why is the tarrasque so boring?

Because it’s just a video game boss battle.

What is the tarrasque, anyway? An oddball concatenation of miscellaneous special abilities fulfilling little purpose save the gamist impulse to kill the biggest thing in the setting.

It takes its name from the tarasque of Provence, a lion-headed creature combining the features of a number of beasts and said to lay waste to the countryside. But there the similarities end; the Provencal tarasque met its end not in epic combat, but rather was tamed by the prayers of a saint. Outside Provence, the legend never seems to have captured the public imagination, but rather seems an allegory of Christian conversion and the backlash faced by newcomers to the flock.

Monsters become frightening, awful, or awe-full when something about them touches on something in us deeper than large numbers in a bestiary. Some monsters–e.g. ghosts, werewolves–embody common human fears, here maybe the fear of unfulfilled purpose, of losing control of one’s self. Others represent sin or taboo, embodiments of those urges we would extirpate from ourselves. Vampires, the sin of lust, unfulfillable and ultimately damning; wendigo, the taboo of cannibalism, beginning tragically and ending worse.

But chimeric monsters just feel like lazy mythmaking. “It’s a ferocious monster!” “How do we know?” “Uh, because it’s got the body parts of various other ferocious animals all mixed together?” When chimeric monsters work, when they resonate in the imagination, we stop thinking of them as chimeric, and just think of them on their own terms. A centaur is a chimeric monster, a horse with the torso of a man. Morphologically, an angel is just a person with birds’ wings. A pegasus, a sphinx, these stand on their own. They work. If our tarrasque were closer to the Provencal tarasque, maybe it would work better.

But it didn’t. It just never caught the imagination well enough. Have your players ever fought a tarrasque? If so, was it a roleplaying experience, rich and evocative? Or was it just the biggest boss monster in the book, and so the logical thing to fight at the end of the campaign?

Quick, imagine a tarrasque. What did you come up with? It’s… big? With a shell? Maybe a shiny shell? It probably bites things? We might all disagree about what a zombie looks like, but we can each imagine one, and do so effortlessly. If your players can’t instantly and satisfyingly imagine what your monster looks like and does to you, you’re unlikely to have a satisfying scene. How much more the pity is it when that’s the Big Bad of your whole campaign.

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the drover’s wife vs goblins

Monsters are frightening in proportion to what they can take from you. I was recently rereading “The Drover’s Wife,”1 but instead of snakes, I was back to thinking about goblins.

In most settings, humans treat goblins as little more than vermin.

“Adventuring” humans, that is. The PCs, the kind we pretend to be. Some NPCs do, too, the bigfolk, those sitting in the manor house with the bailiff delivering the rents.

Goblins are different when you don’t carry a broadsword for a living, or can’t afford the smithing of one, or haven’t ever seen one beyond the make-believe type the shepherd-boys pretend their crooks to be.

Comfortably civilized folk may think goblins are vermin, but let’s not forget that vermin kill more people than war does. If we really want to understand a setting, maybe the correct perspective isn’t that of the one-in-a-thousand who fight when they want to, but the thousand who fight only when they have to.

Say you’re a cottager, well-worn from trying to feed your wife and children off a few acres of someone else’s land, miles from the trade road and miles more from the market town. You’ve got a good oaken cudgel, a door that never does fit in the frame just right, and just enough firewood to use every other night or so. And your dog.

Your dog was lying in the garden this morning, and you had to figure out what to tell your little girl about why all those little black arrows were sticking out of it. But thankfully your wife got everyone to sleep, save you, awake with the weight of care.

Those crazed little eyes out in the darkness, whispering in the barley rows, how harmless do they feel now?

1 “The Drover’s Wife,” by Henry Lawson, a (very) short story about a mother, her children, their dog, and a snake. It hasn’t aged well, but it is quite good at conveying what it’s like when you’re poor, and the sun is going down, and the next neighbor is nineteen miles off.

elves : humans :: humans : goblins

In most settings, humans treat goblins as little more than vermin. Goblins are weak, annoying creatures, dangerous in the way a rat might be. Ultimately of little concern. They live short, frantic lives, causing trouble and breeding prodigiously. They find empty or weakened niches in geography or ecosystem to populate, and when those are filled, overrun outwards, rapidly depleting the resources (food, fuel, patience, goodwill) of the places they spread. They are nearly universally despised by the longer-lived, more-civilized races, and seem just as universally ineradicable.

So why don’t elves consider humans in the same way that humans consider goblins? In most traditional fantasy settings (read: those derived extensively from Tolkien), elves are nigh-immortal elder beings, cultured and thoughtful. To an elf whose goals and experiences likely span centuries, humans must seem obnoxious upstarts, never to mature and incorrigible in their violence, dizzyingly busy and almost infinitely resilient. How could an elf ever see a human as a peer? How could an elf see human social structures as anything beyond a child’s attempt at playing civilized?

If goblins appear to humans as the embodiment of id-driven wasteful children, humans almost certainly appear to elves as forever-teenagers, discomfitingly mature in body but never able to gain the wisdom that comes with experience. At least goblins are manageably small; all else equal, they’re still only three feet tall. A human has the ability to do much greater harm, lumbering man-children given the tools of destruction but never the temperance to match. Can a human aspire to wisdom any more than a dog can aspire to song? If a goblin dies of his foolhardiness after fifteen years of life, or a human after seventy, how much difference does that make from a perspective of seven centuries? Or six millennia?

an impoverishment of language, pt. 1

Weak, imprecise language makes for bland storytelling. If you’re playing a storytelling game (and we all are), which would you rather encounter:

“A huge group of barbarians is coming toward you dressed in mismatched armor and ragged clothing, some on horses. What do you do?”

or:

“A legion of horribles, hundreds in number, half naked or clad in costumes attic or biblical or wardrobed out of a fevered dream with the skins of animals and silk finery and pieces of uniform still tracked with the blood of prior owners, coats of slain dragoons, frogged and braided cavalry jackets, one in a stovepipe hat and one with an umbrella and one in white stockings and a bloodstained weddingveil and some in headgear of cranefeathers or rawhide helmets that bore the horns of bull or buffalo and one in a pigeontailed coat worn backwards and otherwise naked and one in the armor of a [] conquistador, the breastplate and pauldrons deeply dented with old blows of mace or saber done in another country by men whose very bones were dust and many with their braids spliced up with the hair of other beasts until they trailed upon the ground and their horses’ ears and tails worked with bits of brightly colored cloth and one whose horse’s whole head was painted crimson red and all the horsemen’s faces gaudy and grotesque with daubings like a company of mounted clowns, death hilarious, all howling in a barbarous tongue and riding down upon them like a horde from a hell more horrible yet than the brimstone land of [] reckoning, screeching and yammering and clothed in smoke like those vaporous beings in regions beyond right knowing where the eye wanders and the lip jerks and drools. What do you do?1

No, none of us are Cormac McCarthy, and yes, this is probably too much text to speak or read in an actual game session. But both are saying, fundamentally, the same thing. In the first, detail and specificity are elided. There’s a horde of bad guys coming at the party, and that’s it. Any party knows what to do when generic bad guys approach: you attack. The cue given by the GM allows no other reaction: there’s no hook to parley or negotiate; there’s no detail to indicate whether the party is under- or overmatched and consequently convey to the party whether they should scoff, grandstand, deceive, or take to heels. Our games tend to be (over recent years, particularly) designed to encourage the perfect tailoring of challenge to PC ability. The consequence of this is that we have trained our players that in the absence of explicit indication to the contrary, every encounter will be a fair fight.

If you’re always guaranteed a fair fight, you’re likely to get into a lot of fights.

But consider the second. Yes, it’s likely too long to see use in any but the most set-piece of games. But it conveys information, tone, setting. The tone is what draws attention: no one here is run-of-the-mill, and the aggregate is just as interesting as the individual. We know this is a horde of savages.2 There’s a lot of them, many quite distinguishable. The juxtaposition of those in “the skins of animals and silk finery and pieces of uniform” shows us that there’s nothing homogeneous or regimented here. The warrior nonetheless clad in “white stockings and a bloodstained weddingveil” shows us that he cares not about the significance of these items in the culture he is being contrasted against, or does and is wearing them for effect, or doesn’t understand their meaning in a culture beyond their purely functional use as items of clothing. (Let’s ignore what we can guess about how, exactly, this man got a blood-stained wedding veil in the first place.) While the bare paragraph is lengthy, each of the warriors depicted is described–in just a few words per–evocatively enough to be an interesting antagonist by himself.

Here, we get information. The horde is savage. They are “horribles,” great in number and fierce in aspect, armed for war but clad as though they care not for what fate befalls them. Armed for war–massacre and counter-massacre–of the oldest sort. They are fearsome: they wear bits of uniform “still tracked with the blood of prior owner,” armor “deeply dented with old blows of mace or saber,” and they ride down on the PCs “like a horde from a hell more horrible yet.” We get information. You can bet they can be neither greeted nor pacified. You can fight, or flee, and the odds are good you ought to choose the latter.

But most of all, the PCs have knowledge, and can use that knowledge to make realistic choices. There’s no treasure here, only the strong probability of having your blood used to daub crimson to a horse. Maybe the PCs are powerful enough to win, maybe not, depending on your party. Maybe you have previously given them a reason to stand and fight. But here, they know that if they do, they are standing against nothing less than a force of nature, the wrath of an angry god, the collective avatar of all that opposes civilization. Doesn’t that sound like a lot more fun than the first encounter?

1 Cormac McCarthy, Blood Meridian or The Evening Redness in the West (slightly amended).

2 Let us disregard, for the moment, McCarthy’s characterization of the Comanches as barbarous, if for no other reason than that everyone in Blood Meridian is barbarous. It is a book of “ever bloodier and more damnable outrages” (Banville) with a villain who is, “short of Moby Dick, the most monstrous apparition in all of American literature” (Bloom). It is not a light read, but no one is more evocative.

how do you sleep in the woods?

Do your GM a favor. Tell her exactly how your party bivouacs when you settle down to sleep.

Night tends to be downtime on an adventure. The scenes get all the attention: the time spent moving carefully through the dungeon, the set-piece encounters, even the rolls on the random encounter table. That’s when the excitement happens. Usually the party is keyed up for a fight.

When was the last time your fighter fought without his armor donned, buckled, and settled? Your rogue with her keen senses and reflexes dulled by sleep—real crusty-eyed sleep, not Sleep? Your mage swinging that quarterstaff, out of spells, about 20 hours into the expected 15-minute adventuring day?

The PCs don’t get a pause button. It is an impoverished campaign world that sits and waits upon their actions. The verve a GM wants to create, the feeling of a living world, of not riding a railroad, is largely contingent upon the world carrying merrily along whenever the PCs are not directly interacting with it. NPCs continue along with their business—remember, each one of them is the hero of his own narrative—when the PCs aren’t looking. Monsters don’t stop hunting for food because the PCs bedded down for the evening. Indeed, whenever you’re not looking, your enemy is out there, leveling up.

So, how do you sleep in the woods?

If you tell your GM, you’re a lot more likely she’ll show you why it’s important. Do you sleep on the ground, maybe in that bedroll? Okay. Think about how you felt the last time you got a poor night’s sleep. How did you function at work the next day? Were you groggy, irritable, distracted? Now imagine instead of tossing and turning in your bed, you were doing so in a threadbare bedroll, on the root-lumped rock-bestrewn ground, in the rain. And then you remember that most carnivores hunt at night.

That campfire will keep you warm. It will cook your fresh food, if you were able to hunt or snare any, or heat up some water for that tea you remembered to tuck into your pack. It provides a cocoon of warmth and light, a small sphere of life in the brooding dark. The fire is seductive. And it’s even more seductive for those skulking out there in the darkness. An open campfire lets you see for a few yards around. But it can be seen for miles. Hungry eyes can see in, but after a few yards, you can’t see out.

Does your party carry a tent? It will keep the rain off, but now you can’t see out. As any child who has ever cowered under a blanket can tell you, that bit of cloth can feel like armor against evil, but any real evil knows that canvas is rent as easily as the flesh within it. And how are you toting that heavy canvas tent around, anyway? Did you take skill levels in muleskinning? And you thought your cloak got heavy when it’s wet out.

When all else fails, ask your ranger. Any ranger worth his salt will at least be able tell the natural lines of drift that unwelcome evening friends will tend to travel, set up a lean-to to keep off the rain, and dig a little firehole where the light won’t give you away. Your druid will probably just be curled up in the pine duff under an outcropping anyway.

Tell your GM how you bed down at night. She might be kind enough to send you some visitors. And hope your third watch didn’t close his heavy-lidded eyes, just for a moment.