Thursday, December 14, 2006

Memorable Monsters

Last night I worked until almost 1am, and this morning I had to get up at 6am. I'm a little behind on sleep and need a break after a workday in which several important things got done.

So I'm going to sit in a recliner, maybe take a nap, and pray about ideas for monsters.

I've recently downloaded kMoria for my PDA. It's fun to play that game again. (Is it sad that an individual's free port of Moria from Unix to the Palm OS works better than a big company's port of Lego Star Wars II from the Xbox to PC?) Moria reminded me of something from my childhood, one thing the old (2nd Edition) D&D game did well: it had memorable yet systematic monsters.

I'll start this discussion with it's set of common humanoid monsters (which it stole from many types of mythology).

These main humanoid monsters could be ordered in increasing toughness. (I probably don't remember correctly, but the ordering was something like: kobold, goblin, hobgoblin, orc, gnoll, lizardman, ogre, minotaur, troll, ettin.) This nice ordering meant the narrator could fine-tune the challenge of an encounter: do the good guys meet five kobolds, or three goblins, or a hobgoblin with two goblin servants?

But equally important was that each kind of humanoid monster had a distinct, if stereotypical, personality and social setting. Orcs were not simply bigger goblins, and goblins were not simply bigger kobolds. Some of these humanoids typically traveled in big groups, others normally did not. Some formed groups of equals, whereas others formed groups with a leader that was abnormally tough. Some of these humanoids used melee weapons, some used ranged weapons, some used both. Some only fought, some also cast spells, whereas some carried and used magical potions. Some would readily flee if outmatched, whereas others would stubbornly fight to the death but perhaps in their futile combat still inflict a lasting disease or curse on the heroes.

The game used this set-up repeatedly. There was a similarly arranged selection of dragons, giants, lycanthropes, and undead. I can't remember the details as well, but the game-play usefulness was identical: within each category of monsters their systematic heirarchy of toughness allowed combats to be precisely as challenging as the situation required, yet the types of creatures were memorable enough that a storm giant was not simply a bigger hill giant.

This is the last component my science-fiction setting needs. Although it is a science-fiction tradition to have the protagonists encounter new aliens that are unknown and thus unpredictable, this cannot be the norm in a role-playing game. The players want to be able to strategize, so they must have at least a rough idea what they are up against.

This does not mean the players are handed a guidebook explaining the newly colonized planet's flora and fauna. Perhaps an early adventure has them rid a recently established settlement of a few Screaming Leapers that have been preying on the colonist's chickens. Then in a later adventure the heroes are traveling when a larger pack of Leapers attacks them. Then in an even later adventure the heroes must explore a cave complex and deport or kill the many Leapers who have made those caves their nest, and in the caves the heroes find out that Leapers at home have atypically large Warriors and a Queen, like ants do.

For now I don't need even one category of alien-monster systematized with memorable distinctions among category-members. I just need a few alien-monsters to use in the first few adventures. I could rely on my own creativity, but as someone who prays I'll first check to see if God has any ideas.