The Menagerie of Death

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Talanall
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The Menagerie of Death

As I was working on a random encounter table, it occurred to me that I personally haven't played encounters against the majority of the creatures that ended up on the table. That realization set me to thinking about whether that's normal, and I soon came to the conclusion that if my experiences are anything close to normative, most people who play D&D 3.X/Pathfinder, even long-time players, may very well have spent a majority of their time playing encounters that only feature a very small subset of all that are available in the core rules (to say nothing of the dozens or maybe hundreds of creatures that have been included in various supplements over the years).

Virtually all campaigns I've played (as a PC, not a DM) have leaned heavily on only about three or four major types of creature: Humanoids, Outsiders (with pride of place going to devils, demons, and genies), Undead, Elementals and Vermin. I'd say that the frequency of my encounters against these kinds of creature is roughly in the order presented, as well. Dragons haven't been a huge feature of my gaming experience, and most DMs I've played under have been of the "Great Wyrm or GTFO" persuasion. I think that once or twice, I have played encounters against Aberrations.

But never an Ooze. Never a Plant (that I can recall), or ANY kind of Fey. No harpies, medusae, minotaurs, or any other Monstrous Humanoid (that I can recall). I'm not positive, but I'm actually pretty sure I've never had an encounter with anything with the Animal type. And I think my only encounter with a Magical Beast was an ankheg. I've played against Constructs once or twice.

I don't necessarily think there's anything wrong with that, but it did occur to me that I might want to see if I'm weird, or if this is a common experience for most people who play. And if it is a common experience, why?

Fixxxer
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If my experiences are typical, then you're not weird. People gravitate toward what's easiest, even while believing that they're putting some new spin on something old. "Oh, my new campaign is like Interview With The Vampire, except..." Exploring tropes is bread and butter for DMs. And that's not to mention the ease factor.

Vampires drain life, it's a straightforward attack. Elementals attack with their element. Demons and devils either attack outright or try to trick you. It's easy. Abberations, though? Spell resistance? Work. Dragons? Who has time to figure out the rules for how flying works? Fae? Roleplaying court politics takes too much effort.

People tend to stick to 1: what they know and 2: what's easy.

Talanall
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It's been purely through chance that you guys haven't run into anything weirder than you have in Ancestral Burdens. I think Bob the Ettercap has been the only random encounter that really went far off the beaten trail. I mean, sure, you ran into trolls and ogres, but and they're technically giants. But not GIANT giants.

And I can't really claim the fey encounters, because I'm going out of my way to make them more important in the setting.

Some of the stuff on the random encounter tables I use for AB is pretty weird. I'm kinda disappointed that there hasn't been a bulette or something. They're so goofy-looking that I want to see how they do in a battle.

Wæs se grimma gæst Grendel haten,
mære mearcstapa, se þe moras heold

Darker

I think this has a lot to do with expectations of a fantasy setting. There are certainly cliche things we almost expect to see. Sure, there's certainly a novelty to getting to fight something like a bulette, but if the setting is full of nothing but these MM oddballs, things get weird.

I noticed I do the same thing when picking a novel to read. For example, if it's a fantasy novel, I expect the setting to conform somewhat to typical fantasy stuff. If the opponents or magic system are too out there, it takes me a while to get into it, even if its good. I think about Warbreaker by Sanderson for example.

Anyway, so when a DM is preparing, I think most unconsciously tap into this common fantasy stock to keep their setting somewhat in line with the cliches so it's not too jarring and incompatible with the expectations. I know a few games I've played over the years that try to purposely go outside the norm and none were that successful.

MinusInnocence
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So I figured at least some of this might be because there isn't an even distribution among different Types or Subtypes of monsters throughout the books, or at least not in the SRD. I went to http://www.d20srd.org/extras/d20monsterfilter/ which lets you filter everything by Challenge Rating, alignment, terrain, type or subtype, etc. I thought a range of CR 1-5 would be a good test case.

ANIMAL - 46. This is kind of what I was thinking. I dunno why they don't show up more often in random ecnounters. They SHOULD be better represented if the charts are truly organic and based on what characters are statistically more likely to come across in their travels but maybe a lot of DMs don't think they're interesting enough to justify taking the spot of, say, an ankheg or bulette.

CONSTRUCT - 5. Literally just the homonculus and four different kinds of animated objects. Even moreso than with creatures like Outsiders, in most settings Constructs don't just spontaneously appear in nature. They have to be... constructed. So it's less likely to just randomly run into one. I could see that being different in a scenario where you're exploring a really gigantic wizard's laboratory where his creations have run amok. But if it is a reasonable sized dungeon it would probably just be easier to script every encounter.

DRAGON - 23. Wyrmling, Juvenile, Very Young and Young examples of the ten basic kinds of dragons, plus a pseudodragon. I think the reason we don't see these more often is that even a little baby dragon raises questions about where it came from and what it's doing in the area the PCs encounter it; also, if it's near the bottom end of the spectrum in terms of power, a lot of DMs might think it's a waste of a great monster because it will be super easy and underwhelming and they want to do dragons justice. Or maybe they're just intimidated by all the special rules such a creature has at their disposal.

ELEMENTAL - 14. If you anticipate that the lion's share of these are just the weaker versions of the 4 plain jane element subtypes, you are correct.

FEY - 6. The choices here aren't bad and could certainly represent the denizens of a lush, unspoiled forest realm. The Thornwood in Haranshire is such a place but until recently, Bloodskull orc patrols were so prevalent it was just more likely you would run into them than anything else. They aren't on the chart at all anymore, though, because you've killed so many of them; so Fey like these are much more likely to pop up. The same goes for Plants.

GIANT - 4. Ogres and trolls. That makes sense, since those are the weakest kinds of Giants and you won't be seeing a lot of other entries on the roster until you climb into higher CR ranges.

HUMANOID/MONSTROUS HUMANOID - 23. I conflated these two categories because the search engine did, too. You'll see some different flavors of PHB races represented here (like Drow) but not the vanilla dwarves, elves, etc. because they aren't considered to be monsters, I guess. However, if we're just talking about the chance of adventurers running into regular people doing regular people things, the actual number of choices from the Monster Manual isn't very informative because you usually don't have a single Derro or whatever on the list.

MAGICAL BEAST - 25. Lots of options here, mostly owing to an ever-growing stable of essentials over the years since D&D was created (not to mention creatures from myths and legends in our world).

OOZE - 3. Yeah, I don't think anyone was expecting to see a cornucopia of results in this category.

OUTSIDER - 39. There's all kinds of stuff going on here so it's definitely not true that we're hurting for examples of Outsiders to populate random encounter charts. But maybe it's generally true that DMs think that if their charts were filled to the brim with Outsiders, it would raise questions about why creatures from other dimensions are so common on the Prime Material Plane. That seems like a setting-specific consideration to make, and you've already touched on that re: Fey in Ancestral Burdens.

PLANT - 4. No surprises here - it's not a very common Type.

UNDEAD - 19. 8 or 9 of these can be discarded because the query result spat out a bunch of different kinds of skeletons and zombies, which is not really illuminating at all. We all know how templates work.

VERMIN - 18. A respectable turnout but I think their prevalence on most charts has to do with the ease of inserting an encounter with giant ants, spiders or what have you into the game. They're mindless so you don't even need to give them skills or feats. Plus it's really cool. Who doesn't like fighting critters like this in games like Skyrim or Fallout? I mean maybe you don't actually like it at all until you reach a certain level because they're tenacious and brutal but it's cool that they're part of the setting.

MinusInnocence
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Oops. Forgot aberrations. It gave me 10 results and they're all pretty cool. Some are more evocative than others and I'm not sure I would let them take a magical beast or monstrous humanoid's spot on a chart, but would be very interested in using pretty much all of these in scripted encounters (especially in a dungeon crawl). I think the dearth of aberrations on random encounter charts might owe to the same issues we face with Constructs or Outsiders - unless you're playing in a VERY specific setting (like the Underdark), they're probably not very common.

Talanall
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MinusInnocence wrote:

So I figured at least some of this might be because there isn't an even distribution among different Types or Subtypes of monsters throughout the books, or at least not in the SRD. I went to http://www.d20srd.org/extras/d20monsterfilter/ which lets you filter everything by Challenge Rating, alignment, terrain, type or subtype, etc. I thought a range of CR 1-5 would be a good test case.

You did more work than I really was willing to, honestly. But awesome work that is super useful to a continuing discussion.

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ANIMAL - 46. This is kind of what I was thinking. I dunno why they don't show up more often in random ecnounters. They SHOULD be better represented if the charts are truly organic and based on what characters are statistically more likely to come across in their travels but maybe a lot of DMs don't think they're interesting enough to justify taking the spot of, say, an ankheg or bulette.

I feel like the total number of animals on a given chart should be lower than this, just allowing for the fact that not every creature in this type is going to be in every terrain/climate. Still, there are tons of Animals, and especially if you're running a game in plains or forest terrain, there are a lot of choices.

To some extent, I feel as if creatures like ravens and toads are a waste of space. I've never seen one in play, other than as a familiar or the output of a summon spell at VERY low level. And even for creatures like hawks and owls, I have issues because there's just no reason why an adventurer would ever get into a fight with a random one. And even with large herbivores like elephants and bison . . . I mean, yeah, they do kill people. But usually only when people are bothering them. So maybe those critters really are there just for templates to be applied to them, or something?

That objection doesn't really hold true for me with a leopard or other large cat, though. Or for boars, etc. Almost every year, I hear about some incident where a mountain lion stalks some poor hiker or bicyclist, and feral hogs are legitimately dangerous just because they're ill-tempered, territorial, and not really scared of humans.

So I think it's weird that we don't see more animals on encounter tables. I think rats and dire rats may be the most-fought kind of animal in the game, just because they make a lot of sense to drop into a dungeon.

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CONSTRUCT - 5. Literally just the homonculus and four different kinds of animated objects. Even moreso than with creatures like Outsiders, in most settings Constructs don't just spontaneously appear in nature. They have to be... constructed. So it's less likely to just randomly run into one. I could see that being different in a scenario where you're exploring a really gigantic wizard's laboratory where his creations have run amok. But if it is a reasonable sized dungeon it would probably just be easier to script every encounter.

I feel the same. At higher levels, the Inevitables are cool and interesting, but otherwise I usually approach constructs as extensions of their masters. Most other constructs are mindless, kind of a pain to create, and likely to draw attention. So I usually keep them as guardian/servant creatures for a planned dungeon encounter.

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DRAGON - 23. Wyrmling, Juvenile, Very Young and Young examples of the ten basic kinds of dragons, plus a pseudodragon. I think the reason we don't see these more often is that even a little baby dragon raises questions about where it came from and what it's doing in the area the PCs encounter it; also, if it's near the bottom end of the spectrum in terms of power, a lot of DMs might think it's a waste of a great monster because it will be super easy and underwhelming and they want to do dragons justice. Or maybe they're just intimidated by all the special rules such a creature has at their disposal.

I think you're probably right in all respects, here. It's hard for me to agree with the "I want to do dragons justice" crew, because frankly I don't like the idea of waiting until 20th level to get around to "Iconic D&D Experience" stuff.

But dragons are undeniably complicated monsters to run, and depending on the age and kind of dragon you're running, they fly at up to 250 ft., and at maneuverability as low as Clumsy. That really makes them almost impossible to adjudicate on standard battle maps. Even on a digital map like I use for AB and Cataclysm or you use for 2EE, it's kind of rough. My stock map is only 40 x 40 squares, and dragon flight speeds START at 100 ft. (20 squares). So an encounter with a dragon is going to send it pinballing all over the map unless the DM makes the creature fight as stupidly as possible by landing.

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ELEMENTAL - 14. If you anticipate that the lion's share of these are just the weaker versions of the 4 plain jane element subtypes, you are correct.

It's not hard to run into random elementals in my Tolrea setting, but that's a deliberate and unusual choice on my part. In ordinary circumstances, I expect that elementals are creatures that the PCs will only encounter as summoned/called monsters or during excursions to literally a different universe. I have no quarrel with that, and I've fought more than enough encounters against elementals to feel as if they're well represented in scripted encounters.

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FEY - 6. The choices here aren't bad and could certainly represent the denizens of a lush, unspoiled forest realm. The Thornwood in Haranshire is such a place but until recently, Bloodskull orc patrols were so prevalent it was just more likely you would run into them than anything else. They aren't on the chart at all anymore, though, because you've killed so many of them; so Fey like these are much more likely to pop up. The same goes for Plants.

I think the biggest reason why fey don't show up may be that the Core examples are all good or neutral. It's not impossible to arrange matters so that an intelligent good or neutral creature will fight against good/neutral PCs, but I think most such approaches are contrived enough that DMs are reluctant to use them, and that it's likely inconvenient to throw them into random encounters.

Arguably this still leaves plenty of room for peaceful roleplay/information-gathering encounters, but we may be seeing the specter of old-school "kick in the door, kill the monsters and steal their stuff" gaming.

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GIANT - 4. Ogres and trolls. That makes sense, since those are the weakest kinds of Giants and you won't be seeing a lot of other entries on the roster until you climb into higher CR ranges.

I think the bigger giants may just be rarer in play because they start to show up around the same time that PCs are starting to develop various "fast travel" capabilities that let them avoid random encounters. And it's hard to design dungeons that are accommodative of creatures that are humanoid but stand 16 to 32 feet tall and need a 15 ft. space to walk through.

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HUMANOID/MONSTROUS HUMANOID - 23. I conflated these two categories because the search engine did, too. You'll see some different flavors of PHB races represented here (like Drow) but not the vanilla dwarves, elves, etc. because they aren't considered to be monsters, I guess. However, if we're just talking about the chance of adventurers running into regular people doing regular people things, the actual number of choices from the Monster Manual isn't very informative because you usually don't have a single Derro or whatever on the list.

Derro are awkward unless you do the whole Underdark/Night Below thing, since sunlight kills them and they have stubby little dwarf legs that limit their mobility. They're not even as well-off as vampires, really, since a vampire can at least turn into a cloud and fly away, or change into a bat or wolf or whatever.

But that concern doesn't really hold true of minotaurs, harpies, and so on, and I don't think those are any better represented than derro.

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MAGICAL BEAST - 25. Lots of options here, mostly owing to an ever-growing stable of essentials over the years since D&D was created (not to mention creatures from myths and legends in our world).

Magical beasts may be my favorite category of monster, just because I like the whole "fantastic ecology" aspect of world building. It's also undeniably an underrepresented category in my personal experience as a player. I've had encounters with the ankheg (scripted) and some worgs (in your 2EE game, and I think that one was scripted or semi-scripted).

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OOZE - 3. Yeah, I don't think anyone was expecting to see a cornucopia of results in this category.

I'm shocked that I haven't seen more of these in dungeon crawls and underground. Two of the three list as marsh creatures, but there's really no reason why they wouldn't work in a cave.

I'm pretty sure I've fought at least the gelatinous cube as a scripted dungeon encounter.

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OUTSIDER - 39. There's all kinds of stuff going on here so it's definitely not true that we're hurting for examples of Outsiders to populate random encounter charts. But maybe it's generally true that DMs think that if their charts were filled to the brim with Outsiders, it would raise questions about why creatures from other dimensions are so common on the Prime Material Plane. That seems like a setting-specific consideration to make, and you've already touched on that re: Fey in Ancestral Burdens.

I don't think that outsiders have tended to be random encounters in my experience as a player. But I've fought TONS of them as a player. They're a stock monster for scripted encounters.

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PLANT - 4. No surprises here - it's not a very common Type.

Yeah, and shriekers are immobile and unable to attack anyway. They're basically a natural hazard that's been statted out like a monster. The real action with Plant creatures is in the CR 6-8 band, where you get the sentient, mobile plant people that live aboveground. I've fought an encounter with a violet fungus, but it was scripted.

I think most plants other than the fungi on this low-level list are a good example of encounters that almost have to be random, just because the questions get numerous and awkward if you put one in a scripted dungeon. Like, really, where does an assassin vine fit into a scripted encounter? Why's the NG treant going to fight the good-hearted adventurers?

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UNDEAD - 19. 8 or 9 of these can be discarded because the query result spat out a bunch of different kinds of skeletons and zombies, which is not really illuminating at all. We all know how templates work.

I think undead are really versatile; it's not really a shock that there are bunches of them, at virtually every CR imaginable, or that they tend to be heavily represented in supplement books. I also feel as if they're extremely well represented as a type, regardless of whether we're talking about random or scripted encounters.

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VERMIN - 18. A respectable turnout but I think their prevalence on most charts has to do with the ease of inserting an encounter with giant ants, spiders or what have you into the game. They're mindless so you don't even need to give them skills or feats. Plus it's really cool. Who doesn't like fighting critters like this in games like Skyrim or Fallout? I mean maybe you don't actually like it at all until you reach a certain level because they're tenacious and brutal but it's cool that they're part of the setting.

Yeah, they're low effort in every way. Nothing wrong with that; I've had some fun as a DM with giant ants in particular during the Bastards' first trip to Morville. Vermin are basically wads of hit points with a respectable BAB and (usually) a couple of relatively easy-to-understand special attacks and abilities. It's hard to dislike them, if you're a DM.

Wæs se grimma gæst Grendel haten,
mære mearcstapa, se þe moras heold

Talanall
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MinusInnocence wrote:

Oops. Forgot aberrations. It gave me 10 results and they're all pretty cool. Some are more evocative than others and I'm not sure I would let them take a magical beast or monstrous humanoid's spot on a chart, but would be very interested in using pretty much all of these in scripted encounters (especially in a dungeon crawl). I think the dearth of aberrations on random encounter charts might owe to the same issues we face with Constructs or Outsiders - unless you're playing in a VERY specific setting (like the Underdark), they're probably not very common.

They do have a relatively high likelihood of being listed for underground environments. Some of that gets better in mid-level encounters, though, when you start to see athachs, chuuls, nagas and will-o'-wisps. Athachs are kind of meh (because we already have ettins to fill a similar role in a similar climate/terrain niche), but the others really are interesting.

Wæs se grimma gæst Grendel haten,
mære mearcstapa, se þe moras heold

Talanall
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Darker wrote:

I think this has a lot to do with expectations of a fantasy setting. There are certainly cliche things we almost expect to see. Sure, there's certainly a novelty to getting to fight something like a bulette, but if the setting is full of nothing but these MM oddballs, things get weird.

I certainly am not advocating for a "nothing but" approach. That wouldn't be fun, and mostly it would strain the bounds of credulity.

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I noticed I do the same thing when picking a novel to read. For example, if it's a fantasy novel, I expect the setting to conform somewhat to typical fantasy stuff. If the opponents or magic system are too out there, it takes me a while to get into it, even if its good. I think about Warbreaker by Sanderson for example.

See, I don't have anything against conventional stuff, but Sanderson's oddball magical systems and worldbuilding are a good example of what I like best in fantasy. It doesn't throw me at all, most of the time.

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Anyway, so when a DM is preparing, I think most unconsciously tap into this common fantasy stock to keep their setting somewhat in line with the cliches so it's not too jarring and incompatible with the expectations. I know a few games I've played over the years that try to purposely go outside the norm and none were that successful.

I don't mind "weird for the sake of being weird," but it bugs me if I'm presented with a situation where I have no frame of reference within which to determine what's actually happening around my character (or around the POV character in a work of fiction). Or why I care.

So despite the generally good reviews for Legend of Grimrock, for example, I didn't enjoy the game. In fact, I quit after about 3 hours of play. I can say similar things about Myst, Riven, and similar atmospheric puzzle/exploration games.

Wæs se grimma gæst Grendel haten,
mære mearcstapa, se þe moras heold

MinusInnocence
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I had an idea for a setting where all of the monsters were adapted from games like Legend of Zelda. Totally new roster of baddies. But it requires a little bit of prep work to get the players into the right headspace, I think, because a world like that defies so many expectations about what fantasy roleplaying is or should be (what do you mean, there's no orcs?)

Talanall
Talanall's picture

In the past I've had good results with just putting new labels and descriptions onto existing material. Sometimes a monster is much more compelling just by virtue of being unidentifiable. I'd imagine that this could work well for such a setting.

Wæs se grimma gæst Grendel haten,
mære mearcstapa, se þe moras heold

deadDMwalking
deadDMwalking's picture

I would agree that using an existing monster and describing it differently (or giving it a different name) can be effective. Most people are afraid of the unknown. Even very dangerous things become humdrum and boring when you deal with it enough. Compare your driving now to when you were first learning, or how you wield a chainsaw while chasing nubile teens to your first attempt at logging-inspired murder.

In one campaign I was involved in the scariest moment was when we encountered a grassland. That's it. The grass was taller than our heads and we imagined all kinds of things hiding in there. For myself, I was having visions of one of the Jurassic Park movies (probably 2) when Velociraptors were picking off soldiers faster than they could respond. The setup for the campaign was that demons had the run of the world except for a few sanctuary cities and they had seemingly disappeared, but we were just stepping out into an unknown world to find out.

As far as monsters that I've fought as a player, I'd say I've seen it all. There are certain monsters that tend to show up a lot, and most campaigns end by 10th or 11th level, so I probably haven't fought every high-level threat, but I've come across the vast majority of the MM a time or two.

Humanoids make good opposition because they can be reasoned with meaning they can be hostile or friendly and still make an interesting encounter. It also makes it possible for an adventure to include factions and how you deal with each one impacts how you are received by the others. The 3.0 modules starting with 'Sunless Citadel' involved dragons as well as a wide variety of other critters, but that's probably the only time I've seen dragons at low-levels. In 2nd edition, they were exclusively a high-level threat.

From a world-building perspective, it can be hard to 'fit' so many similar creatures all with very different cultures. It's usually easier to pick orcs or hobgoblins in a particular campaign rather than both - especially if you already have goblins and kobolds. Some of that is 'role'. Having a bulette can be interesting, but so is a behir - and justifying encountering both in a short span - especially because 3.x level-gain is based off of just a small number of encounters. It makes it difficult to fit everything into a single campaign.

Talanall
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Well, I realize that you can only fit so much into a single campaign. But most of us here have been playing for 15+ years, now (some of us longer than that, starting from 2E). It just seems odd, sometimes, to think that in many cases the same few creatures have accounted for the bulk of our experiences.

I'm quite sympathetic to the instinct to learn heavily on humanoids and other humanoid-shaped creatures that can talk and reason. The reasons you've enumerated are compelling, and they apply to my experiences as a DM and player as much as to anyone else's. If I gave the impression that I am attacking the idea that people should use them heavily, that's entirely inadvertent on my part. I really was just wondering if my experiences are unusual, and if not, why not.

Wæs se grimma gæst Grendel haten,
mære mearcstapa, se þe moras heold

Fixxxer
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Darker wrote:

I noticed I do the same thing when picking a novel to read. For example, if it's a fantasy novel, I expect the setting to conform somewhat to typical fantasy stuff. If the opponents or magic system are too out there, it takes me a while to get into it, even if its good. I think about Warbreaker by Sanderson for example.

Or pretty much any fantasy setting created by Sanderson. Wanna be a badass that can fly? Life-bond with a barely-sentient creature that's a representation of an idea. You wanna fight the BBEG that's going to eat the world for funsies? Consume various types of metal. Sanderson is a great example of someone who thinks way, way outside the box.

Darker

Yeah, now that I think about it, that's pretty true. He does go pretty far out of the box. I've only read the Mistborn series, Elantra, and Warbreaker. It always takes me a long time to get into one of his books and often I'll put it down many times in the beginning. Luckily, you could use his books to kill monstrous spiders so you have plenty of time to get into them. That, and he writes well enough with interesting characters to give me time to get into the book before the weird ass settings make me turn away. But then, I'm betting lots of people enjoy that part as well.

Talanall
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I like the weirdness.

Wæs se grimma gæst Grendel haten,
mære mearcstapa, se þe moras heold