Thursday, October 4, 2012

Monster Ecology

I gather that in some circles, even wondering what and how monsters eat, breathe, eliminate, and reproduce is considered extremely foolish. Even uncreative - if you can't let go and just say a dungeon is a magic place, you're missing out on something critical. You're letting the hobgoblins of foolish consistency devour the joy of dungeoneering. It's just a stupid game and you're doing it wrong.

I don't agree.

To me, the answers to these questions:

- act as prompt to creativity

and

- provide hooks for the players, in the forms of weaknesses and clever ways of beating/using the monsters.

When you know what a monster eats, breathes, how it reproduces or originates, you have a more developed and more interesting monster. And generally, you end up answering them anyway. A non-answer is still an answer.

Even "these guys are formed from darkness and are fed on our fears of the underground" is an answer.

The answers you end up can get very interesting.

For example: If you decide that orcs, in fact, sprung from darkness in the depths in response to the fears of the surface dwellers, then what? Does that mean they thin out if the population does so, for lack of psychic sustenance? Or does familiarity with the surface area breed comfort with it and contempt of its dangers, and thus civilizations drive out the fear-eating orcs?

Same with breathing. Do they need air? If so, they need ventilation, and PCs walling off their lair with walls of stone and suffocating them is a valid tactic. If not, they can live in dark, airless corners without regard to ventilation. This affects where it makes sense to stock them.

Do they breed true, with orc kids and orc women? Or do they propagate magically - and if so, under what circumstances? If they're made, can the PCs (or certain NPCs) make them on purpose? Can this propagation be interrupted in some way? Is there a monster generation pit somewhere down on level 3 pumping out orcs? If so, who is running it?

And so on.

Even boring, old, tried-and-true "they eat normal food" means you should have stockrooms full of supplies, figure out what fellow monsters they eat or who and what they trade with for food. Orcs taking slaves to trade out for food makes sense in a way it doesn't for fear-of-darkness created orcs.

This kind of "monster ecology" doesn't need to be grounded in modern science (although it could, if that makes it cooler). But answering a few simple questions like that creates a much richer and potentially more fun experience. Even if the answer is, it's a game magic food pixies drop the food off, you've got an answer. It tells you something about your world.

I think the idea that monsters don't need to eat to live can be seen as a cop-out by some players, which will yank them out of their suspension of disbelief faster than you can say "You open the door and find a 10' x 10' room containing six giants!" You may end up explaining how the dungeon is a magical place, and by the way so are these other monsters, and how medieval folks wouldn't ask that kind of question, and so on. Throwing those players to the curb and calling them foolish is equally unhelpful. Instead, revel in their questions, and have answers that make the game more interesting.

Next up: What Do the Monsters Eat?

20 comments:

  1. Yeah, I think I'm in your camp here - while I can accept that some stories only work if you don't look too closely at the underpinnings.

    I don't think those stories work well as RPGs, though. Because as GM I'm in a semi-adversarial relationship with my players (not that I'm trying to kill PCs, just that I don't automatically give them what they want), at least some of the time they'll be approaching challenges as problem-solving exercises: what if we ambush them? What if we cut off their food supply? What if we smash all their weapons? Every time the GM comes back and says "that doesn't work", it notches up the railroadiness count just a little, feeling as though the GM's trying to force the players into a good old-fashioned bash-up.

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    1. The problem-solving aspect is one I like here. The more I establish the underpinnings, the more problems I create and potential solutions I enable.

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  2. Absolutely. It's been a longstanding axiom of mine that, in an open environment, the more the Referee knows about that environment, the more the players can attempt to manipulate in that environment.

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    1. That's an excellent axiom. I like that.

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  3. I used to always think about that kind of stuff because I used to be very interested in evolution and ecology. But there really is no way that that many monsters could live in a dungeon together realistically. And if orc societies were to be able to function then they could not be so nasty and so on. I just think that having the monsters be from some other realm makes more sense because maybe they do not have to eat to survive, they just like to eat. There are no stories about troll or ogre famines because people did not think about them that way. They just some scary cave would have ogres abd trolls in it. They may not have eaten for years and they are very hungry so children should keep away. I think the same can be said about dragons, chimerae, hydras, and so on. Monsters could be made of different stuff than mortals. They have to be slain or they will make more monsters.

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    1. There are no stories about troll or ogre famines because people did not think about them that way.

      Well, who are "they"? Medieval Europeans? Ancient Greeks? Mesoamericans? "They" is pretty broad, and includes lots of folks that wouldn't be dungeon delving anyway, and who existed in a world that doesn't actually have these critters.

      And while you can say monsters are just not made of the same stuff as mortals, I'm saying that is a decision that affects the monster ecology.

      The idea of eating for fun & profit instead of need to survive I address a little in the next post, which I'll finish and post tomorrow morning. :)

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  4. I am just thinking about the way people would think in mythical times. For instance, if it was written that there was a cow in a cave hundreds of years ago the people would think it was dead long ago. If it was written that there was a troll in a cave hundreds of years ago many people in mythical times would probably think he was still there and avoid the cave. People thought differntly about monsters than mundane life forms. Monsters seemed to live forever to them.

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    1. Sure, but that's an answer, too. If a "monster" has certain characteristics, then that will affect its place in the environment. If it has other characteristics, that will affect it in another way.

      That is, if a troll exists only to eat people for "fun" or as a threat, then it will have different characteristics in an environment than a human murderous cannibal, and it is worth thinking about those different characteristics in an environment in which the players can act with open agency.

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    2. What faoladh said. Basically, that's what I'm getting at. Any origin creates a set of characteristics for the monster, regardless of mystical or scientific or whatever that origin is.

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    3. Okay I understand now. I agree that how you define the monster gives insights on how the PCs can deal with it.

      I was arguing more along the lines of how a dungeon could be so full of monsters and make sense ecologically. I just feel that the faerie concept makes the most sense to me. In myths faeries were thought of along the same lines as undead so that means they probably are not mortal like humans and do not need to fit into an ecosystem to survive i.e eat, drink, Also faerie. s were said to live underground which fits perfectly with the dungeon delving concept.

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    4. I think that the flip-side of "how to we defeat them" is "what do they want" - and that should also be informed by the nature of the monster. Again, you can just say "they steal human babies because that's what they do in fairy-tales", but if you set up a reason for why they do it then everything gets more interesting - particularly if they're intelligent creatures, who can change their tactics in response to adventurers. OK, sneaking into the village to steal babies gets us killed - what else can we do to stay alive?

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    5. It also opens up room for negotiating - if monsters are just monsters, they don't eat, sleep, breathe, or do anything except be evil . . . what are you negotiating for? Why would they want anything from you except your death?

      But if they have varied wants, you can usefully negotiate with them or manipulate them. You can trade orc corpses to the otyugh for its treasure. You can bribe the hobgoblins to help you fight the gnolls. You can lay poison food out for the giant lizards instead of fighting them toe-to-toe.

      And yeah, like you said, the monsters can also react to what works and what doesn't . . . but you need to know where they fit in to know where you can drive the wedge.

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    6. But an ogre or troll may not die of old age or need to eat to survive but that does not not mean it would not be open to negotiation. Some may want treasure or something to eat or drink because they enjoy it. An ogre may be bribed with a some ale and meats because that would be something he likes but he may not need to have food or water to stay alive. This is just like the stories of leaving some milk for the faeries that help clean the house. They enjoy the milk but they probably do not need to have milk to survive.

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    7. So, how do you know what the ogre enjoys and doesn't enjoy? What he wants or needs (or doesn't need) is an answer to the question. Even a magical monster has an ecological role - though in some cases it might be an overwhelming one!

      So, your ogre doesn't need to eat. In that case, we know that it probably won't be eating the rats or other vermin around. That affects the environment. If it does need to eat, then there may not be as many giant rats (or whatever) as there are around the magical ogre. Hunting in an area around your magical ogre will probably be a lot easier than in the vicinity of a more naturalistic ogre. And so on.

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    8. I just try to read about what the myths say about ogres and there is some information that ogres like to eat people especially children. They are also gluttonous and will drink wine and ale and what ever food they can if it is available. I would think think that ogres would catch all sorts of animals to eat as they enjoy eating them but if they could live without food for ages if they needed to. They sort of like a low powered demon that likes to eat people in my game world just like trolls, evil giants, goblins and so on.

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  5. I will say that for a more naturalistic type of ogre you would need far lower powered PCs than are in GURPS DF. Naturalistic ogres are like flies to a 250 point PC in GURPS. I like ogres and trolls so that is why mine are supernatural and powerful. I also like to have a dungeon with a lot of differnt monsters in it. If it were naturalistic then there would be very few monsters because they would need a large amount of food to survive. So mine do not need to eat they only enjoy doing so.

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    1. "Doesn't Eat" = "tougher monster" is a big leap. An ogre, if not either skilled or well-armed, isn't going to be a tough fight one-on-many to 250 point characters. Big deal. You can make one that is, or that is tough one-to-one for DF characters, without having to make them mystical.

      Plus a more supernatural origin doesn't assure you of toughness. It's an excuse for extra toughness in your gameworld, but it doesn't have to be. You can be supernatural and weak just like you can be natural and strong.

      Eating, and origin, aren't the end-all and be-all determiners of a monster's toughness.

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    2. From a physics standpoint you would need to have some supernatural energy in order for an ogre to be 9 foot tall and very active. Their bones would be very heavy and they would need huge ligaments to move their heavy bones which would also add weight and make them slower yet. A 9 foot ogre would realistically be very slow and tire very quickly. This is the same with giants who would need to have some supernatural force to keep them upright.

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    3. Eh. I don't about that stuff in a fantasy game. And if I do care about it, "it's magic" isn't an answer I'd accept anyway. In my opinion, "Oh, giants have magic in them, that's why they are big, so they also are faerie, and have magical powers" is fine, but "it must be magic to be big so it must be supernatural so it must have magic powers" isn't. One explains a giant supernatural being, the other reduces everything to a one-source, one-explanation sameness that I find stultifying. YMMV.

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  6. I just mean that these creatures ability to be so large and live in a crowed dungeon seems like the best explanation is that they are supernatural and in a Dungeon Fantasy the emost likely source of supernatural abilities would be magic. Giants and trolls could be Divine as they were supposed to have come from Ymir. But still that is replacing mana magic with Divine magic. In any case you are right that there are many ways that giants and trolls could be explained though.

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