Orcs, goblins, trolls and gelatinous cubes. These are but a few of the regulars we see prowling the dungeons of our RPGs. Some may find their presence comforting. I personally find them duller than dishwater and half as useful.
So what do we do if we want to create a monster that’s a step beyond the tried-and-true tropes?
During my narrative design career, I’ve been lucky enough to get a bit of practice at monster creation. Before the concept artists or game designers, it’s a narrative designer’s job to build the world and populate it with beings that often become in-game creatures. I was also fortunate enough to be able to attend a talk by Delaney King on “Art Monsters” where she laid out the four fears we should consider when designing a monster.
Fear of Death
Fear of Infection
Fear of Predators
Fear of the Unknown
Delaney does a fantastic job of explaining how these four fears work in terms of monster design so I’m not going into details about them all. But here’s an example of how I combined Fear of Infection and Fear of the Unknown into a monster that I created for my Falconers world. It’s called a “Seeder”, a subspecies of a range of nature-monsters I call “Cullers”.
Step 1 - Decide how I want my role-player to feel when they encounter my monster.
Two words. “Creeped out!” I wanted a type of ‘body snatcher’ that can masquerade as a human and cause deadly conflicts within a community. But I didn’t want to go with the classic ‘pod people’ or doppelganger way. I wanted something that would get under the reader/player’s skin and crawl around in there. There’s a subset of Fear of Infection, you see, and that’s Fear of Infestation. That’s why I looked to nature and settled on centipedes, cockroaches and maggots.
Step 2 - Write a short ‘biology’ profile for my monster.
Function: Sow human dissent and cause intra-community conflict
Seeders are made up of a swarm of smaller creatures. Most commonly, these creatures take the form of centipedes although other forms, such as cockroaches and maggots, do occur.
The Seeder sub-creatures can act and feed independently but will come together to form a ‘single body’ when the Seeder needs to impersonate a human. The sub-creatures will huddle together to form a human body shape and then will excrete organic gels and resins that form a human exterior; skin, eyes, hair, nails, teeth and tongue.
The Seeder is effectively a hive mind, linking the individual brains of its sub-creatures through a combination of telepathy and pheromones. The result is an intelligence much like an AI, with the equivalent intellect of a human but completely lacking in human emotion.
Step 3 - Write a ‘behavior’ profile to “Establish the Danger”.
Then I decide the sort of damage I want my monster to cause and how they inflict that damage. When it comes to Seeders, I’m not really talking about combat damage. I’m focusing on what makes this creature monstrous. How does it destroy the lives of everyday people? How does it become a source of fear and dread?
Seeders insinuate themselves into a human community by targeting an existing member of that community. This is usually someone who is respected and has a great deal of social cache. The Seeder will then spend an extended period of time, from six months to a year, observing that individual in every accessible portion of their lives. It does this by mobilizing its sub-creatures, putting the target human under 24 hour surveillance. During this time, the Seeder learns the mark’s language, speech patterns, routines and behaviors. It continues this observation phase until it has learned enough to mimic that individual with 100% accuracy.
Once the observation phase is complete, the Seeder will ambush the target individual and kill them. The sub-creatures will then completely consume the victim’s corpse, flesh, organs and bone. They will use the resulting nutrients to excrete the exterior shell that will disguise this humanoid mass of huddled monstrosities.
With the target human gone, and the disguise in place, the Seeder will then assume their new identity and use it to sow dissent among the community.
Even once the human shell is in place, a Seeder will use its sub-creatures to spy on the other community members, learning their secrets. It does this by releasing individual creatures through ruptures in its shell. The ruptures are quickly repaired to maintain the integrity of the disguise. Through rumor, lies, seduction and deceit the Seeder plays community members off against each other, raising tensions until the community turns on itself, tearing itself apart in a frenzy of fury and hatred.
Step 4 - Establish a weakness. Every monster must be killable.
Like all Cullers, Seeders are particularly susceptible to gold, for two reasons.
1. This is the 19th Century in the gold rushes of the colonies. Gold affects every level of society.
2. Silver is already taken by werewolves.
However, shooting individual sub-creatures won’t significantly damage a Culler. You have to go for the CPU, the one bug that acts as the ‘hub’ for the creature’s hive mind. All ‘thoughts’ pass through this ‘hub bug’ so killing the bug will temporarily disrupt the hive mind. Yes, a new hub bug will be established seconds later, but until then, the Seeder is effectively paralyzed.
If the Seeder suspects that “the jig is up”, it will disperse into its component parts, making it practically impossible to destroy completely. The player would need to destroy the Seeder before it disperses, surrounding it with fire or smothering it in some form of pesticide.
Step 5 - Google It! Ask around. Due your due diligence.
Finally, I do a series of internet searches to see if I can find anything that’s similar to the monster I’ve just created. I ask my friends and colleagues in the writing and games industries if they’ve heard of anything like it. I search the monster’s name to see what it will be associated with. If I do find something similar, I make the necessary adjustments to make sure it’s not similar.
Yes, this is the not-so-fun step but it does ensure that you don’t accidentally copy something that’s already out there. If it’s anywhere in the ballpark of something made by Disney, back away with your hands held high until you’re in the relative safety of your home and drawing board.
That’s right, Cthulhu is just salt and pepper calamari on the buffet table of the true ‘Elder God’.
And there we have it.
My Five Step Method for Making Monsters.
Step 1 = Which fear do you want your player/reader to experience?
Step 2 = Icky and gooey. The Biological profile.
Step 3 = Establish the Danger. The Behavior profile.
Step 4 = Monsters must Die! Establish the weakness.
Step 5 = Beware the corporate Elder Gods and do your due diligence.