Regardless of where they are or what we choose to do with
them, we want our NPCs to seem real and unique; and it is okay for the minions
to follow the descriptions in the Monstrous Manual, but even if we just add a
quark to a few of them which doesn’t effect there stats, we can make our
encounters more memorable to the players.
Besides having the illusion of personality, we want to
really study and develop how the monsters will perceive the players prior to the encounter, as well as
during it; noting what we think might change. Unlike 0 INT monsters and animals
(or PCs), intelligent monsters will never willingly attack an unknown enemy.
This shows us the first factors that we can modify to make this encounter
unique: High INT creatures will be able to accurately judge what they are
dealing with in less time than Low INT creatures. A low INT monster will take a
moment to assess the situation prior to engaging in combat; are they going to
be able to figure out that a cleric is present? What will they think about an
unarmored PC? From asking ourselves these questions, we can start to develop a
basic strategy: Is our monster the kind of creature that will focus on
characters that they see as vulnerable first, or are they more likely to start
with the largest threat? Chances are, the largest threat to them will be the
fighter, but this might change once one of them sees the wizard cast a spell.
We can also factor in motivations: Do the monsters just want
to clear their lair, or do they see these invaders as something different? A
mind-flayer may want them as slaves; a lich may want to turn this into an
experiment, while a dragon may see them as a brief source of mild entertainment
and news before eating them.
Not all encounters have to end in total annihilation, if a
monster believes that he can surrender, he may attempt to do so. If there is a
mix of creatures living in the dungeon, part of the group may see surrender as
a political move to be rid of evil oppressors, giving information in exchange
for their lives. Others may make some strange demands that the party won’t be
able to fulfill, such as letting them have the hobbit to eat, in exchange for
them letting the players go.
Some Dungeon Masters get hung up on alignment, stating that
chaotic monsters can’t work together as a team, but this really isn’t true.
Teamwork is a basic survival skill, and while the lawful creatures will be able
to form tighter lines and use more advanced tactics, the chaotic will be able to
stay in their battle station; they may think that they are the best soldier in
the army and everybody else is incompetent, but they will be able to work as a
team. Think about it more along the
lines of trust, a lawful company trusts each other, while a chaotic company
probably doesn’t, but both has to work together in order to survive.
Every creature knows that an enemy is weakest when it is
traveling, and being able to pick the battlefield should have great advantages.
The more time a monster has to design an ambush, the more deadly an encounter
becomes. A dedicated ambush spot which is designed to capture supplies from
merchants will have a booby trapped, and easily defensible path to a lair which
is a death trap once entered.
All ambushes should be designed to function as they need to,
and for a purpose higher then just giving your buddies XP. If you want to focus
on players needs, instead, focus on creating a great challenge and allow it to
flow as it was designed to. It is best
to write exactly what should happen, how the monsters will attempt to control
the movements of their victims, and designs which will kill or injure others
with the least amount of energy spent as possible. Each ambush should also
reflect the strengths of the monster that uses it, and minimize their
weaknesses. Don’t worry about how the players will get themselves out of the mess;
that is their problem, not yours. Try to kill them! Having to fight for each
victory will provide more then just telling a group story.
For reasons of fairness, traps should factor in to how you
balance the encounter. This should be a considered a free attack on the party that
may or may not be avoidable, and be cohesive with your main plan of attack. A
monster that triggers a trap will automatically succeed, and force the player
to make a saving throw to avoid full or half of the damage, but with monster
triggered traps, it must be decided if a monster will get an attack of
opportunity on the intended victim or victims, and, of course, follow up with
this plan on game day; you aren’t doing anybody any favors by coddling them.
Much like the ambush, these traps must be thought out, and
serve a purpose. If a trap is set off by intruders, then it should alert the
monsters who set it; or, if they don’t want to be bothered, why? What is the
trap designed to capture? Do they have a problem with bears? If they want meat
from the traps, they don’t want the meat going bad; if it is designed to
capture slaves, it won’t injure them in anyway unless the monster has some way
to heal them. Traps should be designed with intent, and when they are, it makes
the encounter more thrilling to the players to see how the creatures that made
Many modules assume that you understand why a creature is
there, however I have found that many DMs honestly don’t think about it, and
they should. Sure, everybody recognizes a slave/master relationship, but there
can be other kinds of relationships in play.
There are trained animals, and untrained animals. Monsters that
live in the wildness won’t have any problem in getting animals, and there
should be at least one of two monsters who know how to train them. Even an
untrained animal will be dangerous to a PC, as a simple dog won’t be obsessed
with digging a booger out of its nose, nor get distracted by the boredom of
looking down an empty hall all day long. All it has to do is bark and something
should go see what it is going on.
A trained animal fights along side of its master, at the
same time; they know each other and can always work well together, granting the
owner of the animal additional attacks and making the player decide how to
spend their own attacks. In cases were a goblin has a wolf or two, the wolves
are stronger then the goblin is, but is still subservient to it. This is the preferred
relationship for a weaker monster, a much stronger monster that doesn’t boss it
around; it just doesn’t get any better then that!
Some relationships are forced upon the owner of the lair or
there isn’t anything that the monster can do about it being there, so they
factor it into their plans. A really powerful monster that doesn’t care about
leadership may only see the goblins as a snack to catch, and while it might eat
a few now and then, the defensive bonus of the creature unwittingly being there
can be awesome! Orcs can feint a running retreat to encourage the invaders to
chase them right into a ropers lair, and then close all of the exits. Since
orcs like to add insult to injury, they’ll probably keep peppering everyone
with arrows from the safety of a murder hole.
Some monsters, can be contained in a cage or a pit, but can
never be controlled or trained, such as a Bulette. Smart monsters could clear
an area once the players are inside of it, and then release the creature.
Think about all of the relationships in a specific area. How
do they benefit each other, and who considers themselves to be in charge? Is
there a weakness to the relationship that a smart player might be able to exploit?
WORD GETS AROUND
Finally, we have to consider communication between everyone
in the struggle. If it takes place inside of a lair, do they have a method of
sharing learned information between them? How advanced is this coded
communication? They can probably tell each other how many intruders there are,
as well as what part of the lair that they are currently in, and where the
monsters want them to go. If a wizard casts a spell, there probably is a code
sound for others to know. The DM should understand that his monsters can only
know what they see or what they are told.
Nothing should be placed in a lair without intent on the DMs
part. When we designed things, they should always tell an engaging story that
is open to the interpretation of the players experiencing them, and encourages
them to seek deeper into what it is that you are doing. I always find it more
thrilling to discover what the story is, than I do just being told; why not
trust them to discover that for themselves?