there are no monsters in the Monster Manual

Pale manchild were there last agonies? Were you in terror, did you know? Could you feel the claw that claimed you? And who is this fool kneeling over your bones, choked with bitterness? And what could a child know of the darkness of God’s plan? Or how flesh is so frail it is hardly more than a dream.

I’m thinking about monsters again. I pulled out GURPS Horror recently, which made quite an impact on me way back in the day (the one with the not terribly scary skeleton-slasher on the front). I don’t care for GURPS—less for that certain sort of “but there’s a rule for everything!” GURPS evangelist—but this splatbook is good, and has been through the editions.

I don’t play GURPS and I don’t play WoD, but I read the splatbooks because they can, when good, be really good, at least insofar as conveying a certain grim tone and bevy of evocative ideas you don’t usually get from D&D. It’s hardly new to complain that whatever edition and whatever setting of D&D you play, it feels the same. Oerth and Faerun and Krynn differ in the details, but can anyone straightfacedly say they feel like fundamentally different worlds? There have been a few settings that stand out as “yes, this is a different thing”—Athas comes to mind—but how many have there been in the last forty years?

GURPS Horror is pretty good at conveying (if you ignore the crunch) what makes things scary and how to use them in games. But where it shines is in taking a fundamentally different (coming from a D&D perspective) approach to monsters. The Monster Manuals aren’t really about monsters; they’re really just encyclopedias of various animals. There’s nothing there to tell you why these things are scary, or how to really make them so. They’re only frightening to the extent that the combination of numbers in the statblock compares to that of your character; there’s nothing about what is fearful, to the player’s psyche, about this creature.

Alfred Kubin, No Shit, There I Was, Rowing This Boat (1905).

GURPS Horror takes a different approach, which is as breathtakingly obvious as it is woefully underused: there, they categorize the monsters by what archetypal human fear they embody. That is, the process is reversed: “here’s a universal human fear, and here’s how it has been reflected in our cultural imagination,” rather than “here’s a creature, and here’s why it’s scary.” Thus the fear of our own sin gives shape to demons; fear of the unnatural gives us ghosts and doppelgangers; fear of the wilderness, werewolves and the fae; fear of the monolithic state, men in black; fear of starvation, wendigo.

For D&D, you have to think about monsters in this reverse order, or else your monsters are just creatures you’re hunting. A wight isn’t horrifying because it drains abstract levels; the fear is of men who lived by terrifying violence whom even death won’t stop, and will continue regardless. An ogre isn’t scary, but the childborne fear of huge, violent, and capricious authority is. A lich isn’t inherently dreadful, but the dead hand of generations past living on to control the world through the present, is.

A “monster manual,” isn’t. It’s just a list of creatures to hunt. If you want real monsters in your game, start with a very-human fear—corruption, disease, starvation, the uncanny, the vastness of the sky—and find or write a monster that embodies that fear.

As a special aside, you won’t find much better than Tales of the Grotesque and Dungeonesque, Vol. I.

how to make your cleric hate you, vol. 1

There is no description of a fool, he said, that you fail to satisfy.

You went off to seminary. Spent three years as a novice, baking bread and calling the hours. You read four languages, two of which no one even bothers to speak anymore. You can refute even the finer points of both the Anacian and Jerevite heresies, convincingly. And you’re bold enough to carry the Word into the dark places of the earth so that others may know light and joy.

And your party thinks you’re a healbot, hanging around for no other damn reason but to patch them up after they do dumb things. You carry healing and grace with you everywhere you go; the common people flock to your touch. Turns out, you’re their healbot, too.

What stupid shit do they need your learned help with today? Roll d10.

1: Buddy bet him a groat that he couldn’t punch himself unconscious. Buddy lost.

2: Got drunk as a skunk and passed out with his legs too close to the fire.

3: Has all the STDs. Doesn’t want to have STDs. Wants to show you.

Pieter Bruegel the Elder, This is Why We Can’t Have Nice Things, oil on oak panel (1559).

4: Got drunker than two skunks and fell off the plowhorse. Still drunk.

5: Attempted suicide via crossbow-and-string trap.

6: Happy (human) mom and proud (human) dad are in labor with their first. She delivers a beautiful baby (half-elven) boy.

7: Shoot an arrow in the air. Whoever is standing closest to where it lands, wins. This kid won.

8: Snuck into the hedgewitch’s hovel and drank all the potions. All the philters, elixirs, and decoctions, too. Now freaking the fuck out. With miscellaneous magical effects.

9: Demands—demands!—to be healed of some nonexistent ailments.

10: Has dagger pommel lodged somewhere unpleasant. Swears he was just reaching for something on a shelf, naked, when he slipped and fell right on it. One-in-a-million chance, he says.

Shamelessly stolen from various emergency-medicine fora.

a wormbent tabernacle

[W]hat rabid god decocted out of the smoking lobes of hydrophobia could have devised a keeping place for souls so poor as in this flesh. This mawky wormbent tabernacle.

Sometimes the dead don’t just fall. Flesh does strange things, and us blackguards and scavengers make more dead than most. What happens after the deathblow? Roll d10.

1: Collapses into a pile of leaves.

2: Turns to a cloud of blackflies.

3: Falls into a clatter of painted woods and wires, a marionette unstrung.

4: Acrid smoke billows from rent wounds; moments later, the corpse is consumed from within by brilliant fire.

5: Arms and legs detach and slither off, ophidian and fat.

6: With a thunderclap, it disappears.

7: Before the body even falls, it liquefies and runs off underfoot. Stinks something fierce, too.

8: As the corpse cools, parasites make their way out. A lengthy tapeworm emerges from an orifice, curling tight. Other critters from nose and ears.

9: Spores—looking for all the world like dust—puff from the wounds. They sift down through the air, emergent life in a blossoming of mushrooms.

10: The corpse just lies there. You are sad.

on warbeasts, of the eat-people kind

So Scrap Princess asked about creating warbeasts and how to do so in an effective way.1

The (too?) obvious answer to “how do I create warbeasts that eat people?” is necromantic compulsion. Every other answer has to contend with thorny, species-specific issues of biology, with which necromancers need not concern themselves. Find a dead beast, or create a dead beast (that is, create the deadness, rather than creating the beast), raise it up, and send it at the enemy.

The efficiency of this approach—rather than the efficacy, I think—is reliant upon just how necromancy works in your world. That is, does the difficulty in raising derive from the complexity of the mind of the being you’re reanimating, or from the mass of material you’re prying from the earth’s grip? If the former, creating warbeasts—juggernauts of reanimated bone and flesh held together by grim forces—is relatively easy. As smart as mammoths are, they aren’t as smart as the dullest farmboy, and so for less work than it would take to make a shambling ghoul, you’ve got a multi-ton war-construct that doesn’t feel pain, doesn’t spook, and never tramples backwards into your own men.

If the latter, and it’s a matter of size, well, your necromancers have some calculating to do. If it consumes the same resources (measured in wealth, man-hours, unhappy deviltry and deals struck, whatever) to create one enormous undead siege-tortoise, or X revenants where X = tortoise!mass / average!human!mass, you have to ponder your objectives and whether one siege-tortoise accomplishes those better than a minor horde of shamblers. If you have to breach fortifications to clear a lane, maybe yes; if you’re just trying to overrun enemy countryside and destroy their farming sector, maybe no.

“But hella,” you say, “Scrap asked about warbeasts that eat people.” Well, that also depends on the nature of infernal necromancy in your world. Hordemaster Romero’s shambling legions are probably better than creating a warbeast anyway. Why would you sink the resources into animating a warbeast if it’s just going to stop at first contact and chomp on the first shitheel conscript it tusk-gores, when what you really want is for it to plunge a bloody path to your objective? If your undead eat people, well, you need to make a lot of little undead, so that if one peels off to eat a brain, the rest keep going after other brains. If you make warbeasts, you want them to blindly thresh through opposition and leave it in terrified disarray. You don’t need your warbeasts to eat the flesh of the fallen foe to create terrified disarray.

So I guess this is just a roundabout way of objecting to Scrap’s premise. You don’t want your warbeasts to eat people. It’s bad generalship.

1 As opposed to a fucking awesome way, in which case I recommend the Matryoshka dogs. It’s canines1 all the way down.

1 I see what you did there.

the pillars of a willing suspension of disbelief

These are the bedrock of how I make this fantasy setting work; everything else follows as realistically (verisimilitudinously?) as can be dreamt up. (While always maintaining a bias toward entertainment.)

Pillar 0: Gods are real. Not all of the gods that people proclaim as real are real, but there is a pantheon and they do interact with peoples’ lives on a daily basis (even if indirectly).

Pillar 1: Magic is real. It can be big, flashy, and everywhere; it can be hated, subversive, and feared; or it can be storied and rare. But it is never perfectly reliable and predictable. If magic produced the same result for any person who performed the identical actions, it would no longer be magic, but science. And that science would quickly become technology. Maybe there’s no predicting who can do magic or why; maybe it’s fundamentally unreliable and can’t be consistently replicated; maybe anyone can do it but the effects produced vary. But there’s something fundamentally unscientific about magic.

Pillar 1a: Magic does not change the human heart. Human impulses remain the basis of the dramatic, and the dramatic is what we’re here for. We’re all still the same people, telling endless iterations of the same few stories, just through different instrumentalities.

Pillar 2: Life is hard. Crops fail, and then the lord comes and levies the rest. The pox smolders through the villages, then returns the next year. Rains flood out cartroads and most labor from sunup to sundown to keep their families going. And that’s all with brigands and chevauchees and whatever eldritch creatures roam the badlands. Sometimes the dead crawl out of the ground.

Urs Graf, Tell Me Again What You Can Do for My Village, Adventurer? (1521).

Pillar 3: Violence is endemic and terrifying. Sure, ancient enmities between dwarves and goblins, orcish hordes, all that. Political and personal violence is sadly commonplace. But what’s most vicious is that it’s really about ecological pressures. With a variety of sentient humanoids all sharing overlapping, if not identical, ecological niches, competition for resources is constant and ugly. Eventually one race or another will likely win out, but that hasn’t happened yet, and it will be a red day when it does.

Pillar 4: Everything has an ecology. Most everything eats. Everyone lives somewhere. Some grow in the day and some hunt at night. Apex predators—of which there are many—tend to be individuals, but everything else forms families, packs, or colonies. Everything has a place. This is pretty easy for all the things we’re used to, but creates interesting implications for those we’re not. Orcs form warbands, but also have oatfields and settlements and mills and harvest festivals. Dragons have a large-enough ecological footprint as to warp the landscape around them. And that catoblepas has to be doing something in the 99.99% of the time that a paladin isn’t trying to slay it.

Pillar 4a: There’s a reason for that dungeon down there, and that reason isn’t “a wizard did it.” Excavating is hard work, and the use must justify the cost. It might be some beast’s burrow, or a tin mine, or the tomb of the magnificent and mighty, or an irrigation system. But there’s some damn reason.

Pillar 5: All evil is specific. Nobody wakes up in the morning and thinks, “I’m going to go be wicked today.” Evil can be clever, or delusional, or callous, or lazy, or expedient, or even simply desperate. But there’s always a reason. Creatures always do evil for a goal. To gain something, or avoid losing something, something real or imagined. Evil can use good means to bad ends, or bad means to good ends, or bad means to bad ends. There’s always a reason, even if you can’t understand it from a distance.

Pillar 6: Almost everything is mysterious. There’s some impossibility, but it’s mostly ignorance and lack of communication. Sure, it would be crazy to believe that outlander’s talk of giraffes with ten-foot necks topped with a man’s head, but did you hear of the man in the cave with a bull’s head? People need to feel like they know the reason why things happen, and readily fill gaps in their knowledge with supposition and imagination. What are those fires that burn in the sky, and why does the world freeze every year? That toddler fell down the village well, but what child would just do that? Surely it was the wickedness of Goodie Kerrand, who lives by herself and quarreled with the mother that very day. When you’re like as not to never venture more than three leagues from where you were born, it’s easy to dream up what might exist out there in the beyond. The average person’s horizons hew very close indeed.

Pillar 6a: Perfect information kills plots. And Identify can’t identify everything about a hexed item, even if the rules say it can. How could it? How could an in-game spell tell an in-game character what the “+2” on a Kris +2 even means?

Pillar 7: PCs are exceptional. As in, exceptions to the normal expectations. And we’re not talking about “roll 5d6, drop lowest two.” We’re talking about people who buck the world and do what the vast majority cannot or will not. We call them “adventurers,” but no one else does. Highwaymen, blackguards, outlaws. Tomb raiders, freebooters, marauders. Looters, rievers, opportunists. Men and women like this are antithetical to order, to civilization. And that makes the common person—and those who rule over them—uneasy. In a dangerous world where stability is paramount, adventurers are a destabilizing force. Occasionally useful, maybe, but no one ever smiles when they come to town. And that’s just the business of carrying swords and killing things for private gain—leaving aside calling thunderbolts from the heavens or shooting inerrant arrows from the fingertips.

the banality of orcs, pt. 2

A bookend to a post on why orcs are all evil. Except maybe they aren’t.

Orcs are not evil. At least, no moreso than anyone else. Orcs are merely competitors.

In a world where humans are the end-all be-all of all things, everything is seen through a human lens.1 Humans want a lot of things (every thing, depending on whom you ask). Humans want water to drink and arable land to crop and grass to graze upon and byways to traverse. They also want the same lead and copper and iron and sapphires and spices and dyestuffs everyone always wants.

And that’s the problem. Orcs want all of those things too. And of those which are needs, they need them just as much as humans do. But orcs tend toward stupid, foolhardy, and unlovely. They’re just smart enough to seriously compete with humans (and the other demihumans) for resources, but not smart enough to consistently win, or even subsist. If they were stupider, more feral and beastly, they may have carved out an ecological niche not in direct competition with humans; as it stands, however, they’re in a tough spot.

Pieter Brueghel the Younger, Ain’t No Party Like an Orc Party, ’cause an Orc Party Don’t Stop (1609).

Orcs are always winning battles and losing wars. They have managed to survive on grit and strength and an ability to make a hardscrabble life of places humans care least for. Their strength has allowed them to survive, but never thrive. Their life is one of war: war against the elements, against aching bellies, against pestilence, and against everyone else who wants the same subsistence as they do.

And it’s not always blood-and-billhooks war, either. Orcs tend to get the shit end of the deal in trade, both in receiving less than expected from the cleverer folk and in finding few markets for their own goods, which tend to be shoddier than others’. Even amongst those who are willing to trade with orcs, the orcs can only compete on price: their goods tend to be simple, strong, and unsophisticated.2 They tend to copy technological improvement rather than create it, and always find themselves one step behind the power curve.

Orcs are not inherently bloodthirsty, any more than anyone else is. They simply have to play to their strengths. Where they can’t compete on technological or thaumaturgical prowess, in sharp dealing or collective endeavor, they can compete with fire and falchion and ferocity. But that’s a mug’s game, and they know it. And resent it. They resent it in the shit-smelling foetid marshes, in the howling tundra of the wild north, and on the scrubbrush slopes of arid mesas. They resent it in driftwood hovels and tattered rawhide tents; they resent it in their frenzied dances and childrens’ stories and hearts. They resent it when breastplowing stony barrens and when hauling poorly-coopered buckets of fresh water and when undermining dwarven fortifications.

Humans think orcs are evil because they compete for the same resources, resources that are “rightfully” humanity’s; orcs’ consistent losses in that competition bolster humans’ self-congratulatory impulse to attribute market failure to moral failure; and because orcs are, to human eyes, ugly.3

With many thanks to Frank Trollman, who put the idea into my head that orcs aren’t bad, they’re just evolutionarily obsolete.

1 Of course. We’re humans playing a game with humans in it: everything becomes about humans. Which is why, in these complacent latter days, our elves are just skinny, pretty human dudes, and dwarves are just short, stocky human dudes. I’d prefer, of course, my elves to materialize out of hedgerows and eat the baby in trade for a peacock’s tear, or whatever high-weirdness your crazy brain and centuries of batshit folk mythology can come up with.

2 Interestingly, orc-made farm implements tend to be pretty good. That plow might be heavier than you’d like, but it’s not going to chip off when you turn a stone.

3 Ugly things are evil. Obvs. Disney told me so. Also—and I digress—I enjoy footnotes. One of the oddnesses of blogging is that footnotes and endnotes become sort of the same thing, depending on the length of your post, despite the fact that footnotes are useful and good, while endnotes are the page-flipping abominations of information design.1

1 I can footnote my footnotes. This is useful for cascading digressions.

the evil of orcs, pt. 1

Hatred is gained as much by good works as by evil.

Orcs are intrinsically evil.

There are no “orcs” and “elves.” They are the same thing. They are polymorphs (no, not like that, wizard) of the same creature.

The switch is, somewhat inexplicably, the moral choices of the individual. At most basic, an elf is one which has consistently made good—altruistic, empathetic, righteous—choices in her life; an orc, one who has made wicked—selfish, callous, violent—choices in hers. The making of these choices moves the individual along a spectrum, one little bit at a time. The spectrum runs from the most ethereal elf to the most brutish orc, and while there are no hard stops along the way, every observer seems to exhibit a desire toward amateur taxonomy. Barring extraordinary event,1 each little choice—keeping the last bit of butter to oneself, lending a hand in another’s garden, standing with one’s friends, or casting insult—changes one imperceptibly in one direction or another. It is the sum of innumerable unthought-of actions that produce the dramatic change in phenotype.

Absolutely no one is happy with this situation.2 Elves, thinking themselves (often rightly) so very virtuous, want no mention made of any relation to that most brutish of humanoids. These are the bedside whispers given to little elflings: “Be good, or your sins will show themselves on your hairy body!” Everyone knows, or thinks they know, someone who has fallen; one day, someone disappears, is never seen again. It is said, if anything is said, that they killed themselves, a less-embarrassing story. A whole line can be besmirched by the fall of one son. What does it say about you, they’ll mutter when your back is turned, that you raised a son so wicked that he turned into a beast?

The orcs don’t much care for it either. For a people built on strength and ruthlessness and a narrow-eyed focus on getting things done, any kinship with the effeminate lightweights is a snub, like the birth of nearsighted runt. But where an elf making the turn quietly disappears, self-exiling into either a period of contemplation in an attempt to reverse the process or a rampage free of the oppressive strictures of elven society, an orc turning slight will, with any sense, just disappear into the night. Those with less sense will awaken—for a few sputum-gasping moments—with knives lodged between their ribs. So hated are the elves, and those looking as though they will turn to one, that any sign of wasting or emaciation or weakness will often be taken as the turn, and culled nonetheless.

But the turn is a slow one, and is a progression along a spectrum rather than an on-off switch. Hence, half-elves and half-orcs. They would like to have you believe that these folks are the result of forbidden love or more vicious abuse, but that’s a façade all pretend to. A half-elf or half-orc is simply an intermediate step along the spectrum. A fallen elf slowly gains strength and loses some grace, and becomes what is commonly called a half-elf. The process continues from half-elf to half-orc, and from half-orc to orc. And these poor folks have the worst of both worlds, hated from all ends for not being enough … whatever “enough” means. Is it any surprise that such people tend to the extreme, either paragons of goodwill or redoubts of perfidy, in an effort to become all one or all the other?

Orcs are, by definition, evil. Elves are, by definition, good. An elf who does evil becomes strong and coarse and brutish. An orc who does good becomes slim and graceful and clever. Can there be any surprise that they—flip sides of the same coin—hate each other so? The sight of the other reminds each of what they could become if they stray from their path. There is no thing so hated as the incarnate reminder of one’s own shortcoming.

1 Some acts of enormous import—saintliness or atrocity—can change one much more quickly. It is these sudden transformations, typically an elf turning into a beast overnight, that is what most commonly betrays the truth of the situation to outsiders.

2 This is a lie. There are some remarkably well-informed sages who both know of this situation and think it is, intellectually, interesting as shit. They don’t get out much.

Continued in: “the banality of orcs, pt. 2