Tuesday, January 18, 2022

Monsters & Motivation

Whoever fights monsters should see to it that in the process he does not become a monster.

Friedrich Nietzsche

As I mentioned back at the end of my New Year’s missive (“Rejuvenating after the Lost Years”) I’m developing a medieval fantasy setting (possibly using B/X Dungeons & Dragons, maybe system-neutral; that’s a debate for another day). It’s a vast moorland of heath, mires, and hills created ages ago when kingdoms banded together to destroy the power of a great mage. Rather than rely on the usual explore-slay-pillage tropes on which some games and gameplay rely, I’m trying to focus more on the relationship of the region’s inhabitants with both the environment and each other. So in designing this setting I’m looking beyond basic, superficial stereotypes and trying to craft for each faction, individual, and even monsters a relevant motivation when interacting with each other and with player characters. This inevitably leads me to examine the role we give “monsters” in fantasy roleplaying games. like my favorite B/X D&D.

Debate in roleplaying circles occasionally investigates the nature of monsters in games. Civilized discussion can help us examine a new perspective and sometimes change our views and behaviors; though in this Internet Age it far too often polarizes us into inflexible defensive positions, devolves into “us verses them” diatribes, and quickly turns into a dumpster fire. I try to remain positive and blandly non-controversial here at Hobby Games Recce, so I hope readers will have patience with me as I ponder some of these issues. Are monsters a manifestation of racism, painting monsters as the detestable “other” opposed to our own place in society? Are they logical, thinking characters acting in their own best interests or cardboard cut-out targets to hack apart in search of treasure? The answers differ from one gamer to the next, if they consider these issues at all. We should give such matters consideration not in search of a final, monolithic answer but in our continued growth as gamers and humans as we learn more about ourselves, others in our community, and the kinds of games that entertain us.

Monsters were the default adversary in my misspent youth when I first discovered Basic D&D. I was 12 years old when I began my Golden Age of Roleplaying (the early and mid 1980s) and didn’t have much of a sophisticated view of the world around me, nor did I posses a wider perspective and understanding as I do in my older age. The basic D&D rulebook – and subsequent materials – reinforced this by focusing on combat tactics in monster descriptions. Many published games of the time (and since then) emphasized combat by providing copious rules on related actions and characteristics: offensive spells, weapons, armor, hit points, armor class, “saves” against various attacks. Sure, other mechanics and stats lent themselves to different forms of conflict resolution, but a greater portion of the rules anticipated combat as the means to overcoming most monster-oriented challenges. So, as I struggled to understand the previously unfamiliar concept of a fantasy roleplaying game, I led friends on forays into the Caves of Chaos or the Isle of Dread intent on slaying monsters and taking their stuff (as I suspect most high school kids might, at least in my unenlightened youth).

(Despite many games focusing on combat systems, some, particularly B/X D&D and Advanced D&D, fill humanoid monster descriptions with numbers of males [presumably those capable of fighting], females [presumably non-combatants], and young, an odd, humanizing factor reminding players such monsters live in familial and societal groups.)

I’ll credit Chaosium’s Thieves’ World boxed set with expanding my horizons ever so slightly to understand that people could also serve as fantasy roleplaying game adversaries as well as or even better than monsters. With monsters we know by their appearance (and sometimes their actions) that they’re the obvious foe; but with people, well, they often look like us and seem to act on our behalf, but the most treacherous of them seek to deceive and betray us, tossing us aside for their own ends. (I’ll grant that B/X D&D included such “monsters” as acolytes, barbarians, brigands, various “benevolent” humanoids like dwarves and elves, and non-player character parties, though perhaps labeling the chapter “Part 6: Adversaries” or even “Encounters” might have been more accurate than “Part 6: Monsters.”)

At this time I was also immersing myself in fantasy and science-fiction novels, including J.R.R. Tolkein’s The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings epic, a vast difference from D&D’s hack-and-slash swords-and-sorcery inspirations. Tolkein offered a creation-myth rationale for the orcs of Middle-earth and their hatred of the elves (and everyone else); that they were once like the elves, blessed with beauty and grace and long life, but were taken by Morgoth, tortured and twisted into their current, miserable forms, now spiteful of the admirable beings free of such defects. This feeds into the idea that monsters represent the negative aspects of humans. By transferring these negative traits to “monsters,” removed from our humanity, we can revile, fight, and vanquish them as an undesirable part of our nature in a kind of allegorical purification. And yet roleplaying game characters often resort to violence and selfishness to defeat the very embodiment of violence and selfishness we create in monsters.

(I’m making broad generalizations here – a problem with monsters and stereotypes and human society overall – but I acknowledge these issues don’t always apply to every game, especially those with more depth than dungeon-delving combat and plunder.)

Reverse the trend and start giving monsters human characteristics. I applaud those players whose characters approach monsters without the usual mindlessly violent stereotypes...and gamemasters who accommodate them. Game design can also encourage this kind of play. Perhaps we as creators, publishers, and gamemasters should imbue monsters with more human qualities to make them less two-dimensional and more realistic in their interactions with player characters, particularly in ways that don’t always default to combat. Player characters possess more relatable traits, backgrounds, and situations, elements we can transpose onto familiar monsters to help make them more interesting encounters...where “more interesting” doesn’t necessarily mean more formidable foes in combat but ones that challenge characters to explore different solutions to problems at hand.

I’m attempting to implement this paradigm shift in my latest setting by focusing on developing monsters’ motivations (though I’m also exploring their fears, backgrounds, and other personality traits, many of which influence motivation). I touched on this briefly and superficially in “Random Encounter Motivations” five years ago. Although my setting relies on broadly generalized monster types – as do most fantasy roleplaying games – they’re guided by individuals with motivations related to the environment they inhabit. Everyone – individuals, factions, even mindless monsters – is influenced by some kind of motivation. For some it might be an immediate goal: finding food and shelter enough to survive in a challenging environment. For others it might tap into greater ambitions: research lost magical lore; maintain their hold on the local economy; chart a course for an invading army; search the region for an ancient artifact; prepare the way for their god-mage’s eventual return. In a difficult environment, where every day poses challenges to survival, engaging in combat to resolve encounters puts everyone at risk; a lost comrade, damaged equipment, even injuries can all limit their chances of successfully surviving the next obstacle. As in everyday life for humans (in game or in real life), resorting to violence often remains the last option, if it’s considered at all.

Good storytelling of any kind requires thoughtful characters...both the protagonists and the antagonists. “Monsters” remain a core element of fantasy roleplaying games, as they have in the legends, novels, comics, films, and other media that influenced such games. Yet humans and heroes often contain some degree of monstrousness within them. To maintain our self-esteem we focus on our positive qualities, often repressing the negative qualities instead of acknowledging and trying to reform them. It is far easier for humans to cleanse themselves of negative concepts by draping them over an “other,” someone who clearly plays the monster to their perfect hero. But look back at history, look at today’s news, and we’ll find humans both heroic and villainous; each of us contains positive and negative aspects and we hope during the course of our lives that the former overrides the latter. Maybe if we start seeing in “monsters” qualities all humans possess, good and bad (in varying degrees), we might re-examine our relationship with the adversaries in our own lives, try to understand their motivation, and work with them – not against them in combat – to try advancing humanity’s common welfare.

The belief in a supernatural source of evil is not necessary; men alone are quite capable of every wickedness.”

Joseph Conrad


  1. I'm looking forward to what you come up with for your setting. And how "monsters" are handled.

    1. Thanks Narmer. It'll take time, but we'll see what I come up with.

  2. Have you looked into D & D 5th Edition? Streamlined and closer to the original D & D, leaving more for interpretation by the DM / GM, and making it far less rules-lawyer oriented [ala 3.5].

    I have constructed a campaign [not quite play ready yet - thank you COVID-19] based on the tripartite of Harn as a world, 5th edition as a mechanic and Fantasy Grounds Unlimited for the virtual table top.

    1. I have looked at D&D 5th and while it looks nice it's not to my liking as a system. I'm an old B/X D&D nostalgia guy. And while game design influences play at the table, an engaging game also needs a good gamemaster and a setting that encourages exploring non-combat solutions to challenges.


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