogre is not even all that large - just large when compared to the children they have trapped. Things like witches and hags are closely related to ogres in this way, to the point of overlapping with them.

Ogres are the child's fear of adults.

I'd like to note that I have always found the word ogress more scary than ogre. The weird mix of maternal and cannibalistic behaviour is particularly unsettling.

In any case, fantasy ogres should be large for the purpose of making the heroes feel like children. It might be interesting to find additional ways to do this - having the ogre care for and feed his/her captives first, á la Hansel and Gretel, or making ogres be the human progenitor race. Something to imply that ogres have a parental streak gone wrong.


Giant Owl - for me the scariest thing about an owl is the sound it makes and its silent flight. The stealthiest of all birds, it really should be a snatch-and-run beastie. First sign of one is when your hireling disappears into the night sky.

There may be extra mileage in the owls' association with the strix and strigoi.

Zak Sabbath said...

yes, obviously "orc" was an understandable word to d&D people. but obviously that;s not at all who I'm talking about. Both in the comment and the main text, I'm talking about the general populace.

Adam Dickstein said...

I'm with Talysman on the magic using Ogre. The Spiderwick Chronicles has a similar feel, though one could also say he resembles the original Scandanavian faerie Troll more than what we tend to think of as an Ogre.

Jonathan said...

I once played an AD&D ogre who was blessed/cursed with the gift of prophecy as a joke by the head Elven god Corellon. It was fun playing a single/simple-minded creature who would suddenly spout words from the divine. Naturally, those words got him kicked out of his tribe. He ended up as a knowing priest of Corellon and came across as a Southern Baptist preacher who only knew how to proselytize (poorly) and bash people's heads in. I recreated him in a 3.5 game as a Favoured Soul, but never got to the place where he grew wings. I really wanted him to have wings.

Anonymous said...

Right. Guess I misread that somehow. Happens to me all the time when someone mentions the octopi...

Quilt City O.G.R.E.s said...

You didn't have to call us stupid and neanderthalish. Tears....