Rust Monsters: Not for the Wuss of Heart

    • Some people are really pissed that Wizards of the Coast cut the Rust Monster from the new 4th Edition Dungeons & Dragons Monster Manual. This creature was one of the original, classic creepy creatures from the old school pre-AD&D days.

While we’re on the subject of Fear in RPGs, the Rust Monster represents a particularly pure instance of Challenge Fear.  The only threat that the Rust Monster represents is to your character’s efficacy.  An encounter with a Rust Monster challenges you to avoid or defeat it without risking your precious equipment, or to face subsequent encounters at less than full strength.

Players who think that isn’t fun are wusses.  Or, to put it slightly less pejoratively, are either seeking the illusion of challenge without the actual possibility of significant set-backs or shouldn’t be playing a challenge-based game.  Players who are interested in interacting with the world will roll with the punches: if that’s what the setting says happens, that’s what happens.  Players who are interested in creating an exciting story might actually seek those situations out: if John McClane has to run through broken glass in his bare feet, putting him at a disadvantage for the rest of the story-line, that’s great, it ups the tension.  Players who are genuinely interested in challenge might curse their luck, or their lack of foresight, but those are the breaks that make the game worth playing.  But players who complain that it’ll leave them at less than their recommended wealth-and-equipment amounts for characters of their level, throwing off the challenge ratings for level-appropriate encounters until the GM throws in enough loot to restore the balance….  well, I can’t help feeling that they’re playing not just the wrong system, but the wrong kind of system.

There are plenty of systems out there that are explicitly built around the notion that the PCs will triumph and kick ass, and play is about giving them the mechanics to describe how they kick ass in really cool and awesome ways (Feng Shui and Exalted come to mind, or in a different vein something like Amber).  Taking a system that in its essence is about all kinds of ways that PCs can fail (poisoned, turned to stone, level-drained, killed, polymorphed, etc.) and putting foam padding on all the dangerous bits is…lame.  Go too far in that direction and even sword wounds will just seal themselves right up after a few moments… oh, wait, that’s 4e Healing Surges.

Really, I can understand and enjoy styles of gaming where the only setbacks are player imposed or player veto-able.  But if players want that, they shouldn’t fool themselves about what they’re doing.  If losing your +2 Flaming Broadsword is going to ruin the campaign for you, getting rid of the Rust Monster isn’t nearly enough–the GM’ll have to get rid of thieves, Dispell Magic, really any kind of situation where you could be knocked unconscious and stripped of your possessions… You’d all be much better off with a system where having that flaming broadsword is part of your character schtick, with explicit script immunity.

20 thoughts on “Rust Monsters: Not for the Wuss of Heart

  1. Russell says:

    Well, the other side is that Rust Monster is a way too easy and contrived way of providing challenge. Yes, you’ll get a predictable and amusing response, but after you’ve used the Rust Monster gag once, it starts to pale quickly. Sort of like fart jokes. There’s also the old school element of “challenge to avoid annoyance” where the encounters aren’t meant to make the characters succeed or fail in a meaningful way, but rather to make the
    characters spend resources to avoid situations that are boring or annoying for the players, e.g., random teleports
    within dungeons that mess up your mapping. Everyone knows that the way to beat rust monsters is to have the fighters hide while the wizard pummels them physically, but it just takes so bloody long…

  2. Joshua says:

    As a DM of a challenge-oriented game, you’re failing the players if you present them with challenges that do nothing but try their patience. If you’re using Rust Monsters or Teleport Traps as gags and time-sinks, you’re wasting them. Players running into them should be feeling fear or despair, not annoyance.

  3. Russell says:

    The question is whether rust monsters are actually well designed to be scary not annoying. I don’t think they are. However, I’ve ended up using monsters (not rust monsters) from the manual that are almost equally contrived, but seemed to work at the time (like xorns and umber hulks).

  4. jonathan says:

    Thanks for the link back to Save the Rust Monster! You all _have_ signed the petition, right? =D

    Personally, I love the old goofy monsters. Its hard to argue that they are contrived or not – I mean… why not? IMHO, since its a fantasy game, anything is possible – even if it is stupid. Maybe the rust monsters were created by some evil druids who hated the forging of iron? =D

    btw – love this blog. keep up the great work you have going on here.

  5. Joshua says:

    @Russell – well, Challenge Fear, anyway. Visceral Fear is probably beyond what you can expect of D&D monsters, and I’m not sure if it’s what I’d want anyway, and Character Fear…isn’t that one of the results on Umber Hulk’s gaze chart?

    @jonathan – actually, I didn’t sign, because I think 4e is hopeless. The Rust Monster is too good for the likes of Hasbro/WotC.

  6. Scott says:

    In my experience, an encounter with a rust monster is usually a sign that the GM wants to screw the players.

    It’s exactly like the rot grubs that only exist to punish you for listening at doors, or the disenchanters and ethereal snatchers that only exist to take away the overpowered item the GM now regrets giving you.

    I’d say, talk to your players out of game and solve whatever problem the monster is supposed to solve. Then trash the encounter and place something fun there instead.

    Fear? Uh-uh. Pure annoyance, all the way.

  7. Joshua says:

    @Scott- sorry you’ve had bad experiences, but you’re simply mistaken if you think a competent DM of a challenge-oriented game puts things like Rust Monsters or rot grubs in the dungeon to “solve” meta-game problems or “punish” players for good play. Like everything else in a challenge-oriented setting, they exist to present a problem for the players to overcome. It’s not a style that suits everyone, and it’s particularly bad for people who aren’t good at distinguishing between the GM screwing the characters and the GM screwing the players.

  8. Scott says:

    But that’s the thing: there is no particular challenge involved in overcoming them, in 99% of circumstances. The guys who aren’t wearing metal armor get rid of their metal weapons and beat on the thing until it dies, or else you toss a couple of pitons or something to distract it while you run away.

    It might be tedious to beat, but it’s not challenging.

    A good GM could make it challenging, sure. But a good GM can make damn near anything challenging, and would in fact be better off doing so with a monster which doesn’t carry the metagame baggage the rust monster does.

    As for the rot grubs — what “challenge” do they present other than “Did you remember to memorize Cure Disease?”

    As for style, I tend to prefer the “Why should the GM be trying to screw anyone?” school of thought. Set up the opposition, sure, but play fair.

  9. Gary says:

    @Joshua- Rot Grubs were explicitly invented to screw a player who was listening at every door before going in. It is there to punish.

    A lot of those monsters are there because Gary Gygax or whoever else had a problem that they’d rather solve by punishing players in-game than actually talk it out. Any more clever uses of rust monsters, rot grubs, ethereal filchers, etc. has merely been a more recent innovation to make chicken soup out of chicken sh**.

  10. steamtunnel says:

    Resentment of the rust monster is directly proportional to the dependancy on equipment to remain competitive against monsters of the appropriate level. Thats why challenge ratings and expected wealth are for the birds. The “bag of experience points divided equally among combatants” system in a status quo sandbox game is the best way to go. Those of lower level advance more rapidly than those of higher level even if they are in the same party, eventually getting the party to be on the same level.

    @joshua- re 4e – healing surges would be better if hit points in no way represented physical damage. But with the bloodied condition this just is not so. There is the eternal debate of what hit points are: either points you loose until you get hit, or the ammount of hits you can take before you die. The problem with D&D (4e especially) is that it can’t make up its mind which one it wants to be.

  11. steamtunnel says:

    The ecology of the rust monster-

    It occurs to me that should such a creature exist it would have to be able to burrow to find the iron ore to create the rust to survive. Created by magic or not a world with these creatures in it would be very scarce on metal indeed. Forges would have to be elevated or in stone buildings with basements. Sewers would not have any metal grates. That is until someone invented stainless.

    Generally though I would rule that if something is magic it is immune to rusting, or that it rusts but never actually fails. So you would have a +2 flaming longsword that otherwise looks like crap.

  12. Joshua says:

    @Gary- you played with Gygax and he told you that was what he was doing? Or perhaps you can point us to something he’s written or an interview where he stated that? Otherwise, I have to conclude you’re just projecting.

    Look, lots of people have trouble grokking the war-gaming mentality of original D&D, but just because you don’t understand or care for a style of play doesn’t mean that it’s a problem that needs to be cured with frank meta-game discussion around the table.

  13. Gary says:

    @Joshua-

    Sorry, I was thinking of ear seekers, not rot grubs:

    http://www.enworld.org/forum/general-rpg-discussion/204729-gaming-gygax.html

    In fact, it says here that the reason for having ear seekers was made explicit by the man himself in the original DMG:

    http://annex.wikia.com/wiki/Ear_seeker

    I can’t check on this because I don’t have a 1st edition DMG handy.

    I don’t like being called a wuss because I don’t like BS critters like ear seekers, rust monsters, or whatever else. I’ve played Call of Cthulu. I’ve played Earthdawn with a GM who knew how to run a Horror. I’ve had my low-level rogue die in a TPK from a couple of Ettins. I am familiar with what it’s like to experience fear in an RPG, but yet I keep coming back because I have fun.

    Rust monsters, ear seekers, ethereal filchers, rot grubs, etc. are not fun. They are irritating. The fact that you had to fabricate a “Dire Rust Monster” just underlines the useless and petty nature of the original. You are creating a dramatic retcon for these things that amount to little more than DM tools for punishing clever play (ear seekers) and the accumulation of items (rust monsters). That’s fine, it’s your prerogative. Just admit what those critters were there for in the first place.

    As for wargaming? I don’t think equipment eating monsters and critters that kill players because they listen at doors too much came along until wargaming graduated in to role play.

  14. Gary says:

    To put it more succinctly:

    Rust Monsters, Ear Seekers, and their ilk are meta-gaming made manifest in-game by the DM. There are plenty of reasons for terrible dragons and giants to murder a character and take his stuff. These critters go beyond that, though: they represent a direct attack from the DM to the player. You might as well put away your PHB and DMG and start playing Warhammer. Or chess.

    Oh, is this what you mean by wargaming mentality, where it’s the DM’s job to screw players and “win” the game? Do you think you’ve won when you’ve managed to enrage a table full of players without them leaving?

    I will concede that these might be fun as a random encounter in a one-off beer-and-pretzel game. However, they have no general use for anyone except vindictive jerk DMs looking for justification from the MM and the DMG.

  15. Joshua says:

    @Gary- D&D was a beer-and-pretzels kind of game. Gygax recalls introducing the rust monster on his (literal) sand-table in his basement in early 1973. It’s hard to picture anything more war-gamey than that.

    Like I said, it’s not a good style of game for people who have trouble differentiating between attacks on the character and attacks on the player, or are likely to be enraged by their characters losing some imaginary stuff instead of laughing or at worst letting loose some good-natured grumbling about it.

    I’ve had fun in games that have included creatures like Rust Monsters and rot grubs and were run by non-vindictive non-jerk DMs. Lots of people have. Just because it’s foreign to your experience doesn’t mean it’s impossible.

  16. Gary says:

    @Joshua-

    I think you need to re-title your blog entry to “Not for people who care about their characters”. There’s nothing wrong with that style of play — I love Paranoia. That being said, I don’t think it has any business being in the core material where character persistence is part of the game. There wouldn’t be long level progressions and advancement charts if there weren’t. Dungeons and Dragons has been this way for well over twenty years. Unfortunately it also has had save-or-suck effects and critters like Rusty and the ear seeker. The game can’t serve two masters, and the latest edition has made it clear where the owners and designers stand about the future of D&D.

    As a player, if I put time and effort in to making an interesting and effective character, what am I supposed to think when some random new monster pops up that directly attacks my character’s weakness? I put time and effort in to the character, just like the DM put time and effort in to the adventure. It’s a shared world, and messing around with someone’s character where there is time and emotional investment like that IS an attack on the player. If you spend a lot of time grooming your lawn and I take my dog there to pee, am I just attacking your lawn? If you get angry about my dog pissing on your lawn, are you a wuss?

    I don’t mean to say that all or even most danger posed to the character is an attack on the player. If there were no danger, there would be no fun. However, this targeted malice from the DM is not the same.

    There can be a point to the rust monster. For instance, consider the following hook:

    While the party is in town, there are a rash of robberies on businesses in the middle of the night. Whoever is robbing stores goes beyond merely cutting locks or breaking bars. Indeed, the locks and bars have entirely disappeared. What could do this?

    Of course, the local thieves guild has a captive rust monster, and they clean up the rusty mess after the monster has done it’s work. Here, the rust monster actually plays an important part of the plot. It’s interesting and meaningful, and might even fit in a game where you expect to play a character for more than a few hours.

    But that’s not what happens, is it? Instead, it’s rolled up on some stupid random encounter table, or some jerk DM puts it around the next corner because he didn’t put the dungeon together well enough and now the players are going through it too quickly. Hence all the hating on old Rusty and his jerk-monster buddies.

    The Rust Monster is dead. Good riddance.

  17. Joshua says:

    @Gary- so your argument that you’re not Wuss of Heart is that you’ve invested so much into the character that if it loses any of its stuff that amounts to a direct attack on you, the player…and that anyone who disagrees with this stance is a big ol’ vindictive jerk?

  18. Gary says:

    @Joshua-

    No. DMs that needlessly screw players are jerks. I’ve had my characters yanked around by all kinds of horrible things in game, and that’s fine and fun as long as there is a point. The rust monster, on the other hand, seems to be mostly there for the DM’s amusement and little else. The comments in the very thread you referenced support that. If there are DMs out there that want to have fun at their players expense, that’s great. I just won’t be at their table. I don’t have time for that kind of garbage. I think the real wuss is the loser who takes that kind of garbage from a DM week after week but keeps coming back because he doesn’t think he can find a better game. Like WoW. Or Solitaire.

    Also, you haven’t answered my question about my dog pissing on your yard.

  19. Joshua says:

    @Gary- I don’t know any DMs that needlessly screw players, whether or not they use rust monsters, and I never have in thirty years of playing. I’ve known some really terrible GMs, who I’d never play with again as a player, but none of them did anything in game in order to be a vindictive jerk. I have played with GMs who screw the players because that’s their job under the game-contract; you have too if you’ve played Paranoia.

    As far as your goofy dog hypothetical: even if we grant for the sake of argument that the amount of effort and psychic investment you put into your character is equivalent to somebody else having a really well-kept lawn…then what? If the analogy held then it wouldn’t matter whether it was a dog peeing on it, you doing donuts with a car, or you spraying it with defoliant, except for the amount of damage done. So it should be the same with the character… anything bad done to the character would be objectionable, not just the dog. But while you object bitterly and at length to the dog/rust monster, you claim that’s it’s OK with you to do all kinds of horrible things to the lawn/character “as long as there is a point.” What you’re actually objecting to is the malice you impute to directing where the dog pees, not the effort that might have been put into what the dog is peeing on.

    This conversation is no longer productive, if it ever was. I’ve told you point blank that it’s possible to have fun as a player in games that contain elements you regard as unfun, and I myself have experienced it. Rather than stopping for a moment to think that this direct testimony indicates that just maybe there are more ways of having fun with these games than you’d previously considered, you ignore that and whine some more about mean DMs. Enough. If you want to whine some more about something you evidently neither understand, nor have the slightest inclination to try to understand, do it on your own blog.

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