Sword and sorcery monsters represent an encounter with the uncanny. Conan doesn’t typically fight through hordes of monsters the way he does hordes of men, nor do Clark Ashton Smith’s various heroes. Even where Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser confront monsters with steel, they only once or twice battle them in a horde. Elric is the exception, but even then only occasionally.
Even more recent sword and sorcery heroes, like Hercules or Xena, rarely battle more than one true monster at a time — and they live in an age of monsters.
The sword and sorcery monster is, typically, an individual horror, capable of menacing all of the characters in a story — and slaying more than a few. In the few cases where monsters appear in groups, the hero’s solution is almost always to run, while villainous or simply less wary men are slaughtered.
As an encounter with the uncanny, the monster is often the backbone of the story itself, or a recurring plot device on the way to the climax.
What does that mean for gaming? Well, the typical monster is a hazard to an entire group of characters. In recent Dungeons & Dragons terms, most monsters are not only solos, they’re effectively adventures in and of themselves… even if the object of the adventure isn’t to slay the monster. (And in early sword and sorcery, it rarely is. Beowulf and Hercules are monster-slayers in a way Conan is not.)
Consider the following hypothetical D&D framework:
- Enter dungeon
- Fight orcs
- Slay dragon
- Get treasure
As opposed to the following more Conanesque one:
- Enter exotic location
- Fight fellow looters (some of whom are killed by the demon)
- Get treasure
- Escape demon (maybe slay it)
These are, obviously, oversimplifications, but they suggest a few things.
- The monster is not necessarily there to be slain. (Though, to be sure, it probably can be. Monsters are generally as mortal as anything else.)
- Most of the lesser bad guys are not minions or cultists of the monster, but rivals of the PCs.
- The monster’s lair is as dangerous to the lesser bad guys as it is to the PCs.
- The monster should be capable of challenging many enemies at once. Claw/claw/bite?
Of course, it’s perfectly acceptable to abandon genre fidelity in favor of good gaming. But I also think that a little rethinking of formulae and set pieces, and some mechanics to supplement them, are appropriate in monster design.
As is often the case with sword and sorcery gaming, horror provides a better model than fantasy adventure. The classic sword and sorcery tale has a lot in common with the “monster of the week” format, except that the monster itself usually isn’t the objective.
The monster is instead a series of hazards and encounters that may, later in the game, blossom into a confrontation.