The Advantage of Familiarity In Regards to Huge, Slavering Hell-Beasts

Dec 31 2008

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I’ve noticed something. Of those wonderful people who think up horrifying monsters for players to encounter during a tabletop role-playing session, many of them struggle with originality.

They strive to create thoughtful histories and almost complete ecologies for their creatures, in the attempt to create a monster that’s not just another vicious humanoid.

I’d like to take a moment to say: They don’t need to.

If I’m questing through a dark, eldritch forest, and something leaps out at me, I want to know how to react. Do I swing my katar at it? Do I make threatening moves? Do I very much not make threatening moves? Do I close in or keep my distance?

If I’m fighting a completely original creature, I’ve no idea how to react to the thing. So I usually have to resort to careful investigation (“Does it seem particularly muscular?”), trial and error (“I poke it.”), or having fun with it (“I rush in and stab it, screaming the whole time!”).

How much fun is that? Not much (for me, anyway). And certainly not if the same scenario occurs for creature in an adventure. I need some facts I can grab on to.

If, on the other hand, I encounter a bear with lizard-like skin, I know roughly how to react. It may spring plenty of surprises on me, but at least I have a framework within which to act.

Which is fundamental to role-playing. One reason for D&D’s popularity is its medieval universe, which is familiar to all of us from reading The Hobbit under the covers as children. We know how to react to most environments in the world, at least basically. The challenge lies in keeping our characters alive and achieving their goals, which usually have nothing to do with the originality of the random creature that drops on their heads as they creep through the Sapphire Caverns.

Now, I love a well-thought-out, unusual creature. I applaud it. But if creature #5 is basically a wolf, don’t worry. It’ll still be fun.

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