Tuesday 12 February 2013

Why Monsters

I have been making monsters for so long that many of you may have forgotten why I am making them. Perhaps I have as well. I shall speak until I have reminded both of us what I am doing and why.

This is long And rambles, and is long.

I am making a book called 'Veins of the Earth' which is meant to be like Vornheim but for the Underdark.

It is taking a LOT longer than I thought. My capacity for work and amount of self-will is lower than I thought. It takes me longer that I hoped to come up with good, or at least semi-original ideas.

My principals for this blog are generally about when not to blog something.

If someone has already done it. Don't blog.
If its about RPG's and it's not adding something to what is already there. Don't blog.
If its an opinion. Probably don't blog.
If its an opinion about someone else's opinion. DON'T BLOG.
Arguments are for understanding things.
Don't get involved in an argument unless you 1. are sure you know a lot about it and can add something useful. 2. Are prepared to have your mind changed. And 3. Are prepared to muster your energies and persist in the narrow gap between almost-aggressive hyper-certainty and flaccid abandonment.
This means I rarely argue on the internet.

One of the good, and shit, things about the internet is that it is full of interesting and intelligent people who have probably had most of your good idea's before you have. The number of times I have had a powerful but half-formed idea about something and then seen someone else make a well constructed blog-post about it that makes the same point better than I would have made it, (like here) is beyond count. The number of times I have had an interesting counter-argument to something and then seen someone else make the same argument, better, and faster, is also large.

So what does this have to do with monsters?

Nothing so far, why am I writing it? I will go on.

The Encounter Table

The central table is meant to be an equivalent to the big city encounter table in Vornheim. The most necessary part of the book. The part that if you were editing the whole thing and doing sophie's choice with every page and you cut everything away until there was only one thing left, then this would be that thing.

The brief plan was this. Three columns, fifty rows.

Column one is topographic cave types. In Vornheim each of the encounters is carefully made. They are almost like mini-plot hooks. In a city you can (usually) go around anything you don't want to meet, so city encounters can't just be a dangerous thing in the road, they need hooks. The Vornheim encounters 'stick' onto the PC's like velcro. If they engage, fine. If they don't, there are usually consequences to not engaging. The plot will come looking for you. In some the history of the game reforms so you are already involved. That's 'your' friend in the cage, or 'your' stuff the thieves stole.

But in caves this is quite different. As opposed to freedom of movement they are defined by dramatic loss of that freedom. In real caving almost all of the effort is moving places the geography doesn't want you to go. The deepest cave expeditions are generational. You cannot explore them in one lifetime. If I made a cave adventure book like this it would be sort-of-interesting an a very particular way and not at all what I wanted.

So column one is to present the kind of movement-challenges that might be encountered in caves but in a toy-box way. That is, in a real cave journey it is much more likely that the route you are following will end at a blank impassible wall. Only very occasionally will you actually get somewhere. In the book, it's meant to be the other way round. Each challenge is designed to restrict or shape the movements of the group in some way. Its also assumed that they can overcome this challenge. (Though it makes no assumption as to how) It is not a true random geography generator in which sometimes you are just fucked.

So Column one is cave types. This will be the next thing I am doing on the blog. You can expect things to be a lot less interesting around here as describing topographical challenges in clear, short, game-applicable English is much less charismatic than crazy monsters.

Column two is beauty, poetry and strangeness. Reading a lot of books about cave exploration it seemed evident to me that one of the most powerful things drawing explorers was a kind of formless wonder that no-one involved ever clearly describes. But it fills them up and animated them. (There is a part in Ten Years Under The Earth where Nobert Casternet comes to the edge of a waterfall no-one has seen before. He stares into the darkness and cannot reall for how long, or in Fortnoys hisotry of the earth where, descending the grand canyon he sees that a yellow sandstone strata has billows of dunes and the footprints of ancient insects written in the rock) Like sex in Dracula (the book) it's everywhere but no-one talks about it. It was important to me that underground spaces be beautiful in unexpected and powerful ways. This imaginative energy also helps an old-school dm as it provides the unrefined fuel for improvisation.

Column three is the living things you encounter when you are in the cave with your movement restricted, hopefully being deranged by the alien beauty.

My intention was originally that you could open the book to this page and roll and encounter and just start a game straight away, filling in the rest of the information you need with the rest of the book as it came up.

I have failed in this intention.

The thing with Vornheim is that if you open to the encounter table and roll an encounter, you don't have to tit around with the rest of the book very much to work out what happens. Its all right there on the page.

But my encounter table won't be like that. Because I was obsessed with creating new monsters. Ones no-one had done before, I had to describe them, to myself mainly, so I understood them. People seemed to like that and I got a bit carried away. Also, if you are making a new thing it takes a lot of words to cart the fragile new ideas into someone else's head. Description.

So you won't be able to read my encounter table and use it straight away because each of the living things described in it is somewhat unlike any other monster you know of. That means you either need to pause to look it up, or pre-read the book. So I have kind-of fucked myself. I can live with it as the new monsters are generally interesting enough to me to justify the failure.

So how did I do? And what must I do?

By my own standards.

If I have failed the test of brevity, I think I have generally passed the test of originality.

A good monster has this-

It is an unexpected and powerful idea which can be communicated in a few words. Geltatinous Cube is the perfect example of this. Describes in two words. Impossible to forget once you have heard it. Name forms a poetic paradox in your head that locks it in place. Geltinous. Cube.

How many of these ideas have this? Some. I think. Many do not.

Another problem with originality is that the intention is not to describe things directly but to put them inside the head of the DM who will then describe them to other people. You are not making a normal form of art, you are making a virus. It is not to be looked at, it is to infect people, go inside them and then they do actions round a game table with other people. These actions cannot be predicted but they are the real monster, not the description in the book.

This happens in three stages.

Firstly you fill the head of the DM with imaginative energy. This makes them want to run the monsters and to be in that world.

Secondly, you give them simple direct things the monsters can actually do when they interact with the players, this means when the DM is frantic, distracted and dealing with a lot of shit they have a simple behavioural/aesthetic 'handle' on the beast so they can have it do things in the game straight away. (You could write for careful DM's who account for everything in advance and o not franticly need stuff during the game but that's not the kind of person I am so not really who I am imagining. It suggests the DM was in too much control of events, that what they expected to happen is what actually did happen, which is a kind of silent failure)

Thirdly, these interactions are carefully modulated and planned ahead so they don't fuck each other up and send the game spinning.

Obviously the third concern is almost irrelevant for Old school DM's, it's a kind of 4th Ed worry (which they dealt with quite well). But most of my creations need work on one or both of the first and second things. Eventually the third column should have a name, a brief sensory description to tell the DM how the PC's sense and encounter the living thing it describes, and a brief behavioural note so they know what it is likely to do in the first seconds. Check the beastiary for full description.

So. Some are underwritten, but the idea is there. Will have to go back and punch them up a bit later.

Many are vaguely powerful ideas but with little to connect them to the playing experience. Or are overwritten.


Zack Smith asked if I was doing dungeons for any of these. I intend to. The idea is a kind of one-page dungeon equivalent for each of the intelligent races. They are going to be based on a kind of underground silk-road (so the players have a good economic reason to go long distances) Each dungeon would actually be a kind of trading post/dungeon/mystery/fight. Like an American TV show where every week holy shit a new mystery to solve oh crap the rocks are alive oh god a a bear crushed chad to death after it set him on fire run oh shit but they left diamonds in this obsidian crypt sweet. And DM's can string them together as they wish.

Magic items and trade goods with Archean and deep-earth silicon chemistry will be really hard. I may need to get a new stack of books just for that.


Humanoid things you can have a conversation with – Seven?
Fungal or symbiotically fungal – Five.
Small things but big – Ten.
Predators from outside space and time – Three.
Ancient culture gone horribly wrong – Eight.
Made from rock (sort of) – Seven.
Draws creative energy from the depth of geological time – eight.

Lessons learnt.

I peaked around Christmas with the AntiPhoenix and the Archeans. Maybe it was the solitude and the time off work that did it.

If you write an entry in poetry it will be massively unpopular and actually reduce hits around it like a crack house bringing down prices. I REGRET NOTHING.

Naming things after German forms of light makes them hard to invent and paradoxically unpopular.

Gerard Manley Hopkins is an excellent poet. For some reason I like the religious parts at the end less than the rest, this seems somehow unfair to Hopkins. Like I'm robbing him.

It's hard to concentrate on one thing for an hour.

I need to manage my time better.

I need more focus and self-control.

It takes a LOT of books to fuel a good idea.

(maybe I like reading too much and have let it become a form of prevarication)

If you want cave explorations that read like thrillers or military expeditions, go to the Americans, if you want poetry and wonder you need the Europeans.

Duregar should be like evil Swiss. Are they neutral evil? Lawful?


  1. For the third column could you have two monsters listed--a standard monster and a new Patrick monster. That way if someone had read and remembered the Patrick monster they could use that and, if not, they could use the standard monster.

    a lot of Vornheim is conceived that way: here's how it is in Vornheim (proves that is it can work and be cool plus provides new content) but here's how it could work everywhere else (keep it broadly useful)

  2. A thought would be to model the encounters on biological niches so you'd get spmething like "pack predators lay in wait among a forest of dusty flowstone pillar" or "a large preybeast rests in a shallow luminous pool recovering from a recent fight over mating right - it is angry." Then stick tables for each class of monster in there - one for yours and one for the vanillas. You get more variation "what's happening here" as well as limit the monster 'problem'

    1. The problem I found in Vornheim with using too many niche descriptors ("preybeast""pack predators") is that they kinda work agains the point of the table in the first place: instant results that don't send the GM packing back to the same pouch of repeated "Go-to" ideas but are still FAST.

      "Cancer bear (Patrick), crocodile, or other lone predator"

    2. I would probably try and keep as few layers of thought between reading the table and using the contents so any further classification after the inital description would mean more things to look up and more brain revolutions to use it.

  3. Patrick, this is a wonderful idea. It's the most interesting thing to come out of the OSR for a long time and especially in these diminished latter days when the creative momentum seems to have stalled. To me, at the moment, it's you and scrap for evocative ideas that make me want to play.

    I agree with the idea that having a range of encounters incuding the vanilla-style encounters might be expedient but I think part of the beauty of your own approach is that the things you describe are so weird and unlike the hackneyed orthodox suite of underdark cliches it's possible that encountering drow could break the spell. The descriptions of underdark creatures and scenerios as barely whispered rumours in the early 1E books was so deliciously evocative (especially to my young and impressionable self)that the current crop of Derro Scourgewreakers etc. are unrecognisable and spark nothing in my imagination, seeming like plastic action-figure concepts from a sequal of a sequel of a franchise based on something that was at some point in the unrecognisably distant past a moving piece of art. Novelt ideas, poetically executed, have such power to achieve that sense of fantastic dread, especially to hyper-cynical genre-fiends. There is not much more that can be done with pseudo-Lovecraftian or Pseudo-Tolkienesque stuff other than to evoke notalgia for the memory of a memory of fantastic dread. But, to me at least, your alien visceral-elemental-conceptual things capture some kind of sense of something wonderful and unknown and new. Which from your description seems to be what you are trying to achieve.

    Please make this book, I'll buy three :)

  4. "Eventually the third column should have a name, a brief sensory description to tell the DM how the PC's sense and encounter the living thing it describes, and a brief behavioural note so they know what it is likely to do in the first seconds"

    This reminds me of something Zak mentioned recently somewhere about how boxed text sucks the life out of the flow of the game. The which got me thinking about what the alternative is. Could you give an example of how you would distil down those deliriously Weird poetic passages to a few words, concepts and phrases that can be seamlessly woven into the flow of the GM's narrative? Is the conceptual weirdness going to be realised from the results of the party's interaction with the entity? Are they even going to know what they encountered and does that even matter?

    1. Thanks Tom. I am thinking about the third column now. will get back to people, at some point...

  5. For what it's worth, I find your more poetic entries too laborious to read when I'm in my usual frenetic, "grocery shopping" mode of web-browsing -- I'm seeking clear narrative and easy evaluation of utility. When I come back to them in a more peaceful and receptive state I find them quite evocative and inspiring.