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?

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