Monday, November 14, 2011

Systematization of Monsters

Development on the Black City is back on the front burner, and one of the first topics to think about is the concept of the bestiary.  I had been doing a mix of creating new monsters, lifting from Lovecraft and pulp horror, and retrofitting the standard monsters.  I'm creating a lot of new and alternate monsters, and have the chance to revisit the problems incurred by non-standard bestiaries.

The area beneath the Black City is a megadungeon, and one of my agendas is to enable a player-driven exploration process.  This means the players can gather enough information about the environment, through rumors, scouting, role playing, and player knowledge, to plan their own expeditions.  The threat level is part of that information landscape.  I'm intrigued by this approach since it contrasts with the ways I've traditionally ran level-based games, which is to ensure the plot hooks for upcoming games mostly lead to worthy challenges.

For that reason, there's a cogent argument behind using a standard bestiary in mega dungeons and hex crawls.  Bestiaries like the Monster Manual banalize monsters to a degree (to quote Noisms), but in a mega dungeon, the player knowledge about the relative toughness of upcoming monsters enables planning.  Zak had a recent post that mused on a similar value in the published works - bottom of this post - pointing out the value of goal-setting through access to a Monster Manual; players can flip open the book and say, "Someday, we're going to kill Demogorgon."

I'm a proponent of running D&D with a weird horror approach, but recognize that the weird horror campaign has a different design goal; it's concerned with genre emulation and sacrifices transparency for mystery.  LOTFP leads the way in taking D&D to the weird horror space.  Consider the monster advice in The Grindhouse edition:  use fewer monsters, make them the centerpieces of the adventure, make them unique, unnatural and terrifying, and follow a "less is more" approach; those are all good choices for achieving a specific tone invoking the unknown and keeping players off balance.  One of the things I struggled with when I took time off from the project was the dissonance between the needs of a mega dungeon versus the Weird Horror aesthetic; more often than not, choices that made a mega dungeon sustainable for a campaign were shifting the tone towards gonzo.

<There's still a pure weird horror setting in my writing queue, it's just not going to be the Black City.  The Library of de la Torre idea solves many of these problems by making the adventure sites distinct, remote, and unknown, aligning itself closer to the weird horror literary genre.>

Bypassing the bestiary for a moment, consider that there's another dungeon conceit that can support a transparent, player-driven game and achieve the same result.  It's the idea that Dungeon Level = Party Level = Monster Level.  A similar thing can be done with the wilderness hex system - the deeper into a wilderness area, the more dangerous become the encounters.  Even if the monsters are mostly new or adapted, players can still expect dungeon level 3 to be more dangerous than level 2, and so on.  The DM should mix the threat levels a bit, so there are easier encounters and much more difficult encounters (bosses).  Unique monsters will still keep the players on their toes, but the overall scheme gives them some foundation for planning excursions.  Of course, I come back to this thought:  Any kind of systemization of the ecosystem creates sufficient predictability that violates the Weird aesthetic.  Just saying.

In case you missed it, Roger over at Roles, Rules and Rolls had put together an entertaining chart to give new players the chance to gauge a monster's threat level in the absence of a standard bestiary; you can see it here (Old One-Armed Man's Monster Guide).  A chart like that, with a crusty Viking as the speaker instead, would be totally awesome as a future Black City handout.


  1. Yeah, I think the value of a bestiary is certainly based on genre you want to work in. Bestiaries can banalize things, though they just as easily integrate things into setting--medieval bestiaries are full of all sorts of exotic (and improbable) things after all, and they're still flavorful. I think the key point is: know what sort of "feel" you want to have and be planful about your approach.

  2. In my campaign I'm mixing it up: there are a few generic monsters (chiefly goblins), while the other monsters encountered are more unique. The main enemies are humans and demi-humans, beasts, and giant versions of animals. The preparation for exploration comes down to researching locations rather than monsters, with a few exceptions.

  3. That's "Roles Rules and Rolls" but thank you!

    Indeed, size and a few other cues not only should, but can serve as a rough guide to a monster's toughness. My guidelines are not too far off actual hit die values in D&D, special attacks can be found out by hearsay, and the odd man-sized monster that's a considerable challenge can perhaps be sized up in the same way experienced fighters can size up the toughness of a potential human duel opponent.

    There are many ways to clue players in that even though it is on level 1 of the dungeon, that troll is too tough to face right now. (In my game a few weeks ago it was the fact that he was seen tearing a friendly ogre limb from limb.)

  4. Fixed it - sorry man! If you're going to give someone a shout out, you should get the name of the blog right (at least the link worked). :)

    I would say, even the One-Armed Man's guide is too systematic for Weird (to truly present the unnervable encounter, we need to break those rules), but the guide is awesome for games using a non-standard bestiary - and it's dang funny!

  5. Great post. That is something that I've been contemplating a bit lately as well. I just did a post on it on Friday actually.

    I think that there is a great argument for both approaches and sprinkling a bit from column A and B adds a bit of variety and mystery into a game.

  6. I'm becoming more and more convinced that the answer is to have a somewhat systemized list of monsters, but they need to be your monsters.

    Something like the Dismal Depths

    That's what I'm doing with Nightwick Abbey right now, and it seems to be working fine. The different types of "goblinoids" and such just don't light my imagination the way they may have at one time.

  7. Yeah, I love Sham's work on The Dismal Depths; he built an awesome bestiary, I wish we saw all the levels! I'll be using that as a model as well now.

    I'm taking it that you're using the level 1 dungeon = roughly level 1 party conceit in Nightwick Abbey?

  8. I'm taking it that you're using the level 1 dungeon = roughly level 1 party conceit in Nightwick Abbey?

    Yes. I think that's sufficient enough to allow the party to make decisions while exploring. It might break up some of the "weird" but Nightwick Abbey is "supernatural horror" anyway.

  9. "Any kind of systemization of the ecosystem creates sufficient predictability that violates the Weird aesthetic."

    I don't see that at all - "The deeper you go, the worse things get" does not seem at all inimical to 'Weird Fantasy' play. You could for instance do a campaign in thes style of William Hope Hodgson's 'The Boats of the Glen Carrig'; a great weird-fantasy tale from 1907 that is essentially one long wilderness monster-bash - giant crabs, giant killer amoebae, weird grasping 'things' - all hacked apart by the doughty sailors of the Glen Carrig.

  10. Hodgson's better known 'The Night Land' has a similar weird-fantasy wilderness-monster-bash vibe: There is an initial EL 'Spike' with the horrors clustered around the Last Redoubt, which must be avoided, not fought. Then you get a wilderness of variable EL; the protagonist can assess likely threats, choose his route etc with limited knowledge. Things get worse as he approaches the Lesser Redoubt - in game terms he would likely have levelled up at this point - followed by the return trip.

    IMO you could definitely make a Weird Fantasy sandbox out of The Night Land.