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Monsters Outside the Polis

Once upon a time, we posted ideas for settings in which games could take place. Here's a setting idea I've teased out of a few different elements. The core concept of monsters as sinful humans is one I had several years ago before moving to Seattle, but somehow I left that notebook behind (Milo, do you still have that small leather-bound travel notebook I got from the Faire?). I'm drawing on the ancient Greeks for some setting details, but it wouldn't have to be set or limited to that historical/mythical time and place. Obviously there's some Dogs in the Vineyard overlap/inspiration as well.

Why are there so many monsters that are part human? One might argue that they represent aspects of ourselves that we find monstrous: desires, passions, even reason run rampant. In this setting, that is in fact how monsters originate. When a person goes too far in pursuit of his desires, he is transformed outwardly to reflect his inner monstrousness.

There are two kinds of monsters: monsters of passion and monsters of reason. A monster of passion has a human body but an animal head, such as a minotaur. A monster of reason always has a human face or head, such as a sphinx, and may even have a human torso and arms, such as a mermaid or centaur. Monsters of passion are not capable of speech, but make their desires plain through their actions. Monsters of reason are capable of speech and will quite readily explain their desires; however, they cannot be reasoned with as such and shown the error of their ways.

A monster of passion is driven to sate a bodily desire: for food, for sex, for rest (slothfulness), even for sensation. A monster of reason is driven to sate more abstract desires: for knowledge, for power, for glory/fame/reverence (worship), for possessions. Certain monsters already have historical associations: sphinxes with knowledge (riddles), satyrs with sexual lust, minotaurs with bloodthirst. Other monsters might require research into the symbology of different animals, or of course you could just make up something.

Monsters pose a dual threat to other people: they prey directly upon humans, but worse, their very proximity brings out the worst in others. Usually people are afflicted by the same desire as the monster - think of Bacchus inspiring the wine-and-lust-crazed Maenads - but their presence can also trigger the transformation in those who are already far gone in their own desires; only in this sense do monsters breed monsters. Thus, it is important that monsters be slain as soon as possible, lest they destroy the polis (city-state).

The characters, then, are monster-hunters - or heroes, if you will. Their goal is to discover the monster that afflicts the polis, determine its weakness, and destroy it. Naturally, as supernatural manifestations of evil, monsters have some immunity to normal weaponry and require something special to be slain, though that need not be a conventional weapon - in the classic case of the Sphinx, knowing the answer to its riddle was enough. Even with the proper bane, the characters must still be careful that they do not get caught and devoured, or worse, corrupted.

This probably could be run simply as a Dogs variant: the Pride, or hubris, of an important figure in the polis would cause some injustice, and the appearance of the monster would be the visible result, standing in for "demonic attacks." Those of you interested in that setup should compare with "Thunder in the Vineyard", an ancient Greece setting posted in the Forge. However, I do like the idea that the monster actually is the source of the evil and the true threat that must be confronted, not just a symptom of a regular person's failing; call it a more heroic take on the Dogs setup. Perhaps there's another game system that would be better suited, or perhaps it requires some new rules.

This sounds intriguing, Phil - and I'd really like to hear about it. I think it could be turned into "its own thing" with a ruleset etc.
What really jumps at me in this respect are Passion and Reason as defining aspects of all characters...

I've always loved this idea. I thought that Robin Laws handled it very well in his GURPS book "Fantasy II: The Madlands". There's some great stuff in there; I recommend picking up a copy, if you can.

An interesting twist would be a game where all the players start out monsterous, and are trying to work their way back to humanity and redemption.

Peter wrote:
What really jumps at me in this respect are Passion and Reason as defining aspects of all characters...

Ah, see, now that's a good idea! Using the Dogs system, those would easily map to Heart and Will (or Acuity, I forget which). But it might be better to use a Trollbabe-style scale, where the low end is Passion and the high end is Reason; following the ancient Greek ideal of "everything in moderation," the ideal number would be 5 or 6 (I'm liking the idea of a 1-9 scale so that 5 is the center, though that could be problematic). Taking "damage" in the game would push your number toward one end of the scale, making you better at one type of conflict but increasing the risc of succumbing to the Fall.

I agree that a trollbabes-style game might be best. Perhaps this could be a variant of Stranger Things. I don't think it needs an all new ruleset, but perhaps if the theme were redemption of the monster it might require a different system or variation of the system, as Stranger Things isn't focused or designed for that. What do you think John?

First, I love this idea. A lot. I wish you had written this before I started on Stranger Things. It would have been a different beast.

Anyway, yes, I think a Trollbabe-style system might work well here. The trick, of course, is in nailing down the Situation. Are we the monsters or the monster-slayers? Can we transform between the two? Those questions need answers before a ruleset can be put together.

Also, beware of the "solved" game. If a given monster suffers from an excess of something, and they have a weakness that beats them, then the game is simply a matter of putting the pieces together and defeating the monster. There's a "best" solution in other words.

So, if the game is a *about* defeating the monsters, then you need to create a more interesting field of possibilities for defeating them.

Or, perhaps the game is about the slayers themselves, and why they do what they do, and what they're willing to do in order to win. That falls more in the Buffy realm. It's not the monster-fighting thats interesting, it's the life of the monster slayer herself. That game doesn't need a more tactical monster-slaying game, but it does need tools for players to make Premise-addressing statements -- perhaps Trollbabe style with Relationships, or Dogs style, with Traits.

increasing the risc of succumbing

Increasing the risc of succumbing? What kind of hack writer wrote this crap? Damn fool can't even proofread his own comments...

Anyhow, addressing some more comments:

Pol, GURPS makes me break out in hives, but I gather that they are pretty good about comprehensive background in their supplements, and Robin Laws is also good, so I'll see if I can take a look at that at some point. Having the players start out monstrous and attempt to become human again is pretty much the opposite of what I was thinking, but would indeed be an interesting twist.

John, depending on what it is about this idea that you'd have liked to incorporate into Stranger Things, I think perhaps I'm glad I did not write this up before then - I like what Stranger Things is, already, and I like this idea as something different. Though I do see that you could have worked aspects of this idea into Stranger Things without losing what that game is, or what that setting is.

In my concept the players are definitely the monster-slayers, and the Transformation is definitely a game-losing Bad Thing. I'm not sure yet where it falls between "slaying monsters" and "life of the slayer" - I'm inclined to say it's more toward the former, but it's not pure D&D-style monster-bashing either.

The stuff about how to defeat the monsters is the obvious weak point so far; despite writing about the characters needing to determine the monster's weakness, I don't want this to be a "guess the GM's concept" game. It's important to note, too, that in the mythos I'm drawing upon, there's often still great danger even when you know the monster's weakness. Perseus knew how to slay Medusa, but he still had to avoid her gaze and escape her sister Gorgons; Odysseus knew how to avoid Charybdis but still had to suffer the attacks of Scylla. So, I wasn't thinking that discovering the weakness was an automatic win against the monster.


This could even be a very gamist-supporting kind of thing, where play centers around exploration conflicts to gather evidence of the monster's weaknesses which then act as bonus dice to take it down in the big, dangerous battle.

More evidence gathering might mean more exposure to the corruption that leads to monsterdom, though, so there's some interesting brinksmanship there to play with.

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