Where There be Monsters

On the Fan Track Channel on Friday at 4PM, Dragon Con attendees were treated to “The History, Evolution, and Fun of D&D Monsters,” as discussed by moderator Rush Lilavivat and Abby Plemmons, two grade-A Dungeons and Dragons (D&D) game masters.

Lilavivat gave a comprehensive overview of the visual evolution of D&D Monsters, discussing how co-creator Gary Gygax started the original tabletop version of the popular role-playing game in a garage using inspiration from bags of small plastic figures manufactured in China for monsters, which led, in part, to their zaniness. These figures, Lilavivat said, were “iconic because they established what D&D is about,” and noted that they allowed players to engage more deeply with imagination as they pushed D&D to deviate from classic fantasy.

In 1977, when the first Monster Manual was published, players got a wholistic look at black and white drawings of D&D monsters. Despite their primitive nature, the pictures were revolutionary for going beyond common beasts found in Greek mythology and Arthurian legends. They evolved further in the Fiend Folio, first published in 1981, with more detailed drawings by Russ Nicholson of monsters in action scenes that told a story about their abilities. Lilavivat also noted how the 1990s tabletop game, Vampire: The Masquerade, brought more people to gaming by allowing the role-playing of a monster, which gave them depth that’s led to the complex (almost-a-good-guy) villains found in sci-fi and fantasy films today.

As for favorites D&D monsters, both Lilavivat and Plemmons did not shy away from naming classics (i.e., flumphs, mephitis, beholders, doppelgangers, trolls and even goblins) and discussing the attributes they bring to a Campaign to either hinder or help a Party. For example, flumphs and mephits are fun and mischievous creatures, not pure monsters that need to be struck down with swords. Lilavivat called goblins comedic and noted how doppelgangers add another layer of mystery if a party member is overtaken by one.

“Not all monsters must be fought,” Plemmons said, saying they can enhance games by talking to Parties, causing them to flee, or providing needed information about bigger potential villains. She also noted how some, like goblins, have evolved in both D&D and other role-playing games, with Lilavivat agreeing that this evolution reflects a growing and diverse gaming community.

When talking about how each use monsters, both Lilavivat and Plemmons offered specific ways to engage them outside of violence: they can be obstacles that play pranks, slow a party by wasting their time in some way, or simply as a part of scene-setting. But, in combat, Lilavivat said it is important to him—especially as a designer of monsters (i.e., Ravenloft and Savage Worlds)—for the monster to shine, and he often goes straight to their signature move since most combat only lasts 2-3 rounds.

If you want to design your own monster and an encounter, Lilavivat and Plemmons stressed three things: 1. Consider the monster’s purpose in the encounter and that not all Initiative Rolls must be combat-focused, 2. Consider the make-up of your Party so that everyone can interact at their level, and 3. Build interesting encounter environments informed by the players themselves.

When asked what other franchise she would pull a monster from to use in D&D, Plemmons didn’t hesitate—Avatar: The Last Air Bender—while also summing up the state of pop culture, by saying “Now that fantasy is mainstream, there are a lot of places to go.”

Author of the article

Kelly McCorkendale is a dog-lover, avid quilter, and occasional creative writer who loves the color orange and boycotts cable (except Game of Thrones because, well, what if winter is coming!?). After college, she realized poets weren’t in demand, so she shipped off to Madagascar with Peace Corps. Since then, she’s found a niche working on health systems in Africa but has a long-list of life tasks yet to be fulfilled--such as perform blackmail, learn a trade, and become a competitive eater. She has an MA in International Education, believes rice is the elixir of life, and, in high school, won the best supporting actress honor for the state of Missouri. She may also recite poetry (her first love) when imbibing in alcohol.