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World Building: Monsters and Myths

There are a lot of takes on monsters and myth in books, TV shows, and everywhere else in pop culture. I recently read the Twilight series, with its very different (though still somewhat familiar) take on supernatural beasties. Every game and game world has to pick through myths, legends, and other game systems’ takes on the creatures of legend. Every GM then has the option to adjust monsters to match their own preferences– including familiar twists from family legend, a specific version of the tale told to you young, or just to change things to match a specific world or vision. I still reflexively imagine orcs as pig faced, thanks to the 1e Monster Manual.

If you grew up on tales of redcaps [1] (perhaps at your Scotish grandmother’s knee), you might alter your world’s redcaps to match those of your upbringing– throwing an interesting curve at your players and requiring investigation when they turn out different from the book version of the critters.

For example, Vampires

How many ways have vampires been presented recently? Vampires are all the rage, but who wants to be an undead bloodsucker? Under most of the myths, it’s no picnic, but in some worlds, there aren’t many drawbacks to unlife at all. It all depends on which world you inhabit…

Count Strahd von Zarovich [2] was the star of Ravenloft, a very popular AD&D module; later he became a big cheese of the demi-plane of dread. Strahd was similar to generic D&D vampires, but was altered in several ways due to his longevity and command of his realm. As “owner” of the whole realm, Strahd didn’t need to be invited into any building, unlike his lesser peers. Having lived with his condition for so long, he had prepared well to compensate for the few weaknesses of his condition and emphasize his already considerable strengths.

Forever Knight [3] was a late night TV show in the early 90s. From the body of vampire myths, the writers selected interesting weaknesses and strengths that often matched the mythical norm– but not always. Nick Knight was prone to getting lost in flashbacks, would “implode” if caught by the sun, and would be paralyzed (but not killed) when stabbed with a stake. Nick’s whole quest for redemption was a new lens on the traditional vampire as a remorseless killer.

White Wolf put out two lines of books, each starring vampires. In Vampire: the Masquerade [4], vampires had several common flaws and strengths, with a point buy system that made any given vampire tremendously unique. Powerful vampires could wander around in daylight, glow like the sun, move faster than thought, mutate themselves into any form, and so on. Individual vampires could opt into various myths: inability to cross running water, aversion to crosses, and so on– all via a point buy system. In The Requiem [5] (the current version of Vampire for their line), they are still not repelled by crucifixes, garlic or running water (by default), they have no need for home earth, and they can enter homes without invitation. But their powers are slightly more constrained– they’re lined up slightly differently, with a little less free combination of quirky powers.

Ultraviolet [6] took things in a radically different direction. For their mythology they selected a few vampire weaknesses from myths, decided that they were scientifically true, and extrapolated from there. Instead of stabbing vampires with a wooden stake, they discovered that the carbon of wood was the key factor… so the agents fire carbon bullets instead. Similarly, ultraviolet light is a spectrum found in sunlight that is less present in traditional indoor lights– and harmful to vampires. Guess what lights the agents armed themselves with?


[7]So, I was thinking about the “vampires” in twilight. Honestly, if you had asked me what makes a vampire, what the core of a vampire was… I’d probably have answered that vampires must drink blood and are killed by sunlight. Just about everything else was negotiable– years of experience playing White Wolf showed me interesting ways of twisting just about everything else.

Then Twilight makes vampires sparkle in daylight. Really? That’s the big reason they hide? I ran with it, mostly because it was an easy read, and was enthusiastically recommended by my brother and several friends. It worked for me… but the word “vampire” was quite a hurdle. At least they kept drinking blood (even if they did make the heroes “vegetarians” in the White Wolf sense).

Lining twilight vampires up, we see some factors in common with traditional vampire myths (supernatural strength and agility, blood drinking, avoidance of daylight), several less traditional (no need for ancestral earth, no problem with running water) and her own unique takes (skin like stone, skin that sparkles like mica).

That’s pretty, but what about my world?

Just like all of the authors and game designers above, you can alter your monsters and make them truly your own. Is there a race you find awesome, but there’s some limitation put on them in the rulebook? It’s your world: shake it up by altering or eliminating those limitations. Maybe your Rakshasas are truly immortal spirits, quickly finding a tiger’s body to possess after their “death”– making them deadly long term opponents for your series. You could even borrow Zelazny’s [8] version and make them actual aliens. (Those Rakshasas could fit into many modern and sci-fi games…)

You could stop there: just alter the critter’s stats and be done. But the creatures we’re talking about are creatures of myth and legend– if you leave the myths as is, the players will wonder why everyone [including themselves] is wrong when they put a silver bullet in the werewolf and it shrugs it off.

Seeding Myths: A great way to handle this is to alter the myths that people tell about monsters. The spirit possessor Rakshasas probably deserve stories about one tormenting a village for generations after its first host was killed. You don’t have to go into great detail for each monster– but if the monster is important, or is going to recur, you should drop hints before the players run into it.

Lore and knowledge rolls can be a good way to pass information on when the PCs are gearing up– or even when they hear the roar of the beast. If wolvesbane doesn’t work in your world, let the characters roll to figure that out before they purchase the stuff. That said, there’s a very simple twist that gives the PCs a reason to be wrong.

Variants: Not everything creature has to match. If you keep some of your monsters stock, then when the PCs run into special versions, it’s perfectly fitting that their characters are surprised too. One GM used that perfectly on us in Ravenloft. At great cost our characters learned that lycanthropes were vulnerable to silver: Sython had a near death experience where he barely fended off a shape changing lady of the night when his sword was knocked aside and he grabbed up the silver dagger that he’d been gifted earlier that day. When we later learned (in combat, of course) that “greater werewolves” were immune to mere silver, the hierarchy of metals suggested our characters’ switch to gold. (I think it was a hint from a merchant in town about the “noble metals” that tipped us off.)


So now you have a few creatures altered from the norm. Maybe they’re based on the Grimm Fairytales instead of Norse Myth, or your Hydra is a great snake like the Greeks’ stories instead of the great dragon bodied beasts of D&D.

Decide how the creature interacts with the world. If there’s only one hydra in the world, and it has slain everything that encountered it, then you don’t need to worry about working tales of the hydra into your world. If, on the other hand, your campaign will feature vampires at every turn, you should begin planning on how you can reveal the differences. Scary tales around the campfire (told by an NPC, or even a PC with coaching) can alert players to the looming difference. If they’re a big feature in your game, you might even include the information (or at least teasers for the information) in the campaign pitch.

How have you altered creatures in your games? Did you change the myths of the game world to match? How did you work those revised myths and stories into your game? Please share your experiences in comments!

12 Comments (Open | Close)

12 Comments To "World Building: Monsters and Myths"

#1 Comment By Hawkesong On June 17, 2010 @ 10:06 am

I altered Ogres in my game “Golden Spires of Ceranna.” The main action of the game is urban based – the PCs generally don’t travel far from the capital city. With the level of “law and order” in the area, it was vanishingly unlikely that “normal” monsters would ever manage to get a foothold inside the city walls…but I really love having one or two big-damage monsters to throw at the PCs.
Then I recalled a version of the Ogre from the novel “Midnight Blue” by Nancy A. Collins. This ogre is pretty awful, but it has adaptations that allow it to blend in with human society. I took that notion and applied it to the DD& ogre: something smaller, but tougher and meaner, which could pass for a dumb laborer most of the time, and could then safely predate on the streets of the city. The “city ogre” has wits enough to lay plans and conceal its nature.

When the PCs encountered these monsters, they were at first confused, then intrigued. As they discover more about the breed, they could potentially face a decision of whether to employ these horrible monsters, or to eradicate them from the city.

#2 Comment By Roxysteve On June 17, 2010 @ 10:56 am

The Zelazny Rakshasas (from his award-winning novel Lord of Light) are a good example of padding out the world with interesting stuff, not because they are alien (the entire premise of Lord of Light is an SF one with elements of Hindu Mythology grafted on more or less believably) but because they have a weakness, an addiction actually, for gambling and will always take a wager if the stakes are acceptable.

Of course, the only stake a human has that is of any interest to them is his/her soul…

As I recall the Rakshasa offers the bound service of lesser members of its type as it’s side of the wager.

One of the more memorable enconters I had in an old old OLD white box D&D campaign run in 1 BSW (Before Star Wars) was with a Griffon who agreed to accompany our party down into a dungeon complex, but was obsessively honest and insisted that all loot be divvied-up as it was acquired, counting out the copper pieces one by one to be sure a fair deal was had by all. All role-played to the hilt by Clive the GM.

It had a “chest of holding”.

We didn’t.

It took a remarkably short time before we were driven to the point of insisting the Griffon just take everything so we could move on (for pity’s sake).

But the salient point is that I remember that damned imaginary Griffon 34 years later like it was sitting in front of me now. This is the pay off for such specialised in-game factors.

#3 Comment By Razjah On June 17, 2010 @ 11:28 am

I alter creatures a lot. In a campaign that I’m planning for the fall the fall the main monsters are goblin who are based loosely on the Huns and the gnolls that are based on vikings for combat. The goblins are not cowards and are extremely war like.

#4 Comment By Scott Martin On June 17, 2010 @ 12:28 pm

[9] – That’s an interesting twist on Ogres– it sounds like they blended right in. Weis and Hickman had their own interesting take on Ogres in Dragonlance– do you remember the Irda?

[10] – It’s been too long since I last read Lords of Light; thanks for the reminder– clearly it’s time to dig it out again.

I love the story about the griffon; it’s amazing how clearly an image from a game can stick.

[11] – Goblin Huns sounds interesting– you can slip historical behaviors for Huns into your game as forewarning and a great template for personalities. Will your Goblins borrow the Hun’s love of mounted archery? That, combined with riding wolves would make them deadly…

#5 Comment By BryanB On June 17, 2010 @ 1:19 pm

The Dragonlance setting also had a fresh take on Minotaurs with the Minotaurs having a civilized empire on the continent of Taladas.

In a homebrew campaign setting that I have placed on the back burner, I have the Ogres that we all know and love from D&D. But my Ogres weren’t always the savage brutes that the world has to deal with now.

At one time, they were a peaceful agrarian race that worshipped a Goddess they called their Tundra Mother. It was a branch of the Elven race that caused the Ogres to turn from farmers into warriors. It was a 100 year war of genocide that reduced the Ogres into rare primal savages.

The Tundra Mother lost her sanity during the carnage. When she finally snapped, she used her divine energy to curse the Elven Empire that had all but butchered most of her children. The world now knows those elves as Orcs.

#6 Comment By Martin Ralya On June 17, 2010 @ 8:10 pm

I love this approach, Scott! I think this works best when (as you suggest) these lovingly altered monsters are central to your campaign, giving your players a chance to uncover details about them as they progress.

#7 Comment By ggodo On June 18, 2010 @ 12:12 am

On the subject of Ogres, Ravnica’s Ogres are dumb laborers who occasionally eat humanoids, but it’s all regulated by the law and society just sorta goes with it.

#8 Comment By The Stray7 On June 18, 2010 @ 9:24 am

I’ve done some altering of monsters based on how I wanted to use them. It’s interesting that you bring up Redcaps, because I’ve had a lot of fun with those.

I’ve used Redcaps in two different settings. In one, Redcaps were cannibalistic murderous goblins hunting cities at night. In another, they were more akin to bandit clans of hillbilly gnomes. The changes I made were linked to the role they played in the game they appeared in (And I loved the Spriggan from the MM2, which gave me stats I could use that would work for either band).

The difference was mainly that one was a race of baddies (the goblins, which were meant to invoke fears of facing inhuman things that wanted to eat you) and the other was a culture of baddies (the hillbilly gnomes, which weren’t representative of the whole race, just a minority of it that was particularly nasty).

#9 Comment By Scott Martin On June 18, 2010 @ 10:40 am

[12] – I guess everyone’s an ogre lover these days. 😉 It sounds like an interesting change– how did you let the players in on their history? Or did it not matter, since Ogres now act brutally, just as you’d expect?

[13] – I wonder how you’d alter the monsters and their myths for a [14] campaign– since these fringe monsters are now the core of the experience.

[15] – Sounds expensive from a liability insurance point of view. Still, if you’re willing to cut corners…

[16] – That does sound like two very different takes, with a strong emphasis on cultural differences instead of game stats.

#10 Comment By BryanB On June 18, 2010 @ 11:44 am

[17] – I eventually wanted the PCs to encounter the last of the Ogrynn Druids – Keeper of their history and the relics of the Tundra Mother. But I haven’t worked out the details of how that would come about. Initially, the first Ogres the PCs encounter would act as people have come to expect. 😀

#11 Comment By The Stray7 On June 19, 2010 @ 11:39 am

@Scott Martin – Indeed. Cultural differences tend to be a theme in my games, which lets me got lots of mileage out of different races and monsters.

#12 Comment By ZedZed77 On July 1, 2010 @ 9:28 am

Scott, you talk about point buy in the old V:tM rules. Mutants and Masterminds uses point buy for all of its characters and NPCs, and one of the consequences is a relative ease in tweaking monster traits.

Implementing “Our vampires are different” is a little extra work up front, but the chance to make a creature your own and not something from a Manual is worth it.