Seven Monster Traits I Can’t Take Seriously

The fun thing about fantasy worlds is that we aren’t limited to mundane opponents. The huge, the nasty, the impossible—they’re all fair game, and when they take the field, they’re bound to strike fear into all who see them. Fear… just like…. Why are you laughing?

The problem with creating new and intimidating creatures is that while they can be taken seriously, sometimes they go the wrong way and then just end up being silly. Here are some traits I’ve found that turn my reaction from fear to “You have GOT to be kidding me.”

  1. Overchimerical creatures. Yes, the easiest way to create a new creature is to blend aspects of two or more existing ones into some improbable monstrosity. But at the same time, choose the wrong creatures, or try to put too many together, or worse, both at once, and all you get is really odd looks.
  2. Final boss syndrome. Yes, I realize it’s a video game cliché that the first time you defeat anything even remotely final-boss-like it’s going to shake its head a bit, dust itself off and turn into something even more monstrous and aberrant. But because it’s a video game cliché, it has that much harder of a time working anywhere else. (This is also, I think, why it is additionally popular for the creature’s last form to turn back into something humanoid and potentially attractive; it’s just going to get sillier if they keep making it more inhuman, but Uncanny Valley might sneak by just by the contrast.)
  3. How does that even work? Most of us are pretty good with suspension of disbelief. Dragons whose wings really aren’t big enough to carry them, as long as they’re big enough to still look impressive. Bits of anatomy managing to do pretty well without their owners (for some degree thereof; skeletons and walking hands seem fine, hearts can do either really well or really poorly, but I’m not sure how I’d react to a disembodied appendix thirsting for my vital fluids.) But when you start having creatures with so many limbs they really can’t help but trip over themselves, heads too big for bodies and wings by far too small, and highly exposed vital organs (return of The Appendix?) for which there is no reason but decoration to be on the outside…. yeah. No.
  4. Extreme sizes. I don’t just mean “small enough that the application of a thick-soled boot should be sufficient”: those are doable, at least outside of a straight fight (just look at the black widow spider!). It’s just as possible to be too big as too small. Part of this is the fact that after a certain point, Hanlon’s Razor kicks in and any destruction is attributed not to malice but to an inability to watch its step. Part is the suspension of disbelief required for to accept that its opponents really stand that much of a chance. Part goes back to Point 3: if it’s too big, people might start wondering why it still functions.
  5. Bad dialogue. That just beats everything. Even moreso if it’s also got a case of Point 2: there is nothing that says “doomed” quite like the boss-creature expounding at great length on how invincible its final form is and how doomed its opponents are. (Come to think of it, I’ve never been able to take anything whose explanation of why it’s going to win boils down to “because you’re going to lose.”) But it isn’t just creatures with a bad case of “The boss-thing doth protest too much” that cause eye-rolling in the audience; it’s also the ones who use lines that have been done a million times before, that have a serious case of malapropisms… you get the idea. If it wouldn’t work in the mouth of a normal boring human, it’s certainly not going to work coming from your monstrosity.
  6. Sheer stupidity. All right, I was wrong, there is something that makes more of a mess of a creature than bad dialogue, though that’s partly because the bad dialogue is often a symptom. But it is very, VERY hard to get people to fear a creature that doesn’t understand really basic tactics, that would get lose if it walked into the appropriate-size equivalent of a barrel on its side, or that would be fooled by donning a fake mustache right in front of it.
  7. Disproportionately small empirical threat. This one’s more a mechanics or description issue—the appearance and presentation of the monstrosity creates a promise that the actual creature is going to have to deliver on. Imagine one of the monsters that’s gotten a rise out of you, whether it’s from a game, a movie, a book. Now imagine it looming over you, bringing its great claw/teeth-dripping-with-acid/tentacle/spike-thing down on you. Now imagine that the end result comes across feeling rather like a particularly nasty papercut. Now tell me you could still take that thing seriously. I couldn’t. The more hyped the creature is, the more it has to live up to—and the less it lives up to it, the less intimidating it’s going to be. “Oh, I expected worse” is your enemy.

How about you? What sorts of things make you burst out laughing in the midst of what should be a dramatic, high-stakes fight?

6 comments

  1. Sean Holland says:

    Funny, I had just decided that my campaign need more chimeric creatures in it . . . Because they harken back to both early gaming and the weird sort of creatures that showed up in medieval bestiaries. But mostly in the owlbear / Avatar: the Last Airbender mold, i.e. no more than two normal creatures combined, and in the just messed up by wizards experimenting kind of creature.

    Size of monsters is a tough balance, but occasionally I want to fight a purple worm or have the sun blotted out by a massive dragon passing overhead. That is part of the fantasy and wonder of the world.

    Most of you other points are entirely valid. I have tried to avoid all of those as a GM.

  2. Michael says:

    Ah, but dragons are supposed to be massive anyway — creatures are only *too* big if they’re disproportionately big for the type of creature they are (e.g. you can’t have a 10-metre-high spider; its legs wouldn’t support its own weight any more).

    Actually, in one scene I’m planning I have a summoner enemy whose basic strategy is “Summon Bigger Fish”; this leads to a scene where even the dragons get wiped out by an even bigger monster, the main danger from which is — as Erika mentioned — that it will trample the heroes without even knowing what it’s doing. The intention is precisely to add a little bit of silliness to contrast with the intensity of the main battle….

  3. Ravyn says:

    Sean: actually, you and I really aren’t that off in wavelengths. My issue with chimerics is more when you get too many, and they don’t fit together–one of my favorite, er, examples of when it doesn’t quite work comes from Exalted, where the pinnacle of one technique involves turning into this weird gazelle-horned foal-headed carp-thing with more pairs of carp fins than are strictly necessary and way too many eyes. Don’t know about most people, but I can’t read the description without wanting to laugh.

    With the size, Michael’s hit it right on the nose. I’m not talking size-of-things-in-the-rulebook. I’m talking things where you have to start inventing new size categories. If its pinky toe is the size of the Taj Mahal, you’ve got problems. If you can see it from space, if it bumps its head on the sky…. yeah. (And if it can use planets as stepping stones, I’m sorry, but I’m going to have to kill both it and its creator now.)

  4. Sean Holland says:

    Inspired by our discussion of chimeric creatures, I present, the StagWolf:

    http://seaofstarsrpg.wordpress.com/2010/10/25/new-monster-stagwolf/


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