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Monday, May 18, 2020

Half-Organized Thoughts About Monsters

When I think of a Monster it's all images and impressions at first, then it eventually settles into something like this, a loose sort of novelistic encyclopedia thing. It could be fine or even good, but it isn't something I can really use. I still need to digest it into something that’ll be good at the table. 

"Nacrids are filthy. Everyone hates them. They love sweets, but eat shit off the ground. They mark their territory with filth. They’re infested with parasites. They lurk in places that have fallen into disrepair, or where people have never built anything good. Wastelands, but near humans. They are seen when things are very bad. They make it worse.

They hoard pretty things after ruining them. Their lairs are full of torn clothes and bent jewelry. They’re very hard to hide from. Ambush is almost impossible, but they also startle easily. Remaining calm can keep you safe, but they can tell if you really want to hurt them. They eat people, and ignore people. They bite with sharp teeth and hold tight, or use weapons they can barely understand with their non-optimal paw-hands. (An old mercenary has a story of a piss-colored Nacrid that fired his flintlock he dropped, it scared the whole pack away and saved his life). They tear things apart and get covered in it, always muddy and stained.

They are semi-bipedal, best on all fours. Their ugly hands can use rudimentary tools while they clumsily stand on two legs. Looking them in the eyes can enrage them, but their attitudes range from docile to murderous. Their size varies too, small as a baby to large as a shorter man. Furred, sometimes patchy. Colors: blonde. mud, rust, black, mud and shit brown, mucky beige, parchment stain. Stripes and spots. Heads are human-ish or longer and more conical. Mouths are wide and teeth are always sharp and big enough to be a danger. They communicate in grunts, roars and ragged shrieking. If they have a language it has few words.”

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In game terms, certain kinds of information lends itself to being expressed and presented a certain way. Try using a d20 table written as a paragraph, for example. 

Specific styles of writing are better for certain presentations than others. Dante, Shakespeare, and Melville might not write the best d20 tables. Think about the best form for the content along with the as you make it, not just "what do I want to express ?" but also "what's the most effective way to show this idea for a game".

That novelistic-encyclopedic-naturalist form isn't the best for gaming, in other words.

Things need to be quickly understood. I want to know everything I need to know as quickly as I can. I don't need to confuse, surprise, or mystify myself. Once a thing is understood I can riff on it, and enjoy conveying it to the players (however that comes out). They’ll get to enjoy encountering that thing, interacting with it, “figuring it out” in some way. This back and forth is the Fun Part, the enjoyable part of the game. 

I start thinking in simpler facts more than turns of phrase. I end up with cues, basically. Prompts.

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A good monster will provide immediate, actionable content for the people playing the game. No one encounters uncut lore, you don't get a full history of the domestic cat if you pet one on the street. You only need one to walk over and rub up against your leg, or at least stay still while you try.

If there are bugs in the woodwork the person running the game just needs to know that the rafters are full of these things called 'deathwatch beetles' that make clicking noises in the dark. They’ll tell the people playing the game about the strange, insistent ticking every night. I don’t need to write anything too purple about that tick-tick-ticking, so ominous, ever-always (oh what could it be?) up in the creaking old rafters, for that GM. They can do that part, that’s one of the fun things for them: taking the simple fact and making it flowery again. I just want to help them to quickly remember the beetles.

They make the world more "real" by being an interconnected part of it that can be explored & discovered. How do you know so much about the Sasquatch? You haven't even "encountered" one, have you? You know it from that alleged footage, or you've seen what claimed to be a footprint cast. You've heard references to it in things like cinema or this blog post, and that story your weird uncle has about that friend of his, (The engineer, real reliable guy. Not the kind of guy who'd just make this kind of thing up). He was out in the backwoods something like 15 years ago, way off the grid. He was into, backpacking and all, anyways about 3AM he heard this noise, &c

To put it another way, how many ways could you figure out someone owned a horse without ever meeting the horse? How would you know you had entered a horseman's home? How much can you learn about something without having it in front of you, without reading a book about it or attending a lecture? That's where "lore" can be useful, as something connecting a creature to the rest of the world.

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Now, Nacrids.

What do we know about Nacrids? Someone should be able to get an idea of them in less than 5 seconds. Bullet points are good for that, written in the broadest possible averages: facts, instantly understandable beige prose. Plain adjectives, easy nouns. No verbs. No stories. The only thing faster would be an illustration.
  • furred
  • filthy
  • four-limbed
  • sharp teeth
  • ugly hand-paws
  • small human-sized
  • mainly on 4 legs, sometimes 2
  • long narrow or roundish heads
  • fur color: black, brown, red, gold, grey, beige.
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Benign social encounters (low stakes, low-conflict vignettes. "rumor tables”) are an excellent form for showing what is thought about a Monster, what it "means". With Nacrids Their name is a slur, an expletive. They're a hated sign of messy decay. Chances are no one is ever going to actually say that, so you don't really need to read it that way either: it can be shown through figures of speech. When was the last time someone explained to you that "Asshole" in American Vernacular English means "rude or unkind person" and not literally the anal sphincter? Exactly.

1. sizable oaf grunts "move, ye nacrid shite" as you step before them.
2. nearby drinker sniffs ale, frowns "this's nacrids piss" 
3. young woman tastes roast, "better'n nacrid, I spose"
4. bearded one says "fit for a nacrid, this hovel" by garbage heap.
5. foppish elder moans "society has gone to the nacrid level" and drones on.
6. stern man scowls "it has gotten such that nacrids here'd be no surprise!", others loudly agree.

Since these are prompts for brief improvisation that don't have the potential to change the world a sort of haiku shortness works perfectly. Sentences with an instantly understandable Subject and an immediate Verb. No punchline sentences, where you don't know who did what until the end.
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Now think on spoor, traces and tracks, signs of passage. Owl pellets. How would we know there were Nacrids around without ever seeing them? We know that they’re ruiners, wreckers, mess-makers. An encounter table “of” Nacrids should include evidence of this, instead of “no encounter”. Why ever encounter nothing? 

1. Damaged tree. Broken blades stuck, hack marks. Knives and farm tools littered around, ruined. Flies in air.
2. Scraps of cloth . Cart run off road. Torn scraps everywhere. Drivers body on ground, fancy jacket torn apart. Ugly defensive wounds, from bites.
3. Worn crossroad sign. Half-standing, soaking in nasty puddle.
4. Derelict cabin, chew-marked and stained. Strong odors: vomit, blood, urine, feces. Inside: broken furniture, wet heap of metal objects and torn cloth, some bones. d$100 of rings on dead fingers. Cabin search leaves you itchy, waking with welts.
5. Pointless ditches. Dug across the path. Broken, shit-covered trowels and shovels nearby.
6. Old untended graves. Memorial stones knocked over, used as latrines. Holes dug, bones tossed. Awful stench hanging.

An old grave covered in pee on the way into town followed by hearing someone complaining about how nacrid it all is these days does a lot of work for you. It shows the players something instead of you just telling them. It saves you from the dreadful Is This Box Text feeling you get from a Convenient NPC saying "ah the Nacrids, those harbingers of doom and disrepair, have been seen by yonder landmark! O brave souls, would you be so kind as to-" etc. etc.
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Every interaction with a monster should reveal a fact about it. It should be different to see a thing for the tenth time compared to the first. The people playing ought to be learning something every time. To do this in actual life you'd need to pay attention, watch for details. Go to the zoo and then read about animal body language, then go back to the zoo. When running a game you can show that the Adventurers "paid attention" by giving the players encounters that have particular, unique details about the monster as part of the description. You don't have to tell them to do it.

In other words, stop encountering "d6 bandits". Encounter "3 in black masks, gruff voices, kicking old man on ground who begs for mercy. two more in cart tear open bags, containers" exactly once. The next time "3 in black masks seen tying cord across road ahead", or "4 in black masks emerge from underbrush, crossbows aimed, money or blood is demanded".

We learned something from all of these: there are people in black masks who assault travelers and mess with their stuff. They are cruel jerks, who don't fight fair. They set traps, they threaten death. They steal, extort, rob. Encountering them setting a trap leads to an entirely different game than one where you don't. 

What does "d6 bandits" do? It just gives you work you have to do in the moment. You have to make something up, focus on creating stage directions, instead of getting collaboratively caught up in the game being played.

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Monsters are better as questions: Should you keep going this way? Can you evade this, or do you have to kill it? Can you kill it? How could you evade it? Can you get it to go somewhere else? Can you go somewhere else? You shouldn’t always have to kill them and definitely be able, that’s as railroaded as it gets. Unknowns are more entertaining than knowns.

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If you know everything that's going to happen in advance why play? A good adventure won't feel complete until you run it. A good monster will be an unknown until it gets encountered, even if you’ve memorized all the pre-written ones you have.

Roll 2d6 for the Nacrid Mood

2-3: Aggression, they Attack.
4-6: Fear. Snarling. They Attack if approached.
7-9: Uncertainty: growls, whimpers.
        If approached, Roll again (with Advantage if Cautious). 7+: they Flee, 6- they Attack.
10-11: Indifference: No reaction to the Cautious.
12: Curiousity: following at a distance. 
        Roll later: 2-5: Uncertain. 6-9: Indifferent. 10-12: Curious.

Cautious: staying low, quiet and not looking at them, add +1
Uncautious: staring at them. being brash, threatening, noisy, -1.

If Players state they intend to harm them, -1*
If Players state they don’t want to harm them, +1*

*consider statements made "out of character" as the intentions that Nacrids can intuit.

Players are clever. They'll likely pick up on the fact that you'll never have to fight them if you don't stare, and pay attention.

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Encounters themselves should be simple set-pieces, stage directions. Compressed lore, slivers of inhuman psychology, wants & needs that can be modified by variables like Mood. Certain amounts, appearances, and so on are better pre-decided: it's easier work before you're playing.

1d6 Nacrid Encounters
1. Two squabbling over unidentified animal leg.
        Both: 1HD, 8HP, 1 Atk: d6, Arm: 14. Black & beige, roundhead-skinny.

2. Four curled half-napping under old cart, one wheel broken. Shit everywhere. All small, dull color.               1 HD, 4HP, 1 Atk: d4, Arm: 14

3. Three eating manure.Gold-fur 4' at shoulder, looming over two smaller darker. All thin-snout. Gold turns, shrieks.
        2HD: 12hp, gold-fur:1 Atk: d6, Arm: 14
        1HD: 6hp, dark: 1 Atk: d4, Arm: 14
        1HD: 6hp, dark: 1 Atk: d4, Arm: 14

4. Four tugging at corpse, 3' high. Stout. Corpse has ring; 1d20 x 1d4 SP. 
        All Brown & Red, mixed snouts. 
        2 HD, 10HP, 1 Atk: d6, Arm: 14

5. Five destroying former pig enclosure. Tipping, gnawing, digging.
        Tiny pair, flee from any injury. Beige mixed snout.
        1 HD, 4HP, 1 Atk: d4, Arm: 14

        Three stouter, grey-black. Roundheaded. Attack any who harm small-pair.
        2 HD, 10HP, 1 Atk: d6, Arm: 14

6. Six in and around mound of wet filth, debris, dead horse. Shredding, tossing all of it around. Horrid noise.

        Mud-brown, roundsnout
        2 HD, 10HP, 1 Atk: d6, Arm: 14
        2 HD, 10HP, 1 Atk: d6, Arm: 14
        2 HD, 10HP, 1 Atk: d6, Arm: 14

        Gold, tiny, narrow 
        1 HD, 4HP, 1 Atk: d4, Arm: 14

        Red, longsnout, fight together. Big.
        2 HD, 12HP, 1 Atk: d6, Arm: 14

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