Rolemaster & Fantasy RPG’s. What are monsters really?

Since this is my last blog post for several weeks I thought I would write on a more general topic: Monsters. While “Monsters” are the mainstay of fantasy RPG’s, they were not entirely embraced by Rolemaster. Again, probably due to the influence of the generally monster-less Middle Earth and Pete Fenlon’s original campaign.

Even my earliest experiences with RM coming off of AD&D, I always appreciated the monster-lite approach that was in sharp contrast to the Gygaxian Naturalism found in the Monster Manual and Fiend Folio. The parade of fantastical creatures felt like an endless one-up manship that could never be slated.

Even Rolemaster’s “Creatures & Treasures” generally avoided the term monster and looking through it, there were very few truly bizarre creatures. The standard dragon/griffin/unicorn mythical tropes were all there but the homogenization process of monster creation was lacking. Shadow World introduced a few cool “monsters” (artificial creatures) but these were setting driven and fit into the conceptual world framework.

In the real world, “Monsters” are imaginary, fictional beings. What then would you call creatures that were as real and encounter-able as horses, giraffes or alligators? In a few recent Post, I discussed whether monsters should be treated like any other race or creature; those with intelligence should be considered a “Race” just as much as a human or Elf.

The larger issue of course is whether the term “Monster” becomes less an abstract idea then a defining rule mechanic. For instance, D&D created spells for summoning or controlling “Monsters” and spells for summoning or controlling “Animals”. Suddenly we have a delineating wall–a need to classify creatures as monsters or animals. A simplistic approach would be to define “Animals” as creatures that exist in our real world, while “Monsters” are fantasy creatures that exist in the rule books. Doesn’t that sort of feel like ‘breaking the fourth wall’ from a rule perspective? Another mechanism would be that Clerics/Druids can Summon/Control Animals while Mages can summon/control Monsters. Again, that feels quite arbitrary doesn’t it?

These are real questions I ask myself while I work on various spell list re-writes. Putting aside Gates/Summons/Calls, how does one define creatures in terms of spell mechanics. These rules should be flexible enough to address different settings (than Shadow World), different game styles, but still be strict enough to avoid vagueness or excessive rule lawyer-ing.

Since I think it’s impossible to delineate a creature from an animal from a monster in general rule set terms it requires more concrete attributes. Some possible game mechanic criteria:

  1. Creature size. For me, this was the first and foremost important criteria. 1st level spell users shouldn’t be able to “spell” super-large creatures easily, if at all, not matter what their deadliness.
  2. Creature intelligence. This gets to the general difference behind animals and intelligent beings and allows for spell limitations due to intelligence levels.
  3. Creature morality/alignment. Rolemaster doesn’t use alignments, but for settings that do, perhaps limiting spell users on a creatures alignment might make sense.
  4. Creature natural environment. Requiring that a creature is indigenous to the local environment makes sense as well.

I believe that the term “Monster” is just too arbitrary to be useful in game mechanics. Remember, that the “Monster” you just killed probably had a mother somewhere!!!


2 Replies to “Rolemaster & Fantasy RPG’s. What are monsters really?”

  1. The original word for monster was a substantive made from the Latin verb moneo: a creature that was considered an omen or sign from the gods. Classical writers saw the unnatural as a sign from otherworldly powers, and they sometimes assembled them into collections of such creatures. Medieval writers took up where the ancients had left off, and developed full scale encyclopedias of monstrous beasts. So in that sense of the term, a monster is just really something that is unnatural, especially something with a link to the divine (or the demonic).

    Fun fact: The medieval writers thus lumped Amazons in with centaurs and cyclopes, because nothing could be more unnatural to them than a society ruled by women! Yes, the Middle Ages were that patriarchal.

    Anyway, you could easily define all creatures from other planes, such as demons and perhaps elementals, as ‘monsters’. But the main question is: does defining something as a monster do any work for your system? For DnD, it did: defining something as a ‘magical beast’ for example meant that it was affected by spells that affected magical beasts, but unaffected by spells that did not affect magical beasts. It was a keyword that helped clarify things like which creatures could be targeted by which spells.

  2. There is a cliche that says the three most important factors when buying a property are Location, Location and Location. I gaming terms the three most important drivers for the rules have to be Setting, Setting and Setting.

    What is a monster is a cultural question. If you were running a campaign set at see then maps marked ‘Here be monsters’ could easily really denote kraken, sea living dragons, giant squid or aquatic demons. Each and every one of them would fit that setting perfectly.

    In my short adventuring life in Shadow World I managed to kill orcs, a troll, some chaos warriors, a chaos knight, a water drake and a whole load of people. I met centaurs, but didn’t kill them. The world seemed almost devoid of monsters.

    It was in shadow world that I managed to summon a sperm whale 200′ above a charging column of cavalry who had bad intentions towards my fellows and I. Boy were they surprised!

    Chinese mythology has relatively few ‘monsters’ and most myths cast minor demons or spirits in that role. In that setting all the monsters fit together perfectly and the theory of how magic works and ancestral spirits that can be called on and the interplay of spirits, demons, dragons and men are one big cultural whole.

    When I convert D&D adventures to RMC for my face to face game the first task I do is strip back the menagerie of monsters. The second is strip out any ‘silly’ traps. I am basically turning these D&D adventures into the, dare I say it, more realistic MERP or Shadow World style adventures.

    I tend to think of monsters vs creatures as being one of either intelligence or magical origin.

    An intelligent race that is magically created/changed such as Middle Earth’s orcs as perverted Elves is a fair demarcation of a monster.

    If you want to go down the alignment route then monsters are capable of ‘good’ or ‘evil’. Primarily ‘evil’ as very few people see Angels or celestial beings as monsters because of the evil connotations.

    It is a bit like weeds vs flowers. A weed being a flower in the wrong place that you didn’t plant.

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