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.

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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

on treants

Treants are not the avuncular protectors of the woods.

Treants are wise in the way that hedgehogs are wise: they may not know many things, but they know a few very well. A treant is wise in the way of stillness, of the whisper on the breeze, of circumspection, and of patience. It is not wise in the ways of cities, men, manners, councils, governments.

Treants care about the protection of the woods in the same way that a man cares for the protection of a crowd, or the crow of the flock. To take or leave, if useful for a purpose or reviled for its nature. An exceptional individual may put the many above itself; most will not, will find the easiest excuse to desert and the kindest words to justify doing so. Each has its mind, goals.

A treant growing among others will tend to the wood as, maybe, a neglectful sitter. But one grown alone sees the wood as may a girl raised in a sculpture garden: ornaments, playthings and objects to project personality upon, inanimate and cold.

Treants are not moral beings. They have interests—in the nutrients below and the energy above and the structure that holds them erect—but not judgments. They neither support nor oppose men, except insofar as their inscrutable actions intersect the path of the treant. If a treant can ever be said to want something, that something would be strong roots to grip and hold the soil, height to reach above competitors toward the sun.

The popular imagination sees a treant as a bemossed elder oak, craggy and imposing. But treants come from all kinds of trees, anything that drops roots and lifts leaf to sky. Enormous witless baobobs stomp, monolithic and lonely. Flocks of quivering aspen sprint the northern slopes, incomparable colonizers. Ancient juniper walk higher in the mountains than any other, wizened and twisted with age and wind. Far-seeing communal eucalyptids spread poison to prevent other trees from sprouting.

One oaken treant represents all trees the way one bear represents all men. A tree will do what a tree will do.

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.