Making Monsters Monsterous

The fun thing about video games is trying to find the right weapon to get the job done. What hurts what monster. Sometimes this is easy, and sometimes it is really hard. Now, of course Dungeons & Dragons and Video games are apples and oranges.

One of the problems with D&D is that players get to know the monsters. They know that piercing weapons only do half damage to skeletons, and that using a lightning bolt against a flesh golem isn’t a good idea. This isn’t on purpose, player knowledge just happens! We DM’s shouldn’t get mad about it, or force the player to change the way that they play, because this problem is actually up to US to solve by ticking up the difficulty level.

How do you do this? Well first off, quit telling the players what they are dealing with.

PERSPECTIVE

You see a man kneeling over the shape of a woman, his clothes are tattered and stained with blood. You notice that the woman doesn‘t appear to be moving anymore, and the man‘s shoulders indicate that he is weeping.


How close do you need to be to realize that the man isn’t crying over the woman, but eating her? You probably won’t, especially if you aren’t suspecting anything like this is going on. We also don’t know the actual nature of this monster. It could be a zombie, a ghoul, or even a vampire! We’ll be keeping this a secret for as long as we can, and we’ll just let the player assume whatever they want to, and we’ll NEVER use the term zombie, ghoul, or vampire. With a scene above, even a Zombie should be able to gain the first attack, regardless of what the rules say about a zombie always getting to attack last. There will be a delay on the part of the characters as what is REALLY happening sinks in. If the characters recognize the girl, or the man then this could force the characters to react as if a Cause Fear spell had been cast from a low level.

After a character knows what the things minions are, such as undead or goblins or what have you, you can use the things name, but this can also go to your advantage.

The smell of death assaults you as you open the door, revealing a wooden staircase. At the foot of the stairs is a zombie, and he sees you as well. A dry hiss escapes his lips as he begins to shuffle up the steps, pure menace and hate in his eyes.


Now, just because I said that it was a zombie, doesn’t really mean that it is, or tell the characters exactly what it is. It could be a Ju-Ju Zombie, it could be a Revenant, it could be a prisoner suffering under the effects of a Feign Undead spell, they don’t really know, we just described it’s nature, not it’s true type. They will just assume that it is an average zombie, and attack it as such.

Another matter of perspective is the Boss, or Sub-Boss. The boss is in control, if the creatures are of lawful nature, he’ll be the one directing traffic, if the creatures are chaotic, he’ll be the meanest and strongest of the lot. Can the PC’s detect this with their eyes or their 5 senses? Probably not right off the bat. We’ll keep this things true identity a secret as long as possible, trying to save this until the end of the session.

POWER

Each monster has a special skill, it is up to us to really study the monsters and think of ways to use these skills effectively. Since we’ll be doing things as a mystery, the first contact a party will have with a monster will be evidence of it’s powers, usually without actually knowing that they are in fact looking at this. After the adventure is over, they’ll be able to look back at the clues and realize what they had missed.

These things should be going on for quite some time before anyone notices. A power of a Black Dragon is to taint the water supply. Dragons don’t like to be bugged, they are also to smart to just fly into town and burn it down, being sneaky, all they have to do to destroy a town is taint the water and force the settlement to abandon their homes because of lack of clean drinking water. Perhaps a group of adventurers will be employed to enter the forest and see if they can find the cause of this disaster?

Usually, it is all in the way you describe the situation. Information shouldn’t be given out. Instead of people being turned to stone, elaborate Statues are appearing outside of town, surely a gift from the gods!! How long will it take before somebody realizes that People are disappearing and the statues are being made in their likeness? There is no consensus to the city or village, in fact, most of the victims would be travelers anyway. Perhaps the rich are collecting these things as art objects? Churches buying them up and proclaiming them to be miracles?

How can a given power be used subtly? How would people interpret the information? Can something good be found in the power before it booms out of control?

THE GOLDEN RULE

The golden rule, is, of course, those that have the gold, make the rules. The upper-class, the knowledgeable scholars know that there isn’t any such thing as monsters. Those that see them will always be ridiculed, a scholar who finds it his business to seek them out will be seen as an idiot and not worth the time of day. Monsters are primitive fears created by fools. We must move forward, not look backwards to some tired religious concepts, which can‘t be true.

Some may believe, but find it their duty to cover such things up, as it would surely cause mass panic. Others would just sit on their high stools and not be bothered to research things of such fantasy, and simply ridicule those who would seek their help.

This isolates the Players. Even if brought the evidence of a massive zombie epidemic, those in charge will insist that it was nothing but an illness such as leprosy, and those that claim otherwise are feeble of mind and superstitious fools. It is THIS belief that strengthens the monsters. The constable will always seek the wrong leads, and refuse to give any credit to clues that don’t fit their version of the facts. They won’t help the Players in any way but to discredit them, or give them a false sense of security by claiming that they have the problem under control.

Magic, of course screws this up some, but it doesn’t have to. Wizards are so rare that they are just old men who are equally as blind as the officials are. If it doesn’t exist in their own personal spell books, then it simply doesn’t exist! Priests are much the same way, only more vicious. Those whom do anything outside of their own powers are heretics and must be destroyed.

If this is impossible, because your current campaign, or your players prefer a magic heavy campaign, then you’ll need to think of some other reason why the village needs the PCs to solve this mystery for them, the above suggestion is just how I run my campaigns. A little bit of elbow grease will help you flush out how to get this done in your own style.

MONSTER STRENGTH

It is always better to have a monster be too strong, then it is to have it be to weak. Especially with a mystery type of campaign. Sometimes the party will know exactly what the monster is, such as the case of a werewolf, and it becomes a matter of whom is the werewolf. For this kind of story, we’ll want the best specimen that we can find! Max hit points, if this still isn’t strong enough, then we’ll need to modify it further.

Many DM’s have this misconception about monsters, that all of them need ecology. The fact is that more then 85% of the monsters in the Monster Manual are drawn from myth and legend of this planet and this plane of existence. Monsters have no place in society except to torment and feed upon us. Trolls don’t need to have babies, Medusa doesn’t tend a garden or sell pumpkins on the side of the road. Why they exist is up to you, but don’t be afraid to pop up a random monster if it will fit your setting. Obviously if you want to go less fantasy and more horror then you’ll not have Elves or Goblins building their own cities. These would be things that only exist when it is convenient for us, the DM, to have them around. If the werewolf or whatever monster that you want to use isn’t strong enough to challenge the party, then create a Greater Werewolf, or a greater form of Lycanthropy that will better fit your idea of what would make it more exciting.

Make the monster harder to hit, give him a higher hit die. A good example of me disagreeing with the Monster Manual is the AD&D Vampire. Those things are not even remotely entertaining as is. My vampires are more like the movie vampires of yore, they don’t always drain levels, usually they drain Constitution or permanent hp, it just depends on if I want the Vampire to be a major part of the story, or if they are just window dressing. A vampire lord and a vampire minion actually do have their own ecology. Is it still playing D&D? Of course it is! When a player knows what to expect from a monster, THAT is a bigger problem then creating monsters which are unique to your world.

CREATING UNIQUE MONSTERS

There isn’t any easy way to do this, but it isn’t as hard for 2e as it is for any version afterwards, so consider yourself lucky. Why all monsters need to be compatible with PC stats is beyond me. Just look at the example of the Mummy in your MM. They have your typical mummies, as well as having a much powerful BOSS type mummy. Maybe throwing some magic user abilities and increasing intelligence is all you need to do, but we should know WHY this is so, even if that answer is a mystic one, such as the god of Boltivar, the werewolf god delivered upon his children the dark messiah, or a creature that slipped out of a secret gate, it really doesn’t matter, but we the DM needs to know what separates this monster from his lesser kin, and what would happen if he were to aggressively hunt these lesser beings. Would he recruit, strengthen, or kill them?

WEAKNESSES

Since we’ll be focusing on extreme power, they must have a weakness which can be exploited. Our mystery monster will be able to kill any of the PCs if he can get them to separate from the party, and be able to kill them in two attacks or less. Because of this extreme power, he must have a fatal flaw. This should not be something that is obvious, but something that the party must research and have to formulate a trap for the beast in order to exploit it.

This can also be used for any monster which can really push a party to the edge of what they can handle. Even a party of four first level players can handle something as powerful as a ghost as long as you give it a fatal weakness and the players don’t try something stupid like a full frontal assault. This weakness can be attacking a specific structure, such as a tombstone or a specific tree located in the woods. It can be anything, any attacks towards the monster itself will be fruitless, however destroying the book that summoned him into being could utterly destroy him without much work, besides doing the research to find out the creatures weakness.

A weakness could also be a specific attack, or only a specific weapon. The weakness should say something about the creature. The weakness could be known to the creature, or it could be blissfully unaware that the flaw exists to begin with.

TRICKS

Illusionists make excellent badguys. The rakshasa is an excellent villain, they are listed as having tiger-heads on human bodies, but why? Why not let the rakshasa disguise himself until the very end? Since this is a mystery, we’ll also want to create a list of NPCs/suspects. If the monster is a shape shifter, or if it is controlled by a person then it is best if this NPC is somebody whom the players know. They don’t have to be intimate with them, or buddy buddy, however it should be somebody that the players will know instantly when it is time to do the big reveal.

Depending on the monsters intelligence, he will either leave clues accidentally, or leave clues to frame somebody else, but there should be some REAL clues there. Ask yourself if the monster is capable of covering up its own tracks, or if it is just so bestial that it doesn’t care. Maybe somebody lives in the community that just screams MONSTER! A grizzly, grumpy old trapper who lives by himself in the woods and only comes to town for supplies, this would be the perfect patsy. A smart monster will leave false clues behind. Maybe the villain himself is a vampire but he carries himself, and dresses his home to mislead others to believe that he is a werewolf? If the locals could find or kill this monster on their own, then they would. Why can’t they? This is up to you to decide.

DAILY ACTIVITY

This thing, of course, is on a killing rampage. There is a formula that the DM should follow, formulas are there for a reason, these things are tried and true. This formula is the bones of the adventure, the skeleton that holds the whole thing up, and is as follows.

The Players investigate a murder scene that has already been cleaned up.
The Players investigate a fresh murder scene.
The players have a chance to stop a murder.
The players confront the murderer and destroy him.

This is the bare bones of the story, you’ll need to flesh this formula out, and try to hide it under the story so that the players don’t detect that you are in fact USING a formula, at least not on a conscious level. This is our PLOT, but a good mystery needs more then just plot, as the Dungeon Master, it is your chore to make it real. To do this, you can either write the daily activity of the monster, or create a random chart of events that you will check daily.

Random Sabotage Generator (1d12)

1. Poison Food
2. Broken rigging
3. Fire in kitchen
4. Robbed Lockbox
5. Key to arms room stolen
6. Cannon strap breaks, cannon lose on deck
7. Powder keg explodes
8. Diseased rat
9. Fight, mutiny
10. Man over board
11. Lifeboat hull broken
12. Engine breaks down


Now that was a chart that I used for Dopplegangers aboard a ship, but you get the idea.

THE HARBINGER

Some monsters will first send in a harbinger of doom to prepare the area before they attack. They remove threats, prepare a lair, eliminate people whom the master fears, and do all of the all-around dirty work believing that they will some how be rewarded for their deeds, however as history tells us, they never are. Their only reward is typically a quick and painless death.

The Harbinger can give clues, however these clues are disguised as ravings of a lunatic. He will never be very helpful unless you have a bottle or something that you wish to be thrown at your head, but there are two kinds of Harbingers. 1.) The Stranger: A man who has never been to the area but is causing all sorts of trouble. Killing animals, cutting off communications, burning down guard towers and weak points of military areas, eliminating spell casters until he is captured. He has no ties to the area. 2.) The Lunatic: This character is from the area, but for an unknown reason, has gone mad. Normally he can hide this fact while he does his dirty work, which is the same stuff as the stranger, however since he knows the area very well, he can do it without getting caught. He can also purchase property and continue to do his job, blending in. A very dangerous harbinger! His crimes will continue alongside his master, and will confuse the researchers. It can also give them a false sense of security when he is captured or killed.

Highly intelligent monsters will employ a Harbinger, usually through trickery and magic. If a monster can charm or in other ways control the minds of others, then this will indicate that a harbinger can be designed. His life expectancy will depend upon how useful that he is. If he is running around cutting throats while the monster feeds, the monster will release him if he is captured. However if his work is done, and the monster fears that he will reveal too much information, he’ll kill the harbinger in a way that will horrify anyone who discovers the body.

Now typically the Harbinger will start out as a 0th level NPC when the monster finds him. He will, however, be augmented to be more dangerous. We can just assume that it is the powers of darkness and evil, or extra strength due to pure insanity. This special ability should aid the Harbinger, for instance if he is to kill enemies of his master, he’ll have the ability to backstab, as well as possess other thief skills that will help him be more effective. He could also have a special tool or magic item which was given to him by his master to aid him. The item will only work for him and will turn into a cursed item if it falls into the wrong hands.

THE SECRET BOSS

Sometimes a weak person discovers an item that allows him to control a monster. These attacks can appear to be random, however in reality what is really going on is the abuse of power. The true villain is a weak human who has an indestructible monster at his mercy, and has been driven mad with power. Using this monster to kill anyone for even the slightest or perceived misdeed.

Now, again we have a problem. Once the adventure is over, the wicked person has been exposed and the item is in safe hands, the PC’s might refuse to give up this item. Of course the thing has to be cursed, and it has to be a curse that will offset the power, this has to be considered before the players touch it, as if we don’t then we can bring ourselves a lot of grief. For secret bosses, and powerful magic items that boast steep curses, we’ll also need a depositor; an NPC that can safely handle the item and see to it’s destruction or safe keeping. This could even be the monster itself!

HAUNTER OF THE DARK

This is an easy method of play. A mystical beast is plaguing the community. This involves discovering the nature of the beast, it’s weakness, and finding it’s lair or hunting it, while being hunted by it yourself. FUN STUFF!

Mystery is a very important element with this kind of thing. We don’t want the dreaded “1st level Goblin” adventure, we want something scary. A monster which breaks the rules. It kills both for food as well as for sport and seems to ignore the rules laid down by nature. This can either be a natural monster, or a mythical beast with no ecology what so ever. A beast that seems to come and go as it pleases. It can cut into the night like a knife, and disappear just as quickly. Hunting this thing will be very dangerous because it is intelligent, and can plan, as well as identify traps, and the strength to destroy all things in its path.

Perhaps this thing is working alone, or it could be another number. Animals which are natural to the area will probably take the blame until somebody can identify this creature. It need not be an animal either; Trolls make great Bigfoot type enemies, their tracks would both mystify and horrify the locals who discover them.

THE MAN-EATING PIASA BIRD

As an example of bringing forth mystical creatures, lets explore one myth that comes from Illini Indian Tribe which reported a monstrous winged creature, its scaly horse-like body feathered and painted green, black, and read, with an evil red-eyed face, a rack of terrible antlers, a long beard, razor sharp claws and teeth, and finally, a tail that was so long that it could wrap its body up within it.

This great terror would sweep out of the sky, grab men and carry them off to some cruel fate. It attacked with such regularity that it had to be stopped, however nothing that the warriors had would cause it any harm nor stop it in any way. Finally, the Chief, Chief Ouatoga, sought refuge and guidance from the spirits. He entered the woods and fasted and prayed to the Great Spirit, imploring the god to grant his people salvation. At last the Great Spirit whispered into Ouatoga’s ear, telling him of the Piasa birds only weakness.

That very day Ouatoga gathered up his greatest warriors and implemented his plan. The party climbed to the top of the highest bluff, soon they heard the piercing scream of the Piasa and saw it’s dark form in the sky above. It swooped down upon Ouatoga, who fell to the ground and gripped a tree root with all his might.

As the bird grabbed Ouatoga, the warriors released a volley of arrows into the bird, aiming for the soft flesh below the Piasa bird’s wings, the weakness described by the Great Spirit. The Piasa screamed and attempted to take to the air when another hail of arrows found their mark. At last the Piasa uttered a final shriek and plummeted over the cliff, into the river below. The triumphant Illini braves and their wounded Chief cheered as the body sank into the churning waters below.

In game terms, the warriors must lose the first imitative. A successful attack must take place on a very strong individual who can hold the bird down, while taking damage from this fierce thing. The hero being attacked must compete with the bird in a feat of strength while his party shoots arrows into it.

This beast isn’t natural to the area, it is the exact opposite, a creature of evil and death. It may have a lair full of bones, and it does eat the victims it catches, but where it comes from we really never will find out, nor does it matter. It is a magical creature and magic is suppose to defy logic, fore THAT is the very nature of magic.

8 comments:

Jonathan said...

"quit telling the players what they are dealing with" -- most definately. At my game table, the players aren't allowed to have any books around. I also frequently recast/shemp monsters with something else. You might be interested in this post I had last summer: "Statblocks : They're just numbers on a page."

"Many DM’s have this misconception about monsters, that all of them need ecology." Not _all_ of them, but most of them. Of course, this also depends on the game world you run. Are so-called "monsters" really monsters, or just 'creatures' that dont fit into human society? Or are they really truely badass evil things that arise from the ether to simply wreak havoc on civilized folk? There's also this notion of Gygaxian Naturalism floating around the RPG blogs. My take on this is purely from the point of view of "what can we say about how different monsters/creatures associate with one another?" Is creature A associated with creature B (according to whatever game system you are using). Of course, any DM can change whatever they want, but having an sense of which cohorts of creatures run around together helps make game worlds internally consistent. This in turn increases the players immersion level.

I remember one time - one of players was like "Oh, crap! A band of Zotarnz (type of frost orc)! That means that there are no doubt Remorahz's hanging around (which they hunt for food)! That explains those strange tracks we saw in the snow... it wasn't a sled. It was a remorahz!" It was a key turning point in that particular adventure - all based on consistent "monster ecology".


Nice post! keep up the good work.

JimLotFP said...

Yeah, this whole issue is why I made the Random Esoteric Creature Generator. Original printing no longer available, but a pro edition is available next month at a FLGS near you. :P

David said...

This was an interesting article to read, mostly because my group has one or two players that compulsively combs the books, core and splat, basically memorizing things. On a moment's notice, this guy can tell you in ballpark figures the AC, initiative, saves, etc etc of basically any monster in any official book. It becomes difficult to run encounters, because despite the fact that he makes a play at separating character and player knowledge, that sort of thing is never successful.

Now, with this sort of issue, I can't just describe the monster and not name it. Everyone at the table will know what it is in less than a minute. However, I like the "crying over the corpse" image you paint here. it's a description of a scene, but misleading enough to (possibly) throw the party for a bit.

That, and polymorphs/etc. These sorts of things are almost anathema to 4e, which seems to be what my group wants to play these days. It's harder to see through illusions in 4e, because they are much more rare as effects in general. A polymorph or alter self here and there, since I suppose the monsters could still use 3e spells, might be interesting.

Secondly, I like the idea of ditching ecology a bit. To be honest, I got hung up on monster and dungeon ecology a few years back, and now my players all start asking annoying questions if the ecology doesn't work out, and begin making wild assumptions. Perhaps consistently having monstrous and mythical things be able to avoid requiring an ecological niche might lessen this sort of questioning. However, I think there's still something to be said for having a 'realistic' dungeon, where at least there exists a food web. Otherwise you get a lion in an undead heavy crypt, and everyone is confused.

Nonetheless, fun article, and I think a lot of what is written here could be applied to at least my game(s).

Jonathan said...

I re-read this post again today. It really is excellent. You might consider submitting it to the upcoming Anthology of Roleplaying Game Blogs for consideration. It would make an excellent addition to the milieu of selections that will be under review. If you're wondering wtf I'm talking about - read the announcement of the anthology. =D

Ripper X said...

Jonathan: Your statblocks article is absolutely dead-on! I had never even thought of doing that before, but if one is in a pitch and speed is of the essence, this is definately an option. It also looks like fun trying to translate it over.

Ecology is something that I really kind of struggle with. I mean, I use it! Don't get me wrong, I am glad that it is there, but I do find that sometimes they force these things to be alive, when maybe they aren't?

I don't know, I've got to do more thinking on the subject.

I also read your idea about the physical publication. I'm getting married this month . . . next week actually, so my time is really limited. I may get back to you after stuff calms down a bit. Right now I'm not sure what I think of it.

Ripper X said...

JimLoTFP: I read your blog, and you are a bastard, but in a good and difficult way. I'd love to play a game with you at the helm, no doubt a challenging game!

Ripper X said...

David: Player info happens. Most of my players are Dungeon Masters as well. Yeah, arguments happen, but we all know that the guy with the maps always gets the final word on the matter.

As long as the player doesn't fall into the "Rules-Lawyer" mentality, then you don't have a serious problem.

You may need to rethink the way that you handle combat. I strive not to mentions numbers during fights. The only numbers that are said aloud is damage. The rest is all action/story oriented.

D&D does require math, but it shouldn't be the focus of it. We aren't playing Craps, here!

About not being able to get away with describing a monster and still keeping the players in suspense, well, you'd be surprised. Keep the beast in the dark, and remember that we are describing what the players experience.

Time rarely is going to stop so that they can get a good look at this thing. What their brains are telling them is what they think that they see. Perception is a very unique experience. Our senses lie to us all the time! Mistakes are common. This should also be applied to your descriptions.

wrathofzombie said...

Very awesome post! These are things I have been doing for awhile. I love creating my own monsters or taking ones that are in the MM and turning them on their heads.

One of my favorite things to do is reintroduce a monster from a previous campaign (all the same players). They think they know what the bugger is gonna do and I have it do something completely unexpected or vicious. Wakes them up.

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