Keywords, part 3

 Keywords and Building a Better Monster

Keywords are a simple idea which covers a lot of ground. In short, the Keyword system will explain a great deal about the monsters, creatures, and people you may
encounter or create in a game. Since I’m a very backwards person, we’re
starting with part 3: Social Keywords. You simply drop a social keyword or two
to describe the creature you want. It carries a great deal of information about
the creature.

Forthcoming entries will include Mental and Metabolic keywords. The system is kinda-sorta designed for Dungeons and Dragons, but it really works with any game.

Social Key

Creatures don’t exist in a vacuum, except for Star Dragons.

Every being and every creature lives in a world filled with other living things. How they
interact and deal with those things plays a critical part in defining that
creature. And most beings’ most critical interactions occur with others of
their own kind. Those most like us shape our community and our people. On the
other hand, some creatures shun their own kind, or any kind. Others form
complex societies so they can manage nations of thousands or millions.

This forms the Social Key. Social Keys are the most flexible of all Keys. Whatever a
creature’s most common traits are, it has some flexibility when it comes to
figuring out how to deal with others. Culture matters – a lot! Also, culture
matters much more the more creatures gather together. And individuals might
just be weird outsiders who don’t fit in.


A Solitary creature cannot interact with other of its kind except in
limited ways. It has no social role whatsoever, except possibly for an urge to
reproduce now and then. Solitary creatures don’t merely live alone – they
actively avoid contact with others. If intelligent, they dislike the presence
of other beings. They would never seek out others except in utter desperation,
if then.

Unintelligent Solitary creatures are more common. Plants might happen to
live around others, but they have no interest in them and choke the life out of
them if they can. Every other plant is an enemy, competing for food, space,
light, and water.

The odd fantasy “hive-mind” is also usually a Solitary creature. Most
such “hive-minds” are completely incapable of social interaction, and have only
one actual mind no matter how many bodies it may possess. When hive-minds do
interact with people, they usually treat them as a threat to be destroyed or
devoured. Note that the hive-mind is nothing like a real Hive society.


Independent creatures tend to live alone, but can enjoy the company of others from time to time. Many animals are independent, preferring to keep their own dens but playing with others, hunting with others, and seeking out mates. Examples include raccoons, bears, foxes, many cats, most lizards and snakes, and even sharks. Independent creatures simply like to work alone, but don’t object to the presence of other creatures. They can make good pets if they’re small or intelligent enough – they understand affection and often reciprocate warm feelings.


Hive creatures have strict but often simply organizing principles that everyone always abides by. Most often, the individual has a specific role assigned at birth, and carries out that role until death. Everyone is taken care of precisely and specifically as the rules
allow, and goes to their death without question. Examples include ants and bees, of course. While both of those species have “queens,” no queen creature is necessary for a Hive society.

For obvious reasons, most Hive creatures aren’t very intelligent. If your individual members think too much, they might not obey the absolute rules. In fact, most Hive societies don’t even have laws as such. The hive’s needs, from agriculture to construction, are simply what life is. Hive creatures don’t even think in terms of “we” – they’re so much a part of the group that they don’t even consider the question at all.

That doesn’t means that a small selection of intelligent individuals can’t exist. The odd mutant can exist, and many Hive species have an intelligent leader caste with its own politics. Exactly what that leader caste does is another question entirely. Certainly in
d20 they traditionally have powerful magic and free use of endless hordes of loyal,
disposable minions.

As mentioned, variants on Hives include: Queen Hives, where the focus is on a single female who births every creature, Caste Hives, in which a powerful elite control everything, and Egalitarian Hives, where instinct is so strong no individual stands out.


A democracy is an odd form of social organization which on rare occasions turns up in fantasy or science fiction, and a great deal in human history. In essence, a democracy has some kind of direct social link between people, or a mystical or psychic mental connection, or extremely fast polling. This organizes the rules for society. People
instantly respond and enforce their opinions. The downside, and why it’s a democracy, is that either the majority rules or some more-or-less hidden power manipulates the results.  Minorities, or whomever the controller dislikes, get screwed and have no recourse.

This works very well in a small-scale setting. After all, everyone in a small village knows everyone else, their needs, and the village’s interests, particularly if technology is limited. Powerful people are immediately present and can’t ignore you, so minority opinions have weight. In larger societies, democracy starts to edge into tyranny, or outright stupidity. Even at its best, society members are forced to exercise control over things they don’t understand or cede power to the most vocal speakers. Democracy can work. The less knowledge people possess about each other, the less well it works.

For obvious reasons, democracies often require intelligent members. But not always. You’ll find no purer democracy than a school of fish or a flock of birds. Mice and rats often live in close quarters, but don’t have much of a hierarchy or much cooperation.

Variants on Democracy include: Village Democracy, where a small population intimately know one another, Psychic Democracy, where everyone is mentally linked, and Techno-Democracy. The first only works with low-tech settings. The second leans heavily toward mind control and compulsion. The third tends to create degenerate “governments” run by fashion and tawdry popularity contests.

You may object to the negative notes. The benefits are obvious, right? Yes, but the downsides aren’t. Democracy by definition is popular: that doesn’t make it good. Throughout most of human history, it’s been the weak horse. Democracy led Athens into disaster, defeat, and eventually tyranny. Roman democracy strangled itself and first gave rise to the elitist Republican state and then the Empire. Democracy crippled Poland when Friedrich Wilhelm II set his hungry eyes on their land. In short, democratic rule proved to be a considerable trouble to most of those who practiced it. The great democracies of today practice a broad but very limited version of democracy.


Tyranny isn’t merely one-man rule, but a power structure which claims that one leader is proper. Creatures great and small may share in it. Nor is it necessarily evil. A tyrant is simply the one who rules, for good or ill. When it comes down to it, most human societies probably prefer tyranny in practice if not in theory, and particularly if it benefits from support by the middle classes. On the other hand, the cruelest and most terrible regimes also tend to be tyrannies (exceptions definitely exist).

Animals too, practice Tyranny. The strongest rules wolf packs and deer herds alike. It’s a fact of life for many organisms intelligent enough to have groups. If creatures can have more status or power than their fellows, they can practice Tyranny.

Variants on Tyranny include: Despotism, rule by one man and a military elite, Monarchy, a hereditary or elected rule usually with established traditional or legal limits, and Empire, in which the tyrant controls lesser monarchs and polities. While the methods of selecting monarchs change from nation to nation and time to time, the situations do not. Those who rule by their personal military elite wind up acting an awful lot like each other no matter what culture they’re in, because the situation differs. The Despot will be cruel and decisive, or rebels drive him out. The Monarch will feud with powerful families, or they weaken her. The Empire will fight with foreign powers, because Empires tend to expand until they simply cannot.

Why defend what I myself call Tyranny? Well, most human beings in any form of civilization lived under a Tyranny of some kind. Yet they mostly managed to get by pretty well, have children, and live their lives. Tyranny isn’t exactly good. But it isn’t always evil, or at least not the worst evil. But that’s a question for the ages, and we’re not going to settle it here.


Tribal creatures form largercommunities which interact, and are almost always intelligent. Tribal creatures identify themselves with the tribe, whatever else they are. Because the tribe is spread out over a large area, it cannot meet like a democracy. Because it tends to fragment back to its homes, it tends not to unify like tyranny. Left
to their own devices, tribes chose some men or women to meet and decide very important issues. The village Democracy allows anyone to speak; the Tribe allows only the chosen to speak because a thousand people can’t talk.

Because an “egalitarian hierarchy” is inherent in a tribe, it practically requires an intelligent being. You can’t form a hierarchy of nominally equal people without some method of choosing individuals for leadership. It’s not outright impossible without
intelligence, but much rarer.

True Tribes are regional confederations of people who belong to one culture. They tend to have loose and individual groups or clans may use widely varying procedures for choosing leaders, but they rarely tolerate tyrannical leadership for long. The True Tribe can easily meet wherever convenient. Republics unite even more varied subcultures through formal methods and meetings. They usually possess cities and possibly a bureaucracy, but tend to dislike bureaucracy as a rule. Republics place a high value on legal scholarship and procedure. Nations are the pinnacle of scale in Tribal creatures, being able to unite numerous regions and subcultures sharing the same ideals or culture.

I consider humans to be at heart a tribal creature. From primitive man to modern citizens, people identify their culture and often race with a specific ethnic group, and often an ancient tribal group. Wars and feuds within the tribe are simply different than those outside the tribe: more emotional, more fundamental. People naturally feel it’s normal to associate within the tribe and unusual (bad or good) to associate outside it. The tribe doesn’t always agree but everyone within it has roughly the same values, the same language, and the same way of life. Only two limits exist on the size of the tribe: the number of people who share the same culture, and the number of subgroups you can tie into a government. In this sense the nation is no different than the Tribe.

There’s always the possibility of more, and more complicated, social systems, but the above should cover almost anything you’ll see in a game.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: