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  • Writer's pictureKenny Webb

MAKING MONSTROUS: Designing Outsiders

Hello! I’m Kenny (some say Kosm), the designer behind MONSTROUS, and I’m back at it again to give you some Insight into our take on cosmic horror monsters, the Outsiders.

Knowing the Unknowable

Large rotten eggs filled with eyes & spider legs.

The Outsiders proved to be the most fun and challenging puzzle in designing MONSTROUS.

Last time when I was discussing the process of designing the Lich, we arrived at the following key questions to ponder when designing a monster:

  • What is it about this monster that makes it different from every other monster?

  • What does the monster want?

  • What would the monster’s presence do to the world?

  • What are the traditional traits of the monster? Which are vital? Which can shift? Which need to change?

  • What are the gaps left in our picture of the monster?

  • Where’s the mustard?

The first guiding question was easy to answer, but it leads to immediate problems. To me, the thing that sets cosmic horror monsters apart from every other monster is that they are fundamentally unknowable. They are so vast, complex, and alien that mortals stand no chance of comprehending them on even the most basic of levels.

And while that’s really cool, it’s not the most helpful when you’re trying to represent them in a medium. As Jerry Holkins once observed, “If you want to make a movie about something, it has to represent physical images.” And that’s just movies! It gets even tougher in the world of games, where you need to be able to see, understand, and interact with the game pieces.

The problem extends further into the next question: what does the monster want? The only possible answer is that no one knows and no one can ever know. So what do we do? How do you write abilities for a monster whose entire schtick is that you don’t know what they’re about?

Indirect Evidence

The solution to this design puzzle is to focus more on the other questions about how the Outsiders affect the world.

People can never really grasp the cosmic sublime, but that won’t stop them from trying. I wrote a few abilities that focus on the vain attempts to communicate with the Outsiders. These monsters have evolved beyond language, and so they use some other medium when they make contact with mortals, and there are always strange side effects. This contact leads to the creation of a secret society, an ambitious and dangerous group of mortals who have developed some (inevitably) badly mistaken ideas about what the Outsider is and what it can help them accomplish.

Not only do these abilities provide a tangible point of contact between the PCs and the Outsider, but they also flesh out the world and begin to suggest plot hooks, villains, and adventures.

How Bizarre, How Bizarre

The last questions all connect for the Outsider: what are the traditional traits, what are the gaps, and where’s the mustard? Outsiders must be alien. They must be weird. They must have the power to shift how we think of reality.

That all sounds well and good, but really every monster hits these notes to one degree or another. Thinking back to the Lich, isn’t that monster pretty alien to normal humans? They’re definitely weirdos. And they wield all manner of unnatural spells beyond mortal comprehension. What sets Outsiders apart then?

The key here, and where a lot of cosmic monster designs can fall flat, is that they simply are not bizarre enough. The powers of the Outsiders need to not only be immense, they must be incredibly strange. Here are two examples of such powers that come prepackaged with our Outsider:

  • Call down a celestial clocktower from the sky that distorts, halts, or reverses the flow of time.

  • Produce a twisted doppelgänger of a creature. The newly created duplicate matures and dies in minutes.

By the same token, we took pains to make the shape the Outsider takes bizarre. This is again quite tricky. How can you provide a procedure that reliably makes something truly alien. We opted for a way to combine disparate parts into something from the realm of nightmares, combining the features of an animal, a geometric structure, and a perplexing quirk.

So, for example, you could have an Outsider that takes the form of a fractal tapeworm that is accompanied by atonal chanting. Or perhaps a moth’s wings folding into a tesseract, assembled from constantly shifting iridescent clockwork. We provide you with ready-to-go options, but the fun is in using the structure to inspire your own unfathomable horror!

That’s all for now! Thanks so much for checking out this project and for your support. It truly means the world to me.

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