View Full Version : Telling apart unknown animals and supernatural monsters

2017-06-24, 03:00 AM
For the wilderness and fey focused campaign I am working on I want there to be essentially three types of creatures that players can encounter. Animals, spirits, and supernatural creatures that stand somewhere between the two. I am thinking of creatures like manticores, yeth hounds, basilisks, hydras, phase spiders, and of course dragons.

In most settings it would be pretty easy to tell animals and magical creatures apart, but in my world the natural wildlife mostly consists of fictional and obscure prehistoric creatures, like lots of big reptiles, insects, and wormy things. Players will regularly run into things they've never heard of before and while it's fine that the characters won't know all the animals there are in the world, I want animals and monsters to feel clearly distinctive.

I think as a start, all monsters could be native to the Spiritworld while animals are native to the regular world, but that's something you don't see when you run into one in the wilderness.
I also have all spirits take half damage from all weapons that aren't iron while mortal people and animals are always harmed normally by all weapons. This is also a trait I could give to monsters, but again this is something not easily spotted in a fight and you first have to be in a fight with them for this to be detectable in any way.
I think that perhaps all monsters should have active magical abilities, which animals never do. Still not something players could spot when seeing an unfamiliar monster from a distance.

The only visual clue I can think of is to make monsters really big. All the predatory animals I have generally don't get any bigger than a tiger. There are much bigger herd animals, but I believe those should be fairly easy to identify for players. They lazy trott along in groups and munch on trees and grass, even if they are huge.

But are there perhaps any other clues I can give players that an unfamiliar creature is a supernatural monster and not an animal? Anything to visually set them apart or peculiar behaviors?

2017-06-24, 03:14 AM
You're going for an exploration and wilderness vibe, right?

If that's the case, might as well make all three categories totally indistinguishable from each other. Screw your players and their being prepared for adversity.

Demand a skill check or analogue to find out what the creature in question is weak to, or make them find out via experimentation.

2017-06-24, 05:37 AM
If this is D&D, a knowledge check is generally the mechanical way to set these things apart, but I certainly can't fault you for wanting further cues. A litte description can go a long way towards setting mood anyway, so maybe think of how you want the mood to feel differently around these supernatural beasts as opposed to a normal animal.

If these are monsters from standard folklore or the like, then maybe do some research into their mythological origins for some inspiration. A story here or an old wives tale there from well meaning folks on the edge of civilization might be a good choice for foreshadowing some of the scarier things. Nothing necessarily super descriptive if you don't want to give away the whole thing, but just enough scared whisperings to make your players aware that these aren't something to be trifled with. These things are messed up in a way that other hunters aren't going to go near.

Environmental cues are always helpful. Think about the ecology of the things, and how it might differ from standard animals. How they treat their prey is generally a good signpost for the players if you want them to have some heads up. A phase spider's webs might be vaguely ectoplasmic in nature, leaving a bit slimier remains of its food tangled up. A basilisk is obviously going to leave a few poor stoned victims lying about here or there. Hydras have multiple heads, so anything they eat is likely going to look like it was torn apart by a pack of predators instead of one. Manticores leave spines in their victims. Yeth hounds terrify their prey, so they might note that the prey left a trail like an animal that was booking it away from something as quickly as possible.

We're talking fey right? Remember your seasonal courts and potential aesthetics that might go along with that. Perhaps warmer or colder feeling to the air when they're around, a vague mood change when they first gaze upon it, or something in the creature's bearing that clearly sets it apart from some normal beast. Differences in their behavior, like a winter beast cruelly maiming prey or tormenting things for fun versus a summer beast pulling mischievious pranks or simply showing up regularly like it owns the place.

How much mechanical or tactical information you want to give away is obviously your prerogative, though a little additional description to set the mood or spice things up can't hurt.

2017-06-24, 05:45 AM
When I want to invoke the supernatural, I accompany it with sudden and inexclicable changes in the environment.

Temperature drops. Water freezes. All the birds fly away. Suddenly the whole forest is quiet... too quiet. Shadows grow abnormally deep and point in the wrong direction. The air becomes heavy with pressure. It starts to rain, despite the sky having been clear seconds ago, and the water looks or tastes strange.

The creature itself glows or is transparent, as if it is a trick of light or only half there. If it is dark, it is too distinct, as if a light is shining on it without having effect on anything else. If it is light, it will be shrouded in shadows against all logic. Plants wither and die at its feet, or grow rapidly into large and surreal forms. So on and so forth.

Lot of it depends on the monster. But it should be easy to communicate that a creature is not wholly natural when nature around it gets screwed up.

2017-06-24, 07:27 AM
What about intelligence? Most of the magical creatures you named could indicate a basic level of intelligence where they adapt and react to situations, whereas something like a giant worm is a one-track pony that tries to run when it gets in trouble. This way, you could impress danger in terms of guile as well as brute Force. If you play magic, play the animals as green and the others as blue or something.

2017-06-24, 09:22 AM
Playing them with an inhuman intelligence sounds great. I was thinking about making them act like beasts, but that should even be possible with unnaturally cunning beasts.

Sometimes actual animals are described in ways that would blurr the distinction, but I believe many such cases are about specific notorious individuals whose reputations have grown into local legends. In a fantasy world, there is no reason that a huge tiger or ancient crocodil isn't actually magical.

2017-06-24, 09:24 AM
One way to play up the human intelligence - give them human body language. Show two "magical animals" in what appears to be a conversation - nodding, shaking heads, taking turns making noise (which is broken up in a fashion that looks like words), etc.

Darth Ultron
2017-06-24, 04:28 PM
Well, it would be easy to just give all supernatural monsters an easy to see physical trait. Like an obvious unnatural color or glowing eyes.

2017-06-24, 05:24 PM
One thing you can use is behavior (somewhat noted above). Generally, predatory animals won't hunt humans, unless you're obviously old, sick, or hurt, or they are starving. Generally when they do, making a loud noise/surprising/stinging the animal will make it run off. If a predator kills its prey but is also injured in the process, it's still a loss for the predator, since it can't hunt as well in the future. Magical beasts might hunt people for sport, being much more willing to fight where a simple animal might run away. To make that make sense realistically you'd probably have to give them damage resistance, better healing, or something, or else the same logic would apply to them.

You can also go with the tried and true method of making monsters hybrids of other things. Show them animals that the players might be unfamiliar with, but seem realistic and make biological sense. Then give them two or more of those animals stitched together, or a bigger version with a ridiculous amount of spikes or multiple heads, or give it other supernatural-like abilities. Skin made of iron (or another metal, or stone, or whatever) comes to mind. Makes the critter tougher and is clearly visible.

2017-06-25, 08:41 PM
But are there perhaps any other clues I can give players that an unfamiliar creature is a supernatural monster and not an animal? Anything to visually set them apart or peculiar behaviors?

Telegraph it by having the creatures demonstrate their abilities explicitly, or leave evidence of of their abilities. Say you have an invisible panther, you could have the players see a prey animal being suddenly cut open and the blood-spatter briefly hanging in the air in a cat-shaped form before it's shaken off.

You could make them sparkle. Or go the Lovecraft way and have the PCs' hairs stand on end because of some primordial reflexive fear toward supernatural dangers.

2017-06-25, 09:01 PM
Perhaps spirits are creatures of irrational habits and implacable limitations. They simply MUST perform whatever function is their nature, and that may be something sensible or something absurd. The players may know them by clues which identify their obsession.

Perhaps magical beasts are creatures of irrational taboo. They behave like animals -- eating when hungry, etc. -- but there are some things they simply cannot do. The players may know them by how their behavior suddenly changes, and how they absolutely avoid certain specific things.

Animals are neither of those things.

Also, perhaps there's a sliding scale for magical beasts: a beast with only one small supernatural feature might have only one small taboo; a creature which is entirely supernatural, like a chimera, might have several nearly-crippling taboos.

2017-06-26, 12:44 AM
I think that perhaps all monsters should have active magical abilities, which animals never do. Still not something players could spot when seeing an unfamiliar monster from a distance.

I think this is the right approach. The traditional boundary between 'monster' and 'perfectly functional animal except it's extinct or made giant-sized' is fairly limited. A monster like an owlbear - which has no supernatural abilities of any kind - is a violation of evolution, but is a perfectly reasonable animal to exist in a specially created fantasy world. So I think the existence of supernatural powers might make for a good dividing line. That means treating something like a griffon or manticore as an animal, but a basilisk or hydra as a monster because they have supernatural powers.

Being unable to tell from a distance strikes me as a feature, not a bug, as it encourages players to dialogue with the locals for the diagnostic marks of various monsters as opposed to animals and forces them to treat new animal encounters as potential monsters until they've learned otherwise, which should make the world seem much more mysterious and threatening. It also gives locals a wilderness advantage over foreigners - because they will never make this mistake.

Spirits though, should probably stand out more. Traditionally spirits represent otherworldly entities. They are literally not of this world. So they either appear inherently foreign to their environment (like a lovecraftian horror), or stand out as too perfect too belong (like a nymph) and this should be readily apparent in how they don't fit into the background environment. Looking on them may impart visual static or fascination as the eye struggles to reconcile the incongruity.

2017-06-26, 01:07 AM
AS another thing magical beasts could have biological features placed in unnatural ways. Like more or less fingers then a mammal/reptile/what-have-you of that kind should have, many pairs of eyes on a non insect, hands or mouths(rather then mandibles) on an insect, legs that grow out of other pairs of legs, forked tails, human-like skin on an alligator, a bioluminescent boar. These things may not be clear from far away, but they may point the players in the direction of something not being right. And could lead to "What could possibly leave those kinds of tracks?" situations.

2017-06-26, 08:40 AM
Reminds me of the forest god in Princess Mononoke, which had footprints that don't really look like anything.

From a distance in bad light it looks like a deer, but when you get a better view it's just so weird (http://31.media.tumblr.com/ccd4490964e429478825cf9fd03d231c/tumblr_mw2d0gNTDW1slg1zeo1_500.gif) that it clearly is some kind of spirit.