Monster Blood: Keywords

Monster Blood!

Tweaking your beasties in a magical setting

In fantasy settings, we often have a  disgustingly complicated world filled with weird varieties of twisted creatures. The universe we inhabit operates with a few fairly simple laws. Those laws interact in some truly amazing ways, but it arises from only a handful of rules.

Fantasy universes are not like that. They feature arrays of energy types from different universes; these are often half-alive and capable of fuzzily choosing for themselves. Strange and amazing creatures exist which are not merely different in appearance, or even differ in body chemistry, but actively function on alien physics. Beings of living fire burn forever. Beings of water slosh around and can actually be hurt by swords. Living metaphysical principles stop by to chat.

Worse yet, they actually have children together. (When mommy water elemental and daddy fire spirit love each other *very* much…) And that doesn’t even reach into the confusing issue of how such creatures work together – or don’t. We can ask what they’ll understand – do they comprehend traps? Are they able to think abstractly?

Thus… keywords.

The keyword system gives you a quick rundown of three things:

… WHAT is a creature made of and how does it keep body and soul together?

… HOW does it think and understand?

… WHO lives together in their societies?

Metabolism Keywords

Metabolism describes how the creature gathers energy and uses it, and generally describes what kind of physical (or whatever) body it possesses.

Chemical Metabolism

We’re all familiar with chemical metabolism, the wonderful lovely system which allows us to eat, breathe, and sleep, enjoying our lives day in and out. Chemical metabolism use material substances which react. Their bodies use complex chemical pathways to strip food and drink) of useful materials and energy, which go into building and repairing the body and fueling activity.

Like all metabolisms, this has a number of advantages. Chemical creatures have low magical signatures, vary critical weaknesses (if any) greatly from creature to creature, and avoid vulnerability to magical attacks or mystical effects. Chemical creatures thrive in, or adapt to, a wide range of environments and reproduce quickly enough to maintain maximize the population for the land and resources available.

The downside is that chemical metabolism doesn’t have any great advantages. It’s not designed for any purpose in particular and has no self-organizing principles. It doesn’t come with any innate magical power, and remains heavily dependent on having the right chemicals and materials available for survival. In fact, magic is always an alien force to chemical creatures, who harness it only in very awkward ways. This actually can become an advantage because they lack many restrictions on what spells and abilities they can develop. (And here you always wondered why you got all the prestige classes and class advancement as humanoids.)

Mind/Body: Chemical creatures have constantly interacting mind and body. While separate, the chemical creature is simply not complete without a full, functioning body. As the body dies, part of the spirit dies with it. Lose an arm, and the spiritual aspect of that arm is dead. Damage the face so the creature can’t smile? The creature will actually have a harder time
understanding the meaning of other’s smiles.

General Rules: Chemical creatures need the wonderful everyday things we’re familiar with: air, water, and
food. They bleed and need sleep. Chemical creatures grow slowly to
adulthood (compared to some magic monstrosities, anyhow), but a small
population can reproduce itself indefinitely – no need for special
support or godlike authority figures. They have no magical weaknesses
or advantages, and need no magical resources to survive.

D20 Game Mechanics: Chemical creatures are the base standard for all beings. They are largely immune to spells of banishment and cannot easily be warded off, which is why those spells don’t target player characters often and don’t work so well if they do.

Electrical Metabolism

We’re all familiar with electrical metabolisms, since you’re probably reading this on a computer screen. Electrical metabolic creatures live on electricity. It powers them in a constant stream which gives them strength and vitality to move. The creature’s central core is the true living heart, and everything else is the shell.

For the most part, they don’t need many other resources, and what they do need is usually provided to them by a master or owner. Certainly, free-willed or naturally-occurring electrical creatures aren’t impossible, but most were deliberately created by someone else for a specific purpose and can count on that owner for support, repairs, and so forth.

Of course, that same monomaniacal dependency has its downsides. Lose power, and the creature shuts down or even dies permanently. Damage the core, and the creature is down for good. Magical attacks, sadly, can do both fairly easily. However, environmental hazards may be worse. Electricity does not work well with water, and cold and hot weather can weaken an electrical creature long before a chemical creature.

Mind/Body: Additionally, because they use only electrical energy for survival, many electrical creatures can completely replace whole body parts. Their physical forms are tools external to the mind, which is the “real” creature – a central core being.

General Rules: Cold temperatures can weaken electrical creatures unless they have a lot of energy to recharge. They’ll usually run down long before a comparable chemical creature would freeze. Water is very bad, and will short out any exposed components, while insulating them from liquid is expensive and bulky. On the upside, they need not breathe or sleep, and are immortal unless the core is damaged.

D20 Game Mechanics: While it’s not always important, an electrical creature’s core has a separate hit point total from its body. The body is easy to repair with appropriate spells, but the core usually has only a trivial amount of hit points (1d4+1/level) and will die easily. Substitute an appropriate Craft skill for that creature to repair. Most of the time, the core is only vulnerable once the body’s hit points run down. But an attack which penetrates deeply, or a magical spell which targets the core proper (+3 spell levels as a built-in effect), might cut straight through.

Cold attacks should deal an extra die of damage, and long-term exposure to cold weather should inflict and slowly increase stat penalties to Strength and Dexterity (a Fort save around every 8 hours, DC at GM’s discretion). Insulation only marginally protects against this, granting a +2 bonus on the save).

Water presents another danger, and an active electrical creature will take 1d4 damage every round (to the body, not the core) from water. Some electrical creatures can completely shut down, in which case they does not take damage, but they don’t have a way to turn back on again…

Mechanical Metabolism

Mechanical metabolism is almost strictly limited to constructs, though it’s possible to have other varieties. A Mechanical metabolism takes advantage of the compelling power of clockwork. Instead of organs and blood, mechanical creatures fill their bodies with springs and gears.

Exactly how they gather energy to survive is another question.  Worlds with gravity fluctuations can support them, as can any world where very hot areas border on cool ones. Land that is always hot, such as a burning desert, is not ideal, but creatures might charge up during the day and be active only during the evening. An active volcano, on the other hand, could support thousands.

Further, mechanical metabolisms are unusual, to say the least. This is not the kind of thing you expect to evolve on a scientific world. Most often, someone designed and built mechanical creatures, at least simple ones, and only then did the creatures develop. Fortunately, mechanical creatures are perfect for doing so. They come with a lot of built-in mechanical know-how and may easily reproduce.

Mind/Body: Mechanical creatures are at least as similar to chemical ones as electrical. They have a similar mind and body connection as chemical creatures. Damage the body, and you at least harm the mind and spirit.

General Rules: These are covered under the description above.

D20 Game Mechanics: Mechanical creatures take an extra die of damage from sonic or shattering attacks. Most are metal, and need not breathe or “eat” normally, but they often need sleep and the occasional oil bath. Something like a rust monster can deal lethal damage to one. It’s assumed that any metal mechanical creature won’t rust from rain or casual water, but prolonged exposure to corrosive chemicals (including salt water) causes serious damage at least as fast might kill a normal
human from exposure.

Arcane Metabolism

Arcane creatures need constantly flowing magical energy to survive. Most often, they develop powerful spellcasting abilities or resistances to magical energy as a side effect. The other great advantage of arcane metabolism is that creatures with it are much, much tougher than common Chemical creatures. They can draw upon a far richer supply of energy to survive on. Of course, the downside is that they usually have very dangerous weaknesses.  The correct attack of magical energy can leave them helpless, or even kill outright, because even the most complex Arcane metabolism will have a few…. holes.

Mind/Body: Arcane creatures have no clear separation between the mind and body. If they have a physical form at all, it’s little more than a shell to contain the awesome power within. Many are not native to the player character’s universe, since their magical nature makes them easy to summon or control. Others are created by powerful wizards as part of some twisted experiment.

General Rules: A pure Arcane creature may not have a physical form, and immaterial creatures are not blocked by many common defenses. You should determine if it can use minor magical abilities indefinitely, or if it has a reserve of magical power. Either way, such a creature could be a priceless catch to a spellcaster. Arcane creatures are also very resistant to some magic – the purer the magic, the least likely it is to affect the creature. Arcane creatures usually need not eat, breathe or sleep.

D20 Game Mechanics: Not many creatures have a full Arcane metabolism. Creatures like the Nishruu do, and they can be utterly immune to any spell. But everything has weaknesses. Most arcane creatures simply have high saving throws and resistances, but also substantial spell-like abilities. They often go intangible as needed.

Necrotic Metabolism

Most creatures use various energies to sustain life, but a few feed on death itself.  In a manner of speaking, Necrotic creatures don’t even a metabolism, but the lack of one. Still, one way or another the undead manage to function.

Any creature which calls upon the power of Death (or Darkness, or Evil  depending on the universe) to sustain a former existence can be called Undead. These beings retain a shell of their former lives. This is important because only the rarest and most terrible Necrotic creature can do without. The undead must retain part of its former existence or it falls apart. Without some kind of memory or reminder, even powerful undead lose their identity and will.

At the very weakest level,  an undead creature might need nothing more than its own rotten flesh to “survive.” At the strongest, ancient mummies require a huge tomb and carefully guarded sacred vessels. Ghosts haunt places which remind them of their lives. Smash the flesh, and the zombie ceases its minimal existence. Destroy the sacred vessels, and the mummy falls to dust. Convince the ghost to let go, and it fully dies.

It’s no accident that necrotic beings have a bad reputation, either. Their existence is inimical to life. While intelligent undead can control this, it would be a rare Necrotic creature which did not willingly hurt others. While they don’t get stronger for it, undead actively enjoy the environment created by death and decay, much as most normal beings might like warm, sunny days.

Mind/Body: As mentioned above, the mind of a Necrotic creature depends mostly on the link to its , and not on the state of the body as such. However, they do need the body – it’s just sometimes immaterial ectoplasm or a rotten husk.

General Rules: Undead need not eat, breathe or sleep, and usually can’t. Poisons and disease do not affect them. Some enjoy eating their victims, but do not require it unless the dark power which created wants it that way. They are tough against most physical attacks. While never outright stated, most see well in the dark. Like many creatures with a magical metabolism, they have innate abilities. However, these are rarely all that useful except for killing and destruction (for some reason, powers of death, decay, and destruction aren’t good at anything else).

D20 Rules: D20 covers most undead, with a rich variety to choose from and plenty of rules for them.

Elemental Metabolism

Elemental creatures have a relatively simple, but powerful, metabolism. They absorb the relevant energy of their type. This normally means they are a living aspect of the plane they hail from. This doesn’t mean all that much – a chemical creature is a “living aspect” of a material universe.  But elemental creatures, like many outsiders and unlike material creatures, form an active channel of energy when removed from the home plane. In their home universe, they have infinite energy sources to draw on, with the only limits being the natural forces which create them – their native strength of spirit. Outside of it, they release elemental energy into the local environment. This means even touching one can be fatal (in the case of fire or acid or similar “energy”), and they can slowly release their element into the world.

Having a body made of elemental forces grants magical power, but only in very narrow channels. An elemental creature of fire isn’t going to do much healing, let alone cast lightning or water magic, because all the energy is tied up in fire-based channels. The same goes respectively for other elemental forces.

While not universal, many elemental creatures lack much personality. Elemental forces don’t require it: they can exist without action. They can have mind without desire, being without much will. Again, many exceptions exist. But you’ll find earth elementals that simply stay put, water and air spirits who simply flow as the currents dictate, and fire spirits who may attack you solely because you’re made of burnable material. They react but do not precisely respond. Some consider this an exalted state of Buddhist oneness. Others consider such elementals to be mobile features of the landscape. Also, note that having a personality isn’t tied to personal power for elementals – the most powerful spirits could be quiet and inactive forever.

Mind/Body: Unlike chemical creatures, elementals have no separation at all between the mind and body. The creature’s mental processes occur just as much in the foot as the head, assuming it even has either one. In the case of elemental creatures, the complete lack of any internal organ or complexity means there’s nothing to hurt. They don’t feel pain as most creatures do, although are aware of anything which affects them. Moreover, as long as any part of the creature survives it can regenerate back completely. This limits the creature’s complexity of mind, as well, as the mind can’t develop beyond what it can regenerate.

General Rules:  Elemental creatures usually need not eat, breathe or sleep. They can usually be controlled, bound, or summoned by the correct use of magic. Most other rules are covered above.

D20 Rules: Not too different from the basic rules, an elemental creature takes double damage from an “opposing element”. While this is usually defined as Fire-Water and Earth/Acid-Air/Lightning, you could add a great many more elements and more complicated interactions. A mystical China-themed game might have Metal → (strong against) Earth → Wind → Water → Fire → Metal, or even more complicated rules.

Planar Metabolism

Planar metabolism works very similar to Elemental metabolism, with more complications. Planar creatures naturally gather and use the energies of their home  planes. This is not limited to merely alignment planes (In D20-based games), although those are common. Any kind of non-physical, non-elemental plane can create Planar metabolism creatures, including alignment planes and planes with strange or incomprehensible existences.

The twist is that all Planar creatures are at the very least somewhat intelligent. They might not be bright, but they intrinsically understand, use, and abuse the rules of their home plane. They can often be commanded by other, more powerful planar creatures, and will tend to target and attack “enemy” Planar creatures instinctively.

Planar metabolisms actually feed on the relevant energies of the cosmos (although they do eat). An evil demon, for example, starts to weaken if there’s no evil around to feast on. Sure, this doesn’t usually cause them much of a problem: no matter where they go, there’s enough nastiness to survive. But demons can be weakened gravely if surrounded by enough good, and so on. It won’t kill, but they do not like it.

Mind/Body: Despite the surface similarity to elemental creatures, Planar beings do have separate mentalities, slightly more so than Chemical creatures. They can often survive the destruction of their bodies entirely, though the experience would leave them scarred. Another unusual aspect is that they can often think much more rationally than humans – but are still tightly bound by the aspects of their home plane in what they can do, even if they partly realize the course of action is unwise.

General Rules: Planar creatures often talk about their “power”. Each world possesses its own scale of personal might – a measure of a creature’s authority and inner magical might from its own home. They usually instantly know how their power relates to each other. In any case, the more power inherent in a creature, the stronger and more resistant they become. This can manifest in unusual magical abilities, greater physical might, and almost always in superhuman resilience. Most powerful Planar creatures are  immune to mortal attacks and weapons. However, they do need to eat, breathe, and sleep; the more powerful they become, the less they need those, with the most powerful needing none of them at any time.

D20 Rules: Planar creatures are covered adequately, and in almost every possible variation, by the established game books and settings. They will be fully tangible barring the odd special ability.

Divine Metabolism

Gods have their own metabolism. This is one key to their power, though lesser creatures can have a Divine metabolism, too. This is rare at best, and usually confined to powerful spirit beings.

In essence, Divinities can call down energy in its purest form from nowhere. Depending on the game world this might be Hyperspace, the Positive Elemental Plane, or The Heavens, or perhaps they create the possibility of that energy by their very existence. Gods are living channels of power into the world. In some universes, Dark Divinities exist which are corresponding channels of power out of the world, and into the underworld or whatever. Yup, they’re not only dedicated to destruction, evil, and decay – but they get their munchies as well as their jollies from it.

The mere fact of having power doesn’t automatically grant Divinities any control. And the more potent the God, the more  energy he/she/it/other can manipulate. Thus, they do get inherent abilities, but these are a step above normal magic. They respond to the God’s will, and work according to the Divinity’s needs and desires instinctively. Divinities don’t need to study or even practice – it just works, and they can often bend the normal rules of the cosmos.

Even the best metabolism has a few downsides. Gods must have some sort of defining trait or factor. Think of this as their “gravity” – a chemical being needs some gravity to be able to hold onto the world, which gives them the ability to move themselves and other objects. The Gods have the same need, only on a much larger scale. The anchor for a God might be a concept, a thought, an emotion, a belief, or a physical place. The more powerful the God grows, the more it embodies that anchor. Contrariwise, Gods which rage against their anchors grow weaker, or at least insane.

Mind/Body: Gods have a huge advantage in the mind/body continuity. Specifically, they don’t have any problems. They can keep or lose their bodies without affecting or damaging the mind and most certainly can survive the loss of the body. They may make foolish choices because of their anchors, but not because of the body’s needs. They will be in full control of the body, which is mostly an energy structure anyhow – when you call down torrents of power, you don’t really need much else.

General Rules: Gods need not eat, breathe, or sleep, but they can do all of the above and will metabolize the full energy content of anything they consume. As a side effect of their metabolism, they can most certainly have offspring with anything living, and this occurs pretty much at their whim. Gods usually have ample inherent magical abilities related to their anchor.

D20 Rules: D20 has its own rules for divinities. However, the creatures they call Gods don’t really cover the spectrum. They often forget about minor, local spirits. Their Gods all get worshiped, but just having a Divine metabolism doesn’t require that. Creatures with Divine metabolisms are good ways to bring in nature spirits, revered ancestors, and other kinds of minor

Sentience Key

How much thought does a creature have? What can it actually perceive, consider, and guess at? How well will it comprehend human motives? These questions and more are part of a creature’s Sentience Key. The Sentience Key simply explains whether a creature can think or not, and what mental capabilities it possesses.

These capabilities are progressive. That is, having a higher one implies mastery over lower abilities. Is this strictly perfectly rational? No, surely there’s some creature in the universe with vast mental capabilities in one area but complete failure in another. But it’s not common, because brainpower tends to build on itself. The Keywords don’t prevent creatures from having specialties, but we’re assuming they tend not to be total monomaniacs.

Likewise, these keys are not linked to the Intelligence score. You can now have a brilliant animal with lots of Int-based skill points and bonuses to any Int-based skill it can use, but still lack a human-scale mind or the ability to play Chess.

I break down the “features” of a mind into several categories. There’s Will, desire and ability to choose between options. There’s Knowledge, having a significant body of information on some subject, or a skill. There’s Learning, the ability to gather more knowledge, develop skills, and in particular learn from mistakes. There’s Abstract Reasoning, which allows you to think about concepts and numbers without reference to specific physical examples. There’s Control, which grants the ability to refocus the mind and allocate resources consciously. There’s Foresight, which allows you to predict outcomes with a reasonable certainty. And finally, we have Metacognition, where a creature can use its full power for all tasks and concepts


Mindless creatures don’t actually have a mind at all.

A Mindless creature reacts physically (or magically or whatever) to changes in the environment. Usually such creatures can’t fight at all. If they have any kind of combat ability, it mostly uses eating reflexes to swallow things in the vicinity. Mindless creatures have no real senses, but may have triggered reactions to release toxins, eat nearby objects, or similarly mindless responses. In each case, the “reflex” is purely local. Mindless creatures have reflexes, like when your knee kicks if the doctor taps it just right.

Think plants or protozoa and viruses. Neither type acts or reacts in any kind of coherent manner, but they’re no less dangerous for it. Plants in the real world have deadly toxins, attract animals, and sometimes kill insects all without a thought. In a world of magic, they may be much bigger challenges or threats. Sure, the neighborhood pine isn’t a threat to a player character, but the legendary Volcano Tree of Mount Inferno might be a wee bit more trouble.

In game terms, a Mindless creature is a lump. It doesn’t act, gets no initiative or combat actions, and can’t attack. They’re challenges or traps, not enemies.


Reactive creatures have Will but not Knowledge.

A Reactive creature lives, and even to a small degree thinks. It has desires and pursues them. However, its knowledge is instinctual and can never increase. An insect doesn’t learn even if it grows; it doesn’t have the capability. But bees know they need to find food and know how to cooperate with the Hive. Bees have a very tiny brain which decides between needs. They can and do communicate and cooperate. Other insects don’t work together, but they do fulfill needs in other ways, and many other creatures like fish do the same.

In game terms, Reactive creatures are not predictable. If you understand the situations which push them towards one or the other, you can reasonably push how they’ll respond – they don’t have enough brainpower to analyze you back. But it’s never certain. Individuals will differ and can choose.

In combat, they use very simple tactics and fight mercilessly. On the plus side, they don’t have enough brainpower to come up with a clever strategy or use caution. On the downside, they’re well adapted to their style of combat and don’t feel much pain. Most should have one good attack or special ability, and do nothing but attack until dead.


Programmed creatures have Knowledge but not Will.

A Programmed creature is usually a special-made creature, like a golem. It has a simple mind, able to handle some task or duties effectively but otherwise hollow. It doesn’t think as such, but simply responds to trigger conditions. However, when actually using its skills or abilities the creature responds very effectively. Examples include basic undead and most constructs: they aren’t exactly stupid, but they don’t act on their own. They can fight effectively, and serve well if given very clear instructions. Apart from that, Programmed creatures merely stand around waiting for orders.

Programmed and Reactive creatures
aren’t all that different. Differences between creatures often
expand as they develop more powerful capabilities, no matter how many
lower abilities they share.


Animal creatures have Will, Knowledge, and Learning.

An Animal creature is much like a Reactive creature, but generally larger and more complex. Animals have a significant mind and devotes a lot of time to learning new skills. They frequently raise their own children, playing with each other and their children. They have primitive emotional responses, which can even stretch beyond the boundaries of species. Unsurprisingly, Animal creatures make the best pets. You can enjoy the presence of mindless creatures, like plants. You can enjoy watching Reactive creatures, like insects or fish. But you can only enjoy the company of animal creatures. They can learn new ideas, although they have some limits on how complex those go, and can choose for themselves within the limits of their understanding.


Pre-Sentient Creatures have Will, Knowledge, and Abstract Reasoning.

Like Programmed creatures, Unsentient creatures usually come from the deliberate creation of other, greater beings. They can think very well. Within the limits of their knowledge, they’re fantastic. Unsentient creatures can analyze problems, put together complex concepts, and think without any reference to physical events. They reduce everything to its perfect mathematical formulas. Even better: they communicate quite well with humans.

They don’t have anything beyond that, however. Unsentient creatures aren’t alive in that sense. They accept any input that follows the proper channels, and can’t distinguish between who does the inputting. And what they accept, they obey. The Unsentient creature will exterminate a billion lives as handily as it deletes a billion numbers, and for the same reason: it was told to.

In fiction, Programmed creatures are
Robots as opposed to Unsentient creatures as mighty computers. This
simply emphasizes the distinction between the mute robot and the
communicative computer. The former acts but does not think. The
latter thinks but does not act. However, there’s no reason an
Unsentient creature can’t have a body; you just don’t need it to.
Powerful computers you can talk to have uses very different from a
robot laborer.


Sapient creatures are like humans. We think, learn, and create. We can choose to act or not in a certain situation, and choose how to act. We analyze the universe and develop strategies for achieving goals. Our behaviors are complex and vary between extremely predictable and wildly unpredictable, often with little middle ground. The result, in fact, is that we find it easier to study the vast and deep mysteries of the universe than successfully investigate ourselves.

A Sapient creature possesses all of the lower mental abilities: Will, Knowledge, Learning, and Abstract Reasoning. They cannot control how they allocate mental energy, focus poorly, and display very little understanding of how their actions will impact the future.


As we get to the Superhuman stage, we begin to see minds that we have no experience with, let alone can easily comprehend. A Superhuman mind controls itself, allocating resources. Up until the Superhuman Stage, creatures largely use unconscious processes. Even a Sapient creature mostly works invisibly, even to itself.

The superhuman mind does not share that weakness. A superhuman creature chooses what inputs to pay attention to and ignore. It customizes its own brain, “evolving” intelligence suited to the situation. In short, it’s an intelligence which is superficially similar to our own, but controlled and capable of incredible focus.

Trying to torture a superhuman creature? It decides to ignore the pain and concentrates on controlling its body to maximize healing, focusing its attention on looking to escape. It may concentrate all its efforts on social analysis, figuring out what to tell you to manipulate your reactions. Or it may wait until you tire, then override its muscle limitations to tear out of the restraints and break your neck. Or it could put itself into a trance, feigning death until later. The superhuman creature can’t be easily predicted or constrained, because it adapts to overcome any obstacle. It becomes what it needs to be to accomplish whatever goal the creature has in mind.

This author views the conscious and unconscious distinctions with suspicion. We don’t admit why we think something, but usually people know why – if they care to look. We usually don’t want to look. Talk Therapy works – if we answer questions we don’t want to answer.

True, we face many influences which we don’t completely recognize. But people are rarely helpless before the deep workings of their brain. Many of the “unconscious” influences which supposedly control us are social choices: peer pressure, cultural assumptions, and our own desire to belong. You can call these unconscious, but they’re hardly invisible. Likewise, unless they’re totally disturbed, people know they’re often being irrational, affected by anger, and so on: we
often give into those urges anyway because it feels good.

But what we’re talking about here is a bit different. Any part of a Superhuman creature’s brain which isn’t working can watch the rest. They always know about every single assumption, environmental influence, and instinct affecting them, and exactly how much it affects them. Yes, this completely shatters the limits of physical reality. They have control over the true sub-conscious: the actual mechanics of the mind.

General Rules: Superhuman characters can move around any stat points they may have in mental stats, altering any and all bonuses they give. To a limited degree they can also enhance physical attributes temporarily (call it a 2-for-1 deal compared to mental). It’s also almost impossible to control or even read their minds, unless you’re on the level of “local demigod.” Superhumans don’t have to focus on only one task at a time, and can divide up the mind as needed to work on multiple things at once.


Seers know the future. And this sucks for everyone else. Unlike mere mystic divination, a seer can predict with frightening accuracy how likely any given course of events is. They have a very good idea what will happen, when, and can make educated guesses as to why.

Needless to say, this is no minor ability.

Seers with enough population and interest to have societies tend to have extremely boring civilizations. Somehow, no disaster ever finds them unprepared. When the orcs come charging over the mountains, they run right into exactly the right defenses to utterly crush them. Somehow, their enemies miss with bullets and even missiles.

Even internally, seers have extremely boring politics. Usually, they don’t even have a government. They don’t need one: everyone has a very good idea of what will happen and arranges things to their best advantage. They farm only what they need, build only what they need, and generally don’t have a great deal of conflict over resources.

That said, Seer-based societies are rare, and they aren’t invulnerable. All the foresight in the world won’t help when you have no chance to survive, and merely seeing the path to victory doesn’t mean you have the capability to exploit it. However, they’ll always have a substantial advantage, are rarely caught off-guard, and

Remember that being a Seer-class intellect isn’t magical. They do need information to work with. But Seers can make connections and predictions far beyond the mundane, and the more they know, the more they foresee.

General Rules: Seers should have a modest bonus against being surprised, and have a good idea of what kinds of attacks or surprises an opponent might have available. In a universe where Seers can prepare magic spells, they can keep a modest selection of slots ready to cast any spell they happen to know. Likewise, Seers always seem to have any small, readily-available item they might need hidden away somewhere. If they need a pin or handkerchief or spare knife, they have exactly that right at hand.


The Metamind is the ultimate expression of intellect. With every capability, a creature with this kind of mind is more an expression of pure thought than anything else. They’re virtually impossible to defeat without overwhelming power, and even then a Metamind can easily put superior forces to shame.

Remember that a Mastermind not only foresees everything, but has no biases, no assumptions, and will not make mistakes easily. They are capable of assimilating data on an unimaginable scale, from reading multiple books and watching multiple news channels simultaneously, to pulling together information from hundreds of sources they remember, using that to predict the future. You don’t surprise one in any way, shape, or form unless you have access to some power they cannot possibly predict or find any information about.

General Rules: Metaminds have all the advantages of Seers and Superhumans, along with the effective ability to alter probability around 25% in their favor. They don’t actually change the odds of a given event occurring, but are assumed to have predicted the outcome and arranged it to their advantage.

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 the majority or very popular factions rules. Minorities, or whomever the controllers dislike, 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 mob-rule, 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 need much 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-Democracies of hyper- connective information networks. 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
more than once. Roman democracy strangled itself and first gave rise
to the elitist late Republican state and then the Empire. A noble
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


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 have preferred tyranny in practice, and particularly when 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 military force, Monarchy, a hereditary or elected rule usually with established traditional or legal limits, and Empire, in which the tyrant controls lesser monarchs or 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 him. 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 larger communities 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 at once.

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.

Tribes are inherently structured. They have specific, established rules and laws which let them choose courses of action. The Democracy and the Tyranny don’t need those to function. The Tribe can’t function otherwise, and this is its one great weakness, because those can be manipulated systematically. Sure, you can sway the democracy or persuade the tyrant. But you can’t count on doing those forever, and the people who do tend to wind up executed in horrible ways. But you can game the rules of Tribes on and on.

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 even more, and more complicated, social systems, but the above should cover almost anything you’ll see in a game. Let’s not get too hung on the fact that the real world often mixes all the possibilities.

12 Responses

  1. This is the most far-reaching overview of game design I’ve seen in a while. I particularly like the insight about emergent complexity – how a few simple rules can give rise to great complexity.

    It’s hard to design a game with few rules that produces great complexity from just those rules – generally it takes a computer. A few tabletop games, such as Miller’s original Traveller, managed to compress a great deal of world-building into a concise ruleset.

  2. […] Monster Blood! Tweaking your beasties in a magical setting In fantasy settings, we often have a  disgustingly complicated world filled with weird varieties of twisted creatures. The universe we inhabit operates with a few fairly simple laws. Those laws interact in some truly amazing ways, but it arises from only a handful of rules. Fantasy universes are not like that. They feature arrays of energy types from different universes; these are often h … Read More […]

  3. Thanks. I’m developing a concept for “secondary metabolism” which makes things a bit more complicated, and explore how you can develop crossover creatures. We may get a follow-up article or edited repost them.

  4. Are you planning on writing a monster design book?

  5. Oooh, I’d love to. Sadly, most places don’t seem to be looking for new authors or new blood these days.

    • I thought that there were a lot of places looking for new material, though it depends on where you limit (or don’t limit) your search to. There are a lot of PDF-only publishers, for example, that’d love an article like this.

      Heck, what about that Distant Horizons Games place? Surely they’d like to publish something of yours. ;-)

  6. I have been, sort of, in Skirmisher’s new magazine d Infinity. So far I have articles on spontaneous generation and xenogenesis, two things I find very much lacking in fantasy settings. The third, Biology for Fantasy Settings, will be out this spring in issue 5 and it is a doozy. I rip apart biology/ecology and yet use all the nifty bits to show settings can be made more interesting.

    I wish there was a good book on creating creatures for fantasy settings. The big one from 3.X was buried way too much in trying to shoehorn real biology/ecology into fantasy.

    And there is a reason why Gamma World is my favorite rpg setting. It is a biologist’s dream. Evolution fast forwarded, mutations that ignore laws of physics (handy in some cases) and can easily adopt anything new in science.

    Anyways, for the actual article, I wish there was more elemental and mechanical biologies in written settings. I like the idea of organisms made of glass that can fuse and break apart as needed. Or how does alchemy affect the machinery in is performed in?

  7. An idea I got last night that you might find useful: if standard biology is based on the 4 elements, what happens if one or more of them is replaced by a para or quasi element?

    • Hmmm. Usually in clasical mythology you can’t do that; the welements are always present, just mixed. If you did have them, that would bring in some new possibilities. Might take a poke at that. The creature itslef would probably be unbalanced and unstable… unless it became a form of elemental itself.

      • Don’t think inside the box. Using the para and quasi elements (plus any other variant elements you can think of, like Indian or Chinese) can be a major source for critter design.

        And another suggestion. One subject that has yet to be done well in d20 (IMO) is biotech magic. There are bits here and there but no sourcebook devoted to it.

  8. Just out of curiosity, where do the fey fall in the listing of metabolisms (and, for that matter, intelligence and society)?

    In fact, they fey don’t seem very well-defined in d20 at all; when you think about it, the fey are pretty much the “red-headed stepchild” of d20 monsters. Most of their mythological roots are given over to Outsiders, and creatures that were classically considered fey are now some other creature type.

    Even their planar status is so-so; they’re basically Material Plane creatures, but there’s a vague suggestion they’re from a “Plane of Faerie.” A similarly ill-defines shoehorn is given to fey societies like the (Un)Seelie Courts, the Wild Hunt, etc. About the only theme they consistently have is a vulnerability to cold iron weapons (in that it beats their DR). And of course, the fey creature type is one of the weakest of the creature types in the d20 rules.

    I think this’d make for a great article; why d20 treats the fey so badly, and maybe what could be done to fix it.

    • Well, they function as Chemical creatures by the book. Maybe they shouldn’t, but them’s the rules as written. Fey closer to mythology would be arcane creatures with a few Divinities at the higher end.

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