Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Say It With Monsters

I think one of the key things that drew me to becoming a DM was the monsters. As a youth I was never much of a world-builder. My Cinder setting is in fact my first from the ground up go at such stuff. Previously I would simply build upon a pre-existing framework, usually Greyhawk or Mystara. But monsters spoke to me. Many Saturdays I would sit at the TV, trying futilely to tune in a signal from Chicago, so I could watch the Son of Svenghouli host a crappy old monster movie. My grade school library featured several tomes on mythological monsters and books about old horror movies complete with photos, all of which I checked out again and again. I ate it all up: vampires, Frankenstein, werewolves, mummies, ghosts, the Dover Demon, the Mothman (which still creeps me out to this day), Godzilla (& crew), the Blob, the Jersey Devil, Spring-Heeled Jack, big-headed aliens, giant insects, etc.

As a kid I also read a lot about dinosaurs, but they eventually grew tiresome because the books all maintained that dinosaurs lived so long ago there were no people around. With no cavemen to menace, dinosaurs aren’t quite as cool. My buddy Dave had a dinosaur book for kids written by creationists. It argued vehemently that dinosaurs were around in Biblical times. Samson beating up T-rexes with the jawbone of an ass sounds pretty awesome if you think about it. Or Phillistines riding triceratops into battle against the Israelites, with the Ark of the Covenant blasting the dino-riders with death rays. The book even attempted to argue that the weird skull structure of some dinosaurs allowed them to store methane, which they could ignite and expel from their nostrils via some physiological mechanisms similar to the defense mechanism of bombardier beetles. I think that chapter was meant to prove that Biblical references to dragons were full of true scientific realism. The authors offered no explanation for the unicorns mentioned in more than one book in the Old Testament. Maybe they saved that for the sequel.

Wow, that last paragraph got weird. Anyway, D&D stoked my love of monsters by giving me whole volumes of creatures, with bizarre statistical information to boot. And as DM I get to inflict these creeps upon the poor hapless players. Some DMs like to ruin the player’s day with intricate, sadistic deathtraps. While I can appreciate the mad genius behind such devices, sending in monsters to beat up the party appeals to me much more. So my dungeons generally run light on traps and heavy on critters. I used to think that more monsters was always automatically better than fewer monsters. Most players can only murder so many orcs before they start getting bored. Add in a couple of horrors pulled from something like the Arduin Grimoires and suddenly the players sit up and take notice.

When building a campaign milieu, I think the less-is-more approach is a good one. Trimming down the list of important monsters to a select few that count for something geopolitically will make managing the game a lot smoother. In my Cinder setting hobgoblins are the only humanoid race capable of going to war or occupying land on a large scale. Bands of orcs serve various evil masters, gnolls work as mercenaries, and goblins are conscripted into lots of armies, but only the hobgobs have a direct impact on the world stage. Similarly, humans pretty much eclipse the demihuman races on the global scale of events. There’s no place on the map where elves or dwarves rule, except in small pockets (i.e. the local Fey Forest or Lonely Mountain). The elves claim rulership of the whole dang planet, but no one pays any attention to that. Arguably the halflings have more clout than the elves, owing to the activity of their mercantile clans.

For more monstrous beings, the structure of the planet allows me to whittle down the list of important critters. One way I think of Cinder is as the love child of Terra and Io. Speaking broadly, whatever isn’t green and pleasant is covered with lava. Fire breathing dragons, salamanders, flaming demon types, and fire giants control big chunks of the world. Ice creatures and aquatic monsters might have local power at the one hex = 5 miles scale, but they don’t matter much in the overall scheme of things.

That sort of analysis involves looking at the impact of monsters on international affairs. But beyond the borders of civilization or deep down in the dungeon? At some point the kid gloves have to come off. I’m not a killer DM by inclination, but few things beat the thrill of the party beating a hasty retreat from a dungeon level, maybe leaving some of their comrades for dead, and someone at the table asking “What the hell was that thing!?” By my lights monsters in the underworlds and wilderlands owe no strict allegiance to rational thought or gygaxian naturalism. I find it more useful to structure multi-level dungeons as a slow descent into madness. The first level of the dungeon usually should have the most concessions to logic, with accoutrements such as ventilation shafts, potable water sources, and latrines for the more human-like residents. But as one progresses deeper into the dungeon the less it resembles the waking world of cause and effect and the more it falls under the jurisdiction of dream-logic. That’s why I’ve never personally had a problem with so-called ‘funhouse’ dungeons, where a ki-rin might live next door to a shedu. Asking why they don’t fight each other while the PCs are away makes as much sense as asking what the monsters in my nightmares are up to when I’m not asleep.

So I guess I would put monsters into two different classifications based upon their use. On one hand we have the general grab bag of bogey men. These critters are generally reserved for the hidden places of the world and don’t have any real need to for attention to ecology. They don’t even have to make sense, like the balloon men that live Under the Storm Giants Castle. By hiding these critters in out-of-the-way places you give your campaign setting plausible deniability, which is even better than plain ol’ plausibility because you can still include flumphs in your adventures. In my experience many players who say they want ‘realism’ in their game will accept a plausible deniability set-up, it’s when you make ducks a playable PC race that you start to run into trouble.

The other group of monsters is the select few you choose to make centerpieces of the overall campaign world. As I said before, I think a short list is important here just to make handling the campaign smoother. Think of the situation the way Traveller has handled aliens. You can fill a pretty big cantina with all different alien species that have made appearances in Trav products over the years. But the only races that matter for most affairs of galactic politics are the humans, the centauroids, the lion people, the dog people, the starfishies, and the space dragons.

Even more important that who holds what parts of your hexmap, though, is what you do with the monsters you choose. It’s not enough, I think, that I choose hobgoblins as the primary humanoid menace of the campaign setting. Or opting to excise metallic dragons altogether from my world. Both of these decisions were made for very prosaic reasons. At the one on one level I wanted the vast humanoid menace to be equal to or just slightly better than a 1st level fighter and clearly superior to a normal man. And I wanted good dragons out of the campaign simply because I wanted all dragons to be horrible and scary. But those decisions informed the campaign world further.

Hobgoblins have a slight edge over humans because they were the ones who originally terraformed the green parts of the planet. They’re better adapted to Cinder because the environment was originally custom-made for their biology. Human and elvish immigrants (and their imported plant and animal life) have ruined a lot of that work, which explains why the hobgobs are only slightly superior under present conditions. It also explains why the hobgoblins are so pissed at humanity. We literally wrecked their paradise. They even went to the trouble to build their Eden on a lava planet so that the humans wouldn’t move in next door. Similarly, my decision to cut gold dragons enhances Cinder’s faux medieval Catholic Church, which preaches the good news of a gold dragon Messiah. The Dragon Pope can’t really strive for a new age of faith if I have real live gold dragons running about the place. And that decision fed into using killable gods and frog demons for the Neutral and Chaotic pantheons. The simple threat of being stabbed by an adventurer keeps the gods off the playing field much of the time, giving more room for their minions to act on their own.

Boy, this post went all sorts of places I wasn’t expecting when I started. I never even quite got around to talking about the gnolls of Cinder. Thinking about them was what got me started on this ramble. Oh, well. Maybe next post.