Q&A

How Can I Ensure Reinvented Creatures Feel Different?

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So, this is from roleplaying games, but I feel it is relevant to wider fiction. I was looking through a bunch of small roleplaying games I got cheap, and found one whose reveal was that the fairly generic demons who were the main antagonists were actually extra-dimensional energy beings that fed on suffering and evil.

This, of course, raised the question as what precisely was the difference between “an extra-dimensional energy being that feeds on suffering and evil” and “a demon.” In the game the creatures still had supernatural powers, still tempted people to endless suffering, still possessed people – in short, apart from a vaguely more sci-fi description, they were just more generic fantasy demons.

I guess the question is, when reinventing “archetypal” creatures (and settings/characters/powers and so forth, as well) how do you make sure that your version is actually meaningfully different or unique, rather than just the same creature with a slightly different skin of paint?

(I guess there is also the related issue of how to avoid going too far the other way, and creating an entirely new creature with a now wholly vestigial name.)

Thank you!
Joe

Hi Joe,

Good question. This actually depends on how the creature is being used.

In this particular case, the change from demon to energy beings was for a reveal. For a reveal to feel significant, it has to make a difference to the plot somehow – or in the case of a game, the game’s mechanics. If it influences what characters do, it’s significant enough; if not, then no. So if a character learns the demons are the lost souls of innocents and is now reluctant to kill them, that’s a big enough difference. Or, if the new information reveals that the characters have been trying to defeat them the wrong way, and then they change tactics, it’s significant.

If you are worldbuilding, then a simple skin change is actually significant. Both written stories and games will sell better if they have a strongly themed, memorable world. To do that, you don’t want to introduce a fantasy demon to your space-opera setting, so calling them energy beings instead keeps your world in theme. However, it’s important to go all the way. I wouldn’t have any people in-world calling these monsters demons, and I would make sure any art of them doesn’t make them look like fantasy creatures; that is, unless I’m intentionally building a world with a fantasy-scifi blend.

When you’re using a classic creature and you want it to feel fresh, what you’re aiming for is a subversion of expectations about that creature. For instance, elves are traditionally everything good – beautiful, wise, long-lived, peaceful. Terry Pratchett subverted them by making his elves super evil and heartless. All their good traits were lies they created through the use of a magical glamour. If you want fresh goblins, you want to give them a trait that contradicts the stereotypes of them being generally lowly and mean creatures. Just keep enough traits to connect them to the goblins that people know, or else everyone will wonder why they are called goblins. For Terry Pratchett, the glamour magic explained why people thought of elves as wonderful. They were also still pointy-eared, etc.

Regardless of the medium, it’s always good for your changes from the original to have larger ramifications for the story and world. In case of a roleplaying system, having mechanics that reflect the difference would make it feel a lot more significant.

Further reading:

Happy writing and roleplaying!

Chris

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Comments

  1. roystgnr

    “For instance, elves are traditionally everything good – beautiful, wise, long-lived, peaceful. Terry Pratchett subverted them by making his elves super evil and heartless.”

    No, Terry Pratchett just mined different traditions. Elves in some folklore have always included whole cultures of dangerous killers. Try to avoid angering the Aos Sí or the Seelie Court, stay away from the Unseelie entirely, don’t step into any “fairy rings”, keep charms of cold iron in your house, watch out for “elf-shot” pains, and if you hear the cries of the Wild Hunt then just stay behind locked doors for the night.

  2. Michael Campbell

    I’m not really understanding the scope of the question.
    Is this re-skinning for a role playing game monster or re-skinning a traditional monster for a novel?

    Re-skinning an RPG monster is for the purpose of creating novelty for the players.
    “On the pirate island, live a primitive tribe of cannibals.” The GM grabs her monster manual and looks up Orcs from behind the GM’s screen, reads up the details and then tells the player about the primitive cannibals while jotting down the hit points based on the hit-die listed that she begins rolling.

    The trans-dimensional demon can’t be stopped with an exorcism any more than an exorcism will stop a rabid dog.
    But shattering the Einstein-Rosen Bridge will “pull the plug” on the trans-dimensional mojo.
    And suddenly the authoress has a plot idea leaping into her head.
    It’s about telling fun and and unique stories.

    One is done because the monster manual can get boring but it is in arm’s reach.
    And the other is done…umm…maybe…I guess…because the writer couldn’t leap to “trans-dimensional monster” right off the bat??? It’s a place holder until the monster’s motivational & ecological justifications can be organised on the page.

    • Michael Campbell

      Now that I think about it.
      I think the title sets up a question that isn’t actually asking in the body of the text.

  3. Michael Campbell

    “How Can I Ensure Reinvented Creatures Feel Different?”
    Should they?

    If Animated Scarecrows feel like Animated Skeletons that seem to have “clerical turning” replaced with “vulnerability:- fire”.
    Exactly how many players will actually complain?

  4. Michael Campbell

    A Darlek is just a Nazi in an upside-down dustbin.
    A Cyberman is just a Nazi in a robot costume.
    A Sontaran is just a Nazi with no neck.

    I don’t really mind.

    • Cay Reet

      Actually, the Daleks are nazis, but the Cypermen aren’t. Why?

      The Daleks destroy everything which is not ‘worthy’ of living – meaning everything not a Dalek (or even a Dalek who isn’t a perfect Dalek, see that stuttering one). That is pretty much the same kind of facism as the Nazis practiced it – killing or enslaving those they perceived as ‘beneath’ them.

      The Cybermen assimilate everyone, erasing their identity and personality and including them in a hive mind of sorts. That has nothing to do with the Nazi ideals of ‘higher’ and ‘lower’ races. The Nazis destroyed what wasn’t like them. The Cybermen take all necessary steps to make it like them. If anything, that would be a very extreme version of communism, so extreme that the individual is completely erased in favour of the whole.

      • Michael Campbell

        So, Josef Mengele’s experiments to change eye colour had nothing to do with assimilation!?!

        • Cay Reet

          No. The ‘blood’ (or, as he might put it today, the genes) was not Aryan. Perhaps he had hoped to give Aryan people even bluer eyes in the future, but those experiments weren’t meant to turn ‘lower’ races into ‘higher’ ones.

          And with Mengele, I wouldn’t put it past him to just experiment for the fun of it and to torture some ‘unworthy’ people.

          • Michael Campbell

            Benito Mussolini’s theory of fascism went like this:-
            In Roman times there were fascista who would go through the marketplace with big sticks beating people who got in the way of their rich employer.
            So he theorised that if his movement didn’t win local government elections, that they would just turn up with big sticks and beat the winners until the elected candidates ran off and then just declare that since they had control of the council building that therefore they had control of the council.

            This then is how one spots fascism and the Nazis were fascist.
            “Anybody who doesn’t do it our/my way, gets clobbered.” – Is the defining thought process of a fascist.

            So Cybermen (like the borg) are Nazis in robot costume.

          • Cay Reet

            The Nazis were, above all, into white/Aryan supremancy. Fascism happens on a much broader spectrum, so you could make the Cybermen fascists (but they’re not really fascists). Not Nazis, though.

            There also is a difference between ‘I’ll put everyone down who is not me (or my rich employer)’ and ‘I assimilate everyone into a hive.’ The hive as a such is a definite difference to fascism as we’ve seen it in the 1920s to 1940s and afterwards.

            The hive is bringing together different types of beings (as Cybermen or Borg) and either eradicating the differences (as the Cybermen do by completely rebuilding the humans they assimilate) or implementing them into the hive (as the Borg do, where you can still see the different species, but all are part of a hive mind without being individuals any longer).

            For both Cybermen and the Borg, the assimilation of new people is part of their kind’s progress. None of them grows the ‘regular’ way by biological reproduction. Fascists on the other hand have a strong ‘we against them’ stance which includes the ancestry in the ‘we.’ That went for the Italian fascists as much as for the German ones (and still goes on until today, wherever you look at fascist movements). Who is superior is not defined by intelligence or even gender, but by blood, by where they came from and where their parents and the parents of their parents came from.

            ‘We’ is always defined by common ancestry, which is the polar opposite of the assimilation process found in the Cybermen or the Borg. The Daleks, on the other hand, display that ‘only a true Dalek is a good Dalek’ on a very high level (even exterminating Daleks who show weaknesses). They have a strong ‘we against them’ approach to live and would never assimilate others.

      • SunlessNick

        While the Sontarans could be said to be aristocracy taken to the extreme, in the L’etat, c’est moi sense – the whole species replaced with clones of a single warlord.

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