Making Your Monsters Matter
We are creating a new series on our website and will be featuring guest writers every once in a while. For our next guest, we have James Waddell from Friends with Dice.
John Galt said in 1812 that “Every traveler is necessarily the hero of his own story” and he was right. I have found that it is a great way to look at the world. No matter what someone does, they generally believe they are in the right, because they are the hero of their own story. Furthermore, this is a good way to look at the monsters that are thought of by most adventuring parties in DnD as the villains. In my experience, examining the motivations and thought patterns of my monsters has created many more storytelling elements and made the fighting encounters more engaging for my RP centered players.
Let me digress and tell you a little about me: I have played and run DnD since 1st edition. After a few years off I returned to the game two years ago and have garnered the reputation as the DM whose monsters are tactical and deadly. What does this mean? I play my monsters as if they actually would like to survive the encounter with the encroaching “heroes”, and they act accordingly to kill the villains of the monster’s story. I take a look at their fighting experience, alignment and intelligence and decide using this background how to have the monsters prepare for, strategize for, and act in combat. I realized this was different from how other DM’s ran their combat when I overheard other groups in the same AL location talking about how they handled certain encounters in the same adventure. Then my group would shake their heads knowingly chuckling at the player’s ignorance... “come play that same encounter over here” they would say, as if this poor fool had played a video game on munchkin mode and they were asking said poor deluded fool to come play Dark Souls at its highest difficulty.
Why the difference? I play my monsters the way the players play their own characters as if it is a life and death battle, using every dirty trick, ability, and legendary action to its utmost. Does this make me a better DM? Emphatically I say, No. Just a different DM, if you and your players are having fun... then you are doing it right. But, may I just ever so humbly infer there is always room for improvement, even the professional DM’s out there say they have room to grow and they are much better at it than I, the humble author.
Don’t get me wrong, I am a cheerleader DM, I want my players to succeed, otherwise the story stops, and then I don’t get to keep playing either! I am on their side, We are playing a cooperative storytelling game... So we need to, I know this is crazy talk, cooperate and communicate. However where I diverge is I also think my monsters deserve the same treatment; they are not just walls to overcome or mindless mooks to defeat on their way to a well thought out BBEG (Big Bad Evil Guy). Every player has their own motivations, desires, background and plans; I am just opining that your monsters should have a truncated version of this too. No need to write up backgrounds for all your low level mobs, but have an idea of their motivations/plans as a group and maybe make a couple of these so called “trash” mobs have some sort of background/desires/attitude thought out. Then you can add a little difference to them, giving the players a more immersive experience in battle. These characteristics don’t have to be positive; you can have an idiot mob that does something so profoundly stupid mid battle that your players talk about it for years or perhaps that one supposedly “trash” mob that somehow is always one step ahead and always escapes.
Barry the beholder wants to live! Yes, he/she/it does, (not sure how otherworldly intelligences self identify) so why play it like Barry is just a blob of hit points and abilities? The goblins want to survive and continue to enjoy their lives, as do all the “villains” of the party’s story. I try to utilize this in all my NPCs be they monsters or the friendly shopkeeper. I try to put as much thought into what the knight and your quest giver’s motivations and thoughts are as I do the goblins that are harassing the town. Obviously, I cannot give every one of 100 goblins a backstory and motivation, but I always try to have a basic idea of what they want and what they are willing to do to get it. Which usually gives them a lot more personality than the average: there are 5 goblins, roll for initiative. Furthermore, I try to give myself limits on what the monsters will do: Lawful evil will not go as far as a neutral evil or god forbid a chaotic evil monster will. None are above dirty tricks and things that most of the players aren’t willing to do.
I would go even further and say that individual monsters are not mindless, most living intelligent beings smarter than a rock know when they are outmatched... this isn’t an action movie or anime were mook after mook goes after One Punch Man even though he has murdered them by the boat load already. Even hobgoblins and their martial society can run when they are the last one of an entire tribe that faced up against the party and got decimated, they can easily realize the futility of continuing a fight. Furthermore, they could vow vengeance and come back many sessions later leading a band of elite hobgoblin fighters specifically recruited to kill the party! I have monster’s run quite a bit. Sometimes they get reinforcements, sometimes the bandit says F this I am going back to farming, leather working, or whatever. My party has had run ins with previous opponents multiple times, knowingly or unknowingly, one of the NPC’s that my party loves found his life’s calling after he narrowly avoided being killed by them. All parties like it when they defeat an enemy, however, when they finally defeat an enemy that has eluded them multiple times, the joy is just that much more sweet. Also, running to get reinforcements is always a nail biter, players minds make up scenarios much worse than anything you can think of, but you can always try to do worse!
I explained earlier that I like to think of fighting experience, alignment and intelligence when deciding how to play monsters. This is only a few of the things that you could look at but I think it covers the basic bases. I would say though, if you are running an adventure with mainly one type of monster, at least look at their background as a monster so you have something to start with; a few minutes of up front reading will save a lot of back end floundering.
Is the party facing off against veteran enemies who have held off scores of invasions or killed many parties prior to this one, and they are but a blip in the litany of fools encroaching on their territory? Well then they are prepared, they should have set up their area to best reflect their strengths and weaknesses, they would have strategies to deal with invaders, etc. Fire elementals would not stay fighting in an area where you can pull a lever and fill the area with water, it just doesn’t make sense, unless there is a very good reason for it. Let us talk kobolds, they aren’t very smart, but maybe they have held this area for a few years from adventurers. There would be traps, there would be alarm systems, etc.
One big thing I rarely see is differentiation of roles, some would be ranged while others rush forward and defend allowing the ranged sling users to get off attacks without being endangered. This is an easy fix, and an easy adjustment; increase the HP of the front line guys and decrease the HP of the back line guys. They are still facing off against the same monsters but they are now facing off against enemies that at least protect themselves somewhat effectively. Even the least intelligent beings learn. They may not come up with the best lessons from their experience, but they learn. Monsters are no exception. If it is a new tribe that just formed, maybe they swarm? Showing their inexperience, but a couple are smart enough to hide using their tiny size and agility to keep themselves alive, using their slings. They escape and rebuild after the adventurers leave, repopulating the dungeon for the next group, or the same group when they have to go back out and are now facing tougher enemies!
Evil beings are willing to do a lot more than good people are willing to do to ensure their survival, Adjust accordingly! What would a lawful evil being be willing to do? A Chaotic evil? Figure out what you think they would be willing to do and then go three steps further, then when you get there go another step. Why you ask? Because most of you out there are inherently good people, you don’t murder, you don’t rape, you don’t pillage... So you have to get into that mindset a bit, DO NOT DO ANY OF THOSE THINGS!
But, think what they would be willing to do and trust me on this... it is pretty much anything. But they don’t do these things just to do them, they don’t do them in isolation, they do it to live, continue living, and enjoy themselves. For example Timmy the Troglodyte, he is Chaotic evil and he is pretty much willing to do any horror you can imagine to continue living. He will eat babies, torture for pleasure, kill for pleasure and any other number of things. When you play them, they should act accordingly, they have no expectation of fairness at all; they will utilize any means to kill the party and ensure their survival sneak attacks, hit and runs, ganging up on one enemy... especially the one that fails the stench roll. As well as using their own children as bait to get the party into place for a full on sneak attack on the back of the party getting those pesky spell casters!
This is the hardest to prepare for; intelligent monsters are the deadliest and most effective if used appropriately. The issue is we are constrained by our own knowledge and abilities. If you are playing an intelligent monster, especially one more intelligent than anyone in the party, you are going to need to prep. Because the monster certainly would have, an intelligent monster knows that the party is coming, it has minions that will be giving information and run downs on the party’s capabilities. Most intelligent monsters have magics at their disposal, and any magician will have a familiar that can watch and show its master exactly what the Einstein of the monstrous variety is up against. Intelligent monsters will then adapt and prepare for these eventualities. If they see that they are going to have trouble, or that they are over-matched, they may flee, or they may set traps. They can do any of an infinite list of things to get ready for the party.
In Tomb of Annihilation the party was ready to go up against some red wizards; the red wizards had seen the party and prepped, one of their group up cast fly on them so that they didn’t have to concentrate on it and he sat at the camp. The party, thinking they could just hit them and make them drop out of the air, tried the age old trick of trying to make them take concentration checks. Needless to say they were surprised that none of them were making concentration checks and freely continued to bombard them with spells from a distance while their mercenary swordsmen attacked on the ground, and used bows. They loved it when they figured out what the red wizards had done, and they utilized that knowledge later on.
These changes create more connection between character and “monster”; one of my regular players who usually pays zero attention unless it is their turn in combat, perks up and pays a lot of attention because his nemesis, a swashbuckler who has left him bleeding multiple times only to challenge him every time appears shows up. He RP’s and fights her in a duel every time, and it is quite entertaining for the entire party. I know this puts more work on you as a DM, I know that you are already prepping, and devising story elements. I am just advocating adjusting it a bit, putting story elements in a petulant rebellious kobold’s hands who wants to escape the tribe, and jumps sides mid battle. Or make that fight just a little more epic because they made a deal to have a devil switch sides mid battle!
Not only does making your monsters matter make them more 3 dimensional, but it gives you more options with what to do with your monsters and gives the players the idea that more options are available for their characters.