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.