I’ve spent the last few nights cranking out more of the monster doodles to get them ready for the harrowlands site and future game-play. It seems I can get two or three done in a night when I have time to sit for a while, I’d guess each one takes me about an hour to sketch, ink, and color.
So far, I have fourteen monsters drawn out. I made my way through all of the walkers (undead), and am into the wargs (bestial and trollish monsters). I’d guess I have another 40-50 to go before I get through the current catalog of monsters. I probably won’t try to do those all at once, but space them out with other content and get a few done every week.
Hungry dead: ghoul, vampyr, barrow wight
Lonely dead: draug, mummy, wraith
Grieving dead: ankou, banshee, revenant
Cold ones: fekst, white maiden, valraven
Teeming: orco, red cap
As I complete each drawing, I am uploading a portrait and thumbnail to the site. When all of the monsters are completed, I’ll convert the existing pages to show a thumbnail of each one next to their description.
Having the illustrations completed will make it a lot easier for me to work on making the custom moves, mannerisms, and precautions for each monster. This will allow me to have a whole library of monsters ready to go for any game. Creating my own monster manual has been a fantasy of mine since I was a kid, so I have the added benefit of making 9-year-old Matt very happy.
Next on my monster list is not really a monster but instead a revered spirit of the forest that I found very cool. The otso is a bear-spirit guardian of the forests that was worshipped by ancient Finns. The imagery of the otso is of a giant bear with trees growing from its back.
I couldn’t resist making this into a monster.
Normally, the otso is a benevolent spirit, but if the heart of the forest is corrupted (one of the themes hinted at in Bursten Claw-Jaw’s origin story), then they can turn evil and become fell bears bent on destroying man and all they represent.
This corrupted creature is a jaeger, a cruel type of warg intent on punishing the weak and the isolated.
I don’t like the bear design I came up with the otso as much as the one I did for the moroi, as I was trying for a shaggy cave bear look and I’m not sure I did it justice. However, the point of doing these is to make them good enough, not perfect. Maybe someday when I have some downtime, I’ll rework this one.
The game with the boys was delayed another week. With Mother’s Day, me prepping for a business trip for the day job, and other commitments, we just couldn’t fit it in. We’re hoping to get the next session this upcoming weekend.
I was doing some monster research in the short chunks of downtime this week, because that’s what I do, and I was making notes to write out descriptions and some monsters for the game, when I came across a couple of monsters that caught my imagination earlier, but now really forced me to stop what I was doing and flesh them out.
The first was the moroi. Most descriptions of the moroi are that they are Romanian vampires or ghosts with some shared traits with werewolves. However, there is one particular description that really sticks with me: some versions of the moroi are spirits that like to possess the bodies of bears.
I still haven’t tracked down the origin of this, but I just love the thought of some demon spirit inhabiting bear corpses (I took the term “bodies” to mean dead) in order to get whatever vengeance or whatever else they were compelled to finish.
Since the main descriptions of the moroi are vampiric, I decided to have the spirits inhabit bear corpses to sate their need to taste blood.
I’ve tentatively assigned this monster to a type of ghost, the bound ones in my notes, but I may change it over to the thralls known as vessels, or even come up with a fourth ghost type if need be. I think it all depends on how characters would have to deal with the monster. If the purpose is just to destroy the bear corpse or break the link between the corpse and possessing spirit, then it should be a thrall, but if there needs to be a way to release the spirit itself, then I should stick with ghosts.
Definitely something to think about. I don’t have any immediate plans for the moroi in the game, but I do like to have them in the stable, ready to go.
The illustration I put together for the moroi, I didn’t want to go all gory and have bones and rotting flesh falling off, but more of a fresh possession. I’m fairly happy with it, though for some reason it feels like I’m trying to channel my inner Gary Larson.
When coming up with a new monster for the game, I can start from any number of places, but after that, I seem to have an actual process.
Starting with the idea
The Skogsra has not been on my radar hardly at all. Just one of the many Teutonic themed monsters in my notes patiently waiting for my imagination to get a hold of them. I have a couple of forest adventures planned ahead for the party, but none of them really involved this type of creature. I had some thoughts of impish river spirits and a mini quest with a completely made up monster, the iron-toothed grubkin.
The skogsra came to my attention only when I arbitrarily chose a more fantastic description for Snarl Wort, a dangerous herb the party will need to collect:
This thorny root is a rare plant found only where a skogsra, a dangerous forest spirit, has made her bed. It has a sweet spicy flavor and is said to protect from fae curses. Beware the uncooked thorns, however, for their prick can cause one to fall into a deep slumber.
That was it. Just a throw-away line to make the origin of the plant more interesting. But that was more than enough to plant the seed.
Research the folklore
A few days later, I gathered a number of my books to see what I could find on the skogsra. She is a forest spirit with a fox tail and a back like a hollow rotten tree. She likes to play tricks on men, getting them lost in the woods, ruining their hunting, stealing their cattle, and sending them erotic dreams. She’ll also try to seduce men and keep their souls forever.
There are themes on her having a siren-like voice and crazy herbalism knowledge. One particularly interesting method for dealing with the skogsra is to slyly ask advice on how to get rid of a problem nearly identical to the one the hero has with her, but pretend it is about their cattle or another foe, and she will tell exactly what is needed to banish her or break her charms. Additionally, there is a very similar wight called the skogsfru, who generally has the same goals but can turn into an owl and likes to drink and dance around the fire.
There are some pretty typical cures for the skogsra also: turning clothes inside out, saying a prayer, throwing steel over them. Not sure how many of those I’ll use, but want to keep them in mind.
Pick a monster type
While there are a few ideas swirling around in my head about what I want to do, I need to figure out how the skogsra will fit in with my monster taxonomy. I pretty much have the type as a wyrm. They don’t fit in with the warg type, as they’re not violent or uncontrollably lusty. They do have some imp characteristics, but the tricks don’t seem to be an end-goal. Walkers, ghosts, and thralls don’t really fit at all. The wyrm type have a corrosive relationship with the living, often driven by jealousy.
Since the skogsra is beautiful from the front, and she can sing like a siren, I decided to make her into a lurker sub-type
Start drawing and doodling
In an ideal situation, this would come last, after I gathered all the information about the monster and their moves and precautions, so I’d know what little details to add to make the illustration better, but I get so much more out of drawing at this stage. As a highly visual learner, I think more creatively when I have a visual to work with. I could try to find what other artists have done, yet I’m already kind of solidifying in my head what I want and it’s hard to nail down those specifics. So, I try to the best of my ability to get the monster down the way I’m currently feeling about it.
Add imagination stew
Now that I have read the actual legends, chosen a type and sub-type, and have a drawing of it, I let my imagination run for a day or two and think of cool, custom moves or precautions based on the general story I get from my readings. This is the fun part.
For the skogsra, I immediately wanted to remove the sexual nature from the game version. I decided to keep the flirting and some alluring powers, but got rid of sex as a goal. She wants the boys and their souls, but I decided she wants them for dancing. It’s a pretty typical folklore thing where fae make people dance forever, or at least until they die. She gets to feed off their life while dancing with them. She is jealous of the love that humans have for one another, and thinks this is the way to get it, for she cannot show her true nature where she is rotten inside and incapable of actual love.
Since wyrms are based off of unused creative potential and they despise those who actually use their creative talents, I figured that her beautiful singing voice was also a glamour. So, through galdr, she can make her voice sound beautiful and that compels her victims to dance, but if the spell is broken for any reason, the human hears only the terrible screeching of owls.
If I were to put this into custom moves, I’d say Galdr Song, Exhausting Dance, Forest Prank, Owl Form, and Spout Herbal Knowledge. Precautions would be tricking her into giving the solution, somehow breaking the illusion (like getting a glimpse of her backside), wax earplugs, offering her iron or steel, etc.
This is the stage I’m on now, and over the next couple of days, I’ll be coming up with descriptors and trying to figure out what makes the most of her story and how the party would be able to deal with her.
I haven’t had much opportunity to work on making new art for the kids game recently, but I wanted to get some monsters onto the Harrowlands site, so I decided to finally color in some of last year’s Inktober beasties. I didn’t get real far with Inktober because the day job started melting down and I was working way too many hours to participate.
Not all was bad, however, because the work burnout made me stumble upon the specifics of doing the Kids RPG Journal and slowly making the Harrowlands game for the boys. I likely wouldn’t have gone down this particular path if I had more time and was not dissatisfied back then.
I’ve taken to paying just a little more attention to how I’m coloring in my monsters and other game resources recently, as some of the previous items were coming out a bit muddy. I think it was a combination of the muted palette and the Drippy Deek brushes which are a little bit darker and less chromatic than some other brushes.
One thing I had not been doing, but started up again, was putting a background color under my artwork. Working on top of white is fine, particularly in the watercolor painter mindset, which is how I approach my work on the game, but painting over a base color gives it some much needed pop without going back to the more outlandish color palettes I was using before.
I found I had already colored in a couple of them with the previous palette and was working on a third, but I just was not feeling it. I went back and started over again and can say I’m pretty happy with the results.
For the ghoul, I started with a lighter yellow background color which tied the colors in nicely and I felt I could do a little bit more with the wash brushes.
The end result came up much better than what I was going with on the first try.
For the vampyr, I chose a muted blue green to accentuate the undead nature. It gives a nice base, particularly under the skin tones that makes the “otherness” really come through.
All in all, I’ll probably go back and color in all of the previous Inktober pieces. For now,
I have loved monsters since I was a tiny child. Before my introduction to Dungeons & Dragons, I would get all of the books I could from the library on monsters and myths. I read Dracula way too early and I still get goosebumps when I think of some of the scenes. Later, the Monster Manuals took so much of my time and I spent many a sleepless night pouring over every detail of each creature.
Yet as I grew older, I found myself less interested in combat stats of the monsters and wanted to know their story. So I dug deep into the original folktales, ghost stories, sagas and myths from where they came. I studied the work of Marie-Louise von Franz and her explorations into the psychology of folktales.
I picked up DMing again with the release of D&D 5E, but the one thing I was always disappointed in were the monsters. It may just be failings as a DM, but the monsters simply ended up being something to cut down with an axe. I ended up exploring a number of more story-centric RPGs like FATE, Dungeon World, Fiasco, Seven Leagues, etc. but had a hard time getting a group together to play.
I doubled down on my research and had ambitions of making something where the folklore and the story of the monsters shined, but could still make something fresh and exciting. I created a monster taxonomy based on psychological traits and impulses and I catalogued all the ways I could find that “heroes” defeated monsters in the tales. I wasn’t sure what format this project was going to take—RPG, field guides, comic, novel—but I have tinkered with it for the last few years.
Working on the Harrowlands game for the boys has really allowed me to clarify what I want to share about monsters and stories in general. This search for a new Monster Manual page started long before the kids RGP journal, but has finally solidified into something I am happy with.
These monster sheets are almost entirely focused on role-playing. It emphasizes the instincts and mannerisms on the top of the sheet, with keywords right in the center to help get focused right away. The bottom has easy to find moves and precautions which further the role-playing aspects. There are a number of ways to deal with each monster that does not have to involve combat. In fact, some of their own moves may pull them out of a fight.
There is a lot of work to do on the design before I would ever consider putting it out for public use, but the format will work perfectly for my use in-game. I will tinker with them here or there as I build out the content, and the more monsters I add, I’ll inevitably get the bug to make it shiny. But for now, I am really happy with what I have to work with.
What I find odd about the first monsters I’m developing for the kids, is that they are not directly pulled from folktales and myths. I have a bunch of notes and sketches of more “traditional” monsters that I’ve collected and obsessed over the last couple of decades, and yet the first thing I do is start creating something new.
Not really sure what that means, but I think it will be fun to see play out. Now I have a number of partially formed plans that do involve real traditional monsters to let the kids run into later, but for now, I think I’m just focused on the particular situations and the types of quests I think would be fun and exciting.
With that, here are the first two monster illustrations:
The Grave Grim who haunts musty old tombs.
The Iron-toothed Grubkins, sentient plant imps that enjoy pilfering things from hunters and gatherers.
Later on, I will write out the full monster sheets for each of these with various stats, instincts, precautions, etc.
The mummy is a dusty old walker originally hailing from the hot lands of the far south. Opposite of the ghoul and other abandoned dead, the mummy is unable to make the journey to the underworld because it is bound to our world by elaborate funerary rites, either intentionally or by accident.
Sometimes less is more when saying goodbye, particularly when removing and pickling parts. These rites must be undone if the dead is to find peace.
The wraith has spent so much of its life twisting every thought and every discussion back to itself that it failed to notice its own death. Its form has become as warped and wracked as the shriveled black heart inside, obsessing about losing their skill, power, or beauty.
Not only do they do this creepy backwards walking crawling thing, but their very touch, and I dare say five minutes conversation, will drain one of vigor and will to live.