Tuesday, March 2, 2021

Disorganized Rambling About Monster Descriptions feat. SCP-173

Several other people have been doing monster manual reviews, and I thought that I would shake things up and do The Malleus Monstrorum, for Call of Cthulhu 7th Edition.

This was, in retrospect, a terrible idea. It is a terrible book filled with repetitive, bloated writing, unless, boring monsters, and such an absolute creative inertia that it makes Wizards of the Coast look lively and creative in comparison. It is terrible.

So I'm going to review a different bestiary. Just one entry. And I am going to line-by-line it to show why it's a great monster write up.

The Thing Dan Values In Monster Writeups

Information in a bestiary should be heavily weighted towards what can be experienced, observed and directly interacted with. If there's no way a character could ever know a piece of information, it doesn't belong in the write-up. If there's no way to interact with the thing even remotely, it doesn't belong in the bestiary at all. If there are beliefs about the creature, there should be specification as to who believes it, and why.

Or in short, bestiaries are no place for omniscient narrators.

Buckle up it's time for SCP-173

SCP-173 by Moto42, is 234 words long. They're not going to win any awards for beauty or clever construction, but thankfully we are not looking into how nice it looks or how grammatically correct it is. We are interested in how effective it is at getting useful information across to the reader about this weird monster. And effective it is, for the rest of that site would not exist and would not have survived were it not for the fact that it was immensely effective.

Item #: SCP-173 

First thing in the article we get a very important implication: there are at least 172 other weird things that have been found and given a designation, co-existing in the setting. We have a scope (172 other things) and a mystery established from go (what are they?).

Object Class: Euclid 

This meant absolutely nothing at the time of writing, but has evolved into a awkwardly-named but rather intuitive system - object class does not deal in how safe or dangerous something is, but in how difficult it is to keep locked away. The terminology is unintuitive, especially when you get into the unique categories invented in later years, but the core 3 are worth paying attention to.

  • Safe = You can put it in a box and leave it alone without a problem. It is, as well as any anomaly can be, considered understood and controlled.
  • Euclid = You should stay on your toes and keep an eye out for anything amiss. Check up on it regularly after you put it in the box. You are working with incomplete information. This is, more or less, the "default" state of the anomalous.
  • Keter = You will need constant observation and active countermeasures to keep it from getting out of the box. it is actively undermining your attempts to keep it in the box.

This is a helpful framework because it is centered on the scope of potential interactions as they pertain to what the Foundation is interested in (keeping things in boxes) - the classification is focused.

Special Containment Procedures: Item SCP-173 is to be kept in a locked container at all times. When personnel must enter SCP-173's container, no fewer than 3 may enter at any time and the door is to be relocked behind them. At all times, two persons must maintain direct eye contact with SCP-173 until all personnel have vacated and relocked the container. 

In an SCP article, the procedures are often the reader's first glimpse into the weird shit as they go from outside to inside. If done properly, it provides an open door - reader starts to get an idea of what might be coming later - right here, we know that bad things happen when you stop looking at it, but we don't know what just yet.

Description: Moved to Site-19 1993. Origin is as of yet unknown. 

Ah, the good old missing preposition. But! Important stuff here. Whoever is writing the document has at least one storage facility, has been operational since the early 90s, and has no idea where this came from. But they're trying to find out - "as of yet".

It is constructed from concrete and rebar with traces of Krylon brand spray paint.

"Constructed" is an interesting word here - implying (though not directly stating) that there is a constructor. Or it could be construed more as "consisting of" - as the previous sentence said, no one knows where it came from. I have no idea how they managed to identify brand of spray paint, but that's a detail that supports that there is a creator. Tying this in with the last sentence, it's easy to assume on our end that the organization is on the hunt for the creator - whether or not that was intended is irrelevant, because it's written in such a way that the idea got planted without directly saying it.

SCP-173 is animate and extremely hostile. The object cannot move while within a direct line of sight. Line of sight must not be broken at any time with SCP-173. Personnel assigned to enter container are instructed to alert one another before blinking. Object is reported to attack by snapping the neck at the base of the skull, or by strangulation. In the event of an attack, personnel are to observe Class 4 hazardous object containment procedures.
Here we get the goods on the monster: the practical explanation of what it does. Comparisons to the Weeping Angels from Dr. Who have been made extensively over the last 12 years, and as far as anyone has been able to tell it was a case of serendipity and coincidence.
Personnel report sounds of scraping stone originating from within the container when no one is present inside. This is considered normal, and any change in this behaviour should be reported to the acting HMCL supervisor on duty.
Here's the first weird detail - it's doing something in there, and we don't know what. But we know that if it stops doing that thing that something fishy is going on. An implication of motive? Maybe.
The reddish brown substance on the floor is a combination of feces and blood. Origin of these materials is unknown. The enclosure must be cleaned on a bi-weekly basis.

I honestly love this part. The killer statue just leaks blood and shit everywhere. Why? Who fucking knows! The reason isn't important - the important part is that it burrowed into your head and engaged you, got you asking that question and thinking of potentials.

I love it. You could pluck 173 here and dump it into any game you'd like and you would have more than enough material to use it, because the concrete details of sense and interaction are all frontloaded. Even the information that's not explained and just sits in the background is nice and specific, so that if we want to use it to spin out the idea further, we have a place to start.

As a comparison, here's an entry from the Malleus Monstrum: the yugg, which clocks in at 369 words.

 

Sigh. It's the Yugg, Everyone


(Note: this first paragraph is offset in italics, separate from the latter two, as is the case with all of these entries, to give it a bit of "lovecraft protagonist zhenesequa")

It left a sticky trail, as though some monstrous snail had gone by. While slime was rapidly dissolving by the light of the sun, it was clear the thing was nearby. We did not have to wait long before it made itself known to us. Turning the bend of the hill, we saw a large and pale creature. 

Bloated and swollen, some four feet in diameter and over twelve feet high, 

Wait, wait wait wait hold up. It is three times taller than it is across, making it very thin and narrow (which is neither bloated nor swollen).

it reminded me of a great worm or slug, and had a large circular mouth, ringed with horn-like teeth that recalled a hagfish or lamprey eel. 

From the image, you could have cut all these down to slug

About its head and mouth were numerous tentacles, some rudimentary and some up to two feet in length. Its smell brought to mind rot and dead things.
Blah

These large, pale, and gray worm or slug-like creatures 

Info that we already know!

dwell almost exclusively in the depths of the Pacific Ocean, although there have been reports of them crawling upon land. 

A) How do you know that B) Neat! They're super-resistant to pressure changes C) No information to follow is linked to either environment. D) Whose reports?

They are intelligent and have a society of sorts, 

There is absolutely nothing in the rest of this description that implies this. We're being told things that have no supporting evidence.

but it is unknown whether they are native to Earth or arrived from somewhere else. 

Okay, another unknown origin like with 173. Primary divergence - This one spends time offering hypotheses on its own, instead of letting the reader come up with an idea themselves, but those hypotheses don't have any supporting detail at all to push the reader one way or another - there's no implication involved..

Some believe they arrived from another planet to pay homage to the Great Old One known as Zoth-Ommog, believed to be imprisoned in the deep ocean around Ponape (now Pohnpei). 

Who believes? Also, can we please get over Lovecraft's "the islands of the South pacific are unspeakably horrible and strange", it is in fact Current Year Argument. You know what's horrible in the Pacific Ocean? The great garbage patch.

Also...sigh. Let me wiki this.

Zoth-Ommog is Cthulhu's third son, introduced by Lin Carter in his Xothic Legend Cycle.

Okay good to know.

Certainly, yuggs have been encountered in this region and do appear to have some form of connection to Zoth-Ommog. 

We go from "certainly" in one clause to "appear to have" in the next. We have confirmed "yugg live in a region" as concrete information. The latter half is just...come on.

Is it difficult to depict religious practice in giant slugs at the bottom of the ocean? About as hard as saying:

"The ocean floor temple complex near [location] resembles those of other nonhuman Tulu cults in the Pacific. The prominence of mosaics over tactile representations indicates it was initially constructed by pelagic deep ones and inhabited by the abyssal yuggs at a later time."

There. Did your job for you. That one's free, Chaosium.

Alternatively, or in addition to, many yuggs may serve (or have once served) Ythogtha, the Old One said to be imprisoned in the Abyss of Yhe.

Ah, "said to be". By whom? Not to mention that they only "may" serve the god that may or may not be there.

Wiki again: Ythogtha is Cthulhu's second son, introduced by Lin Carter in his Xothic Legend Cycle.

I do not think I like Lin Carter.

A few tomes claim the yuggs have a high-priest called Ubb-lor, whose enormous size sets it apart from the rest of its kind. 

I love how the primary trait of the high priest is size. "I'm sorry, in order to become bishop you must first become HUGE" 

Also, note again - we don't know what tomes, those tomes only claim, and that is not a name that came from the local human cultures so who the hell knows where that came from.

It would be consistent with the legends if Ubb-lor, and the other yuggs were not only attending to Zoth-Ommog but also working toward some scheme to free the Great Old One.

What legends? Whose legends?  We have no evidence to suggest that they have any connection at all! You said yourself that only some people believe this (ie no conclusive evidence) and that there only appears to be a connection (no conclusive evidence!)

If it's going to show up in a game, there needs to be something concrete to interact with! This statement is bullshit in universe because its a bunch of Miskatonic tosspots declaring whatever comes off the top of their head about topics they know nothing about, and it's bullshit out of universe because the book that is supposed to give me material to use in my game has given me no such thing.

In a similar manner, would the yuggs devoted to Ythogtha aim to serve and achieve that Old One’s freedom. 

You just said the Ythogtha cultists were purely hypothetical.

Diving and swimming in yugg infested waters is not advisable, and those boating around the Caroline Islands should take care. 

Reports of missing boats and swimmers are common.

I feel like there's a considerable amount of perfectly normal disappearances going on. This might be projecting.

Whether the yuggs are taking humans for sacrifice or for some other purpose remains a mystery.

argh

So, what have we learned?

The concrete details of the yugg (very big deep ocean slugthing in the Caroline Islands that will eat you) are overwhelmed by filler hypotheticals. It might be this. It is believed to be that. On and on. Where, SCP-173 provides details based on direct observation of the statue. The yugg entry is not only primarily conjecture, its conjecture without basis. Sure, I could go and fill in all those blanks with details, but there's no springboard, no itch to solve the mystery. it's a pain, a chore, busywork to make the thing usable. You can't drag and drop this monster, even in its own setting.

(Just to put the icing on the cake of this directionless ramble, I kept getting reminded of episodes of The FPlus that involve aliens or the supernatural while reading the yugg entry - just these breathless, immensely detailed webs of stuff organized entirely by seemingly jumps between topics with no supporting structure beyond the initial conjecture.)

14 comments:

  1. Dear Chaosium: i would almost rewrite that stupid book for free just to wipe the original out of the world so it would stop causing me minor aggravation. Almost.

    I feel like I did a terrible job at actually making a point here, but that's why it's disorganized rambling.

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    1. While I understand your gripe with hypotheticals, the point of those is that they are deliberately leaving blank spots for the Referee to fill in. Maybe this monster is just a beast, but what if it was designed in a lab? With that simple implication, the Referee is presented with a great wealth of creative possibilities. Perhaps you could fight, say an Owlbear, in the woods, but you could also find a genetics laboratory run by a mad scientist, and this is his new creation that he's eager to watch rip you to shreds.

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    2. The difference between a good hypothetical and a bad one is that a good one inspires the reader to fill it in to get a bonus. A bad one forces the reader to fill it in to get it to work at a baseline.

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  2. The best SCP Foundation entries are a kind of masterclass in "show, don't tell." The very long arm in the drainpipe is another great one in the vein of your ezample--a short recitation of dry (if very odd) observations and measurements which, taken together, completely upend your understanding of how reality works.

    Also, totally unrelated, but I used to play TF2 regularly with all those FPlus folks a decade or more ago. I should check out that show again.

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    1. Giant drain arm is an excellent article

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  3. I recently rewatched Alien (and Aliens, and Alien 3 and ...) and seeing the scenes where people are hypnotized by the advance of the Alien towards them, I was wondering how the opposite would work : a monster that can move only if it is observed. The solution is obvious (close your eyes), but it is terrifying (you can't see the motherfucker) and you need to trust your comrades not to open their eyes to allow the monster to eat your blind meat and escape. I wonder how that could work in play.

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  4. "You know what's horrible in the Pacific Ocean? The great garbage patch."

    A good horror scenario idea; mysterious monsters lurking in the great garbage patch of the Pacific Ocean. They're out there, collecting junk for unknown purposes (building something or covertly studying humanity, I would guess), kidnapping and killing anyone who gets too close. The monsters are probably...something vaguely in the shape of a sea creature/s native to the Ocean, but intelligent and with fine manipulators and nasty natural weapons.

    A more fully realized example; a strange structure containing an unknown machine, all of it made completely out of our discarded trash, built by creeping hordes of octopi-eques marauders. Human beings caught by the horrid beasts get vivisected alive and their organs stored in whatever rubbish containers that survived the decay.

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    1. This would dovetail very neatly with concepts from "Occam's Scalpel." SPOILERS ahead for a well-crafted decades-old Sturgeon story: physician to an ancient and reclusive industrialist richer than God sees his patient die; the inheritor is extremely competent at everything but likely to use his power destructively. The old doctor discusses recent trends in air pollution and climate change (externalities that benefit no one!) with the heir apparent before showing him a secret autopsy before cremating the industrialist: sulfur-metabolizing organs and a completely inhuman--indeed, barely organic--body plan. Inference is that the Old Man was the advance scout of a xenoforming extraterrestrial race, and the new guy should be fighting to make this a better planet for humans.

      REPEAT SPOILERS:
      Turns out the doc has pulled some strings to make a very clever gaff for the benefit of the world, and some people think *that's* the twist. But Sturgeon knew his craft, and leaves the audience with the doctor's worried meditation that his hoax fit the observed facts a little too well for comfort.

      The other moral that may be drawn, in the opposite direction, is that the privileged zillionaires think in ways and are motivated towards goals as hostile to humanity as any bug-eyed monster. But that line of thought doesn't get us Garbage Squids.

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    2. "The other moral that may be drawn, in the opposite direction, is that the privileged zillionaires think in ways and are motivated towards goals as hostile to humanity as any bug-eyed monster."

      If memory serves, the opening to the original Delta Green points out that modern humanity's bad habits are far more of a threat than Joesph Curwen or Wilbur Whateley could ever hope to be.

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    3. Yep. And to that extent, though I will levie the same complaints about DG's monster writeups, I think DG is the much stronger of the two games thematically.

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  5. Much as I love Call of Cthulhu as a game, it has always stuck too close to the pastiche Mythos authors and their attempts to make sense of it all... such as Lin Carter's Cthulhu Family Tree... and having game stats for such things.
    Not nearly enough mystery for a game about mysterious stuff.

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  6. An excellent analysis as usual!

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  7. I agree totally. Canonical conjecture is boring. Much better are weird details that invite conjecture from the people playing the game!

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