Roleplayer #20, June 1990

Stalking the Mythical Monsters

The Creation of the Fantasy Bestiary

by Steffan O'Sullivan

The GURPS Fantasy Bestiary. It began with a late-night phone conversation in November, 1989. Steve Jackson called me up, commenting that I had had a nice long break from writing, and would I like to do another book? We need a Fantasy Bestiary . . . and, oh, we need it soon. Some people have no sense – meaning me, not Steve. Knowing that I have been a slow writer in the past, I accepted the job anyway. Now that it's done, I can say it was worth it – but at the time, I wondered! I was tired for four months straight!

This book really began with the GURPS Bestiary. A number of creatures that I rather liked were cut from that book for lack of space. And I continued to think of more creatures long after the book was published.

I got many comments on the original Bestiary, most of them favorable. But every now and then I'd meet someone who'd say, "There aren't enough monsters – nothing to scare a party in plate mail." These words were a revelation to me – there are radically different styles of play, and all GURPS gamers have to use the same sourcebook! When I GM, I don't allow PCs in anything heavier than DR 2 armor, so I was surprised to hear that some people never appear in less than DR 6. I began to feel I had unwittingly cheated some people by not supplying them with enough "monsters." It began to feel that the first Bestiary was unfinished.

I am a professional storyteller, and tell mostly old legends, myths and other tales. So I read these types of stories constantly, and have been running across "monsters" for years.

Now I had another chance to glean those stories for appropriate fantasy creatures – not races suitable for player characters, though. Those are covered in another GURPS book, Fantasy Folk. There are still a lot of interesting creatures out there, even with that limitation. And once more I began to read and read and read . . .

Many of the creatures I found reference to were not spelled out very clearly, alas. Some were, and those were easy enough to write up. But I really earned my pay on this one in two ways: research (which was very intensive) and interpretation. The creativity involved in the latter exercise made up for the sheer hard work and bleary eyeballs of the former.

I actually found reference to well over a thousand legendary monsters, but so many of them were so vaguely described that I couldn't use them. Others had no names – more on that in a bit.

Often a storyteller would describe a monster very briefly, and then turn his attention to the hero. So I looked for clues in the hero's reaction to the beast it was fighting. As an example, I read that "even the mightiest warriors found their arms tiring as they faced this creature." Now that might just be a poetic build-up for the hero who finally does overcome the monster, but I took the liberty to read more into it. I had to – there wasn't much else written about the animal except a brief description!

So I wrote that this particular monster (it was a dragon, by the way) cast the Fatigue spell with its glance. This accounts very well for the mightiest warriors tiring, and makes for a more interesting creature than a simple collection of numbers. And it doesn't really violate the original myth!

I found well over a thousand references to animals with no names. This was very frustrating, for some of them were great creatures! Occasionally I took the liberty of blending the best characteristics of a nameless animal into a similar creature in the same culture's mythology. This does violate the purity of the creatures a little bit, but those who don't like such adulteration can ignore them. I assume that class of reader is very small – most of us would rather have interesting creatures than by-the-book accurate descriptions.

After a while, motifs began to appear. There were numberless "giant this" and "giant that," and an even greater number of "part this animal, part that animal." So I collected the most common patterns, and wrote what I consider to be the real core of GURPS Fantasy Bestiary – the chapter on Mythological Motifs. Here is where I feel the best value of the book is. Any GM who takes this chapter to heart can effectively multiply the number of creatures available in the book – and in GURPS Bestiary! – a hundredfold. I'm proud of that chapter, and I hope somebody out there likes it.

The names of the creatures caused me a little bit of a problem for a while. Most fantasy campaigns have a European flavor, and meeting creatures with names like "nyah-gwaheh" or "wu kung ching" doesn't synch very well. In the end, I left the names alone. Anyone who doesn't like them can go back to a very ancient practice: calling them a "monster bear" and a "giant centipede," which is what those two monsters are.

I like this book, and I'm proud of it. I feel it is my best work, at least until the next one comes out! I hope you enjoy it, and may you stalk the nyah-gwaheh before it stalks you!

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