Category Archives: creatures

The Monster in its natural habitat

The current OSR topic of the week appears to be monster books. Which is one of my favorite topics and just for once I’m not a month late to the part. Just a day earlier, a new monster from Joseph at Against the Wicked City had me motivated to put a lot more effort into my own monsters. I9 got things like tar demons, giant hypnotic butterflies, and psychic flying tentacle monsters and there’s a lot more potential in them than just a stat block with hit points, damage, and perhaps two or three spells. And I am in agreement with the other writers who think that this is basically all that common RPG monster books provide.

I think that’s a general problem with RPG material, not just monster books but also campaign settings and adventures, and it has been so for a very long time. A question that you see brought up a lot these days, and very prominently and deservedly by Bryce at tenfootpole, is “how does this help a GM to run a game”? I think I am probably speaking for every fan of monster books in saying that what we are looking for are not stats and new mechanics. What we hope to find in such books are ideas to turn into great adventures and encounters that are thrilling and fascinating to the players.

I wouldn’t go as far as noism and say that I’d be happy with a book that is nothing but pictures, but I can see where he is coming from. Monster art always has a huge impact for me, often considerably greater than the stats and the actual description text you get in most books. And I think D&D and all it’s descendants have been doing it wrong from the very start. I don’t blame the first Monster Manual, as it was a completely new thing and creators still had to learn what works and what doesn’t by trial and error. But shortly after we got the Fiend Folio, which could teach us a lesson that has still been largely ignored to this very day.

Hm, okay...

Hm, okay…

Most art in monster books is very much resembling zoological species identification guides. You get the creature from a front angle or slightly from the side, in a position that is at rest or ready to attack, with a focus on making it very easy to see its anatomy and all its distinguishing physiological features. Its a precise way to give the reader a good view at how the creature looks. But it’s also very boring and doesn’t really tell you anything about what the creature does, how it behaves, and in what situation the players might encounter it. The FF had images of this type for every creature, but it also had a lot of pictures showing some of the creatures in a fight with adventurers. And these action shots are always making the respective creatures so much more interesting than the portraits.

I assume that the intention is that the illustration of each creature is as generic as possible to allow GMs to imagine it in whatever environment and situation is appropriate for it in their respective campaigns, and this might also go for the description text. But I don’t think it works this way.

Much more interesting.

Much more interesting.

As I said above, the most useful presentation of a monster is something that inspires encounters and adventures based around the creature. That is what we pay for. Not a block of stats and abilities to be a moderate challenge for a group of four 15th level characters. Action shots are probably more expensive than portraits since the artist has to paint at least twice as much space and its much more complex work to get the full composition of creatures and environment right. But as I see it, it would be worth it. I gladly pay a bit more for monster books that inspire me by giving me ideas that I can work with. I buy the monster books that are around because there’s nothing else to get, but I almost always feel disappointed by them. Showing the creatures in action, in a context that suggests situations to steal for my own campaign, would be a good step forward. It requires much more effort from the writers, but that’s after all what I am paying for. Imagine a monster book with descriptions like those of Joseph and proper action shots for each creature. A book like that would easily blow everything else out of the water.

Not everything is trying to kill you

I think the greatest thing that oldschool roleplaying brought to the attention of younger GMs like me is the whole system of wandering monsters, reaction rolls, and morale checks. When I first got into RPGs I occasionally saw mention of them, but they seemed silly and annoying for what I assumed a good adventure to be like and a good riddance in general. But after having played and run games for over 10 years, all the adventures never turned out to be anything like what I had been hoping they would. And I think it really comes down to D&D of that time having abandoned the aforementioned mechanics. Which didn’t start with 3rd edition but actually preceded even AD&D 2nd edition for a good number of years.

My first contact with RPGs was Baldur’s Gate and that set a precedent of what I expected adventures to be like and I found it confirmed by AD&D modules I’ve looked at. When you encounter a creature, one side makes a surprise attack and then the fight continues until one side has been wiped out. The characters get XP and the treasure lies where the enemy fell. Having creatures appear randomly and someimes trying to run away would be a nuisance and interrupt the plot. But videogames NPCs are still absolutely primitive compared to one controlled by a GM and I much later learned that most of the modules were not meant to be normal AD&D adventures but tournament modules for conventions where many groups would play the same dungeon simultaneously as a single session one-shot and then compare which party got the most points. Which is why The Tomb of Horrors is so awful. It’s not meant to be part of an ongoing campaign, but unfortunately fails to explain that to GMs who read it.

Wandering monsters in a dungeon have the main function of keeping the party moving and the clock ticking. They make resting in a dungeon almost impossible and that means your spells and hit points have to last you through the whole expedition. Since wandering monsters have negligible treasure and roughly 75% of XP are expected to come from collecting gold, fighting them is just a waste of resources and a risk of death with barely any reward. And as wandering monsters are encountered based on time spend in the dungeon, there’s a real incentive to be quick. Giving the majority of XP for treasure also has the effect that it is often more efficient to just steal treasure without a fight and minimize the loss of spells and hit points (and party members). Getting 75% of XP for stealing treasures without defeating the owners will get you more than getting 100% from just one creature. XP for gold seemed silly, but is actually great design.

It also makes morale checks much more interesting. An opponent who runs away may abandon its treasure. Every round you don’t have to fight saves you more hit points and spells and allows you to continue the current expedition a bit longer. Yes, they run away with their pocket change, but you still get all the XP for having defeated them.

But let’s now look at reaction rolls, which are perhaps the most intriguing element of oldschool roleplaying. A reaction roll tell you how a group of creatures or NPCs will react to encountering the PCs when their reaction is not predetermined by the adventure or obvious. I took notice of this and mentally filed it away to be used with animals encountered in dungeons or NPC parties encountered during overland travel. But what does “obvious” actually mean? A group of zombies? Yeah, obvious. A golem guarding a door? Predetermined by the adventure. But what about a group of orcs sitting around a campfire? Obvious?

Well, I always assumed it is, based on fantasy books, movies, videogames, and all the adventures published by WotC and Paizo. But this is a preconception that is not actually supported by the 1981 Moldvay Basic rules. Yes, orcs are chaotic and it says that Chaos generally means evil. But player characters can be chaotic as well and they are members of the party. Chaotic indicates breaking rules and promises when it benefits you and you can get away with it. And what benefit is there in randomly attacking groups of well armed people?

I always found it somewhat difficult to interprete the rection table. What does it mean if the result is “Hostile, possible attack” or “Uncertain, monster confused”? But with a bit of searching you can easily find a few examples from fiction. When Bilbo encounters Golum under the mountains, Golum plans to kill him and eat him. But he doesn’t have surprise and knows that frontal attack is risky so he keeps Bilbo talking in the hope of getting an opportunity where he has advantage. That fits very well with “Hostile, possible attack”. Another good example is in Return of the Jedi when Leia encounters the ewok Wicket whose reaction is just spot on “Uncertain, monster confused”. He holds up his spear but only to keep her at a safe distance, not with an intention to attack her. Because she handles the situation well she’s able to get the ewoks as allies. A bit later the others get in a similar situation but Han handles it less well ad the ewoks decide to cook them.

return-of-the-jedi-ewoksOnly on a roll of 2 on a 2d6 does a reaction roll actually indicate an immediate attack and a 3 to 5 indicates hostility with a chance that the creatures might attack. This results in only a 28% chance that a fight breaks out without the players initiating it. If you start making reaction rolls for any encounter where the reaction isn’t automatically fixed, it will change the game quite a lot. Orcs and ogres are no longer monsters but people just like bndits, mercenaries, or barbarians. Their culture might be different and unappealing to many of the PCs, but if the players handle it right they can be interacted with just like people.

This affects both worldbuilding and the way that adventures play out. A dungeon in which only a third of encountered denizens are hostile and the rest could provide information, cooperate with the PCs, or even offer free help is a very different place from the common deathtrap presented in most modules in which everything including the kitchen sink tries to kill you on sight. And again, this is supported by XP being gained mostly through finding treasure. How much XP you get out of a dungeon does not depend on the number of fights. XP for gold may not be perfect, but it certainly beats XP for combat only. If you get a reward for fighting and no reward for not fighting, the message for players is clear. Kill everything. (Don’t let them run away, they take all their treasure with them which you need to buy magic items from stores.)

This encourages and supports a play style that is really about exploration and discovery of fantastic environments the PCs will find themselves in. Treasures are an incentive to poke around and find hidden rooms, but seem much less like the main purpose why you go on an adventure. The options to discover things about the environment and the greater world are very much limited when all your interactions are with statues and wall paintings. There is so much more that can be leared by interacting with other people and the knowledge you gain becomes much more useful and meaningful if it can help you with dealing with other people you’ll encounter later. Or possibly people you encountered before and who might reward you for sharing your discoveries.

Another fascinating part of the rules that had almost entirely disappeared are retainers. In 3rd edition you have to be at least 6th level and spend one of your precious few feats to get only one retainer. In Basic everyone can have around 4 at first level for free. (You have to pay wage, but that’s no limited resource.) My assumption was that you’re meant to post job offet notes at the market place and then pick one of the people who come to apply. But that’s not what the rules demand. A much more fun and interesting option is to recruit people you meet on adventures. It says retainers can be of any level or any class but not have a higher level than the PC they follow. But the Hit Dice of a monster are effectively the same as class levels in every way. Once you make it practice to befriend monsters, why not let players take them along as retainers? The GM would have to rely on making good judgement calls on what kinds of monsters might possibly be hired. A black pudding or a purple worm would be silly. But if it’s reasonably intelligent, able to integrate into society, and the player mange to get it friendly, why not?

While working on my setting and preparing for my next campaign I wanted to do something different than the average treasure hunt or assaulting the lair of a villain over and over. Instead I want to do something much more fantastic that focuses and supernatural things and discovery. I mostly failed at this with my last two campaigns and even in the last months much of my preparation once again ended up focusing on humanoid antagonists. Realizing that the 35 year old Basic rules suggest a world that is much less hostile and encouraging cooperation with dungeons denizens between the line has been a major eye opener for me. And once more makes me feel amazed that an RPG so close to what I consider perfect has been around almost from the very beginning. (There’s still negative armor class and spell preparation, but those are easily fixed and exist for the purpose of edition compatibility.)

A first look at the Fantasy Age Bestiary

The Bestiary for Fantasy Age has been released in pdf now, and it really was about time. When the game came out last year it was the most demanded addition to the rulebook, which only provided ten or so sample creatures to show what their stat blocks look like. Which is really not much as a basis to easily get an introduction in how to effectively make new monsters for your campaign. Now a dedicated monster book has finally arrived.

GRR6004_450_1024x1024The big downside that immediately stands out is that there are only about 60 creatures in the book and the majority of them are pretty generic stuff that you find in every D&D Monster Manual 1. On the other hand, every creature has a full double page of description, which is more than I’ve ever seen in any other monster book. The description consists of a basic summary of the creature, usually a few paragraphs on making special customized versions of them, and three plot hooks as ideas how the creature can be used in play. This is something that I very much approve of. Unfortunately most of the creatures are not really interesting at all and so it all ends up being pretty uninspiring.

In Fantasy Age all the special abilities of a creature are in its stat block and usually it’s not too many of them to get too confusing. Often just four or five, with the creature’s natural armor and the ability to see in the dark being one item each. Most abilities are stunts which the creature can activate when it rolls two same numbers on its attack roll of 3d6 (if I recall correctly). Which in many cases makes a lot more sense than having them be special actions that are done instead of an attack and is one of the big features of the rules system. The downside is that the creatures have almost entirely only abilities for combat. That’s a bit too much needlessly imitating D&D in my opinion.

All in all, the Fantasy Age Bestiary seems like a book that is both necessary and unsatisfying. And like the rulebook itself it seems to be overpriced. There are so much better and bigger monster books out there which are much cheaper or even free and 15€ seems to be really too much. If you’re a huge fan of Fantasy Age and desperately waiting for a monster book to help running your campaign then this book seems like a necessary purchase. But if you’re looking for new monsters and inspirations for any other kind of campaign I very much recommend against it.

Return of the Magical Creatures

One problem I’ve been struggling with since when I started working on the Old World setting is creating a clear concept of what spirits are and how they behave. Since shamans and animistic religion are a major focus of the setting, this issue is a pretty big deal. I’ve been doing a lot of shuffling around and recategorizing of my creatures over the years but never really got to a satisfying conclusion. The last set of categories I had been using was people, beasts, undead, and everything else was a spirit. They are all inhabitants of the Spiritworld after all.

But looking back, this only seems to have caused more confusion than clarity. And I now think this is because there are two fundamentally different types of beings that are all said to live in the lands of spirits, at least in the way we think about these beings today. The fey people of celtic myth, or at least their modern interpretation in the British-Irish tradition are not animistic beings. They are people. They are generally human in shape, talk in human languages, dress in human clothing, live in human dwellings, cook their food, and are apparently born and age. But they are the people of a parallel world that obeys diferent rules, which makes their behavior seem very strange and gives them powers that are for all intends and purposes magic. This is not unique to the British Isles, though. You find many similar creatures in India and Japan as well.

But the spirits of nature are fundamentally different beings. They can appear in human form, but that’s not their real form. They are not born and do not age, they do not need to eat and you can not kill them with a blade. They do not live in a river or in a tree. They are the river and the tree.

When you lool at original descriptions of supernatural mystical beings, I don’t think this distinction holds really up and doubt people actually saw them this way. But when creating stories for modern audiences, I  think it’s a quite important distinction that we take for granted, even if we never really think about that.

Taking these things into consideration, I don’t think my shie, naga, raksha, and giants really qualify as spirits anymore. They have supernatural powers and they are native to the spiritworld, but they are all people who were once born and who can be killed with a blade. While I think the execution of creature types in the RPGs Dungeons & Dragons and Pathfinder is a total mess, I think it is the right idea. There needs to be a category of creatures that are magical instead of mundane mortal, but also clearly different from immortal spirits of the land, angels, and demons. So I will be expanding the categories in my creature document from four to five and add the Magical Creatures group. Hopefully this will help me get a better grip on the supernatural in the Old World.

I hate it when this happens

This week my worldbuilding efforts for the Old World have been spend mostly on trying to develop the role and nature of demons and the Underworld. And the unfortunate conclusion that I’ve reached is that my original ideas really don’t work for the kind of setting the Old World has become.

Lovecraft Horror in the Bronze Age is a cool idea, but the focus of the Old World lies somewhere else, and it just doesn’t fit in. I really, really like the six types of Underworld creatures I had planned, but they are just way too much like space aliens. (Partly because five of them are straight up adaptations from sci-fi videogames.)

But it just doesn’t work. The Old World will be a much better setting without them confusing things. In such cases there really is no point in dragging along dead weight that will only be a burden. So they just have to go.

Perfection is not reached when there is nothing left to add, but nothing left that can be taken away.

But I think I might still be able to at least salvage the aboleth archetype. Instead of being some eldritch being from before time, it can still work as simple one big ass evil fish. This picture is just too cool not to do something with it.


Old World Animals

The Old World is a world that is intended to evoke an atmosphere of mystery and wonder, but at the same time be relatively easily accessible with no need for long exposition. A good way to do this is by using familiar things that the audience recognizes as a shortcut around unelegant infodumps. Possibly the best example of this method is Star Wars, especially the first movie. Everything you need to know you learn in the first two or three minutes with just a few words from C-3PO. The Rebels are running away in a cool looking ship with very big engines, the Empire pursues them with a ship that is just totally fucking humongous! Then the door explodes and through it comes a hord of guys in skeleton armor shoting everyone. And then this guy in black armor, a black cloak, and a black skull mask follows behind them. And he is accompanied by officers wearing Nazi uniforms. Barely any words have been said yet but you already know everything you need to know about this conflict.

I am using a similar approach to presenting the wildlife in the Old World. It’s different from the animals found in Europe and Northern America, but mostly these are animals that are very similar to what we are already familiar with on Earth. For that reason I am drawing heavily on prehistoric animals like dinosaurs and early mammals. They are very much like normal animals, but they also don’t look like anything we’re used to, which matches my overall approach to the worldbuilding for the Old World. Distinctively different, but not too alien.

In addition to being a convenient shortcut to create a plausible and easy to grasp ecology, basing these creatures on real animals also helps with establishing a clear difference between natural beasts and supernatual monsters. An important element of making things both fascinating and unsettling is a good amount of uncertainty what you’re actually dealing with. In settings in which the natural world is mostly identical to life on Earth, it is very easy for the audience to tell the difference between what is normal and what is alien. When you populate a world primarily with fictional creatures, this becomes a lot more difficult. Is something supposed to be threatening or not? The audience has to understand that to get into the thoughts of the characters who are dealing with it. By keeping the natural beasts of the Old World to animals that did exist or could very well have existed on Earth in the past, I am hoping to make this distinction more clear and easy to grasp.

There are no stats for any roleplaying game attached to them at this point, but to help getting an impression about their strength, each is given a threat class ranging from 0 to 6.



The arag is a predator about the size of a large dog. Their appearance is somewhat similar to reptiles and weasels and they are covered in sleek gray and brown fur. They have a very wide range and are found in almost all parts of the mainland, but are rare on smaller islands far away from the coast. Arags usually stay away from settled areas, but have little fear of single travelers in the wilderness and will sometimes even attack small groups. (Class 2)



A draga is a big reptile about the size of a lion but of a more slender build. It’s tough hide is a deep emerald green but tends to be more brown in regions where forests are less dense and there is less vegetation and shadows. Arags are usually solitary but sometimes hunt in groups of three or four, which are able to kill almost anything they come across. (Class 4)



The droha is a big reptile found in all the tropical and temperate forests of the Old World, except on smaller islands. It’s about the size of a camel and has been domesticated in many areas as the main beast of burden. Drohas often live in herds of one to three dozen individuals. (Class 2)



The garai is one of the largest predators found in the Old World. It’s a huge lizard bigger than the largest crocodiles and found throughout most of the southern regions. They are not terribly fast and rarely chase their prey far, but are surprisingly adept at hiding in the underbrush despite their enormous size. (Class 4) Continue reading

A Typology of Monsters

I have always been a big fan of monsters and are regularly disappointed by the lack of them in most modern fantasy books. It’s always about wizards, soldiers, and assassins fighting to protect an empire. Which sounds like the most boring thing ever to me. I want monsters!

Writing about monsters has turned out to be not quite as easy as I thought. When working on the Ancient Lands setting, one of the first things I started with was making a list of cool creatures I want to inhabit it, most of them coming from videogames and RPGs. But eventually I realized that monsters in narrative stories work very different from monsters that are fought in games. You can’t just have a dozen different hostile creatures in various locations throughout a castle or dark forest in a story and then have the protagonist run into them to have a cool fight. In games this works great. There’s anticipation any time you come around a corner or open a door and every fight is different. But when writing a story that just doesn’t work at all. Any fight scene needs to have some narrative function and that means whatever monster the protagonists encounter needs to have a function in the plot as well. Having a fight scene just for the sake of having a fight scene or making the story longer just leads to terrible results. In movies you can at least show off some pretty special effects, but even then it’s noticable when a fight scene has no point. When writing stories you don’t even have that luxury.

So before I went ahead with making a new list of monsters for the Ancient Lands, I first set down to try figuring out what kinds of roles and functions monsters can have in a story. And the ones I came up with are really not that many:

  • Wild People: These creatures are pretty much people, but they are as foreign as it can possibly get. Trolls, giants, lizardman, fish people, and the like. Not only is their culture incomprehensible and their morals loathsome, they are almost always also very much sub-human. They are stupid and violent, but generally very strong, which makes them a threat. They hate our Freedom and want to steal our stuff!
  • Fair Folk: Like the wild people they are basically people, but instead of being fearsomely sub-human, they are incomprehensibly super-human. They are very intelligent and have magical powers and often live very long or are outright immortal. If they wanted to they could easily destroy and conquer all mortal people and the only reason they haven’t already is that they don’t really care. Normal humans are usually insignificant to them and the best way to stay safe is to keep it that way. When they are around, everything you do can spell your doom because their minds are so alien that it’s impossible to really know what they want and what might provoke them. And they can be very cruel, simply because they don’t really think of humans as actual people but more as talking animals.
  • Guardian Spirits: These creatures are being tied to the land they inhabit and serve as its guardians. Nymphs, ents, some dragons, the sphinx, and so on. Their main motivation is usually simple to get any intruders to leave and stay away. However, they might be convinced to let some people pass through their territory or to grant a request, which requires the observance of strict rules. Their direct interactions with people are usually very limited, but their real role is to serve as a threat what happens when the rules are not observed. Struggling to not break the rules is the real obstacle the characters are facing.
  • Maneaters: These are the most simple monsters. They are really just pimped-out carnivorous animals that will eat people when the opportunity presents itself. The only interaction with characters they have is attacking to eat some of them. Their main role in a story is to be nearby but unseen, posing a constant threat that keeps everyone on edge. They don’t talk, they have no complex motives. They just jump out from behind some trees and disappear again once they grabbed a few people or have been badly wounded. While they behave like animals, they still can look very human-like. Ghouls are one example and some versions of Medusa.
  • Soul Stealers: These creatures are predators as well, but they are usually very much like people and instead of wanting to eat you, they want to make you theirs. These are vampires, succubuses and some other demons, rusalkas, and sirens. They are manipulators who want you to join them, which at that time they make sound a pretty attractive offer. But the true fate of anyone who gets caught by them is much more horrific. Their role is to tempt characters and make them lose their hold over themselves and submit to their own doom.
  • Deathbringers: This type of monster only wants to kill. They are not looking for food, they don’t want to leave, they don’t want anything you have. All they do is kill and continue to kill until they are destroyed. These are zombies, barrow-wights, some demon hords, and darkspawn. Sometimes they want to harvest the bodies of their victims as a resource to make more of themselves, like the Flood, the Reapers, or the Borg, but every place they visit they just kill and destroy everything. They aren’t not even like ammoral forces of nature, because they will target you and try to come after you.
  • Troublemakers: A usually small creature that doesn’t attack people directly but instead damages and destroys things and makes life hard for them. Though when they destroy food or set things on fire they can still be a very serious and deadly threat. Usually they don’t have any real motivation and do it simply out of spite.
  • Fictional Animals: Some creatures are like ordinary animals in every way but don’t hunt and eat humans. From a narrative point of view, these aren’t actually monsters. They are just animals like any other.

By looking at the subject of monsters from this perspective I realized that I had a lot of redundancies on my list. You don’t need seven different types of giant crab-spiders that all fall under the maneater category. Two are already more than enough. And some creatures I had added just because of their looks. There really wasn’t any point to harpies and giant hyenas. I ended up cutting the monster list down from about 110 to 46, which really looks a lot sleeker and more tidy now.

Fantasy needs monsters

When I got back into fantasy books a year or so ago, I noticed that there seems to be a quite pronounced scarcity of monsters and nonhuman humanoids in the vast majority of works. When you talk with people about Sword & Sorcery, many have a very firm stance that it has to be human-only and that you can’t maintain the structure, dynamics, and themes of the genre if you include elves, trolls, or dragonmen. Today I came across a short article on another site which I’ve read and very much liked a while back, by a person whose opinions and understanding of the workings of fantasy I usually very much agree with and respect. The main thought was that monsters should be very rare and be limited to the truly unnatural, with a very distinct separation from normal wildlife. And I very much agreed with it, since it helps to ensure that the encounter with an actual monster will be something special and that the audience feels like there’s really an extraordinary danger.

I now very much think that I was wrong about it. Much of contemporary fantasy could be accused of being mostly a fictionalized version of the middle ages with the occasional sprinkle of magic here and there, but very little fantastic elements as far as the plot is considered. But even that would not be correct as many of these worlds are really more like 20th century societies in fictional lands that use technology that superficially looks medieval. I mentioned the relationship of humans, nature, and the divine in my review of the academic book Nature and the Numinous in Mythopoeic Fantasy Literature, but I am going to lay it out again in this article that is directly at fantasy writers. The idea that nature is something that surrounds human cities and is separate from the human world, and that the divine aspect of the universe is located in a completely different place or dimension is very specific to modern western thought. It has been argued that the foundation for this is already found in the myth of the Garden of Eden, when humans were instructed by God to rule over all animals and plants, but it really developed to its current form through the ideas of Enlightenment and Humanism. (Which since the late 19th century got exported throughout the whole world together with the western education system and the modern principles and procedures of science that were based on that conception of the world, so it’s not strictly a European and North American thing anymore.) But in the kinds of societies after which almost all fantasy lands and cultures are modeled this whole concept fairly alien. Even in medieval Christianity, where the distinction between humans and animals was pretty clear, God was generally assumed to work directly in the everyday world, either actively or through agents. And the believe that there were other human-like people living in distant parts of the world was very widely spread. The land of the dog-headed men was a frequent topic among explorers and even the church had serious debates about what to do with them once their land is found. A quite common opinion was that they should be baptised and integrated into the church, just like all other humans. Assuming they are not already Christians.

Fantasy is obviously something you can’t do wrong. Pretty much every world imaginable can be well suited to be the setting for a certain kind of story. But lots of writers, and especially fans, make a pretty big deal of these worlds accurately portraying the technology of various historic periods and places. And often having fictional creatures around is perceived as being too fanciful and unrealistic. But at the same time there is generally no effort made at all to even somewhat approximate the way these people saw the world. We’ve had an interesting discussion at Fantasy Faction a while back about the possibility of “mythic fantasy”, and another one just last month about fantasy books in which religion and religious believes play an important part. (In both cases the search for existing works came up almost blank.) When you look at epics from antiquity and the proto-historic periods before it, it is very easy to see how very mucg similar they are to modern fantasy books, which have of course been very much inspired by them. But in those epics, the borders between human, nature, monster, and gods is often so thin and blurred that it’s not really there at all.

The book I mentioned above examines a small number of 20th century fantasy writers who went against that and deliberately set out to tie human concerns together with nature and the affairs of the gods. The gods don’t make any appearance in The Lord of the Rings, but it’s always clear that there are higher powers at work and that Sauron, Gandalf, and the elves are all major players in a conflict that is much greater than the kingdoms of man. In The Hobbit, Beorn is both a man and a bear, but different from either. You have eagles who are taking direct action in the struggle between mortals and immortals, and trees who walk and talk like humans. And of course all the talking spiders. Pretty much everything that Tolkien did was mindlessly copied countless times without understanding why he did it and what their purpose was. But this dissolving of the boundaries between humans, nature, and the divine was almost universally ignored, perhaps because it was too subtle to even notice without understanding it. There’s not really a lot of different creatures in Middle-Earth when you compare it to most roleplaying games and videogames, but all of them do not exist to create contrast between the natural and the unnatural, but to make such a distinction disappear. In European myths about fey beings, they always are as much part of nature as they are divine, and most of the time they also look very similar to humans. Even the classic fairytale witch is not just a regular old woman who knows a bit of magic, but also a monster. (Maybe I write an article about how the witch is the female counterpart of the ogre one day.) In any attempt to create “mythic fantasy”, the path into the world of spirits and magic should not lead through the wardrobe or the rabbit hole, but instead it needs to be identical with our own. In many mythologies, the Underworld is not another dimension, but an actual cave system that can be entered through any deep enough cave. To have fantasy that is in any way inspired by myth and tries to capture its essence, I think monsters are not just permissible, but mandatory. Without them and the dissolution of boundaries they present, any work can not go beyond the scope of pseudo-history.

The inherent racism of Star Wars

I am as big a Star Wars fan as you can get before it gets insane and embarassing. But I am also highly critical of it and more than just willing to recognize its many flaws. And, oh dear, there’s so much of them. But one of the biggest ones is one I’ve almost never see discussed anywhere.

Star Wars, at it’s very essence, is fundamentally racist.

And this has nothing to do with Lando Calrissian or even Jar Jar Binks. People have complained about the Neimodians talking in a Japanese accent and being show as ruthless conquerors driven by greed, and I can understand that to some degree. And really, the makeover of Watto in Episode II is indeed the most racist shit I’ve ever seen outside of Nazi propaganda cartoons.

 "All characters appearing in this work are fictitious. Any resemblance to real persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental."

“All characters appearing in this work are fictitious. Any resemblance to real persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental.”

But no, I am not talking about that here. The problem I want to adress is at the same time less controversial but also much, much farther reaching. Many worlds in science fiction often get accused of being Planets of Hats, where the whole population really has only a single defining trait. Star Wars does that too. And very hard. And all the time. Even ignoring the accents of Neimodians and Gungans and any resemblance they may have to those found in some parts of the world, the entire worldbuilding of Star Wars is based on a way of percieving people and cultures that has a clear and unambigious term: Racism.

Racism, at its very core, is not specifically about discrimination or hatred or limited to any minorities. These are issues that result from racism. Racism itself is the idea that a group of people who share a common ancestry can easily be defined by a few traits that are shared among all of them. So if you have seen one person of that group, you know not only everything about that group, but also everything about every single member of that group. Racism is the idea that shared biological ancestry makes all people of that group the same in several fundamental traits.

And nowhere in fiction have I ever seen this principle applied so consistently and agressively. Though I think it neededs to be added, that this is primarily about the Expanded Universe, all the novels, comics, and videogames that build upon the movies. The movies themselves are relatively free of this since it is rare to ever see more than a single individual of any species other than humans. But in the EU it’s really bad. If you have one character of a species appearing in the movies, even in a really tiny role, that character is almost always turned into the universal archetype for the entire species in all subsequent works.

Take for example the Bith. The Bith really only appear for a few seconds and have no relevance to the plot. They are these guys. bar in which Luke and Obi-wan meet Han Solo and Chewbacca happens to have a band of Bith playing during the few minutes they stay at that place. Do we learn anything about these guys at all? No, nothing. Except that these are in a band that plays in a bar. As the EU is concerned, this is everything you need to know about the Bith. Because in the EU, the Bith are a species of performance artists and musicians. All of them. That’s what they are known for throughout the galaxy. When musicians get mentioned, very often they are Bith. It’s like the Bith have a monopoly on playing music for the whole galaxy.

Jawas_SWGTCGHere we have a group of Jawas. In their natural environment. Shoting at droids to repair and sell them. Jawas have many appearnces throughout Star Wars, but in the movies themselves I believe they really only have one significant appearance. (Other than background dressing.) And they are always surrounded by metal scrap and working on salvaged machines. Most often traveling around in their huge brown, angular trucks. Because in the movies there was one group of Jawas who had such a big brown truck, wore brown robes, and apparently salvaged broken droids to make a living. One group of 10 or 20 individuals. And what they did on that one day instantly became the template for the entire culture and nature of the whole species. You have seen one Jawa, you have seen all Jawas.

And there are virtually no exceptions to this rule. Chewbacca can fix shapeships and droids and in his backstory he used to be an imperial slave. Pretty much all Wookies you’ll ever see are good with machines and the entire species has been enslaved by the Empire. And not just the empire. In the days of the Old Republic, 4,000 years before the Empire, they were being enslaved by the Czerca corporation. Once a slave, always a slave. The whole species.

All Sullustans are good pilots, all Bothans are spies or politicians, all Verpines and Sluisi are great mechanics, all Twi’lek women are strippers, all Trandoshans are bounty hunters, Rodian culture is all about hunting, all Gamoreans are mercenaries, all Hutts are criminal businessmen (…slugs), all Chiss are military geniuses, all Noghri are super stealthy assassins, all Ithorians are pacifistic, all Corellians are roguish pilots with a problem for authority, all humans from Tatooine are farmers. It goes on and on. (And, being Star Wars, on, and on, and on, and on…)

In the Expanded Universe of Star Wars, the basic concept of racism is an actual fact. If just see one member of a species for a few seconds, you know everything there is to know about the entire species and every single individual. I can understand how it happens on a single episode of Star Trek that visits a planet only once, which then is never appearing again. But when it happens over decades and is done by dozens of writers in completely different stories, I find it rather inexcuseable.

Honorable mention goes to my favorite Twi’lek Nawara Ven, who has the distinction of being not some sly gangster but a starfighter pilot/lawyer of unquestionable integrity. But then, being a lawyer does kind of put him into a similar niche as smugglers and spies. It’s just their nature, I guess…

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.