Wednesday, 28 November 2012

On Creating New Monsters

Creating a truly new monster is difficult, and perhaps impossible: there is some fundamental failure of human imagination which means that we are very often forced into the simple "giant this" or "this with a this" or "this which can this" paradigm; as in:

Griffin: a lion with eagle head and wings

Medusa: a woman with snakes for hair which can turn people to stone

Beholder: giant eye which can float

This is even true of people like H P Lovecraft, who is often set forth as one of the most imaginative and inventive fantasy writers of the past 100 years: in the end, for all that Call of Cthulhu is a spooky story which admirably communicates the Lovecraftian ideal of inscrutable and never-ending indifferent evil, Cthulhu is merely a humanoid dragon with an octopus head. He is a "this with a this", or, if you are being charitable, a "this crossed with this with a this". 

I've been sitting at my desk trying my damnedest to think of monsters that are truly novel, without antecedents - not composed of amalgamations or inspirations. Failing that, because of my human limitations, I changed tack and tried to think of existing monsters that have been created by fantasy authors or RPG bestiarists that I would call "new" - that were not based on the "this with a this" paradigm or regurgitation of folklore. I couldn't really do it; the only arguable, and honourable, exception I could think of was Geiger's Alien. 

Why is this so? Some limit imposed by our evolution, which means that setting aside brain cells for pure speculation is a waste of resources? An immutable law of the universe which states that it is not possible to imagine a thing which is not based on prior experience in some way? That we are capable only of being what we are remains our unforgivable sin; our imaginations are shackled by our nature, it seems. 


  1. I think imagination is fundamentally nothing but the ability to recombine data from experience in different ways. The more imaginative person is simply the one who can do so in ways another hasn't conceived. Raw information can't be conjured ex nihilo any more than matter can. That's my theory, anyway.

  2. I think what you're observing is our ability to boil complex things down to a few words - the elevator pitch for the monster, if you will. "Giant floating eye" leaves out an awful lot about beholders, for example - the antimagic eye, the many eyestalks that do various terrible things, and so on.

    Now, if you want to assert that our thoughts are limited by our language, Sapir and Whorf would like to buy you a drink.

  3. How does the mighty bulette fit under this metric? The deepspawn?

    I mean, I guess if you get creative with your you can broadly describe anything under the "this with this" system, but I'm pretty sure that says more about the limits of language than the limits of imagination.

    But it's true that the majority of monsters seem to be as you describe. I think they might just be more aesthetically pleasing and easy to describe that way.

    1. Bulette: giant mole crossed with a shark

      Deepspawn: all monsters put together (the ultimate "this with a this")

      I think your point about aesthetics is absolutely correct.

  4. In my opinion it's easy to make a truly alien creature (drawing it would, obviously, be easier than describing it), but the resulting creature isn't that interesting. This is because the thing that's interesting about fantasy creatures is recognition. Evil trees that reach down for you are compelling because we've all thought that particular trees look like that.

    Similarly 'Shambling Mound' is a more compelling name than a meaningless series of syllables like 'Barbazu', which is why a lot of the monster names that D&D itself came up with fall so flat.

    In my opinion, instead of a 'Monster Manual' style listing, fantasy RPGs would benefit from describing some 'base' animals, and then the effects of various transformations. For example if you have a 'horse' base creature and you know that being 'winged' makes a creature fly at twice its land speed, then you can make Pegasus without that needing its own entry.

    1. I agree with all of that.

    2. What, like some kind of "template?" Where could such a thing have ever been done?

      Maybe if the community had been more focused on building up the valid elements that arose out of A CERTAIN game in sequel editions instead of dumbing everything down to punish anybody who created ~inequality~ by getting good we would see more of that kind of thing.

    3. @Lamia: What are you talking about?

  5. I'm with Ivan. This effect is less about our inability to create a monster that is not a "this plus this", but rather our inability to describe said monster without resorting to such shorthand. Unless you plan to use the full 1000 words to paint the picture, "face of a man, body of a lion, wings of a dragon, tail of a scorpion" gets you 90% of the way there. Or even "its head was somewhat like a horse's, but with the jaws of a large canine". We use the familiar as touchstones and shorthand because that's how language works.

    What I find more interesting is that we find it horribly difficult to separate those descriptions from attached traits. Imagine a race of cat-people. All you know is that they bear some superficial resemblance to felines. And yet, you probably already assume that they are hunters, have a tribal culture that mimics pride dynamics, and are easily distracted by red laser dots. You really want to freak your players out? Apply the hive mentality of ants to the cat-people, and make them cold-blooded so they have activity cycles like lizards. It's still "this plus this" but in a way that people never see coming.

    1. I like that idea, and I agree that it's difficult to separate traits in that way. Interesting point.

  6. Are you sure this isn't just a fantasy issue? I mean, the living world of 'Solaris' by Stanislaw Lem, the Slash from Piers Anthony's 'Kirlian Quest' and the phenomenally odd Cygnostik from Michael Bishop's 'A Little Knowledge' are prime examples of 'WTF' life forms in Science Fiction.

    Generally speaking, this plays into my Monsters Vs. Aliens riff.

    In Classic Fantasy, the weird thing is unnatural and we must kill it before it steals and eats a virgin. In Classic Science Fiction, the weird thing is natural to its environment, we are the outsider and we want to (at least initially) learn about it not kill it.

    1. Yes.

    2. Thank you. And indeed Zak's post on the subject is an awesome point of reference.

      Might I also recommend...

  7. Totally disagree.
    It's easy to invent new monsters.
    It's very hard to communicate them using solely words. Pictures are much better.
    So when we are using a verbal medium (writing or RPGs) we often rely on evocative words--skulls, wolves, snakes, etc. because when we say them the picture is easily communicated to the listeners mind.
    Say "It has a sort of sinewave-shape for 2 inches, thenturn 36 degrees upward, then turns from azure to cobalt blue, then 3 cylinders emerge..."
    The hard part isn't inventing monsters, it's inventing verbal constructs that are evocative of those monsters.

    1. Exactly. H. P. Lovecraft tries to make it clear that his creatures are 'otherworldly' and 'like nothing on Earth', but when he actually has to describe the thing, he has to resort to verbal descriptions.

      "If I say that my somewhat extravagant imagination yielded simultaneous pictures of an octopus, a dragon, and a human caricature, I shall not be unfaithful to the spirit of the thing. A pulpy, tentacled head surmounted a grotesque and scaly body with rudimentary wings; but it was the general outline of the whole which made it most shockingly frightful."

      The narrator is grasping for a way to describe the otherworldly thing and the best he can do is the "cross-between" metaphor.

    2. In reference to both Billy's post and Konsumterra's below, vague is key!

      You want to imply, suggest or refer to more than describe when it comes to monsters.

      I'll never forget an old D&D game of mine set in my homebrew world where the PCs heard that the local waters were diseased due to a sick cow. People had seen the mangy thing roaming the countryside at dusk and dawn, sometimes drinking from the now fetid river.

      When our heroes went to search for it they reached a small village where they were offering a reward for 'The Beast of Nockelgrotton', a long necked, flat headed thing that attacked many shepherds and their flocks in the area.

      A wandering adventurer was found wounded, claiming to have been attacked by, "A massive creature, covered in soot, with wings like a bat and a cry like the devil."

      My players were all artists (save one or two, we had attended art school together) and each sketched out what they thought they were up against.

      I got three awesome drawings, none of them quite right. ;)

  8. HP best descriptions are vague, shifting and rely on reader to contribute - most greek monsters were in sumerian art long before. More scholars agree many ancient monsters based on fossils. I think more one off monsters would be good and less new species. Parasites and skin mite images a good source.

  9. I think there is something to be said for "how one describes it". I can describe Geiger's alien as "A leather egg that hatches a tailed spider that makes a snake that grows into a man built entirely of penises"

    1. This bit I seem to have cut without noticing:

      Which doesn't make it any less of a new monster. The colour out of space, nano-goo and even the xenomorph aren't monsters because of what they look like, but what they do.

    2. That's pretty much what I was going to say: "A penis crossed with a cockroach."

    3. A "cock roach" if you will.

  10. So.. I was just going to make a comment, but then it got really long, so I made blog post!

    My thought is that, basically, monsters don't work without fear, and if you can't relate to the monster then curiosity trumps fear and you don't actually have a monster. I don't think this is really a bad thing at all, and if you were to apply this definition of novelty to the physical universe then wouldn't nothing be novel except for the smallest building blocks of matter? Molecules are just a remix of atoms, and that's soooo done.

    Also, Geiger's Alien is just a super gaunt human merged with a machine that has a penis for a head. :D

  11. 1. I agree with pretty much everyone here: communication is hard, familiarity allows for psychological buttons to be pushed, surprise in the combinations can reawaken whatever the hell it is we want out of a monster (a frisson of uncomfortable curiosity? Some sort of "power" to influence our imaginations?).

    2. my jaded palette already has too many monsters in the MM + Pokemon - if you then apply your recombinant filter to that mess of ingredients. A remorhaz crossed with a Baltoy is not only going to be easiest to describe as "some kind of weird tornado-dragon,"it's also probably going to look like some other MM or Pokemon property that already exists - at least at the level of abstraction we tend to adopt when we ask "but is this monster truly new?"

    Conclusion: what I want (probably) is that subset of recombinant monsters that tickle my instinctual responses of fear/fascination and make me feel something I can't immediately explain. And if they're also going to be surprising I'm probably going to get them through combinations of surprising things. That sounds like a job for Talent. So yes, that's really hard. My usual solution is to describe familiar monsters as minimally as I can and hopefully in a way that makes them unfamiliar. And to hunt for monsters in sources outside Appendix N.

    Tl:dr - Thurber's Todal rocks -

    it moves like monkeys and like shadows, and it smells of old, unopened rooms. It gleeps and makes (presumably only occasionally) a sound like rabbits screaming. It is an agent of the devil, sent to punish evildoers for having done less evil than they should.

    Unfortunately (and here Thurber falls into one of the oldest of DnD cliches) it is a blob of glup. Refortunately, however, when our hero asks a prison guard what it will do to the bad guy should he fail in his evildoing, the response is:
    "the blob... will glup him."

    I wouldn't want to be glupped. Much less in a smell of old, unopened rooms.
    Sure, it's a joke monster - possibly a parody of CAS's elliptical style, but for me, personally, I find it's got a little nugget of authentic nightmare in it, hidden under the surface.

  12. Pretty much everything that people don't have direct physical experience with is described in terms of metaphors. This includes physical things that one has not experienced (like dragons) and all abstract things. Some examples:

    Time. Yesterday is now "behind" (spatial) us.

    Status. She is "above" (spatial) him in the company hierarchy.

    Morality. His soul is "tainted" (cleanliness). See also good and upright, bad and low, sin and falling. Impure, and ideas of contagion.

    Dragon. Fire breathing lizard with wings.

    Monsters are easier, because you can draw them, as Zak said, but even that gets you only part of the way there. How does the monster move? Like a horse, but with reverse knees on the back legs... back again in the land of metaphors. You can animate it, but then how does it sound and smell? Like a lion's roar... etc.

    Seriously, try talking about time without metaphors.

    The problem of describing new monsters is probably a subcategory of this more general aspect of cognition.

    There's actually a lot of social psychology research on this right now. There's good evidence that the same lower (concrete, such as physical experiences) structures are used to process and make sense of abstract experiences.

    1. There's also been some good anthropological research suggesting that people structure those metaphors differently, such as thinking of the future as behind (as in a river flowing from behind to in front, so we see the past laid out in front of us) and I'm sure some people think of the past as "below" instead too, but can't remember who.

      This gives an interesting use for monsters actually; use them to find different associations that can fit with a certain object, then play them up. Run those lines of similarity backwards.

      That's how you get facist spiders, silent armoured things with excellent hearing, always trying to create order. They sit brooding and black in meeting halls, then walk slowly to make an example of those that speak badly of them picking there way through the suddenly frozen crowd. People have learned what it is they want, but you have to communicate subtly and imitate their silence in expressing it.

      If you start drawing them, maybe they don't look like spiders any more, but they started that way.

  13. Also, a monster is not only their aspect, it is also their capabilities. A beholder is a lot more than a floating eye.

  14. Give Lovecraft his due, *The Shadow Out of Time* had some truly original creatures.
    Maybe also worth considering, some of the more outlandish beasties from the original game (like the Meenlock or the Rust Monster) were 'miniatures' before they were statted up. Toys from Hong Kong were the inspirational Google Image search of the 70's.