Wednesday 27 January 2016

Snakes, mushrooms, apes, and frogs

Myconid, by Erol Otus. (From Dungeon of the Slave Lords, 1981)

[Warning: this post is long and rambly and speculative and contains no useable game-related information whatsoever.]

I've been reading a lot of OSR stuff recently. The average quality is staggeringly high: not in terms of production values, necessarily, but quality of ideas and useability of material. It's been a very eye-opening experience.

Mostly, my newly-opened eyes have been spending a lot of time reading about snakes, mushrooms, apes, and frogs.

OSR writers love these things. Apemen. Frog- and toad-men. Serpent-folk. Myconids. Miscellaneous ooze monsters of a hundred varieties. The pattern eventually became so prominent that it prompted my sluggish brain into action. Why these? What was it about the OSR which kept making these the go-to fantasy creatures of choice? More specifically, why were they so much more prominent in OSR games and adventures than they were in 'mainstream' D&D?

What I'm saying is, why doesn't the typical D&D party look like this?

Some of it's just about source material, of course. A huge chunk of OSR writing is about pushing back beyond Tolkien, and his pervasive legacy of elves-and-dwarves-and-halflings, in order to reconnect with the pulpier fantasy literature which proliferated in the years before Terry Brooks ushered in the sub-Tolkien fantasy glut of the 1980s: Vance, Howard, Leiber, Lovecraft, Ashton Smith, and so on. Howard loved ape-men, Lovecraft loved frog-men, and both of them loved snake-men, so the use of such creatures became a kind of badge of fealty: by filling your adventure with frogmen rather than orcs, you signify your generic allegiance to the pre-Tolkien traditions of sword and sorcery. But I think there's more to it than that: a set of deeper factors which led behind the decisions of Howard and Lovecraft to use those creatures in the first place, and which point towards some of the core differences between mainstream D&D and the kinds of fantasy which proliferate in the materials produced by the OSR.

See, monsters are never 'just' monsters. Monsters are almost always metaphors for something else. (From the Latin 'monstrum', a sign or portent, geddit?) Elves, dwarves, orcs, halflings, ogres... they're just exaggerated versions of real human types. Similarly, the various 'giant predatory beastie' monsters - manticores, chimeras, owlbears - are usually just 'greatest hits' mash-ups of various real-world animals. Most stories about elves and dwarves and ogres and owlbears could just as easily be told about a bunch of haughty upper-class humans, another bunch of gruff working-class humans, a third bunch of thuggish human outlaws, and a variety of large, dangerous predatory animals of your choice. The only thing that the fantasy material lets you add is an exaggerated sense of scale.

So 'orc' is often a fairly clear metaphor for 'unpleasant violent person who, if killed, probably won't be missed', and 'manticore' is usually a metaphor for 'big, scary predatory animal that eats people': their metaphorical fancy-dress making them, among other things, more acceptable as targets of imagined violence, as many players who are fine with butchering orcs and chimeras might have qualms about mowing down human adversaries and exterminating the local bear population. But then there's this other space... this space in the middle, inhabited by things which aren't quite human and aren't quite animal but are uncanny combinations of the qualities of both. These are the sorts of creatures which people in the early modern period meant when the talked about 'monsters': freakish beings which combined human and non-human attributes in bizarre and uncomfortable ways. And those are the ones that a lot of OSR writers are interested in.

'The Monster of Ravenna' (woodcut from 1581)

Now, not all animal-human hybrids automatically fall into this space. Some animals have been so thoroughly anthropomorphised that we regard them almost as honourary humans: cats, dogs, monkeys, horses. Unless you go out of your way to emphasise their weirdness, a dog-man or a cat-man or a monkey-man or a centaur is usually going to be just as much of a metaphorical human as any elf or dwarf: cat-people could almost always be replaced with sexy, slinky, stealthy humans without making any real changes to the narratives in which they appear. Then there's a borderland of animals who we tend to think of in less anthropomorphic terms, but to whom we still tend to attribute strongly human traits: pigs, wolves, bears, lions, and so on. (Large mammals, basically.) Wolf-men and bear-men might be presented as more 'inhuman' than dog-men or cat-men, with a few more of their animal traits intact, but they're still usually going to play very human-like roles in the stories in which they appear.

And then there are the snakes and the frogs.

Reptiles, insects, arachnids, and amphibians are much harder to anthropomorphise than mammals, which is one reason why creatures based on them so often act as the villains of the stories in which they appear. (You can do it - look at the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, for example - but doing so often involves dialling down their 'animal' traits to a bare minimum.) Snake-men or spider-men can be used as metaphors for kinds of people - cold-blooded villains or lurking murderers, perhaps - but it's much more of a stretch. Human beings actually do loads of the same things that wolves do, although usually not in quite the same ways: we designate our territory, we compete for pack status, we work together to tackle difficult problems too large for any one of us to handle individually, and so on. But no human behaves like a spider, not really. To say that someone is wolfish is to imply that they've exaggerated one side of their (still very human) personality: but to say that they're spider-like is to imply that there's something inhuman about them. Lizard-men, insect-men, snake-men, toad-men: these stand for the melding of the familiar with the radically inhuman. Real difference; genuine otherness; the encounter with something which, on a very deep and basic level, is really and truly not like you. 

You know there's a conspiracy theory about this guy being a Deep One, right?

This, I think, is why they crop up so much in OSR products: because one of the crucial things which ties most of the OSR together is its shared desire to re-inject some of the fantastical strangeness back into fantasy gaming. Different OSR writers do it in different ways: some add sci-fi, some add horror, some play up the absurdist comedy, some shift the cultural reference points away from those with which their readers are likely to be most familiar, some try to return to the genre's roots in fairy-tales and folklore... but the basic objective is, I think, usually the same, namely defamiliarisation. To get us to look at these dungeons and monsters and wizards, these things which have become so worn with over-use that they have lost almost all of their original imaginative charge, and see them once again as something strange and exciting and new. To see the descent into the dungeon not as a routine exercise in grid-based slaughter and loot acquisition, but as a journey beyond the fields we know, away from the familiar and into a place which operates by very different rules.

Thus the frog-men, and the toad-men, and the snake-men, and the lizard-men. Thus the ape-men, who are actually harder for us to anthropomorphise precisely because they are so close to us: uncanny not-quite-humans, neither one thing nor the other. Thus the use of mushroom-men instead of tree-men: trees can be very human-like, as Tolkien's ents demonstrated, but fungi belong to some much odder realm. (Go on, imagine a human mushroom. You're imagining someone really weird, aren't you?) Creatures whose links are not with the everyday world of cats and dogs and short hairy people and tall pretty people that we actually inhabit, but with deep time, earlier evolutionary epochs, strange biomes, and unfamiliar classes of biological life. I strongly suspect that this is why Howard used them, and I know it's why Lovecraft used them: because they evoke the idea of life existing in totally alien ways, with just enough similarity to ourselves to be really creepy. And this, to come right back to the start at last, is basically the reason why I like OSR material so much more than mainstream fantasy gaming material: its embrace of idiosyncratic oddness, of things which would never be published in more traditional forms because they'd alienate too much of the target market. Of course I'm not suggesting that an adventure which features frog-men instead of orcs would be so strange as to be unpublishable: four decades worth of D&D modules prove the opposite. But I am suggesting that if one is the sort of person who finds oneself reflexively filling adventure after adventure with myconids and toadmen, probably while rewriting elves to be plant-men and dwarves to be robots and halflings to be evil death cultists in a desperate attempt to get them to feel genuinely weird again, then that might be a hint as to one's larger generic sympathies. And I don't think it's any kind of accident that so many of the apes-and-frogs-and-mushrooms brigade have ended up as part of the OSR.


  1. Ape-men and frog-men are also favourites of the B-movie genre, probably because they're easy to costume. And I suspect that cross-pollinated quite heavily.

  2. Right now I am contemplating whether I want to have a lizardman character race in my setting or lizarden monsters. Can't be both, because it would be too similar.
    This makes a really compelling argument for going with monster.

    1. Does it have to be either/or? I've never really been persuaded that races should be off-limits for PCs just because they're really weird. In fact, that often just makes them more interesting to play...