Posts Tagged ‘Monsters’

Well, for the benefit of anyone following along, I ran my first session of Numenera last week, and it seemed to go pretty well, considering that at least a couple of the players had a slightly shaky grasp of the rules (going from d20 to Cypher will do that, I suppose) and my audio connection wasn’t working, meaning they could all talk to each other but I could only communicate with them via typing. Hey ho. We had a good time, anyway, which is surely the only thing that matters. It just confirmed to me that the rules of an RPG are just a means to an end: I’m increasingly tending towards a sort of principle of minimum sufficient complexity to properly realise the setting, and no more. (Another meditation on games design theory looms. As usual, I digress.)

As I said when I was writing about the core rules last week, Numenera looks almost deceptively rules-light, but the getting the tone of the stories to the right level of evocative weirdness is still quite tricky. Given how easy it is to cook up your own creatures for the game (pick a number from 1 to 10 – or, more sensibly, roll 1d6+1 – and then tweak to taste) The Ninth World Bestiary might look like a fairly unnecessary purchase, from a rules point of view. It probably is, but in terms of the setting it is a genuinely remarkable resource.


On the face of it it looks like a pretty standard RPG sourcebook or monster manual, albeit one realised to MCG’s soaringly high standards of artwork and general production competence. There’s a nice introduction crediting inspirations (most of the collected works of Dougal Dixon are mentioned, but not After Man, oddly enough), then an expanded section on creature design, and then a piece on the ecology of the Ninth World and very brief listings of common mounts, beasts of burden, and other domesticated beasties.

The monster manual resemblance hits a definite peak with the appearance of two pages of random encounter charts, broken down by terrain type. Fun though these are, I sort of wonder what they’re doing here, as they do feel like they’d be more at home in a sandbox-procedural style game than a narrative-based one like Numenera is supposed to be – creature ratings aren’t listed here, and don’t seem to have been a consideration, so I can imagine an unwitting first-time GM rolling up a dark fathom (an implacable humanoid engine of utter obliteration with a black hole (literally) where its insides should be) for a random encounter and accidentally TPKing the whole group. Still, I can’t pass by a random table without wanting to rattle some dice at it, so this is just a time-sink rather than a waste of space.

Then we are on to the creatures themselves, which are divided into three sections:  general creatures, generic NPCs, and specific individuals. There are over 130 all told, mostly of the first type, and all very much of a piece with the general setting.

To return to my frequent theme of ‘reasons why I have issues with D&D/Pathfinder’, I used to have difficulty getting my head round a world where people spend two hours walking through villages and farmland surrounded by very mundane sheep, horses, dogs, crows, and geese, then wander a short distance into the woods and find themselves beset by six-legged tentacle panthers with magical powers. Shouldn’t the magical nature of the setting have an impact on every living thing in it? Shouldn’t all the fruit trees and farm animals be a bit peculiar too?

Well, The Ninth World Bestiary does a pretty good job of giving a flavour of what it would be like to live in a world where every creature is more than a bit weird. Flipping open the book at random, I find myself looking at the entry for the odlark, a creature which resembles a maroon centipede-budgerigar hybrid, has telekinetic powers, and (apparently) ‘enjoys discussing philosophy, politics, and religion’, when it isn’t ‘culturing organic machinery’. (The odlark is comparatively mundane compared to the truly freakish thing from the opposite page, pictured below.)


As you can perhaps see, this isn’t just a collection of things for PCs to hack to pieces (though there are plenty of those, too) – along with the odlarks, the book also features calyptors (buffalo-like herd animals which usually produce music but have other acoustic powers), valma (flying purple tetrahedrons that want to be characters’ best friend but turn vicious if snubbed) and shanu (tiny herbivores that imprint on another creature and buff its abilities).

These sort of creatures are a godsend for anyone not really wanting to run Numenera as another exercise in Murder Vagrancy: and especially useful are sections for each creature indicating its usual motive and how a group might interact with it. Now, of course, there are plenty of things in this book for which the listed motive is ‘hungers for flesh’, and things which are primarily there to be fought make up a fair proportion of the book – but even these are a very varied bunch, in terms of habitat, power level, nature (there are abhumans, animalistic predators, automata, extra-dimensional creatures, and more besides), and special powers.

Pretty much every Numenera creature has some sort of gimmick even beyond its (usually) freakish appearance – even the animals are really animals with super-powers: virtually everything can turn invisible, or release paralysing spines, or pass through solid matter, or morph into a copy of you (probably by eating your face first). This has certainly encouraged me to make the creatures I create for my own games a bit more distinctive and unpredictable.

It’s slightly ironic that this book should be so useful in terms of inspiring players’ own creativity, when the sheer quantity of creatures and ideas within means you could probably play for a very long time using just the beasties here and the ones from the core rulebook. It really is inspirational stuff, not least because of the artwork (the vast majority of creatures get a picture, usually full-colour) and the quality of the actual writing. Apart from at the start of the book, most of the background descriptions and game detail are written from an in-universe point of view, although very rarely a subtly tongue-in-cheek note creeps in (the entry for titanothaurs, a class of destructive gargantuan creatures clearly inspired by Japanese kaiju movies, notes their remarkable talent for hiding after a rampage, and lists their habitat as ‘usually near communities containing many high structures’).

The Ninth World Bestiary makes a remarkable success of combining the venerable and well-loved RPG bestiary tradition with being a brilliant resource for the specific game it was created to support. And, I can’t say this too often, it’s a gorgeously produced book even just as a book: I’ve owned my copy for a couple of months and I can still spend ages browsing through it (and seemingly finding new monsters in it every time, which is not-inappropriately odd). Even so, I suspect anyone reading this book for any length of time will find the urge to play Numenera itself very hard to ignore.

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Every once in a while a movie comes along where the actual story seems to get almost overshadowed by the story-behind-the-story: the ‘making of’ is rather more unusual than the plot. Normally these are big-budget, studio productions: it happens a lot with Jim Cameron movies, simply because of their scale and technical innovation, it happened with Lord of the Rings because the shoot was an epic in its own right (the same with Apocalypse Now), and there seems to me to be an attempt in progress to do the same with the Tron sequel on the strength of its CGI-rejuvenation of Jeff Bridges (presented as something wholly new and groundbreaking despite the fact that this sort of thing has been happening for nearly five years on a smaller scale).

At the low-budget end of the scale we have The Blair Witch Project (a film I haven’t seen since it came out, partly because I suspect it won’t be as scary as I remember, partly because I’m afraid it will) and now Monsters, written, directed, and just-about-everything-elsed by Gareth Edwards (a change of pace after all those appearances as scrum-half for Wales, but it’s nice to see him trying something new). The story – rapidly assuming the status of legend – behind this film is that Edwards, the two lead actors, and a handful of others toured Mexico and Central America in a van, basically filming whatever they saw, then came home and somehow edited a movie out of the footage. So far, so experimental, but what makes Monsters unusual is that this isn’t some indie relationship drama but a piece of genuine epic SF.

Monsters has drawn a lot of comparisons with things like Cloverfield and Skyline. It is the story of photo-journalist Kaulder (Scoot McNairy), who’s ordered to escort his boss’s daughter Sam (Whitney Able – who, if Wikipedia is to be believed, is about fifteen years older than she looks) home to the USA from Mexico. The only problem with this is that, since an accident with a space probe some years before, the north of the country has been quarantined. It is now home to gigantic molluscine creatures who the armed forces of Mexico and the States are fighting a desperate (and losing) battle to contain – and, unfortunately, it looks like going through this area is the only way for Kaulder to complete his mission…

Well, like Cloverfield this could be said to be a new take on the monster movie genre, and like Skyline it’s a low-budget movie that still manages to incorporate first-rate special effects. Unlike either of them, however, it exudes intelligence and atmosphere throughout. Oddly, there’s a very real sense in which Monsters is not really a monster movie. The creatures themselves get very little direct screen time (when they do eventually appear, they are stunning) and the film is much more about the way the world has changed since their appearance.

The world of Monsters is utterly convincing and in many ways strangely familiar: one can imagine life going on as normal throughout most of the world, with occasional mentions of the situation buried deep inside news bulletins as people just get on with their lives. Edwards inserts fake news bulletins, sign-posts, and other things throughout, most of which the two leads pretty much ignore. This is a road movie, in an odd way, and having travelled a bit in various parts of the developing world, the details of the journey here gave me some smiles of recognition. The naturalistic feel given to an ostensibly very strange situation reminded me very much of the opening sections of 28 Days Later…, which I would say is the film this really reminded me of most.

Can you tell what it is yet?

At the heart of the film is the relationship between Kaulder and Sam. Like everything else it’s rather understated and left to the audience to judge for themselves, most of the time at least. But there is an obvious chemistry between the two who apparently have since got hitched (no doubt Gareth Edwards officiated at the ceremony, took the photos and made the wedding-cake).

I fear this is turning into a list of the things Monsters is and isn’t: it’s not a monster movie, it’s not action-packed, it’s thoughtful and moving and convincing… bleah. In an odd way it covers so many bases it transcends the idea of genre entirely. It’s a genuine one-off (or so one hopes – I hope Edwards retained the sequel rights) but a superbly accomplished one. The legend of the making of Monsters is a remarkable story in its own right, but that shouldn’t distract one too much from the one on the screen: a unique and rather beautiful movie that’s not quite like anything I’ve ever seen before. Quite possibly the best film of the year.

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