Monday, December 5, 2011

Gygaxian Naturalists: Your Campaign's Monster Manual According to the Players

This may have been proposed before, but just in case it hasn't...

So I was thinking about Galbaruc, and monsters, and how I wanted to handle monsters in my campaign setting, and what I wanted to emphasize, and avoid, and I got to thinking about a session of Jeff Rient's Caves of Myrddin campaign I was in a few weeks ago. We were somewhere beneath the East Tower, having just descended to a new level, and we encountered a grayish, winged creature we took to be a gargoyle. This prompted a brief discussion on whether or not our characters would know what it was, let alone its strengths and weaknesses, etc. And then Jeff said we were free to use any out-of-character knowledge we wanted. In fact, we were welcome to open the book right there on the spot, and look up the relevant entry.*

This came as something of a shock to me. For most of my (admittedly short, by community standards) gaming career, this simply WAS NOT DONE. "Metagaming" was high on the hierarchy of sins. This was madness. This was the Pope handing out condoms at a Pride rally.

So we looked up the entry, decided we had very little chance of taking on such an opponent, and ran like hell. But I didn't trust the entry anyway. The whole thing made me paranoid. No, there was a reason Jeff was so blase about the whole thing. This wasn't a gargoyle at all. Or maybe it was, but it had some kind of crazy anti-gargoyle powers and shot napalm out of its nipples or something.

I loved that feeling of uncertainty-- of having information right in front of you, but not quite being able to trust it. For all I know, Jeff might simply be running with absolute transparency, and I was getting all worked up for nothing.

But this made me think about Herodotus' History, medieval bestiaries and the accounts of early travelers and explorers. We've got information, sometimes very specific information, but it's not exactly reliable. Often, this information is second-hand at best, and you have writers and illustrators, often with the best will in the world, working from garbled accounts. And all this is further confused by a thick fog of lies, exaggerations, wishful thinking, and pious tempts to imbue these creatures with religious symbolism. I have a T.H. White translation of a medieval bestiary that describes the panther as a symbol for Christ, attests to the miraculous ability of the beaver to detach its own genitals (and thus become a symbol of chastity) and depicts the crocodile as some kind of wolf-creature with eagle talons.

This would be perfect for gaming, and even better for ConstantCon games, where you have a nice big pool of players and their characters hopping from game-world to game world. There's already a sizable amount of rumor and speculation flying around about the Caves of Myrddin, for example.
The PCs are explorers -- they venture into bizarre, uncharted territories and CHART THEM. Dungeons are explored, passages marked, traps, secret doors, and mysterious items cataloged and referenced for later use. Secrets are bought, sold and traded. Bounties are offered by other players for the heads of particular miscreants.

There's really no reason monsters can't work the same way. The party encounters some strange critter or swarm of critters they've never seen before. Half the party is wiped out, but the survivors take notes. "Large, single red eye and a black beak, wings, covered in dense, foul-smelling white fur. Can breathe paralyzing fog at least once a round. We needed at least a 16 to hit, so AC is 3 or lower. The one we killed was still alive after we did 18 damage to it, but then the cleric (God rest his poor soul) got it for 8 points in a single hit and killed it, so we know it had somewhere between 19 and 26 Hit Points. They seem to travel in packs of 3-5."

Later, these creatures acquire a name, maybe a sketch from someone whose character encountered one, or, even better, someone reading that person's account of the encounter. Rumors about possible weaknesses are raised. What if it's some kind of demon. Would Holy Water affect it? Only one way to find out... G+ chat sessions become Explorer's Clubs. "Didn't you try smearing your faces with gnoll bone marrow, old boy? No?"

*Now that I think about it, this may have just been so we'd stand around dawdling and he'd have an excuse to roll for Wandering Monsters


  1. Yes. It's time dungeoneers got over their paranoid secrecy and started sharing information: mythic underworlds practically demand it.

    Next they should unionise - or at least pool resources for life insurance.

  2. This is a smidge timely, what with my players asking the session before last whether "adventurer" was the term actually used in the campaign world for their avocation. I said no, then thought about it, and decided instead that that's what SOME people call it.

    As an aside, the Aberdeen Bestiary's depiction of the hyena became my in-game-world model for a statted-up chupacabra. I need to get my hands on that T. H. White book.

  3. I think this is a good idea, and one I've been using in my own games. My monsters are a mix of old and new, some unique creations, and my players can share any info they think they know; of course, they're not always right, and that adds to the tension of the game. Eliminates argument about meta-gaming too.

  4. The idea of Explorers' G+ hangouts or some sort of open blog for posting notes is a fabulous follow-up to the open gaming / flailsnails idea. maybe monsters will cross campaign boundaries as well.

    I could see an open blog bestiary or Wiki where notes are posted. Comments could be used for add-on entries on a single monster. There would need to be a standardized header for campaign, GM, player name, and maybe what might be known about basic stats. There might need to be a protocol for making edits.

    Then GMs might start throwing more curves. "Oh, the catoblepas we say were a bit larger and had longer necks and horns - a new variety or some other creature entirely....?

  5. I sorta love the idea of running a G+ game like this - explain nothing, encourage alternate theories, and keep the players as in the dark as the PCs. Hmm ...

  6. I'm imagining something along the lines of the dragon encyclopedia in How to Train your Dragon, but it would probably end up more like bulbapedia.

    ...which is itself an awesome unreliable resource.

  7. Zaunn was thinking of trying to make contact with the other exploring parties of Nightwick Abbey as he wants to compare notes and maps.

  8. How have players been coping with the recent mini Tekumel revival? A lot of old D&Ders like me can tell you that a Gargoyle is a 4HD beastie or thereabouts with a good number of attacks and should not be messed with by anyone under 5th level off the tops of their heads, but a Dlaqo or a Shedra?

  9. If my players unionize, the first thing I will do is ship my campaign to China and refound the player group with child convicts. Then I award myself a bonus and a raft of stock options.

    For the most part it's done wonders to extend the "what the fuck" is that mystery. Even something as "simple" as burning a Mrur to prevent them from reconstituting has become an important--fear-defining moment.

  10. @ Jayson: The bestiary, A Book of Beasts: Being a Translation from a Latin Bestiary of the Twelfth Century Made and Edited by T.H. White is still in print as a Dover paperback with all the illustrations (ISBN 0486246094).

    @Bert: So far, the only time this has come up in the EPT games (that I'm aware of, anyway) was when players found themselves confronted with a Mrur, and were surprised to see it return to "life" after being killed. They then killed it again, chopping it in half at the torso. When it regenerated again, the two halves attacked them independently, until finally someone (I think it was Zak, whose characters seem to always carry at least 6 extra jars of lamp oil) set the two halves ablaze and put an end to it. The next time the encountered some (in Chris' game) they dealt with it quickly and decisively.

    There's a chance I'm remembering it wrong, in which case anyone who was there is free to correct me.

  11. Bestiaries and other similar encyclopedia were/are ways for colonizers to take stock in the lands that they now own or have recently seen, whole fields of academic study have been founded on this premise, anthropology. It is a way to codify, compartmentalize, stake claims to recently discovered areas.

    That said, I think it's a great idea to do some type of worlds encompassing bestiary. A Dungeon Hiker's Guide to the Multiverse.

    and someone just needs to come up w/ a FLAILSNAILS approved Anthropologist class to study the people in these various cultures. #notreallybutitwoulodbefunny

  12. @Jeremy Duncan

    Thanks for the pointer about that Dover book. It looks like a good resource.

  13. "This was the Pope handing out condoms at a Pride rally."

    Pure awesome.

    In my old game from the 90s I always told the players they were free to use any player knowledge they had, they just needed to explain to me how their character might know it. We got some very cool and entertaining dialogues from this.

  14. Regarding a monster wiki, we could just add them to the existing Monster Wiki. There is no reason the monster pages can only hold stat blocks, I think.

  15. There's a way to deal with that idea - but do,n't tell the players you use it. During First round of fight, consider only the highest roll actually hit. So it gives you the AC. Then multiply damage by the number of PCs and it gives you hit points if it's a lone creature, or my dungeon level if it's a group of creatures. It should be ok.

  16. An enjoyable post! There can't be many things more fun than messing with players' minds, and in this case, with good world-building consequences.