Thursday, 24 November 2016

Monster Worldviews

It’s funny how much what you read can affect how your thinking. I finished John Gardner’s Grendel this week, and like a Twilight reading teenage girl, I feel a slavish devotion to our anti-hero – #TeamGrendel! Grendel’s nihilistic, solipsistic, misanthropic asides - his utter contempt for the hubris of Hrothgar, the braggadocio of Beowulf - make him a charming poster-boy for any of my fellow English graduates who secretly knew Beowulf was a Mary Sue twat.

Returning to D&D, though, it is a novel rich in poetry (although Grendel might hate the term) and the worldview of a creature that is inimical to civilization and kings and heroism and narrative and almost everything else that could be characterised as ‘Lawful’ or ‘Good’ in the masturbatory cosmology Westerners thought of for their elf games.

Here’s some snippets:

“I understood the world was nothing: a mechanical chaos of brute enmity on which we stupidly impose our hopes and fears.”

And a conquered meadhall:

“None had been eaten. The watchdogs lay like dark wet stones, with their heads cut off, teeth bared. The fallen hall was a square of flames and acrid smoke and the people inside (none of them had been eaten either)) were burned black, small, like dwarfs turned dark and crisp.”

And at nationalism and narratives:

“ the howling and clapping and stomping of men gone mad on art. They would seize the oceans, the furthest stars, the deepest secret rivers in Hrothgar’s name! Men wept like children, children sat stunned. It went on and on, a fire more dread than any visible fire.”


“Theology does not thrive in the world of action and reaction, change: it grows on calm, like the scum on a stagnant pool..”

Your traditional D&D foe, even those Orcs who have their first literary mention in Beowulf, aren’t truly chaotic or inimical to civilization. Orc culture is normally based on raiding and pillage and combat – nothing separates an Orc from an Anglo-Saxon but perspective (“…that those wild Saxons, of accursed name, hated by God and men, should be admitted into the island, like wolves into folds…” – Gildas). Grendel thinks everything: from law, to poetry, to kingship, is a sort of enormous lie painted on a world that is truly about opposition (to each other, to the world). Grendel even takes a dim view of heroism as an act, a performance.

This is the perspective of a monster – Camus with teeth.  A monster that actively wants to oppose heroes and everything that stand for. This is chaotic – Grendel lurking at the rim of the world.

As I metaphorically closed the book on my Kindle, I immediately added to a mountain range of my game world a fecundity of Grendelvolk, waiting for heroes to oppose.

In contrast, I watched American Horror Story: Hotel around the same time. In the world of AHS, there is a persistent post-modern drive to humanise perspectives. In the initial few episodes, Countess Gaga is an immortal, ineffable monstrosity who rules the Hotel Cortez with the unthinking feline cruelty of a tigress. By the end of the season, she’s a sympathetic, lovestruck teenage, and has been metaphorically defanged. She ceases to be a monster and becomes another person to identify with.

Whilst most of my players enemies, rivals and allies are human-like beings with recognisable, relatable motivations…..I think a capital-‘M’ monster should be a monster. It is what you are not. It exists to oppose you. “Poor Grendel’s had an accident. I whisper. “So may you all.”

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