On Cultivating the Fantastic

Why is it so difficult to just have a monster be a monster?

The answer is surprising. It's because our minds develop in response to our environments.

A little background. I.Q. test scores have been rising for decades. In lieu of deciding that our ancestors were retarded, it's "the side effect of the cultural transition from pre-scientific to post-scientific operational thinking. Over the last century the basic principles of science slowly filtered into the public consciousness, transforming the world we lived in." The Genius in All of Us, By David Shenk

Noisms pointed out a quote talking about how commercial fantasy authors attempting to literalise actual fantastical concepts removes their weight and value.

Once Orcs are not about the ancient threat of Neanderthal dominance,
Once Vampires are not about the nightmare of rape and the violation of our sanctity,
Once the immortal Lich is not about horror of structures of law and tradition which were invented by men who were dead long before we were born,
Once Werewolves are no longer about the terror of our inner animalistic impulses overwhelming us,
Once Zombies are not about our innate and unending fear of the implacable advance of gluttonous death,

then they are just housecats that we can kill from behind the safety of our +2 blade that adds two to our to hit roll, allowing us to strike at the monster if we roll an 8 or higher.

When second edition began, when third edition began, when the rationalization of Dungeons & Dragons began;  this overriding desire to explain everything and have everything make sense was about destroying this very wonder and magic.
Is it really necessary that you explain and rationalize everything interesting away?
Is it too hard to comprehend something that exists that doesn't make logical sense, but makes visceral sense?
Once you kill the threshold between the known world and the dungeon, is it any wonder that dungeons fell out of vogue?

Nearly everyone I'm gaming with is the person who was always made to be the Dungeon Master - I am often the Dungeon Master in a group of 'always the Dungeon Master'. This makes it extra hard, because they know the rulebooks front to back and some of them have been serving up these various tropes for over two decades or more. So, I'm a rational person on top of that so how do you restore that sense of wonder? How do you run a light, tough, or dark fantastic game? Here are some of the things I do to instill the sense of wonder in things. (I suggest my players avoid reading the following)

Recreate monsters - especially the humanoids. Keep them physically and statistically the same, but recreate their culture. Some of the following are cobbled together from a subconscious memory of the blog-o-sphere.

Cannites: Dog headed humanoids who are extremely religious nomads who eat and worship the dead. They are consumed by a never ending hunger that drives all their actions. Loud and brash in character they will gladly talk with men, because all men become corpses soon enough (gnolls)
Meeks: Tiny, three foot tall creatures, that are mechanically inclined. They have large eyes and heads and their whole language consists of one word 'meep'. They naturally congregate near other humanoids and gladly do their bidding. They are often found with ladders, knives, hammers and other tools, going about their own inscrutable purposes.(Kobolds)
Gigas: Some people are born with brains that produce extremes of human emotions. These energies collect and are released lashing out into natural forms. Hills, Mists, Storms, Mountains, and more fused with these energies come alive with emotion and thrash about destroying all that is around them. (Giants)
Watol: Evil seeps into the land, and the very forms of the earth and trees animate into heinous minor demons. Each different and twisted and sick they murder all who they come across. When killed they disintegrate into a pile of dirt and twigs and leaves, the material from which they came. (Goblins)
A non-standard list of dimensions
Recreate the powers of undead or dragons. Do not let the players know what to expect.

Have overland encounters be with men, or animals. Make them cross a threshold (a clear in game threshold "Are you sure you wish to travel down the secluded mountain pass") before having them fight the fantastical.

I run many monsters as 'animals', Stirges, and such. This I think as fine, as long as they only occur where one might find animals. They are always part of the known world, and not the unknown

Simple things, that I view as obvious, may not be to other people. Don't announce what the players are fighting, don't explain what's happening when a monster attacks - just what they see. One of the best pieces of advice I ever got was from Topher - the quintessential Hackmaster GM was this. Mark down the damage they are doing with their non-magical weapons as if that Gargoyle is actually taking it.

Write your damn descriptions out ahead of time or know it well enough to be able to describe exactly what they are looking at. Zak's suggestion(s) of pictures is quite helpful.

Don't give out in game stats - especially for fantastic creatures. Ask them to roll, and tell them if they hit.

Someone will surely point out, doesn't this affect player agency? Surely, but since we're attempting to create a sense of wonder, you must realize that it relies on information that not only isn't known, but can't be knowable. So the agency is in crossing that threshold.

There's a lot of advice on this subject at Ars Ludi, (Bad trap) and the Alexandrian (Putting the Magic in Magic Items)

If you have additional comments, please add them below - I have things I struggle with myself.
  • How to make a weapon seem mystical when I can't remember to track the bonus each weapon provides? So, in the interests of fairness, I go ahead and give the bonus to the players.
  • How to reconcile the fact that in a five hour game, we have four to six combat encounters, that take about two hours of time - how to 'not reuse' monsters over and over, when in a year, I'll have to have 200 combats.
  • Remembering to engage the wonder of the players, and not getting bogged down in the minutia of being a DM

23 comments:

  1. Don't give out in game stats - especially for fantastic creatures. Ask them to roll, and tell them if they hit.

    Everything else was spot on except for this. You're just asking the real world player to multi-task and do deductive accountancy to figure out what's going on. That's taking them away from focusing on the game world.

    How to make a weapon seem mystical when I can't remember to track the bonus each weapon provides? So, in the interests of fairness, I go ahead and give the bonus to the players.

    Use fewer magic weapons, and have them do things other that add bonuses to dice rolls. Give them descriptive names that cue you to remember what it is they do. Favor non-weapon magic items.

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  2. When second edition began, when third edition began, when the rationalization of Dungeons & Dragons began; this overriding desire to explain everything and have everything make sense was about destroying this very wonder and magic.

    It makes me wonder if one of the major culprits was this whole notion of rules-based player agency (I hear this line of reasoning so often from articulate new schoolers), that is you need a spelled out, comprehensive and player-accessible set of rules to edge out DM arbitrariness.

    But of course doing that makes most everything inherently less mysterious. I mean what is less fantastical than a certitude that even surpasses our own mundane lives.

    I mean hell, do you know what percentage likelihood you have in jumping over a pit wearing a backpack in near darkness. Or the relative likelihood of killing someone with a four-foot piece of metal in the pants-crapping chaos of combat?

    Honestly though the slow rot of this kind of thing was likely there way before 2nd edition, even with the supplements of OD&D. Think of Gods, Demi-Gods, and Heroes when something as utterly other-worldly as the gods themselves are given hitpoints and other combat stats.

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  3. I have +1 and +2 items represented only by special materials and construction (virtuous "damascene" steel and adamantine) so that the truly magical weapons are more special.

    No advice for making monsters more symbolic other than what others have suggested: make them more unique, their powers more unknown. For the 200 combats problem, either make lots of them mundane, or have local swarming/patrolling monsters in a lair before you get to the big baddy.

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  4. How to reconcile the fact that in a five hour game, we have four to six combat encounters, that take about two hours of time - how to 'not reuse' monsters over and over, when in a year, I'll have to have 200 combats.

    One other thing, I forget which post in which related thread introduced the notion that we should be striving to use different monsters every single time, but that seems like bad advice to me. 3/4 of what makes or breaks an encounter is situation, not the relative uniqueness of the critter.

    One could use the same monster over and over again and not make it stale if there was a fresh presentation each time.

    Personally while I am a fan of the never use humanoidswhen a human can substitute Raggi rule of thumb I have to admit that I have seen presentations of their use that rock the house. (Think here of the militarized hobgoblins in Stonehell that manage to turn their section of the mega-dungeon into a grueling and unique test of tactical thinking.)

    Point is that I think this puts GMs down the wrong track and starts to bleed into the "when everything is weird, nothing is weird" other set of dilemmas.

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  5. Not to put too fine a point on it, but you can't have constant fantastical. What was once fantastical becomes mundane. The first time I was on the Internet it was fantastical, now it is mundane.

    That is the nature of adventure, it is why adventure happens on the fringes of society. As civilization advances, wonder and magic recedes. They are opposing forces.

    So keep the players moving outward if you want more fantastical things. And don't use anything from a template. If players want to understand something they should be able to, but don't give away info. If they fight some horrid monster and keep going, don't feel the need to explain the monster later ("Why an old hermit tells you...").

    Look at the show supernatural for instance. In season 1 , Demon's were unknown, rare and nigh unstoppable. Angel's were not mentioned and were (as far as the setting goes) not there. By the start of seventh season demons are little more than roadblocks and mundane nobodies, while even Angel's have become mundane yawns. But it keeps chugging along to new and deeper mysteries (until it will finally implode)

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  6. It all boils down to not giving the whole ball of wax away all at once (if you have no ball of wax to give away it makes that even simpler).



    @stuart ???? "You're just asking the real world player to multi-task and do deductive accountancy to figure out what's going on."

    It's asking them to be attentive game players, to be good game players.

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  7. P1: I rolled a 13
    DM: That's a hit
    P2: I rolled a 12
    DM: That's a miss

    How does that help me feel the monster is more fantastic than the players knowing they need to roll a 13 to hit the monster?

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  8. When second edition began, when third edition began, when the rationalization of Dungeons & Dragons began; this overriding desire to explain everything and have everything make sense was about destroying this very wonder and magic.

    This slow death of mystery and fantasy, in my opinion, had a lot more to do with 'mastering the formulas' and making sales. As long as the formulas were drilled into every product, then more money could be made off of them.

    The big 'spiritual break' with The Game happened there, before even 3rd Edition came along. This rationalization also went hand in hand with 'illuminating' campaign canon (I'm looking at you, Greyhawk!). Adventure modules became a tool to that end, in my opinion.

    These larger observations always reach out into the 'real world' TSR history, which isn't pretty.

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  9. @Stuart

    You're doing it wrong.
    P1: I rolled a 13
    DM: That's a miss
    P2: I rolled a 12
    DM: That's a hit
    P1&2:?!?!

    WONDER INJECTION

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  10. in all seriousness, perhaps a better way to phrase what I do, is ask the players to roll to hit dice and damage. No matter what they roll, nod sagely and go "mmmmmm-hmmmmmm." And then say something disgusting that the monster does.

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  11. Also, this rationalization infection at TSR can probably be cross referenced with some of the recent module observations on Paul's Blog.

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  12. WONDER INJECTION

    Suspension of disbelief... Bu-Bu-Bu-BUSTED!

    No matter what they roll, nod sagely and go "mmmmmm-hmmmmmm." And then say something disgusting that the monster does.

    Half listening to the GM telling us his story. Checking iPhone. Thinking about another game.

    ;)

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  13. Wonder Injection? Really?

    Do your players go:

    "WHAT SORCERY IS THIS! I rolled a 12 and missed and yet Joshua rolled a 13 and hit? How could this be, 12 and 13 are so close together! This is black magick of the worst kind I say!"

    or do they go:

    "Huh, I guess its AC7"

    Cuz my players go with the second one.

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  14. There's no mystery at all if you tell the players the monster is AC 7, has 15 hp left and is on page 44 of the Monster Manual.

    You want to see players freak out...have one hit on 12 and the other miss on a 13.

    I don't tell the players the monsters AC and haven't done so for over three decades now and no one has ever complained that I recall.

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  15. If the sense of wonder is about "how hard is this thing to kill" I think the wonder is really circling the drain at the point.

    How hard the damn thing is to kill should not be the sense of wonder. "What is this?" should be the question on the players minds, followed by "What is it going to do?"

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  16. P1: I rolled a 13
    DM: That's a miss
    P2: I rolled a 12
    DM: That's a hit
    P1&2:?!?!

    Is exactly the error of seeing "To Hit" as a representation of a "hit" and not a representation of a "damaging hit" as intended.

    Which incidentally is the type of thinking that D&D's AC lends itself to... but shouldn't.

    What should happen at that point is the players should try to determine why player 2's character was able to damage the creature when player 1's wasn't. Therein should lay the mystery of the enemy.

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  17. If there's some reason the higher roll wasn't a hit:
    you need a magic weapon
    you need a blunt weapon
    you need to be the correct alignment
    Then that's cool. If you're just screwing around with the system because you think that in and of itself will make things more "mysterious" you're totally wrong. That's much more likely to suggest that the GM is being arbitrary which can get a lot of players to disconnect from the game world.

    And I agree that D&D's terms of to hit, *damage*, and hit points is pretty bad and doesn't do much to describe what they're supposed to be representing.

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  18. Oh I'm not saying that doing this will inherently increase the mystery of the game. But I did want to address the use of "to hit" as a means of helping to foster the possibility of mystery and is perfectly logical from D&D's stance where a 12 can score a telling hit where a 13 cannot.

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  19. Yes, the 'to hit' discussion is truly beside the point.

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  20. I think from a narrative perspective, the mundane and the fantastic have to go hand in hand. One needs to use the mundane in order to set up the fantastic. Like a boxer going jab-jab-jab to set up the uppercut, or a pitcher going fastball-fastball-fastball to set up the breaking pitch. Or a GM going goblin-goblin-goblin to set the players up for the weird new creature he just invented (and which makes me as a player go "oh, cr*p...").

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  21. (I play more than GM; so I think of myself as having a better player perspective than GM perspective)

    I am in two PbP games with the same GM (er... was? both games are on a bit of a hiatus...). In one game (OD&D Greyhawk rules), the atmosphere is a bit lighter, so the goblins we encounter are depicted as little bumbling fools, almost too cute to kill... You almost feel sorry for them as you swing away. But you have to be careful, because they'll turn on you when you let your guard down.

    The other game is Labyrinth Lord rules, set in the Eberron campaign, so it's much darker and "unknown" to the players (none of whom have ever played in an Eberron setting). The GM never gave the first creatures we encountered a name, only descriptions of the different beings - one short and squat, one thin and lanky, etc. with similar features of greenish skin, yellow eyes, pointed ears, sharpened teeth and raking claws... in one enounter, we came across a farm house where clues pointed to the inhabitants being cooked and eaten right in their own kitchen (which called for a sanity roll - a little Cthulu thrown in, as well, apparently!). They certainly weren't "too cute to kill".

    In the end, they were both "goblins". But the GM's description and use of them was varied such that they were very different from the other. The players in the second game especially liked how he set up the atmosphere. It was like the first time I played Silent Hill many years ago... very creepy.

    When it comes to magic items, as a player, I don't mind not knowing what the powers are. It gives me something to try and figure out. But as far as it being a pain for the GM to keep track of what weapons each player has? I think even a simple Post-It note with a few words would suffice for keeping track of it. If it is too much of a bother, then come up with some process by which they can determine more information, but it will "cost" them a bit more... e.g. the MU or cleric can figure it out with a Detect Magic spell, but they'll have to cast it in the first light of the morning and the effort to do so means he cannot cast any other spells that day, regardless of level.

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  22. I am with JDJarvis on this. Don't have a highly detailed ball of wax to run with. There is the Tolkien way of worldbuilding and the Leiber way. I love Tolkien's work and read it constantly, but he makes the world feel well trodden by the time you get there sometimes. Leiber made it up as he went along, you experience Nehwon as you go. I throw a lot of things together willy-nilly ahead of time and run with it, making things often weird and dangerous. But then, I am not a rational person, I am a diagnosed sociopath/schizoid that is a heathen that despises many things scientific. And I also passed a MENSA acceptance test years ago. So go figure. I am fun a parties with alcohol or hallucinogenics, though. :D

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  23. I mostly agree with the article but would include most humanoids under the animal catagory. Its a fantasy world and orcs are excellant fodder. Leave the mystery for demons, undead, and lovecraftian creeps.

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