Magical Biotech and Monster Making, Part I – Ingredients

Alien tripod illustration by Alvim Corréa, fro...

You want to play what?

There was an earlier request for this, and – now that I finally have a little time for writing and putting things up again – it’s time to start this particular article-series…

d20… covers a lot of settings. The realm of dream? Been there. Virtual reality setting? Done that. High Fantasy? Please! That’s where it all started! Low Fantasy? Of course! Cyberpunk? Sure! Hard Sci-Fi or Historical? Rare, but it HAS been done. Homicidal Pixie-Unicorn Rampage versus H.G. Wells Martian Invaders? Well… OK, let me get out the Fey supplement and the War of the Worlds supplement…

And that’s the problem. Can you think of any creature – no matter how silly, “unbalanced”, lacking in a proper ecological role, and inconsistent – that could NOT make an appearance in a dream? Or in virtual reality? Or in a world with enough magic or sufficiently alien laws of nature?

That’s a rhetorical question because no, of course you can’t. If you can imagine it, it can appear in all those places – and is a perfectly valid d20 monster.

It may be one that makes no sense in a particular setting – but the SRD is full of those already. If a given setting doesn’t have elemental planes, or has hard-science biology, you aren’t going to have any use for Elementals or (Especially!) Elemental half-breeds. Low-magic world? You’ll be skipping dragons. No absolute alignments? Most outer-planar creatures are out – or at least will need plenty of revising.

Where do monsters come from?

They spawn from children’s dreams or from concentrations of magical or psychic energy, they are freakish mutants, they are created by wizards, dread gods curse the world with their presence, technicians make them in laboratories, mad scientists and alchemists build them from corpses, prayers for vengeance are answered with horrors, they arise from stillness and silence due to the Tao of creation, they are cursed people, they are animals risen above their station, they are nanotechnological horrors, they come from the future, or the past, or from alien realms,. and they are councilors and guardians.

How do monsters survive?

They consume flesh, or life force, or draw on elemental energy, or are incarnations of ideas and need nothing save minds to think of them, or embody spiritual principles, or survive on magic, or have internal nuclear reactors, or feed on souls (whatever that means in a setting), or are driven by sheer will, or are infused with positive or negative energy, or photosynthesize, or run on bolts of lightning, or divine power, or infernal power, or… well, it really doesn’t matter. How a monster survives – or reproduces, or what kind of society it has, or it’s family organization, or what it looks like – really doesn’t matter. All of that is simply a set of hooks for world-building, or bringing the monster into a scenario – and if you’re designing your own monster, you can find an excuse for it anyway. It’s not like you have biological, ecological, or even physical facts to restrain you.

Like it or not, what makes a suitable, “reasonable”, or even barely-usable monster varies with each setting – and with each game masters interpretation of that setting.

How do you create and modify monsters?

That depends on the setting. You’re in the Realms of Dream? You may be able to produce Godzilla with a Lucid Dreaming check and the expenditure of a little psychic energy. In a realm of High Fantasy? Perhaps an Alchemical Laboratory to create a mighty homunculus is in order – or perhaps, for swifter and less-controllable results, summoning a primal malevolent force and forcing it into a cage of form woven from your own imagination and strength of will will do better (although, if you lose control, it will become another unique terror haunting the land). A low-magic world? You may have to breed your beasts for generations to make much of a change at all. A technological world? A genetic engineering and cloning facility with a staff may be your only hope.

The only real “rules” here are some vague metagame principles.

  • Your monster should fit into the world background – even if it’s from another plane, there need to be “other planes” mentioned before it shows up.
  • It should present an interesting, but solveable, problem for the players – whether that problem is tactical, philosophical, moral, or whatever. After all, we don’t want them bored, completely frustrated, or giving up in disgust. We’re playing this game for fun.
  • It’s probably best to hold down the pop-culture references, puns, and gaming jokes. They tend to disrupt the actual play of the game – no matter how much laughter them may produce at the moment.
  • If the creature can reproduce, as opposed to being a unique creation or summoning, there should be a reason it hasn’t taken over the world if it’s powerful enough to worry about that.
  • It’s usually a bad idea to give it one obscure critical weak point and make it otherwise quite invulnerable. Not only does this make for one-use creatures (next time they’ll know!), but it’s quite likely to result in complete frustration. Players almost never do the things that you thought they were going to do.
  • It’s usually a bad idea to leave some of the player characters with nothing to do during an encounter with the creature. It’s all too likely that – the day they run into the creature that’s utterly immune to magic and conjured things in a white-box setting – that all the combat-specialists will be unavailable – and even if you don’t get that worst-case scenario, you’re still leaving half the table bored.

Sadly, none of that is much help when Mandrake the Magician wants to create a guardian-beast for his laboratory and mystic sanctum. For that we need a monster-designing system for player characters.

Fortunately, In Eclipse, I have one handy – and the next article will start getting into the mechanics of that.

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