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.)
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.
- Five Type of Disastrous Reveals
- Why You Should Theme Your World
- What Writers Can Learn From the Roleplaying Concept of Flavor
- Subverting Expectations (podcast)
Happy writing and roleplaying!