Tuesday, May 4, 2021

Classifying Monsters by Type

I've been making a lot of wood-block minis, lately, and need a good color-coding system.

Here's what I've settled on:

Artificial, Bestial, Chimerical, Dungeonesque,
Ethereal, Fay, Grubby, Haunting,
Inflamed, Moist

Each category is associated with a basic color term. I tried to make the split be along aesthetic and thematic lines, so that the color-coding of a monster indicates something about the style of game encounter it leads to, as opposed to indicating something about the monster's appearance or physiology.

For example: Werewolves are fully alive, but in terms of thematic associations, interactions, and weaknesses, they're very similar to vampires. (As recognized by pretty much every piece of 21st century pop culture.) So Instead of having a category for "undead", I have "Haunting monsters", which draws a big circle around that whole chunk of slightly tragic halloweeny horrors.


Creatures of artifice. Robots, golems, and alchemical oozes. 

Thematic Commonalities:

  • Rigid programming gone awry. (Golem guards preventing people from stealing, but doing nothing to retrieve stolen items. Oozes mindlessly cleaning all 'filth', including living creatures.)
  • Unhealthy relationships between creation and creator.
  • Unique specimens trying to make more of their kind (with potentially apocalyptic consequences if they succeed)
  • The dangers of hubris.

Mechanical Commonalities:

  • Very durable.
  • Aversion to water or fire. (Sinks or short-circuits; overheats or explodes)


  • Extremely inedible.
  • You can eat these things, but they will really do a number on your digestion.
  • 0/5. Would not recommend steel nachos dipped in alchemical cheeze.




Big animals, ogres, any any critter that's down for a good wrassle. Things that you'd hunt or which would hunt you.

Thematic Commonalities:

  • Hunting, being hunted. 
  • Uncomplicated Nature, red in tooth and claw.
  • Straightforward fights. Brutal but necessary actions.
  • Overcoming adversity, making new friends (bestial creatures are the most likely to be tamable as pets.)

Mechanical Commonalities:

  • No fancy tricks. Just brute force and animal cunning.
  • Will attack if they have the advantage, and retreat if they don't (unless enraged).
  • Wary of loud noises and fire (but only because they don't understand it.)
  • Trying to exploit some other sort of clever weakness (like smelling salts or holy water) is more  likely to drive such a creature into a murderous rage than it is to actually scare them off.


  • Yes, very edible.
  • Delicious too.
  • Just be warned that the feeling is mutual.


Whimsical creatures of folklore, especially those composed of two real beasts stapled together. Cryptids, centaurs, fearsome critters, and the like. I'm including flying-saucer style aliens here too.

Thematic Commonalities:

  •  Solitary and elusive creatures, often the only one of their kind.
  • Tall-tales. Chasing rumors. Piecing together clues. Monsters as mysteries.
  • Fairytale-style allegories. Storybook logic.
  • The wonder of the unknown.

Mechanical Commonalities:

  • Flashy magical abilities.
  • Some exploitable eccentricity. Easy to trick, if you did your research.
  • If all else fails, it will probably help to play soothing music.



Squishy and sticky creatures lurking in the deep forgotten folds of the world. Cthuloids, fungoids, and all that weird stuff  D&D is famous for.

Thematic Commonalities:

  • Strange ecosystems. (Creatures seemingly adapted to the ecological niche of specifically causing problems for adventurers.)
  • Monsters as puzzles. Monsters as traps.
  • Alien worlds lurking just out of sight. 
  • The horror of the unknown.

Mechanical Commonalities:

  • Implausible ambushes, expectation-defying movement.
  • They break the rules in some way. Fights are never straightforward.
  • Tied to some specific environment, maybe even a specific room.


    • Edible, if you know what you're doing, and don't mind the akali taste.
    • Needs careful prepwork, like fugu
    • Except in addition to death, you have to worry about mutations and nightmarish hallucinations.


    Radiant creatures of the upper air. Angels, stormbirds, lightning sprites, vexing spirits, and sentient geometry. 

    Thematic Commonalities:

    • Learning of prophecy. Tampering with fate.
    • Rigid laws, Fighting against the natural order.
    • Weird cosmic tomfoolery.

    Mechanical Commonalities:

    • Unbound by gravity.
    • Brightly Glowing.
    • Intangible or otherwise difficult to injure.
    • Untouched by flame.
    • Very fragile if  you can do damage, though.
    • Aversion to symbols of chaos and sin (singing out of tune, sex before marriage,wearing clothes inside-out, etc.)


    • You probably can't eat these, just from a physical possibility standpoint.
    • On the positive side, the ones you can eat are really tasty, like buttery chicken.
    • On the negative side, you'll probably be cursed for eating them.


    Charming little weirdos doing weird little fairy things. Goblins, pixies,clowns, and candy creatures.

    Thematic Commonalities:

    • Mischief, misdirection, and thievery.
    • Alien social norms. (Will never lie, and will violently attack you for telling even a little white lie. Won't enter homes without permission, but has power over the inhabitants if invited. Considers the sharing of food akin to a marriage ceremony.).
    • Ancient debts being called due.

    Mechanical Commonalities:

    • Might not attack you if you don't offend them.
    • Weak and won't fight fair.
    • Can be repelled or destroyed by symbols of order and artifice (iron, church bells, amulets, etc.)


    • Technically edible, yes.
    • Might even be palatable.
    • But it won't be nutritious.






    Bugs, worms, squamous crawling things. Not beefy enough to be bestial, not strange enough to be dungeonesque.

    Thematic Commonalities:

    • Poverty, squalor, plague. Deterioration from neglect.
    • Recurring problems from lingering infestation. The effect of disease on society.
    • The importance of well-maintained public sanitation systems.
    • Basic grubby grossout humor.

    Mechanical Commonalities:

    • Poisonous, venomous, or just riddled with disease.
    • Individually weak, but found in large number.
    • Strange odor. Can be repelled by having a strange odor of your own (soap, bugspray, flowers, etc.)


    • An acquired taste.
    • Risks food poisoning. 





    The dead, the undead, and things which remind you of death. Nosferatus, wolfmans, cultists, and ghastly ghouls. Pretty much the entire halloween menagerie.

    Thematic Commonalities:

    • Monsters as an exaggeration of the flaws of humanity. Predatory behavior.
    • Heroic conflict between good and (unambiguous) evil.
    • Memento Mori / Skeleton jokes.

    Mechanical Commonalities:

    • Likely to mess with your mind and/or soul.
    • Potentially contagious 
    • Hard to kill the normal way.
    • Can be repelled or destroyed by symbols of purity (sunlight, salt, silver, etc)


      • No.
      • Do not.
      • You will die.
      • And then you will undie.


      I'm trying to avoid straightforward elemental categories here, but Fire Monsters is just such a distinct and evocative category of creatures. You've got salamanders, jinn, assorted kinds of horrible fire-breathing lizards. It's great. It works. Everyone understands fire.

      Thematic Commonalities:

      • Energetic, frenzied behavior.
      • Loss of control. Disaster. Spreading flame.
      • Passions taken too far, to the point of obsessions.

      Mechanical Commonalities:

      • Immune to flames, thrives in heat.
      • Prone to arson.
      • Can be repelled or destroyed by the wet and cold.
      • Fascination with gold.


        • Not great for a main course.
        • But maybe can be used in the cooking process.





        Prior Art 

        These kinds of taxonomies appeal to the same part of my brain that likes clean lines and bright colors. 
        Here are some other examples:


         Catacombs is a dexterity-based dungeon-crawling board game which splits its monsters up into several families for encounter design. These families are:
        Mythological, Dungeon, Vermin, Undead, and Infernal
        (Also Wraith Knights and Zombie Horde from expansions, which thematically overlap with
        Undead, but that's mostly just to make the extra content easily distinguishable.)

        It should be apparent that this is the categorization system that most directly influenced mine.



        One of the first tabletop rpgs I ever played was Pokéthulu. Despite being a parody, it's a surprisingly solid little experience that held up well for several sessions of play. In Pokéthulhu, each critter has two of the following aspects: 

        Decomposing, Fishy, Fungous, Icy, Luminescent,
        Non-Euclidean, Squamous,
        and Sticky

        These don't have any game-mechanical distinction, and are essentially just flavor. But they gave a nice starting point for imagining the textures of the world.



        Pokémon, the franchise which Pokéthulhu is parodying, splits its critters up 18 elemental types, and arranges them into a complicated roshambo array of strengths and weakness. The different types are:

        Normal, Fire, Water, Plant, Electric, Ice,
        Rock, Dirt, Fighting, Bird, Poison, Psychic,
        Bug, Dragon, Ghost, Fairy, Steel,
        and Scoundrel.

        And of course there's the Legally Distinct Monster craze. Not really entirely sure what's going on over there, but it looks fun.

         Real World Biological Taxonomy

        Biologists classify lifeforms into the three domains of Bacteria, Archaea, and Eukaryotes. These names roughly translate, respectively, into "Little Rods", "Ancient Things", and "Good Nuts".

        Celestial Emporium of Benevolent Knowledge

        As a way of point out the abitrariness of universal classification schemes, Jorge Luis Borges described the following animal taxonomy:

        • Those belonging to the Emperor, 
        • Embalmed ones, 
        • Trained ones, 
        • Suckling pigs, 
        • Sirens, 
        • Fabled ones, 
        • Stray dogs, 
        • Those included in this classification, 
        • Those that tremble as if they were mad, 
        • Innumerable ones,  
        • Those drawn with a very fine camel hair brush, 
        • et cetera
        • Those that have just broken the vase, 
        • Those that from afar look like flies



        Until giving  this post an editing pass, it completely slipped my mind that Dungeons Et Dragons gives a type attribute to each monster.  These types are

        Aberration, Beast, Celestial, Construct,
        Dragon, Elemental, Fey, Fiend, Giant,
        Humanoid, Monstrosity, Ooze, Plant, Undead

        I stumbled into a lot of convergent design with my categories, possibly because my subconscious mind is a shameless thief.

        But these categories taken as a whole don't really suit my purposes. They're mostly thematic, but sprinkle in a few cladistic types, like "dragon" or "plant".  And "humanoid" is just a shape - a shape shared by a huge chunk of the non-humanoid monsters.

         In a previous edition of the game, the types were

        Aberration, Animal, Construct, Dragon,
        Elemental, Fey, Giant, Humanoid,
        Magical Beast, Monstrous Humanoid, Ooze,
        Outsider, Plant, Undead, Vermin

        See also 



        So, did I miss any important thematic groupings?  Are there any feelings that can be evoked by tabletop rpg monster combat, which don't fit into one of the color-coded categories above?

        No comments:

        Post a Comment