4 Ways To Surprise Players Who Know All The Monster Stats

From Jonathan Hardin, sojournersawake.com

Roleplaying Tips Newsletter #1178

Hello Sojourner!

My players know all of the stats for every villain I place in their path.

Through searching on the internet, hours studying monster manuals, and good old fashioned wits, my players have found a way to circumvent the wonder of being surprised in battle.

As GM, I want to keep them engaged, even if they have already read the monster book.

My method is simple.

I change the stat block by creating a story and giving players hints.

Do you have the same problem?

Let’s look at 4 ways to surprise your well-read players.

1. Top of the Round

At the top of the round the monster takes a free action.

Require a dice roll from each character to save from an area effect caused by the monster.

For example, a monstrous slime normally stalks its prey slowly and only attacks melee.

What if you give the monster a ranged weapon attack?

At the top of the round, a large, slimy appendage extends to each player beyond melee range, strikes and damages them, pulling them closer to its oozing body.

The Story: This particular ooze has evolved over time. A nearby tribe worships this creature and feeds it, therefore changing its abilities over time.

The Hint: The characters witness carvings depicting worship of a slimy creature in the dungeons. Describe the creature as an ooze, but sporting bulbs sprouting from its top portion.

2. The Villainous Terrain

Make the terrain dangerous.

Use this tip to institute movement challenges via living and oppositional terrain.

For example, a burrowing predator native to the terrain hunts characters as they attempt to rest in the wilderness.

Things progress normally until the ground collapses, leaving players under the earth.

This affects movement and helps the players see the fictional world as three dimensional with depth and height, rather than just a flat two dimensional grid.

The Story: Besides a numerical stat block, you make your monsters (and characters) interact with the terrain.

The Hint: Foreshadow this surprise by describing soft, freshly tilled ground beneath their feet.

3. Kidnapping Monsters

Kidnap a player character.

Surprise players with monsters who stop at nothing to capture rather than kill.

For example, consider your average minion.

Characters can easily win a match against them, whether they be kobolds, robots, bangers, or any horde.

What starts as a routine fight turns into a mission against a specific character.

The minions use all of their resources to capture one PC and kill or leave the rest. Rather than fighting to the bloody death, they fight with a motivation and means to kidnap.

The Story: A more powerful villain employs the minions to capture the player for nefarious purposes, and provides the support needed for the capture.

The Hint: Run combat as normal the first round, but have one minion stand back searching the party for their intended target, maybe even calling them by name. Then unleash all forces on the capture.

4. Add a Reactive Feature

As the game master, you control time and space.

The monsters in your world are not static pieces of paper, but dynamic creatures.

Surprise your players by adding a new feature that shows maturation.

Consider an underground creature with tentacles.

It normally lurks, grapples, and eats.

The players are ready for this and know what actions the monster can take.

But by adding a dynamic feature, you bring surprise to the game.

Simply give the monster a dynamic reaction that triggers upon a player’s action.

Every time a spell is cast, the monster reacts.

Every time a movement is made, the monster reacts.

Every time the character strikes with a critical hit, the monster reacts.

You can fill in the blanks with what kinds of actions the monster can take.

Maybe they nibble off a few hit points for sustenance.

Maybe they gain a spell slot in response to the magic.

Or maybe they call forth their mate to come to their aid.

The Story: This monster evolved over time and learned from past mistakes of its kind.

The Hint: Describe this monster with varying colors, twice the eyes, or grant it speech.

When your players have exhausted their search for books and stats, it is time to get creative.

Take these methods and apply them to your game.

By using story and hints, draw your players to the edge of their seats in anticipation that this is no ordinary monster.

May your story continue!

Discuss these game master tips in this thread at the official Roleplaying Tips community forum.