Thursday, May 6, 2010

Storyteller: Creating a Monster Manual

In role playing games, if you’re not a monster, then you’re fighting monsters. Lots of monsters, in fact, because slaying bad guys is a player’s main source of gaining experience and progressing through the game. In my house, not only do we have Monster Manuals for Dungeons & Dragons, we have multiple ones. Monster variety is the spice of life. Also, for the record, even things that aren’t monsters can be found in a Monster Manual, such as angels and unicorns (unless, of course, they’re chainsaw unicorns, then they definitely belong in a MM). For this article I’m going with defining monster as any non-human being/creature/entity, whether it’s good, evil, neutral or any combination thereof.

The most important thing I’ve learned from these books is that monsters should have strengths and weaknesses. I’m going to go through several different types of monsters, but a well known example of this is the vampire (my favorite). Traditional vampires have, as a gamer might say, “kewl powerz.” They can fly, they can transform into bats, they can control the minds of minions (like Renfield), and they get all the cute girls. But they have to sleep in coffins, have no reflection, and sunlight makes them go up in smoke. Variations on this list of strengths/weaknesses can be found in just about every creature in every game, and not only does it create balance but it also creates variety. As a writer, your monsters should be distinctive to your setting—beautiful, unique snowflakes.

So let’s get started!

Undead: First, let me say that I own a lot of vampire romance. Shelves and shelves of it, and I bring more home with each trip to the bookstore, so if you’re afraid that vampire romance is dead (…snerk), I say if the story is strong, go with it. Now that that’s out of the way, there are many monsters that fall into the undead category: vampires, zombies, ghosts, ghouls, skeletons, etc. There are a few universal problems with dealing with undead, the most popular (and annoying if you’re not carrying an arsenal) is that because they’re dead, they don’t bleed, so stabbing/slashing weapons are right out, as are most guns (“Don’t shoot him, you’ll just make him mad.”). It’s worse when fighting ghosts, like banshees, because they’re incorporeal and a character needs a blessed or enchanted weapon or a spell to hit them. As for deciding strengths and weaknesses, it depends on how your undead are created. Traditionally undead are vulnerable to sunlight because undead are considered evil, and sunlight is seen as a holy, purifying, life-giving force. But what if your undead are created through biological means—a virus instead of a curse? Is there a cure or vaccine? What if they’re not evil? Maybe they’ve just gotten a bad reputation, and crosses and holy water don’t do a thing to them. Once you’ve decided how they’re made, you can decide how to kill them.

Shapeshifters: Werewolves are a close second to vampires in the paranormal market; I don’t know the stats, so it’s possible that they’ve even overtaken them by now. And it’s not just werewolves anymore, oh no. Werelions, weretigers, werebears, oh my! A whole furry/feathered/scaly rainbow. Whatever form they take, the biggest problem faced by shifters is to shift or not to shift. Old school werewolves were forced to change during the full moon, and in some myths they were actual wolves and in others half-wolf/half-man hybrids. In World of Warcraft there’s a town where the inhabitants are human by day and werewolves by night, and since time in WoW runs the same as realtime, you have to wait for actual nightfall to go whack those werewolves. It’s something to ponder when creating your shifters, because forcing them to change can be a fun way to torment them at inopportune times, especially if they might eat their friends and family while they’re shifted. But it’s also a fairly standard plot device, and if you’re heartset on being different, then you’ll need to come up with a new system, and again, how your shifters are created can determine those sort of details. Shifters affected by a magical curse will not have the same experience as those infected with a virus. The former might have a magical cure, while the latter needs a shot of penicillin.

Demons: I tried to play Diablo. I really did. But I kept getting killed by the Butcher on the first level of the dungeon, and after death 18 I decided the game wasn’t fun and said to hell with it, so I feel my opinion of demons has been tainted ever since. The only positive demon experience I’ve had while gaming was in WoW, where I have a warlock who commands demon pets to slay things for her while she stands around and looks fabulous in her pretty robes. What I’ve learned from her is that every demon is different, like an evil rainbow of diversity. They come in every shape, size, and flavor of attitude (“Can’t you fight your own battles?”). There are very few reader/player expectations of demons, other than the expectation that even if they look normal on the outside, their true form should be ugly, with fangs, horns, or other pointy accessories. This allows for epic author creativity. You want demons who are pink, feathered, and eat only Taco Bell? Go for it! Recently I’ve been reading the Demonica series by Larissa Ione and her demon worldbuilding is amazing. It’s also very complex, which I take as a good example of if you’re going to build an intricate world then you as an author need to take equally intricate notes, if only for your own reference. She includes a glossary in the books to help the readers keep track of what’s what, and I imagine her own personal notes must be ginormous. I have a glossary that grows larger with each new book (my editor has the second book now, by the way, so fingers crossed). Side note: Angels would probably fall into this discussion as being the anti-demon or as related to settings where demons are fallen angels, but they’re not in my area of expertise. They don’t come up often in the games I play (except for Heroes of Might and Magic 3, which had angles and archangels that kicked all available ass), and they don’t come up in my writing or the books I read. But you’re welcome to discuss them in the comments if you’re so inclined.

Fae: Fairies, pixies, elves, the fair folk, leprechauns, unicorns, and pretty much anything that is magical, pretty and/or mischievous falls into my fae category. Which sounds like “aww, look, it’s covered in glitter, isn’t it adorable?” but in many RPGs these things will wtfpwn you if you try to attack them. (Translation—You: “I’m going to attack the unicorn.” Your DM: “The unicorn does one million damage to you. Go make a new character.”) I like to think of this as Revenge of the Fae, and this is my challenge to you writers out there: Make your fae fight back. I’m tired of settings where the elves are made of sadness because the humans are taking their land, and they’re just fading away into extinction. Give your elves machine guns, and make them go Braveheart on those human jerks. (Picture Legolas with a claymore, yelling “Freeeeeedoommmmmm!” or Galadriel with a bandolier of shotgun shells, mowing down the world of men. Awesome, right? Right!) Fae are a perfect opportunity for you to take everything the reader thought he or she knew about fantasy and turn it completely on its ear.

Dragons: Why aren’t dragons in the fae or shapeshifter category? Because lately they’ve become their own thing in paranormal (the new Katie MacAlister is out this week people, I’m just sayin’). Plus, in RPGs, dragons are a Very Big Deal. They’re the second half of Dungeons and Dragons, the granddaddy of all RPGs, and if you’ve fought one you know what an epic pain in the butt it can be, and here’s why: Unless you’ve fought a dragon in an RPG, you might not realize just how many ways a dragon can kill your characters. Dragons have claws, they bite, they can knock you over with their wings or even just by the wind they generate, and then there is the all important breath weapon. Because dragons breathe fire, right? Oh, if only it was just fire. Acid, poison clouds, frost rays…one D&D dragon hocked up something that looked rather like a giant Halls cough drop. Dragons have a bucket of health and thick hides, and your character is soft and squishy and takes like ketchup. So should your characters decide to slay a dragon, that battle needs to be epic. Like maybe anvils should rain from the sky to help kill it…okay maybe not anvils. Meteorites. Of course, the trend is for your character to be dragons, and not slay dragons, and that entails a different set of problems, unless adventurers are constantly showing up and his or her apartment with torches and pitchforks. Dragons that spend time in human form start sliding into the shapeshifter category, so everything discussed in the section above would apply.

Talking Animals: Perhaps a squirrel with a flute? (“Monster! Very small monster!”)(It’s an Eddie Izzard reference, I couldn’t resist.) I have to say, one of the funniest characters I encountered in D&D was Scoot, the avatar of squirrelkind. In D&D druids (and I think rangers too) can have animals as pets, and our party had Scoot, the talking squirrel. We gave him a +1 arrow, and he used it as a magic spear. He begged our sorcerer to polymorph him into a dragon, which he did—an itty bitty fairy dragon, with butterfly wings. Scoot was very displeased. If you’re looking for comic relief for your adventure, you can’t go wrong with a wisecracking critter sidekick. Even if the animal doesn’t talk, it can still lighten a dark scene and show a different side of your hero/heroine. In the fantasy series I’ve been working on the heroine has a wolfhound, Grace, who endears herself to everyone, even the angsty wizards. Some of my favorite scenes involve Grace. What would Dorothy be without Toto? The Wicked Witch of the West without her flying monkeys? Han Solo without Chewbacca? (Yes, I know Chewie isn’t a critter, but if memory serves me right Lucas based him on the family dog.)

Mechanicals: So there we were, fighting this clockwork golem, a big, clunky tower of metal intent on pummeling us into adventurer pancakes. Problem was, you could only damage the thing with a magic weapon—which we didn’t have. But we had a magic shield, and like any armored vehicle the thing was slow, so our party tossed the shield from person to person like we were playing monkey-in-the-middle, and whapped the golem to death. It was one of the longest battles I’ve ever been in, but it’s a fine example of just how hard it is to kill a mechanical creature. Steampunk is, arguably, the Next Big Thing at the moment, and that opens up an opportunity to use plenty of mechanical creatures in your paranormal setting. Creatures that run on gears, steam, and whimsical science. You can probably take any standard fantasy monster and clockwork it out, like the golem that wouldn’t die, so have at it.

I was going to discuss elementals as well, but after pondering them for a bit I realized I didn’t have much to say about them aside that they also make good magical sidekicks. But, again, you’re welcome to discuss them in the comments. Speaking of comments, we’ve come to the participation portion of the post: What is your favorite monster, and why? Are there any monsters you’d like to see more of? Or any I didn’t discuss that you think deserve some love?

Next week I’ll be ending the world-building section by discussing maps, and the post will be featured at the blog of the Fantasy, Futuristic and Paranormal chapter of RWA.


Beth Caudill said...

Favorite monster is either werewolves or dragons. I have stories for both. But I also play with witches, elves, sprites, etc.

I'm all for the more things I can play with the better.

Although I will say I don't particularly like vampires or angels. But demons are good as evil minions.

I'll read just about anything as long as it is interesting.

Diana said...

I don't really have a favorite, but I've been working with elementals most recently. Yes, they're mostly sidekicks, but they're fun sidekicks.

Using older conceptions of monsters can be rather entertaining, too. Just because the current conception of a unicorn tends towards Lisa Frank, that doesn't mean you have to go in that direction.