Thursday, February 19, 2015

What Makes Monsters "Monstrous?"

Art by Eric Quigly

As I mentioned in my last post, I'm going to be working on some creatures or monsters for S&W, T&T and Far Away Land (FAL.) Many times, monsters in D&D and other fantasy games boil down to a set of stats - their combat ability if you will. I'd like them to be something more.

What makes monsters "monstrous"? Is it the threat they are to the PCs? Their appearance? Motivations? Eating habits? Odor? Sounds they make? Their history and origin?

Nothing truly exists in a vacuum - except perhaps in RPGs ;)

In any case, I'd like to create creatures that have depth, as well as being able to summarize what makes them click in two to three sentences. Yeah, I love a challenge.

So, tell me what makes monsters "monstrous" for you.


  1. Habits or customs which are revolting/disturbing/unfathomable/taboo to human sensibilities.

  2. How they force us to redefine our beliefs to accept they exist.
    How they act in unfathomable or abominable ways with no obvious sense of morality, logic, or conscience.
    How they may act for the "greater good" by punishing or massacring people for transgressing unknown or unknowable laws.
    Because they do terrible, horrible, and unthinkable things that, deep down in our hearts, we secretly wish we could do.

  3. I'm very Lovecraftian like that; orcs, goblins, vampires, not really all that monstrous. Gibbering mouthers, shoggoths, elder things... monstrous, because they're utterly alien and incomprehensible.

    Did you ever see the Beowulf movie from a couple of years back? The one with Angelina Jolie and Anthony Hopkins? Angelina Jolie's character? Eh, not so monstrous. Grendel? That thing was monstrous, all deformed with the drum-ear and, again, almost alien and certainly incomprehensible.

    1. I think Mother was a true monster. Grendel was to be pitied. She on the other hand, she made plans that would destroy men and civilization. She was the stuff of nightmares. Some monsters hide in plain sight and destroy from within. There is a reason why Hitler is called a monster.
      For story purposes, these are the best of the monsters.

    2. I always thought Angelina Jolie looked pretty damn scary with those nightcrawler lips and complete lack of a soul (I don't know how you can see that, but you totally can!) Honestly, after watching Maleficent, I'm not sure she's even human

  4. Replies
    1. The "identifiable even when not present" observation here is a particularly good one.

      In a related vein, and with a nod to Erik's comment about "odour" above, good use of the senses helps create a vivid impression. The usual habit is just to describe the monster visually. Imagine you're in complete darkness and the monster is nearby: what can you hear? What does it smell like? Can you feel anything?

  5. the nun puking up a blood monster in NSFW and saying "don't kill it!!!" It's the juxaposition of the normal and the abnormal.

  6. All are good answers so far! To me, monsters are creatures that by their existence put fear into people. That fear could be unfounded.

  7. Anybody who uses vodka as a basis for a cocktail is a monster in my book!

    1. I'll just have to accept my monstrousness, then.

      Is it that vodka shouldn't be consumed at all, or that it should only be consumed 'straight up'?

  8. Defying understanding is great. Or just being distinctly other.

    But sometimes simple, understandable monsters are good for a change of pace, even though they don't make as satisfying threats. Usually.

    Threatening can be good too, but I like to vary the tempo on that, lest it lose its punch.

  9. We had a discussion a while back on google+ about "what is a monster": https://plus.google.com/u/0/116271131160818845979/posts/PSrsnFpi6p6

    The big points I personally took away from it were as follows:

    * Monsters are UNUSUAL.
    If a given type of monster is too common, it becomes too ordinary. Monstrous monsters should be unique or rare.

    * Monsters are DANGEROUS.
    Maybe not in terms of raw physical harm (although that's certainly an option), but their interests are detrimental to those of humanity. This may be malicious or accidental, but the important point I am taking is that there can be no common ground; we can't coexist safely with them.
    Danger itself can take multiple forms besides the raw threat of physical harm:
    * Danger could also be psychological: living near a creature that causes madness in those who look at it would be dangerous even if it's not actively malicious.
    * Danger can be economic: in the real world we think of megacorps as "monstrous" when they crush small companies. I don't quite know how to import this into a fantasy setting.
    * Danger can be existential: refugees from a dying world have migrated to our plane and are spreading out. The physical laws they have brought with them are incompatible with life as we know it.

    A junction of these two things which I spotted is the class of monsters that reproduce unusually. Werewolves and vampires are the classic examples: they reproduce by infecting humans. This both limits their number and puts them at odds with humanity.

    * Monsters are UNCONTROLLABLE.
    If the monster is animalistic, it can't be tamed or harnessed. If it's intelligent, it nevertheless can't be bargained with. The latter needn't necessarily be due to malice: perhaps it's resolutely indifferent, or above our level, or regretful that it has higher concerns than our safety. But nothing we do can change its mind, so we must fight or flee.

    * Monsters CHANGE RULES.
    Either it follows a rule that nothing else does (e.g. can't cross running water) or it breaks a rule everything else follows (e.g. "down" is always at right angles to the surface it is standing on). The scale of a monster's rule-breaking shows how powerful the monster is. I think rule-breaking is generally the more monstrous version of this: the rule-creating version only limits the monster.

    Rule-breaking shows up a lot in horror movies, particularly supposed "rules" about safe places. If a character in a horror movie makes it to a "safe place", you can bet the monster will find a way in shortly. Remember Aliens? "That's right inside the room!"

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  11. "* Monsters are UNUSUAL"

    This is important. The unknown is part of what makes something a monster. If we don't understand it, it's more likely to seem monsterous. If the players know what the monster is, what it's stats are, why it does what it does, then it is mundane not monsterous.


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