One of the reasons I was asking about the article "How Dungeons & Dragons Changed my Life" yesterday was because I wanted to find this quote from Tavis Allison: "The art in the oldest books is weird and crude and like a medieval manuscript; even when it was new it reeked of some strange past..."
...and the reason I was looking for Tavis's quote is because I'm starting to work on a revised Monster Book for Swords & Wizardry with a lot of new monsters and illustrations. This project is barely on the drawing board, so we're talking serious vaporware at this point in time; this blog post isn't an announcement to drum up interest, it's about some of the first principles involved in writing a monster book.
It's that "reeked of some strange past" which I wanted to think about. There are two ways in which a monster book is read. On one hand, it's a tool for the DM to use in constructing adventures and campaigns. But on the other hand, it has to inspire the DM to do so. These two functions have different, and somewhat contradictory, forms, if we're going to stick with the principle that "form follows function."
For a monster book to be best usable by the DM, it should be flexible in terms of how it says the monsters are used. After all, if a DM wants to have ghouls that are transformed humans rather than actual undead, that's creative stuff, and the monster books shouldn't get in the way of that. A monster book written purely with the goal of being a flexible tool for the DM might offer lots of different alternative descriptions for the monsters, or perhaps alternate stats. Alternatives, alternatives, alternatives.
But there's a problem with alternatives. At a certain point, a raft of alternative options causes the book to become boring to actually read. At every turn, the DM-reader is being reminded that he's reading a game "manual." At no point does he really get that sense that he's got a "medieval manuscript reeking of a strange past" before him. Presenting a monster purely as a manipulable tool for use in a game loses the descriptive magic which makes you want to play the game, or use the monster, in the first place.
This raises two questions in my mind. First is the question of just how "authoritative" to be in the description of a monster. Should one say things like "Super-ghouls are never, ever found except in dungeons?" "Super-ghouls are almost never found except in dungeons?" "Super-ghouls are never found in dungeons unless the DM decides otherwise?" "You, as the DM, may decide where super-ghouls might be found in your campaign?" Obviously these are some very different approaches.
The second question is about theme. Monsters can "feel" like they come from several different genres of literature, and lumping some together doesn't work particularly well if you are aiming for that "strange past" feeling. A "Lasagna Monster" fits well in a sort of gonzo-original-D&D book like Chaosium's "All the World's Monsters," but doesn't particularly evoke a strange past. The TSR books, although they contained some weird monsters, stuck to their guns and avoided letting the books reflect the humor of the actual gaming table too much. It could also mean making some decisions between alternative genre-versions of some monsters. As one example, the OD&D shadow was not clearly described as an undead monster (as I recall). It could have been a Lovecraftian dimension thing just as easily, from the description. On the other hand, AD&D decided to remove it from that ambiguous state, drop the Lovecraft feel, and make the shadow an undead critter. No corresponding monster replaced the lost half of that ambiguity.
I haven't started to make any judgment calls based on these thoughts; but I wanted to assemble the thoughts so I know the shape of the challenge. When you compare a book like "All the World's Monsters" to the "Monster Manual," you see two very different types of books.