The Gassy Gnoll: Got Monsters?

Monster. Such an overused word. How do you define one? Merriam-Webster says a monster is:

  • An animal or plant of abnormal form or structure or one who deviates from normal or acceptable behavior or character.
  • A threatening force.
  • An animal of strange or terrifying shape or unusually large for its kind.
  • Something “monstrous” such as a person of unnatural or extreme ugliness, deformity, wickedness, or cruelty.

Wow. That covers a lot of ground. I’m waiting for the ACLU to get involved in monster cases. Maybe they already have.

Personally, I’m not sure that what is monstrous can always be seen outwardly. Sometimes a being can change shape (lycanthropy) to show or hide their true form. Occasionally you can catch glimpses of an inner monstrous landscape through a being’s behavior or movements, like a “tell” in poker or righteous anger boiling close to the surface, barely restrained in a public setting. But more often than not, the monster is buried within.

Ultimately I believe that every living thing – whether the meekest mouse or the largest person, plant, or thing – has the potential for a monster inside. It’s the horror of discovering the next door neighbor you’ve chatted with over the hedge for years has been murdering victims in the garage and eating human flesh on his fine china. It’s the terror of knowing the little dog up the street has killed numerous neighborhood cats but nobody has caught it in the act. It’s not knowing if a child is going to one day push a family member down the stairs just to see what happens…

In RPGs we fight obvious monstrous beings, whether natural or unnatural, but I was reminded recently that it’s the characters – PCs and NPCs – that are sometimes worse than the most grotesque creature you’ll have to find. One man or woman willing to do whatever it takes to get what they want. One person with a penchant for making others suffer. One individual who uses the pretense of civility to hide in plain sight and yet like a feral animal is willing to break your bones and suck the marrow just to hear you scream.

So I’m sure your dungeons and dark places are well-stocked with the usual ne’er do-wells. And I’m happy to slay evildoers
in all forms. But remember that sometimes the scariest monsters are the ones willing to chat with you face to face before they destroy your lives. Let’s see a few more of *that* kind of monster… What do you say?

Along those lines, sometimes it’s fun to toss the whole “good” and “evil” thing out the window. Nobody is born with a white hat or a black one. That may be the mask they wear, but it doesn’t define them. Add to that the fact that [gasp] people can change (I know that’s shocking.) and you end up with many broad streaks of gray… Not good, not evil, but somewhere in the realm between.

Even if you look at true monsters, they may not be evil. Selfish. Protective. Fickle. Hungry. Why are they attacking people? What’s the motivation behind the act? Is it just that the local village have hunted their way through the forest a group of critters happen to call home and the only animals they can find to eat happen to be pets, livestock, and people who get too close to their lair? Or do those same critters want to take revenge on the village for killing one of their kind for straying too close to “civilization”?

Not every monster has to have their heart set on world domination, but I think having one or two “monsters” the players can love to hate goes a long way towards making the world come to life.

Hope everybody has a happy and safe Halloween!

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