The key to great monster design?

One of my favorite parts about roleplaying game is the creation of new monsters. Sometimes you look at a monster and think “I want to do something just as great”, but since there are already literally thousands of fictional creatures that have been made up by writers in the past 100 years, it always seems very difficult to come up with something that doesn’t look like an almost-copy of something else.

I’ve been looking over a lot of monsters from RPG monster books, videogames, and movies over the last years and found that really outstanding monsters are no accidents. If a monster becomes popular with fans or even a famous part of culture is not entirely up to luck and there are some things they pretty much all have in common and do not actually require being a creative genius.

The first discovery I made is that great monsters are never about their looks or their abilities, but about their behavior. Perhaps let’s call this Yora’s First Law of Monsters: “Monster behavior is more important than appearance or powers.” Yes, the alien from Alien looks really cool and it certainly helps for making it famous, but what makes it so great in the movies is not what it can do, but how it acts. The actual powers are not very interesting at all. It is fast, kills with a bite, and its blood is acid. As monster abilities go, that is very basic and even rather bland. It becomes a great monster because of the way in which the characters of the movies interact with it. It climbs on ceilings, sneaks around silently, and waits in the dark for the perfect opportunity to strike. It doesn’t actually fight very well and is quite easily killed in a direct confrontation. But it doesn’t allow you to face it in a direct confrontation and that’s what makes all the difference.

Going through some Dungeons & Dragons monster books again yesterday, I discovered Yora’s Second Law of Monsters: “Great monsters have a backstory.” With monsters in movies and novels, a great part of the plot is about revealing the story behind the monster and discovering its origin. It’s not very pronounced in Alien, but it’s still there. The eggs in the derilict ship, the dead pilot, the attack on Kane, and the eventual emergence of the alien are all clues that are hinting on the creature to be much more than just a regular alien animal. Someone once transported a whole shipload of those eggs and must have been aware of what they are, but was still unable to contain the threat. That hints at something more going on and that in turn makes the creature itself much more interesting. At the Mountains of Madness introduced two of Lovecrafts most famous creatures, and it’s really all a big mystery story about revealing their parts in a much larger picture. A a counter example, Robert Howard had Conan fight a lot of big dangerous monsters in his stories, but none of them ever really made it big. They are just scary looking things with teeth and slimy tentacles. They work for the stories, but they don’t inspire at all. Worms of the Earth is often mentioned as one of his best stories and the worms work well for the plot, but it doesn’t really seem as if there would be much more to them than that. One creature that Howard created did make it big. The serpentmen from Kull. The yuan ti from Dungeons & Dragons and the naga from Warcraft are among my favorite monsters, but they are really just remakes of Howards serpentmen. Other than taking the shape of humans with the lower body of a snake, they have almost nothing in common with the creature from Asian myth. And what makes the serpentmen different from most other monsters Howard created? They have a backstory. They have goals, they have motivations, and they are integrated in the history of the world.

This seems particularly important to me when creating new monsters for roleplaying games. When you read through monster books, the vast majority of the creatures are just very bland. They have an appearance, some abilities, and very often that is it. Two sentences about the kind of environment in which they live does not suffice to make them cool or interesting. Because there’s no plot hooks in that. What are you supposed to do with a big flying white snake that makes ordinary objects come to life? It has a look, it has powers, but what does it do? When it comes to having players confront a monster in a game, I made the observation that very often reputation makes a huge difference. A telepathic monster that can stun people with its mind might be interesting and challenging to fight. But that’s usually nothing compared to “Holy Shit! It’s a mind flayer! We’re so screwed…” Surprising the players with something completely unexpected is nice sometimes, but just as often you’re getting a lot of excitement if the players are already aware of the creatures reputation. If you create a new creature that is yet unknown, try to put a lot of hints about what it can do and make the other people of the game world be terribly afraid of it. Nobody is going to get super exited about the news that there is a pack of weird critters at the edge of the village that is known as a nuisance. Have the villagers get into a total panic because they have heard many stories about the creature and they don’t believe anyone could possibly save them. That is going to get the players a lot more excited as well.

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