Big Dumb Monster Fun

A few days ago I went to see Jurassic World at the local multiplex. It’s by no means a terrible film in the general field of big blockbusters but it in no way lives up to the grand reboot hype (even the Guardian gave it four stars for goodness sake – did they see the same film as me?). Some crucial aspects of a good film, character and plot for example, seemed to be low on the film maker’s agenda.

While it would be fair to say I was underwhelmed by the experience, it did get me thinking. The humans may have been utterly bland but some of the monsters were terrific. The velociraptors were the stars of the film once more (although they still aren’t the murderous turkeys they were in reality), the ankylosaurus’s tail club was magnificently brutal and the giant mosasaur really stole the show.

In most roleplaying games, a lot of attention is given to the villainous schemes of genius bad guys, intelligent undead, the followers of evil gods and the like. The main antagonists are usually smart – at least as smart as a human if not significantly more so. The greatest enemies of player characters are things like dragons (usually super smart), vampires (usually super smart), liches (always super smart), drow matriarchs, devils, beholders, evil warlords, evil wizards, evil priests. Plots are driven by villains clever enough to come up with them in the first place.

These big dinosaurs, however, are a reminder that giant beast-like monsters can be just as fun as the brainy villains behind the scenes. Whilst they cannot drive a mysterious and convoluted plot in the way that, say, a lich might, they are perfect for momentary extremes of excitement and danger. An encounter with a lich might be years in the build up, uncovering layer upon layer of secret machination. An unexpected encounter with a dire shark can be a sensational one off incident that leaves the players talking about it for months or years afterwards. The shock of a truly magnificent sudden fight with a terrifying beast is as much part of the glory of a heroic roleplaying game as any epic scheme.

With that in mind. here are five of my favourite monsters in games.

Top 5 Monsters in D&D and Pathfinder

Owlbear

Part of D&D from the very early days, the owlbear has been an iconic creature throughout its history. Utterly ferocious and always hungry it symbolises the red in tooth and claw aspect of nature in its flurry of fur and feathers. But it is also a warning against meddling with nature, being a lab creation gone rogue. While wizards are the culprits in the owlbear’s case, the same warning is clearly meant for science in the real world.

For something so weird, it is surprisingly well-received by players. The component parts of its name fit together very nicely to make it seem a comprehensible creature. It has been captured in many illustrations, most of which really bring together the disparity of its owl and bear parts to create a fully realised and immediately recognisable creature.

The Kingmaker adventure path for Pathfinder gave the owlbear its crowning glory. Featuring an owlbear in every episode, some in very prominent roles, it became a symbol for the party’s relationship with the land. Adversarial at first, it poses as a reminder of the wildness of the land that they cannot, and perhaps should not, totally tame. With an owlbear illustration appearing in the foreword to each edition, its position reflecting the relative progress of the PCs’ kingdom at that stage, it had truly found a home welcoming of its strangeness.

The Tarrasque

Of all the huge and terrifying beasts in D&D and its derivatives, the Tarrasque is perhaps the greatest of all big, stupid monsters. Of titanic proportions, with unstoppable weaponry and unmatched regenerative powers it is a challenge to the greatest of heroes, despite its lack of brains.

From medieval French mythology, the legend of the Tarrasque is not widely known, making it a great choice for developing fantasy world mythology around. Its monumental power has it positioned in relation to the divine, either as a beast created to destroy the gods or a herald of destruction sent by the gods. It is usually described as a unique and mysterious creature (although the Spelljammer setting had a whole planet full of them) and determining its exact current location is often as difficult as stopping it.

Battles against the Tarrasque are not wandering monster encounters, like many big beasts might be. It is the campaign climax, the culmination of the careers of mighty heroes. Paizo’s James Jacobs has described the Tarrasque as specifically designed to challenge a party of level 20 PCs on its own. It is the heart of soul of an adventure, which is highly unusual for an unintelligent creature. Campaigns against the Tarrasque are mythological in nature. The raw power of detruction is set loose upon the world and the PCs must stop it. There can be few scenarios more epic than the rush to stop the Tarrasque with whole civilisations on the line.

Purple Worm

The epitome of huge mindless monster, the purple worm is the classic surprise attack. Erupting out if the rock or the desert, like a mobile sarlaac, ready to eat any creature it comes across, the worm offers a massive battle with no let up. It has no subtlety, no tactics, just attack, move, attack again.

Yet, it is not a dull fight. Its burrowing prowess makes it unpredictable. Its ability to disappear and reappear again with just a rumbling sound from the earth makes it a source of terror and excitement.

Yes, a purple worm attack can be related to the plot. Maybe it is being directed by some malevolent force. Maybe it is driven from its home by an unscrupulous mining corporation. Whatever its involvement with the PCs though, it is not through its own machinations. It is simply hungry and it wants the PCs as its next meal.

Dire Wolf

With apologies to the dire rat and dire bear for representation amongst the dire creatures, the dire wolf gets the top spot. Dire creatures are relatively straightforward menaces – large animals with unusually aggressive natures but animals nonetheless. A battle with a dire wolf is a fearsome one for low level PCs. It is all speed, teeth and fur. Add in pack tactics, either with others of its kind or with smaller cousins and you have a memorable battle on your hands.

What makes the dire wolf interesting though is its folkloric origins. A great wolf is not just a large beast to fight. It is a symbol of the fear of the wilds and the dark that is at the heart of much fantasy storytelling. Wolf symbology has great resonance in folklore wherever wolves roam. From the big bad wolf of Grimm’s tales, the wolf stories of the Americas and Fenrir from norse mythology to Tolkien’s Carcharoth and Narnia’s Maugrim, wolves are everywhere.

In D&D the dire wolf was never better presented than in the the Ravenloft realm of Kartakass. A land filled with fear and reverence of the wolf, its residents dare not leave the path as they step through the forest that blankets the land. The legend of Grandfather Wolf is the greatest part of their creation story. A being at once protective and terrifying, he roams the forest guarding Kartakass from its enemies yet hungrily gobbling up all those who come near.

An encounter with dire wolves is one where the emotional connection and primal fear is far beyond that which should be engendered by its relative power. To know a dire wolf is stalking the forest is to engender terror in the players, not just the PCs.

Tyrannosaurus Rex

You can keep your Indominus Rex. We don’t need it. Dienonychus or velociraptor might be the better hunters, with their brains and pack hunting. Spinosaurus might be bigger, as might giganotosaurus and other Johnny-come-latelys of the dinosaur world. They have their place but there is nothing like Tyrannosaurus Rex.

Fantasy monsters can be anything we like. I could have rounded this post off with the manticore, the hydra or the griffon. Maybe a linnorm or a bulette. Perhaps even a shoggoth. The Tyrannosaurus though has a special place in many gamers hearts because it is real. The weird amalgamations of creatures, the tentacles, the magical powers are all fun but the tyrant lizard proves that raw brute power and massive teeth can be all you need.

Every time I’ve encountered a Tyrannosaurus in a game it has been with a frisson of excitement around the table. You now what you’re getting. An eating machine par excellence. A peak of evolution. An enormous mouth and some tiny arms. Despite your character’s power the desire to run is hard to shake off. It will chase you so get away if you can. Fighting back is futile. The greatest of dinosaurs is a monster beyond all others and it wants to eat you!