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D&D General {Worldbuilding} Quest vs immersive fantasy and a non-zoo approach to D&D monsters

Mercurius

Legend
Quick note: This is meant to be a conversation about worldbuilding, so please keep the endless (and tedious, imo) arguments about canon out of it. This thread takes the assumption that D&D canon is just a starting point; a homebrewing DM mixes and matches to their desire. Meaning, worldbuilders unite!

To start, ever notice how almost every fantasy novel has a far more limited range of monsters than D&D? Take A Song of Ice and Fire, for instance. First, you have only a few races: humans, giants, Children of the Forest. For monsters, you have dragons, zombies, and the Others. Maybe there's more - I've only read the first book and am going on the tv series and memory. Either way, it is far, far more limited than D&D.

Or what about the Wheel of Time? You've basically got a dozen or so types of Shadowspawn (trollocs, myrddraal, draghkar, etc) and a handful of different animals like to'raken and a few others. For races, humans and Ogier. More diverse than GoT, but still far more limited than D&D.

This made me think about the aesthetics of a less "zoological" D&D setting and how it might play out in a campaign, or at least one in which there are a fewer number of common monsters, and most are exceedingly rare - perhaps remnants of a past age, or maybe "immigrants" from other planes that leak through. I suppose Dark Sun is the closest thing to a "limited palette" of creatures, although I can't remember how its various iterations handle monsters. I assume DM discretion, although probably with recommendations on which monsters to use (don't have any Dark Sun books handy).

So here are a few questions:
  1. Have you created a world with a far more limited diversity of creatures (both races and monsters) than the D&D zoo? What does it look like?
  2. If you were set the task of creating such a world, how might you do it? Say, up to about three or four races and a dozen or so monsters? What would be your "keeper monsters" and how would you approach choosing them, be it thematically or just for pure fun and/or utility? Obviously there are an infinite number of ways to do this, but it might be fun to brainstorm a bit.
  3. Bonus question: Do you have an in-setting explanation for the vast diversity of monsters (e.g. Horrors in Earthdawn) in your world, or is it "just how things are?" Meaning, for worldbuilding nerds like myself, how do you maintain "deep verisimilitude," if only in your own mind? (Presuming that your players accept the vast range of monsters without question, because it's D&D).
I will say that, for myself, given that D&D is, in the end, a game, and that if in conflict, fun trumps aesthetics*, I want access to the range of D&D monsters, but I like the idea of a thematic setting, one that limits the number of common/known monsters, even if all monsters are available. Default D&D assumes a zoological world, one in which there are literally hundreds--if not thousands--of different monsters and races. Nothing wrong with that, but it creates a certain "gamey vibe." I'm thinking about different ways that one might create a more atmospheric and thematic approach, while still being open-ended about using whatever monsters one so desires.

(*Brief aside: This is not to say that fun and aesthetics must be in conflict, but I do find myself appreciating more tightly thematic settings aesthetically more than kitchen sink ones, while usually end up veering towards kitchen sink for actual game play).

To go a bit further with this, I've always enjoyed fantasy novels in which the normalcy of a relatively mundane fantasy world is "invaded" by some kind of supernatural forces, the proverbial "creatures and Dark One from legend." You know, the classic quest fantasy. It is, of course, somewhat contrived, because when you read a fantasy novel you expect the fantastical, but skilled authors will often start the reader in a relatively mundane environment, and then gradually reveal the wonders and weirdness of the world (Hey, that would be a great RPG name: Wonders and Weirdness). So you start in the Shire and then gradually go to more fantastical places. Or Two Rivers, Winterfell, Faldor's Farm, Gont, Caer Dallben, etc.

D&D generally takes a different approach, that of "immersion" - meaning, the PCs are already immersed in the weirdness. In fantasy, you see this in books like Steven Erikson's Malazan Book of the Fallen, where the story starts in median res, and there's no gradual revelation of the weirdness of the world (although, truth be told, there is - it is just that the reader's perspective starts with immersion, and doesn't have the separation that the classic quest fantasy does).

(As another aside, fantasy historian Farrah Mendlesohn wrote a book, Rhetorics of Fantasy, with a taxonomy of fantasy based upon how the fantastical enters the story: portal/quest, immersive, intrusive, and liminal. It is a fascinating book and has influenced my inquiry here).

Neither approach is right or wrong, they just lend themselves to different tones and atmosphere. So what I'm fundamentally curious about, and the point of this thread, is to explore ways to create a more "quest vibe" to a D&D campaign, and in particular, a more limited use of monsters, and how that relates to questions regarding quest vs. immersion, thematic vs. kitchen sink, and underlying reasons for the presence of a diversity of fantastical creatures that different DMs and "deep worldbuilders" employ.
 

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loverdrive

Makin' cool stuff (She/Her)
I generally pull out monsters that highlight the central struggle of the game. If I'm running a game about fighting undead, then I'll probably won't care about trolls or giants or whatever (unless they are turned to zombies!). With the available races, I go the opposite route -- someone wants to play an elf? Puff! Now there are elves.

I build the world around the PCs and leave huge blanks to fill in latter. I've tried a couple of times to make "a living breathing world" but every time that felt like shooting myself in the foot.
 

el-remmen

Moderator Emeritus
While I have never limited the "monster palette" to the degree you suggest here, I have always approached homebrewing with understanding of not assuming all D&D monsters are present in the world and making a short list of monsters that definitely don't based on the world history or theme.

In my current setting, the so-called "Free Folk" (humans, dwarves, gnomes, halflings, elves) have committed centuries long genocides in the distant pasts, meaning most "humanoid" peoples are either totally wiped out or in small isolated communities that really fear the so-called "civilized world" (as the freefolk see it - in reality they have/had their own civilizations) and I have not decided fully which ones might still be encountered and how these individual communities might react to adventurers stumbling upon them. This allows some flexibility.

In other cases I do some fundamental change to the backstory or origins of some monsters: In Aquerra manticores were the misshapen descendants of a civilization of psionicists who worked to change their forms to survive a cataclysm. Thus every manticore was 1. unique (save for their look, which they shared save for some details), and 2. Psionic.
 

Oofta

Title? I don't need no stinkin' title.
I generally have a fairly limited set of monsters in my campaigns for specific regions. Sometimes that means customizing "boss" versions or just changing the fluff so I kind of use a troll variation for my uber-werewolves who are the Blessed of Fenris.

When I do introduce other monsters, they are frequently from another realm. There are places in my world where the veil is thin between the real world and the Shadowfell or Feywild for example. In other cases there's a rift to a specific dimension letting monsters through or someone summoned some eldritch horror by accident.

But for the most part? Maybe two monstrous humanoid types in the area. The occasional monstrous beast now and then. So one semi-arid region the monstrous humanoids are gnolls and hobgoblins. Giant scorpions and what-not are found here and there on the edges of civilization. Some of the biggest threats were half-dragons created for a war (I'll have to think what happens to them if I set another campaign there).

In another campaign, there's a rift that has been opened that's been allowing in fiendish creatures along with aberrations that come from a different realm but are kind of hitching a ride on the rift. The real struggle is the fiends vs aberrations with the region being a proxy battle ground for the time being.

So I try to decide on appropriate opponents for a region, both monstrous and humanoid. A lot of my opponents are human(ish), since I do a fair amount of city campaigns. Then as the OP stated I have some other force invading and causing issues.

If I want variety I can always send the PCs to a different region or realm. The feywild and shadowfell are relatively easy to access and have all sorts of fun things you can toss in.
 

Dausuul

Legend
This all really goes back to the "kitchen sink" vs. "curated world" question. Being firmly on the "curated world" side, I don't assume that all monsters are present in the setting, but I also don't make an exhaustive list of which monsters are in and which are out. Rather, I choose monsters to evoke a particular theme for a given adventure/dungeon, and pick my themes to line up with the broader world.

For example, if I wanted a dungeon with a Norse theme, I'd pick monsters to evoke that feel: Winter wolves, flocks of ravens, dire bears, wights (draugr), maybe some trolls or giants. I wouldn't put in a hydra or a gorgon.

Some monsters do come with more baggage than others. A dire bear can be dropped in whenever it seems appropriate; it doesn't change the world to know that there are dire bears in one corner of it. Mind flayers, on the other hand, require some heavy thinking. Mind flayers plot and manipulate on a grand scale, so if my world has them in it anywhere, I have to consider what they are up to.

In general, I am much more cautious about adding intelligent, organized monsters than "beast in a dungeon" monsters.
 

Better use quantic concept to make world building.
What´s players haven’t heard about is undecided.
Dont be shy to rewrite any monster lore, including gods and planes, I have done it all the time when I was dm.
 

Stormonu

Legend
I would not want to attempt a D&D game without the menagarie. The odd, bizarre and strange non-human occupants make it more enjoyable. Playing without a variety of monsters would, to me, be akin to playing without magic in the game.
 

Istbor

Dances with Gnolls
Quick note: This is meant to be a conversation about worldbuilding, so please keep the endless (and tedious, imo) arguments about canon out of it. This thread takes the assumption that D&D canon is just a starting point; a homebrewing DM mixes and matches to their desire. Meaning, worldbuilders unite!

To start, ever notice how almost every fantasy novel has a far more limited range of monsters than D&D? Take A Song of Ice and Fire, for instance. First, you have only a few races: humans, giants, Children of the Forest. For monsters, you have dragons, zombies, and the Others. Maybe there's more - I've only read the first book and am going on the tv series and memory. Either way, it is far, far more limited than D&D.

So here are a few questions:
  1. Have you created a world with a far more limited diversity of creatures (both races and monsters) than the D&D zoo? What does it look like?
  2. If you were set the task of creating such a world, how might you do it? Say, up to about three or four races and a dozen or so monsters? What would be your "keeper monsters" and how would you approach choosing them, be it thematically or just for pure fun and/or utility? Obviously there are an infinite number of ways to do this, but it might be fun to brainstorm a bit.
  3. Bonus question: Do you have an in-setting explanation for the vast diversity of monsters (e.g. Horrors in Earthdawn) in your world, or is it "just how things are?" Meaning, for worldbuilding nerds like myself, how do you maintain "deep verisimilitude," if only in your own mind? (Presuming that your players accept the vast range of monsters without question, because it's D&D).

Well, firstly. I think for books, you have to have a more limited cast of races and monsters. Don't want to drown readers in too much stuff. But yeah, I get it sometimes when there is just too much stuff. My favorite example of my displeasure of this is actually Final Fantasy IX. There were all sorts of weird races and animal people. Too many. It lost something for me. To that point, WoW also does that a bit, with so many sentient species in a limited space. Makes it harder to believe. At least for me. (and I still love Warcraft despite this, so there is still room for such worlds)

But to your point...

1. I have created worlds with limited diversity of creatures. Both for available races, and monstrous baddies.

2. I'll use my most recent as an example. There are 8 races in this world. Human, Dwarf, Elf, Gnome, Orc, Dragonborn, Kobold, Eskiiri (that last one is homemade) While there are some monsters involved, like my own twist on goblins and ogres, there are a darker/twisted or corrupted side to each of the playable races as well. Not to mention undead versions, and some homemade critters. It is still pretty limited in cast.

How I determine "keeper" monsters is entirely up to the story I want to tell, and the environments available. I usually try to fit whatever I bring into the world thematically correct. As well as some rule of cool. Like... if there is going to be cosmic horror like stuff, there will be mindflayers and abominations. If this is more like my example above, I am going to have corrupted versions of the playable races and wildlife at the forefront of monsters encountered. I'll usually save any monsters that I end up just thinking are cool, and didn't originally think of a place for, as more legendary, rare, forgotten. Monsters that only the oldest stories tell of. Seen only because of the remote places the players are exploring, or due to happenings in the campaign thus far.


3. I would say... it depends. Some things are so ubiquitous that I just say, this is the way things are. However, I totally like in-setting explanations. Again, pointing to the campaign above, sudden and destructive storms of change first created these corrupt versions of the races, and through time they have grown. Either through additional events and storms or through the natural coarse of beings doing what beings do. I would say some players really enjoy that immersion, but I mostly like it as it makes things easier for myself. I already have answers to random questions players may ask.
 

Xeviat

Hero
My own setting has a semi-limited bestiary, but only in so much as I don't assume everything in D&D is present. But, one change I have done differently is drawn a line between monsters and animals. Griffins, hippogriffs, drakes, owlbears, and lots of other classic monsters are just a natural part of the ecology. Technically, even if I might use the statblocks for wolves and bears and such, no real world animals are in my setting aside from humans, and even then my humans are probably different somehow I don't know (there's magic, thats different).
 

I have done a more limited setting, but usually I only do those for single campaigns, rather than ongoing games. When I've done so, I've usually limited races to 2-3. Monsters have been more diverse than you've suggested, but in these campaigns I normally limit them to a type and/or environment. These types of campaigns are limited in scope, devoted to a single quest/goal/enemy. I've done an Against the Giants type campaign, as well as an undead focused campaign against a necromancer lich. I've also done an all human campaign where the only "monsters" were normal animals.

As for normal justification, I don't think one is necessary. The real world has a huge diversity of creatures, and one with magical influences and at least semi-active deities could easily create and support such a biome. Some I've added some additional aspects to, such as aberrations being normal creatures corrupted by the elder gods of the far realm (i.e. Lovecraftian cosmic horror), but those are to fill a specific niche I want.
 

cbwjm

Hero
I did create a rough setting idea a long time ago that I never got around to running so I never thought about monsters that would be in it. It was a tribal society of humans, limiting the player race choice to human only. As they venture out from their homeland they'd likely find a few more races, halflings were already known and traded with.

I only know for sure that beasts would be in the game, but I'd also keep at the very least wyverns (I like them as a low to mid level threat, don't know why) and other monstrous creatures might also exist, perhaps as unique creatures like the hydra or Nemean lion. It might not be a setting for high level play so I'm not sure what else I'd really throw in, probably beastmen (orcs, hobgoblins, bugbears, etc) as some sort of opposition.

Another setting I created had humans migrating in from the south, invading the lands of the elves who retreated to their forests while leaving the plains for the humans. In the northern mountains, dwarves started to expand and ran into a burgeoning goblin/hobgoblin empire (hobgoblins being an evolved version of goblins altered by a shaman who found a source of power). Dragons were individuals and ancient, you would be unlikely to find anything other than an ancient dragon.

This limited the player races to elves, dwarves, half-elves, and humans. Goblins and hobgoblins were an enemy empire trying to expand into the territory of the humans kingdoms. There were no orcs (and therefore, no half-orcs), gnomes, halflings, or dragonborn available in the setting as they flat-out didn't exist. Still no idea of what creatures I'd have in the game though.

Normally, I come up with what's in a setting as I need them. My current game I know there was a great war between giants, dragons, and elementals so I've kept in any creatures/races that are related to the three of them.
 

Tonguez

A suffusion of yellow
Otyugh are a must have :)

While I don’t outright limit my pallette I do like the Birthright approach of Monsters being unique creatures and not part of a species - ie in Birthright there is only one Gorgon, one Kraken, one Hag etc. Moreover the Gorgon was a human who was changed by Divine magic or in 3.5e terms he acquired the Awnshegh Template and lots of Fighter levels to create a unique challenge.

Personally I tend to limit my races to Gnomes, Fae, Goblins, Humans, Variant Humans* and Half-Giants/Goliaths

*Half-Elfs are fae-touched Human variants and Half-Orcs are a human variant too (even if the setting has no Orcs). I’d also allow a unique tiefling if the player gave me a good story.

Using Fae and Spirits allows for extra unique monsters and I also use elemental traits freely.

I also tend to use a lot of pallette swaps so for instance the Gryffon and the Owlbear are both the same species but described as Raptors (Deinonychus)
 

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