Tag Archives: monsters

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.

Would Dungeons & Dragons Play Better If It Stayed Loyal to How Gary Gygax Awarded Hit Points?

In a typical fifth-edition Dungeons & Dragons adventure, characters will reach every battle with full hit points. Healing comes too easily to enter a battle at less than full health. Above level 10 or so, spells like Aid and Heroes Feast mean parties routinely pass their day with hit point totals above their ordinary maximums.

By the time characters near level 10, few monsters inflict enough damage to seem threatening. Except for a few outliers like giants, foes lack the punch to dent characters at maximum hit points. If round of combat results in a gargoyle hitting a 90-hit-point character 6 damage, then the fight seems like a bookkeeping exercise. “At this rate, I can only survive 14 more rounds!”

The fifth-edition design limits the highest armor classes so weaker monsters can attack stronger characters and still hit on rolls less than a natural 20. This design aims to enable hordes of low-level monsters to challenge high-level characters. In practice, the hits inflict such pitiful damage that the hero would feel less pain than the bookkeeping causes to the player. It’s the pencils that suffer the most.

The obvious fix to high-level creatures and their feeble damage is to make monsters’ attacks hurt more. Mike “Sly Flourish” Shea routinely makes creatures inflict maximum damage on every hit.

But what if the solution doesn’t come from the monsters? What if characters at double-digit levels just have too many hit points?

If high-level characters had fewer hit points, high-level monsters with their puny attacks would suddenly become a bit more threatening. Lower-level monsters could pose more of a threat high-level heroes without becoming too dangerous to low-level characters. High-level PCs would still rip through weak foes, but the survivors could deal enough damage to seem dangerous rather than laughable.

D&D no longer focuses entirely on dungeon crawls where characters judge when to rest based on their remaining store of hit points and spells. The game’s move to storytelling means characters often face just one fight per day. Healing comes cheap and easy, so characters start fights at full hit points. Lower hit points at high levels would suit the reality that characters enter every fight at maximum health. In more battles, foes would seem like credible opponents.

Of course, no one has ever argued that low-level characters sport too many hit points. New characters feel as fragile as soap bubbles. Before level 5, don’t get too attached to your hero. As characters near level 10, they begin to seem stout. They rarely go down in anything short of a slugfest, so they feel like superheroes, but not invulnerable.

But in double-digit levels character hit points keep rising at the same steep rate until DMs resort to letting monsters routinely deal maximum damage. D&D might play better if, somewhere around level 10, characters stopped gaining so many hit points.

When I first considered this notion, I dismissed it as too big a break from the D&D’s conventions. For nearly two decades, characters have gained a full die worth of hit points at every level.

Except for most of D&D’s history, somewhere around level 10, characters stopped gaining so many hit points.

From the original game through second edition, when D&D characters reached level 9 or so, they started gaining hit points at a much slower rate. In Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, fighters rising above 9th level gained 3 hit points per level with no bonus for constitution. Other classed gained even fewer points. Continuing to let characters gain a full hit die plus constitution bonus at every level defies D&D’s origins.

The original limits to hit dice served as co-creator Gary Gygax’s way of putting a soft level cap on D&D. The cap kept the game’s link to the Chainmail mass-combat rules, where the best fighters acted as “superheroes” who could match the power of 8 soldiers. Gary wanted a game where crowds of orcs or goblins could still challenge the heroes.

Admittedly, when I started playing D&D, I disliked how characters’ hit points topped out. Gary and his hit-dice tables seemed to punish players of high-level characters—especially fighters.

Although the soft cap on hit points lasted 25 years, the cap on the other perks of leveling started to disappear as soon as the first Greyhawk supplement reached gamers. While the original box topped out at 6th-level spells, Greyhawk included spells of up to 9th level. Gary never intended player characters to cast the highest-level spells, but that didn’t stop players.

By the time designers started work on third edition, they aimed to deliver perks to every class at every level from 1 to 20. The soft cap on hit points must have seemed vestigial. The designers felt the game’s math could handle a steep rise in hit points past level 10. The design abandoned any aim of making groups of low-level mooks a match for high-level heroes. Besides, a steady rise in HP made the multi-classing rules simpler.

Today’s D&D game does a fine job of awarding every class—even fighters—perks at every level. Nobody leveling into the teens gets excited about another helping of hit points. Reverting to smaller hit point advances doesn’t spoil anyone’s fun.

Fifth edition keeps levels and monsters at power levels broadly similar to those in original game. This loose compatibility makes adventures written during D&D’s first 20 years continue to work with the new edition. In theory, a DM can just swap in monster stats from the new game and play. In practice, higher-level characters have more hit points, more healing, and the creatures fail to do enough damage to keep up. Story-centered adventures make the mismatch worse.

Suppose Gary Gygax had hit points right all along. Would D&D play better if characters stopped gaining so many after level 9?

The Stories (and 3 Mysteries) Behind D&D’s Iconic Monsters

Like every other kid who discovered Dungeons & Dragons in the late 70s, the Monster Manual suddenly became my favorite book. I studied the pages, and then turned to books of mythology to learn more about cyclopses, manticores, and harpies. But not all the monsters came from myth. Some started with Gary Gygax and other D&D contributors. Of these original monsters, Wizards of the Coast reserves the most evocative as part of D&D’s product identity:

  • beholder
  • gauth
  • carrion crawler
  • displacer beast
  • githyanki
  • githzerai
  • kuo-toa
  • mind flayer
  • slaad
  • umber hulk
  • yuan-ti
Signed Greyhawk Cover

The Original Beholder

The leap of imagination required for some monsters seems short. When Gary needed “something new” to populate the underworld, he imagined fish men and called them koa-toa. When Dave “Zeb” Cook needed memorable foes for an overgrown, forbidden city in the jungle, he made snake men called yuan-ti. D&D features a long history of frog men, but Charles Stross says a literal fever led him to imagine the extra-planar, chaotic slaad.

The gauth just offers a junior beholder to pit against lower-level adventurers. But where did the beholder come from?

Many of D&D’s classic monsters have better stories behind their inspiration.

Beholder

One of D&D’s original players, Rob Kuntz eventually joined Gary Gygax as co-dungeon master in the Greyhawk campaign. Rob credits his brother Terry with a wild imagination and the idea for the beholder, originally called the eye of doom. Terry provided most of the game stats. Before the creature appeared in the Greyhawk supplement, Gary explained that “All I needed to do was a bit of editing to make it a great addition to the terrible monsters to be found in the D&D game.”

Bugbear

Bugbear, Ghoul and Friends

In the original D&D books, the bugbear sports a pumpkin head. Gary recalls describing the creature as having a fat, oval head like a pumpkin, which led the artist to draw an actual pumpkin head.

Carrion Crawler

In the early days of D&D, Gary hosted games 7 days a week. During weekends, adventuring parties included as many as 20 players with their characters, hirelings, and henchmen. Rob Kuntz ran sessions too. All these expeditions delved the mega-dungeon under Castle Greyhawk. “When the encounter was eliminated I simply drew a line through it, and the place was empty for the foreseeable future. I’d give Rob the details of any session he was not at and vice versa.” Rather than imagining a dungeon piled with rotting corpses of monsters and adventurers, Gary conceived dungeon scavengers like the carrion crawler. “I needed something nasty for the clean-up crew, so I thought this one up.”

Displacer Beast

Cover by Gil Kane

Although Wizards includes the displacer beast in D&D’s product identity, the monster owes its appearance to an alien in the 1939 story “The Black Destroyer” by author A. E. Van Vogt. In the tale, a character describes a thing called a “coeurl” that looks like “a big cat, if you forget those tentacles sticking out from its shoulders, and make allowances for those monster forelegs.” The beast first appeared in the Greyhawk supplement, but the coeurl lacks the displacer beast’s defensive power. That power comes from the Displacer Cloak, which appeared in the original D&D books.

Mystery: The cloak and beast’s displacement power seems like a defense that Gary could have taken from a golden-age science fiction story. Did Gary invent the notion, or did he adopt it?

Drow

The first hint of dark elves comes in D&D’s fourth supplement, Gods, Demi-Gods and Heroes (1976), by James Ward and Rob Kuntz. “These elves dwell beneath the earth, and cause trouble for anyone wandering through their territories. They live and cause evil upon Svartalfheim.” Perhaps inspired by the mention, Gary offered more hints in the first Monster Manual. “The ‘Black Elves,’ or Drow, are only legend. They purportedly dwell deep beneath the surface in a strange subterranean realm. The Drow are said to be as dark as faeries are bright and as evil as the latter are good. Tales picture them as weak fighters but strong magic-users.” The word “drow” comes from Scots dialects and refers to a sort of malevolent being. Gary remembered pulling the name from an old, unabridged dictionary. In Descent into the Depths of the Earth (1978), the drow made their first appearance. Gary gave them powers “to highlight their unique nature and potency.”

Mind Flayer

Inspiration for the land kraken, but not the mind flayer

Gary credits the form of the mind flayer to the cover of the Brian Lumley book, The Borrowers Beneath. “The cover made me think: Now what sort of nasty bastard is that? So without a qualm I made up the Illithid, the dread mind flayer, so as to keep the players on their toes—or to have their PCs turn theirs upwards.”

Mystery: A few year back, this tale led me to search for the The Borrowers Beneath, and I found a cover featuring a humanoid, tentacle-faced creature that closely resembled a mind flayer. Now, the same search just reveals a cover of tentacles erupting from the ground and a few images of Cthulhu. But in another reminiscence, Gary said the cover that inspired him showed a humanoid creature. What cover actually inspired the mind flayer?

Githyanki

Although Wizards claims githyanki as part of D&D’s product identity, Game of Thrones author George R.R. Martin has a claim to them too. For D&D, science fiction author Charles Stross took the name githyanki and a bit of backstory from Martin’s SF novel Dying of the Light. “I’ve always felt slightly guilty about that,” Stross said. “Credit should be given where credit’s due.” Martin’s githyanki never develop beyond an unseen threat with limited intelligence. But like the D&D monsters, the originals were living, psychic weapons and former slaves of an alien race. Stross credits another legendary author with additional inspiration. “The Illithid/Githyanki relationship probably slid into my mind as a result of reading Larry Niven’s The World of Ptavvs, which features a psionic master/slave race relationship far in the past that nearly killed all the sapients in the galaxy when it turned hot.”

Bulette

Before D&D, Gary’s Chainmail games required miniatures. Back then, no one sold fantasy figures for gaming, so he improvised. He converted a plastic stegosaurus into a dragon. “I haunted the dime stores looking for potential additions and eventually found figures to represent ogres, elementals, etc.” Some of the improvised figures came from bags of assorted, plastic critters sold in those dime stores. The labels marked the toys as “Prehistoric Animals” but few resembled anything from natural history or even mythology. For pictures of the creatures and their packages, see a post by artist Tony DiTerlizzi.

When Gary’s gaming group switched to D&D, they stopped using miniatures, but the strange creatures remained as inspiration.

Gary and his fellow gamers probably never saw the Ultraman television show produced in Japan in 1966-1967, so they never knew the likely basis of the creatures. Most of the toys were knock offs of Kaiju, giant monsters from Japanese entertainment.

Inspiration for the Bulette toy probably came from the creature Gabora, which appeared in episode 9 of Ultraman, “Operation: Uranium.”

In the Greyhawk dungeons, the beast made a couple of cameo appearances, charging down a hall and bowling over adventurers. The players called it a landshark after its back fin and a current series of Saturday Night Live sketches where a “landshark” knocks on doors to deliver a “candygram.”

When editor Tim Kask needed content to fill a page in the first issue of The Dragon, Gary told Tim to write stats for the landshark. The name puts a French spin on the creature’s bullet shape. As for the monster’s appetite for halflings and their ponies, Tim was showing a bit of spite for players who always played hobbits and favored ponies named Bill.

Umber Hulk

Ultraman episode 7, “The Blue Stone of Vallarge,” featured another burrower named “Antlar.” A knock off toy for this Kaiju probably led Gary to devise the umber hulk. The creature’s crude, insectile eyes inspired the monster’s signature confusing gaze.

Owlbear

Some have tried to find a Kaiju that resembles the owlbear toy, but even the closest match takes blurred vision and a big leap of imagination. The toy’s bowl-shaped hair stands out as its most distinctive feature. As badly as the toy resembles an owl or a bear, it also badly resembles a Kappa from Japanese mythology.

Owlbear Toy and Kappa by Toriyama Sekien

Rust Monster

No creature resembles its dime-store inspiration more than the rust monster. The toy lacks teeth and claws, so when Gary made it a monster, he needed another way to menace adventurers. In the original game, powerful undead drained “life energy levels” when they hit. Life draining terrorized players, and Gary saw the power as a test for clerics, ranged attackers, and players too reckless to run. “I don’t agree with those wimpy whiners who are afraid of a few living dead,” he teased. The toy’s tentacles led Gary to imagine a way to threaten something players prized even more than their levels—their magic weapons and armor.

Mystery: Of all the toys, the rust monster ranks as the oddest. How did a four-legged bug with a propeller tail wind up bagged with kaiju and mythological creatures? Did a Hong Kong designer aim for pure whimsy or imitate some other creature?

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.