Old Hat Monsters: Paper Tigers
“Outwardly a tiger, it is made of paper, unable to withstand the wind and the rain.” —Mao Zedong
Pathfinder is a game of heroes and monsters. Through the looking glass of our imaginations, we transform a bunch of statistics and a pile of miniatures into a battle between benign and vile gods, graceful elves and brutal orcs, angels and demons, and sometimes fairies—all of them punching each other in the face!
There’s more to this game we all love than merely a system for good versus evil. It’s a world we’re creating and living in together. It’s also pretty obvious that some parts of the world get more design attention than others.
One of the most commonly unloved corners of most game worlds is the monstrous gods. While a certain drow spider queen comes to mind as an exception, most lack depth. It’s as though the game designers started with their core pantheon and threw in an occasional monster god to worship as an afterthought. They look impressive, they seem cool, but there’s nothing more to them. They’re paper tigers.
It doesn’t need to be this way. Join me after the jump, and we’ll go over some considerations for building complex and interesting gods for your favorite monsters. Because, if they’re your favorite, don’t they deserve to be robustly constructed. Shouldn’t they possess three dimensions?
To start, let’s examine three types of gods that show up in fiction (and mythology) and that suit our purposes:
The Incomprehensible: These gods are so alien that the mortal mind cannot comprehend them. They include shuddering horrors from the Dark Tapestry, most of Lovecraft, and any other entity that is more than our brains can comprehend.
The Primal: They represent raw natural forces, such as gods of fire, water, storms, and seas.
The Anthropomorphic: These gods act like people do, or alternatively they deal with less physical concerns. Some examples are gods of love, hate, and other such concerns.
Now, I put these down like categories, but a better way to think of them is as flavors. Our friend Cthulhu is incomprehensible, but also represents the primal terror of madness. I find that it’s more interesting to have your gods taste of different flavors, too, as we see here with Cthulhu. It gives them the beginnings of depth and also gives you more points to hook interesting ideas onto.
You also want the gods monsters worship to be as compelling as the creatures themselves. That said, you want to make sure they compliment each other. If you’ve created an awesome god of slaughter and pancakes, but he’s worshiped by four-armed monkeys that eat only fruit, then something is very wrong.
Gods are linked to those that worship them. That may be because of a direct link to their patron or creator, or it can simply be the kind of god these creatures would want to worship. Regardless, they have to have a reason to tie themselves to this divine entity. Gods can also represent the best and worst in the peoples who worship them. They can be a representation of the paragons of that species or something that the creatures strive to be, or the deity enslaves these creatures and demands worship.
The most important point to consider when you’re creating gods for your totally awesome and original monster is that your gods are more than stories passed down or archetypal paragons. The god you create can also become a potential villain. So think about how you create a good villain: You give them needs, motivations, desires, and plans.
For me, the most important element in the creation of a good villain is that it needs to think that it’s the good guy. Compelling evil believes it is righteous, in other words. Gods that have been wounded or struck down by other gods, gods reborn and twisted, gods that seek vengeance for various wrongs—all these strike a chord with not only their followers but with GMs, whose most important audience is players. Create gods as characters that are active, that want something, and that do something. If you don’t, you’ll find that the death of potentially compelling characters is passivity.
Now, you might want some crunch to see how I use these concepts in terms of mechanics and rules. The nice thing about this subject is that there isn’t a lot of crunch. As wonderful as it is to have rules for something, they can be as much a limitation as a benefit. That said, the one area we could tackle involves the domains your little godlet bestows upon its monstrous chosen. When working with domains, make sure the themes you built for your god are reflected in the choices you make. Domains should help tell a story and shouldn’t be slapped together to optimize your evil cleric’s build.
Would you like some examples? Well, you’ve read this column before, so you know the nature of the game. For every four comments, I’ll pick a suggested or arbitrary monster and give it a brand new shiny divinity.
Or, you know, we could fold up some paper tigers.