Tuesday 31 July 2018

The Master of Monster Descriptions

Zelazny does not get enough attention in general in RPG circles, but in particular for his excellent, efficient descriptions of monsters. He may be the single most influential author on me in that regard. Some examples:

It looked like something that had started out to be a man but had never quite made it. It had been stepped on, twisted, had holes poked into the sickly dough of its head-bulge. Bones showed through the transparent flesh of its torso and its short legs were as thick as trees, terminating in disk-shaped pads from which dozens of long toes hung like roots or worms. its arms were longer than its entire body. it was a crushed slug, a thing that had been frozen and thawed before it was fully baked. (The Borshin, from Jack of Shadows)

There was something unusual about their appearance... For one thing, all had uniformly bloodshot eyes. Very, very bloodshot eyes. With them, though, the condition seemed normal. For another, all had an extra joint to each finger and thumb, and sharp, forward-curving spurs on the backs of their hands. All of them had prominent jaws (and) forty-four teeth, most of them longer than human teeth, and several looking to be much sharper. Their flesh was grayish and hard and shiny. There were undoubtedly other differences also, but those were sufficient to prove a point of some sort. (The shadow creatures of Fiona, from Nine Princes in Amber)

Morgenstern was six hands higher than any other horse I had ever seen, and his eyes were the dead color of a Weimaraner dog's and his coat was all gray and his hooves looked like polished steel. (Morgenstern, from Nine Princes in Amber)

Head something like a croc's, only bigger. Around forty feet long. Able to roll itself into a big beachball with teeth. Fast on land or in water - and a hell of a lot of little legs on each side. (The Boadile, from This Immortal)

Her hair was green, though streaked with silver, and her eyes were round of moons of jade and her brows rose like the wings of olive gulls. Her mouth was small, her chin was small; her cheeks were high and wide and rounded. A circlet of white gold crossed her brow and there was a crystal necklace about her neck. At its tip there flashed a sapphire between her sweet bare breasts, whose nipples were also bare green. She wore scaled trunks of blue and a silver belt, and she held a scepter of pink coral in her hand and had a ring upon every finger, and each ring had a stone of a different blue within it. She did not smile... (Moire, Queen of Rebma, from Nine Princes in Amber)

It's the little things, really, that do it: the careful but frequent reference to vivid colours and simple adjectives (shiny, dead, sweet, sickly); the arch observations ("a thing that had been frozen and thawed before it was fully baked"); and the wry humour ("there was something unusual about their appearance"). But it's very clever and incisive use of language, too - there's so much communicated in that very simple last sentence: "She did not smile."

Above all, what I like is that Zelazny is very comfortable with you, the reader, not having a clear picture in your head of what the monster is like - not so that you fill in the gaps yourself, so much as that you are given an impression in the artistic sense: a replication of what it would be like to encounter the thing being described. If you came across Morgenstern you wouldn't be jotting down every detail of his appearance. You'd notice the size, the eyes, the hooves - and then you'd run, or look away, or hide, or do something else. Capturing that in text is what Zelazny does at his best.


  1. Might this suggest an approach for GM's wanting evocative descriptions for their monsters that won't cause the players' eyes to glaze over? On first contact the PCs get the "Morgenstern" version: 3-4 points that convey a brief impression. Typically they decide whether to stab the thing, run away etc. on this basis. If the PCs spend more time with the monster, NPC or whatever, the GM then gets to sprinkle some additional nicely turned phrases through the encounter. Z's Queen of Rebma is probably too dense to deliver all at once, but introducing bits of it over time might keep players engaged and curious?

    1. Yeah, I like that idea a lot. It shouldn't be too hard to implement a subsystem for it, either.

  2. I just need to stat up the boadile....

    1. First you'd need to know how many legs it has... (And if you haven't read the book, it has a very good scene on how to fight the thing along with, crucially, the location of its heart).

    2. Audiobook downloaded for commute-time research...

  3. "Above all, what I like is that Zelazny is very comfortable with you, the reader, not having a clear picture in your head of what the monster is like - not so that you fill in the gaps yourself, so much as that you are given an impression in the artistic sense: a replication of what it would be like to encounter the thing being described."

    For me Vance is the best at this. He often just includes specific details about the creature as it acts or is acted upon. So, e.g., he never actually *describes* the giant marine worms that power the ship in Cugel's Saga. Instead we just get a sense of what they are like in the course of Cugels' hilarious marine husbandry routine.


    A few minutes later, Drofo stood both Lankwiler and Cugel at attention while he again made the two under-wormingers aware of his expectations.

    "On the last voyage Wagmund and Lankwiler were the wormingers. I was not aboard; Gieselman was Chief Worminger. I see that he was far too slack. While Wagmund dealt most professionally with his worms, Lankwiler, through ignorance and sloth, allowed his worms to deteriorate. Examine these beasts. They are yellow as quince. Their gills are black with gangue. You may be sure that in the future Lankwiler will deal more faithfully with his worms. As for Cugel, his training has definitely been sub-standard. Aboard the Galante his deficiency will almost magically be corrected, as will Lankwiler's turpitude.

    "Now heed! We depart Saskervoy for the wide sea in two hour's time. You will now feed your beasts a half-measure of victual, and make ready your baits. Cugel, you will then groom your beasts and inspect for timp. Lankwiler, you will immediately begin to chip gangue. You will also inspect for timp, pust and fluke-mites. Your off-beast shows signs of impaction; you must give it a drench."
    "Wormingers, to your beasts!"
    With brush, scraper, gouge and reamer, with pots of salve, toner and unction, Cugel groomed his worms to Drofo's instruction. From time to time a wave washed over the worms, and across the walkway. Drofo, leaning over the rail, advised Cugel from above: "Ignore the wet! It is an artificial and factitious sensation. You are constantly wet on the inside of your skin from all manner of fluids, many of a vulgar nature; why shrink from good salt brine on the outside? Ignore wetness of all sorts; it is a worminger's natural state."


    Like what the hell are these things? I guess they have gills and flukes? They're not supposed to be yellow? And the timp! Watch out for the timp obviously!