Tag Archives: Kim Mohan

Three Reasons the Ecology of Monsters Can Make Creatures Worse

Larry Niven's disk

The Magic Goes Away inspired Larry Niven’s disk

During the early years of Dungeons & Dragons, speculative fiction enjoyed something of a fashion for combining science and fantasy, so the popular Pern novels by Anne McCaffrey and Darkover novels by Marion Zimmer Bradley provided scientific explanations for fantasy-flavored worlds of dragons and magic. Meanwhile, in The Magic Goes Away, hard science fiction author Larry Niven treated magic as science and investigated all the implications.

Readers appreciate these kind of hybrids for a couple of reasons. The injection of science gives magical concepts a boost of plausibility. In some future world, perhaps science really could engineer telepathic dragons as in Pern. Plus writers and readers who enjoy explaining things with science’s reasoning get to play with fantasy’s toys. I get it. I’ve never been entirely satisfied with fantasy that leans too heavily on “just because” to explain candy houses and winged monkeys. For instance, I keep trying to imagine a scientific explanation for the long and varying seasons in the world of George R. R. Martin’s Game of Thrones, even though I’m confident George has no such explanation to offer. In Westeros, seasons last for years because it supports theme and story. Winter is coming.

Part of what makes fantasy powerful is that not everything needs explanation. Sometimes Fantasy just needs to feel true. And sometimes resonate stories come from mystery.

Ecology of the PiercerPerhaps inspired by the fashion for using science to explain fantastic concepts, Chris Elliott and Richard Edwards took a somewhat silly monster, the piercer, and wrote “The Ecology of the Piercer,” which first appeared in the UK fanzine Dragonlords. The piercer seems obviously contrived to harass dungeon-crawling PCs, so a dose of science and ecology adds some verisimilitude. Dragon magazine editor Kim Mohan must have fancied the article’s concept, because he reprinted the piece in the April 1983 issue of Dragon. The ecology series took off and Dragon went on to print more than 150 installments.

The ecology concept improves some monsters, especially those that share the non-magical nature of the piercer, but adding a dose of science to every prominent creature damaged the assumed world of Dungeons & Dragons.

For many monsters, magic provides a better creative basis than science and ecology.

1. Monsters that come from magic can inspire stories

Magical creatures can bring histories that go beyond ecological niches and breeding populations; they can come from stories that players can participate in. Magical creatures can begin with a curse, they can be created for a sinister purpose, or in experiments that went wrong. For example, in “Monsters and Stories,” D&D head Mike Mearls explains how medusas come from a magical bargain and a curse. He tells how this can inspire gameplay. “One medusa might be a vicious, hateful creature that kills out of spite, specifically targeting the most handsome or beautiful adventurers that invade its lair. Another might be a secluded noble desperate to conceal her true nature, and who becomes a party’s mysterious benefactor.”

2. Magical creatures can be evocative in ways that natural creatures cannot

Does imagining dragons as a form of dinosaur, as presented the 2nd Edition Draconomicon, improve either dragons or dinosaurs? Dragons become less magical, less mythic. Meanwhile, dinosaurs don’t need to be blurred with fantasy to excite us—they were huge and real. Mythology teems with chimeric hybrid creatures from the gryphon to the cockatrice. Does supposing these creatures have populations with natural ranges and diets improve them? Why can’t the cockatrice emerge from a tainted, magical mating of bird and serpent? Why cannot gryphons be a divine creation based on some godling’s favorite creatures?

3. Magical creatures can break the laws of nature

Every culture seems to include giants in their myths. Giants may be the most pervasive and resonate monster of the human imagination. But giants defy science’s square-cube law and walk in defiance of physics. We ignore that because we like giants, and because of magic.

When I did my post on the 11 most useful types of miniatures, I determined that elemental and, especially, undead monsters appear in a disproportionate number of adventures. In the early days of the hobby, dungeon designers could put living creatures in a remote and unexplored dungeon without a source of food, and no one would care. Now days, dungeon designers feel limited to populating their crypts, lost castles, and vaults with the undead and elementals that gain an exemption from the bounds of nature. This stands as the stifling legacy of the ecology articles. By treating most D&D creatures as natural things that feed and breed and live natural lives, we make them difficult to use in the game.

Embrace the magic in magical creatures

We should embrace the obviously magical nature the D&D bestiary and free more creatures from the limitations of nature. Unnatural creatures can be unique. They can spontaneously generate in places where foul magic or bizarre rituals were practiced. They can leak into the world in places where the barriers between planes have weakened. They can be immortal. Undying, they can survive aeons trapped in some underground lair, growing more hateful and cunning with each passing year.

In the Wandering Monsters post “Turned to Stone,” James Wyatt writes, “One of the things that we’ve been thinking a lot about is that we are creating—and facilitating the creation of—fantasy worlds. The monsters of D&D aren’t races of aliens in a sci-fi setting. They don’t all need to have logical biology.”

D&D operates in worlds’ brimming with enchantment. The ecology articles threw too much magic away.

How Much Would Gary Gygax’s Second-Edition D&D Have Differed From the Version That Reached Gamers?

In 1985, Dungeons & Dragons co-creator Gary Gygax shared his plans for a new, second edition in Dragon magazine. Even as his column reached print, Gary was forced out of TSR, ending his work on D&D.

This left D&D fans to speculate how Gary’s second edition would have differed from version that actually reached stores in 1989.

For the second edition of Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, designer David “Zeb” Cook wrote an introduction that sets his goals for the revision. “To make it easier to find things, to make the rules easier to understand, to fix the things that did not work, to add the best new ideas from the expansions and other sources, and, most important of all, to make sure the game was still the one you knew and enjoyed.”

To preserve the D&D games knew, TSR management mandated that Zeb and the other second-edition designers keep AD&D largely compatible with its first edition. That requirement blocked innovations like ascending armor class.

Like Zeb, Gary planned to keep the D&D players knew. Gary later explained, “The soul and spirit of the revised game would have remained the same. The change might have been likened to that from D&D to AD&D.” Gary planned some subclasses and other additions, but nothing that changed the game as played.

As for making things easy to understand and to find, Gary lacked the skills to meet those goals.

Gary had already tried and failed give AD&D a sensible organization. He and  started the first edition by tacking clippings from the original rules to bulletin boards in a logical order. Despite their intentions, the Dungeon Master’s Guide reads like an open window let a breeze clear the boards. Apparently, a janitor reposted the scraps. Gary’s strength came not from organization, but from ability to heap fantastic ideas like a dragon’s hoard.

As for Gary’s writing, fans lovingly call his ornate prose and difficult lexicon High Gygaxian. I learned enough of his vocabulary to boost my SAT score. His style brings some charm, but hardly clarity. Once around 1980, as an exercise, I took a pencil to a page in my Dungeon Master’s Guide, striking unnecessary words. I thinned a quarter of the text. This insane exercise began my slide into blogging about D&D.

Could Gary have realized that a second edition needed skills that he lacked? Perhaps not, but I suspect that if Gary had remained a TSR, a time shortage would have pressed him to seek assistance. Half of the class ideas he floated in 1982 had languished for years. Sure, Gary had made time to compile his old magazine articles into Unearthed Arcana, but only when TSR’s survival required immediate cash. D&D historian Shannon Appelcline explained that Gary “wasn’t up to producing book-length RPG work of his own, due to the time required in running the ailing company. Thus, Unearthed Arcana was actually the product of diverse hands, including collaborator Frank Mentzer, design consultant Jeff Grubb, and editor Kim Mohan.”

If Gary had delegated writing of second edition, who would have drawn the assignment? Not Zeb Cook. Gary favored the notes his friend Francois Marcela-Froideval wrote for Oriental Adventures over the book Zeb Cook actually wrote, so Zeb was out. Likely, if Gary had remained at TSR, his trusted lieutenant Frank Mentzer would have written the new books under Gary’s supervision. In his work on Basic D&D, Frank demonstrated the ability to write clearly and to organize rules.

In his introduction, Zeb avoids mentioning another goal: To sooth the worries of concerned parents who fear that the game will lead their children to the devil or to lose touch with reality. Among other changes, this led the designers to rename demons and devils to baatezu and tanar’ri. Gary would have made similar changes. In what Gary called a bow “to pressure from those who don’t buy our products anyway,” Gary let TSR retitle Deities and Demigods to Legends and Lore. He didn’t “particularly approve”, but he still bowed.

Under Gary, second-edition might not have been hugely different from the version gamers saw. Still, it would have been more idiosyncratic. Gary’s update would have introduced eccentricities like the mountebank, the class that inspires every gamer to say, “What’s a mountebank?” (A boastful charlatan.)

After second edition, D&D benefited from the skill of new designers. The game’s subsequent design teams brought innovations that Gary probably would have spurned. Leaving TSR forced Gary to design role playing games that defied comparison to D&D. (TSR sued him anyway.) But if Gary continued on D&D, I doubt Gary would have murdered his darlings and adopted inventions from other games. D&D’s new designers did both, and the modern game benefited. Plus, new teams brought skills for rigorous and mathematical design that Gary could not match. Gary’s strength came from ability to heap fantastic ideas like a dragon’s hoard. The order and elegance D&D needed came from other sources.

Related: From the brown books to next, D&D tries for elegance

Next: The game-design trends that turned D&D into a game Gary Gygax disliked

3 reasons science and ecology make a bad mix for some monsters

Larry Niven's disk

The Magic Goes Away inspired Larry Niven’s disk

Back in the formative years of Dungeons & Dragons, speculative fiction enjoyed something of a fashion for combining science and fantasy, so the popular Pern and Darkover novels provided scientific explanations for what fantasy-flavored worlds of dragons and magic. Meanwhile, in The Magic Goes Away and related stories, hard science fiction author Larry Niven treated magic as science and investigated all the implications.

Readers appreciate these kind of hybrids for a couple of reasons. The injection of science gives magical concepts a boost of plausibility. In some future world, perhaps science really could engineer telepathic dragons as in Pern. Plus writers and readers who enjoy explaining things with science’s reasoning get to play with fantasy’s toys. I share these impulses. I’ve never been entirely satisfied with fantasy that leans too heavily on “just because” to explain candy houses and winged monkeys. I keep trying to imagine a scientific explanation for the long and varying seasons in the world of George R. R. Martin’s Game of Thrones, even though I’m confident George has no such explanation to offer. In Westeros, seasons last for years because it supports theme and story. Winter is coming. Part of what makes fantasy powerful is that not everything needs explanation. Sometimes Fantasy just needs to feel true. And sometimes resonate stories come from mystery.

Ecology of the PiercerPerhaps inspired by the fashion for using science to explain fantastic concepts, Chris Elliott and Richard Edwards took a somewhat silly monster, the piercer, and wrote “The Ecology of the Piercer,” which first appeared in the UK fanzine Dragonlords. The piercer seems obviously contrived to harass dungeon-crawling PCs, so a dose of science and ecology adds some verisimilitude. Dragon magazine editor Kim Mohan must have fancied the article’s concept, because he reprinted the piece in Dragon issue 72. The ecology series took off and Dragon went on to print more than 150 installments.

The ecology concept improves some monsters, especially those that share the non-magical nature of the piercer, but adding a dose of science to every prominent creature damaged the assumed world of Dungeons & Dragons.

For many monsters, magic provides a better creative basis than science and ecology.

Monsters that come from magic can inspire stories

Magical creatures can bring histories that go beyond ecological niches and breeding populations; they can come from stories that players can participate in. Magical creatures can begin with a curse, they can be created for a sinister purpose, or in experiments that went wrong. For example, in “Monsters and Stories,” D&D pooh-bah Mike Mearls explains how medusas come from a magical bargain and a curse, and then he explains how this can inspire gameplay. “One medusa might be a vicious, hateful creature that kills out of spite, specifically targeting the most handsome or beautiful adventurers that invade its lair. Another might be a secluded noble desperate to conceal her true nature, and who becomes a party’s mysterious benefactor.”

Magical creatures can be evocative in ways that natural creatures cannot

Does imagining dragons as a form of dinosaur, as presented the 2nd Edition Draconomicon, improve either dragons or dinosaurs? Dragons become less magical, less mythic. Meanwhile, dinosaurs don’t need to be blurred with fantasy to excite us—they were huge and real. Mythology teems with chimeric hybrid creatures from the gryphon to the cockatrice. Does supposing these creatures have populations with natural ranges and diets improve them? Why can’t the cockatrice emerge from a tainted, magical mating of bird and serpent? Why cannot gryphons be a divine creation based on some godling’s favorite creatures?

Magical creatures can break the laws of nature

Every culture seems to include giants in their myths. Giants may be the most pervasive and resonate monster of the human imagination. But giants defy science’s square-cube law and walk in defiance of physics. We ignore that because we like giants, and because of magic.

When I did my post on the 11 most useful types of miniatures, I determined that elemental and, especially, undead monsters appear in a disproportionate number of adventures. In the early days of the hobby, dungeon designers could put living creatures in a remote and unexplored dungeon without a source of food, and no one would care. Now days, dungeon designers feel limited to populating their crypts, lost castles, and vaults with the undead and elementals that gain an exemption from the bounds of nature. This stands as the stifling legacy of the ecology articles. By treating most D&D creatures as natural things that feed and breed and live natural lives, we make them difficult to use in the game.

Embrace the magic in magical creatures

We should embrace the obviously magical nature the D&D bestiary and free more creatures from the limitations of nature. Unnatural creatures can be unique. They can spontaneously generate in places where foul magic or bizarre rituals were practiced. They can leak into the world in places where the barriers between planes have weakened. They can be immortal. Undying, they can survive aeons trapped in some underground lair, growing more hateful and cunning with each passing year.

In the Wandering Monsters post “Turned to Stone,” James Wyatt writes, “One of the things that we’ve been thinking a lot about is that we are creating—and facilitating the creation of—fantasy worlds. The monsters of D&D aren’t races of aliens in a sci-fi setting. They don’t all need to have logical biology.”

D&D operates in worlds’ brimming with enchantment. The ecology articles threw too much magic away; I’m thrilled to see the D&D Next designers bring some back.