Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Monstrous Imagination

Thinking about monsters today.

Not sure why. Maybe because Jim at Lamentations of the Flame Princess has been saying interesting things about good and evil, my thoughts turn to monsters.

This in spite of the fact that there really aren't many monsters in our current D&D campaign. Rogues. Scoundrels. Criminals. Miscreants. Murderers. Yes, those. But few are really monstrous. Monsters just don't fit in the heist / caper style game we're running. Even Monster Manual "monsters" mostly aren't really monsters at all in our game. So far, the few which have appeared (the troglodytes, the salamander, the gargoyles, the white ape, the shimmering daemon spirit, the sprites) have basically been people. Cruel people, potentially, but mostly not even that. The troglodytes were slaves. Now they're working odd jobs in the Sump. The gargoyles may or may not be up to no good, but no more so than the rest of the populace. The salamander? Mean spirited, vengeful, even chaotic evil, but still more of a person than a monster, in a lot of ways. And that's the way I want it in the rainy city.

But still, today, I find myself thinking about monsters. What works for me in a monster, and what doesn't. So I thought I'd talk about it a bit.

Monsters that are
Let's start with an example of what works. The blogosphere gives us this one, and for me, it's a hell of a thing: Chris's "Orcish Atavisms" at Vaults of Nagoh. Take a look at that thing if you haven't seen it already. Wayne Barlowe's art is certainly part of what makes it monstrous. But only part. What's more monstrous is that this creature is a degenerate thing of orcish stock. Deformed. Retarded. But an orc, nonetheless. And orcs use these deformed kin as guard animals, food, and breeding stock. The orcish atavism is monstrous, certainly. But more than that, it makes orcs monstrous, a difficult thing after all their years as familiar low-level cannon fodder.

Here's another example, this one from a non-gaming source. Cordwainer Smith's Scanners, from the 1950 short story "Scanners Live in Vain." Scanners are human, but what they've volunteered to have done to themselves is monstrous. Their job is monstrous. If you haven't read the story, I recommend it. (The text is available online here.) If you have read the story, you probably know where I'm coming from when I say that Scanners are monsters.

These are the monsters I've been thinking about today. I'd like to find some examples of good, truly monstrous monsters from D&D, but I'm going to dodge that for the moment (and maybe ask you to do it for me). Instead I'm going to take the easy way out for the rest of the post and talk about what does not really strike me as monstrous.

Monsters that aren't
This is a much easier job. Let's start with the big boys -- Lovecraftian horrors out of space.

Too familiar. It's not their fault, I know. But after thirty odd years as gaming mainstays, I know them too well. They hardly seem alien at all any more (an unfortunate irony). A lot of effort has been put in to keep them fresh and scary, perhaps most recently in Ken Hite's multiple re-imaginings in Trail of Cthulhu, which I enjoyed reading. And any familiar monster can potentially be made fresh again by reimagining it or just putting it in the right context. But for me, Lovecraftian horrors aren't especially monstrous these days, in spite of some laudable attempts to refresh them.

Here's another approach that doesn't work for me. The "dark" "demonic" monster. You know this guy. He's probably red or green or black, or maybe he's just pale. Like this bunch of yahoos. If he's humanoid, he's totally ripped and leathery and wearing black leather, or maybe really into chains. If he's lucky, he looks like Oderus Urungus. Sometimes he's gross. Maybe he's rotting. Maybe his internal organs are showing. Maybe he's got bugs all over him. Sometimes he's too fat. He did his internship in evil with the guy from the Saw movies. Evil is basically a matter of proper accessorizing for this monster -- even his horrible acts are affectations. Video games are probably the worst offender in this area, but RPGs have a long and storied history of trading in dark, demonic evil guys, too.

I should probably add that I'm not above including these guys in an adventure:
DM: Black smoke billows forth from the depths of the hellish furnace. A freakish red devil steps out of the smoke with a vile grin. He has a bloody pitchfork in one hand and a fistful of ephedrine in the other. He laughs and kills a baby.
Party Fighter: I ask him where he gets his ephedrine. I have a big tourney coming up.
Of course, as with so many things in gaming, YMMV. So that's why I'd like to turn the question to you. What monsters just work for you, are really monstrous, either from RPGs or from fiction? How about monsters that just don't do it for some reason?