We put monsters in games because they are cool. They excite the imagination and our visceral reactions to viscera and reaching tendrils. But it can be difficult to mesh the mechanical demands of monsters with the storytelling promise of such creatures. As always, it is a matter of what we want to emphasize. I don't want to retread the concerns Skerples goes over in his philosophy concerning the Monster Overhaul.
I have been impressed by an article by Dan at his blog and a collection of monsters written by Cavegirl. In addition to being good pieces, they both lean into the potential for monsters, and therefore the stories in which they appear, to create artistic affect through metaphor and parable. Mythology and folklore are full of strange creatures we can choose to understand through the lens of symbolism. A vampire symbolizes sexuality, or fears about death, or the inherited power of aristocracy, or whatever really.
Interestingly, the creature doesn't need to have a specific meaning to feel meaning-laden. Consider the Peryton or the Jabberwock, which are memorable despite being gibberish. Dan's tiger is a notable real-world example. By centralizing its cause as British Colonialism, we impart it with a retributive aspect, and make the natural phenomenon of starving tigers into the symbolic phenomenon of a national spirit wronged and vengeful. Yet the contemporary tiger-hunters, who presumably did not consider this analysis, decided that the tiger was meaning-laden in totally different ways. These interpretations are purely instrumental. Dan's metaphor is better for stories about how British Imperialism is bad; a big game hunter's metaphor might be better for stories about how great imperialism is, (citation needed).
To be conscious of the potential for meaning in monsters is not to bind them to a blatant interpretation. I tend to think of such things as simile. The cruel king is like greed incarnate. The dragon acts as death personified would. This way, if players don't clock the specific symbolism they don't feel like they're on the outside of a joke. The simile helps the person running the game to figure out a creature's intent, interesting hooks, vignettes, resonant moments and interactions.
Therefore, I offer the Book of Similes. It is divided into twenty creatures: ten "old" similes, which act as ciphers for the concerns of the pre-modern societies most fantasy games emulate, and ten "new" similes, which stand in for anxieties of the current zeitgeist. Some are pretty simple, the sort of thing that's appropriate to an entry on a random encounter table. Others make for interesting features in a dungeon or to round out other adventures. Some are adventures all in themselves. For each, I've offered some suggested hooks, places, items, and/or encounters to stimulate creativity and establish how I imagine them working at the table. Click the eye below to read.
All art by Renegade of False Idols.