This post is thanks in large part to episode 279 of the Futility Closet podcast, which provided me with the story I used to get this damnable thing finally off the ground.
The Champawat Tiger killed, as far as anyone was able to record, 436 human beings in her lifetime. Mostly they were women and children, gone out into the forest to collect firewood or livestock fodder. She killed strategically, never hitting the same location twice and constantly staying on the move.
By any stretch of the imagination that is more than enough to call her a monster. It's a perfectly fair assessment, and the leap of faith to ascribe it supernatural power would be quite small, given the circumstances. It's as close to a true monster as you're liable to get.
When the tiger finally died at the hands of Jim Corbett, the body revealed a different story: The two canine teeth on the right side of her jaw had been broken by a hunter's bullet some 8 years before.
The Champawat Tiger was starving.
The damage to her teeth meant that she was unable to hunt her normal prey, and given the long-term pressure of habitat loss she would have been hard-up to find sufficient food in the first place. The killings were acts of desperation, brought upon by circumstances that made life as a normal tiger impossible. Perhaps it's still right to call her a monster, but she was not a monster because she was born with some innate malice - she was only a very large cat getting on in years, desperate for food.
Jim Corbett was called upon to hunt down another fifty maneaters over the course of the next 35 years. Together, those tigers had killed over 2000 people, for much the same reasons as the Champawat Tiger - injury, desperation, starvation, and habitat loss.
Would you look at that.
The root cause was British colonialism.
436 people dead because some dumb shit went trophy hunting, because he just had to prove how big and strong his penis was to all his dumb shit friends.
[Breathe, Dan, breathe.]
Monsters have a cause.
That is the lesson of the Champawat Tiger.
Monsters are made to be so.
Dungeons and Dragons, particularly but not exclusively fifth edition, is completely unequipped to handle a worldview where monsters have causes. At best, it lacks the tools for referees to build such a scenario, as well as the encouragement to do so. At its default, it is openly dismissive by way of its long and storied litanies of evil-by-nature creatures and experience by combat - the reduction of the entire natural world into that which might be killed for a profit, and that which is not worth one's notice.
Precisely the conditions, I note with no lack of cackling at the absurd, tragic irony of it all, that created the Champawat Tiger in the first place.
So fuck it. Tear it up by the roots. Do not attempt to fix the rotting house, pull it down and rebuild.
Take your favorite bestiary, select a creature, and ask yourself the following question:
A monster, mind you, not simply a threat. An animal protecting its offspring or threatened or cornered is a danger, but not a monster.
"What would cause this to become a monster?"
If you can answer that question, you have an entire scenario laid out. The monster is afoot, that is the immediate threat, but the monster is the symptom, not the cause. If you kill the Champawat Tiger, there will be fifty more, because the conditions that created one will create others. Violence is not a solution, it is a stopgap measure.
The root cause that has created the monster is the real challenge to overcome, and it is likely to be much more complex and rooted in past events than not. Sometimes, there's likely to be no solution, or at least no solution that the players can enact. The damage might have already been done, and you're just trying to plug the holes in the hull.
If you can't answer that question, that's okay. There are many more ways to interact with the world than by the sword and spellbook. By and large, the majority of entires in a typical RPG bestiary have little reason to engage in violence under normal circumstances, and monstrousness requires extraordinary ones.
Even for those entries where you can build a scenario that turned the creature into a monster, the majority of encounters will not be of that nature - the Champawat Tiger was one of 100,000 when she died.
All this will inform the setting at its core - what forces are disrupting the world?
III.There is a pesky thorn-addendum embedded in the side of my argument here: those monsters that are defined by their nature as the unknown, severed from any connections we can see or understand.
Well, it's only partially pesky - this is the part where I am going to jump on my soapbox and sing the praises of paracausality as the approrpiate term for the supernatural.
Technically, a paracausal entity can't be a monster - as monsters are made and something severed from the webs of cause and effect has no maker - though in practical terms folks are still going to call it a monster, so this section is actually useless.
Enough prattle, it is time for some examples:
- A river spirit has been attacking and killing villagers who come to the river to bathe or do washing. The root cause is that the river is being polluted due to choices made by the district government.
- Bands of orcs are raiding borderland settlements. The root cause is the famine that has crippled, if not outright collapsed their society, made worse by long animostiy with their neighbors and a steep cultural and language divide.
- Fascist bootlickers are kicking down your neighbor's door. The root cause is a horrific mess of systemic racism, the bedding of church and state, economic downturn, and decades-long memetic warfare against populations vunerable to such ideals.
- Undead stalk the roads at night, breaking into houses and devouring the people inside. The root cause is the desecration of graves by an invading nation.
- A demon haunts this house, harming the bodies and minds of those who enter. The root cause is the traumatic event delivered upon one inhabitant of the house by another, long ago in the past
For now, I end on this.
A monster is a symptom that somewhere, somehow, the world has gotten fucked up.