Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Decision Decisions Tuesday: "Bad Guys"

As mentioned in yesterday's post, I'm going to try to assign a particular topic to each day of the week (excluding weekends) in an effort to get me a bit more focused and hopefully more on track with posting more frequently.

I had originally scheduled for Tuesdays to cover the topic of animation, specifically the genre of Super Hero programs from my youth all the way up to today's shows like "Young Justice" on Cartoon Network (which is totally awesome and yet Cartoon Network didn't renew it for next season). 

I still plan to cover animated programs, but they, as of right now, won't be a regular weekly feature. As I looked at my list of topics, I realized that not enough of them were "game-related" and yet the majority of my followers of part of the Old School Renaissance of role-playing games.

So, with that introduction, for the next little while, Tuesdays will be devoted to what I call "Design Decisions," where I write about why I like things a certain way in my role-playing games, with specific attention to how I developed my current campaign setting of the World of Samoth.

I've actually written some "Design Decisions" posts before, covering Gnomes & Halflings, Dark Elves, and Races in general (and on that topic, shouldn't we really be calling them "species" at this point?). You can also do a tag search for "Design Decisions" which will pull up other posts with themes like Religion in RPGs, Racial Classes, and more.

For today's Design Decisions, I want to talk about Bad Guys in fantasy RGPs and how you go about selecting which ones to include.

As some background, when I started creating campaign settings for RGPs shortly after I started playing D&D in 1983 or so, my fantasy foundation consisted of The Hobbit, the Chronicles of Narnia, and a bunch of "pulp" adventure stories like Conan and Tarzan, and mythology, specifically Greek, Norse, and Arthurian. So, obviously, my "bad guy" influences were more along the lines of the standard "orcs-goblins-trolls" variety from the Hobbit, un-named, otherwordly individual one-off demon-types, evil sorcerers, and cultists from Conan, wild animals and tribesmen from Tarzan, giants from Norse mythology, and evil (or mis-guided) knights and seductive witches from the tales of King Arthur.

As my RPG career continued, I eventually gained access to the 1st Edition Monster Manual, Fiend Folio, and Monster Manual II, and saw just tons and tons of monsters... that I would never use.

I totally get why those books were made the way they were made, and how they had to appeal to a very open and broad definition of what "fantasy" was, but I could just never see myself using all of those monsters. Lots of them are just plain silly (Owl Bears? Really?) and the idea that you should find a place for all of those monsters in your campaign world is just ludicrous. Even as a kid, I always chuckled a bit at the marketing that took place at TSR when a new monster book was released and it coincided with a new adventure module that featured the monsters from the new book.

Now, looking back, I get that one shouldn't try to fit all of those different monsters into one single campaign setting, but of course that wasn't made clear to me as a young 13 or 14 year-old kid.

In any event, when I went on, much later, to create my World of Samoth setting, I chose to handle my "bad guys" a bit differently. I broke them into only a few different categories:

  • Humanoids
    • These were your typical orcs, goblins, etc. They would be somewhat prevalent, but handled very differently, as noted in the post on "Races." In general, I wanted my humanoids to be seen "suffering" in the face of overwhelming human superiority of numbers, and having to make a choice: adapt to human ways ("assimilate") or become hunted outcasts ("traditional"). For each type of humanoids, there are examples of both types. For an example, see the write-up on "Goblins of Samoth" on my campaign website.
  • Undead
    • I wanted to include a lot of undead in my campaign world, because to me they made "more sense," and were scarier than, stuff like Vegepygmies, brain moles, or Neo-Otyughs. I just didn't "get" those other monsters, and couldn't figure out a place for them in my world. 
    • The way I envisioned undead, to make them even more scary, was that each one was created as an individual - there were no "races" of vampires, for example, so people wouldn't know what they were or how to defeat them. Over time, this concept got watered down, but every time I've used undead, I've tried to use slightly different forms or change them up a bit so that they don't seem too generic.
  • Demons and Devils
    • These were going to be used to represent the various types of crazy, powerful otherwordly creatures that Conan fought a lot of, many of which were summoned by evil sorcerers
    • Similar to the way I handled undead, they weren't going to be categorized, but rather used individually in very specific circumstances, so no two were ever alike
  • Giant-Types
    •  Giants and ogres were going to be used pretty much just like the standard depiction in the Monster Manual, but just used very sparingly. The idea was that, the average person has probably never seen one, and most think that they're fairy tales and don't exist.
  • Dragons
    • Dragons were going to eventually play a big part in the campaign, but at the beginning, nobody alive believes in them any more - they are fairy tales used to scare small children
    • The players in my campaign eventually discovered that they were real, but every dragon they've met so far has been evil - even a so-called "Silver" Dragon has a bluish-tint to its scales...
  • One-off Monsters (abberations, fairy types, etc.)
    • I did have a place for single-use creatures, like a beholder or nymph, but I just wanted to get away from the idea that there were "races" of these things running around. I wanted to keep them special and unique, so I've kept the different types to a minimum and reduced them to single individual specimens that were probably summoned here ages ago by a crazy wizard or something 
  • Humans and their Allies
    • This is probably my biggest group of "monsters" in the game - humans with class levels that represent opposing political groups, religious zealots, crazed cultists, soldiers who are "just following orders," raiders, etc. 
    • This keeps things much closer to the Conan and King Arthur stories that were part of my fantasy educational foundation
In this way, I hope to have created a milieu that was somewhat consistent and created a "feel" for my world that my players can instantly recognize, and immediately know when something feels out of place.

However, this approach did leave literally hundreds of monsters from the official Monster books that I didn't use. To this day, I think "Monster-books" are one of my least-favorite supplemental materials (next to books of new spells).

I often wonder what it would be like to start a new world, or use a published setting like, say, Greyhawk, that uses all (or almost all) of the monsters in the Monster Manual.

How do you all handle monsters in your campaign worlds? Which ones did you include, or not include?


  1. My approach with monsters varies setting to setting--and sometimes I change my mind. I general, I think it's cool where their is a "signature baddie" for PCs to encounter/slaughter (Tolkein's orcs, Jordan's Trollocs, Bakker's Sranc) and if out monsters share common origins that's kind of cool. On the other hand, folklore/mythology random assortments of ecologyless monsters can be cool too.

    1. Thanks, Trey. I definitely think that it's necessary to vary the monsters to suit the setting. For my part, I've really only spent time developing this one setting that I'm currently using (as you know from reading my blog), so I've never really gotten into developing different settings to see how all the different monsters would fit in. I'm kind of intrigued at the thought, though.

  2. I very much like the idea of unique monsters, and one day I'll have that as a core idea of a setting. So I'm with you on that one, but I have to say that I love monster books, and I'll buy them for games that I don't even play; my favourites are Out of the Pit and the Monstrous Manual, both for games I haven't played for over a decade.

    As for what monsters I'd include, that's an excellent idea for a blog post.

    1. I'm waiting to read your blog post on the topic! :)

      And, actually, I do really like the 2E Monstrous Manual. I think that's probably my favorite "monster-book" from D&D. I like it for its aesthetic value, and also some of the prose about the various monster ecologies and what-not. From that standpoint, it's much more fun to read than the 1E version, which mainly focuses on things like what kind of treasure they have, or the 3E versions, which tends to focus on stats and combat strategies. But, again, I can safely say that I've used fewer than 10% of the monsters in that book.


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