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Old Hat Monsters: Paper Tigers

Old Hat Monsters: Paper Tigers

Sebastian Münster, Illustrations of monstrous humans from Cosmographia (1544)

“Outwardly a tiger, it is made of paper, unable to withstand the wind and the rain.” —Mao Zedong

Pathfinder is a game of heroes and monsters. Through the looking glass of our imaginations, we transform a bunch of statistics and a pile of miniatures into a battle between benign and vile gods, graceful elves and brutal orcs, angels and demons, and sometimes fairies—all of them punching each other in the face!

There’s more to this game we all love than merely a system for good versus evil. It’s a world we’re creating and living in together. It’s also pretty obvious that some parts of the world get more design attention than others.

One of the most commonly unloved corners of most game worlds is the monstrous gods. While a certain drow spider queen comes to mind as an exception, most lack depth. It’s as though the game designers started with their core pantheon and threw in an occasional monster god to worship as an afterthought. They look impressive, they seem cool, but there’s nothing more to them. They’re paper tigers.

It doesn’t need to be this way. Join me after the jump, and we’ll go over some considerations for building complex and interesting gods for your favorite monsters. Because, if they’re your favorite, don’t they deserve to be robustly constructed. Shouldn’t they possess three dimensions?

To start, let’s examine three types of gods that show up in fiction (and mythology) and that suit our purposes:

The Incomprehensible: These gods are so alien that the mortal mind cannot comprehend them. They include shuddering horrors from the Dark Tapestry, most of Lovecraft, and any other entity that is more than our brains can comprehend.

The Primal: They represent raw natural forces, such as gods of fire, water, storms, and seas.

The Anthropomorphic: These gods act like people do, or alternatively they deal with less physical concerns. Some examples are gods of love, hate, and other such concerns.

Now, I put these down like categories, but a better way to think of them is as flavors. Our friend Cthulhu is incomprehensible, but also represents the primal terror of madness. I find that it’s more interesting to have your gods taste of different flavors, too, as we see here with Cthulhu. It gives them the beginnings of depth and also gives you more points to hook interesting ideas onto.

You also want the gods monsters worship to be as compelling as the creatures themselves. That said, you want to make sure they compliment each other. If you’ve created an awesome god of slaughter and pancakes, but he’s worshiped by four-armed monkeys that eat only fruit, then something is very wrong.

Gods are linked to those that worship them. That may be because of a direct link to their patron or creator, or it can simply be the kind of god these creatures would want to worship. Regardless, they have to have a reason to tie themselves to this divine entity. Gods can also represent the best and worst in the peoples who worship them. They can be a representation of the paragons of that species or something that the creatures strive to be, or the deity enslaves these creatures and demands worship.

The most important point to consider when you’re creating gods for your totally awesome and original monster is that your gods are more than stories passed down or archetypal paragons. The god you create can also become a potential villain. So think about how you create a good villain: You give them needs, motivations, desires, and plans.

For me, the most important element in the creation of a good villain is that it needs to think that it’s the good guy. Compelling evil believes it is righteous, in other words. Gods that have been wounded or struck down by other gods, gods reborn and twisted, gods that seek vengeance for various wrongs—all these strike a chord with not only their followers but with GMs, whose most important audience is players. Create gods as characters that are active, that want something, and that do something. If you don’t, you’ll find that the death of potentially compelling characters is passivity.

Now, you might want some crunch to see how I use these concepts in terms of mechanics and rules. The nice thing about this subject is that there isn’t a lot of crunch. As wonderful as it is to have rules for something, they can be as much a limitation as a benefit. That said, the one area we could tackle involves the domains your little godlet bestows upon its monstrous chosen. When working with domains, make sure the themes you built for your god are reflected in the choices you make. Domains should help tell a story and shouldn’t be slapped together to optimize your evil cleric’s build.

Would you like some examples? Well, you’ve read this column before, so you know the nature of the game. For every four comments, I’ll pick a suggested or arbitrary monster and give it a brand new shiny divinity.

Or, you know, we could fold up some paper tigers.

21 thoughts on “Old Hat Monsters: Paper Tigers”

  1. Why is there a picture of the Plinian races with this article?

    Regardless, I think at least one example would have been appropriate, either drawing from Midgard, popular culture, or ancient mythology; if only to inspire discussion and demonstrate your point.

    Additionally, why head straight to the gods for villains? What you’re attributing to these entities is very anthropomorphic, where as their devotees are the most likely point where the characters meet the adventure.

    As an example, pulling from the Kobold Press Mythos adventure, _The Dread Eye of Azathoth_, while Azathoth is the great elder god of total destruction (the “blind idiot god”) it has no motivation or desire beyond this. Yet the entire series of adventures revolves around one man’s intent to awaken it and bring about the end of creation. Despite this focus, the cultist is the real evil, and he’s provided a great amount of detail.

    From your own words, the Queen of the Dark Elves is an active villain in her world– but I posit this is because the Dark Elves were presented as shadowy masterminds behind one of the first (if not the first) extended adventure series, G1-3 leading to D1-3, and culminating in Q1. This established them in the minds so many early D&D gamers as an iconic villainous force, which then propagated to Mystara (Shadow Elves) and to Forgotten Realms (Menzoberranzan). In fact, one could claim the Forgotten Realms offshoot of this villain became even more popular, through the works of R.A. Salvatore. However, in an interesting twist, the FR dark elves also inspired one of the genre’s most recognized antiheroes, who struggles against the Queen-god’s priesthood and his self-abandoned culture.

    Further demonstrating my point, look at Dragonlance– Takhisis is Tiamat, in her modern, popularized form as the queen of dragons. However, it’s her draconians and her Highlords, and the dragons themselves, which represent her will and serve as antagonists to the player characters. And in a similar format, they are built, and detailed, and given their mythology through the adventures of DL1-9 and the first three novels of the Dragonlance saga.

    And so I would counterpoint that it is not the monstrous deity which is important, but rather the priestly structure which serves it. This organization is what interprets and executes a villain-god’s will in the game world, and the aspect most deserving of detailed design work. Look at your own offer– it’s not a god’s motivations you offer to present us, but the tools it gives its chosen.

    To me, that’s pretty clear. It’s all about followers, and not the great symbol in the mythology.

    -Ben.

  2. Awesome ideas, and thoughtfully put !

    To have three-dimensional monster gods is very appealing to me, as a game master.

    What I would like, in the scope of this article, is an example of how they could reveal themselves, so to speak, to the player characters. After all, most of the time, PCs meet interesting monsters, and after a brief chit-chat, slaughter them roundly. How can a monster god shine during this brief moment ? Perhaps it would be a good idea to build a scenario around a monstrous monster-god worshipping cult ?

    The monsters whose god I would like the most to make the accointance would be… ettercaps and hobgoblins (especially hobgoblins).

  3. @Ben the not going into an example is on me. Word count restrictions are a thing, and part fo the style of the Old Het Monster series is engaging our audience directly in the comments. There’s also IP considerations, generally you cannot discuss a god that’s trademarked by another company in a blog post on a website that sells possible competative products. Not everyone has the Midgard setting yet,,, so that is also a barrier.

    I don’t think Johns talking about the Lolth’s, Takesis’ (sp), or even the Lamashtu (the joys of comments not having the same restrictions.) More like these sclubs:
    -Psilofyr, god of myconids, community, healing and philosophy.
    -Kanchelsis, god of vampires.
    -Ravanna, god of rakshasas.
    -Hruggek, god of bugbears.
    -Ilsensine, god of illithids.

    That you can find in the “other” catagory of D&D deities. They are obscure 2D half arsed thrown together afterthoughts. There’s one for just about every monster.

    You make an excellent point about the religious structure making gods more interesting and I applaud that point.

    @Quiche Lisp Ettercaps would prolly go the aforementioned spiderqueen, but hell yeah on some hobgoblin god!!!

    @John show them what its about please!!! I want a worg god that doesn’t suck!

  4. You can certainly discuss the god in the article– that’s fair use, and as long as you don’t charge for the material or alter what it’s about, you can discuss their trademarked bad guys until the cows come home.

    -Ben.

  5. And I’d argue that he is talking about first tier monster gods. His primary examples in his text are Cthulhu and Lolth. That’s Kurtulmak by any stretch.

    -Ben.

  6. I’ve always been a fan of making the followers the true villains. Villainous followers of good gods are a great way to go, too. Look at our own world, and the horrors that have been wrought in the name of religion… and every one of the people that did those things believed their god was the just and proper god, and that they were acting according to that god’s will.

    Esp in settings where there’s a separating factor between the gods and the main game world (like 4e’s Primal Ban restriction from the Dawn War), it’s easy for the message to get muddied. In my home game, I have a nation that worships Erathis (civilization goddess) and also practices slavery (they call it “indentured servitude”) openly because that’s a way to make their civilization function properly, so it must be according to Erathis’ will. The nearby nation that’s devoted to Pelor (the Sun god) regularly practices the genocide of any “darker races” (drow, shades, shadar-kai, etc.), regardless of whether those people are actually doing anything evil. And they justify it by saying that the Sun hates darkness. The next nation over is devoted to Kord (the battle deity), and they punish physical weakness. Every one of those nations serves a “good” god, but there are plenty of villains in each of their governments using the ideas of a good god to promote their own evil agendas.

    And sure, it’s great to know that Baphomet is more than just a god of beastly minotaurs, or that Zehir has a plan to assassinate some other god and steal his power… but until you hit upper paragon or epic tier, the plots of gods are much less accessible than the plots of their followers.

  7. Wow. Wake up at noon and the internet explodes.

    @ Ben; I actually agree with you. The worshipers are where the easiest and biggest bang for your design buck is going to be. However my topic was on how to make the gods themselves more interesting. Azathoth is arguably one of those paper tigers. He’s a blind idiot god of destruction. He wants to destroy things because he destroys things. When you’re dealing with him, yeah, his worshipers are going to be where all the interest is, because once you get past the few sentences there’s nothing more to say about the divinity directly. Now, he works, and he works well but you really can’t argue for depth of character.

    I mean in my own development world *cough* clockworkchaospublishing.blogspot.com *cough* I have two gods that are overly simple. They want to destroy each other and everything associated with the other one. I’m not saying that every god needs to be a deep and complex character but you’ve got to find the depth somewhere, and if you want to go more basic with your god himself, then you can ramp up the complexity and depth with his followers.

    Give me a few and I’ll get you some gods.

  8. First shiny new god for the Ettercaps!

    Saltizan:
    The One Who Skitters in Sunlight.

    Alignment: Neutral Evil
    Domains: Cloud, Retribution,Trickery,

    Long ago Saltizan was the shining spider that spun the clouds. Her subtle touch brought a gentle respite from the harshest of the suns rays. Some say she stretched her power to far, trying to forever bind the sun in clouds. So others say that the sun grew jealous of her art, and so burned her face and cut her from the clouds. Regardless of the story, now she finds solace for her wounded pride and body in the cool shadows of the forest. She remains there her wounds forever smoldering and filling her with pain and hate. The Ettercaps she taught the secrets of silk, and ask only that they bring her the blood and flesh that will momentarily ease her pain.

  9. Ben has a good point, we usually know faiths by those who practice them. The gods themselves do not make a lot of appearances.

    That being said, I do like coherence in my fantasy religions.

  10. @Quiche Lisp: Sorry missed your comment at first. I’ve found that the old standby of the “Whispers from the Altar” work quite well. As does possession. If the players are important enough to have the gods attention they should be able to be talked to directly. I’ve always been a big fan of the god taunting them in their dreams.

    You could also have symbols of the god show up in strange places, sort of like the “I’m watching you” creepiness.

  11. And now we’re gonna Worg it up in here.

    The Blind Huntsman:
    He who devours the Lost

    Alignment: NE

    Domains: Animal, Community, Evil, Travel, Trickery,

    The Huntsman wanders the world, seeking out those that have lost their way. He can smell the sent of their fear and despair and hungers for their panic and terror. Some speculate that he was a creature of the fae in ancient times but by consuming the squirming souls of the unwary. He delights in not only tracking and frightening his prey but in giving them hope for escape. Hopes that always lead into horrible traps. The first worgs were wolves that attacked the Blind Huntsman and tasted of his spilled blood. They were granted a link to their new master and a share of his cunning and hunger. Though he has no eyes of his own, tasting his blood lets him see through his new minions.

  12. I like what you’re offering, but I am not seeing how it adds depth to the deity– it seems to be just a short piece of mythology?

    What should additional depth provide? How do these stories add the complexity? I need a couple of examples based on the two new gods you’ve created to see the process. Right now, it feels like I’m missing the connection between your mythology and the depth.

    Thanks,

    -Ben.

  13. @Ben: Well for these two that I created for this I wasn’t thinking in terms of an overarching mythology. I just wanted to start off with something that would have some immediate motivation. Find ways for these God characters could be used immediately.

    With Saltizan I wanted to give her immediate needs and motivations. She has desires that can be used to create narratives around. She’s basically a direct attempt at showing that your gods can be characters with things they want all on their own.

    The Blind Huntsman I wanted to show and emphasize the connection to the followers.

    The choice of the mythological piece instead of a more traditional god write up was just a simple matter of time. What I put up gives me the most bang for my buck given my current time frame. I may go back and do a little more developing with those two, as I frankly quite like them, and well, if the comment keep coming in I’m gonna owe everybody another god here in a bit.

    ((Full Disclosure: I’m not counting my comment as comments for the purposes of more gods.))

  14. How about a god for one of the peon monsters? A god of mites, perhaps? I think that low level monsters can make surprisingly higher level threats if they can bring some unholy might to the table such as spell casting priests, religiously fanatic defenders, and divinely inspired minions (special undead, constructs, or unique curses).

    Thanks.

    Gary

  15. In the early 1980’s TSR went way overboard in creating personalized deities for practically every creature in the Monster Manual. Come on TSR, do mushrooms *really* need their own personal deity?

    These were all created as “stand alone” entities, with no genuine connection to the “real” gods, or even to each other. Most of them turned out to be pretty worthless in the long run. (Do you remember the name of the mosquito god? Yes, there was one, back in 1st edition days.)

    While I quite like the general thrust of this article (make the worthless 2D gods into something worthwhile and 3D), I’m not sure just making more stand-alone deity-level creatures is the answer. Maybe there should be an emphasis on extending and fleshing out the current game mythology, rather than just creating new monster gods.

    Saltizan (described in the comments above) is a great start in this direction, but not as a God of the Ettercaps. Do ettercaps really need their own personal deity, any more than mushrooms or mosquitos do? I would include Saltizan in my game as a demigod whose physical form just happens to be that of a monster, who stands in permanent opposition to Pelor, and who has a special affinity with arachnids (but is not worshiped by them).

  16. I think Charles has a very good point. I think what you’re describing could even work better as, to paraphrase a Penny Arcade comic*, “the first monster, the template from which all others were wrought.” As actual creatures of mythic proportions and power, they seem more likely to have motivations which could be incorporated into gameplay, it explains their more limited scope and lesser notoriety, but provides a method and justification for creating extremely powerful examples of the creature which may or may not become involved in the campaign.

    Of course all examples of this creature would give it deference, they realize their kinship. And certainly the creature would be immortal– so long as one of its kind walked, there would be an example of it. It’s kind of a cool template concept…I *think* Rite Publishing has one that fills this niche (actually called “Mythic,”) but I don’t recall the powers.

    -Ben.

    *http://www.penny-arcade.com/comic/2003/11/12

  17. I’ll jump in for John for a sec. He’s still recovering from a weekend camping trip, then busting out another article on my blog (click on my name for the latest.)

    As for his own mythologies the nameless one is the biggest monster god in his project world Deslyn you can find that here: http://clockworkchaospublishing.blogspot.com/2013/06/the-divine-index-part-1.html

    it very much follows into the monster as a base form from which a god of other things spring. MYthology is really one of the strongest elements of this crazy gameworld project which is why I tapped John for that article.

    Tomorrow we resume our regularly scheduled Monster Templates!!!

  18. @Charles and Ben: Yeah. That is a really good point. And really one I completely agree with. Gods don’t exist in a vacuum they exist as a larger set of stories and relationships with other divine beings. However though I agree I stand by the way I created these few stand alone gods because I’ve tried to make them so that they could be plugged into any pantheon folks are using, and also show off how you can make a god that ties to the themes presented in the monsters.

    If given the opportunity to create a new one or work within an existing pantheon was given I’d tie them more firmly to. However for the purpose of the “comment reward” pick a monster give it a god worked best.

    And for the “Monster Paragon” style god you’re talking about, I’d probably end up lumping that up with the Primal flavor I put up in the article itself. I’ve tried to avoid doing the “King of” style gods because I feel that there’s a real potential for lazy design. Not saying that’s always the case there are a number of excellent and interesting gods that are the King of a Kind of monster. I wanted to give something a little more personally interesting.

  19. Also new god! Was made with the Hobgoblins in mind but more just exploring the ideas.

    Thaen
    The Singer of Silence

    Alignment: LE
    Domains: Evil, Judgement, Law, Loss, Memory, Torture, Tyranny

    In the days before the mortal plane there was a grand championship of singers. Each one strove to be the source of music across the universe. Thaen went first and sang a perfect song. Each note in holding to the unspoken rules of music. She had sung this song a thousand times and each flaw had been ground away. But her opponent cheated. His song was rough and full of feeling but lacked perfection. The other gods selected his.
    In protest she slit her own throat and swore the only song she would sing was silence. She would make all adhere to the law and those that did not she would pour the full weight of her fury upon them. All will hold to the law… or suffer greater than ever before.

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