Saturday, August 29, 2009

Owlbear Attack!

Why don't people use some of the more unusual monsters in D&D anymore? The most common creatures used in games today seem to be orcs or some other racial variation of Orc (goblin, kobold, hobgoblin, what have you), and a few of the more typical sort of monster - giant, dire animal, undead (skeleton, lich, zombie, vampire), or demon (devils and demons used interchangeably, and always the combat-oriented ones).

What happened to the rust monster, the carrion crawler, the otyugh, the grell, or the beholder? These creatures are often talked about among grognards or old school gamers like myself, but I haven't seen one of these creatures used in a campaign in years. Hell, I haven't fought a rust monster since I went through the solo adventure in the red box. I've never fought an otyugh (although I have used them in games against other players).

My favorite creatures in the Monster manuals are the oozes, fungus, and the gelatinous cube. But they don't see much play either.

Part of this is that the D&D genre has moved from the "weird fantasy" of the 20's and 30's pulp with the "epic fantasy" in the Tolkien style. Conan has been replaced with Drizzt Do'Urden, and the cunning and sinister sorcerors of Conan's world have been replaced with Elminster. The idea of what adventure fantasy means has changed, and so we see fewer strange monsters, and more "classic" villains.

The other part of it may be that the newer class of DMs just doesn't think about fantasy in the same way - its much tamer now than it was in the 70's. Ruins are filled with rocks and rubble and the occasional kobold, instead covered in strange molds, weird fungal monsters and deep, mine-like shafts descending into in the underworld. Tentacles, claws, and multi-headed abominations are less and less common, because people no longer see fantasy this way. They want their orc hoards, their dragons, and their bandit kings. And as far as their games go, I guess that's fine. They've bought the books, they can wear them as a hat for all I care. Your books, your games, your rules, your monsters. Game on.

But for me, the essence of adventure fantasy is the strangeness. I want tombs full of semi-intelligent spider hordes, forests teeming with Ettercaps, and ancient temples full of nagas and giant slugs. It just isn't fantasy without those things. I want creepy atmosphere, and monsters that make the party sit up and swear at me for throwing them at me. That is the measure of a good encounter - not that encounter is unfairly unbalanced, but that the players are afraid for their character's lives. And that comes from throwing them out of their rut, putting them on the defensive. Nothing does that better than a creature they can't quantify.

That feeling of sudden fearfulness doesn't come from scaling up a regular monster. A bigger dire bear is just a dire bear. But a carrion crawler with the Kaiju template is truly fearsome. It will make players sweat just to see the thing. And if you give it two heads and add the half-dragon template as well.... you get the idea.

Just to prove this to my players, I'm going to throw an owlbear encounter at them. Ross has been mocking them for awhile, and as a new player, he's never faced them before. A few of them should change his mind. You'll see how it goes when I next post.