Saturday, August 22, 2020

D&D Doesn't Understand What Monsters Are


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.

I.


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.

II.


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:

"What would cause this to become a monster?"
A monster, mind you, not simply a threat. An animal protecting its offspring or threatened or cornered is a danger, but not 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.

IV.


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
I've praised Yokai Hunter's Society in the past for forming its entire loop around this scaffold. I will repeat myself here in praise of it. Paired with this, Arnold K. made a post about ghosts some months ago, and it kinda slipped under the radar. I think it's probably one of the best bits of game design to appear on the scene in ages and I need to do more with it. Later.

For now, I end on this.

A monster is a symptom that somewhere, somehow, the world has gotten fucked up.








40 comments:

  1. This thing's been backburning for like, six months.

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  2. Yeah, I really like this. I never bought into the 'evil' races/creatures thing, so cause and effect were always a consideration... but this spells it all out nicely.

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  3. Excellent post amigo! I can't wait to run with it.

    Side note I think your Arnold K link is broken.

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  4. How did they know the bullet came from a hunter and not someone trying to protect their village from the tiger?

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    1. The British had banned firearm possession by that time, and without starvation motivating it the tiger would likely have avoided human settlements.

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    2. That suggests an Indian didn't shoot the Tiger but it still might have been a soldier protecting the village from a tiger, or a hunter going after a mankilling tiger who failed to kill it. How do they know the bullet came first, the killings second?

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    3. I recommend listening to the linked episode for the full story and explanation, they do a much better job than I, and provide sources in the show notes.

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    4. I listened to the podcast and they just guess that because most maneaters have wounds that that drove them to eat humans when it is possible that eating humans makes them more likely to get such wounds. I was hoping for some CSI 1903 explanation but no luck. Still pretty good podcast, thanks for the recommendation.

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    5. Also that supernatural aside that is left unexplained made me think of WereTigers. I've never used WereTigers but if I did I'd take that entire story as the basis.

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  5. While I do agree with you that Monsters should have motivations and that it should be possible to resolve things without combat, the point of Monsters is that they represent an archetype or a personification of something that exists.

    For example, in Halloween, Michael Meyers is a physical representation of the main character's trauma. The Dragon in D&D fills the same role, except it represents something else. Depending on the Dragon and the game, it can be a lot of things. However, traditionally in the Western canon Dragons have represented primordial chaos.

    Similarly, slaying the monster is not an act of murdering a wronged creature, but is instead the act of conquering symbolically what the monster represents. In the slaying the Minotaur, the Greeks symbolically retold the story of how they liberated themselves from their Cretan oppressors.

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    1. On a symbolic level, perhaps. But symbols are distractions, and they tend to lie.

      So while the minotaur might symbolically be representative of some other conflict, if we engage with the events as they are presented to us, it's the murder of a horrifically abused child.

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    2. "Symbols tend to lie"? Truly, I did not understand your worldview until now.

      And yes, if you interpret it in a literal, naturalistic way the Minoraur is an abused child, but it's not meant to be thought of like that. The Minotaur is indicative of the Cretan culture's corruption and their fall into decadence. The Minotaur represents two aspects of that corruption, human sacrifice and sexual immorality. It is evil, because it is the fruit of evil. This is true even in the stoty, where it is the cause of the hero's and his city's sufferings.

      And even if you don't acknowledge that and regard the Minotaur as merely a strange child, it still kills and eats people.

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    3. Can I just say, first, that I love this post and this conversation, and second, that you’re both right?

      There’s a deep ambivalence at the heart of classical Hellenic mythology toward the Olympian gods as symbols of the triumph of order over chaos. From the first titanomachy, the children of Gaia begin murdering and oppressing each other, which represents a kind of fall and original sin in the Hellenic cosmic narrative. Echidna raises her brood (the Nemean Lion, Hydra, Sphinx, Chimera) in exile beneath the earth, banished by her cousin Olympians, and each of them is eventually killed by a mortal hero. The Caledonian Boar and various other monsters are sent by the gods as Nemesis to some sin committed by a mortal king.

      The Minotaur fits into the latter category. Sent by Poseidon as a curse for the sins of Minos and his wife, the monstrous son of the king and queen is then imprisoned in Daedalus’ labyrinth and used as to terrorize the tributes from Crete’s vassals until he is killed by Theseus.

      Theseus’ killing of the Minotaur is, I think, overdetermined thematically. Yes, it’s a symbol of the Athenian liberation from Cretan rule, but it’s also a story about the way the gods punish those who transgress against the natural preset, and also a story about how the gods punish those who don’t propitiate them, and also a story about the repressed shame of the ruling class.

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    4. As it turns out, stories can be about many things at once, and there is nothing wrong with engaging with them on any of their levels of meaning or interpretations. Thanks for clearing that up, Picador.
      Also, side note, this post itself is really nice, and I find it pretty inspiring for my own work. Thanks, all three of you.

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    5. I might replace "lie" with "oversimplify", insofar that a lie is a conscious attempt to deceive, which symbols aren't typically intended to do. However, the symbol leaves no room for the exception in its (over)simplicity, so we must always remember to make room for those exceptions in our own minds...

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    6. Thanks for this post and this series of replies. I especially want to agree with Yami B. The playing of D&D is "within" a game world where the monster is "just a projection" of societal ills. D&D is this projection as something we can play into, with characters that are avatars. Killing a dragon is not hunting a man-eating tiger. It is an archetype of myself fighting an archetype of evil. It is more like shadow work. But, ultimately, I also agree that your two views are compatible. And my take away is: design a scenario asking the question: what evil thing brought about this monster, in this place, at this time. Thanks for that. (This Tetramorph, it won't let me sign in.)

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  6. Who would want to kill oppressed monsters? That's messed of.

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    1. That's messed up, not mess of. I wish comment systems let you edit.

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  7. Breathe, Dan, breathe. We all worry.

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  8. This is an excellent, excellent post. I am adding this to the de-colonizing D&D collection.

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  9. Yes, very insightful article, both in terms of creating realistic scenarios tied to cause-and-effect (rather than spontaneous "monster" generation) as well as creating scenarios that will require more finesse than simple (and eventually boring) hack-and-slash solutions, cheers!

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  10. I'm sorry but this post means you have to reassess attack on titan from this perspective

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    1. (I know about the map and I assure you I would gripe to high heaven through the entire review about the missed opportunity / inaccurate climate / lack of lemurs)

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  11. Very interesting read. At first, I was wondering where you were going with the piece, but I enjoyed your conclusions and adventure hooks and they will definitely cause me to think more about the monsters in my game in the future.

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  12. Here's an example of this framework in literature:
    In A Wizard of Earthsea, the thing that's pursuing the MC for most of the
    story isn't just... evil out of nowhere. It's the result of an arrogant
    young man who doesn't know what he's doing trying to wield power, and the only way to get rid of the thing is for him to face up to what he's done.

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  13. Don't know if you've ever read the Kickstarted version of Cthulhu Dark, but what you're saying here sits nicely alongside something from that book. Graham Walmsley says the PCs should be of lower social status and the horrors they encounter should ultimately lead back to the elites: where the Mythos is present, it is connected to some exploitation by people in power.

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    1. I haven't, but that's the right way of doing it.

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  14. I really enjoyed your article and think it is a great framework for working with monsters, but I think it is not the only one. I read somewhere that the ancient Greeks considered all monsters as stemming from the gods. I ran a campaign where all monsters originated in the Seven Deadly Sins. Sometimes monsters are created by the violation of taboos. Still, I think campaigns are better when you think about these issues and don't just throw down monsters just because.

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    1. Taboos are a solid well of causes for monsters, for sure.

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  15. That same goblinpunch article about ghosts changed the way I represent ruins in my game. Ghosts-as-traps is a fabulous tool to include malicious traps in places where they otherwise wouldn’t make sense.

    To actually respond to your point, I fully agree that monsters as inherently evil falls flat in practice. I find it very difficult to not slip in some tragedy behind every aberration in my games.

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  16. I know system is not destiny, but this insight sounds more suited for a game where combat is more dangerous to player-characters and there's better gameplay and incentives around the alternatives to combat.

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  17. Forgive me, new reader here, but are you familiar with Dogs in the Vineyard? (I did try searching your archives before posting!) This parallels a lot of its design thinking.

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    1. I haven't - it was a good number of years before my time in the sphere.

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