Sunday, January 29, 2012

Monsters as PCs: a Brief Study

As a teenager in a Monty Haul campaign with my older brother, I once played a Fire Giant PC.  I got all the combat benefits of being a giant, but miraculously never suffered the ill effects - such as being hunted and persecuted, being ostracized, being too large to use 99.9% of magic weapons and armor, being too big to fight side by side in a 10' hall with the other adventurers, and being dumb.

Clearly, as a reasoning adult I would never want to replicate that experience.  But I am still today intrigued by the idea of playing a "monster" as a PC.  And this is an idea that has some basis in certain early edition D&D games (OD&D, Holmes Basic) but is soundly trounced in AD&D.  Let's summarize.

What?  I can't play a succubus?
 OD&D (1974)
"Other Character Types: There is no reason that players cannot be allowed to play as
virtually anything, provided they begin relatively weak and work up to the top, i.e., a
player wishing to be a Dragon would have to begin as let us say, a "young" one and
progress upwards in the usual manner, steps being predetermined by the campaign

This passage from Men & Magic has a relatively encouraging tone, stating there is "no reason" not to try it.  It also lists the restrictions, which makes sense to me.  Since there are no other rules dealing with this topic in OD&D, it would presumably require a creative DM.  But still - it's allowable.

Holmes (1977)
"At the Dungeon Master's discretion a character can be anything his or her player wants him to be. Characters must always start out inexperienced and relatively weak and build on their experience. Thus, an expedition might include, in addition to the four basic classes and races (human, elven, dwarven, halflingish), a centaur, a lawful werebear, and a Japanese Samurai fighting man."

This passage from Holmes Basic is clearly similar to OD&D and gives some very specific examples.  Note that it suggests a "lawful werebear," which seems to indicate that a monster is OK only if it's basically of "good" alignment.

B/X (1981)
The concept of monster characters is not even mentioned in B/X.

AD&D Dungeon Master's Guide (1979)
Amazingly, Gary Gygax takes a complete flip-flop on his position on monster PCs in AD&D.  He spends a full page (!) formulating his argument that humans are the dominant species in D&D and that it would take an impossibly creative DM with "decades" of time at his disposal to create a world setting that is appropriate for monsters to adventure in.

Here are some rather pointed, some may say scathing, passages from the DMG:

"On occasion one player or another will evidence a strong desire to operate as a monster, conceiving a playable character as a strong demon, a devil, a dragon, or one of the most powerful sort of undead creatures. This is done principally because the player sees the desired monster character as superior to his or her peers and likely to provide a dominant role for him or her in the campaign. A moment of reflection will bring them to the unalterable conclusion that the game is heavily weighted towards mankind."

"Those works which do not feature mankind in a central role are uncommon. Those which do not deal with men at all are scarce indeed. To attempt to utilize any such bases as the central, let alone sole, theme for a campaign milieu is destined to be shallow, incomplete, and totally unsatisfying for all parties concerned unless the creator is a Renaissance Man and all-around universal genius with a decade or two to prepare the game and milieu."

"The less intelligent players who demand to play monster characters regardless of obvious consequences will soon remove themselves from play in any event, for their own ineptness will serve to have players or monsters or traps finish them off."

I wonder why Gygax went so strongly in this direction?  I have to admit, though.  It's fun to read Gygax, especially when he slams stupid players.  :)


  1. I cannot help but hear the bitter voice of experience in Gygax's words. I participated in a few Monty Haul campaigns in junior high, and it did seem that the motive to play a monster in most cases was to dominate the proceedings.

    That said, I do think Gary overstates how long it would take to jerry-rig a setting that would allow and accommodate that sort of play.

  2. I think it depends on what sort of game you want to play, but the core setting assumptions of D&D are sort of broken by powerful monster characters, at least. I don't think the approach Gygax is suggesting of allowing it then sticking it to the player in game is best. If you're gonna screw over a monster character for being a monster, just don't allow it to begin with.

  3. +1 Trey. I've done that before, and it turned out really lame. Now, I allow monster PCs without harassing them, and it works great. They have racial abilities on par with regular humans/demi-humans, so no issues with "balance".

    There's so much stuff in AD&D like that quoted above, and it really sours me on that iteration of the game.

    As a footnote, I think monty-haulism gets a bad rap too often. I don't think there's anything wrong with handing out lots of great items, and then ratcheting up the challenges to be commensurate with the crazy stuff the PCs can do. It also has the effect of differentiating the clever players from the less clever ones. And when I say great items, I don't mean +X swords, I mean the misc. magic types that can be used creatively.

  4. I like playing monsters and have no sympathy for the position that dnd should be principally about humans. OTOH I like monsters not because they're powerful but because they're complicated. I can easily see that EGG might've been soured on monster PCs by one too many powergamers trying to exploit the idea mechanically. When he wrote that passage Vampire and story games were stil a long way off, but dick powergamrs were a clear and present danger.

    One thing about playing a monster: it cuts down on your social interaction opportunities, it forecloses some options, unless you can get a middleman or puppet to handle those parts of the game. At which point I feel like playing the middleman.

  5. Gary was quite cranky at times. I dig the idea of monsters as PCs and what was written in 1974 is fine by me. :)

  6. These are cool responses! It would appear there are plenty of people who are willing to allow and/or play monsters in their games.

    Aplus - I think you hit a key point. The DM must balance the monsters somehow. (And no, I'm not saying everything has to be 100% in balance). But I think a creative DM can come up with reasonable pros and cons for any race. And players need to be reasonable and not be power gamy about it. But I don't see why it couldn't be done.

  7. in 1976 Ken St Andre (yes, he of Tunnels and Trolls fame)wrote Monsters! Monsters!; a T&T variant focused almost entirely on monsters as PCs.

    Perhaps Gygax is railing against monster PCs in reaction and casting aspersions on the intelligence of people that want to play a monster PC in reaction.

    FWIW a PC in my current campaign is playing a lizard man warrior - he simply LOVES lizard men from his love of the lizard man in the dreamcast soul calibur game!

  8. Despite my love for the AD&D DMG, I rarely find myself on the same side of the fence as Gary regarding these sorts of things. However, in this case I am with Gary in spirit if not in method.

    It's not about power levels for me (I don't mind allowing varied power level as long as the players are mature and not overly competitive) but rather about maintaining a sense of the fantastic. Allowing players to take on the roles of other creatures makes those creatures mundane. In some ways, this is like giving a player control over a whole nation or area of your campaign which would otherwise be clothed in shadow and uncertainty (control in the sense of needing to answer any conceivable question they might have that the character might reasonably know). There are a few narrative tricks to get around this, like the monster equivalent of being raised by wolves, to make it so that the player need not have knowledge of what you would rather remain unknown, but they grow tired quickly (at least in my experience).

    I don't think there is anything wrong per se with allowing monster PCs, but like many such decisions there are (I would argue unavoidable) ramifications.

  9. Brendan - interesting point you make. Not having played a monster PC for decades, I can't remember whether it made the monsters mundane and overly familiar or gave them a new sense of wonder and opportunity. But I agree it's definitely something to be wary of.

  10. i don't know why Gygax expresses that way, i think maybe he despises players who have such desires as being kind of childish persons. That's just an impression, of course.

    He states clearly that they usually ask that trying to have superior characters.
    In the end i agree with him in the sense that i never allowed such a thing as a DM.
    And, by the way, a word of praise: i love the way you compare editions in your posts.

  11. Thanks Catacomb! That way of organizing posts helps me to keep organized.

  12. What really worked for me is a house rule: As the players explore and make friends with other civilizations, I will allow new characters to be from those new areas. If they discover a goblin village and befriend them, and return multiple times, they can have goblin retainers and eventually they'll turn into player characters. This makes sure the influx is slow, it makes sure I can look around on the blogosphere and weigh my options (starting with Links to Wisdom, perhaps). And it makes sure that new characters are "grounded" in the campaign setting (much like your centaur opening which provides a tiny bit of grounding, which is awesome if the players have heard about this war a few times).