Holistic World Building Part 3: Monstering Your World
Originally, this was going to be part of a twofer post on faiths and monsters, but both components turned out to have way more scope than anticipated. So this installation in the short world building series is going to be all about monstering up your world. If you haven’t already, check out parts one and two of this series on world building, as this post references ideas in them. Those can be read here, and here. As with the previous posts (and future ones), this isn’t a definitive “how-to”. These are just my ideas and concepts for world building based on my experience over the years as a GM and DM.
Defining Your Monsters
Monsters are a key component of fantasy literature and gaming, but what is a monster? The definition is broad and highly subjective at the best of times. Now, my position is that monsters are generally bestial things, different from Monsterfolk as they lack culture and “civilization” of any sort. As I laid out in the Peopling Your World post, include Monsterfolk in your world’s build and political climate. Then, once you’ve hammered out what’s a “monster” in your world, it’s time to think about thematic elements and variety in your monsters.
Theme vs Variety
A key point to examine is to differentiate between themed monsters and having variety in your monsters. Why? Because there’s a difference and recognizing that will help you in your design phases.
Monster variety is where you have different collections of monsters making up their own monster ecosystem, whether it’s based on biome, personal preference, or whatever metric you use. I like using biomes, so that’s the perspective this is from. So, say you’re working on your world, and you have two large swamps divided by a mountain range. Using conventional random encounter tables, they’d have the same denizens, and you run into the same-y world issue. So this is where you pick and choose to build a unique random encounter table for each swamp. Now when your players visit those locations, they’ll remember them specifically, as opposed to just them being another generic “swamp”.
Theme is similar to, but different to variety. When you use a monster theme, you’re placing a ground of thematically similar or linked monsters into an area. This works great for narratively driven or plot important locations. This is building an undead city, populated by various forms of undead and undead compatible monsters. This is an elemental/element themed cavern. In effect, this is where a group of specific monsters are concentrated in a single area.
This isn’t as bad as it sounds. This is simply the practice of having some overlap between your monster biomes and groupings. Why? Because it adds an organic element to your world. Even in areas where there’s distinct differences and requirements for life, for example, where the land meets the sea, there’s still overlap. Sea creatures prey on land and air ones. Air and land creatures prey on sea ones. Amphibious creatures flick back and forth as needed. So don’t be afraid to have areas overlap. Aside from adding the organic flare that brings a world to life, it can also help players gauge whether or not they want to proceed into some areas.
The Apex Issue
There’s a tendency for some to pack places with apex level predators, and I get it. Apex predators (by any metric) are usually the coolest looking and most memorable to fight. But depending on the system you’re using, they can also make for confusing ecosystems and a “tiered” world where things get progressively more difficult as the party moves away from the starting location. This can make for difficult world building, especially when you have to explain how a village full of common folk survives while surrounded by high level threats. This is where you’ll need to do some serious planning and lay out some good forethought.
The main thing to consider here is to look at how the presence and frequency of apex threats might affect the region. Are they a constant threat, a seasonal one, or maybe a generational issue? Is there some balance that prevents them from wiping out everything else? How have the locals (if there are any) adapted to the presence of various threats?
Monster World vs Fairytale World
This is a hard line to walk, because by nature, fairytales have a much stronger influence on world design, and game design, than most of us are probably willing to admit.
A “Monster World” is, broadly, what most fantasy game creations should be based on how they’re presented. They’re worlds where monsters are common, have broad but defined territories, and where non-human monsterfolk are a natural part of the mix. But this isn’t how most worlds are presented. Most are presented as “fairytale worlds”, where the magic, monsters, and whatnot that are usually frightfully common somehow, for some reason, don’t affect the human (and specifically the human) populations, who developed entirely along normal, real world lines and only occasionally brush up against the supernatural and non-human. The issue is in presentation and function.
If you’re going to make a fairytale world, embrace it. This means that monsters are rare and unusual, and become rarer and less encountered the more powerful they are. They may not even be native to the world, and may come from another plane or place entirely. Likewise, if you’re packing your world with a bestiary that makes the Monstrous Compendium series from 2nd Edition AD&D blush, embrace that. Make your world and have it adapt to its reality. Try to avoid misrepresenting your world, and this goes for mechanical text, fluff, and art.
Now, why not aim for the middle ground? Well, you can, but the world’s cohesion becomes stronger towards the poles of the Fairytale ←→ Monster World spectrum, at least in my experience. Especially when you’re working with narrative and plot development as you world build or afterwards. Why? Because consistency comes easier towards the poles, and it makes things that are inconsistent more shocking and memorable when encountered as opposed to just being another event on an average game night.
Monsters are only one component of what can make a world threatening or dangerous, but it’s a part that gets overlooked a lot by players and GM/DM’s alike at every level because “they’re just monsters”. Monsters can be a fantastic storytelling element, and at the same time, a way to make each part of your world distinct and memorable. One of the largest complaints I see frequently about established campaign settings like Forgotten Realms is that they’re “boring”; and while there’s a lot to unpack there, one of the key components I look at is how the world is presented as a “same-y” homogenous mass with its monsters. Many unique monsters and encounters are locked up in specific modules, and only a few areas have received any kind of unique monster ecosystems; with Chult being a notable exception, but again, only if you buy the Tomb of Annihilation. By making areas unique, at least a part of this “boring” issue.
Next in this short series will be an article on building your cosmology.