6/09/2011

Published on 6/09/2011 Written by 7 comments

The mystery of the monsters


I was glancing through the Pathfinder Bestiary the other day, re-familiarizing myself with some of the monsters and their stats, when it hit me; the magic is gone. Just a year or so ago, when I played my first game, there was this allure and mystery about the seemingly limitless monsters and beasties that populated the various fantasy worlds. Now, I see them as stat blocks and powers, obstacles to pit my players against.

Perhaps it was bound to happen as I became the primary gamemaster for my group. But it's still left me feeling somewhat disappointed. The realization that a small part of the game is now gone for good leaves me wanting that feeling of surprise anew.

I can't recall the very first monster I ever faced as a player, though I imagine it was something suitably low-level. Like a kobold, or goblin, or possibly a level-0 farmer. Something easy, that was for certain.


Or perhaps Farmer Smurf, the level-0 Smurf!


But I can remember the combat I most enjoyed from those early games. It had everything: A mysterious monster, a desperate fight, and a sense of discovery for me as a player. Characters can be played without the knowledge of how the game world works, but as a player learns the system and setting, the magic of discovery disappears. As a player, not knowing exactly what you're up against can be the most fun part of a game.

For me, it was a retroclone, most likely Labyrinth Lord. And that enemy was a black pudding.

Even though I'd never played roleplaying games before--not even many on the PC--I knew well enough what a goblin was. Heck, I even had a pretty good idea of a kobold. After all, these were common stereotypes, whether in fantasy literature or in non-roleplaying games. But a black pudding? Isn't that some kind of sausage or something? I mean, I'm not a big sausage fan, but that doesn't sound hugely threatening.


I stand corrected; this is in fact the most terrifying thing I've ever seen.


The fight was long and the rest of my party far smarter than myself, having run away at the start of it. Not realizing that fire was the only effective way to hurt it, I kept throwing my poor little fighter into battle, swinging away, determined not to be beaten by an amorphous blob of goop.

Soon the entire corridor was filled with mini-black puddings thanks to my efforts, and my fighter was overwhelmed, thus providing me with a healthy fear of all slithering blobs of Lovecraftian design.

Now, however, though my character may not know that only fire will slay such a fiend, I do. The sheer thrill, frustration, and wonder at meeting a new enemy is gone. There's still fun to be had, but the mystery of being a new player is no more.

I think if anything this just gives me more resolve to make the games I run as interesting and exciting as those early games that I'd been fortunate enough to play in. Whether it's in the setting or the plot, I think if I try to keep an air of mystery alive throughout, the feeling of discovery and exploration will add considerably to the fun. This tends to be a little harder in a generic fantasy setting, where everyone knows elves are forest-dwelling hippies, dwarves are Scottish miners, and Smurfs make for terrible farmers. Without altering stat bonuses and character abilities, you'll have a trickier time proposing that dwarves are actually half-crazed vampires cast down into the bowels of the earth by the gods themselves, allergic to sunlight, and suffering from very mild cannibalistic tendencies.

What about you? Is it possible that some games do lose something indefinable the more you understand and play them? Or am I completely off track here?

7 comments:

  1. I think repeated exposure lessens the thrill to just about anything.  Now, I think there are ways to recapture some of that by changing things up a bit or taking a break.

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  2. JsalvatoriJune 09, 2011

    Try making up your own monsters to throw at them.  Or simply don't say what it is... If you tell your group they face an illithid, they know what to do.  You tell them there is a large humanoid creature with tentacles... well that could be a few things, and it might take them long enough for your monster's psi powers to get a few shots in.

    Also, I think part of the fun comes from building tension before the fight - before the monster appears (and becomes just a pile of numbers to beat with some dice), set the situation, and let your players know something bad is about to happen - the equivalent of the music build in a slasher movie.

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  3. Adam BraggJune 09, 2011

    As a GM, you only have two choices to preserve the feeling of wonderment you're talking about.

    1) Shift your source of sense of wonder to the things that GMs do.  You're still thinking like a player if you're pinning your sense of wonder upon not knowing the monsters' stats.  Preserving that and also GMing the game is guaranteed to disappoint - you're setting yourself up for defeat there.  Instead, find wonderment in how the large scale events of your campaign world unfold in reaction to your players' actions.  Feel the mystery in unpredictable directions your players' will take your adventure plots.  Discover the magic in the unplanned for special interactions that will occasionally occur when your players' really connect with an NPC or plot element and in the process draw out of them a depth that you never intentionally put there.  There are many more places to look for that lost wonder that you're bemoaning, but I think I've given enough examples to illustrate my point.  You are surrounded by riches my friend, you just need to put on your GM glasses! :-)

    2) Live vicariously through your players' wonderment.  Much like a proud parent who enjoys their child's first discoveries in life, you can also share in your players' discovery of the world you're portraying.  Especially, if you do mix things up with regards to the abilities and behaviours of the races and monsters in your campaign.  When you tell your players that the campaign takes place in a world where all the known monsters died 400 years ago in a mysterious plague that coincided with the opening of wild magic portals from unknown planes, that the wild magic altered the surviving races and that the portals released previously unknown monsters, (or some such similar premise to justify mixing it up in the manner you suggested), their faces will be completely owned by that wonderment of the unknown.  They will have left the known world completely and entered the fabled undiscovered country - and you can share it along with them as they tentatively step into that fantastic unknown.  

    Lastly, you may have noticed that the above two options are most assuredly not mutually exclusive.  In fact, they are quite complementary, thus you can easily have 2-3 times more wonderment that is ever achievable as a player.  Should all of the above fail you, then your final recourse is to place the mantle of GM upon another's shoulders and live the perspective of a player, trusting in that other world crafter to provide you with the pure mystery inherent in wondering, "What happens next?".

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  4. I still like the idea of trying to figure out how to "realistically" present the denizens of the bestiaries and monster manuals. What's their ecology? Why are they here?

    and on and on...

    Also trying out how to present them to the characters without them being a stat block is a big plus. Don't call them zombies or dragons or any other identifiable name. Give them descriptions, call them by the "local" names. Figure out how to make them come alive.

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  5. CDGallant_KingJune 16, 2011

    All very good suggestions.  Re-skinning the monsters also works - take a mindflayer and describe it as something goblinoid.  The creatures in this world developed differently.  The players may think you have created a completely new monster, and will be unsure of exactly what to expect.  They may also be really pissed off (some people hate it when you mess with official material, or make up your own creatures).

    The quick and easiest solution is just to try something new.  Players get jaded.  They know what to expect.  Short of making major changes to your campaign and style of gaming (see Adam's comment, above, which is also perfectly valid), I would just suggest to try a different game/setting, for a while.  Something new will bring new wonder with it, and hopefully get everyone's creative juices flowing again.

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  6. Dungeon BrewJune 28, 2011

    No, you're right on track there. I remember playing Basic Edition DnD (my first fight was against a goblin) and every new monster was a new wonder. Not just that, but everything. There were magic talking statues (magic mouth) mysterious dragons who didn't breath fire, and of course...evil, hurtful, cruel amorphous blobs.

    Everything seemed so new and exciting. I remember playing a halfling thief obsessed with gold who ran down a halfway filled with skeletons just to see them come to life behind him. I didn't know they moved...and I had left the rest of my party behind so I could be the first to the chest...yeah, fun day.

    To help maintain the sense of wonder and exciting discovery for my players I tend to make new monsters on a regular basis. Re-skinning monsters and templates from 3.5 and Pathfinder certainly go miles in making this easier. As for myself, well, I just find new games to play. It doesn't reclaim the wonder I felt when I first started playing, but it helps to feed that childlike wonder I once had.

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  7. after playing ower a decade with Fallout on pc, when my first fallout tabletop rpg came, it was still thrilling.
    I play DnD, Vampire, Shadowrun, M.A.G.U.S., etc. since 2002 with friends, and more than often I'm the DM in most of them, but only last year had a chance to play Fallout with someone else as a storyteller.
    I was a hunter-stalker type character, with some exp, and optimized stats, as I already knew the what to and where to very well.
    Then came the first encounter (other than the bandits in my backstory). We were lurking around some roadside little town... or what was left of it. Noone alive, we presummed. Then, after some of us stepped on something noizy, we heard a shreaking woice from inside the nearest building.
    I, as the most experienced character, and most experienced player in this case, knew what was it. A giant rat... welll giant may be over exaggerating. More like rat in the size of a big, fat cat.
    But then I knew very well the following: where there is one rat, there is at least half a dosen more near by. (i could imagine their little eyes blinking in the shadows)
    So we will face probably 3-5 of these. We were a party of 2 in the beginning, and my other half was a junkie chemist from a drogfarm... not useful in fight. If i shoot the rats, then others (more rats, mole rats, bigger beasts, bandits, etc. ) will hear me, and come over. (I had a very loud selfmaintained m1 garand, no fast reload, and only 7 bullets, and a oneshot selfmade handgun) On the otherhand if I try to kick, punch, stab them, they can bite me. No they wont kill me, probably, but I could die from poison, disease, or by meeting someone bigger, under the mentioned veakening effekts. We were mor than a week by foot from the nearest town.

    These things came in my mind fast, made my IRL adrenalin level rize, and made me make a decision, as my own life was depending on it.

    Later on this game (only 3 or 4 time, because some players discontuined coming, and the DM was broken by it, and stopped) we faced first a hobo, who trapped a building, and shoot at us, some slavers tried to take me (i failed the spot check, with perception 9). More slavers. ANd after the shootings, more slavers. An enclave supermutant (he wasn't interrested in us, so we live). Scorpions. A giant moth. And a merchant from SF, who took all our loot, underprize, and we bought from him some useless junk... well, not me, i bought only bullets, and repairkits, duct tape and stuff for my new, and my old gun, but the others bougth shit.
    We saw an "automobil", a Highwayman racing down the walley, and we hid in a bush, scared shitless. When the driver dropped something shining towards us, i saw us dieing by the blow of the handgranade, but it was just an empty Nuca Cola bottle.

    It was one of the best, and thrilling rpg experience of my life. More frightening than my prevous cthulhu, vampire etc. And more enjoyable than any Fantasy RPG I played in.

    Yes, one of my favorite world is Fallout (and Dune, and Star Wars). I realy thought trough my character, I dreamt as him, I daydreamt being him, i got attached to him. And I knew very well, in Fallout everyone is a possible enemy. Never turn your back to a stranger, never trust a friend, and never sleep in the open. And more importantly, if you shoot someone, then finish the job, never leave an enemy behind!

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