Guillermo Del Toro On Monster Design

I watched a cool show from the El Rey network called The Director's Chair.  I've watched the first few episodes so far and I picked up a lot of ideas and inspiration. Rodriguez and Del Toro stalked down the dark alley of remembrance to uncover Del Toro's early film making experiences and what he learned. They discuss his approach to movie making, when and why Del Toro said “No” to studio executives, favorite movies and directors and some questions posed by other directors.

What impresses me about the guy is that he is so methodical and committed. He has his hands in every part of the film and even though he hires skilled designers and artists to do the work he still closely supervises every part of the film. If you've never seen his sketchbooks, Del Toro has some drawing and design chops in addition to screen writing and directing. He digs in deep. One thing that he makes clear in the interview; He has a vision and he's going to make that vision or he will go do something else.

Del Toro thinks hard about monsters. Perhaps more than any other element of his films, Del Toro is focused on every detail of the monsters; what they look like, how they are presented, what they want, how they drive the story forward. His ideas about monsters are very game-able. Here are a few take aways.

  • You must avoid cliché.
  • Follow the Harryhausen rule: There needs to be a majesty and beauty to the monster in repose.
  • More important than what you include in the monster design is what you leave out of the monster design.

Avoiding cliché is kind of what the more recent DIY D&D scene has been all about. There isn't a lot to disagree with there. That doesn't mean you can't have orcs in your dungeon but they shouldn't be cliché orcs. There needs to be something about them that makes them interesting, different and contrasting to the approach others have used.

The Harryhausen rule is interesting. Movie monsters need a sort of majesty. That may be an aesthetic the DM needs to pull out every now and again. In OD&D, dragons were designed as more of a common problem to overcome. Some games, like Earthdawn, have dragons as majestic and almost godlike beings. I think we can see the influence of Del Toro on the way Smaug was designed for The Hobbit films. He is terrifying, even when he's just lounging around on his big pile of loot. Smaug's mere presence in the mountain pisses off the dwarves and freaks out the locals. He doesn't have to be flying around and scorching everything to be scary.

I don't think the Harryhausen rule can be a direct steal into gaming. RPG's are a different medium and have different requirements and different strengths. The presence of a monster provides information about the setting. Not every monster should be majestic, some may be more loathsome if what you are trying to do is squick the players.

The other piece of thinking about what to leave out as much as you think about what you leave in is an important point. I think a lot of designers and DM's have problems with putting too much into their monsters. As an exercise, think of a monster that is a threat to the PC's but not as a combat monster but as a threat in some other way.  Del Toro had this to say about monster design in a 2011 New Yorker interview, "Defining silhouettes is the first step in good monster design, he said. “Then you start playing with movement. The next element of design is color. And then finally—finally—comes detail. A lot of people go the other way, and just pile up a lot of detail.”"  

Check it out. Cool show. Good episode.  The interview Rodriguez did with John Carpenter, also is worth your time. 

D12 Stupid Reasons To Join The Chaos Cult

Chaos cultists are a funny bunch. They wear strange robes. They hang out in dank terrible places and summon nameless horrors from beyond time and space. Why would someone want to do that? Is the health insurance in the Chaos business good? Do they pay well? 


Have a d12 table of stupid reasons why the chaos cultist joined the cult.

  1. Stygian Lotus. The best.
  2. The cultists are fighting against The Man and The Man is a dick.
  3. Orgies.
  4. Physical deformity that makes him a pariah in polite society.
  5. He’s crazy to begin with and fits right in.
  6. Magical mutation(s) that freak out normal people.
  7. Degenerate gambler hiding out from creditors and got sucked in.
  8. The only group of people who will accept him because he’s a jerk.
  9. There’s this really cute girl/boy in the cult that he/she wants to impress.
  10. Their only chance to be someone big and important.
  11. Burn it. Burn it all.
  12. Wait? What? I’m in a cult? 

The Improv-Prep Balace

Improvisation is a basic DMing skill. Players go off the map, conceive devious work arounds or simply ignore adventure hooks. Sometimes life happens, you have no prep time and heavy improv is the only way a game is going to happen at all. It is a skill you should cultivate. That said, some DM’s think that improv is a reasonable replacement for effective preparation. Consider that relying on improv instead of preparation is an error as a DM. Most improv could do with a rewrite. Improvisation, even from skilled and experienced DM’s, is going to be fair to middling most of the time. You aren’t always going to come up with something compelling when you have to do it on the spot. That is the real problem with over reliance on improvisation as a DM. 

In most creative arts, there is a lot preparation and lot of work that the people who eventually experience the art never see. In film, a screen play may take a year or more for a writer to complete. A novel will see several drafts before its publisher accepts it. Musicians, noodle around for hours and hours to write a song that lasts three minutes. I don’t think it is unreasonable for a DM to write and revise an encounter a few times before it sees light at the table. That editing can be the difference between an OK encounter and a great encounter. Your first instinct may be a good one but it is difficult for even the most creative DM to nail it off the cuff. 

 A lot of the so called story games are heavy on improvisation. There is a basic set up of where the game starts, an aesthetic or genre the game takes place in but nothing more. I’ve played some of these games with designers who are the darlings of the improv narrative focused games world. They play and think about these games all the time. It is their bread and butter. Even then, what I found is that the goal of a “satisfying narrative” often falls flat. The games were enjoyable but felt like if the GM had more time to consider other potential problems for the players to solve, it would have been the difference between good and great.

That doesn’t mean you need to write up whats on every street and the family tree of every NPC in the city. Having some knowledge of what the villains and monsters want, what their abilities and resources are, where players can get the usual sorts of things that player’s want and the NPC’s who can provide those resources is a worth while degree of preparation. Add some random tables and riffing off of the ideas the players throw out and you’ve got a game.

There is a balance point. If you like to write up detailed histories of your setting and NPC’s, do that because you like to do it but don’t expect that all of it will be useful or interesting at the table. Players find thirty minute lectures about the goblin wars to be tedious. Most players blow off long backstory homework assignments between games. No one wants to watch you dig through your binder trying to find the complete inventory of the hardware store. Prepare your settings and adventures, consider what is necessary at the table, make it easily accessible. If you have the time before you play, come back and reconsider the work you’ve done and revise it. You may have a better idea in the shower and change a few things before game time. If you do little or no prep and fly by the seat of your pants, you are going to miss opportunities to create some material that your players will remember for a long time to come.