Tuesday, November 8, 2011

RA Design Log 6: Making Iconic Monsters 2

Last post I covered some of the issues about iconic monsters that appear in Rappan Athuk, and that the way we're handling these is to attempt to create new iconic monsters.

In the comments to that post, there were some extremely interesting observations, things I hadn't thought about at all, so before moving on to any further discussion in a later post, I'd like to develop some of those ideas further.

DuBeers and Drow
First of all is duBeer's specific point about drow: they are just "dark elves." In my original post I had been thinking specifically about beholders and mind flayers, a little bit about displacer beasts, and not at all about drow. So, for a while, I couldn't quite realize why duBeers was making that point, but Rappan Athuk does indeed include drow. So I was having a dumb moment when I missed his point, and he's absolutely right. Also -- and part of the reason I spaced on his comment -- I'm already planning on doing almost exactly what he said. In the case of the drow, I don't plan on arguing for a replacement icon, I plan for the S&W version to just say "dark elves" and leave it at that. When I was talking about working toward a new iconic monster, I didn't mean for the drow, it was other monsters I had in mind. This despite the fact that in the post I specifically mentioned drow. Oy, veh.

Atom Kid and Questioning the Entire Premise
Atom Kid wrote:
I think what makes a monster iconic is how much face time said monster gets on the cover of modules and in miniature and what not. I think it's foisted on the gaming public rather than being a fan favorite.
My viewpoint might be skewed on this because as it happens I loved beholders, mind flayers, and drow (back in the day on drow, I think they got overused). Loved them before they became "iconic." So in my case the commercial focus on these monsters seemed to reflect my own fan favoritism. But this might just be about good monsters, not about that iconic status. Beholders started getting air time in the 1e Forgotten Realms, Drow started getting it just be virtue of being a central monster in a big, popular series of modules, and mind flayers seem to have gotten some popularity in that same series, but kept growing and growing up to the point where they were superstars in the 2e Spelljammer materials. Beholders kept growing, as the name feature on a computer game, and then in 2e they also seemed to gain that rock star status.

So it may be that the best name for the task we're undertaking isn't really to develop an iconic monster, it's to develop monsters of equivalent quality. To create the "garage band" monsters that are as good as the "rock stars." Because I do think that the rock star monsters are also the awesome monsters in terms of quality. Whether or not they were *also* commercialized, foisted, etc., they were also the pick of the crop in terms of monsters. These aren't mutually exclusive, but I think Atom Kid pointed out something important to keep in mind -- there were also commercial elements involved with these monsters, and what we want to track isn't the commercial element, it's the quality element.

One commercial element is that these are the monsters developed for D&D, not drawn from folklore. That's because if you're a company, you want to push the intellectual property that you control. You want to build your franchise, and for TSR (especially in the 2e period) that meant working with a particular group of monsters, the new ones.

This observation -- at least for me -- doesn't change any of the design parameters I'm working with because the quality considerations alone, without reference to commercial ones, really calls for new monsters to place into the intellectual property gaps. It does, however, establish a benchmark that both Atom Kid and DuBeers have indirectly pointed to. The benchmark they've identified is this:

If you're creating a new monster, it's not just a matter of comparing it to the iconic ones (which was my main measuring tool). You also have to compare it to the non-iconic monsters, the ones from folklore. In other words, or for example, if you're taking out a beholder and putting in a new monster, you have to ask yourself first if your cool new monster is actually better than a dragon. Or a bunch of manticores. Or a sparkly unicorn with rainbows (okay, this one's a no-brainer). Or even orcs. Orcs aren't seen as iconic D&D monsters, but they see a hell of a lot more actual use than any of the other monsters I mentioned. You can't just do the quality evaluation, if you're serious about quality, by only looking at the monsters that are commercial successes. You have to look at the non-flashy old standbys as well.

In general, there's a bit of disagreement about how to handle newness in a commercial product where you better be giving good value for the dollar. Rob Kuntz made an interesting point (I think it was on his Lord of the Green Dragons blog, and I'll have to find the link) that in his modules he believes that the purchaser ought to get all new stuff. Put in old monsters, and you're cutting corners. I don't agree that this is all the way true -- I think that including some old monsters is a good idea in many modules because they provide an anchor for the players' appreciation of the new material -- but I absolutely agree with Rob on the general premise, that people who pay for a module have the right to expect lots and lots of brand new ideas (or else why pay for it in the first place).

So those "replacement" monsters are still going to be new, but they are going to be judged for quality against the old standbys as well as the rock stars. If the new monster doesn't work in a particular situation better than a dragon would, then it's back to the drawing board.

So kudos to DuBeers and Atom Kid, your comments touched on something that I really hadn't considered in terms of evaluating how the new monsters ought to be design-tested.


  1. Well said, Matt. I'm glad to have helped your thought processes.

  2. the problem for me is that all those monsters have been so horribly overused that my eyes glaze over when I see their names. I know it's reactionary, but I lean towards "anything but" when it comes to the canonical monsters.

    Personally, I'd much rather see you guys take the "imagine the hell out of it" approach. Not just a reskinned Beholder, but something from out of left field.

    One last thing: aside from the Rust Monster, one commonality between the creatures mentioned is that most of them could be the cornerstone of an adventure or even campaign. They aren't just mindless beasts, they are the super-villains of D&D.

  3. Rob Kuntz's point is interesting - but not always the reality. Folks will buy modules as such:

    Lair of the Spider Queen
    Vault of the Drow
    Beholder's Keep
    World Plot of the Mindflayers
    Jungle Throne of the Snakemen

    The reason they buy those modules is the expectation of fighting or outsmarting the iconic monster based solely on the module title. New creatures are a bonus when included.