Wednesday, October 7, 2020

The Original Monster

Here's a question I doubt has every been asked before: what is the very first monster described in Dungeons & Dragons. If you turn to Volume II of OD&D and look at monster descriptions, you'll find the answer – Men. 

OD&D states that Men exist in "several categories," namely bandits, berserkers, dervishes, nomads, buccaneers, pirates, cavemen, and mermen. Later editions of the game, such as the Holmes Basic Set, AD&D, and Moldvay/Cook include some or all of these and, in a few cases, add categories of their own (e.g. merchants, nobles, pilgrms, etc.). Examining these categories could, I think, shed a great deal of light on the implied setting of the original game and I'll get to that, at least in part. At the moment, though, I'm more interested simply in the fact of it.

What I mean is this: D&D – every edition of the game – includes many, many types of monsters, some of which have now passed into popular culture beyond the game itself. There are also monsters, like the beholder or the gelatinous cube, to choose just two, that are so strongly associated with the game that simply seeing them reminds you of D&D, assuming you're already familiar with the game. But, at the very beginning, before anyone was familiar with it, what monster is listed first and what, if anything, does that mean?

It's long been a position of this blog that Dungeons & Dragons is fundamentally humanocentric. Human beings – "Men" in the parlance of the early editions of the game – are the standard by which all other intelligent species are judged. That's why all the TSR editions of the game included level limits for demihumans, as well as limiting their access to character classes. A humanocentric world, even one where magic exists, is probably a recognizable one, which is to say, one whose social and political structures aren't all that different from those we know or that have existed at some time on Earth. 

OD&D describes itself as "rules for fantastic medieval wargames campaigns." The word "medieval" wasn't chosen haphazardly, even if the game also makes it clear that it's "strictly fantasy" and therefore not limited in its scope. Both Gygax and Arneson had a keen interest in the historical Middle Ages and this interest spills over into the presentation, content, and rules of OD&D (whose standard combat system, we shouldn't forget, is that of Chainmail). Given this, I think it makes perfect sense that human opponents would be put front and center in the monster descriptions of Volume II, since humans dominate the world.

Another possibility, one that I don't think is inherent in the text of OD&D, but which is nevertheless interesting to consider is that "humans are the real monsters." Phrases like that can be trite, even humorous, but they don't have to be. Instead, the phrase can be understood simply to mean that, for many purposes, there is no need to use a monster when a human opponent will do. There's no reason, for example, why a rural village needs to be menaced by orcs or goblins when bandits or berserkers will do. Granted, orcs are more fantastical than mere bandits and, for many gamers, D&D adventures must be fantastical. I'm quite sympathetic to that perspective. Still, I think there can be value in reserving the use of monsters in order to preserve the wonder they can engender (says the person who just argued for making dragons more prevalent).

Of course, there's not any necessary opposition between a setting's being fantastical and the prevalence of human opponents. For instance, my Empire of the Petal Throne campaign is almost completely humanocentric and yet I don't think any of the players would say that it's not fantastical. Nearly all the major antagonists of the campaign over the last five and a half years have been human, whether they be pariah god cultists, Yán Koryáni secret police, Tsoléini pirates, or rival clans. Some of these enemies have used magic or possessed strange abilities, because Tékumel is a fantasy setting. The same can be true of human opponents in D&D or other fantasy games, which is why I don't think that humanocentrism necessarily leads to dullness. If anything, I'm tempted to argue that humanocentrism heightens fantasy, but perhaps that's something for another time.


  1. Strange to hear D&D called humanocentric. It wasn't until 3rd edition that I saw human PCs appearing as anything like the majority of the party. Level limits not withstanding, my earlier D&D experiences back to 1976 were dominated by elves, half-elves, and dwarves, with humans few and far between due to the lack of both exoticism and racial bonuses. When 2nd edition arrived we also saw a slew of "monster race" PCs, because why play aboring human whenyou could be a wemic or an ogre or something. If anything, I tended to get razzed for running human characters more often than most people and I certainly can't recall a single time where demihuman level caps impacted anyone in a meaningful way.

    Wasn't until 3rd edition that humans finally started appearing as a common PC race IME, where they got their own very versatile mechanical bonuses - and despite the fact that at the same time that racial limits on class and level were removed. 4th and 5th have stuck with that concept, although they both were quicker to introduce "exotic" PC races, a trend that's slowly marginalizing humans again as well as the traditional D&D races. Pathfinder might be the worst offender for that, although it's tame compared to the ever-growing alien menagerie of Starfinder PC races.

  2. One other oft overlooked advantage of having a humanocentric campaign where humans are often the real monsters is the atmospheric terror that always lingers in the background. Despite the fact that I am not a horror fan, nor do I run horror-themed rule sets, players that have played in my campaigns often categorize my game worlds as either horror or me as a "scary" referee. The fact that some of my most horrifying monsters are human, means that anybody, anywhere can end up being the real monster. That means no one and no place is really ever safe. This heightened sense of disquiet can enhance the terror one feels when exploring the Dungeon and the Chaotic Wilderness.

  3. I would say the average Orc, goblin, ogre or wandering beast aren't monsters. But daemons and such could be monstrous

  4. I think the urge to live in Middle-Earth got Tolkien's demihumans in almost too deep to extract into canonical D&D. I lost interest in elves, dwarves, and halflings so long ago that I'm still a bit surprised when people talk about them.

  5. "If anything, I'm tempted to argue that humanocentrism heightens fantasy, but perhaps that's something for another time."

    Yes, this. Or put it the other way around: when everything is weird and fantastical, nothing is weird or fantastical. Having a humanocentric and relatively low-magic world (as in, not having magic as stand-in for science in order to be able to have all or most conveniences from our modern day in a faux-medieval dressing) makes the fantastical stand out even more, as you rightly point out. In the same token, if no-one is playing a human, everyone is playing a human. At least that's the sense I get from browsing through Fifth Edition books, with flirtatious half-medusae swashbucklers fighting side by side with gruff devilkin pickpockets with hearts of gold and witty warforged paladins. How different are these characters really from human ones, besides different skins?

    What I like about AD&D first edition is that demi-humans are strange, exotic, even scary, but most of all completely different in mindset and outlook. An otherness that makes the world feel more mysterious and fantastical.

  6. I am reminded of something that was said, I believe, by the producer of Doctor Who in the 70's to his writers. It was something along the lines of while the monsters can and should be otherworldly and strange, the villains should always be human.

    That's why you would get so many stories involving corrupt businessmen or dodgy politicians collaborating with alien invaders, or even exploiting the monsters for personal gain. Behind the special effects there was a uniquely human evil at work.

    There is wisdom there, and I keep it in mind when writing adventures.

    1. That's an excellent distinction – and good advice too. Thanks for sharing it.

  7. The human focus in OD&D is very clear as is the non-human (alien? anthropomorphic?) focus in later/current D&D. My own suspicion is that this has to do with a desire among players for moral simplicity and an increasing focus on tactical combat in later editions.

    Even a bloodthirsty brute maddened by war, the berserker, asks the player questions about how someone became a berserker or what the moral weight of killing them is. The orcs and goblins that largely replace human foes make no such demands.

    This in turn fuels a morally simplistic world: good that wins and evil that is happily slaughtered with exciting feats and big handfuls of dice. Simplification and ultimately essentialism. Characters also fall into this and soon personality or function needs to be proclaimed by outward signs. My thief isn't just stealthy or nimble, she's literally a Cat-person. My fighter a man made out of stone. These are cartoons, they don't really evolve -- the character and story is set from conception, simple and easy to read. I'm not saying that D&D needs to be a deep delve into ethics or especially serious, but the world building of contemporary D&D is clearly far more of a bright cartoon then it was back in 1970's. Plus a lack of moral play and racial essentialism has its icky sides.

    So agreed. Use more humans everywhere. Also less mechanical complexity - but that's a different complaint.

  8. This mirrors my own opinions regarding D&D (or other fantasy) games: I prefer humanocentric because I want the nonhuman species, even something as familiar as an Elf, to be "alien." Letting Demihumans (and demihuman PCs) be so common defeats that.