Today’s guest article is by Gnome Stew reader Craig Dedrick. It’s his second; his first was What’s He Building in There?  While there’s a fantasy focus here, if you squint a bit you’ll see how easily Craig’s advice applies to other genres. Thanks, Craig! –Martin
Having recently received the 5th Edition of Dungeons and Dragons as a Christmas present, I have been reading through the Monster Manual. The book is visually stunning, well laid out, and touches on some of the classic monsters of Dungeons & Dragons, so right away it hits most of the necessary checkpoints for a quality collection of creatures. Leafing through the book got me to thinking: while I can easily quantify the attributes of a good Monster Manual, what makes a good monster? Is it the picture? The appearance of the thing? The special abilities? The history? The answer, I think, lies in the story that it allows you to create.
Let’s look at two examples from the new book: the kuo-toa and the cockatrice.
At the height of the illithid empire, the mind flayers captured kuo-toa by the thousands and forced them into bondage. The kuo-toa were simple creatures, never meant to endure the oppressive mental force the illithids unleashed against them. By the time the mind flayers abandoned them, the prolonged psychic subjugation endured by the kuo-toa had driven them mad. Their minds shattered beyond repair, the kuo-toa adopted a religious fervor, inventing gods to protect them against threats . . . if enough kuo-toa believe that a god is real, the energy of their collective subconscious can cause that god to manifest as a physical entity. (D&D Monster Manual, 2014)
This is just an excerpt from the rather lengthy description of the kuo-toa. Even from this small passage, one cannot help but imagine scenarios, adventures and even larger story arcs based on these wonderful little fish creatures. Perhaps they are enslaved by the now real, “imaginary” god that they have created, and the PCs’ need to free them by convincing them that the god is, in fact, not real. Perhaps they decide to worship the PCs, summoning forth shadowy and nefarious doppelgangers. The possibilities are endless.
Contrast the description of the kua-toa with the description of the cockatrice.
A cockatrice flies into the face of any threat, squawking and madly beating its wings as its head darts out to peck. The smallest scratch from a cockatrice’s beak can spell doom as its victim slowly turns to stone from the injury. (D&D Monster Manual, 2014)
Let me preface this commentary by stating that this is the most interesting part of the single-paragraph description. The cockatrice is certainly a more iconic monster from previous D&D editions, and the artwork for the entry is excellent. Perhaps it is because of its origins in English folklore that the creators feel obligated to relegate this creature to nothing more than a nasty, petrification-inducing chicken. But what stories are conjured forth by this passage? Probably not much more than a bird that attacks a group of PCs, perhaps followed by a minor quest to find a way of reversing petrification.
This contrast exemplifies the nature of a good monster, and in turn, the nature of quality role-playing adventures. Role-playing games tell a story. If the whole point is to roll dice and fight creatures, there are better games to satisfy that itch (miniature games, board games, etc.). The strength of the role-playing game is in the storytelling, and the monsters that provide you with the framework on which to hang an interesting story are truly the best kind.
Luckily, there is no shortage of good monsters. There are plenty of creatures with interesting ecologies in the new Monster Manual, and they are there in the previous editions of D&D (and other games) as well. In my experience, I have found that third party supplements are often more ecology or story focused than stat-block oriented core books. The Book of Unremitting Horrors (Pelgrane Press) is a particularly good example of this for the modern horror genre, The Hacklopedia of Beasts (Kenzer & Co.) is an excellent resource for interesting takes on fantasy monsters, and old Dragon magazines often featured articles detailing elaborate ecologies for classic monsters.
In thinking about interesting monster ecologies, I am reminded of the catoblepas from Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, which must surely be one of the strangest and most interesting creatures ever invented:
. . . the female is a large omnivore, feeding mostly on ooze and water plants dredged from the swamps it lives in, but gaining an important part of its diet from animals it has killed. And no, she doesn’t kill them with her deadly gaze, but with her breath! The female catoblepas secretes a gas, deadly to anything except the female catoblepas, that is belched out in an invisible cloud. The effective range is only about sixty feet before it disperses, but within that range, the only chance of escape is to run faster than the cloud expands. The gas is equally deadly if breathed in or absorbed through the skin . . . The male, poor fellow, is not immune to the poison cloud, and normally keeps well clear of the female. But in the mating season, the female exudes a scent which drives the male wild with a lust that frequently overpowers his instinct for self-preservation. He must try to wait until a solitary female is feeding with her head buried in the ooze of the swamp. Then, sprinting up to her, he dodges the heavy tail normally used as a defense, mates very quickly, and sprints off again. (Dragon Magazine #73, “The Ecology of the Catoblepas,” 1983)
Now that is an ecology that conjures to mind a variety of interesting adventures . . .
What do you look for in a quality monster? What are some of your favourite monsters with interesting ecologies? Are there any books of monsters that you go to for interesting details beyond the stat blocks?