The most spectacular failed monsters are those that bring together elements never yet joined before - the head of a rabbit! the body of a lemur! tentacles that smear you with liquid cement! - but without apparent thought as to how all these elements make a viable whole. In problem-solving terms, the bad monster represents a lot of playing around with the puzzle pieces, but not hitting on a solution that works.
This raises the question, "what works for a monster?" The answers are many, explaining why bad monsters are so hotly debated, as you can see if you even get two flumph haters and two flumph lovers (or at least flumph toleraters) in a chatroom together.
Because of this, I am forced to conclude that no monster is bad in and of itself. Even the Fiend Folio's umpleby - yes, the umpleby, my friends, that hairy master of static electricity discharge - would make a great goofy character in a children's book. Or a cool Pokemon. It's just completely out of place in a dungeon.
(Well, all right, there is one exception that wins the crown of the intrinsically worst monster in all of AD&D. It doesn't have a cult of awfulness, it doesn't inspire mockery or jokes. It is not imaginative or interesting enough to even be magnificently bad. I will reveal and explain in a forthcoming post. Meanwhile, guesses are welcome.)
Now, some of the things that go into a working monster are ...
Problem-solving challenge. A monster's habits or abilities can make it a particularly memorable or versatile adversary. Trying to find its vulnerability (it's hideously ugly, was once human and has smashed every mirror in the mansion ... hmmm ...); being surprised by the classic "gotcha" monsters (whoever would have thought that ten foot pole was a giant stick insect?), or just marveling at its strange tactics (it's using the vines on the ceiling to get away!), are all things that make a monster interesting.
The surprise factor, of course, drops dramatically once the monster is published and becomes generally known. And a DM who relies too heavily on "gotchas" like the mimic ... goldbug ... um, cloaker anyone? ... will end up with a paranoid, slow-moving, and generally disillusioned party, and a silly dungeon. Which, indeed, might be the point.
Resonance with setting. The number one cause of disagreement on bad monsters is their fit to the setting. One DM may play the game as a gritty, boils-and-billhooks medieval affair. Another might prefer a backdrop of vaguely Renaissance, vaguely Orientalist weird fantasy. Still another might run a gonzo campaign where just about anything goes. They will all have different ideas about what monsters are appropriate. Some examples:
- Dark Ages or Ancient World epic: Pretty much only the monsters of that epoch's folklore, or plausible variants on the same, fit in. Satyrs and aegipans, not orcs.
- Medieval romance: This is the middle and dark ages as glimpsed and fantasized through the rear-view mirror, for 500 years of European history - from the Renaissance chivalry novelists (Ariosto, Spenser, Tasso) to Tolkien. Mythical, legendary, and wholly allegorical figures abound. Orcs rub elbows with hippogriffs and dragons. Stick with combinations of people, heraldic animals, and the occasional plant and you are on safe ground here.
- Weird fantasy and horror: Looking to far-past and far-future decadence and barbarism, this genre is much more forgiving of tentacles, blobs, giant insects, psionics, human-animal hybrids, and other quasi-science-fictional elements as long as they are eerie and frightening - just being weird is not enough, Mr. Umpleby. Prehistoric creatures are also fair game.
- Sword and planet: Alien worlds from the first half of the 20th century abounded in life forms bearing suspicious resemblance to earth creatures with dye jobs, extra limbs, horns, etc. Humanoids "evolved" from terran-analogue creatures are also common among writers less rigorous in their xenoanthropology than Burroughs. Weird fantasy critters can also be worked in; the main difference between the two genres is more in the equipment of the heroes than the nature of what they're fighting.
- Science fiction: And in this genre, the weirder the more believable. If it looks too much like an Earth-whatever, it's suspect.
Next time: The fine art of redeeming monsters; or, Captain Save-A-Flumph.