Monday, August 19, 2013

Monsters Sans Systems

A Method for Sharing Wondrous Magical Beasts, Bizarre Alien Lifeforms, and Disturbing Magical Constructs without Locking Your Creations Into a Single Game System.

In a lot of ways, monsters are the bread and butter of adventure gaming. The very presence of a monster is essentially a reason to adventure. When I was first getting into gaming, I spent hours pouring over the 2nd Ed. Monstrous Manual. The interesting "ecology" and behavioral notes on the various beasts, humanoids, and demons made them spring to life (even more so than the sometimes lackluster illustrations).

Most of us who run games have tried our hand at monster creation. Many of us have shared them with the world in one form or another. When you post a monster in a specific system's stats, you're limiting the monster to people that know that system. Were you to instead just describe the creature in blocks of purple prose (written by an in-setting sage probably), you eliminate anyone that doesn't want to dredge through it to pick up the useful bits. I think I've found a good middle-ground between utility and flavor without system.

The Sans-System Bestiary Format

Name -
 Name the thing. Even if it's only named for the sake of the Game Master.

Purpose - What is this monster supposed to do for the game? Is it only good as an interesting monster-of-the-week or for something more?

This may seem like an odd inclusion, but I find that it's an important one (and will flavor how the rest of the entry is interpreted). What role does it play in the game? Is it meant to be horrific? Annoying (mooks)? Wear down PC's? Change to nature of the game (think lycanthropy, polymorph, patient zero, etc.)? Why would someone put this creature in his/her game?

Appearance - What he/she/it looks like and where the being can be found.

Pretty obvious really, you've got to paint a word-picture and/or literal picture of the being. And due to pun logic, explain where the creature is mostly likely to be encountered by adventurous or investigative types.

Descriptors - Generalized stats and powers for the "monster".

This is where you get into the nuts and bolts of the beast. At the very least, you'll need to describe the creature's physical strength, quickness, intelligence, and rate of movement in relation to an average human-being. From that very simple base, it should be relatively easy to convert the creature to the end-user's game of choice. You might also consider adding categories such as charm, awareness, magical propensity, and manual dexterity as you see fit.

If you'd prefer to use a numeric scale, I'd recommend going with 1-10: One being a practical invalid; five being average; 10 being the best the human form can manage. Again this should make it very easy to shift from system to system. (I.e. ogre or bear strength could run from 11-13; Goblin strength from 4-6.)

You'll also need to list all the special abilities or powers the creature possesses. Can it breath fire? Fly? Does it have thick, protective scales? Yes. Is it a dragon? Yes. Tell us about it, and be specific. Range may not really matter in some systems, but it's important in a fair number of them. How far can the sweet laser-eyes fire? How big is the quick-hardening blob of goop that the alien spits to trap it's prey? How graceful is the lizard-eagle-monkey chimera in flight?

Ecology - How the thing fits into the world.

This would be where you tell us that this is a magical construct, summoned to guard profane artifacts or what-have-you. It's important to know if, what, and how much a thing eats, whether it's a part of nature or ravages ecosystems. Where does this thing come from? Where might it be going?

A long treatise on how the creature's vorpal G.I. tract functions isn't needed (or typically desired), but some context for the thing's existence is.

Other Notes - Anything else that does quite fit in the above-mentioned categories.

I have Example!

Name - The Rekindled.

Purpose - To horrify and surprise players/characters by bringing an explosive twist to the shambling zombie.

Appearance - These reanimated corpses are covered in burns and blackened flesh. As they open their charred lips to cough up a raspy moan, a tell-tale ruddy glow can be discerned shining from the back of their throats. The Rekindled shamble slowly but inexorably towards the living, seeking to tear them asunder. In cooler weather, the flesh of these ghouls steams like a final breath.

They appear suddenly. All the recently dead within a town or village will awaken to monstrous unlife. Wreaking havoc and bringing death, they reproduce quickly. If not stopped in short order, they can quickly fill the countryside.

Descriptors - These are slow-moving but tireless things. Stronger than most men, the Rekindled are capable tearing someone limb from limb though typically they crudely pummel their victims to death. The flesh of these things is hot enough to leave minor burns with only a moment's touch. Even a glancing blow is extraordinarily painful. When they have finally taken enough damage to be slain or if their hearts or lungs are pierced, the Rekindled explode in a fiery blast affecting all within a five foot radius.

Strength - 9/10
Quickness - 2/10
Intelligence - 2/10 (They magically can sense all living creatures within a dozen yards.)
Rate of Movement - 1/2 That of a normal human.

Ecology - These fell creatures are the creations of wicked deities or baleful nature spirits (bleak sprites born of forest fires and drought). They have no place in the usual order of things, and animals flee from the Rekindled's presence.

The Rekindled are usually tied to a specific talisman, often an ornately-carven, smoke-billowing skull. Once this cursed item is brought into a town, all the recently dead within the town's borders spring to unholy life. When all animal life has been forced from the community, the talisman's area of influence grows by approximately 1 mile a day, up to a 50 mile radius. Only when the talisman is destroyed, will the plague of fiery undeath cease.

Other Notes - Enjoy.

Thoughts? Questions? Dirty Jokes? Post 'em in the comments.