Tuesday, January 7, 2014

The Superman Theory of Interesting Monsters

When Superman was first introduced to the world in the late 1930's in comic strips and comic books, he really wasn't so much an adventure character as he was a wish fulfillment character - the ultimate big brother who could beat up anyone the author thought was deserving of it. Superman's earliest battles were against normal folks who really never had a chance at defeating him - think of it something like a group of 20th level characters wandering into the Caves of Chaos. The point wasn't to challenge Superman, but to live vicariously through him.

As the character went on, though, things had to change. For one thing, stories like that can become boring. Stories like that are still written, of course, and will be for as long as people daydream about getting everything they have ever dreamed. But there were other forces at work ... competition! Superman was soon joined by many other heroes, and not all published by the same company. National Comics needed to keep things fresh!

Yes, I got there before Lex Freaking Luthor!
In 1939, the first supervillain appears on the scene - The Ultra-Humanite in Action Comics #13. The Ultra-Humanite represents the "opposite attracts" concept in comic book super-villainy - a physically powerful hero countered by a mentally powerful villain. The point here was simple - Superman can overpower anyone on Earth, but how will he fare against a superior mind? In other words - "how is he going to beat THIS guy?"

It strikes me that this lies at the heart of much of the monster creation in fantasy role playing games, especially during the old school phase when Arneson and Gygax and many others were building the foundation of what was to come. After the initial phase of dragons and balrogs, we begin getting into the weird Gygaxian ecology that includes rust monsters and lurkers above.

The idea was the same as above - the players have discovered tactics that work against bands of orcs and hordes of kobolds and fire-breathing dragons, but how will they defeat a monster against which metal is useless? How will they defeat monsters that drain levels every time they hit, monsters you dare not get close to? How will they defeat monsters who are resistant or even immune to magic spells? The monsters created by this process were weird and goofy and didn't make the least bit of sense, because they weren't monsters in the traditional sense, but rather puzzles disguised as monsters.

Okay, smarty pants - now what?
When I invent new monsters that are not based on creatures from myth or folklore (and sometimes even when they are), I try to make sure that that concept lies at the heart of what I'm doing - How do I force players to invent new tactics to overcome this new threat?

I think that what lies at the heart of what makes role playing games fun is the challenge they represent to the player, rather than the character. By forcing players outside of what is familiar, their interest is sparked and the game is more fun, even if at the same time they're cursing you for your new innovation in killing their character. I think that at the heart of the game lies the basic puzzle of how do I overcome the challenge (monster/trap/riddle) to receive the prize (treasure/kiss/power).

When next you're designing a new menace, or even if you're using tried and true monsters, I suggest you put some thought into how this encounter will be different than all the other encounters your players have faced - what is the "gotcha" moment that will force the players to pause, give each other that worried glance, and then get their brains buzzing as they look for a solution. The treasure chest behind the monster is just a token, really - the real prize is the satisfaction of solving the puzzle the monster represents.


  1. Unless you are Stormy, in which case the acquisition of loot is second to everything else, including the survival of the party.

    1. That will be my next post - "The Daffy Duck Theory of Adventuring"

  2. This is a brilliant post JMS. I do something similar is not identical to the source when designing supervillains for Champions, Mutants & Masterminds or other Supers RPGs.

    There are always goons, thugs and minor baddies for the heroes to defeat who will easily-to-reasonably go down when facing off against the PCs heroes. The main villain however, is going to be someone who can not simply be punched, heat rayed or mind zapped into defeat.

    1. Yeah - the funny thing about the superheroes is that we ostensibly read them because of their cool powers, but most of the best villains are the ones that they're powerless against, so to speak.

  3. This is the only post that made level drain seem like a feature and not an overpowered bug to me

    1. It's the one way to translate the sheer terror a real person would face from one of those undead to the players.


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