Yesterday, I invited ten veteran GMs to a Bracket Night with two goals: (1) to enjoy talking about role-playing games and (2) to determine absolutely and forever what the best monster is.
The evening was cold and dark, we drank hot sangria and cold cider and then approached our task. First of all, we created a list of 16 monsters without relying on outdated tools such as thought or logic. We went with personal preferences and free association. The final list included: Displacer Beast, Golem, Beholder, Doppelganger, Blink Dog, Gorgon, Rust Monster, Rat swarm, Vampire, Lich, Dire Weasel, Bugbear, Bulette, Chimera, Mind Flayer and Tarrasque.
We then randomly divided the monsters into one-on-one brackets by a roll of the die (well, in fact by rolling a 1d6, and a 1d8, because it made more sense to someone). In each round, we let heated discussions ensue: which of the two selected monsters is better. you will notice that we have not set any criteria, definitions or limitations on the discussions.
After 15 rounds we reached the ultimate result of the Best Monster. I tried to write down some of the arguments I remembered but there were a lot of discussions and the sangria was very alcoholic so I don't do justice to the level of complexity that went into each discussion. We touched on issues of gameplay, character impact vs. player impact, character interactions advantages and disadvantages, GMing styles, historical myths, and gameplay history, we explored different variants of the same monster (from mythological sources, different game systems, different editions of the same game, mentions in books and films), ease of usage in an adventure, amount of work required to play, personal preferences and many others.
Round 1: Beholder vs. Doppelganger
Right from the start, not an easy fight. The Beholder is iconic and is one of the ultimate Party Killers but the doppelganger allows the GM to mess with the characters' trust in everyone around them. The main issue was the amount of control and manipulation the monsters gave to the Gm in the game.
A 3-8 win for the Doppelganger.
Round 2: Blink Dog vs. Gorgon
This discussion went on for longer than I expected, I think what convinced us was mainly the argument "listen, you basically took a dog and removed the best parts of it. When the dog runs after the stick you throw or when it runs back to you." On the other hand, Gorgons turns people into stone and some of us still had traumas from petrified past characters, not to mention the mythical heritage of the gorgon and how it changed in the game.
A 4-5 win for Gorgon
Round 3: Rust Monster vs. Displacer Beast
The Rust Monster is the absolute horror for many players because it influences the character sheet – by erasing items from the sheet and taking away the player's hard-earned items. This became the main topic for our conversation, why is it that taking items is so painful? can it be the mere act of an in-game element affecting out of game elements? However, The Displacer Beast is an iconic creature most of us remember fondly and has the element of "this thing is not where you think this thing is" which is cool.
A 10-1 victory for a rust monster
[Here we stopped for an extensive discussion on the question "Is Nobilis a playable gaming system?"]
Round 4: Golem vs. A Swarm of Rats
I didn't see it coming. The main argument was that swarming rats is something that will benefit the players and not the golem, even though the golem comes with ancient history and many versions. On the other hand, a swarm of rats almost always comes with something or someone else that makes them work.
A 6-4 win for the Rat Swarm
Round 5: Vampire vs. Lich
Probably the hardest round of the evening. This two classic undead gave a serious fight to each other. Maybe the most noteworthy element if this discussion was that several of us, on both sides of the issue, changed our opinions during the discussion. The eventual win was a direct result of the monster character element, a typical lich has a very clear character because you need to work hard and disregard evil to become a lich, while anyone can find themselves as vampires which will make for a more interesting encounter.
A 7-4 victory for a vampire.
Round 6: Giant Weasel vs. Bugbear
No one was sure why the giant weasel was here in the first place, but it managed to garner more support than I thought.
A 3-7 win for Bugbear
Round 7: Bulette vs. Chimera
A close fight between the bulette, also known as the "dry shark" and the chimera also known as "why is there a goat's head in the middle here, LOL". I was very surprised at the close result. The Chimera is a classic creature from myth and I love how it opened up the way for many other combinations, but there is something to be said for a creature that can burrow through the ground and come up anywhere. The frightening element of "where is it?" is a big plus for a monster.
A 5-6 victory for Bulette.
Round 8: Mind Flayer vs. Tarrasque
Simple discussions came up here. From the history of the Tarrasque in the various editions of D&D to the foreignness of the Mind Flayer. Fine arguments have come up with the players having no agency over an encounter with the Tarrasque because it represents inevitable destruction and therefore less interesting. On the other hand, many of us remembered the Tarrasque as the GM's way of saying "I have had it with your nonsense". The end result:
A 9-2 victory for the Mind Flayer.
Contestants: Bulette, Gorgon, Doppelganger, Dublin, Mind Flayer, Rust Monster, Rat Swarm, Vampire.
Round 9: Swarm of Rats vs. Doppelganger
The only unanimous vote of the evening, probably thanks to the compelling argument that "a doppelganger can become a swarm of rats, but a swarm of rats cannot become a doppelganger".
An 11-0 victory for the Doppelganger.
Round 10: Rust Monster vs. Bugbear
It was mentioned that the Bugbear received numerous upgrades and redefinitions throughout the releases while the Rust Monster remained virtually unchanged. On the other hand, we mostly thought that the main reason behind it was that "if it ain’t broke, don't fix it". The Rust Monster is the bane of all players, think for yourself why.
A 7-4 victory for the Rust Monster.
Round 11: Mind Flayer vs. Gorgon
The quarterfinals round is characterized by some particularly decisive votes that got rid of those who simply received minor competition in the qualifications round. This discussion is a classic example of the fact that an intelligent monster is almost always better than an unintelligent one.
A 10-1 victory for the Mind Flayer.
Round 12: Vampire vs. Bulette
True, these two monsters can smell a drop of blood miles away, but only one can rise to the next level. The fact that the vampire can summon animals, change its form and perform other cool tricks was the main point in its favor. Also worth mentioning this nugget: "If a vampire fight with a bulette, does it bite the bullet?"
A 10-1 victory for a vampire.
Contestants: Doppelganger, Mind Flayer, Rust Monster, Vampire.
Round 13: Mind Flayer vs. Rust Monster
A long discussion between two iconic monsters. Rust Monster is one of the favorite monsters for GMs, but Mind Flayers allows for more clever gameplay. These two monsters can erase things from the players' character pages. Whether it be objects or memories and knowledge. Which hurt more? probably depend on the players.
A 4-7 victory for the Mind Flayer
Round 14: Doppelganger vs. Vampire
A tough fight, so many benefits to each of these monsters. But eventually, the vampire's versatility proved to be its main quality. The doppelganger is a one-trick pony, no matter how useful.
A 4-7 vampire win
Contestants: Mind Flayer, Vampire.
Round 15: Mind Flayer vs. Vampire
The final round certainly proved to be particularly difficult. Two iconic monsters, Mind Flayer with its builtin game settings or the vampire with their parallel representation in almost every culture. Minds Flayers with their Underdark or Spelljammer variants versus the vampire sexual or tormented variants. The tiebreaker was the fact that vampires are each different and some reluctantly became vampires. Also, the Mind Flayers may be the mastermind villain of your campaign but it has little to do with the day to day gaming sessions while a vampire can be a character that makes constant appearances and play the line of friend-or-ally as the circumstances changes.
A 3-8 win for a vampire.
The best monster is a vampire. Mostly because of her horror, but I think mainly because a vampire is almost always a character, it's very easy to build a campaign around a vampire and also has the eternal dependency element of a vampire on humans to survive and it can create very, very interesting stories.
Of course, we don’t think that a vampire is the best monster. There is no such thing as “The Best Monster”. The whole point of a bracket night, like many thought processes, is not the outcome but the road leading to it. Some of the concepts that emerged during our discussions were interesting and new to some of the participants. Subjects like the relatability of a monster or encounter, for example. A dragon may be a terrifying monster for the characters but can we players relate to that experience? The fact that a rust monster influence the actual physical character sheet in the real world makes it for a more insidious enemy. The rust monster causes us, the players, to act, should this be a factor? The versatility of monsters was called to question, again and again, the doppelganger can change its form but that’s pretty much all it can do, it is not a character per se. We will be hard-pressed to find a doppelganger with a compelling and relatable back story. The Tarrasque is a huge monstrosity but one that the players usually have no agency against. If the Tarrasque approaches, you run or you die. That made it a less interesting monster in the eyes of many of us.
I recommend that you all have bracket nights, it’s loads of fun. But remember that this is not a debate club. There isn’t a real winner here because the quest of “what is the best X” is rarely the right question, the right questions are usually “what are the advantages and disadvantages of using something as an X? does it help me to achieve the goal I want?”.
The best outcome of a bracket night is to learn new ways of looking at what you’re bracketing.
XP & HP,