When you are planning an encounter for the game you are running, and you carefully select what monsters you want to include, what are you thinking about? Are you thinking about relative threat levels, fun special abilities to play with, or are you looking for something that makes the monster feel right for the story you are telling?
Different monsters have different connotations depending on the story in which they are used, but some common themes tend to develop. I want to look at how the monsters you select can reinforce story elements and themes that you want to present in your game. To illustrate this, I’m going to use the monster types commonly associated with the World’s Most Famous Tabletop Roleplaying Game Which Includes Dragons as Well as Encounter Spaces that Might be Called Dungeons. These types should still translate to other games, for the most part, although they become less useful the further away from fantasy your game travels.
I’m going to look at several themes in this article. They are by no means exhaustive, they are simply some themes that I have used over the years in my games. Feel free to use this as a jumping-off point for your own games. The themes that I am looking at, and how I define them, are as follows:
- Absolutes: Absolutes involve stories that revolve around rigid interpretations of rules, the world, aspects of reality, and inflexibility.
- Agreements: Agreements involve stories that revolve around the existence of an already existing agreement, rather than creating a new agreement. They are about the rules one currently operates within.
- Conformity: Conformity is a story theme about what is expected from someone in the story, even informally, due to outside elements and assumptions.
- Conspiracy: Conspiracy stories are about the secret maneuverings that have a long-term goal that is not evident, and may hide who and how many are involved with the plot.
- Control : Control stories are about someone removing the agency of another in the story, either actively, or in the types of servitors the character is associated with.
- Corruption: Corruption stories are about the involuntary erosion of the status quo on a personal level — moral failures, physical changes, and other personal progressions from a desirable state to an undesirable state.
- Emotions: Stories with the theme of emotions mean that how an important character feels at any given moment can rapidly change the narrative of the story.
- Entropy: Entropy is about the wearing away of the status quo on a large scale. Unlike corruption, this involves aspects of the world-changing from the desired state to an undesired state.
- Eternity: Stories about eternity involve the realization that the events and beings involved in the story will likely exist far beyond the lifespan of the adventurers, or even modern organizations.
- Fear: Stories about fear involve monsters that actively use fear as part of their toolbox of resources. This is less about being wisely afraid of a powerful being, and more about being manipulated or forced to feel fear.
- Greed: Stories about greed involve someone acquiring more resources than they can possibly use, most likely at the expense of others.
- Loss: Stories about loss are about what once was, compared to what is. Lost family members trigger loss, as does the memory of a once-great empire that has fallen.
- Mortality: Mortality as a theme is about reminding someone in the story that they have a limited time in the world, and that they are susceptible to aging, injury, and other mortal frailties, usually in contrast to someone who is not.
- Mystery: Mystery is about hidden secrets. This is different from, but may interact with, conspiracy. Conspiracy is active and ongoing. Mystery is already in place and may be static but unknown.
- Nature: Nature themes involve the natural world, minimally affected by the hand of mortal beings. This may be about preserving nature, or realizing that nature has a greater impact outside of its immediate radius.
- Negotiation: Negotiation is about creating a new agreement at the moment, rather than dealing with the consequences of a previously bargained agreement.
- Politics: Politics is about the grouping and maneuvering of factions. This may involve agreements, conspiracy, negotiations, greed, nature, or resources, but politics generally have at least some “known” public aspect.
- Resources: Stories involving resources are concerned with materials that one group needs to live, and the potential conflicts over those resources.
- Support: Support stories involve those beings that exist mainly to bolster another. This theme may lend itself to determining how far the loyalty of the supporters will extend.
- Threat: A story featuring threat usually involves monsters or creatures that are known to exist in a given location, and are known to be dangerous. Threat stories are about being forced or convinced to enter territories with threats.
Now, we’re going to look at the monster types that we’re highlighting. I will summarize what they are for anyone who isn’t familiar with how monsters get designated in the 5e OGL.
- Aberration: Creatures that don’t conform to the usual rules of matter or thought process; for example, cosmic horrors
- Beast: An animal, or a creature that may not exist, but could still plausibly be able to exist; for example, a jackalope
- Celestial: A being that comes from another plane of existence that is generally benevolent and harmonious; for example, an angel
- Construct: A creature that has been built and animated; for example, a clockwork soldier
- Dragon: A serpentine or reptilian creature with a breath weapon and an affinity for treasure; for example, Smaug
- Elemental: A creature composed of a single conceptual material; for example, fire, water, air, and earth elementals, but also things like shadow or time elementals
- Fey: Long-lived beings that live in adjacent worlds and play by rules that are difficult for mortals to navigate; for example Sidhe
- Fiends: A being that comes from another plane of existence that is disruptive and torturous; for example, devils
- Giants: Humanoid creatures that exist on a larger scale than regular humanoids; for example, the Jotun from Norse mythology
- Humanoids: I can’t really explain this one, just watch some Star Trek
- Monstrosities: Creatures that combine features of multiple other beings on this list; for example, chimerae
- Oozes: Semi-fluid mobile puddles; for example, the end of Tasha Yar’s tenure on the Enterprise
- Plants: You should ask Dr. Pamela Lillian Isley, she’s good at explaining
- Undead: Creatures that have died, and then return to animation, without their body returning to its living state; for example, vampires
Pulling These Things Together
So now that we’ve defined a bunch of themes, and we’ve defined a range of monsters that might appear in a roleplaying game, let’s look at what themes might be reinforced by certain monsters. Several monsters pull concepts along with them, and when you pull concepts into a game that is already dealing with that theme, you end up with resonance. But let’s look at some examples.
Aberrations call to mind themes of conspiracy, control, entropy, fear, and mystery. Cosmic horror creatures are often summoned by hidden cults, and they often have means of controlling fragile minds that are near them. As dangerous and strange creatures that don’t care about the standard needs of living beings, they are often destroying things and foreshadowing entropy. The strangeness of aberrations engenders fear, as well as mystery. Where did this thing come from, what can it do, and why does it do the things it does?
Beasts call to mind nature, support, and threat. Part of experiencing nature means experiencing the creatures that live there, and beasts are often helpers or beneficial. Some beasts, however, are also threats. They fit well in stories of people trying to survive in nature, but working with and surviving the beasts that live there.
Celestials often bring to mind themes of absolutes, agreements, conformity, control, eternity, and mortality. They bring to mind mortality because not only do they remind mortals of their own limited lifespan by being immortal, but they are often psychopomps carrying the worthy dead to their final resting place.
Celestials sometimes stump game facilitators because they seem to only exist as someone that would help protagonists. But being associated with absolutes and conformity, they can serve as an impediment to player characters that don’t match the celestials preferred course of actions. Agreements also come to mind, where celestials may be willing to offer their help, but require a specific set of actions to repay them.
Constructs resonate with themes of control, support, and threat. An inactive construct looming over a location can act as built-in tension, making the characters wonder what might cause it to animate. Constructs can reinforce the idea of support if the player characters can learn to control one of them, but depending on the construct, there may also be the added tension of the construct having the potential to break free of control and become an uncontrolled danger.
The themes often associated with dragons are control, fear, greed, negotiation, resources, and threat. The existence of a dragon can cause ongoing tension, knowing they could show up and become an active danger. It’s obvious that dragons are associated with greed, but there are also stories where dragons are cursed to guard their treasure, and it may be an interesting way to illustrate the dangers of greed to show the dragon as being imprisoned by their greed. Dragons are often portrayed as naturally projecting awe that translates into fear, and dragons are often creatures that naturally control their environment.
The theme of resources is interesting to examine, because it may not be adventurers getting rich that need that dragon’s treasure, but the poor, starving people in nearby regions. Additionally, some stories associate the existence of dragons as a literal blight on the land, once again, this curse is going to be limiting the resources available to those nearby.
Elementals can be associated with absolutes, agreements, control, eternity, and nature. Being composed of a conceptual essence lends itself to the elemental representing the absolute nature of the thing. The agreements that are associated with elementals might have to do with summoners using them as guardians, but it could also have to do with guarding ancient cosmic sites to primordial agreements. Elementals are often found in places where nature meets a degree of organization, like druid groves.
The fey are often associated with absolutes, agreements, conspiracy, control, emotions, eternity, mortality, mystery, nature, negotiation, and politics. The fey are social creatures with specific rules of conduct, which crosses over into agreements, mystery, negotiations, and politics. The fey are often associated with warring or conflicting courts, and the mortals that get lost in the faerie realms might be controlled by them, or do the bidding of the fey secretly.
Agreements are important to the fey, as mortals often don’t realize the enormity of what they have agreed with, because the fey are also long-lived to be immortal. Mortals are often reminded of their mortality as time moves differently in fae realms, and due to their lifespan, this reality doesn’t phase the fey at all.
Fiends are often associated with absolutes, agreements, conspiracy, control, emotions, fear, greed, loss, mortality, mystery, negotiations, and politics. Not only can fiends tempt mortals with deals, touching on agreements, control, negotiation, and greed, but it may also be a theme of an adventure or a campaign to unravel those that have already made deals with fiends, learning what politicians and merchants are working together due to their infernal contracts.
Less “lawful” fiends are often associated with emotions because possession often manifests as dangerously amplifying emotions that are already present. Because contracts and wild outbursts can have long-term ramifications, characters that need to live with knowing the harm they have done or characters that know they will eventually need to pay the price of their contracts, stories with fiends also deal with themes of loss.
Giants can be associated with the themes of greed, nature, negotiation, politics, resources, support, and threat. Knowing there are nearby giants can be a looming threat even if the giants aren’t hostile, if they are incautious and crush half the nearby countryside without noticing. Dealing with giants hoarding wealth and resources doesn’t need to be about going to war. It can be a matter of determining what resources the giants need, and negotiating the relationships between giant kingdoms and human settlements. In some ways, this can be a huge reminder that beings have different requirements for resources and not every conflict needs to end in violence.
Humanoids are often used in adventures without really thinking about the themes they might represent. In games where almost everything is humanoid, however, the themes are going to be less apparent. When you do have the contrast with other existing creatures, the themes of agreements, conspiracy, corruption, greed, loss, mortality, mystery, negotiation, politics, resources, and support all come into play.
In this instance, dealing with corruption, greed, and resources doesn’t require you to deal with humanoids in opposition to your own group. Characters might be called on to rein in their own associates from some of these excesses. Obviously, conspiracies, loss, and mysteries will always be present when people interact even in their home communities.
Monstrosities are an interesting category, because it usually involves creatures that might be seen as cryptids, or traditional mythological creatures. This includes multiple animals mashed together, or especially dangerous, tough animals also given some kind of supernatural ability (for example, a basilisk).
Monstrosities in adventures can be associated with corruption, mystery, nature, negotiation, resources, support, and threat. Because they aren’t animals that we, in the real world, picture as creatures that can exist, they feel like corruptions of nature, representations of a symbolic mystery, or something that communicates threat by its very existence. As wandering beasts in the wilderness, they can impede resources, and dwelling away from the city, they can be associated with nature.
Because some monstrosities are more intelligent than the component creatures that make up their physical form, they may be creatures that “speak for” the region they dwell in or guard a site, meaning they are associated with negotiation.
Even a creature as simple as an ooze carries certain story connotations with it. These creatures are simple, live in remote regions, and essentially only exist to consume and multiply. While they have similar drives to real-world animals, they are both primal in their simplicity, and naturally repulsive to most human sensibilities.
Because of this, oozes are good for representing corruption, and due to the slow encroachment that most oozes employ, they can also communicate an impending feeling of entropy. Because they don’t often have normal physical forms, and may react strangely to common means of harming a creature, they also communicate an intrinsic threat to the characters that encounter the ooze.
Plants are a special case, because, in many games, plants as an opponent are much more dangerous than plants in the real world, which tend to be dangerous due to consumption or accidental structural failures. Plants in a fantasy setting, however, are often animate guardians and hunters in their own right.
Plants can represent control, loss, nature, resources, and support. Control comes from the fact that many creatures with nature magic can bend their nature towards being animate. Loss can be represented by plants when a formerly settled region has become overgrown, reclaimed by the forest. Plants can represent the theme of resources, especially if a plant creature is defending less-animate plants in a remote region. Animated plants may also end up allied to players that are willing to help protect their charge, and thus can reinforce the theme of support.
Undead Themes It’s my hope that by opening the discussion of monsters being used for thematic, storytelling reasons, it might help a game facilitator pick the right creatures to show up and reinforce the story they are trying to share with their players. [social_warfare]
Unlike some of the creature types on this list, which are more modern definitions of less defined creatures from folklore past, the idea of the dead being restless and returning to the world of the living is a long term element of folklore that has many thematic meanings that have been analyzed over time.
Undead can easily be used to reinforce themes like conspiracy, control, corruption, entropy, eternity, fear, loss, mortality, mystery, politics, and threat. It’s fairly easy to understand how the undead reinforce themes of corruption, entropy, and threat, as creatures that should not be alive, and are so well suited to remove life from the living. Many undead are portrayed as bringing the dead they have killed under their own control, which not only reinforces the control theme, but also dovetails with conspiracy and politics, depending on who their victims are, and what their goals (beyond continued existence) might be.
Some undead can be so old that they know truths of the setting’s far history, and thus reinforce the idea of eternity. It’s also very easy to tell stories of loss surrounding an undead creature, and how it has either outlived its loved ones, or cannot associate with them without causing them harm. Mortality is a fun theme to explore with the undead, because you can explore the concept of escaping death if the individual is willing to accept the consequences of what undeath brings, which also requires the DM to clearly communicate the downside of the condition.
Creatures of Unknown Origins
This is all based on creature types that are defined in the World’s Most Ubiquitous Roleplaying game, and is also filtered through the lens of fantasy. Different creature types in different genres can still perform similar thematic, storytelling functions. For example, one of the ways that the Star Wars movies reinforced the enormity of the dangers arrayed against the heroes was by presenting a recurring theme of being consumed. The Death Star consumed the Falcon. The Wampa tries to eat Luke. The exogorth attempts to eat the Falcon. The Sarlacc attempts to eat the heroes. The heroes must resist being consumed by the dangers of the galaxy, and that’s a recurring theme with the creatures introduced in the narrative.
It’s entirely possible that my logic for what monsters represent what theme won’t work for you. In fact, I would love to hear your thoughts on those differences in the comments. But it’s my hope that by opening the discussion of monsters being used for thematic, storytelling reasons, it might help a game facilitator pick the right creatures to show up and reinforce the story they are trying to share with their players.