Monster Fridays: Monsters in Gaming
What is a monster?
A monster is any creature, usually found in legends or horror fiction, that is often hideous and may produce fear or physical harm by its appearance and/or its actions. The word "monster" derives from Latin monstrum, an aberrant occurrence, usually biological, that was taken as a sign that something was wrong within the natural order. You see this in the 1600s in Britain, when women were warned against looking upon anything disturbing, lest they give birth to monsters themselves. Monstrosity is contagious.
The word usually connotes something wrong or evil; a monster is generally morally objectionable, physically or psychologically hideous, and/or a freak of nature. It can also be applied figuratively to a person with similar characteristics like a greedy person or a person who does horrible things. Physical beauty is often conflated with moral good; so the prince is always handsome and the princess always beautiful, while the witch and her minions are always hideously ugly, and sometimes racially coded as “Other”. This makes beautiful villains even more shocking; they are a sign that the expected order had failed.
The root of "monstrum" is "monere"—which does not only mean to warn, but also to instruct, and forms the basis of the modern English word “demonstrate”. Thus, the monster is also a sign or instruction of something wrong or out of place. This benign interpretation was proposed by Saint Augustine, who did not see the monster as inherently evil, but as part of the natural design of the world, a kind-of deliberate category error. Thus it is only right that heroes slay monsters; they help society get back on track and guard itself against the failings that caused the monster. The monster itself is not at fault.
Monsters in tabletop games are essential, and there are different visions of what a monster is. The monster is a threat, something that inconveniences, threatens or forces the characters into action. Some monsters are completely fictitious, influenced either by animals or creatures of folklore, and others are actual things we face in real life. They all have a basis in fear, and here we’re going to explore what that means to each of us.
What is a monster to you?
Ariana: I play a lot of games based in the ‘real world’ or ‘real world setting’ in another aspects or another. So the world around me plays a huge influence about what I do consider ‘monsters’, especially since my first GMing experience was Monsterhearts.
Homophobia, sexism, extreme religious beliefs influence how people can be monstrous in my games. People telling you what you are, what you should be and how you should behave is horrifying to me.
I also tend to touch upon the idea of children being replaced with the ‘ideal’ version of themselves that no one notices but their friends.
Gentrification and racism has been also another issue I’ve been touching in our Urban Shadows: LA Nights game that I am a player in. This doesn’t come from a social justice warrior stance, this comes from someone who is witnessing it in their own neighborhood.
For those who don’t know me, I work for a non-profit that works in social services and my husband works as an elementary school teacher. Seth teaches low-income children, and we moved into East Nashville near the prior school that he worked in, on the same street as one of his students. One winter day we let them into our home as the mother had accidentally locked her keys inside the car, I called a locksmith and Seth kept the kids entertained. Before the end of the year, the landlord has kicked them out to sell the house. Same for the house beside us. The two houses across from us. Now there are no more kids playing on our street. Seth's former students still knock on our door on Halloween, but the loss of all those kids in our neighborhood still haunts us.
Stacy: I was going to answer completely differently, then I read Ariana’s answer and it made me do a lot more thinking about the answer to that question. It led me down the path of remembering many of the monsters that have plagued PCs in my games for the last twenty years, and the things nearly all of them have in common.
I came to geekhood through a steady diet of X-Men comics, which is where I got some of my ideas for monsters from in the first place. Not just comic book monsters, but comics like X-Men love to employ grey villains. Bad guys who think they’re doing the right thing, really and truly believe that the only answer to the problem is theirs, and everyone will be better off if they just kill half the population.
That’s always fascinated me because when I hear about bad things happening, whether it’s something major like 9/11, or something (relatively) minor like a mugging, I try to imagine what it must be like to be the criminal. What must they be thinking when they’re about to do something they should arguably know is wrong? What could push someone that far? How do they justify what they’ve done so they can continue functioning as human beings? What kind of fucked up things do they have to believe?
Monsters, to me, are perfectly ordinary people who can justify horrifying things for reasons that come from all over the map. Some are pushed too far, abused too much, taken advantage of too often, until they can’t stand it anymore and lose control. They’re not objectively evil people, they’re just people stuck in very bad situations who end up feeling helpless and, ultimately, desperate. Some were raised with strange value systems that allowed them to justify away anything that doesn’t fit within that paradigm. Some really and truly believe that their answer is the only one that will work, and times are desperate enough that the ends justify the means.
It’s an interesting part of the human condition to imagine. I try to bring a little of that into all of my games, give the “monsters” - all of them - a little bit of humanity. There’s a reason perfectly normal people were driven to the point of doing something awful. In the werewolf game I ran at the February Game Weekend, the villains legitimately thought they were creating a drug that had the potential to help mankind. They were also greedy sons of bitches, but they thought they were in the right. They had sisters, brothers, wives, husbands, children… all of whom suffered in a ripple effect after the characters slaughtered them.
If I can get my players to empathize with the monster so that - in the end - they feel some minor measure of guilt when they murderhobo the hell out of it, I kind of feel like I’ve managed to achieve actual horror.
Stephanie: A monster, to me, is something that abuses the ideal natural order in some way. Not the real natural order, in which everything that is alive today survives on the remains of millions of dead things and species-- in a way, that’s the monstrous to me. But the ideal “natural order” of fairness and justice and a general morality that says good people can win, if at a cost.
When talking about monsters in narration, though, what terrifies and bothers me the most are protagonists who are drug dealers, murderers, and rapists, and narratives where nobody around them says “you are a monster.”
I also have a special place in my imagination for zombies. They show up in my dreams often-- like mountain lions, which used to roam through my subconscious for little reason. I’m not sure what that says about me. Perhaps it’s the nightmare of those millions of dead species coming back to claim what “survival of the fittest” robbed them of.
When I run games and present monsters, I almost always reach for something extremely powerful, like liches and evil dragons. I like to give the players an impossible foe who can’t be overcome until they discover and exploit its weaknesses. It might be frustrating to the players, it feels “unfair.” And yet, there’s something deeply satisfying when they throw the Queen of the Faeries into a lake and freeze it over, just to trap her for a few minutes so they can escape and regroup.
Why do these things terrify you?
Ariana: It’s very much real, to be evicted from your home so someone else can walk in and start where you left off because they could pay for it. It’s a reminder that social class still exists. I could be displaced from my home and community because I don’t make enough money to stay in my home and as someone who grew up poor that is always a concern.
I always fear I’m never good enough, that I could be easily replaced by someone smarter, prettier, and funnier. As a grow older that fear lessens, but it lingers. Someone could take your place and no one would blink. It’s hopeful that someone would notice, they would miss and want you back where you belonged.
Stacy: It comes from the fact that the potential for evil, the potential to be a “monster” lies in each and every one of us. That mob bosses who kill people right and left go home to their wives and children at the end of the day and love and care for them. The guy you just passed on the street might be perfectly fine right now, but what happens two weeks from now after a whole lot of pressure and stress is applied to him?
Today, he could be a human. Tomorrow, he could be a monster. That’s pretty terrifying when you think about it. You can’t really hide from evil when the capacity for it lies within us all...
Stephanie: I was raised to believe that there is no afterlife, and therefore any idea of justice has to exist in this world, or not at all. Since I believe the world should be just, and having survived and witnessed monstrous things happening, it deeply unsettles me when justice isn’t served. Every time Justice Ginsburg writes a dissenting opinion, a part of me dies because she’s usually on the side of what’s right and fair; her dissent means the court has once again ruled against what is fair.
Why play with these themes?
Ariana: Because of my real life experiences with it, I want to imagine I can beat this. I want to imagine that if it was possible I could stop it. I want to make it disappear, since I can’t close my eyes until it does, so I roll the dice to take my chances. It’s not to say I don’t participate in my community to try and stop it but money is so much louder. I can complain, I can write about the constant new constructions, but the money is going to win. Now who wants to give me money?
Also, I do fear no one will notice if I’m replaced. I think my dogs will notice, right?
Stacy: Because I want there to be consequences for killing things in games. I want there to be no right answer, and to give the players pangs of fear or sadness or even guilt when they make decisions. It gives the decisions themselves more meaning, and the moral and ethical implications often drive the PCs in new directions. Sometimes, the residual effects of a “No Right Answer” scenario is a whole new plot basically written by the players.
For me, it gives layers of interesting things to think about and interesting directions the game and the plot can go in. The wife of the werewolf you just killed who was trafficking drugs may well spend time plotting her revenge. As the dominoes fall, people who were, in the last scene, relatively unimportant humans become monsters.
It also creeps me the hell out to think about it, so I figure it’s gotta have that same effect on at least some of the players.
Stephanie: Why not? What’s the point of narrative if not to provoke our thoughts and feelings? We live in an unjust world. Exploring the role of justice when I play is just as escapist as exploring whether Mecha-Godzilla can beat Mothra in a fair kaiju-vs-mecha fight.
Also, expanding on something Stacy said: When I’m playing, if I’m playing a character with a strong moral compass (which I usually do, even if that compass may be skewed), when I’m presented with Option A and Option B and neither one is palatable, my character will stop and insist that there is another way to win. Sometimes, she’s wrong, but the best GMs let the party explore a third (or fourth or fifth) option that doesn’t compromise our characters’ integrity. I’ve been in a lot of games where Option A means letting some innocent people die, and Option B means sacrificing some other gain that we need, and I always look around the table and say “these are not acceptable options. There’s another way. Let’s find it.” RPGs are often set up with an “unwinnable choice” to be presented to players, but the beauty of RPGs is that you are not locked into the presented options. By pushing past the false dichotomy, you get to brainstorm and problem-solve, and I think that carries over into looking past false dichotomies and problem-solving in the real world.
Have a different take on monsters? Tell us in the comments! And join us next Friday when we bring you a monster to incorporate into your games!