Wednesday, October 07, 2009

Natural or Monstrous?

In your favorite fantasy game, is there a difference between animal and monster? If so, why?

One thing that bothered me about some versions of D&D is just that distinction. Druids, for instance, could speak with animals. Could they speak with Owlbears? Displacer Beasts? Stirges? My understanding was that they generally could not... because these were monsters rather than animals.

There are (at least) two things that I can think of that might validly differentiate between monster and animal:
  1. Intelligence and instinct: Animals are ruled by instinct, are possessed of sub-human intelligence, and are generally incapable of using language. Monsters violate at least one of these. They might have cruel natures that are malevolent rather than instinctual.
  2. Origin: Animals evolved or were created in a process (possibly divine) that ensured they would be in harmony with the natural world. Monsters violate the natural order. They might be from another plane of existence where the laws of nature are different. They might be the result of magical experimentation. They might be the creation of a malevolent god.
In D&D, though, the main distinction seems to be that animals are things which exist (or, maybe, could exist) in the real world, while monsters aren't. Given a point of view within the game world, though, this makes no sense. How is a druid supposed to know that stirges don't exist in the real world? On what basis does he judge it unnatural?


anonymous said...

My own personal rule has to do with the creature's disposition towards people. If its inclination is to avoid humanoids (unless domesticated), then its an animal. If its inclination is to attack humanoids, then its a monster. And yes, that means some bears might be animals while others are monsters, but I'm fine with that. Not all humanoids speak the same languages either. ;)

Nick Novitski said...

I'm fond of stealing one of The Shadow of Yesterday's injunctions: no Monsters, just Animals and People.

Not sure how that would interact with the dungeon crawl, but Anonymous makes a good point: why not just classify things as either targets or non-targets as appropriate for the scenario? What's the advantage of consistency?

Badelaire said...

Actually, I'd say one of the easiest ways to make the distinction is through the creature's alignment. Most "natural" animals had an alignment of Neutral. Most "monsters" had an alignment that was some form of Evil (or Chaotic if you were playing a basic D&D variant).

The key difference here being than a natural animal isn't good or bad, it just is, like in our world. A "monster" has a malign disposition, even if it's not any more intelligent than a normal animal. The creature will kill for fun, not for food. It will seek to disrupt the natural balance of order in the ecosystem, not live as part of it. The creature will make natural animals, even those that wouldn't fear it because of size or ferocity, nervous and stay away from it.

As a classic example, think the difference between a Wolf and a Warg. A Warg isn't just a "big wolf"; a Warg is Evil. There is a malign and cruel disposition to it that goes beyond that of a large predatory animal. This is, I think, the key difference between a "monster" and an "animal", beyond just an unnatural origin, which I agree is a matter more of the campaign setting.