Monday, May 12, 2014

The History Behind Your Favorite Monsters

Fantasy roleplaying games pull a lot of their monster rosters from world mythology. Whether it's giants or kobolds, goblins or gargoyles, these games have been using myth and legend as free idea buckets for decades now. As a result players have actually come face to face with fragments of cultures ranging from Europe and Africa to the furthest corners of the Asian continent without even knowing it.

This week on Moon Pope Monday we're pulling back the glossy curtain, and showing you just where some of your favorite creatures come from and how they've become what they are today. Now, in no particular order, let's start with...


Pictured: A Re-Enactment
Ogres populate a huge variety of fairy tales, and they have the unique ability to make an entire party's collective asshole pucker. Strong, vicious, and usually pretty stupid, ogres are actually the direct result of a linguistic translation rather than a particular myth or legend.

The word ogre seems to come from the Italian word uerco, or orco. It was originally used to refer to demons in a translation of the 1,001 Arabian Nights from Arabic to Italian. There were a lot of steps along the way, but this translation eventually led to the term ogre being applied to specific people-eating giants in fairy tales. For a more complete history of the term, check out this article.

Speaking of demons...

The Difference Between Devils and Daemons

One of these things is not like the other...
Dungeons and Dragons was the first game I ever played that made it clear demons and devils were very different kettles of fish. In game terms one was lawful, the other chaotic, but both were found outside of reality in places of pain, suffering and torment. So, a lot of imagery from the big 3 Abrahamic faiths.

What I didn't know was there actually is a difference between devils and daemons.

The word daemon (spelled with the a) refers to a creature that is between man and god in old Greek. Hercules, and all of his half-god kin, were daemons. Devils in this case referred to genuine divine beings who had no blood of humanity in them at all. For more on this unique bit of language, read this article here.

The Ifrit

Fire It Up!
While they're now a player race in Pathfinder, Ifrit are bad, bad news if you're on their shit lists. Fire elements and djinn, we know them as desert spirits that are resistant or immune to fire, that come with a slew of spell-like abilities, and who can cut a party to slivers before they're really sure what's happening.

This isn't too far from the source material, actually.

The Ifrit, and their many alternative spellings, are taking from a combination of the Koran and Arabic mythology. Powerful spirits of fire created by God before man, these beings of fire are nearly immortal, possess great speed and strength, and are immune to weapons that are not magical or holy. Bad news for parties who can be stymied by damage reduction. Perhaps the most famous of the Ifrit is the one who fell the hardest, called Iblis or Shaitain in the Koran. More on him here. For more general information on the Ifrit as a people, check out this article.

The Succubus and the Incubus

50 Shades of Will Saves
Sex always finds its way into a roleplaying game. Whether it's the bard seducing his way into the queen's castle, or a cavalier fighting for his lady's honor there's at least as much sex in fantasy games as there is in real life. Usually more. Most of the time it's glossed over, but there are two creatures who take this uncomfortable topic and fashion it into a barbed spear made of confused libido and frustrated arousal; the incubus and the succubus.

The incubus and the succubus come from old Jewish lore stretching back to Adam's first wife Lilith. Supposedly Lilith wanted to be equal to her husband, and when Adam denied her that, she fled. She refused to return, or to accept her place in God's kingdom, and so she became a creature who preyed on men in their sleep (more about Lilith may be found in this article). Using their seed she would give birth to monsters called the lilim (more on them here). The succubi followed in their mother's footsteps, seducing men in their dreams and stealing their seed to give birth to ghost babies. Incubi were even more terrifying, having sex with women as they slept and getting them pregnant with half-human, half-daemon spawn called cambions.

In case these creatures weren't already scary enough for you, read more about the incubus and the succubus here.


This is the lowest CR we could find.
Considered ogres bigger, bridge-dwelling cousins, trolls have a long and storied history. Though their decadent descendants are busy getting belly jewelry and starting fights on the Internet, trolls go back to Scandinavian folklore. For those who are familiar with Norse mythology the two main contenders in the myth cycles were the gods and the giants; the former representing the divinity of man and the latter representing the primal earth. Some giants were trolls, and in this case trolls could be seen as lesser representations of the primal. Human heroes like Beowulf could fight trolls and win, and they were used often as villains or as neutral representations of earth in fairy tales.

For more information about trolls, check out the full article.


My elf eyes see three viable targets.
Elves have been a player race for most of the history of fantasy roleplaying, and that's largely due to their prominence in Tolkien's Lord of the Rings. The games that defined the genre drew heavily from LOTR, and they used a lot of the mythology present in those books. What a lot of folks don't know is that Tolkien was drawing on the works of the ancient skalds (more on them here), and that the elves we know are actually part of Norse mythology as well.

Light elves or dark, these willowy, impossibly skilled and nearly immortal forest and cave dwellers were knows as the Alfar (or the svartalfar for those who lived beneath the world). They were a lesser rank of divinity, and they answered to the god Frey and his sister Freya. At the last battle they stood with the gods against the giants and provided some heavy artillery.

So yeah... elves are not to be messed with. For more about the Alfar, check this article out.

The Zombie

The inclusion of the gunslinger was not a fluke.
The undead have been a huge part of roleplaying games for decades, and we can thank the success of the film Night of the Living Dead for the presence of the shambling, moaning corpses that we've had to mow down from level 1 to level 4. While this film might have been instrumental in making the walking dead part of pop culture, it draws on a much older tradition.

For those who don't know, zombies come from Voodoo. Voodoo is a religion practiced largely in Haiti, the Caribbean, and parts of the American south. More about that here. The zombie in this case is a human being who is fed a mind-altering substance, and then buried. The person is dug up and kept on a steady drip of chemicals, which makes the person subservient and thoughtless, ready to do anything commanded by the master. These soulless people felt no fear, no pain, and seemed to know nothing of their former selves were terrifying to behold. It wasn't until pulp horror and Hollywood got hold of the idea that zombies felt compelled to eat human flesh. We're still not sure what's up with that.

For more information about the zombie, check this page out.

The Ghoul

She's waiting till after the funeral.
Ghouls have gone through a lot of iterations, and in most roleplaying games they're seen as servants of vampires a la Renfield, of they're sub-human cannibals who feed on the dead after digging them up. The second one is pretty close to their original myth, but still no cigar.

Ghouls are a kind of djinn, and are seen as particularly heinous practitioners of magic and desecration. Often invisible, ghouls take pleasure in stealing offerings left for God, including the bodies of the dead. The word eventually made its way to England, where its primary definition was changed to a grave robber. Still no word on whether or not British ghouls were eating what they dug up.

For more about ghouls, click this link.

The Golem

You are sixteen kinds of screwed.
A spellcaster's worst nightmare, golems are creatures constructed from magic, alchemy, and a touch of insanity. While versions made with flesh and bone, wood, stone, mud, and a dozen varieties of metal have all been created over time, these mystical guardians actually come from the dust of Rabbinic lore.

According to Jewish tradition a powerful Rabbi can use the secret knowledge of the names of god to follow in his footsteps. The rabbi creates a man from clay, and then gives him life. The golem is bigger than mortal men, as well as stronger, tougher, and faster. These golems have no souls, and as a result tend to have no voice. The only way to destroy them is to eliminate the runes that bring them to life, or to somehow break the spell that makes them live. Historical legend has it that several golems were created to protect Jewish settlements, including one where this mud man killed Nazis for weeks until he was finally destroyed by his maker for becoming too bloodthirsty.

For more about golems and their history, click here.

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1 comment:

  1. I'd actually like to hear more about this nazi-slaying golem. I know a lot about the occult and WWII and the holocaust, but this is the first I've heard about the presence of one of the monsters of Hebrew folklore during the war.