Unknown Monsters

“The oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear, and the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown”, to quote Lovecraft. However, when it comes to translating his fiction into games, unknown monsters can be tricky to handle. In a roleplaying game, the players need to be able to make meaningful decisions, and for that, they need some information to give context to those decisions. The more they know, the less unknown there is. (One reason why classic monsters like vampires work well in rpgs – the players know the rules already, and you can present them as a part of a bigger mystery instead of making the investigation all about the monster. They no longer draw their power from fear of the unknown – it’s all about fear of what they might do with their known powers and hungers.)

Sometimes, getting more information about an unknown threat can be scarier. For example, if the characters are the crew of an isolated research base, and they find the mangled corpse of one of their co-workers outside on the ice, that’s scary – there’s a monster out there! However, if the characters then discover another corpse inside a locked room in the base, that’s even scarier – can the monster walk through walls? Is it a shapeshifter, now disguised as one of the crew? Is it in the air ducts?

The players need to discover the ‘rules’ of the unknown monster, and there’s an awkward dance here, especially if the monster can only be defeated by exploiting a particular trait, and especially in a one-shot or short adventure. You need to ensure the players find the information they need without making it obvious or contrived (nothing spoils atmosphere like having a really obvious LOOK, LOOK, HERE’S THE IMPORTANT BIT scene), while still keeping the monster mysterious. So, what are some elegant ways of getting information to the players, without making it seem like you’re setting up the pins with one hand and handing the players a bowling ball with the other?

(An aside – one key question to ask yourself is always, “what’s the characters’ goal?” If the characters can achieve their aims – break the family curse, escape the nightmarish town, discover the fate of their old friend – without having to defeat the monster outright, you can get away with revealing less about the monster. But if your campaign setup or scenario hook demands that the characters take an active role in investigating or thwarting the Mythos, they’re likely to press on to a final confrontation – and if you want to avoid that final confrontation from becoming a chase scene or a shootout, it’ll have to hinge on a meaningful decision by the players, which means giving information about the unknowable horror.)

  • GUMSHOE, of course, promises the players will always get the clues they need if they use their investigative abilities. Try to use multiple tangential clues to the nature of the monster, as opposed to one core revelation that spells out what must be done. Say, for example, the characters are up against a horror from the logos – a monster that manifests when its name is spoke aloud. Dropping lots of hints that connect to this – a corpse with its tongue torn out (Forensics), Occult references to the unspeakable one, a bunch of references to the Scottish play (Art History) – lets the players make that final intuitive leap.
  • In The Dunwich Horror, the Son of Yog-Sothoth can only be destroyed by a ritual. Lovecraft handles this by having the first Whately brother draw attention to the book containing the banishing ritual in an earlier scene. Have the players discover information about the monster while pursuing an apparently unrelated lead.
  • Pacing out the information also helps. The bigger the gap between the players discovering information about the monster, and actually encountering the monster, the better. If the players run into a Colour Out Of Space five minutes after encountering the local inventor with his shed full of high-voltage electrical equipment, then it’s obvious that the Keeper intends for them to use electromagnetic fields as a weapon against the otherwise invincible foe. However, if the players run into the inventor near the start of the adventure, and encounter the Colour much later, then it feels much more like the players cleverly calling back to an established bit of background colour. Lovecraft uses something like this technique in The Case of Charles Dexter Ward, where Doctor Willett discovers the dismissal formula long before he finally uses it to banish Joseph Curwen. (Of course, the scene where Dr. Willett randomly starts chanting spells out loud would be intolerable railroading in a tabletop game…)
  • Another approach is to undercut expectations. Say the players find out that there was a series of murders fifty years ago when a cult opened up the Box of the Shining Trapezohedron, and now there’s another set of identical murders. Clearly, someone’s taken the gem from the magic box, and the obvious solution to the scenario is to put the gem back in the box. Twist this by having the cult destroy the box before the players can return the gem. Now, the players have to come up with their own variation on that original solution by finding another way to bury the gem before the monster finds them…

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