A Play Set for Game Design
Spring Break

Monster Manuals

I was invited by Jon Cogburn to submit a chapter to the new collection of essays combining Dungeons & Dragons with philosophy, but my chapter wildly overran. Here’s a segment I had to cut.

Monster ManualWhat do Dungeons and Dragons monsters have to teach us about fiction and prop theory?

What the character sheet does for the representation of the player characters, Gary Gygax’s 1977 Monster Manual – whose truly dreadful original cover is depicted to the left – and Don Turnbull’s 1981 Fiend Folio did for the creatures they are pitted against. As with attributes on the character sheet, the capabilities of the D&D monsters are laid out in numerical detail – including purely representative elements (size, weight) as well as the statistics (HP, THAC0) required to beat them into a bloody pulp, not to mention props for explaining their behaviour (alignment). In addition, an illustration of the monster helped provide a depictive prop to help either the players imagine their foe, or the Dungeon Master to describe it.

The Monster Manual and its less elegantly titled alliterative descendents are more than just reference books for game statistics (although this is their principal role), for the Monster Manual is also a bestiary of the fictional worlds of Dungeons & Dragons itself. Of course, specific campaign settings make variations one way or another, and there perhaps is no single campaign of D&D anywhere which has used every single monster in every single published guide, but by listing a menagerie of menacing monsters in one manuscript an impression of the kind of world in question is inescapably provided. The Monster Manual unequivocally prescribed players to imagine that the fictional worlds of D&D were deeply weird places, filled with an ecology of utterly bizarre beasts that would make no sense in any other context but high fantasy.

No fantasy novel ever written has contained such a heterogeneous hodge-podge of heinous horrors – the reader would simply have no way of dealing with such eclecticism in a conventional narrative. Yet somehow, the fantasy role-playing game dodges this criticism – or at least, Dungeons & Dragons (and the computer role-playing games it has inspired) avoid this complaint. For it must be said that a great deal of latitude is extended towards D&D’s ramshackle collection of foes; a commercial RPG published today with such widespread disregard for cohesion in the resulting fictional world would be subject to criticism. D&D is immune to it.

There is something about the megatextual collision of monsters from every conceivable mythological source that serves to buffer the inherent nonsense that results from criticism. To this day, I am unsure quite what it is. Is it that D&D was the first of its kind, and is thus afforded a certain latitude? Perhaps. But I rather suspect that there is a craving for this kind of massive intersection of otherwise distinct folklores. We see the same theme expressed in a movie such as Shrek, which combines all fairy tales into one fictional world, or indeed in Neil Gaiman’s adult comics The Sandman, which conduct the same kind of mythic collision with more delicacy and panache. Deep down, we can’t escape the feeling that all stories are one story, and the curious concordance of creatures in the Monster Manual speak of the same urge.

Cross-posted from Only a Game; comments accepted on either blog.


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"for the Monster Manual is also a bestiary of the fictional worlds of Dungeons & Dragons itself."

I think that the main reason why D&D was afforded such latitude, in your terms is because it wasn't sold, perceived, and marketed as a "world". D&D was essentially a bunch of rules. It wasn't until later (due to other companies creating "unauthorized" accessories) that TSR realized that it made a lot of financial sense to produce pre-packaged "campaign worlds" (e.g. Greyhawk, Forgotten Realms, Dragon Lance, etc.). In the early days, there was no common world at all, it was assumed that each dungeon master would create their own...perhaps loosely based on whatever fantasy worlds they liked or enjoyed.

Interestingly, as the pre-packaged campaign worlds became more popular (and economically successful) they began to differentiate themselves from each other more strongly in terms of their monsters (and other things, of course!). I recall having the sense of there being some controversy/excitement when Dragonlance came out due to the new monsters that only existed in Dragonlance as well as some of the important changes made to others... (what, no orcs?!)

Jose: yes, in a sense you are correct, but let's not forget that the "later" you allude to was actually "almost immediately" - Greyhawk was published in 1975, one year after original D&D, although admittedly this was more of a rules supplement than a campaign pack (even "World of Greyhawk" was only six years behind).

The kind of differentiation between worlds was in a sense inevitable, don't you think? Yet there has always been somewhere an "omnibus world" where everything coexists - I think this used to be Forgotten Realms, but I have no idea what the situation is these days! :)

Best wishes!

"Yet there has always been somewhere an "omnibus world" where everything coexists - I think this used to be Forgotten Realms, but I have no idea what the situation is these days! :)"

The closest to a full-blown "omnibus" might have been Greyhawk, but only because it was well-known that it was Gygax's campaign world. (Forgotten Realm's was Ed Greenwood's) I guess Forgotten Realms is the current "core" world, but mostly because it's been in print for so long?

Now that I think about it, perhaps the D&D world (not AD&D) was the closest? I don't remember what the world was called...but they had all those Gazetteer books for it in the mid to late 80s.. Mysteria? The world (or at least parts of the world) were explicitly referenced in many of the D&D rulebooks and I think all the D&D modules were set in that world as well (as opposed to many "generic" AD&D modules that weren't, unless they had the appropriate logo...)

Oh, another thing... is Cogburn's book out yet? It sounds really interesting...

Oh, another thing...

Greyhawk was also an agglomeration of different people's campaign worlds/creations/areas... For example, "Blackmoor" (Dave Arneson's world) was later integrated into Blackmoor. The Lendore Isles (aka Spindrift Isles) came from Len Lakofka's campaign.

I would presume that books such as Monster Manual were put together from formal/informal contributions from early players and DM's... I recall that being (officially) the case with the Fiend Folio? (man, I wish I had the books with me to check...)



Hi Jose,

Thanks for continuing our discussions! Yes, I think you're right about Greyhawk, and also with the original D&D campaign world - but I don't remember this world ever having an official name.

And while the original Monster Manual was an exercise in raiding mythology and fantasy fiction by Gygax, the Fiend Folio was, as you say, edited rather than compiled, consisting of contributions from a wide range of D&D players. Don Turnbull edited the original Fiend Folio; I never used it myself, but I did appreciate it since the cover was markedly less awful than the original Monster Manual! :)

I haven't got a release date for "Dungeons and Dragons and Philosophy" yet - nor even confirmation that this is the title. It's coming out under Open Court; their next volume is "Halo and Philosophy" in July this year, so my best guess is that this won't be ready until Winter 2011 or Spring 2012.

Right, I'm not really here, I really am taking a break from blogging. :)

All the best!

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