Preview: The Bestiary

Copyright Robert J Defendi for Final Redoubt Press, Art by B.C. Hailes © 2007

Edited by Nicholas HM Caldwell for The Guild Companion

"This is another reason why we shouldn't try to make every foe some deep human allegory. Sometimes we just need to smash something."

The following text is a preview of the fourth Echoes of Heaven product from Final Redoubt Press. Called The Bestiary, it details the monsters of the setting.

Monsters in the Game

Monsters serve an important role in any roleplaying game, but in The Echoes of Heaven they are both more and less important. How you use monsters depends on what story you tell.

They are less important because with monsters, we tend to tell less story and display more action. In fact, stories are harder to tell with monsters, because an adventuring party is more likely to kill a monster on sight. Most of the time, your truly moving stories will come from the nonplayer characters. In The Echoes of Heaven, we explore life in a fallen world, and stories in a fallen world are stories about character.

They are more important in that monsters in The Echoes of Heaven play to heavy moments of symbolism. Cambions can be said to symbolize the sins they represent, but they probably represent the little sins, while Demons represent the large ones. Look at the first adventure in The Moving Shadow, where Hobgoblins and a Demon of Deceit have taken over a monastery. Is this a simple dungeon crawl, or do the Hobgoblins represent the repressed wantonness of the former monks, the Demon of Deceit the stories we tell ourselves to get through life? Is the Fat Man in The Festering Earth just a bad guy, or does he represent the consumerism of the city, murdering in his need to devour? Do the Orcs in Uzarâg speak to us because they represent the end state of Dwarven greed? And how come almost all the monsters in The Tainted Tears represent deceit again?

Of course, as Freud said, sometimes a cigar is just a cigar.

Every monster in your stories doesn't need to be a deep symbol. In fact, they shouldn't be. But if the important ones play to the player's subconscious, the effects will be much more powerful when you do. Symbols are awesome tools, when not overused. They make connections in the player's minds that the player doesn't notice, but understands on a deep level.

In The Echoes of Heaven, we tell stories. There is little in the way of random encounters simply because of this. Every encounter has a story purpose. Don't fall into the trap of sprinkling in monsters without reason. Try to make sure each one connects to a story goal. You won't always succeed (we don't here at Final Redoubt Press, either), but your stories will almost certainly improve if you try.

Monsters in General

Monsters are often frothing, growling bundles of destruction. This isn't something you should avoid. Monsters are supposed to be like that. For many stories, that's their only purpose.

But look at all the monsters of legend. The dragon represents wisdom to the ancient Greeks, but to Christians it's the serpent from the Garden of Eden. Monsters are brutish because they represent the brutishness in ourselves. There's a reason that many words such as troll and ogre have taken on metaphorical meanings. Some of it is the prevalence of ogres and trolls in our shared heritage, but perhaps it's more because they've been symbols all along.

But monsters serve another, equally important purpose. Monsters are surrogates for the frustrations of our real life. We live in a world of shades of gray and many of us just need a good fight once in a while. In roleplaying games, we have a healthy method of venting these frustrations. Instead of mouthing off at our bosses, we can get together on the weekend and mow through an army of goblins. Who cares if they're so weak we don't get any experience? It feels good. This is another reason why we shouldn't try to make every foe some deep human allegory. Sometimes we just need to smash something.

The proportion of monsters that carry a deeper meaning and the ones we treat like anvils should depend on your group. If you have players who love intricate, meaningful stories, concentrate on the former purpose of monsters. If you game with a group of twitching postal workers then for the sake of us all, concentrate on the latter.

Monsters in the Story

Sometimes we just need to throw some random foes at a party. Maybe they're wandering a dangerous countryside. Maybe they've expertly avoided all your best story hooks and are lost in the wilderness. In these cases, grabbing some bad guys to keep things interesting isn't a bad idea.

At other times, your monsters should be more directed. Not every one needs to dramatically underpin the story, but they should all serve some purpose, if only through their level of difficulty. Here are some of the more common roles of a monster.

General Story Roles

A Symbolic Role: The symbolic role is often combined with other roles, such as the Guardian or the Witch. In the symbolic role, a monster has another job, on the surface. They guard treasure or need to get stomped or serve as the boss monster. But that other role could be filled by any creature of the right power level, and yet, this creature is the best fit. Why? Often it just seems to feel right, and we discover, on further thought, it serves a symbolic purpose. Maybe the entire adventure has subtly rewarded a character's self control. If that's the case a monster that represents wantonness would be a good boss monster. Maybe the characters have gotten into the encounter because of a failure on their part to be charitable, in that case a creature that represents greed would be appropriate. Maybe they are struggling to preserve life, and in that case you might want undead, the shuffling anti-life, as a foe. These monsters make a subconscious emotional connection to the players, and therefore heighten the game experience. For example, how many Christian myths involve a knight of virtue rescuing a maiden (eve) from a dragon (serpent). It's sexist, but it's symbolism.

Echoing: This is often an offshoot of the Symbolic Role. In echoing, the monster is here not because it's important here, but because it's important somewhere else. If you want to study echoing, study the movie The Empire Strikes Back. Han goes out into the freezing cold to rescue Luke, echoing Luke's failed attempt to rescue Han and Vader's attempt to freeze Luke at the end. The cave on Dagobah echoes the cave in the asteroid field. In fact, part of the genius of that movie is that in the use of echoing, it strengthens climax and uses the excitement garnered in one storyline to make another seem far more exciting than it is.

Specific Story Roles

The Alien: The alien is a creature terrible in the face of nature. It is wrong, an abomination. Aliens are often used to reinforce the sinful arrogance of their master. The mere presence of an alien speaks quietly to the players, stating that this is not right.

The Blasphemer: The Blasphemer is evil. Often, the Blasphemer has set itself, knowingly or unknowingly, against the will of God. The Blasphemer can be a dark priest, a Fallen Angel, or a mage with a god complex-anything that acts in a way that is the opposite of righteous. Sometimes the blasphemer is knowingly committing evil, as with an evil priest. Sometimes they do so out of arrogance or atheism. Sometimes they even become the Blasphemer in an attempt to do good as with Victor Frankenstein.

The Blasphemy: The Blasphemy is similar to the Alien, however likely no one made the alien. The Alien is from outside the pale, or it came from an Ulcer's corruption. The Blasphemy is a creature that was made by the will of a living being, in defiance of all that's holy. Frankenstein's Monster was a Blasphemy.

The Dark Mother: The Dark Mother births evil. She is the queen insect. The dark goddess. The demon spider at the center of the world. The Dark Mother doesn't create evil because she wants to bring evil into the world. She creates evil for the need to create, just like a Mortal mother. It's just that she's incapable of creating good.

The Dark Urge: The Dark Urge is a creature born from the evil within our selves. Often it's released by a good creature attempting to bring more good. Other times it's an accident. Mr. Hyde was a Dark Urge.

The Distraction: A distraction is a lesser form of Temptress, as detailed below. Its role is to keep the characters from doing what's right. Sometimes the distraction is important to the story, as in the accompanying adventure, The Tainted Tears. There, the entire Ulcer is a distraction. Its purpose is to take characters away from worrying about the fate of the world for an adventure. For one story, they get the relative "vacation" of exploring a personal tale of loss.

The Devourer: The Devourer wishes to consume the world. It is nothing but hunger, pitiless, without morals. A band of Cambions killing all the game in a forest take this role. Jaws was a devourer.

The Elemental: The elemental stands as a primal force in the universe. Often, the elemental has little in the way of personality. It is focused, powerful. Many villains in Comic Books are elementals. They seize on one thing, murder, humor, cold, plants, and they pursue it to the point of ignoring all other things. The bad guy that wants to end the world in chaos, simply for the sake of chaos, is an Elemental.

The Guardian: The Guardian holds something the characters need, be it knowledge or power. The Obstacle, below, can be a form of Guardian when it stands across a threshold the characters must cross.

The Hunter: The Hunter stalks. Often, the characters in the story take the role of prey as the Hunter follows and tracks and kills them one by one. The Hunter is relentless, uncaring. It only sees the hunt. The villains in most slasher movies are Hunters.

The Obstacle: The Obstacle is a creature set in the character's path. It's job is to stop their forward progress, nothing more. Each obstacle a character defeats plays a subtle resonance with the obstacles the player would like to overcome in his own life.

The Prey: The Prey is there to be hunted. It is about flight and evasion. Characters need a reason to confront Prey, because the Prey will never force the confrontation. The Prey often has something the characters need. The Prey isn't necessarily helpless, it might even be able to beat the characters easily. It just doesn't want to. The leprechaun of legend is Prey.

The Temptress: The Temptress is a monster that tries to steer characters from the proper path. Sometimes they charm. Sometimes they offer riches. The Temptress is named for its literary role, not its sex. It can be male or female.

The Trickster: The Trickster uses guile and forethought to defeat its enemies. Riddle masters, puzzle makers, con men, and the layers of traps are all Tricksters. Monsters that build elaborate snares to keep out the unwary, such as Kobolds, are Tricksters.

The Witch: Often underused, the Witch is a monster that cannot be beaten, it can only be tricked. The Witch in literature often doubles as the Guardian, the Obstacle, or the Temptress. The party uses cleverness to neutralize the Witch, because no amount of force can. The Witch is named for its literary role as well. It can be either sex. The legendary Hound that guards the underworld is a Witch.

The Boss Monster: It might be cliché, but we've all seen it. Most of the time, we even want it. The Boss Monster is the creature at the end of the adventure, the being in the center of the web. Each action brings the characters closer to some form of Boss Monster. The Boss Monster is the vampire in the castle, the minotaur in the labyrinth. It's the threat that hangs over the character's head the entire story. They might try to avoid him, but most player know in their hearts that they'll never escape without a final, dramatic confrontation.

Mechanical Roles

The Jaunt: This is a level of difficulty, but it serves a role in the story as well. The Jaunt is often combined with one of the other roles, most often the obstacle. The Jaunt is an easy fight. It allows the players to feel good about their characters and their characters' power. Jaunts are important, because jaunts are a time for players to attach their wish-fulfillment fantasies to their characters. In a game with no Jaunts, players tend to distance themselves from their characters.

The Challenge: Most encounters in a story are Challenges. A challenge is winnable, often there isn't a real chance of character death, but a challenge uses a character up. Mages cast spells. Warriors take wounds. Each Challenge costs character resources.

The Crucible: Many Boss Monsters are crucibles. This is the type of fight a party can barely win. In these battles, death is a real threat and it takes all the party's resources to prevail. When a character survives a crucible, his player often feels wrung out.

The Rout: This is the unwinnable fight. A smart party knows to flee a Rout. Every once in a while a party turns a Rout into a Crucible through tactics and lucky rolls. A Rout is often combined with a Witch.

Continued in The Bestiary.