Excursions
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Excursions

Sensical Fantasy: Dealing With Monsters

Adventurers. Monsters. Adventurers killing monsters. Thus is the ground-work of of fantasy stories and games laid. But why the hell do people with war weapons go into the woods to do battle with beasties? And what kind of beasties can they battle with?

Part I: Scenarios

Consider that engaging in combat with monsters is usually not a first resort. And this comes down to our motivations for trying to kill or hurt monsters in the first place, and the situation we find them in.

When monsters are a kind of high-level nuisance for some settlement, the first line of defense is going to be lower in danger: trapping or poisoning.

This is going to place the monster trapper in high demand in those frontier-like parts of the realm infested with a perpetual monster supply. These doughty dudes will be a bit like a parochial ranger: knowledgeable up to a practical point in lore, able to track, identify, and stalk monsters — he will know what pits or snares to set, and what bait to prepare. It might be that wandering adventurers encounter this local figure first when they arrive on scene — because they’re the back-up when he encounters something he can’t deal with. Little villages won’t, of course, keep their own trapper; but the lord might have one who travels about as necessary.

The whole nuisance monster scenario is often what we imagine with bounties being offered, and innocents being saved; ideal for the do-gooding adventurer or simple mercenary.

Another monster-killing scenario is sport. Here, nobles try to prove their machismo by killing the biggest and baddest that nature has to offer. Poison and traps may be ruled out as too easy or low-class. This creates a good excuse to fight monsters, with blade or bow, and risk life and limb doing it. It does also place adventurers in a certain class — but that may be all to the realistic good.

Alternately, it might be culturally acceptable for busy lords to delegate their trophy-hunting to others, and mostly brag about what terrible monsters (used to) dwell in their lands. Thus enter the mercenary monster hunter, who is less concerned with extermination and more concerned with trophies (heads, claws, weird monster parts).

Travelers may also encounter monsters on their way to more important business, like destroying rings or getting crowned. Here the need to kill monsters is not very high: the goal is escape, facilitated perhaps by inflicting enough of a wound to make the monster pause and consider easier prey. Here there is no bounty that matters, and no head to claim. Avoidance of monsters is just as important as scaring them off after the fact. Thus, a ranger-type, who knows the terrain and local risks of encounter, would be invaluable — because in the real world, having constant “random encounters” with terrifying foes would be the last thing someone on a mission would want; leveling up is not a reason.

Finally, monsters may be a kind of natural resource, with bodies that contain useful medical or magical components, or fashionable pelts. The parallel is trappers in the American frontier, traipsing through the land, systematically extirpating whatever valuable prey appeared. This is a good scenario for stories set away from civilization: it gives a reason to venture into the wild and woolly woods, and to seek out danger. However, it still has a lot in common with the nuisance scenario: the goal is the death of the monster and being able to claim part of its corpse; engaging it in battle is not required or desired. Any monster that can be sussed out, tripped into a pit, or otherwise outsmarted is a far preferable target than a smart one who likes dueling — although perhaps the market for wonder-drug-ingredient elf ears is a great explanation for the human-elf wars.

Part II: The Qualities of Monsters

Monsters are more like animals than human-like foes. They move quickly and will overwhelm humans by jumping on them, pulling them down, and engaging in a flurry of vicious attacks. Monsters are frightening, in part because their attacks are so deadly: not because they “do lots of HP” but because they simply crush skulls. Therefore, we should think first of how people in real life deal with problematic animals, and second how people deal with problematic people. We can group monsters into a few types, and then think of the tactics and equipment needed.

Size brings strength and bulk, and nullifies skill with a sword in personal combat. A large monster will quickly kill whomever it can get close to; therefore, tactics are largely about killing it before this happens. If it cannot by trapped or poisoned, this means shooting it with heavy crossbows (or even arbalests), keeping it distant with pikes or spears, and, as a last resort, hacking at it with pole-weapons or axes.

None of these methods are likely to hold a large monster off for long, which means surprise and overwhelming numbers are key. Weapons that deliver heavy damage all at once, even if they can never be used again, are preferable: hence slow-to-reload ranged weapons and pole-arms that cannot be used in close quarters. The use of fire, traps, stakes, and other somewhat gimmicky tactics may buy valuable time too. These all require careful setup, planning, and surprise; which in turn requires scouting, knowing the enemy’s routines and behavior, and leadership to coordinate a number of men. Armor is not of great importance, since the enemy’s blows are so terrible; perhaps just padded gambesons and helmets.

We can even imagine an interesting application of the heavy lance, a weapon designed for one-use shock tactics. Unfortunately, a horse that will charge a monster may be hard to find, quick to die, and expensive to replace. Perhaps a fantastical horse alternative could fill that gap.

In the end, mercenary groups outfitted to hunt large monsters will have a number of semi-specialized men. Crossbow-men who also can bring up spears. Scout trackers. Trap-builders. Perhaps a mobile arbalest crew. Someone versed in poisons. Some doughty back-up men with axes are nice in a pinch. A leader. And lots of pack animals to carry gear. Small crews of this sort could work — say 5 men; but a bigger crew is safer.

Numerous Monsters

At the other end of the spectrum is the horde of weak but petty creatures that swarm and harass like flies: the imps, the demonic bats, the mutant rats. Hurting or killing these foes is easy; the challenge lies in killing enough of them. They are likely to surround and overwhelm, attacking from all angles.

All of this speaks to the need for moderate but all-encompassing armor, and for weapons that cut through unarmored flesh, like swords. We can imagine a warrior with heavy gambeson or coat-of-plates, with articulated gauntlets and very good helmet (despite whatever high cost); possibly some nice greaves to ward off low attacks. He will be armed with a sword in one hand, and in the other a small buckler, dagger, or torch — or nothing at all, so that he may grab crawling enemies off of his head This warrior wades into the fray, attracts attention, and kills as many as he can without getting pulled over — the “tank” in a sense. Of course, he needs back-up. Ranged weapons cannot kill enough enemies quickly enough, but could certainly be used. More important would be people using fire, horses, or other means to coral and control the hordes. This again is assuming their lair or burrow cannot be found and simply burned out or filled with poison bait.

A crew specialized in this kind of work would mostly entail some heavy fighters, with assistants and pack animals. But individual “horde-foes” could appear in a more generalized mercenary group — because when the trappers fail, someone needs to stop up the cave mouth long enough for an escape. (The anti-lair specialists may be critical regardless, because even when a hundred imps are killed, who knows what eggs lie waiting to hatch in the lair, promising to rebuild it in short order — someone has to fumigate the place or fill it in with lye.) Horses cannot be of much use per se, and may be easily hurt by many foes, but could be frightening. Some other fantasy companion animal could be very useful.

A hybrid approach is needed for monsters of about human size with high animal intelligence — the orc, the hobgoblin, and so on. Often, we expect these creatures to wear a little armor, use simple tools as weapons (rocks and clubs), and have group hunting behaviors or rudimentary tactics. They are more social than large monsters, and yet can be dealt with in small groups — but not hordes.

Because they are often tough and a bit vicious compared to man, these monsters are best handled at a distance or with significant protection. Wise hunters will use bows (or crossbows) to pick them off when possible, and use pole-arms or long swords (hand-and-a-half or two-handers) for in-close work. They will wear significant armor (as much as can be afforded), particularly if they don’t use a shield.

Because it is difficult to eliminate a whole group of enemies in one surprise attack, that tactic becomes less critical, though still useful. These monsters also tend to be smarter and less easy to control or scare off. Poison and traps are still worth a shot, then, but are less reliable. Actual combat becomes the standard approach.

There are many odd cases that don’t fit these molds, of course. Highly magical monsters with unique weaknesses and attacks will all require very special handling — we can imagine specialists who advise mercenary companies on dealing with certain kinds of these creatures.

Truly exotic enemies aside, there can also be many sorts of hybrids. For instance, moderately large animal-type monsters who don’t charge but instead square off against foes and use a spiked tail to attack — a little more like an armed human. Flying creatures would have to be dealt with a bit differently than those on the land. Truly tiny monster enemies, like demonic slugs, can’t really be treated as “foes” at all, but hazards or pests; no weapon will matter, but fire and poisons would.

The Upshot

Let’s stop pretending that monsters will engage our fantasy warriors in a fair fight, squaring off and trading blows (in a way even human combatants don’t do). Instead, let’s let monsters be monstrous; they should be stealthy, overwhelming, and generally annoying nuisances. To deal with them, our heroes must be less than valiant, using trickery and whatever other tools they have at their disposal.

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