The writing cogs are jammed, so I’m going to try and clean the system with a silly little game I’m making up as I write this sentence. Below is a list of a variety of mythical beasts. It becomes your job to consider whether you would like to shoot the beast (and therefore have to put in the effort to destroy it and everything that entails, from risks to expenses) or ride the beast (and therefore have to put in the effort to tame it, feed it, keep it, and train it). If you decide to play, please provide your reasoning in your comments. Here’s the list:
Ready? Here are my answers:
Okay, so first off, griffons are awesome. They look cool, they fly, and they’re sort of the best mix of bird of prey and great cat. As any good bird of prey or great cat, they’re smart enough to be trainable, I’d imagine, and they aren’t so titanically huge that they’d be impossible to feed. They eat horses, primarily, so finding food won’t be that hard. They’re really big, but not so huge you couldn’t keep them in a barn. Sure, you could hunt them down relatively easily, too, but why bother when you can get them to fly you around?
Dragons are even more awesome than griffons – on that score, I think most of us could agree. It would be really cool if you could train it to let you ride it, convince it to lay waste to your enemies, and so on. Thing is, though, you’ll never pull it off. Even assuming it doesn’t immediately roast you or you find some clever way around it’s fire/poison/acid breathing capabilities, where on earth do you keep a creature of that size? What the heck do you feed it? What happens if you stop feeding it?
Dragons, as intelligent reptiles, don’t really have much of a history of working well with people. Furthermore, there is no reasonable way you can ever feel safe around the thing – they have a noted tendency to eat people and steal their stuff. Are you going to supply it sufficient gold to keep it from sacking the nearest castle? Even if you do get up there, how do you control it? It’s too big to really tug around with reins and spurs aren’t going to make a mark. It even has a neck that can reach around and eat you off it’s own back. Ooof.
Granted, killing the thing would be really tough, but if you decide to tame it, you’d probably have to kill it anyway.
Okay, so how do you propose to ride this thing? Where do you put the saddle? How, once in the saddle, do you actually see where you’re going? Seems impractical. It should be noted that the Hydra has some advantages over the dragon on this score in that it isn’t notably intelligent, can’t breathe fire, and is a good bit smaller. They’re semi-amphibious, so they can live in swamps and lakes and such.
You also, of course, have to consider just how damned hard it’s going to be to kill the things. The ol’ Hercules cut-and-burn technique sounds good on paper, but that’s going to be pretty damned hard to pull off in real life. Even if you employ flamethrowers, there’s a lot of heads there. Shooting it from a distance might not even work. These are prickly beasts, to be sure. Weirdly enough, I think the regenerative properties alone mean trying to tame it might just be worth the effort. Kinda lose-lose, though.
This is a no-brainer, right? Well, not so fast. Pegasi are beautiful and supposedly kind and tame and are just like horses, right? Well, yeah, but consider that, if it’s just like a horse, it isn’t going to be able to generate enough lift to fly with a grown person on their back, or at least not for long. Dragons and Griffons are both significantly larger and stronger, meaning the odds of getting some good flying time in are much higher. So, instead of a flying horse you get to ride, you instead wind up with a flying horse that runs away. Okay, okay, so you can train it to stick around and win it over with sweetness and love, granted. You can do that with a regular horse, though, and without the trouble of chasing it around as it takes itself out for exercise. At least with a griffon, you get the added bonus of being able to fly with it and scare the crap out of your enemies.
On the flipside, killing a Pegasus would be really, really easy and save you a lot of trouble. So, if one showed up on your lawn and was trashing your car, a hunting rifle might be in order.
Depending on which legends you go to, this thing is a giant, venomous snake or a giant lizard that either petrifies or kills with a glance. In both cases we’re looking at a pretty terrible ride. How do you train a creature you can never look at? That mirror thing is only going to get you so far, and having it on your property is going to result in a lot of your friends becoming corpses or statues when they go looking for a trash barrel during your annual barbeque. Lets not even get into the fact that it’s venomous and fatally so. Oof.
Shoot it! Kill it with fire! Ahhh!
Answer: Shoot! Shoot it now!
Okay, your turn internet. Or not. Whatever – I’ve distracted myself long enough that I can probably get real work done now.
Dragons, Giants, Hydra, Titans, the Kraken: all monsters of superhuman size and strength, and all popular foes in much of specfic literature, and frequent guest stars in role playing and video games. When done well, facing these incredible beasties is some of the coolest, most exciting moments of the story. When done poorly, they suddenly don’t make a whole lot of sense.
One of my favorite scenes like this is an oldie but a goodie and, thanks to my daughter, I see it a lot. Disney’s Sleeping Beauty reaches its climax as Prince Phillip finds himself facing the evil Maleficent in the form of a giant black dragon. Immediately both Phillip and the viewing audience realize he is out of his depth. The dragon has no fear of his puny sword, his enchanted shield is barely sufficient protection, and his triumphant ride to his sleeping love becomes a desperate retreat through burning thorns and up jagged cliffs. Driven to the edge of a precipice, deprived of his shield, almost losing his balance, Phillip, but for some timely sorcerous intervention, is pretty well doomed. Now, while there are some holes in the battle (like ‘how does his horse survive’ and ‘how does he avoid going over the cliff with the dead dragon’?), generally it captures exactly what a battle with such a massive opponent ought to look like: it’s tense, terrifying, and you really don’t see how Phillip is going to get out of it until the fairies show up. There are other stories that do the giant monster battle pretty well, too (Luke Vs Rancor in Jedi is pretty decent; Sam Vs Shelob in Return of the King is pretty fabulous, etc.), and all of them follow a few basic rules of engagement:
- Monsters Don’t Fight Like People: You don’t stand toe-to-toe with the beastie and swing your sword like it’s an orc. Honestly, unless you’re really lucky, your sword is almost worthless, your armor isn’t really that useful, and most of your martial arts training isn’t going to help very much (Legolas excepted).
- Monsters Chew the Scenery: If you think you can have a fight with a twenty foot giant and not destroy a lot of property, you need to have your head examined. If you’re in a house, even money says its coming down.
- Monsters Can Move: You know how we are able to move around, turn, jump, run, and all that stuff? Monsters can do that, too. Sometimes they can do it even better than we can. Unless you’re a Jedi, don’t bet on running between its legs.
With these rules in place, it becomes rapidly obvious that, in order to defeat the beast, the hero or heroes will need to think outside the box. This isn’t a case of simply ‘hit it with your sword until it dies’ (a flaw in logic I’ve examined before); the toe-to-toe engagement is unwise. The heroes need to run around, hide, use their small size to their advantage, strike the weak points, and so on.
Too often, in video games and RPGs especially, the battle with the giant monster becomes more of a case of surrounding it and plinking away until it falls down. Never mind that most of your weapons are only hitting its shins and never mind that it can just as easily step on you to kill you as anything else and there is no way you can impede its movement. Not only is this unimaginative, it’s also dull. These conflicts can and should be among the most memorable and terrifying of the story; they should be set pieces, major plot events, and they should be given the time and attention they deserve. Recognize that if your hero faces a dragon on an open field, there are few plausible ways they ought to survive outside of technological or magical power enhancing their normal human capabilities. Like any good fight scene, you need to plot out how this can go down so that you build tension without violating reason. Heroes that face such enemies without forethought or who are surprised should find themselves in retreat or defeated, as a hero who summarily slays a dragon without much thought or substantial effort means both the dragon and the hero aren’t being used to their full potential. It begs the question ‘why use a dragon at all?’
To provide a counter-example to the one I mentioned above, do you folks remember the movie Willow? Ah, who am I kidding, of course you do! Anyway, the two-headed monster that shows up in the Tir Asleen battle is a great example of extremely lame monster-fighting. Now, granted, many of the problems are related to the fact that the film’s budget was only so large and they didn’t have CGI to make this thing really move, but still we have a whole battle in the middle of the movie with a giant monster that doesn’t really move, doesn’t really destroy anything, and that is killed just by stabbing it in the head. I mean, it’s sort of scary, but it doesn’t really steal the scene at all. In fact, a lot of the battle keeps going on while this whole giant monster is sitting there, eating Nokmar soldiers. Now, while I do approve of the idea of sticking a monster in the middle of an unrelated battle, this one doesn’t really do much more than act as scenery. The soldiers just kind of surround it, it sits there, and we patiently wait for Mad Martigan to kill it. It’s a fun scene, yes, but it’s nothing compared to the Cave Troll in Fellowship or the first time Paul faces a sandworm in Dune. This monster isn’t working to its full potential.
In the end, all I’m really saying here is that the massive monsters of mythology ought to be given their proper due when facing our heroes. There is just too much potential there to be wasted.
If you’ve played a role playing game, be it tabletop, video, or pen-and-paper, odds are you’ve adventured in a dungeon. We all know, essentially, what those things entail: various rooms, random monsters, the odd trap, and heaps of treasure. You and your intrepid buddies tramp around these places methodically, as though shopping at the mall, hoovering up whatever gold and silver and so on you can lay your grubby mitts upon, and then leave satisfied. It’s like an Easter Egg Hunt, except with more magical swords and many fewer dyed, hard-boiled eggs.
In general, I find the average dungeon experience lacking. I’ve discussed this before when describing one of my personal favorite dungeons of my design. To quote myself:
Dungeons have a problem. They are, in their most commonly encountered form, a concept much better executed in a video game than in a pen-and-paper role-playing game. The reason for this is pretty simple: there is no conflict. That’s right–no conflict. There is no doubt that the PCs are going to scour the dungeon for all the wealth they can find. There is no doubt that the monsters encountered within are going to try to kill/eat them. Everybody is equipped to handle the problem, on both sides, and their tactics are mostly already in place. Everybody knows their job, is ready to do it, and the only thing that really matters is how the dice fall.
As mentioned in that article, I like dungeons to have some drama to them. In order to have that drama, they need a story.
When putting together a dungeon, I try to make everything fit within a certain set of themes or motifs, sort of like a wedding planner, but with knives and poison gas traps rather than doilies and name cards. The worst thing to do in a dungeon is to just slap something in there for the hell of it. You aren’t making a video game level when designing a dungeon (and one of the reasons I generally dislike video game RPGs is because of the following); you are placing a ‘real’ structure inside the fabric of a ‘real’ world and it needs to mesh with and fit into that reality. If the dungeon is infested with hordes and hordes of giant rats, you need to ask yourself the question “why are there so many rats hanging around here, anyway?” This should be followed up by “what do the rats eat?” and “how did they get here in the first place?”
These questions may seem immaterial to you, but they really aren’t. In the first place, your players are probably going to ask such questions at some point, and having an answer is infinitely better than saying ‘they just *are*, okay?’ Furthermore, exploring the answers to these questions adds to the depth of the dungeon itself (and I mean depth in the dramatic sense, rather than the physical one) and can give you much more compelling and interesting things to have your players encounter and do when within them.
To state more directly what I’m getting at, we can probably agree generally that dungeons are made up of four elements: rooms, traps, monsters, and treasure. Let’s take a look at each one and discuss the storytelling potential inherent within them.
By ‘rooms’, I mean ‘the physical layout of the dungeon’. Is it underground? Underwater? At the top of a mountain? In the sewers of a major city? Is it an old castle? A new castle? A not-yet-finished castle? Whichever of these things you pick has a profound impact on what can reasonably be found within its confines. It is extremely unlikely, for instance, that you’ll find a dragon living in a city sewer or a tribe of cannibals living in a sky-castle. Why? Well, how did they get there? What will they eat while there? Can the dragon even manage to leave?
Furthermore, you won’t find a lot of secret passages made of stone inside a wooden tree fort, just like you probably won’t find a lot of death traps in places where lots of creatures actually live (seriously, why would you make a home in a place where poison darts are likely to shoot you at any time). The type of place and when it was built indicates the kind of technology that will go into the building. Ancient ruins won’t have the latest elevator systems (unless they’re one of those super-sophisticated lost civilizations), while it would seem odd for the evil vampire’s state-of-the-art floating fortress to not use any kind of waterwheels to run its internal systems.
Figuring out the physical design of the dungeon is the starting point for your story surrounding that same dungeon. Why was it built? How did it get here? Is it still fulfilling its original purpose? If not, why not? How has it been altered? Why? What effect has that had on its layout?
Traps should be based upon the nature of the layout and rooms, as described above. They also should be used sparingly (there are only so many traps players want to spend time evading, and they never really want to solve the same trap more than once) and should be bound by some reasonable laws of physics. If you’ve got dart guns, can they reload themselves? How? Can that be interfered with? How is a trap set off? Why was it put here? Remember: traps are dangerous things for more than just the players themselves and, in most cases, the people or things that designed this dungeon didn’t expect the players to infiltrate specifically (well, it’s possible, but unlikely). That means the builders had reason and rationales for putting in the traps they did. If this is a vault, they obviously would want a way to bypass the traps so they can access said vault. If this is a tomb, they aren’t going to build in a self-destruct device (the tomb is a holy place, after all). Nobody’s going to put a firebomb trap in their fancy wooden villa. Nobody’s going to shell out the money to put a shark pit in the middle of a desert pyramid without a very good reason.
Traps, also, should be used as dramatic elements in some way. They should complicate the plot by introducing tension or conflict either among the players themselves or between them and some enemy. If you don’t plan on using a trap this way and rather merely intend to make it a simple physical obstacle to roll dice at, then why include it at all? If you set up a land mine, the intention of that land mine is to injure or kill a member of the party (likely injure) so that the rest of the party will need to make a decision on how to deal with their injured friend (this kind of trap, incidentally, works best in systems where there are penalties to action for being injured).
To my mind, dungeons should usually either involve traps OR monsters, and seldom both. If it does involve both, the monsters should have some kind of reliable way of avoiding the traps because, as mentioned above, few creatures want to live in a place where they might die in a deadfall trap if they roll over while asleep and, furthermore, if they aren’t intelligent enough to care, most of them will probably be destroyed by traps before the PCs ever need to stick swords into them.
With the possible exception of the undead, golem, and other non-living constructs, keep in mind that monsters are alive. As such, they need food, water (probably), a place to sleep, and mostly won’t be content to remain trapped within this secret dungeon forever and ever. This means that either the design of the dungeon needs to be altered to accommodate the creature living there (dragons need a big door, for instance), or the creatures need to be designed to fit with the dungeon. Also, monsters should behave in keeping with their intelligence. The aforementioned giant rats, for instance, will likely be disinclined to fight with armored humans for long, if at all, and particularly not if they start waving around scary magicks. That doesn’t mean they can’t provide dramatic complications (a squealing rat stampede, for instance, could start a fire or wake up an actually nasty monster), but nobody is going to have their legs gnawed off by twenty pound rats.
Intelligent creatures, conversely, won’t be content to stay in their ‘room’ to wait for the enemy to come to them, necessarily. It’s their dungeon–they know their way around, probably. They’ll move. They’ll set ambushes. They’ll avoid trouble. The frost giant in his ice castle probably has a pen full of hungry polar bears he can release at intruders and he’s likely to go and release them, if he can, as soon as he hears humans trashing his foyer.
Finally, treasure should be comprised of those things that would actually be kept in the dungeon in question. In some cases (sewers, for instance) there will be precious little of value. Nobody foraging through a sewer should expect to find the crown jewels; if they do, there’s a story there. The GM should pursue it somehow.
Treasure is valuable, and most valuable things belong or belonged to someone. Someone fashioned it for a purpose, put it here for a reason, and so on. This is partially the reason why cursed items make no damned sense (why would you keep the sword that stabs *you* instead of the bad guys?) unless set up for a reason, often as a kind of trap (think the end of Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade).
There’s a lot of dramatic potential in treasure, and it shouldn’t be squandered.
Overall, there is enormous dramatic potential in dungeons, but it is too often not exploited because we GMs are too lazy to bother making something cool out of it. Give the place a story, set up plots related to the dungeon itself, create conflicts that reveal character rather than render it irrelevant. Mix the procedural with the dramatic.
There is a distinct and important difference between being afraid and being disgusted, and modern horror seems to forget
this all too often. Graphic scenes of torture or gore are not, by their nature, frightening so much as they are gross. If I decline to eat live cockroaches, it isn’t because I’m ‘afraid’, it’s because I imagine the experience will be unpalatable.
When I go to see a movie or watch a show that is intended to be frightening, there seems to be a 50/50 chance that their idea of horror is going to be pretty bloody and graphic, but the film won’t be frightening, really. Exciting perhaps, but not scary. Fright comes from a different place, at least for me. I don’t have nightmares about gore and violence. Hellraiser didn’t so much scare me as gross me out. I slept fine that night, though I can’t say I had a huge appetite for a rare steak afterwards.
Ah, who am I kidding? I always have an appetite for rare steak. Hell, I felt like meatloaf right after seeing Julie Taymor’s version of Titus Andronicus in the theaters. Mmmmm…bloody.
What scares me is the idea of helplessness. Alien scared the hell out of me, and you know why? Not because the critter burst from that dude’s chest, but because they were all stuck on a spaceship with a monster and there was no way out. It wasn’t as if there was no way out because they were idiots, either–the characters in that movie were operating at the top of their intelligence; the idiot ball was not in use. There was no way out because there was no way out.
That’s scary. The inexorable approach of doom is frightening. The unavoidable slip into madness is frightnening. Stephen King knows this better than anybody. Most of his truly terrifying works are based on that idea. In It, how can the kids possibly defeat Pennywise? In The Shining, Jack is terrifying primarily because his wife and kid are stuck with him while miles and miles from any kind of help. Misery works on the same concept, and on and on and on. It’s not the gore, folks, it’s the isolation, the removal of agency, the horror of helplessness.
If you want proof, try transposing. If Pennywise were to pick on Buffy the Vampire Slayer, how would it go? If a lone alien got loose on one ship among a fleet of ships, how hard would it be to solve the problem? If the crazy dad from The Shining chased his wife and kid into a crowded shopping mall, how dangerous would he really be?
A lot of horror movies like to cheat by creating artificial isolation by throwing around the idiot ball or breaking the rules
of reality just for the hell of it, but I’m not buying it. It’s all too easy sometimes to explain how to escape the dangers of a horror movie, and that’s a sign of a bad horror movie. House seems haunted, but you’re only visiting? Dude, just go home. Crazy killer in the woods? Drive away. Being chased by some slow-moving zombie monster? Just run away.
So, in conclusion: Freddy Kreuger was scary (you can’t get away), but Jason Vorhees isn’t as much (he can’t realistically ride the bus or catch a cab so, you know, just leave). Likewise, cutting off some guys nuts and tossing them in a blender isn’t scary. If he’s made to do it because he has a brain worm that he can’t get out, that is scary. It’s all about setting, it’s all about agency, it’s all about character.
It isn’t about the blood.
There is a picture floating around Facebook by
Timothy Schmidt (Alex Panagop–check him out here). It’s one of those ‘Inspiration’ poster spoofs, and this one is about Teddy Bears. Observe its awesomeness. If you can only read large type, the caption says “Protecting Innocent
children from monsters-under-the-bed since 1902.” The picture, of course, speaks for itself.
As a very imaginative little boy, I was very serious about my stuffed animal guardians. I had a stuffed elephant, a teddy bear, a pair of dogs, and a stuffed duck. Their job was to protect me from monsters. I realize this all sounds very girlish, but my stuffed animals had ranks, a chain of command, and particular missions. The elephant was heavy artillery, the rabbit and dogs were reconnaissance, the ducks were air support, and the bear was the frontline trooper. They would combat and, presumably, defeat any evil creatures that laid siege to my bed each night while I was asleep. I presume they were always victorious because I never was actually consumed by any monsters.
The monsters I imagined as a child came in all the various shapes and sizes of a small child’s hell. They were insectoid daemons, psychotic undead killers, giant poisonous spiders and crabs, and a man-eating giant named Big Belly Ben whose particularly frightening illustration in a book of children’s nursery rhymes haunted me for much of my young life. The original rhyme went like this:
ROBIN the Bobbin, the big-bellied Ben,
He eat more meat than fourscore men;
He eat a cow, he eat a calf,
He eat a hog and a half;
He eat a church, he eat a steeple,
He eat the priest and all the people!
A cow and a calf,
An ox and a half,
A church and a steeple,
And all the good people,
And yet he complain’d that his stomach wasn’t full.
The picture featured a giant kneeling over a church in a medieval European city and prying off the roof with one hand while he stuffed wriggling people in his mouth with the other. I’d have nightmares about Big Bellied Ben stooping over my own house, peering in the windows with his big eye trying to see me and, if he did, he’d rip off the wall and pull me out. I’d struggle to hide in the closet, but I never could get the door open. It was stuck, or my socks kept slipping on the floor, or I was in a whole different room in the house and had to run up the stairs, dodging the windows, as Ben’s greusome laughter shook the walls.
Can you understand why I had a team of stuffed commandos by my bedside each night?
With the exception of Ben, the monsters that infested the nooks and crannies of my house had certain limitations I was quick to capitalize upon. Firstly, they abhorred light. Turning on the lights in any room before entering would be sure to drive them away. Secondly, they were slow, so if I ran through a dark room (or outside at night, or through the basement) I’d be unlikely to be grabbed. Finally, they hid between the cracks in the floorboards or in the cement floor or the brick walkways. If I just didn’t step on any cracks, I wouldn’t get nabbed or, at the least, I’d buy myself some time. I can’t quite express how *real* these things were to me, either, and they were that way for a long time. Longer, probably, than most of my friends my age.
Gradually, the intricacy of the forces fighting against the monsters grew to a point where it had its own factions and rivalries. The bear, for instance, defected to my brother and, while my brother’s stuffed animals were allies in the anti-monster quest, intra-bedroom warfare developed from time to time. Furthermore, my sister (who seemed to have nothing but stuffed rabbits and dolls) had her own little society of critters, but they ‘didn’t believe in monsters’ and occupied the same role in my little drama as Rohan did in the Lord of the Rings–sitting on their butts, not getting involved, all because their ruler (my sister) was having poisonous lies poured in her ear by a traitor in the midst of her rabbit population. My brother and I would occasionally stage crusades against the heathen bunny creatures and take captives. My sister would complain to my mother, though, so such invasions were short-lived.
All of my toys eventually got in on the act. GI Joes eventually formed the backbone of my monster-fighting force, along with an assortment of He-Man action figures, Star Wars guys, and even Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (though my belief in the forces of darkness living within my house was waning significantly by then). I can only presume that this arms race was due to darker and even more sinister monsters being sent against my bedroom fortress each evening, but I don’t know for sure.
I was asleep the whole time.
Eventually, all of this led me to write science fiction and fantasy. I learned to build worlds and to populate them with characters before I could even read, and I’ve been doing it in one form or another ever since.