A Monstrous Education

Cover of the Monster ManualOn a recent post about Clash of the Titans, Andy Best made a comment I’ve been coming back to over and over again since. The comment was the following:

And by the way, Jim, keep on plugging D&D, that game was solely responsible for getting me to read and develop in the face of school being boring and oppressive.

This idea immediately propelled me up into the attic, rifling though boxes in the insulated heat to find my copy of the Monster Manual, one of the greatest books of the 1970s. I found it, and I have been re-reading it for the last week or so, rather than reading Capital, Volume 1 as I have been promising myself. But I don’t really feel too bad about my choice, for this book is blowing my mind and framing Andy’s comment about reading and developing in ways I hadn’t imagined. In fact, it’s forcing me to re-visit why this book has remained quietly lodged in the ether of my psyche like a psionic Thought Eater for almost thirty years.

I started with the explanatory notes that introduce the logic of the Monster Manual, basically laying out how to read this book. These notes act as a kind of legend for deciphering the very particular vocabulary around the monster profiles, defining terms such as damage, alignment, % in liar, hit points, etc. The very first definition of this manual is pretty wild, it’s a brief explanation of the term “monster:”

The term “monster” is used throughout this work in two manners. Its first, and most important, meaning is to designate any creature encountered — hostile or otherwise, human, humanoid, or beast. Until the encountering party determines what they have come upon, it is a monster. The secondary usage of the term is in the usual sense: a horrible or wicked creature of some sort. Thus, a “monster” is encountered during the course of a dungeon expedition, and it is discovered to be an evil high priest, who just might turn out to be a monster in the other sense as well. Note, however, that despite this terminology, human (and such kin as dwarves, elves, gnomes, half-elves, and halflings) always use the matrix for humans when attacking, even if such humans were encountered as “monsters” in the course of an adventure.

I love this definition of “monster.” It becomes a kind of catch-all phrase for anything that is unknown or foreign, whether or not it’s human. A fascinating frame that resonates with the logic of the Age of Discovery and Exploration wherein those initially encountered in the New World narratives were always monstrous, deformed, and somehow other than human, despite their humanness. The moment between the encounter and the determination of what was encountered is a fascinating one—how long does it last? How does the very idea of the monster become something else entirely with this first and most important definition of monstrosity—which is really a definition of something that can’t be immediately understood.

Image from The BroodSo, this definition pushed me to look further into the idea of monstrosity, something that fascinates me anyway. And I found a book of essays called The Horror Reader that offers up a few theories of monstrosity. One of them is from Aristotle, which suggest that “Anyone who does not take after his parents is really in a way a monstrosity, since in these cases nature has strayed from the generic types.” Aristotle then goes on to draw a parallel between monstrosity and females as departures for the male norm. And such a definition of monstrosity, women, and birth seems to be at the very heart of of the Horror genre. From Mary Shelley’s monstrous conception of Frankenstein to Polanski’s Rosemary’s Baby (1968) and Cronenberg’s The Brood (1979). Maternal monstrosity and this idea of the progeny as somehow different from the parents, becomes tied up with the actual imagination of the woman as the imaginative producer of monstrosity, a deformed birth, as Marie Helene-Huèt points out, becomes the manifestation of a woman’s “unfulfilled desires and hidden passions” (The Monstrous Imagination 88).

Hutchinson on TrialAn idea which reminds me of one of the single most compelling moments of monstrous births framed as a public warning and divine testimony to the danger of America’s first true radical: the antinomian preacher Anne Hutchinson. A woman whose philosophy posed a grave and immediate threat to the Puritan “City Upon a Hill.” (As a side note, the trial of Anne Hutchinson is perhaps the most compelling read of all Puritan literature, and frames her genius in the face of intolerance and tyranny stunningly, you can read an excerpt here.) After Hutchinson is banished for the danger she represents to the social fabric, the Puritan governor John Winthrop reports publicly that she has given monstrous birth” to “twenty-seven several lumps of man’s seed,” which becomes a way of justifying her exile and offering a divine punishment for her unholy difference—her ideas and radical spirit are physically manifested as monstrous.

Thanks to Gardner Campbell this meandering through the monstrous can take on epic proportions given a series of ideas that a recent reading of another Monster Manual in its own right, namely Book II of Paradise Lost, proffers the imagination. Particularly when Sin describes the incestuous birth of her son and brother Death:

Alone, but long I sat not, till my womb
Pregnant by thee, and now excessive grown
Prodigious motion felt and rueful throes. [ 780 ]
At last this odious offspring whom thou seest
Thine own begotten, breaking violent way
Tore through my entrails, that with fear and pain
Distorted, all my nether shape thus grew
Transform’d: but he my inbred enemie [ 785 ]
Forth issu’d, brandishing his fatal Dart
Made to destroy: I fled, and cry’d out Death;
Hell trembl’d at the hideous Name, and sigh’d
From all her Caves, and back resounded Death.
I fled, but he pursu’d (though more, it seems, [ 790 ]
Inflam’d with lust then rage) and swifter far,
Mee overtook his mother all dismaid,
And in embraces forcible and foule
Ingendring with me, of that rape begot
These yelling Monsters that with ceasless cry [ 795 ]
Surround me, as thou sawst, hourly conceiv’d
And hourly born, with sorrow infinite
To me, for when they list into the womb
That bred them they return, and howle and gnaw
My Bowels, thir repast; then bursting forth [ 800 ]
A fresh with conscious terrours vex me round,
That rest or intermission none I find. [Link.]

How is that for monstrous birth, “odious offspring,” and “inbred enemies”!

Yet, I digress, for monstrous maternity is just one, albeit a particularly rich and telling, way of how we deal with fear, uncertainty, difference, power, and subversion. The Dungeons & Dragons Monster Manual makes the idea of everything undetermined somehow monstrous (which makes the idea of birth and monstrosity even more telling and fascinating). A kind of general, sweeping idea of paranoia at the idea of otherness. And idea that makes the secondary definition offered by the Manual, or the more traditional idea of the monster as a “horrible and wicked” creature somehow wanting. And interestingly enough, in the very next sentence after offering this more popular definition, the uncertainty of what is or is not monstrous creeps back into this explanation, imbuing any clarification with a deep ambivalence.

Thus, a “monster” is encountered during the course of a dungeon expedition, and it is discovered to be an evil high priest, who just might turn out to be a monster in the other sense as well.

The evil high priest is only a “monster,” seemingly given his human affiliation, because he is unknown. But as soon as this definition of monstrosity is established, it is immediately qualified by the idea that this priest may very well turn out to be a monster in the “other sense.” The horrible, wicked sense? Or the undesignated sense of otherness that looms far larger than such a definition can control or maintain, yet at the same time beautifully opens up. Here the idea of monstrosity is not so much premised on the physical difference between things: some kind of unholy lack of resemblance. Rather, the monster may be monstrous in some “other sense,” some invisible sense that is not necessarily easily to determine. What does horrible and wicked look like? How do you determine these characteristics? Are they physically defined?

It reminds me of one of my top three films of all time: John Carpenter’s The Thing (1982). Perhaps one of the greatest situations in all of cinema, The Thing is rooted in an idea of monstrosity you can not immediately see. The monster (or is it the alien?) takes the shape and attributes of its victims down to every last detail. The distinctions are impossible to determine though visual or social interaction. Making the moment when they come up with a blood test one of the most compelling scenes in cinema of all time for me.

The physical blood test provides a reprieve from the ultimate horror and monstrosity, namely the idea that there is no way to truly distinguish between what is monstrous and what is not. It has no easily determined shape or form, it could be any of us—the great contribution of Invaders of the Body Snatchers (1955). A kind of general malaise of monstrosity that is indeterminable, but ever present.

And all of this from the first, “clarifying” paragraph from a manual dedicated to the idea of monstrosity. A work of art in every sense of the word, it is without question an imaginative fount of wonder. And while I’m easily sidetracked by the definition of monster it tries to provide, there is no question how deeply this book forced concepts on the mind of a hapless ten year old that created a certain sense of confusion. What does it mean that a Manticore has the alignment of Lawful Evil and a Centaur that of Neutral Chaotic Good? How do I hold these seeming antithetical ideas in harmony to make sense of this monstrous world? I remember working though this with a friend who was far smarter than me, how took the occasion to suggestion that the words lawful and evil aren’t necessarily contradictory. What a valuable lesson.

Image of the Spider in the WallYet, it was the profiles and images in the Monster Manual that made me want to understand this strange moral world of monsters. I would spend hours reading the descriptions of the monsters, determining their point system, and obsessing over the illustrations, all of which suggests the way this kind of text introduced a whole new way of imagining in relationship to numbers, text, images, and often maps as well. The Monster Manual is a truly unique work of the imagination, and I can’t tell you how fun it was to re-visit creatures like the Lurker Above, the image of which falling on an unexpecting victim always intrigued me how powerful this monster was.

Image of a Lurker Above

And there was Mimic, a monster that can “perfectly mimic stone or wood” but cannot stand the sunlight. I just loved the image of the Mimic posing as a treasure chest, while at the same time cocking its fist prepared to knock the unassuming adventurer flat out.

Image of a Mimic

And there was also the Mind Flayer, who crazy tentacled head, and psionic brain eating abilitie downright frightened me.

Image of Mind Flayer

And a personal favorite were the more quotidian Lizard Men—who were always a personal favorite, especially since I paid my friend’s brother a dollar a figure to paint my Lizard Men lead figurines, it was worth it.

Image of a Lizard Man

So, Andy, I think I have an idea of what you meant by your comment, and in fact it is funny how much re-reading this stuff brings back so much of that original wonder in the face of all things monstrous.

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15 Responses to A Monstrous Education

  1. Marc Hugentobler says:

    Yeh man,
    but what about the lizard king?
    is everybody in?

  2. oh, MAN that takes me back. I had the Monster Manual, Player’s Guide, and the big DM Guide (and a few others). Sadly, I’m now almost sure that the whole lot was trucked off for *sniff* recycling just a few months ago… the horror… the horror…

  3. Joe says:

    Solid post, Jim. I feel as though my mind has, in fact, been flayed (for what it’s worth).

    Interesting that the game (as is true for Magic: The Gathering and some other fantasy games as well) creates a sort of omnidirectional paradox, that is, even the “lawful good” is an inherently monstrous entity until you “realize” it. It’d be interesting to find out whether or not the game developers were aware of their subliminal social commentary or not, especially in the wake of the neutral class in the game.

    It’s also interesting and impressive to me how far the art direction on this stuff has come. Not that the images in the post are bad, because they aren’t, but they don’t strike you like the new stuff.

  4. Shannon says:

    I will say right off the bat that I really loved this post, it is such a Bava post and some of the best stuff you write.
    I never played D&D, probably more of a guy thing, but somehow I still identify with this post. Maybe its your mention of Anne Hutchinson, who I’ve always wanted to read more about because I think she is pretty kick-butt. And how she fights against the “lawful good” (legalism if you will). Or maybe the concept of “birthing a monstrosity” is just fascinating to me. And the imagery of sin giving birth to death, wow, just one more reason why I need to read Paradise Lost.
    In any case, almost everyone had something when they were little that kept them reading and their imagination going. Something that shapes their way of understanding the world. Here we get a little glimpse of that child-like sense of awe and enthusiasm, great post.

  5. Brad says:

    Can I throw some kindling on this nostalgic fire & ask you if the question “What does evil look like?” has changed through time? In politics, the form of evil changes with each wrong move a member of either political party in this country makes, & idealism changes with it (the ideals of the Republicans & Democrats used to be, very generally speaking, practically switched). In this case, “evil” is defined by public consent & disgust. Each social sphere has its own definitions & limitations, but I wonder if you think that there is one definitive, pertinent evil that has maintained its status as “monstrous” forever?
    Perhaps this is the snake – stemming from the Bible, I suppose – or perhaps it is jealousy or envy. Who created evil, & to what extent have they created the monster as well? Who’s to say Mind Flayer is evil, perhaps those he considers “cattle to feed upon” (a great line, by the way) are the horrible ones. Perhaps he is the rescuer of his kind, the great savior of the whole Flayer family.
    Evil: socially construed, & thus flexible & inevitably ever-changing, or irreversible, unchangeable? I’d be interested in what you think here!

    p.s. great post, indeed

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  7. Reverend says:

    @Marc: If I understood your comments I would respond…I swear it.

    @D’Arcy: How could you recycle that stuff? It is some of the greatest literature of the 70s. Up there with all of King’s short story masterpieces from the mid-to-late 70s. A cultural legacy gone to the hippie trash heap in the name of being green. The horror, the horror is right 🙂


    Interesting that the game creates a sort of omnidirectional paradox, that is, even the “lawful good” is an inherently monstrous entity until you “realize” it.

    Wow, amazing point. That makes so much clearer one of the idea I was trying to get at, everything is suspect with such a definition of monster, and the idea of form is no guarantee of a common ground around likeness or semblance. And what does lawful Good mean in this regard? It is just another alignment, like you suggest with the idea of the omnidirectional paradox—where is that term from?–I love it! Which actual anticipates Brad’s comment to some degree, how do we understand the idea of evil? Does it ultimately manifest itself as something essential bad and wrong, and if so, doesn’t the fact that it follows rules and is lawful make it not quite as evil as say a chaotic evil monster? I don’t know– but the issue seems to me the layers of meaning caught up in the very words. Lawful is often conflated and associate with good and morally upright. Someone who doesn’t transgress or fall or what have you. But Ad& D challenges that linguistic association by marrying the two ideas in a creatures alignment. Fasicnatng, I have to keep thinking on this.

    @Shannon: Ya know Shannon, the bava blog loves you. “And why does it love you?” you may ask. Well because not only are you an awesome reader, but you are one of those rare souls that will actual take people’s advice and recommendations and go out and read stuff and find things you are interested apart from and rigid and regimented class logic (which can be fine and very good, mind you, but ain’t always as much fun).

    Paradise Lost is a must, reading Books I and II with Gardner and co. was amazing. And as I was thinking about monstrosity, Book II immediately came up. What’s even more interesting, and I didn’t touch upon it in the post, is that leading up to the moment where Satan meets up with his daughter/lover Sine and son/grandson Death, a whole host of monsters are described as he is making his way through hell, it almost was like the AD&D Monster Manual: Hydras, Gorgons, Dragons, etc. The second half of book two seemed devoted to this idea of monstrosity in some interesting and extremely profound ways. But Gardner know far, far more about that than I’ll ever know.

    Additionally, when you are done with PL, pick up the Trials of Anne Hutchinson, it is truly amazing. Here struggles with the rhetorical and logical underpinnings of the Puritan faith is in many ways tightly related to Milton’s own struggles in his masterpiece. Hutchinson;s questions about Grace, Free Will, and the basic tenets of the Church that dictate the relationship between the individual and the divine is fascinating. More than that, she is so amazingly brilliant, funny, and powerful a character. It may be hard going a bit because they are dealing with some deep theoretical, philosophical, and religious concepts, but I imagine that might be something you would be interested in anyway. Thanks for the encouragement, Shannon, I guess the world can blame you for the next bava post that turns a molehill into a mountain.

    @Brad: So you decided to stick with the simple questions, thanks for that! 🙂

    OK, how do I come at this, well I guess head on…but with the caveat that I pinged Gardner that he would come in and clean up the mess I make. I remember him telling me he taught a literature class on evil up at the Smithsonian, and it sounded wild. I would love to have his syllabus in front of me for this response, but alas.

    I think this idea of some essential and enduring Evil is at the heart of being nonplussed by the idea of a monster being designated with the alignment of Lawful Evil. It seems to be contradictory at some base level. If one follows laws and adheres to a principle, how can they be entirely evil. Yet, then I think of the 20th century and a figure like Hitler, and it becomes a bit less improbable. I don;t know, this is really the $64,000 question, but I tend to think Evil in itself is a product of a particular culture at a particular time with some consistencies running through history. Evil as a framework may have far more space to morph than we may imagine, and I think a lot about the idea of capital punishment in this regard, for it truly intersects with the idea of the moral, religious, and some kind of human facility for evil that must be annihilated. In fact, it must be killed at all costs.

    Last Summer I taught a course at UMW called Discipline & Punish which was actually entirely devoted to Criminal Narratives in Early American Literature. A large part of the reading was narratives related by criminals as they were being sent to their deaths for heinous crimes like murder, rape, forgery (yep forgery), and sodomizing farm animals. The narratives are amazing in my opinion—you can find many of them in a collection called Pillars of Salt by Daniel E. Williams—and several of them discuss this idea of evil as a inhabiting the human body that must ultimately be battling through faith, grace, and the possibility of redemption. What’s interesting, however, is all too often the idea of evil that is born in this narratives is problematic, for examples several narratives deal with chambermaids who become pregnant, and as servants they have no means to support their illegitimate babies, and they commit infanticide with the hopes of no one finding out. Yet, if someone does find out they are often destined for death, a fate which kind of assumes some kind of innate evil in humanity, which cannot be reconciled. Yet, most of these women were poor servants who had no means to a perceived alternative. And the criminal narratives were equally tough on poor whites and free blacks of the colonial period, they were often at the mercy of the gallows, and their stories suggested more about how a culture’s values, than some timeless, ahistorical notion of evil.

    Let me go where no man has gone before on this blog: abortion. Why would i do this? Well, quite simply because there is a passage from Thmas Jefferson’s Notes on the State of Virginia that has always blown my mind, let me quote it:

    They raise fewer children than we do. The causes of this are to be found, not in a difference of nature, but of circumstance. The women very frequently attending the men in their parties of war and of hunting, child-bearing becomes extremely inconvenient to them. It is said, therefore, that they have learnt the practice of procuring abortion by the use of some vegetable; and that it even extends to prevent conception for a considerable time after. During these parties they are exposed to numerous hazards, to excessive exertions, to the greatest extremities of hunger.

    This is from Query VI, not to be confused with Query XIV (the most famous part of this amazing work) which deals with the questions of slavery, emancipation and the nature of the “negro” (this is important, so I want to note it hear, because I will be returning to this idea). Also, you can read most of the work online, here is one site from Yale with thew work that is decent, thought hard to navigate. What blows me away about this passage is that Jefferson talk s about what might be one of the most explosive issues in US culture of the 20th century as if it is purely a part of the everyday life of the Native Americans. Abortion seems a reasonable practice given the rigors of a woman’s lifestlyle in this culture. There is no moral outrage to be found, nor larger sense of some pervading evil. So much of this has to do with the way Jefferson relates it, and how it is somehow naturalized even further to link the act with a vegetable —it almost seems healthy here. Truly bizarre.

    Now, this very topic is one which has driven some people to actually murder doctors, nurses, and other folks involved in Family Planning because they believe so strongly in the utter evil of such a practice of taking life. How do we process this difference. Now, take Jefferson’s ultimate respect for the Native American culture, which doesn’t come across nearly as strongly when he talks about the African American culture in Query XIV. many people argue that this has everything to do with the threat a largely enslaved population represented for the agrarian South, while the Native American was not nearly as big a presence on the East Coast by the 1760s and 70s. Their threat had been all but eliminated, which gave way to a kind of cultural idolatry we see in The Notes. My point? How do we not understand the very act of colonization and an indirect genocide of culture evil, if not in a directed sense, than in a more abstracted human sense of utter horror and existential angst?

    How do we trace Evil through a Western paradigm like snakes, jealousy, and greed? They may smack of the universal to some degree for us, but no context can ever truly be universal can it? Anthropologists like Claude Levi-Strauss were after exactly this think, a kind of universal, structural map of the laws that govern myth, and in many ways help universally define something like Evil –which is born of myth, right? Can we graft a moral order on some larger space and expect we will finally be able to establish a few inalienable truths? I’m not so sure, but when I read history and texts as i tried above, the shifting notion of morality, evil, and some ure, clean idea of what is lawful Good versus chaotic Evil is not ever so clear.

  8. Andy Best says:

    Hi all, I have continued the debate at my blog and done a trackback. However, you have to sign up to my log to comment etc …so why not post responses here? Sounds good to me.

    If you have any responses that is 🙂


    PS My post is just sticking with D&D with Education and ideas of ‘open-source’ ..no lengthy discussions of ‘evil’ or what have you. That’s a boredom warnign before you click the link.

  9. Andy Best says:

    I should think first and put everything in one comment.

    I just want to say, Jim, that i’m totally down with everything you talk about in your post …amazing post … I haven’t really gone over any of it at my blog cos I don’t want to be redundant.

    The way the MM extrapolates into all these areas is indeed what I was hinting at in the Clash comments … hang on, I did kind of go over that in the new post.

    Oh my head, long week.


  10. Jim, believe me – it wasn’t a voluntary thing. The box was unmarked, and my wife was clearing out some room in the basement… We’re still happily married, though 😉

  11. Reverend says:

    @D’Arcy: You’re a forgiving soul, let me tell you 🙂

    @Andy: I loved your blog post, and I really enjoy the way you frame the D2O movement as an open source form of gaming, I think it has a ton of legs, and to hear the way you used this in your teaching is mazing. I commented on your blog post, but I am now thinking of a bit from my own history. My sixth grade teacher, Mr Sobeck, actually had a Risk Board set up in the back of the classroom and it was a game that was going all year long. We would take time out of the day when things were quite and groups would rad while others, usually teams, would get up and play risk. It was a ball, without question one of the highlights of my early education.

    And while the game logic behind Risk is an imperial urge for world domination that might characterize most sixth grade teaches, the idea of gaming in school was an early one for me, and it made sense. it was part of the fabric of teaching and learning, not external to and distinct from. So much of this latter logic has everything to do with gimmiks, selling, and forcing your market to understand these moments of shared attention as external to learning in a school. And schools, in all their wisdom, often just overreact to the paltry learning possibilities associated with games, fun, and alternatives making the process hat much more routinized, mechanical, and downright dull.

  12. Andy Best says:

    There is a key ideological difference that makes game-play a non-fit in most modern schools.

    D&D and my oft talked about Drama games and processes are essentially collaborative. A group of people ‘play’ out a scenario together, share an experience and help it grow, with no emphasis on winning or losing.

    This is at odds, obviously, with games of winning and losing, where slogans about doing your best or particiaption being the key have to be thrown in to soften the brutality of it all. This has a highly developed ideological branch in Game-theory, which is no longer a maths excercise but a way of thinking for neo-liberal conservatives.

    A group of students at college level, studying business could well be asked to construct a game scenario in a class or on a computer. By playing it out they will probably be asked to analyse and devise effective strategies for winning or efficient game play. Think about Chess …

    It all makes sense but it is a far cry from the core experience of playing D&D, that I had, and its possibilities for a community to explore and educate itself. It’s pretty much opposed to it, in fact, bringing me back to the start of the comment.

  13. Andy Best says:

    For those who didn’t read my blog and follow all the links there:


    So, across the development of RPGs like Dungeons and Dragons there came numerous games that were all based around a very similar system using the polyhedral dice. There had been previous attempts to form a generic system such as GURPS but the D20 thing was on a whole different level and very relevant to readers of this blog and ed tech people.

    So, Wizards of the Coast bought up Dungeons and Dragons and the old TSR material in the 90’s and set about rejuventating the industry.

    There was immediately a debate about the fact that the game core was almost generic, used by different games and companies and that they industry as a whole were like minded people who work with goodwill to each other. Could it be owned by a company?

    So, not only did Wizards agree with the sentiment, in 2000 they created a set of common/open use licenses, legally freeing the core game component for use. These are available for download at their site. It includes free DL of the entire D&D rules set found in their commercial books too.

    Wizard continue to make and sell good products based on the D20 system at the same time as allowing other ‘developers’ to create their own material freely with no fear of corporate retribution. And it came from a recognition of a community and a shared interest.

    It’s not quite as simple or issue free as I just put it – but it’s a significant event that’s worth knowing about.

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  15. Joseph says:

    I Imagine monsters of mythology From Dungeons and dragons
    As Kaijus of The Monsterverse as Titans.

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