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What Makes a Good Monster?

Today’s guest article is by Gnome Stew reader Craig Dedrick. It’s his second; his first was What’s He Building in There? [1] 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.

The Kuo-Toa

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.

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?

11 Comments (Open | Close)

11 Comments To "What Makes a Good Monster?"

#1 Comment By Yora On February 16, 2015 @ 11:03 am

Cool monsters are almost never about their specific attacks and abilities or even about how they look. Think of any really cool monster from movies or videogames. What makes the cool is almost universally the way they behave. A big thing that stands in a room waiting for something to come close enough to attack will always be just that. No matter how many claws, spikes, heads, or tentacles it has, or if it deals fire or poison damage instead of making holes into people.

Gret monsters are always about the entire situation in which they occur, which includes their environment, the way they move from place to place, how they sense enemies and how they react to their presence. The entire story around encountering the creature is much more interesting than how it looks or how strong it is.

#2 Comment By John Fredericks On February 16, 2015 @ 12:31 pm

Nice article! Keep ’em coming.

I get really bored as a GM when the opponents are just bags of hit points. In my current campaign, I’m trying to make adventures at least more thematic, less random monster stuff.

#3 Comment By Matthew J. Neagley On February 16, 2015 @ 12:33 pm

Craig, another great article! Thanks for the read. Very thought provoking. I appreciated the opportunity to think about something that otherwise wouldn’t have crossed my mind.

I think the amount of “fluff” that goes with the “crunch” of a monster in a book like the monster manual is a delicate balance. I remember in 1e a lot of the monsters were a picture, a stat block and a few sentences of description or explanation of their special abilities. That clearly wasn’t enough.
But then in later editions, forgive me for not having the books right next to me or a specific example in mind, there were entries that you’d look at and think: “Geeze! they couldn’t have put in another monster instead of all this filler?”

IMO, the amount of fluff is subject to the law of diminishing returns. The first sentence brings a lot of benefit because without it you have no idea what a catoblepas is, the second brings less benefit, the next less still etc… None of them, unless your writer and editor are rather poor, removes value, but they quickly drop below the value that could be added with a different type of material.
I point this out because the entire first half of that paragraph on Kuo-toa could be replaced by “Collectively driven mad by their race’s long slavery to the mind bending illithids,” and I really don’t need to know about the mating habits of the catoblepas. It’s interesting and it made for a great article in Dragon Magazine but I wouldn’t have wanted it in the MM.

So were I writing a monster book I’d aim for condensing fluff as much as possible without reducing the writing quality, then I’d want entries to hit the “big 3” and end. Description, special tactics and abilities (if any) and a few adventure hooks.

But let’s also not forget that Kuo-Toa and the cockatrice are different monsters meant to fill different niches. Kuo-Toa are intelligent creatures and while insane, savage and hostile, so they’re mostly sword fodder they could indeed be parlayed with, convinced to trust the PCs or at least trade with them, become a source of adventure hooks. Contrast that with the cockatrice which is a wild and dangerous animal.
The adventure potential for those two creatures is wildly different, and it doesn’t really stem from the amount of fluff they get in the MM.

On the other hand, I think a lot of the concern of being “efficient” with your monster fluff is an artifact of books. Adding another page or even another paragraph of fluff to each monster in a physical book is way too much. It drives up costs and makes the book unwieldy. You want maximal benefit from each sentence. PDFs on the other hand can get as large as they want and yes, you waste a little more on bandwidth but the additional costs are nominal from a transfer point and your reading device won’t undergo any changes from even a hundred extra pages, so on that media it’s no concern.

#4 Comment By Svafa On February 16, 2015 @ 2:11 pm

I have to disagree concerning the amount of fluff in the kuo-toa. The kuo-toa paragraph is exactly what I’d want from a monster entry and shortening it as you propose would turn an interesting entry into a bland one. Personally, I find that the amount of fluff is not strictly subject to diminishing returns, with the second and third sentence often being more valuable than the first, before starting to drop in value with the fourth or fifth. I find the paragraphs in fluff more strictly subject to diminishing returns, with the first paragraph almost always being the most useful and interesting.

On the other hand, while I do agree that the cockatrice and kuo-toa fill different niches, I still think the cockatrice comes across as uninspired and bland. At least they could have included that it’s believed to have been born from a cock’s egg, or gone with the basilisk lore that it’s incubated by a toad (or serpent). That’s at least a little more interesting and gives some ideas for a story.

#5 Comment By Matthew J. Neagley On February 17, 2015 @ 4:21 am

Fair enough. For my understanding because I am an occasional writer and like to improve, what is the essential essence that makes this good:

“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,”

And this unsatisfying:

“Collectively driven mad by their race’s long slavery to the mind bending illithids,”

They hit all the same points (except the fact that the kua-toa were “simple”) so what have I lost in the quest for a low word count?

#6 Comment By Craig On February 17, 2015 @ 9:34 am

I think that we all like different flavors of ice cream, Matthew. There is certainly something to be said for the economy of language, but there is also value in having evocative text that conjures an image in the reader’s mind. If you have the space, you can satisfy both needs. As for the Catoblepas, it is a bit silly, but you never know what will trigger inspiration in a game master. The unusual mating habits of the Catoblepas may inspire a tale of a lost naturalist who was studying them, or a mysterious increase in the number of male Catoblepas because the females are being hunted by an evil wizard looking for rare spell components.

#7 Comment By Svafa On February 20, 2015 @ 1:42 pm

The longer description is much more evocative and I could easily create an entire campaign centered around the story in those few sentences. We’re told that not only were the kuo-toa forced into slavery (rather than bred, uplifted, bought, persuaded, or otherwise), but also that they were abandoned by their masters. It hints that the kuo-toa were simple-minded and primitive, rather than an advanced or fully evolved intelligent species. And it implies that the illithid were much more intentional in driving them mad.

The simplified version doesn’t give any clue as to whether the kuo-toa are primitive or sophisticated, how they came to be subjugated, or how they escaped that subjugation. It feels like a generic monster description and has no hooks for character or campaign ideas. In truth, if I were only given that sentence and asked to name the race it described, I’d likely guess the Githyanki, because either race could be boiled down to that same sentence and the Githyanki are historically the more likely candidate.

A lot of it does just have to do with preferring more fluff to mechanics. I like to have my mechanics expressed in a short, simple box or sidebar, while the majority of the page/s are used for fluff. Two page spreads of fluff with a sidebar or separate page (if multiple examples) for mechanics are my preferred layout for monster entries.

#8 Comment By Matthew J. Neagley On February 21, 2015 @ 1:42 pm

Thank you! That’s very helpful!

#9 Comment By Svafa On February 16, 2015 @ 2:26 pm

Some of my favorite monsters I’ve stolen from the Monster Hunter series, which means I’ve had to create them in the system myself but was well worth it. Things like the Agnaktor, the Great Jaggi (with Jaggi and Jaggia minions), and the Uragaan. All of these tend to be more geared toward combat encounters (they are adapted from a video game titled Monster Hunter after all), but the uniqueness of how each appears, acts, and fits into their ecology makes them both memorable and interesting. Plus, the mechanics of Monster Hunter lend their own inspiration into things like severed limbs (and how they affect the battle) and crafted items from the monster parts (like a hammer that transforms into a gun that shoots fireballs).

#10 Comment By Craig On February 17, 2015 @ 9:36 am

Fireball hammer gun? Sign me up!

#11 Comment By FutureOreo On February 17, 2015 @ 12:23 pm

Crunch seems more important to me, because fluff can be made up more easily. I think that the best monsters, then, are those that have memorable abilities. A very good source of such monsters is 3.5 D&D’s “Monster Manual 3.” Almost every monster has a special technique that stands out. For example, the skindancer constantly adjusts its defensive abilities to match whatever is attacking it. Just by dint of that ability, my players remembered the skindancer for a very long time.

Most of what I have to say about fluff has been already stated above, but I’d also like to point out how crunch can also lead to fluff: My favorite monsters are the ushemoi from 3.5’s “Monster Manual 5.” The fluff takes up a lot of space and says very little, but crunch-wise the ushemoi undergo a dramatic metamorphosis right in the middle of combat.
Just by contemplating the implications of a society of beings that can metamorphose within seconds, I was able to come up with a much more detailed and cool fluff for the ushemoi.

#12 Pingback By Fear Itself | Gnome Stew On August 26, 2016 @ 7:04 am

[…] is by Gnome Stew reader Craig Dedrick, and it’s his third. (See Freedom Through Restraint and What Makes a Good Monster? for his previous two pieces.) Thanks, Craig! — […]