Thursday, 18 July 2019

On Linnaean and Glaurungian Monsters

Back in 2008, when the world was young, I wrote this post, the essence of which was that modern fantasy tends to sit in between two different poles. On the one hand, there is classicist fantasy (in which everything in the setting is internally consistent and explainable on its own terms, even if it contains magic and monsters) and on the other, romanticist (in which the whole point is the weirdness, the mystery, the fact that nothing makes sense or can be predicted in advance). The quintessentially classicist fantasy writer is probably George R R Martin, whose A Song of Ice and Fire novels feature human beings acting in basically rational ways in the world that they inhabit, which contains magic that, even while it is rare and unpredictable, can be dealt with roughly as a form of strange super-technology. The quintessential romanticist writer is probably M. John Harrison, the entire point of whose fantasy novels is to express a kind of illogic or unreality; not even the characters feel as though they are at home in the world that they inhabit.

The classicist tradition is very clearly at work in D&D, particularly when it comes to what I am going to from now on call Linnaean Monster Classification. You know how in the AD&D 2nd edition Monstrous Manual there is no individual entry for "dragon", but instead dragons are classified into white dragons (which live in cold places), black dragons (who live in swamps), blue dragons (who live in the desert), amethyst dragons (who live in underground lakes), shadow dragons (who are from the Plane of Shadow), and all the rest? And there is no individual entry for "giant", but instead you get cloud giants, frost giants, reef giants, stone giants, and so on? Most of the truly iconic monsters are given this treatment to some extent or other: they are sliced up, boxed up, compartmentalised and classified, as though there is an actual genus, "dragon", with species within it.

(There are perfectly sound practical reasons for this: it provides more variety for DMs to draw from when filling up their boxes of tricks.)

Compare this with how the dragon appears in, say, Beowulf. (Or The Hobbit, for that matter.) It's not so much that people in 8th Century Scandinavia, or Middle Earth, didn't have the time or expertise to catalogue subdivisions of dragon types. It's that in their context monsters are really monstrous: not just another kind of animal, albeit a very dangerous one, but a thing apart from the natural world - something which does not belong; an interloper; a Thing Which Should Not Be. You get a great sense from this in Tolkien's description of Glaurung in particular as a being whose very presence seems somehow to soil the natural world around him. Glaurung is not of the animal kingdom. Glaurung is a dragon.

Another way of thinking about this is: the assumptions of the AD&D Monstrous Manual are that, if only some sage somewhere had access to all the necessary information, he could provide an accurate taxonomy of dragon species which reflected some underlying biological reality. That is classicism in a nutshell. The assumptions of the Beowulf poet or Tolkien are not that this task would be impossible  at a practical level; it's that the attempt at classification itself would be a category error. You don't think of a monster in that way. It just is.

There is nothing wrong with the normal way in which D&D bestiaries approach the matter. It makes life easier by providing DMs with a wide range of choices for encounters and lairs. But it does, to hark back to another 2008 post, have a banalifying effect. The dragon in Beowulf, or Smaug, or Glaurung, or even Falcor, loom far larger and longer in the memory than the Just Another Gold Dragon of your average D&D campaign. The next time you're thinking of a monster lair to put in your hexmap, think about how you can lean it towards the Glaurungian rather than the Linnaean, and see if it makes a difference to how the PCs interact with it.


  1. Honestly, the classifications play nicely into the hands of a creative DM who can come up with a million ways to NOT do what the Monster Manual says. It's a great way to "reward" your players for memorizing the material. >:)

    1. True - or another option is to take the classifications and run with them. Okay, so why are blue dragons in the desert and why do they breathe lightning? Maybe there are also blue "desert orcs". And maybe desert trolls also breathe lightning. Etc.

    2. Ooh! Both of those are awesome. And that effect could be regional rather than general. Everything in the Crackling Desert is blue and breathes lightning. Monsters from the Sizzling Desert and all green and breathe acid. Kinda Oz like, that way...

      Although an alternate approach with the example above, and one that I've dabbled with in world building, is that that particular dragon knows Polymorph Self and is a bit of an indiscriminate lothario.

      The game Hordes did something kinda parallel with their Everblight faction, from what I've gathered, where a dragon is such a curse that its very existence seeps into all the lifeforms in its domain and taints them, so that they're essentially a part of it.

      All neat hooks, really. :)

  2. This has been one of my constant problems as a DM. Well, I should say as an adult DM. As a pre-teen/teen, I had no problem making my campaign worlds Glaurungian. As an adult, I've got this desire to use my knowledge of history, geography, biology, etc. to make the world richer...but it seeps out some of the fantastical. I'm constantly trying to remind myself to make things more fantastical.

    1. Yes, a DM is forever caught between those two stools, I think.

  3. Great post!

    The simplest way to topple Linnaeanism, I find, is to abolish linguistic distinctions between different types of humanoid monster. So an orc is a goblin - simple enough - but is also potentially a troll, an ogre, a kobold, a dwarf, a bugbear, a hobgoblin or an elf. Or all of them.

    That this might strike anyone as strange is a mark of the way that Gygaxian Linnaeanism has become so deeply embedded - among gamers at least. But for non-gamers, it's the observation of such distinctions that's odd. These words *are* essentially synonyms in common English. Shakespeare's Puck is a hobgoblin - but so is the creature in the later OED citation that's taller than a house. Grendel's kin include Cain, orc-neas (demon-corpses) and eotenas (giants) and ylfe (elves): they're all the same sort of thing. To observe a distinction between a troll and an ogre is the mark of the gaming Cain.

    I find that by restoring that sort of linguistic imprecision to my games, I can keep players on their toes a lot more. But it doesn't restrict the available monsters - because the 'elves' of a particular forest might range from ugly little rootlings to towering man-eating monsters as tall as the trees around them. One tribe of 'orcs/elves/gnomes' might be entirely different from the next - and both might incorporate the full range of 'giant-class' stat blocks. For the players, it puts a premium on tribal identifiers (heraldry, tattoos, warpaint, totems, etc.) rather than taxonomy.

    And the fact that monsters exist in tribes that are entirely physically distinct from each other is quite Glaurungian in itself. I rambled on a bit more about it here a whiel ago:

  4. You've inadvertently scratched one of the many dichotomies that bedevil our hobby and restrict it's growth: mood VS mechanics or as it used to be known, role play VS roll play.

    I know players who thrill at encountering and exploring the vague and the dreadful and the unknown in a game but I also know players who will have nothing to do with a game not properly ruled and stat blocked, a game they can't play the numbers so to speak.

    Ive found that while most players can adapt to a game played either way, most lean one way or the other and will eventually find a style of play they don't naturally want to play unsatisfactory and/or frustrating.

    This rarely ends well. If you're lucky, you'll get a direct face to face explanation and an opportunity to at least part on good terms. More often you'll get a gradual lack of participation and a drawn out passive aggressive exit from the table.

    1. I'm not sure I'm that downbeat about it. I think most of the time if the players are friends they tend to get over these differences.

    2. To be fair, I am lucky enough to play with a club that has reasonable numbers and multiple running games.

      People I think genuinely want to weld themselves to games and have good ideas as to how they want to play but the reality of other players often falls short.

      The reality is that unlike say the ubiquitous nature of soccer with its simple rules and huge popularity, RPGs have a vastness of styles and complexity with few outlets to play, often forcing players into a game they wouldn't choose first but must if the want to play.

      Again, I am lucky to belong to a club so my solution, and no disrespect to persons whose games I've played at, was to begin running my own games and trying to ensure the style, rules and mood of the games be clearly outlined at the start.

      I've had mixed results with players as outlined above and I admit it's an ongoing concern. I want to run games and entertain players. Hopefully I'm learning from my mistakes and getting better and the ratio is about 50/50 of players leaving/staying but like I said, they have other choices as to where they play.

  5. I'm not sure I'd agree that Martin's ASoIaF magic is Linnaean. The magic is RARE but that doesn't mean it's classical. It tends to be weird, inconsistent, based on the human psyche more than consistent rules. It's not at all scientific, it's just rare enough to not really impinge on the daily life of most people.

    Also if you look at Martin's old stories a whole bunch of them (With Morning Came Mistfall etc.) are big wet sloppy kisses for Romanticism. For Martin in full-on romantic fantasy mode see In the Lost Lands.

    1. I didn't say it was Linnaean, but classicist. There's a difference. There are unexplained and weird things in ASoIaF, sure - and the magic isn't scientific. But the people in that world have real world attitudes to the world around them. They approach it as though it is a thing that has an empirical consistency and that can be studied and known. That's what I mean by "classicist".