Sunday, 12 August 2018

On the Virtues of Terseness

Having previously praised the likes of MR James, Roger Zelazny, and Clark Ashton Smith, I must now give the most credit where it is most due: to whoever is the lost genius who wrote the monster descriptions for the Roguelike *band games (if indeed it is one person and not an OSR-sized brain trust). These one (sometimes two) sentence pencil sketches are masterpieces of communication, telling you exactly what you need to know while being powerfully, sometimes almost poetically, evocative at the same time. You sir, or sirs, or sirs and madams, have had the most influence on the way I think about monsters and the way they are described.

All the Zangband monsters descriptions are here, where you can read them for yourself, but here are some illustrations; I defy you to come up with more efficient one/two-sentence thumbnails than these:

Battle Scarred Veteran: He doesn't take to strangers kindly.

The Clear Icky Thing: It is a smallish, slimy, icky blobby creature.

Kobold: It is a small, dog-headed humanoid.

The Novice Mage: He is leaving behind a trail of dropped spell components.

The Nether Worm Mass: It is a disgusting mass of dark worms, eating each other, the floor, the air, you....

The Cloaker: It resembles a normal cloak, until some poor fool ventures too close!

The Giant Octopus: It doesn't move very fast, but when it does, watch out!

The Phase Spider: A spider that never seems quite there. Everywhere you look it is just half-seen in the corner of one eye.

The Disenchanter Beast: It looks like an anteater, and there is a static feeling crackling around its long trunk.

The Wereworm: A huge wormlike shape dripping acid, twisted by evil sorcery into a foul monster that breeds on death.

The Basilisk: An evil reptile whose eyes stare deeply at you and make your soul wilt!

The Mithril Golem: It is a massive statue of purest mithril. It looks expensive!

The Ghost: You don't believe in them, and they don't believe in you.

The Ethereal Drake: A dragon of elemental power, with control over light and dark, the ethereal drake's eyes glare with white hatred from the shadows.

The Mumak: A massive elephantine form with eyes twisted by madness.

The Chaos Drake: A dragon twisted by the forces of chaos. It seems first ugly, then fair, as its form shimmers and changes in front of your eyes.

The Anti-Paladin: An embodiment of all the cardinal vices, he beholds you scornfully.

The Time Hound: You get a terrible sense of deja vu, or is it a premonition? All at once you see a little puppy and a toothless old dog. Perhaps you should give up and go to bed.

Okay, so the last one is three sentences. What I like most about these descriptions is that they don't try to replace the image you already have in your head: whatever image of a ghost, novice mage, giant octopus, mithril golem, cloaker or or battle scarred veteran you have in your mind already is more than enough. It's only where the name itself does not make the physical appearance obvious that an actual description is required. A useful lesson for bestiary writing, I think.


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  2. This might help to shed some light on the very very beginning, as it talks about the creation of Colossal Cave Adventure (ADVENT), though I don't know about the later development of roguelike as its own genre:

    And an apologia for terminal text-based games more generally from the same author:

  3. "What I like most about these descriptions is that they don't try to replace the image you already have in your head"

    That's the magic, I think. I was going to comment on your Zelazny post that I much prefer Tolkien's monster-describing approach.

    When orcs first appear in LotR, Tolkien just assumes that you know what an orc is (even though your only referent for it is the word "goblin" and then only if you've been paying attention or have read The Hobbit). And when a troll appears, you just get a detail or two to add to your pre-existing conception.

    So, in The Bridge of Khazad-dum, all you can glean about orcs is that (a) some are bigger and nastier than others; (b) they have harsh laughter; (c) a "huge" one is not as big as a man; (d) this one has a broad, "swart" face and wears black armour; (e) its eyes are "like coals" (Dark or glowing? You decide); and (f) they use scimitars, bows and spears. And that's it - you fill in the considerable blanks yourself.

    It's the technique of the Beowulf poet, of course: hardly describe the monster at all and let the listener/reader do the rest. And it's tremendously effective.

    All of Tolkien's monsters are like this:

    Black riders: pale forms *if you're wearing the ring*; invisible otherwise.
    Orcs: smaller than Men, long arms, protruding fangs, swart or sallow, hairy jowls, thick or crooked legs, broad faces, slanted eyes (and these details are scattered over many descriptions).
    Half-orcs: Man-sized but with orcish facial features. Sallow.
    Trolls: scaly and greenish, with black blood. Around 12' tall. Toeless feet.
    Balrog: a dark form of man-shape, maybe, only greater. Surrounded by some greater shadow.
    Watcher: greenish tentacles with fingers on the ends.
    Flying beast: featherless, smelly, webbed wings - perhaps like a bird.

    It would be the work of minutes to reconstitute these details in the Zangband form. But that's pretty much all there is, apart from some details about equipment. And yet look how influential these fleeting descriptions have been.

    1. (The irony is not lost on me that this long post was to echo your praise of terseness ...)

    2. When I have time I will post the actual Zangband descriptions of Tolkien's monsters.

  4. Sort of a response :