There is a place for stock monsters like skeletons and ghouls, but there are those who believe that every monster should be unique, and that every unique monster should be a story unto themselves. With Halloween fast approaching, we can use the themes of the holiday to explore how to create unique monsters without relying on tired cliches that have lost much of their meaning. Last Halloween, I ran a one-shot in my Phantasmos campaign setting which was intended to evoke the feeling of Halloween, while using mostly original or repurposed monsters, so this will be a breakdown of how I used the themes of Halloween to create new monsters.
1) Start With A Basic Concept
Halloween is a holiday about spooky monsters, candy, “trick or treat,” and costumes, and it is also thought to be related to pagan harvest rituals. One could easily go to skeletons, vampires, ghouls, ghosts, werewolves, jack o’lanterns, and other recognizable monsters, but to me these only represent superficial characteristics of the holiday. Let’s explore the underlying themes of the holiday derived from the original pagan harvest rituals. Let’s create a new pantheon of monsters, unburdened by prior expectations, to frighten and unsettle your party. Through these creations, we can also explore the concepts of labor, the rewards for one's labor, and the anxieties around failure and uncertainty in trying times.
2) Setting The Tone
In order to set the tone, I created Daddy Delightful, an ominous, fey-like being, a bringer of the harvest, like Santa Claus with a dark twist. He rewards those who overcome their fears and anxieties towards labor. While he will defer the suffering of those who fail in their labors by providing them candied fruits and syrupy sweets, this will only exacerbate their inevitable suffering at his hands. He comes to the village once a year, just before the harvest. He is generally subdued, but can be a manic influence on those around him. He has no tolerance for those who express their anxieties publicly, especially those who would incite fear in others. He is tall, lanky, and thin. He wears a black tunic with a neon, multicolored quilted pattern. His face is obscured by a pointy hat. He carries a staff of pumpkin on a stick, and can summon a mechanical plow which he rides down roads and fields alike.
3) Driving The Plot
The village is full of fey creatures, and one in particular is the nuno sa punso (nuno), adapted from Philippine mythology. Nunos are dwarf-like, have the appearance of old men, and live in termite mounds. I decided to make them more explicitly termite-like fey creatures. Things like nail-biting and nervous eating or teeth grinding are commonly associated with anxiety, so I thought the wood-eating and mound-building behaviors of termites would be a good analogy for these anxiety behaviors and themes of labor and harvest. Bloody Fingers is an urban legend, a nervous old nuno afraid of change and afraid of others, his fingers bloody from ripping his nails, which stick in his bloody teeth. It is said that he resides in the Lost Mounds, and will kill anyone who trespasses for being too carefree and playing when they should be laboring. The urban legend explores the fears of the elderly about the youth, the trend that the elderly believe the young are too lazy, and this is reflected in his violent misanthropic and nail biting behaviors. Whereas the party’s interactions with Daddy Delightful may be dependent on their own behaviors, if they even get entangled with him at all, Bloody Fingers is an unambiguous threat, and for whatever reason the party is in the village, he will be an obstacle they must overcome to achieve their goals.
4) Fill In The Middle
We’ve established that this is a fey village, that at least one type of fey, the nuno, have termite-like features and behaviors, and that this is a time of harvest. Between the village and the Lost Mounds are the oko-men, based loosely on the Orisha Oko from Yoruba Mythology. They are multi-headed creatures of various sizes and shapes in the general appearance of pumpkins on a stick, and are said to be the spirits of those who failed at their goals or those who wrongly embrace a novel thing as tradition. While they are essentially stock undead monsters in terms of game mechanics, their appearance and mythology contributes to the basic concept we’re exploring. “Pumpkin on a stick” is reminiscent of pumpkins, which are associated with Halloween, but have a bright red color like a tomato and are small and multi-headed; they are familiar and evoke a sense of Halloween, but are different enough to signal that this is not your usual jack o’lantern. The myth serves several purposes. There is the recurring theme of failure at labor and the consequences of failure during harvest, but also a critique on how traditions change or their meanings are lost, how they can outlive their purpose, and this ties back to Bloody Fingers as the old man afraid of the youth and afraid of giving up traditions.
5) The Twist (The Final Horror)
While it may already be the case that the party doesn’t know what to expect in this unusual Halloween world, it doesn’t hurt to throw in a twist: one last monster to encounter right at the end, the Big Bad they didn’t even know to be afraid of. It turns out Bloody Fingers isn’t just a vaguely supernatural, murderous old man, but is in fact possessed by a demon. Inside Bloody Fingers is the Laplace Demon, a giant beast who will tear through the little nuno’s body upon encountering the party. The Laplace Demon is a real-world concept, an attempt to mathematically model a deterministic universe. Conceptually, this is intended to evoke the self-fulfilling prophecies of those so afraid of failure that they never try in the first place. It has the spine and musculature of a boar but the underside and legs of a termite. In addition to the termite legs, it has a secondary set of front limbs like a bat, with insect-like wing membranes. Its face is like a cross between a boar, a bat, and a termite. The termite and insectoid features support the visual theme of insectoid fey, the bat wings evokes the association between bats and Halloween, and the boar-like features reflect over-consumption or the wrecking of harvest.
And with that, we’ve created a very basic, Halloween-themed micro-setting. It explores the basic concept of Halloween as a harvest ritual and the historical fears associated with the changing of seasons from fall to winter, but it does so in a way that does not rely on tired cliches that have lost their meaning (and critiques it, to boot). Even if you’re not interested in the thematic through-line, these monsters could be used to spice up an otherwise traditional Halloween setting. On the other hand, even if you’re not into the monsters, you could explore this thematic through-line using your own monsters, or even the traditional monsters.
Max Cantor is a graduate student and data analyst, whose love of all things science fiction, fantasy, and weird has inspired him to build worlds. He writes a blog called Weird & Wonderful Worlds and hopes people will use or be inspired by his ideas!
Picture Reference: https://wallpaperstock.net/house%2c-halloween_wallpapers_54545_1920x1080_1.html
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