This is RPG-ology #16: Creatures, for March 2019.
In seeking a topic for this month, I kept coming back to one covered in Game Ideas Unlimited, August 3rd, 2001, which discussed envisioning and describing fantastic creatures. I thought of rewriting the idea for this column, but as I reviewed it I was more and more persuaded that I couldn’t improve on the original. Thus I offer here a republication of
Game Ideas Unlimited:
Empiricist philosopher David Hume espoused the opinion that we can’t imagine anything we’ve never experienced.
To support his position, he adduced evidence from the descriptions of mythical creatures. The Gryphon, for instance, has the body and legs of a lion with the head and wings of an eagle. Pegasus similarly is just a horse with bird wings attached. This is a small that, that a large this. Even the dragon proved to be nothing other than a giant lizard or snake with the wings of a bird or bat.
He did concede one point: he thought it might be possible to imagine a color that was a shade between two other colors.
I don’t want to suggest that I’m smarter than David Hume; let’s say I had the advantage of a century of technological advances. It seemed to me almost immediately that that exception was a crack in the wall which would ultimately admit the flood. If I might be able to imagine a color I had not seen between two I had, could I not also imagine a sound, a timbre, no instrument had produced? That was very much what Robert Moog had made possible with his synthesizer: the ability to blend a bit of this and that and produce a sound that matched what was in my mind. For that matter, could I not imagine a shape somewhere between any shapes I’d seen? And Hume’s notion goes from fraying at the edges to falling apart. It starts to seem that we can imagine anything. Hume was mistaken.
But he does seem to have a point about those mythic beasts. The sphinx is a lion with the face of a man. The Minotaur puts a bull’s head on a man’s body. The centaur is half man, half horse, and his cousin the satyr is half man, half goat. We have a winged snake in the couatl. Harpies are bird-women, mermaids fish-women. The chimera combines half a dozen animals into one, and we could find perhaps scores of such examples. And if we don’t do combinations we do size. We have giant insects (especially ants), giant people (and little people), giant worms, giant snakes, giant lizards, giant birds—the bulk of our mythic creatures have always been the familiar with a twist that is also familiar. Sure, in the last century we created a lot of images of creatures that are very different; but our ancestors seem to have had trouble with this. Is it that we are somehow more creative than they? Or is there something else?
I would suggest it is something else. It is not our imagination that is or ever has been limited. It is our communication. To turn a phrase rather awkwardly on its head, a thousand words cannot truly replace a picture. The beasts of mythology which are described to us as a bit of this and a bit of that are, in a word, described to us. Homer and Plato and the ancient authors who either devised or reported these beasts didn’t draw pictures with lines, but with words. It is the words which have carried the images through the millennia; and the images are limited by those words.
If you’re not sure what kind of limitation this is, try to describe a giraffe without assuming your hearer has ever seen one. It looks something like a horse, doesn’t it? But it has a very long neck, maybe like an ostrich or emu (those won’t do—someone who hasn’t seen a giraffe probably hasn’t seen an ostrich, either). Let’s say it has the neck of a snake; that’s the closest I can find. So we have a beast that’s part horse, but with the neck of a snake connecting the body to the head. Also, it has horns. What kind of horns? Well, they certainly don’t look like deer or antelope or cow; the closest thing might be goat. In fact, there’s probably something very goat-like about the entire head. So it’s a horse with the neck of a snake and the head and horns of a goat. And what about those legs? They’re like horse legs, but not quite. They’re too long in proportion to the body. There’s almost something insectoid about them, like a mantis or something. That’s not right, either. But we still have more to do. It has a mane, so our snake neck has a horse mane. That tail is more like a lion’s than a horse’s, if I’m remembering it correctly–narrow and furred, with a tuft of hair at the tip. And what about those spots? You can say spots, but do you mean cheetah spots, or leopard spots, or turtle spots? Probably lizard spots are most like it–the giraffe has the skin of a spotted lizard.
See the problem? If you drew what I just described, it would not look remotely like a giraffe. It would look more like—well, more like one of those mythic beasts that are put together from the pieces of other creatures.
And if you think the giraffe was tough, try describing a mastodon without ever mentioning an elephant.
So where are we going with this? Am I suggesting that you not invent weird and wonderful creatures for your worlds if you lack the artistic talents of H. R. Giger? Goodness, no. I invented a small menagerie of original creatures for Tristan’s Labyrinth, and I couldn’t draw any one of them—and the artist renderings of them never quite matched the image in my mind. But that wasn’t what was important. What mattered was that I was able to communicate something alien to my players, to convey an image which had the desired effect in play, and not that I described my vision in such detail that they had the same image.
So what does it mean for you? If you’re an artist capable of rendering your mental images to the page or even to give them form in miniature, it means nothing at all. But for those of you who, like me, are limited to painting with words, when you create your beasts take the time to consider not merely what they look like but more importantly how you can describe them to your players. You don’t have to be limited to animal parts—in our age, you can say that it has large bright eyes like headlights, teeth like heavy machine gears, skin like a blue rain slicker. You also have a much greater variety of animals from which to choose than our ancestors. Everyone who plays these games has seen a giraffe, and an ostrich, a lion, a leopard, a snake, an elephant, even a mastodon, at least in pictures. Hume is wrong—just because you describe the hippogriff as having wings, claws, and head like a gryphon but a body and hindquarters like a horse doesn’t mean you’re imagining something patched together piecemeal from two other animals. It means that you are borrowing images already in your hearers’ minds to give them a new image, building the unknown from fragments of the familiar. We can’t process bit-mapped images from digitized data in our brains. We can’t open a mental channel to receive the telepathic impression from your mind. We can’t rely on dreams and visions to make us able to see what you see. If you cannot show us, you must tell us what it’s like by comparing it to what we know. We might never see quite what you see—but we will have enough of a picture of it that we can react as we should.
Special thanks go to Dimitrios “Jim” Denaxas, artist for Multiverser and Little Fears, for rendering my descriptions into something vaguely reminiscent of an animal. Your image may have been entirely different; I know mine was.