A recent online search for folklore information on Scandinavian-styled trolls for a future gaming session I was planning took me to a site I hadn’t encountered before.

Monstropedia.com turned out to be the proverbial pot o’ gold at the end of the rainbow — and there wasn’t even a leprechaun guarding it. But there was an entry for leprechaun — and those pesky trolls, too — full descriptions of their origins and the folklore and legends surrounding them. For a GM, it was better than finding an actual gold piece. (Well, maybe not an ACTUAL gold piece …)

Monstropedia bills itself as the “ultimate online encyclopedia of monsters in myth, magick and legend” and has the goal of cataloging more than 5,000 creatures, legendary and imaginary, in its wiki-styled database.

As a resource for story-starved GMs – it’s unparalleled.

More than just recommend the site to Gnome Stew readers, I wanted to know the story behind Monstropedia – what would compel folks to collect such an interesting collection of lore?

Neil Maclain, a wiki crat (as in bureaucrat, which means he’s responsible for deleting spam pages created by advertising bots, rolling back other vandalism and shepherding editor contributions) for the site, agreed to do a quick Q&A.

Thanks joining us, Neil.

Here we go.

Q: Fantasy gamers love our monsters. We have whole books devoted to them, which serve as adversaries in our roleplaying adventures. Do any of the people behind Monstropedia have an interest or background in gaming?

A:  There are several regulars that are active gamers, myself perhaps being the biggest culprit. I started out with AD&D back in ’78-9 and have tried my hand at most games since then. These days I’m more likely to be playing WoW than anything else, but that’s mainly because of the WotLK expansion. I’m sure that as soon as I’ve raided that to death, I’ll flit on to the next thing, which in terms of online gaming, for me, would be Aion and then probably Guild Wars 2. I game online more than anything else out of laziness: I think that I preferred the original tabletop setting of AD&D and the vast amount of control that it gave in terms of playing and design, and my memories of some of the clubs I was in and the gaming nights/weekends we held, are pretty rosy. But nowadays I just opt for clicking and connecting to a ready populated server. It also means that I can game any time, night or day — there’s always going to be a party looking for someone to join.

A couple of us at Monstropedia used to play together in a Guild Wars guild, but we pretty much exhausted the game eventually — the content is sadly finite, unlike tabletop gaming – and moved on, building corporations in Eve, guilds in Age of Conan, and raiding through WoW’s content. Perhaps the biggest obstacle to building a great “bestiary”, as has always been the principle behind Monstropedia, is that the sort of person most likely to be driven to do it is the same person who spends a large chunk of their free time actually gaming instead of being a diligent and productive editor heh.

Q: Your site touches on gaming interpretation of monsters. For example, you show that D&D trolls are significantly different from those out of Scandinavian folklore. Have you noticed a trend in how portrayals in modern media of some creatures have changed over time, and what that says about us?

A: Stephen King described this well in his “Danse Macabre: An Anatomy of Horror” – the need for the things that scare us, the need for boogey men under the bed, and the thrill of a good fright to remind us that we are alive. In a safe place — home watching TV, the cinema watching a movie, with our friends around a campfire — we enjoy being scared and discussing — confronting psychologically — our monsters. They’re less fun when we’re alone, or lost in the woods… Overall, and King covers it well, I think the trend has been to add more flesh and colour to our boogey men and monsters, and perhaps this has been a bad thing. The more you know about something, the less frightening it becomes, perhaps? Some of the greatest “horror” movies of the last century never gave more than a glimpse of the monster — in some cases (I’m thinking the original version of “The Haunting” and the later “The Changeling”) you never get to see the source
of the horror/fear — just how it interacts with the environment/people exposed to it. A similar thing has happened with our monsters from folk lore, myth and legend — they’ve been given a visual form through the media of TV, celluloid or comic book, and in taking on that form have lost some of the aspect of the unknown that made them so terrifying in the first place. Beowulf’s Grendel, for example, is far more terrifying as the indeterminate nocturnal raider than he would be if viewed in living technicolor. After all, then he just becomes a man in a suit/a great piece of CGI.

The real monsters all dwell in our imaginations and our subconscious — take them out of that dark, mysterious place and give them form and suddenly they become harmless and lose their ability to send shivers down our spine.

I don’t think that RPGs in particular are any more guilty of this than the other forms of media, but yes, they have taken the monsters of our ancestors and given them a shape, an image, a virtual reality that fits with a generation that has seen genocide in Africa, 9/11, casualties of war on all sides in the middle east, and perhaps that generation requires its monsters to be very different from those which had our great grandparents hiding under the sheets when they were kids.

Q: What was your motivation for starting the site? You’ve obviously put a lot of work into it. What have been the rewards of telling the stories and origins of all these monsters? What do you hope readers/contributors to your site gain from it?

A:  The site is a labour of love. Several of us wanted to create the ultimate bestiary and we spent months in conference calls and IMs trying to define the boundaries. The world is full of monsters, and I think we perhaps took on a larger task than any of us imagined. The more we dig through the various mythologies and pantheons — including those of what we could loosely term “popular culture” – the more we realised the enormity of the task that lay ahead. Take AD&D, or WoW, or GW, or Dr. Who, or Star Trek. Each of them can fill a site with their own monsters. And we are trying to tackle not just the monsters of today’s popular culture, but all of those who came before from all of the world mythologies.

The reward is the creation of an article in itself, I think. So far, many articles have been grabbed from other GDFL sources, but those that we put together ourselves — even though they take longer — are very rewarding because you know that for the first time, all of the information (well, most of the information) about a subject is finally being collated in one place.

I would hope that readers might find something new — whether that be a previously unknown aspect of a monster they were already aware of, or a completely new creature they’d never heard of. Or a series of unexplained activities in a location near them. I’m big on the ghosts. lol.

Q: You use a community portal/bulletin board approach to updating, expanding and revising your site. How did you come to use this format, and what have been the benefits?

A: Well, the forum came long before the wiki. Personally, I’m not a great fan of forums, they’re troll bait, and I don’t mean that in a good way, eg some raw flesh that’s gonna lead to a troll being killed and leaving its still warm carcass to be looted for gold and shinies. I mean they’re an archaic form of internet communication prone to being overrun by the lowest intellectual common denominator. It hasn’t been of any real benefit to the wiki, and I don’t think it ever will be. In general, the whole BB scene might prove to be useful in the long term if we ever decided to sign-up to similarly themed forums just to spam the wiki link, but somehow I’d feel a little tainted by doing that.

Q: Not all monsters are beasts that rise up from the wild to devour the sheep of farmers. A lot interact with people, from tricksters to tempters, in a variety of ways. Do you have some personal favorites from your compilation, and of those, why are such monsters compelling?

A:  I find the “entities” called the Shadow People the most intriguing. There’s something about a shadowy presence that seems threatening yet invariably does not interact with the observer, that is allegedly witnessed so often and has even — perhaps — been captured on film, that raises the hairs on the back of my neck. From a rational point of view, I know that they could be the result of the way our brain “fills in” the detail and creates humanoid shapes out of otherwise indistinguishable and amorphous patches of shadow, and that what is “seen” on the periphery of our vision isn’t always what is actually there. I’ve even read theories that ultra-low frequency sound can cause a similar effect. I don’t assume that they are real, but I’ve experienced “them,” and it scared the living shoeshine out of me. So they’ll always be one of my favourite phenomena.

Q: How can GnomeStew readers contribute to/benefit from your site the most? What’s the best thing a GM can gain from visiting Monstropedia?

A:  Anybody can contribute, and any contribution is welcome. A single line about a creature we don’t have a page on. Or information about the creatures in their favourite game. It all helps and it all adds up. This is a massive undertaking and we really need the help of any interested editor to get it where we would like it. Our biggest problem has been that lots of people want to read it, but not so many actually want to give up an hour a week or whatever to make it happen.

GMs might benefit best from the source material. I know that when I was an AD&D DM, I would spend hours trawling for ideas, inspiration, a little twist, something new, unexpected. Actually, I always felt robbed when for example I sat down with one of my older brother’s books on witches etc and created the class of Necromancer — only to see pretty much the same thing appear a few months later in White Dwarf! There is a great deal of untapped source material available to GMs even today, and hopefully we’ll be able to gather the best part of that in Monstropedia.

Thanks sharing your insights, Neil, and good luck with your gaming, too. We won’t keep you any longer from your task of tracking down things that lurk in closets and jump out from around the next corner.

So, Stew readers, check out Monstropedia.com and prepare to be educated — and maybe even a little scared. And let us know what you think.