The world’s oldest role-playing game used to have a series of practically mandated monster combos: neogi and umber hulks, ghouls and ghasts, and githyanki and red dragons all come to mind. Pathfinder adds to that list gloomwings and their doubly dangerous offspring, tenebrous worms. Gloomwings are good for ticking-clock adventure scenarios, or for introducing PCs to the hazards of the Plane of Shadow.
An abandoned mill on the edge of town hosts several strange cocoons—nascent gloomwings about to hatch. Worse yet, if they are not stopped from implanting in the local townsfolk, the resulting tenebrous worms will be far outside the local sheriffs’ ability to handle. More disturbing is the reason for the cocoon’s presence: a rift to the Plane of Shadow that is slowly opening, due to some strange engine embedded in the still semi-functional mill.
A perfumer seeks gloomwings for their musky pheromones—her new fragrance is almost ready for market. If a party can retrieve some for her, excellent; if they are foolish enough to become implanted, she can always just petrify them to keep the eggs in safekeeping. Such are the options to a conscienceless medusa with a business to run.
Dwarven indigents have been disappearing from Belnott. A wizard exploring the intersection of conjuration and shadow magic has found that a supply of helpless victims makes gloomwings eagerly accept his planar ally callings.
—Pathfinder Bestiary 2 133
As Blogger readers, you’ve been able to comment on posts or email me pretty easily. But over on my Tumblr feed, I just discovered how to turn on the “Ask a Question” link. One of my readers already found it and sent me a really nice note, including this: “I didn't realize that all of the adventure hooks you post were of your own creation. Where do you get all of your ideas from?”
My response: Thanks so much, seriously! And wow…bear with me, this could take a while…
There’s never a good way to answer that question. But having met a lot of writers over the years, I can tell you that those who don’t at least try are total jerks.
So I don’t want to be that guy. And actually, I was going to mention some of this stuff on the blog’s birthday next month, so I might as well cover it now.
So, where do I get all of my ideas?
1) I read a lot. First of all, I’ve just read a lot of stuff: fantasy, sci-fi, literary fiction, classics, you name it. In particular, I started reading Dragon Magazine in fourth or fifth grade and Dungeon off and on from middle school, as well as whatever D&D accessories and Gazetteers I could get my hands on.
This is not to say that I’m reading for other people’s ideas (and when I do, I’m pretty careful to document it; see my globster entry). But other people’s good ideas spark your own good ideas. And it all goes into what Tolkien called “the leaf-mold of the mind.”
Take gnomes: over time I’ve read about Krynn’s tinker gnomes, the Scarred Lands’ jungle cannibals, Eberron’s spies and elemental conjurers, Pathfinder’s fey explorers, as well as the gnomes in classic fairy tales (and, of course, Huygen and Poortvliet’s Gnomes). So when it’s time for me to think about gnomes, I have plenty of models for inspiration, or to reject entirely.
(Also, you might notice that I wasn’t an Advanced Dungeons & Dragons player—something that I think actually helped me in the long run. Being a D&D player in the ’90s meant always being a little envious of all the cool classes and settings and monsters and spells etc. that AD&D players got. But watching what Bruce Heard and the other writers did with the Known World/Mystara was a master class in “Less is more.” Also, not being able to afford all the big fancy AD&D books on my sad allowance, I pored through Dragon gleaning every detail I could about them, trying to guess at the larger whole I was missing. I think this kind of mental weight lifting actually paid off—I learned to imagine big settings from little clues.
2) The entries themselves are packed with ideas. A lot of the flavor text in the Bestiaries is packed with adventure ideas that you can then extrapolate from. And even in the stat blocks, you might find a cool power or Feat you’ve never seen before, and it might inspire a scenario where it could best play out. A monster with tremorsense suggests one kind of encounter; a monster that resurrects the dead suggests another. (And I tremble at the thought of a monster than can do both…)
3) Truth—and myth—are stranger than fiction. The real world is plenty weird enough to inspire adventure scenarios. There are tons of ideas lying around on YouTube or Wikipedia. Take ants: There are ants that use their own bodies to form bridges, or that farm and milk aphids, or that cut leaves to grow fungi. Now make them giant ants and you have an invading horde that can create their own siege towers. Replace “aphids” with “cows” or “people” and you’ve got an abduction scenario. Make the fungi farms into caverns full of brown mold or ascomoids and you’ve got an intriguing dungeon delve.
And the myths monsters come from are also worth diving into. Sirens in the Odyssey can lead sailors to their dooms. So a straight side trek inspired by the myth might feature sirens or harpies as a hazard. Or you can twist it: What if a deaf man needs to hear a siren’s song to be cured? Or a bard needs to learn their melody for a grand performance? Or the harpies are the only things protecting an enemy duchy’s vulnerable flank? Now you have three ideas out of one Greek epic.
4) Where the ideas come from is a function of what I’m trying to do with the monster. This sounds weird, but a lot of times, I’m working backwards—I look for ideas based on what I want my ideas to achieve once I have them. Makes no sense, I know.
In every case, I’m trying to answer the unspoken questions a GM might ask flipping through a Bestiary: “How would I use this monster?” and/or “How does this monster fit into my world?”
Then I drill down a little deeper.
If it’s a new or hard-to-use monster, that’s all I’m doing. I’m trying to give every GM a plug & play way to use that hard-to-use or unfamiliar monster. I look for hooks in the flavor text or invent stuff out of thin air, and hope for the best.
(If I’m lucky, though, I can even take it a step forward, and promote a new monster into a potential star. Take the fetchling: I’m really proud of that entry, and as far as I know I’m the first to posit anything like that for a race on the Plane of Shadow. If even one person uses those ideas in a campaign, I’ll have added to the monster canon in a small but significant way.)
If it’s an established but uncommon monster, I look for themes that the monster can help explore. Take the azer: I’m no expert (and never read much Planescape; see above re: my lameness and tiny allowance) but I soon realized that nearly every mention of them I’d read involved slavery in some way. So these are more than just dwarves with fiery beards or super-excellent smiths. They are oppressors and victims, bound by laws but not by much morality or compassion, and any adventure with them can explore those facts.
If it’s an established but too-familiar monster, then I’m looking for the way to reinvent or rethink the monster. The classic example is drow: How do you save a monster the fandom loves so much it smothered the race completely? This category also fits monsters that fit too easily in a certain genre or cultural context: Can I do mummies without pyramids? Can I do djinn that aren’t Arabian? It’s worth a shot.
And if it’s an iconic monster like a ghost or goblin, I’ve been beaten to the origin, the thematic exploration, the stereotyping, and the reinvention. All I can do is offer my contributions and get out of the way.
But in all of these, I know what I’m trying to do. So the idea doesn’t come from somewhere—I write until I feel I’ve written toward my target successfully.
Whether I’ve reached my goal is up for you to decide. But I’m trying, and I hope you’re enjoying.