Monday, May 9, 2022

Monster of Intuition

A lot of good monsters in stories and games are those that are easy to grasp. They have striking concepts, even when they lack total coherence. Medusa (if we want to call her a monster) has snakes for hair and turns people into stone. Iconic. The connection between snake hair and petrification could be posited, but is actually unnecessary. A manticore has the head of a man, the body of a lion, and the tail of a scorpion. It’s clear why it’s scary and we can guess how it acts because we know what a man, a lion, and a scorpion are. 

Unknowable monsters are uninteresting on their own. They need a good story to go into. But a cowardly little guy with a dog face and scales makes for a good story all on his own. 

Usually a good monster is pretty simple, but a major exception is the “Weird Guy” category. Your vampire, your wizard, your cat lord. They often have a loose theme under which they may have a dozen or more features and quirks. But note how many of those features are themselves striking and simple. Dracula can turn into a bat (and we know what bats are), drink blood (and we have strong associations with blood), hypnotize people, command wolves, climb walls like a lizard, get burned by crosses, flee the sun, be unkillable, and other things you don’t need to explain.

Some intuitive monsters:

  • Hollow bronze statues that walk around and stab intruders with spears. There’s a circular hatch in their back that’s sealed with wax, and if it’s knocked out they die. They’re powered by bees, who fly out of their back if they’re killed to spoil and pillage.
  • Peacock with a fiery tail that burns your house down and spits smoke.
  • Looks like a woman, but full to the brim with rats who can pop out to bite you, though their tails root them inside the body.
  • A turnip that rolls around as though in the wind, and every time it rolls a circle around you, you age by a year. You get your youth back if you eat the turnip.
  • Goat that pretends to be lost livestock, then later turns into a wooden cage with wheels and carts you off to Hell.
  • Wolf that leaves a trail of black sand wherever it goes, and when it dies the sand combusts.
  • The head of a hyena, the legs of a giraffe, and the body and tongue of a frog.
  • Teen with a skull for a head, that drools acid
  • Bat that turns inside out and summons angry mobs
  • Little guy that does favors for you, but then can command you an equal number of times. He lives in an orchard.
  • Evil millstone that rolls around crushing people, especially those it heard gossip about.
  • Sorcerer who turns you into a tree and then chops you down.
  • Huge monster that looks like a tower with a big lion head. Encases everything around it in crystals, then has its minions shatter people.
  • Talking goblet that teaches you spells and rituals designed to backfire.
  • Beaver, but if it uses a part of your house to build its dam you become its slave.
  • A tiger no one else can see or acknowledge.
  • Evil pair of horses pulling a carriage. Revolvers are held out to shoot at anyone the horses don’t trample to death, and if you make eye contact with the thing inside, you die. This is all one creature.
  • Super-strong man with a sponge for a head, and when you squeeze it milk comes out and he gets confused.
  • Looks like a boar, but its belly opens up and there’s an army of angry women with spears.
  • Horse, but most of its face is just a hole to nowhere. If you fall through and lose your grip on it, you’ll fall forever. 
  • Person with wooden insides. If you disobey any of their requests or commands, you explode.
  • Weird guy with very reflective eyes and constantly wet hair, who can float in the wind, send copies of himself that pop when punctured, speak Dutch, become invisible to the mundane and tawdry, brew poison, and sing to change the weather.
  • Weird guy who makes trees grow overnight, causes the dead to rise, track those who have stolen from him, turn into a beetle, run really fast, and make locks and latches shatter on command.
  • Weird guy who vapes underground by day, resembling a mundane geyser. By night, he spits lightning and kidnaps people. He can summon rats to do his bidding. Vinegar kills him, milk makes him lose his powers, and honey makes him obey your orders.

Some things people intuitively understand

1. metal

2. wood

3. wax

4. water

5. goo

6. fire

7. lava

8. fog

9. flesh

10. bone

11. insects

12. stone

13. one thing divided in two

14. one thing inside another

15. one thing entwined with another

16. sizzling

17. fuming

18. decaying

19. sponge

20. one thing through another thing

21. plants

22. crystal

23. dirt

24. void

25. faces

26. sounds

27. hands

28. webs

29. fabric

30. leather


  1. So it actually sort of scares me how intuitive your first example actually is.

    "Hollow bronze statues that walk around and stab intruders with spears."
    It's animated armour. It's every time you've seen Scooby Doo and armour on a stand turns its head to follow the gang. It's simple.

    "There’s a circular hatch in their back that’s sealed with wax, and if it’s knocked out they die."
    This is basically the magic equivalent of taking the battery out of the back, or flicking its on/off switch. A thing on its back that stops it moving, but in this case it lets the magic out. It would tease what's coming next better if you described to your players how it's dirty wax, dripping down out of the hole, as if it was done without purpose.

    "They’re powered by bees, who fly out of their back if they’re killed to spoil and pillage."
    This is the perfect example of how you point out that it's unnecessary to understand why a medusa/gorgon can petrify you with the snakes on her head. It just sort of makes sense. Like, once you know it can do it, you say, "Well, of course it does that."

    Really great post, and I might be designing some game stuff around some hollow bronze statues soon. Thanks!

    1. Thanks, glad you enjoyed it. I would definitely describe the muffled buzzing filling the statues once they've taken a few hits, and then when the bees come everyone will feel like they should have seen it coming.

  2. "Super-strong man with a sponge for a head, and when you squeeze it milk comes out and he gets confused." you and me both, dude.