Friday, August 26, 2011

Monsters, from symbolic beasts to natural animals

Monster Manuals are not the first time people have built elaborate taxonomies of the monstrous. The medieval bestiary (also not the first on the job, but well ahead of the monster manual) presents us with an earlier example of the cataloging and categorizing of monsters and animals and all their features. Take a look at a medieval bestiary, the source (albeit often mediated by literature) of some of D&D's core monsters. The urge to catalog, to categorize, to create a taxonomy, to explain -- the creative and exploratory instincts of man -- are on full display. But the results are very different than those of the modern monster manual.

In OD&D and throughout some of the life of 1st edition, monsters were, broadly speaking, things that you meet. You encounter them. Some of them will talk. Some will fight. Some will chase you. Others want to be left alone. Some are puzzles. Some are traps. Some are dirty tricks Gary came up with to punish you for rummaging around in corpses or listening at doors. Their roles are varied, except that they are out there, some sitting in rooms or living in lairs, some wandering about, but all there to be encountered, if you're in the right place at the right time.

Somewhere by the end of 1st edition, monsters were already taking on a life of their own beyond the encounter. Ecological naturalism was taking over, and monsters were increasingly becoming races and beings that lived and loved and died, with or without you. By this time, it doesn't raise an eyebrow to talk about the "typical" minotaur or "typical" medusa, or typical anything (pretty much): beings which were originally uniquely monstrous (or very nearly so) had become species. No more or less natural (within a magical world) than a dog or a cat. Monsters by convention, but essentially ordinary.

By 3rd edition many monsters were ready for a bit of reinvention: both the new art direction and in some cases the new stats gave us new angles on old monsters, or at least more consistent stats for the monstrous, with reduced information about ecology and lifestyle but no major changes. By 4th edition, consistency within the game rules was taking over, and it was time to reinvent and reimagine monsters once again. One part of this was the attempt to make the monster trademarkable and copyrightable and ownable. The monster needed to become intellectual property, something owned by Wizards of the Coast and by extension Hasbro. The Flame Blitz Shadow Orc isn't the result of Wizards's tin ear. It's a business move. Alongside this came another move, with the goal to reinvent the monsters, systematize them in a new overarching story/context (with primordials and titans), and in some ways an attempt to make the monster a monster again.

Unfortunately, 4th edition missed the mark on monsters. The 4e monster is not something that exists separately from the PCs, as was the monster of 2nd edition. And it is not even something that exists to be met, to be encountered, as it had been earlier yet. Rather, the monster is something to be fought. You don't encounter a 4th edition monster, you fight it. It does not frighten you, it does not chase you, it is not hiding under your bed. It may be a puzzle on some level, but it is mainly a combat puzzle. A monster is something you fight.

There's something right about that, the fighting monsters part. That is one of the things you do with monsters in myth and legend. But that isn't everything you do with them, even if you're a hero, and it certainly isn't everything you would have done with them in early D&D.

So modern D&D has the monster as natural animal (which reached its pinnacle in 2nd edition) and the monster as abstract combat challenge, a fighting algorithm, a sequence of attacks ticking away on a timer we call Hit Points. (Fixing the monster, in 4th edition, has mostly resolved around getting the timer to tick at the appropriate pace.)

What about the monster of the medieval bestiary? The bestiary too shares the D&D monster manual's concern with taxonomy. But what a different taxonomy it is! In the monster manual, the term "monster" eventually becomes a misnomer: "beast" would sometimes be better. In a great many cases, "animal," or "creature," would work just as well. The monster manual monster is not something that is wrong with the world. It is not something that does not belong here. It is not even something that is particularly unique or interesting, though there are plenty of wonderful examples where at least the D&D monster remains bizarre. But it remains something that we can classify, categorize, and taxonomize in a fairly naturalistic way. It can be explained. It has an ecological niche. It belongs in the world it inhabits. It is not symbolic. It does not carry a heavy handed moral, it does not stand in as a crude allegory for God or the Devil or sin or the sinner or redemption. It would not live long in a C.S. Lewis tale, and it would it live long in a medieval bestiary. The medieval beast is a creature of symbolism. In a bestiary, even a mundane animal, even a common, everyday, banal creature such as a mouse or an ant is something more. It is a symbol, a story, a little piece of Christianity and morality, of right and wrong, of spiritual warfare and the secret history of the world.

In the medieval bestiary, the even the most mundane of animals is made into a symbol. In the monster manual, even the most bizarre of monsters is made into a animal.


  1. A cogent insight. While having some cursory similarities, the monster manual as taxonomy is sort of the inverse of the Medieval Bestiary--the MM seeks to fit things in the mechanistic world (whether "natural" or game or both) and the beastiary puts it into the spiritual contect.

  2. "Mechanistic" -- that's a good umbrella term. In each case, the writers, be it of monster manuals or of bestiaries -- are making sense of the monsters within their understandings of how the world works. But the world of D&D players and writers works very differently from the world of the medieval bestiary writers. D&D characters tend to inherit a lot of the common sense understandings of the world from the players, obviously, so it's easy to see where the "ecology of the monster" would appeal. I'd like to see more symbolically oriented monsters in the mix.

  3. I think you could reconcile symbolism with naturalism. If understand you correctly; you want to return to mythological roots of monsters. I'll use the nymph as an example. Nymphs were extremely beautiful women who lived out in the wilderness. In some stories they're associated with bodies of water like lakes, ponds, rivers, or streams. So we could say that the nymph is a representation of the beauty of the natural world and respite weary travelers receive when they find a fresh body of water. Is it not possible represent that idea mechanically and ecologically? These nymphs could always be found near bodies of water and their presence could be dangerously pacifying. It's when the monster is removed from this context of a wild body of water by an inept GM that the monster loses its symbolic quality.

  4. Thanks for the comment, Nate. You'll probably have to bear with me a bit -- I'm still thinking this through, so I expect this will ramble a bit.

    First, I think you're right that it's possible for naturalistic and symbolic features of monsters to live side-by-side. As your example illustrates, there's always room for monsters to signify all sorts of things. I'm trying to put my finger on something other people have probably already said in a more straightforward way a bunch of times. Monsters in mainstream D&D very often aren't monsters, really. The focus on monster ecologies kind of misses the whole point of monsters.

    Interestingly, though they're useful for comparison, I'm not sure that the medieval bestiaries are all that much better. They're not just catalogs of the monstrous made ordinary, like the monster manuals often are, which is nice. On the other hand, they are prone to fairly heavy-handed moralizing and allegory, which is problematic in its own way.

    So I guess I don't have a particularly strong, "Let's do this instead" to offer here at the moment. I'm more just thinking about this stuff and trying to make sense of it. Both monster manuals and bestiaries are products of their times, and they reflect different ways of thinking about the world. If someone wants to turn up the pseudo-medieval feel, the kind of standardization of D&D monsters in naturalistic terms is going to work against that, but the kind of standardization in bestiaries might help bring it to life.

    The Aberdeen bestiary offers an example of how medieval bestiaries talked about ordinary animals. Since I mentioned the ant in the original post, here's a link to the AB entry on the ant. I think it illustrates the very different kinds of things a
    bestiary writer might say about animals. Note that this (like many other bestiaries) text has an early Christian origin, not a typical "late medieval/early renaissance" period like a lot of D&D. And most of its stories go back further yet. Still, I think it's a good example.