Present at the Birth of Monsters: the evolution of a game by Ken St. Andre in 1976

Present at the Birth of Monsters: the evolution of a game by Ken St. Andre in 1976

Space Gamer 8

Present at the Birth of Monsters Published in Space Gamer #8 1976

In a way it is all the fault of Steven McAllister, he whose name is immortalized in the Peters-McAllister chart in Tunnels & Trolls. We had only been experimenting with the most basic rules for a couple of weeks when he rejected the notion of Monster Ratings and started to individualize the creatures in his dungeons. The first result of such a fairness policy was the chart that regularized the creation of Elves, Dwarves, Fairies, Hobbits, Trolls, Orcs, Giants, etc.

After that, the very nature of Tunnels & Trolls, and my own sense of fair play, made the development of Monsters! Monsters! inevitable. For a fair description of how the game actually arose I refer you to my introduction in Monsters! Monsters! It only remains to say that M!M! already existed in rough form as early as November 1975, and that Howard Thompson had agreed to print it as early as January 1976.

This article really has to be a designer’s explanation of two games in one, because I can’t really talk about the guiding principles of M!M! without actually talking about T & T at the same time. T & T started as a revolt against needless complexity in Dungeons and Dragons. I don’t like 4 and 22 and 20 sided dice. Such polyhedrals are difficult for the average person to acquire and are also quite expensive. (Since I was unemployed at the time, I was strongly opposed to anything that inflated the price of gaming, and on strictly anti-inflationary principle I still oppose the kind of elaborate equipment that raises the cost of my gaming. I am probably a minority of one opposing the use of miniatures in fantasy gaming, preferring the picture in my own imagination to a piece of painted plastic every time.) So guiding principle number 1 was: whenever dice were needed they would be the conventional 6-sided cubes that anyone could go down to the corner drugstore and acquire.

The next thing I wanted to do was make a player-character’s dice created attributes directly applicable to the play of the game. Thus, heavier weapons required greater individual strength to wield them. When using magic, higher level spells are equivalent to heavier, more powerful weapons, and so, required more strength to cast them. What is the point of giving a character a Constitution rating if you’re not going to use it for anything? So I defined Constitution as how much damage it took to kill a person. Luck has always played an important part in my own life, and from my extensive reading in the field of heroic fantasy (and just plain history) it has always seemed that luck was a major factor in the success of any kind of hero. Logically, when one is in a situation where nothing else can help, luck can still come through and save your neck. Thus, a character’s luck became the sole basis for Saving Rolls (which are used when a character needs a chance to save himself from something unpleasant). Here I must disagree with something Steve Jackson changed in the rules of M!M! On page 29 there is a discussion of Saving Rolls, and there is a column labeled minimum roll required. Since a character’s likelihood of making its Saving Roll is meant to depend solely upon its luckiness, the minimum saving roll required would always remain the same. I like the number 5 on 2 dice because it is truly a minimum, very easy to make but yet not automatic. I have no hassle with those who say 5 is too easy and move the number up to 7. The reason for putting a minimum on Saving rolls in the first place was so they wouldn’t become automatic (Say you have a Gremlin with luck of 24. 20 minus 24 = -4. He would automatically make all first and second level Saying Rolls, but that’s not fair, because even the best of luck fails sometimes.). On the other hand it is not easy (even when doubles add and roll again) to make a 9 or an 11 on demand. It also unfairly penalizes characters who have built up their luck rating to a fairly high level. The Saving Roll for a character with a Luck of 28 should be 7 on the fourth level of difficulty, not 11. The other attributes also have a direct bearing on the play of the game. A snollygoster with a dexterity of 3 will not turn into a deadly missile weapon fighter.

Another very important aspect of the design of MIM! is the premise that characters who manage to survive will be able to improve themselves. Personal growth is most of the incentive to continue playing the game. Individual ratings may get to incredibly high levels by the standards of other game like D & D, but within the T & T/M!M! universe. No matter how high ratings in an attribute get, they will be internally consistent. Thus, while it is rare to have a human character with a gigantic strength of 60, it is not impossible, and granting that there was such a character, the extra advantages that it derives from such superhuman power are quite reasonable. One of the pitfalls of this kind of open-ended attribute system is the incredibly generous or thoughtless game master who paves his tunnel complexes and city streets with diamonds and enchanted doodads that double all attributes without the character really doing any work except to pick up the goodies. This becomes a form of monster creation all its own, and can lead to ridiculousness, with gremlins or hobbits more powerful than any 3 giants. However, such problems tend to be self-correcting. Game Masters have the right to forbid the use of such absurd characters, or alternately the whole game turns into something done purely for laughs, and everyone has such a good time being silly that you don’t mind the absurdity of it all. Personally, it is my belief that magical benefits should be hard to come by, both for humans and monsters, which will then limit attribute growth to what could reasonably result from a character’s efforts to improve itself.

The thing that pleases me the most about T & T and M!M! is the sheer open-endedness of it. I try very hard to get the players deeply involved in their own intensely personal creative. Efforts. For T & T you are expected to design at least one tunnel complex; for M!M!, I really expect the players to design their own city. That is a lot of work, but the rewards are tremendous . . . and educational. When you get into city planning, the details of how this place could really work, you will learn a tremendous amount about what life must have been like in the Middle Ages. If you want to run a city of 20,000 people, you have to provide a way to feed them, a reason for 20,000 people to be in one place, a world or at least a nation for them to be a part of, and dozens (or hundreds) of other details. Once the geography is taken care of, you must be ready to evoke the personality of potentially any one of the 20,000 inhabitants. Not everyone the invading monsters will run into in this city is going to be a fearless member of the guard who bravely leaps up and attacks every troll he sees. Probably the most fun I ever had creating characters in Kosht was the time the troll tore down an outer wall of a brothel near the city wall and found a houseful of women, one or two of whom were actually good-looking. For the rest of the trip I amused the players by having these captive whores try to seduce the more humanoid monsters, all the while demanding the most outrageous fees.

In fact, the possibilities for invention are endless. In M!M! we give you 52 different varieties of monster, but that is not to imply that you are limited to those monsters in the glossary. A thorough examination of the monsters’ attributes table will give you a good idea of how to go about creating the monster of your choice. Suppose you wish to have a were-eagle. You can have it. Imagine the dismay of a city guardsman who thinks he has apprehended a normal thief who turns into an eagle right before his popping eyes. Let us say you are fond of dinosaurs. There is no reason why you can’t have T. Rex running rampant. No IQ to speak of, and very little dexterity, but strength right up there with a dragon and a constitution to match. Say Tolkien is not your favorite author- -you don’t care about Elves. Dwarves, Orcs, and Hobbits. Instead. you dig the Arabian Nights and would rather have an Afrit, or a man-eating camel. All you have to do is persuade your friendly local game master to let you ransack the place with a genie. Just don’t be surprised when a corps of 7th level wizards show up to greet you, just happening to be in town for a wizard’s convention that weekend. Essentially this is what Liz did in painting the front cover, invented her own brand new monsters — the green beastie — right on the spot. And we did the same thing with the Shadowjack, inventing, as a type, a character who had been an individual in a Zelazny novel.

I have tried to avoid repeating information about the game actually given in the rules for M!M! or T & T. I haven’t said much about why magic is the way it is, or how the combat system works. For those who read the rules, the logic and the problems are apparent. I would like to note that there really should be an asterisk on the “Take that you fiend!” spell, the effect being to multiply the caster’s IQ by the level the spell is cast on.

I’d like to say a few words about the problems of producing this kind of role-playing head game. It looks easy. If you are an average reader you can get through the rules of M!M! in about half an hour. But it is like writing a salable story in that one must he careful in what one says. The object in M!M! has been to give all the information necessary to set up and play the game without going on in boring length on any one thing. I have also tried to he amusing about it, and Steve Jackson seems to have felt the same. The whole thing has been proofread at least a dozen times to try and eliminate contradictions between something explained one way on page 8 and completely different on page 32. Last, and most difficult, is the task of getting your artist to come forth with material to bring animation to what starts as a bunch of abstract ideas. I want to give pounds and buckets of credit to Liz Danforth whose graphics are, in my opinion, easily the finest part of the whole M!M! production. Even though I had to spend all my spare time cajoling her to draw, offer incentives like cash out of my pocket and a cut of the profits forever, and almost camp in her living room at times to keep her brushes to the easel, this game never would have seen the life of print without her artwork behind it. My advice to other game designers is make friends with as many fabulous artists as you can, and when you’re ready to publish, include is much art as you can get.

Space Gamer/Fantasy Gamer The Magazine of Free-Style Role-Play.
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Steve Jackson Games Founded in 1980, publishes books, games, and magazines for game fans.
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