Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Creature design talk, part 6: The Look!

We've reached the last installment of our creature design talk, and I've saved my worst for last: What does this thing look like?!

The Look

Seriously, this is my absolute weakest area of creature design. It drives me up the wall, but I fall into the same ruts over and over again. I'm not the only one. If you look around at gaming manuals and sourcebooks, you'll find that this is actually one of the more difficult parts of design, at least if the goal is to be creative and innovative.

Ultimately, there are a few different approaches that I try to use when designing the "look" of a creature.

The Giant _____

This is the most tried and true method of designing the appearance of a monster of any sort. Take something normal, found in nature, and make it bigger and meaner. This is how you get famous creatures with names like Dire _____, Great _____, and Giant _____.

I'm guilty of using this one a lot. I'm a very creative guy, but one thing that I find difficult is to come up with something that's more interesting, terrifying, or intriguing than what nature already has in store for us. The vast animal kingdom gives us insects that hide at the bottom of pits and wait for prey like tiny little Sarlaccs. It gives us fish that use bio-luminescent lures to bait other fish into their waiting jaws. It gives us eagles that collide in midair and struggle to breed while plummeting toward the ground. Weird, wild stuff. It's hard to top that when you're creating a fantastic animal, so often it's easiest just to go with what is already found in our sick, strange world. But, you know... bigger.

This is a totally legitimate strategy for creature design, and it's used all across the industry. The danger is only in overusing it, which can make your game seem like it lacks originality.

The Chimera

We've established that nature is a crazy, violent, and insane miracle. Sometimes, though, we don't want to just steal something from our planet, make it bigger, and set it loose on our players. One way to harness natural violence and wonder without directly ripping off Mother Nature is to create a Chimera.

In Greek mythology, the Chimera was a specific monster with the heads of a lion and a goat, and a snake's head on its tail. Mythology from all cultures is full of similar monsters created from bits and pieces of real animals, like the Griffin (eagle/lion), Pegasus (horse/eagle), Minotaur (human/bull), Hippogriff (also horse/eagle in a different combination), and others. We can use this tactic as game designers to create new creatures that our players will understand and be somewhat familiar with, but maybe haven't exactly seen before.

For example, perhaps you're trying to design a Hunter encounter for your players. As they travel through a haunted jungle, they need something new and frightening that can effectively stalk them and, when the chase is on, be able to hunt them down. Using the Chimera approach, you might evaluate what traits you want the creature to have, deciding it needs to be stealthy to initiate the encounter, fast to continue it, and to have some sort of natural weapon capable of posing a real threat. From that you might get a creature that can change colors like a chameleon, is a striding endurance runner like a wolf, and has a tail with a poisonous barb like a stingray.

Looking at that combination, this ChamelWolfRay seems a little silly, but ultimately that's the idea. You take pieces of something old and make it into something new. Just fiddle with the combinations until you find something that works for your game.

The Original

This is the Holy Grail of creature design; the generation of an iconic monster so original and interesting that it becomes a defining aspect of your setting. Imagine if you had invented the Tyrannosaurus Rex from your own imagination. That's the feeling we're trying to match. No pressure!

I can't say I've ever successfully completed this challenge, but I'm always trying. To me, it needs to be approached from a standpoint of biology. A creature needs to "make sense" in a broad view, so I try to imagine where a creature comes from. Is it from a harsh, radioactive environment? A world that is in eternal night? Is it an apex predator or does it need to both hunt and hide from other hunters? Is it cannibalistic?

To me, the ultimate example of a truly original and inspired monster is D&D's Beholder. I realize that this intelligent being is really more of a race even than a monster, but given its use in the game, I think it still holds up. Despite the basic concept of a creature full of eyes being pretty simple, it is truly one of the unique monsters in gaming. It's instantly identifiable with D&D lore, and evokes a very specific feeling when players encounter one. All game designers should really strive to bring this sort of unique threat into their games, which are made better for the effort.

That's Creature Design!

So, after six rambling posts, we come to the end of our discussion of creature design. I obviously haven't hit on everything, but I think most of the high points have been touched. The thing to take away from this, in my opinion, is that creativity is always rewarded when designing creatures. When game designers push themselves and try new things, good things happen for the setting and for the players.

What did I miss? What grievous errors did I commit? You're always welcome to chime in.

Did you miss any of the portions of this discussion? You can find them all below. Thanks for reading.

Part 1: Motivation
Part 2: Encounters
Part 3: More Encounters
Part 4: Even More Encounters
Part 5: Layers


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