Saturday, April 14, 2012


Dungeon Crawl Classics has got me thinking about monsters lately. Like the Random Esoteric Creature Generator, the maxim of DCC is that no encounter with an enemy should be the same. Monsters are aliens, outsiders, and the demons of folk lore. They do not play by the rules of nature that bind men and earthly creatures, nor do they come in the familiar forms and images that mortals are accustomed to witnessing. There is a revulsion and fear of the monstrous that goes beyond pointy teeth and sharp claws to something deeper—something automatically rejected by the human psyche.

J. E. Holmes' version of Basic Dungeons & Dragons came the closest to representing this in play. That humble booklet had a dizzying four score monsters, only the first third of which would even make for a fair fight against beginning characters. As has been discussed elsewhere, the peculiarities of the Holmes edition imply an entirely different style of play than later versions of the game, where heroes approach the unknown with far more caution than bravado.

The Dungeon Crawl Classics book calls to the reader from the same mythos, and provides potent support for making an encounter with the monstrous truly weird (including custom charts and tables for humanoids and undead, and random generators for dragons and demons). Lately, however, I have been thinking, "why not go one step further?" What if one were to drop humanoids entirely? What would a world look like, if the only enemies were humans, the undead or the truly hideous and solitary things dreamt up by the Random Esoteric Creature Generator. Heroes would no longer be paired up against equal numbers of opponents, as if combat were merely sport, but would be truly afraid at the discovery of a new fiendish, unknown and threatening being. I want to be there at the table when a new player asks, "Why is this forest crossed off on the map?", only to receive the answer, "The eyeball beast is there. We don't go there anymore."

This attitude towards play is nicely reinforced by DCC's experience point system as well. Interestingly, monsters are not given any challenge rating or experience point total. In fact, there is absolutely no way for a novice judge to estimate the danger a monster poses to the party ahead of actually throwing it at the players. Experience reward is only determined retroactively (one, two, or up to four points), according to how much the players struggled with the encounter. While narrow-minded referees may balk at this innovation, it is actually an incredibly elegant system which breaks the bad habit of thinking of monsters as having some intrinsic point value. The result is far less bookkeeping, more accurate rewards and monsters that are free to be, well, monstrous. After all, if all encounters are scaled to player power and monsters are not allowed to run amok and put the party to flight fully half the time, the literary concept of monster sort of loses its purchase and the game descends into boredom. Humanoids are just one branch of this problem, as they tend to be narratively predictable and mechanically equivalent to the player characters. A world without them is a world of the unknown, something that players can truly be afraid of.

Appendix M: Extra Monsters
Ghost — Nine foot tall, bipedal outsider. Seen indistinctly from the corner of the eye, and invisible, immobile and incorporeal if looked at directly. The Ghost appears to not have a side or back, but is always facing its prey. A silicon based entity, coated with long, dark brown quills. Believed to have only two arms, each ending in 13 to 17 claws. Complexion is a shadowy void marked by two sparkling ochre eyes. Special powers: Transfixing gaze (only when seen in from a reflecting surface), perfect silence, regeneration (with consumption of bloody flesh).

Small, young dragon (13 years). HD 5 (10 HP), Spd 40', poison breath (Fort vs 15, save or die, 1/day), AC 16, 2d20+8 (claw/bite). Ventriloquism (cast at 1d20+2), Hypnotic stare (Will vs 15), Clear passage through vegetation, copper-coloured, chaotic. (Randomly generated from the Dungeon Crawl Classics Roleplaying Game.)

1 comment:

  1. I really enjoyed this post, and even the link from it (encounters as sport or encounters as war). Every paragraph had me mentally engaged and nodding like a drinking bird in the affirmative. Great job!




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