Thursday, November 08, 2012

fine tuning your monsters

Most DMs I know like more monsters better than fewer monsters.  Monsters are lots of fun.  Writing new monsters can be a easy way to pretend you're working on your campaign.  Buying books jampacked with new monsters helps keep the hacks in the game industry fed.  It's all good.

But today I want to talk about how to turn the monster list you have into something peppier.  You don't need to write up some new monsters. or buy a new book or even drag an extra monster book to the game.  I'll walk you through three things you can do to make your players' lives hell in a fresh new way, using only the '81 Basic D&D rules as my example.

Step 1 - Throw Stuff Out
Take a look at your monster list and try to get a sense of it as a whole.  What parts of it can be easuly cut?  More monsters isn't better when trying to make a coherent campaign setting.  (Though if you are making an incoherent campaign setting maybe you should skip this step.)  For example, depending on how you slice it, there's maybe 100 monsters in the Basic rulebook.  That's not a lot compared to campaigns with Monster Manuals in play.  But even in this list there's fat to be cut.  Does my campaign world need both Giant Ferrets and Giant Shrews?  Hell, does it need either?

Then there are the broad categories with lots of individual monsters.  How many types of dragon do you need for this campaign?  In my Wessex campaign using not just one type of dragon but one single, individual dragon worked a hell of a lot better for me than any game I've run with lots of dragons.  And if I wanted to do something more Sword & Planet style, maybe I would cut the dragons altogether and prominently use the Draco Lizard (under Lizard, Giant, page B38) or the pterydactyls in the Expert set.

Similarly, not every campaign needs every kind of monster.  Does your campaign need kobolds, goblins, orcs, hobgoblins, gnolls AND bugbears?  Do you need skeletons, zombies, ghouls, wights AND wraiths?  One or two humanoid races and one or two undead may be enough to get the job done.  Or look at the entry for Cat, Great (page B32).  Most campaigns probably can survive without Mountain Lions and regular type Lions and Tigers and Panthers and Sabre-Tooth Tigers.  Just pick the one that suits you and stick the rest on a shelf.

Special warning: Be careful about cutting both orcs and dragons.  Orcs carry a bunch of Tolkienian and Warhammery baggage, but that baggage is something players can easily tune in on.  Or to put it another way, who doesn't like beating the snot out of orcs?  Similarly, dragons occupy an import conceptual space in Dungeons & friggin' Dragons.  Cutting them could alienate a lot of players.  Dropping both orcs and dragons may make some people wonder what the hell kind of artsy fartsy crap you are trying to pull on them.

Step 2 - Reprioritize
Now look at what you have left on your monster list.  What critters have you relied on in past campaigns?  What monsters have you not used yet at all?  As you situate your monsters into your campaign, consider a light touch with monsters you've already used and emphasize the stuff you have yet to take full advantage of.  Looking through the Basic rules I've never or only rarely used Sprites, Weretiger and Rock Living Statues.  Surely there's some great material waiting to be written about those creatures.  Sprites are "very curious".  What sort of trouble could they get into?  Maybe you could write a fairly standard Things Man Was Not Meant to Know adventure, only the trouble is the mad scientist type is actually a gang of magical tinkerbells. Weretigers are neutral lycanthropes.  That says to me you could write an adventure around needing to bring a band of those guys over to your side.  Or maybe you could do something with a Were- version of a white tiger being mistaken by locals as a ghost tiger.  And Rock Living Statues shoot lava from their fingers.  How come I don't use them all the time?

(Seriously, if either weretiger scenario or the sprite idea does anything for you, please steal it.  Every once in a while I get emails from folks "Hey, you mind if I use so-and-so in my game?  I think a lot of gaming bloggers would agree with me that we want you to use this stuff, otherwise we wouldn't share it.)

If you reprioritize your monsters, make sure you think through how this affects other mechanical elements in the game.  If you don't use dragons and focus on Rock Living Statues, maybe you should replace that sword +1, +3 vs dragons with something that beats up lava jerks.  Similarly, making undead less ubiquitous means you need to think about how that pimps over clerics.  Maybe you should allow them to turn something else or *gasp* grant them spells at first level.  Who charm person affects is another issue.

Step 3 - Repurpose
This is where you take the monsters as written and screw with them in some way to make them unique to your campaign.  Not every monster should be an exercise in "Oh, in Jeff's extremely hip campaign orcs are actually corssdressing timetravellers..."  Too much of that robs D&D of the lingu franca status that allows things like FLAILSNAILS to really work.  But a little such monkey business can really give you some neat material to work with.  You can start with little cosmetic things, like making Giant Tiger Beetles literally half beetle, half tiger (or half Beatle, half tiger).  Or making lizard men into full on Sleestaks.  I like giving Giant Crab Spiders big pinchy claws.

You can also think in terms of what ISN'T included in the monster descriptions.  The BX rules don't tell you that Skeletons are unintelligent undead robots or that Owlbears are no smatter than the average bear.  Maybe the skeletons in your campaign can be reasoned with, if you can get them to shut up about how much they miss being alive.  Whiny bastards.  And maybe owlbears actually have mythical owl wisdom and the PCs accidentally murder the Helpful Forest Oracle they were looking for.

And don't hesitate to just flat out steal stat blocks.  Maybe you campaign world doesn't need ogres as such, but if you want to quickly stat up some sort of big angry gronk, there's four hit dice of grumpy waiting to be used.


  1. Solid.
    Welcome back.
    "emphasize the stuff you have yet to take full advantage of. "
    Food for thought here

  2. >> Too much of that robs D&D of the lingu franca status that allows things like FLAILSNAILS to really work

    LOL. Why should a DM give a shit about the 'linga franca' and flailsnails at the expense of being creative?

    1. "LOL"? Not the sort of reply I expected from you!

      As to your question, if you've made the decision to run D&D you are participating in a set of audience expectations. You can of course completely alienate the players if you so desire, but don't be surprised if you lose some players that way. It's a matter of balancing practical table concerns with the DM's creative urges. I obviously lean more towards achieving consensus with the players than you do. Which is fine, as long as you can still recruit players and I can avoid producing lowest common denominator drivel.

    2. Im affable ... Im hip.

      I groom my players for AD&D. All DMs worthy of the name should be creative, and creative DMs are not beholden to others or the books. This ... 'flailsnails' jazz is an anti-creative force and I don't think much of the idea.

  3. Anonymous8:22 AM

    Sprites are "very curious". What sort of trouble could they get into?

    Use inquisitive Sprites as a verminous infestation that offers the same problems and potential as Gammarauders Factoids. I could go comic relief or Terry Gilliam with that.

  4. Prune the list, tweak things a bit here and there, always good ideas.
    There is a strange balancing act beteen the lingua franca and originality, most players want something new that is still understandable and comfortable.

  5. I ran a BX game once where the skeletons were intelligent, but could only communicate in pantomime. Oddly, they could understand you perfectly, they just couldn't communicate. This would have probably led to a stereotype that all undead talk with their hands.

  6. I wouldn't make my cross-dressing time travellers "orcs" - that would be hard to reconcile with the cliches. I would use the stat block for my transvestite space monkies though. New nobsters are great for flailsnails - they create aprehension and the joy of discovery!

  7. Anonymous9:47 AM

    Good and useful article. The comment about orcs made me laugh, as I pulled all of the traditional "evil races" from my campaign (as noted here: ) much to the confusion of some of my players! But I feel the reasoning is valid.

  8. I'm glad to hear I'm not the only one who seriously trims the list of monsters from the printed sources.

  9. When I'm changing well-known critters, I think to myself, "Do I want to reward player expectations, punish them, or just confuse them?" Reward is like, they expect trolls to die from acid and fire so I have them die from acid and fire. Punish is, trolls regeneration faster when hit with acid and fire. Confuse is, trolls are actually really friendly if you talk to them OR they only die from magic weapons regardless of fire or acid.

    I don't do too much of "punish" or "confuse," but throwing them in will get players to have their characters verify in-game what they expect out of game. "I know trolls die from acid and fire, but I'm paying that sage for his advice just to make sure."

    1. Your examples of punish and confuse are only punishing or confusing if you're playing with dudes who've been steeped in D&D for decades.

      While this is typical, particularly with old school D&D, if we're making any efforts to grow the hobby, you'll have folks at the table for whom there are *no* expectations for trolls or, at best, expect them to turn to stone in sunlight like in Tolkien.

    2. Yep, the people I play with generally don't have any idea what different monsters should be like in D&D, or any other Fantasy particularly. I've actually had two different players ask me seriously "What's a Mace?" so far. So I generally keep everything as the book says, with a couple of exceptions. The big one is Goblins, Bugbears, and Hobgoblins, which spontaneously spawn in dark spaces, to try to get around the Baby Orc problem a bit (though Orcs themselves still have Babies).

  10. I'm impressed that in between scoffing at undergrads, crashing keggers and bagging sorority babes you actually managed a post of some substance. Glad to see you're still on your game.

  11. Hey, glad you're back. I tend to run fairly short campaigns- usually lasting 3-6 months and coming to a definite end. I usually rotate out the monsters I use between campaigns, choosing them based on the player's abilities (I want a good solid fight) and whatever theme that campaign is riffing on. The only critters that consistently show up in every campaign are Goblins, Orcs, Zombies, Dinosaurs and the occasional Displacer Beast.

    The first four monsters just provide good, generic brawls that can be slotted in anywhere, and the last 'standard monster' is included simply because Displacer Beasts are among my favorite D&D monsters.

  12. This is a very fun post and a nice twist on the usual, "Make your Orcs purple and give them tails. Now they're totally new and different!"

    While I am not D&D focused (I'm barely D&D tolerant!), I can certainly appreciate this approach. I tend to do things a bit differently but I can see the appeal of a more concise and tailored Monster list.

  13. Other things I like to do:

    Be like the _Iliad_ and give all the intelligent monsters a name (obviously only works in not-enormous dungeon settings), but, for instance:

    Hubert is an owlbear mage. He's not a very good mage: he knows only one spell, Shocking Grasp. HD 5+2, HP 26, AC 15, claw+2/claw+2/bite+3 (1d6/1d6/1d12). If both claws hit, he can hug that target for 2d8 each additional round. His spellbook (folio sized, weighs six pounds) is written in crayon. He has 33 gp, several books (worth 1-4 gp each), a bottle full of green vapor that if broken or opened casts Stinking Cloud, and a potion of Invisibility.

    Maybe your players will find out that all their opponents have names and hobbies. Maybe not.

    In my current game, all humanoids are goblins. But "goblin" can encompass everything from "boggart" to "ogre," and there's a wild range of goblin morphology. (Yeah, stolen from _GURPS: Goblins_). It's also the case that Gaxen Kane is basically 1830s London, while Vornheim is Early Modern Leipzig. Which caused some consternation among the players when they realized that goblin society looks down its (multifariously-shaped) noses at the humans across the river.

  14. > And don't hesitate to just flat out steal stat blocks. Maybe you campaign world doesn't need
    > ogres as such, but if you want to quickly stat up some sort of big angry gronk, there's four
    > hit dice of grumpy waiting to be used.

    That's such simple and such obvious advice, and yet I find myself forgetting it and rediscovering it time and again.