6 Monstrous Tips

Roleplaying Tips Newsletter #0274

A Brief Word From Johnn

On Holidays – Next Issue Will Be Mid-August

As of tomorrow, I’ll be on holidays until mid August, so no issues will be crafted and sent until my return. I also expect my Inbox to be filled up with spam by Tuesday, which means e-mails sent to me after that point will likely bounce. If I were a monster, I think my special attack would be Dumbfounding Puns, and my special weakness would be Kryptonite Spam.

This year, we’re vacating to British Columbia to do some camping near 100 Mile House. If asked to define what camping is, my wife would tell you that’s when I bring my laptop outside to write. It should be fun, though with no Internet I might go through some withdrawal.

NERO Terms And Definitions

Last week, we posted a tip about the NERO organization. Logan has also compiled a large list of terms used in conjunction with NERO:

NERO Terms


Johnn Four
[email protected]

6 Monstrous Tips

The following are contest entries from the recent Expeditious Retreat Press Monster Tips Contest.

The One Minute Monster

From Adam Marafioti

One way to quickly give your players “new monsters” without all the hassle of statting them up is to simply write up a new monster description and then steal the stats off of an existing monster. As long as your monster isn’t doing something illogical, like rending when in your description to the players it doesn’t have any arms, then chances are your players will never even realise that they were fighting the exact same monster (statswise) as last week, just in a new body!

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Avoid Monster Cliches

From Adrian Pavone

The standard idea most D&D DMs use once the party has gained a few levels is to revive some of the old monsters and tack a few class levels on them. For example, a bugbear with 4 levels of Fighter can be a difficult foe, as can an orc Barbarian level 6, or a goblin Sorcerer level 14. But why go with what is expected? My suggestion is, try avoiding the cliches once in a while.

The way I implement this in my game is quite simple. I have just given the player characters an adventure hook which states that a goblin stole a nobleman’s prized ruby idol of Pelor. There is actually a lot more going on as well behind this story, but the goblin himself is neither a standard goblin, a warrior goblin, or a rogue goblin (which would be expected to explain the “theft”). He is actually a goblin monk. And to boot, he is lawful good!

And why not? Sure, most goblins are aggressive and only care about themselves, but that doesn’t mean all goblins are. This goblin might have had a lawful good tendency his whole life, and so was outcast at a relatively young age. He then decided to pursue spiritual enlightenment, and, although having extreme trouble finding a monastery that would accommodate him (being a goblin and all, some monks even attacked him while applying) he eventually found a small monastery that saw the good inclinations within him and decided to harness these.

Unexpectedly, the goblin might try to convince the players that he did no wrong (which he didn’t, he is just scared), and wants to personally return the item to the noble. Should they refuse his request, well, a goblin with flurry of blows is a very interesting and memorable fight.

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Begin At The Beginning

From Aki Halme

Start from needs and means, end with haves and feels.

It’s good to start with the beginning when designing a monster or monstrous race. If the creates are made by some conscious force, what design specifications are there? If they have evolved from something else, what were they before? Either way, these give the first suggestions on what the eventual creatures will be like.

With the prototypeversion of the monster in place, consider the effects of the environment. How has it affected its surroundings, and vice versa? Has it formed social patterns or alliances to survive and prosper? Has it adjusted, developed skills, changed physically, adopted habits, crafted or obtained tools, or found habitats in which to thrive?

Hasit survived by subjugating others, co-operating, hiding, out-fighting or out-running others? Does it have enemies? Does it have a religion or access to magic?

Considering the origin of the monster and building it layer by layer usually provides a more plausible creature than a direct jump to the final specs. This work helps the GM understand his monsters better.

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Change One Big Thing Every Adventure

From Kurt Schneider

The most important aspect of my campaign is that I keep the players guessing. To that end, I try to change One Big Thing about at least one monster they face every adventure. This could be something reasonable, like a troll with fire resistance who lives in a volcanic area but is vulnerable to some other energy type, such as acid, cold, or force (the last one’s very nasty).

It could also be a nest of stirges that drain spell levels instead of constitution. Another example might be a critter that normally swallows whole, but instead chews (i.e. max bite damage each round until the victim inflicts X hit points of piercing damage with a light weapon).

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Grab Your Heroes And Turn Them Around

From Jim B.

This is a hint about combat with monsters grabbing, especially with systems where armor reduces damage instead of making the PCs harder to strike. In this example, I will use the common canine. A dog may not be very threatening to most PCs. Sure, their armor can easily stop its bite, but what happens when the dog’s bite is also a grab, and the dog then hangs onto the PC? If it grabs a leg, the PC is now slowed down and not dodging well. If the dog grabs an arm, the PC now has a squirming, living weight hanging off a weapon or shield arm. If several dogs grab a PC, they will bring even the strongest man down. Once on the ground, that is when one of them goes for the throat grab–an attack that can be considered a choke by the nicest GM and a killing attack by others.

A trained attack dog will hang-on when struck, or at least, have a good chance to hold. Untrained dogs tend to let go when hit. Also, plan on trained guard dogs to work as a team to bring down their target, while wild dogs will be more chaotic, though probably greater in number.

I also like employing the grab and drag with lowly undead. Suddenly, unarmed zombies aren’t such a cakewalk when the PCs have their arms immobilized and are being dragged to the ground for easy munching.

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Critter Protection Racket

From Tim

Imagine a wilderness full of monsters with a few scattered villages. The villagers’ lives are always threatened, the royal army is far away, and the odd party of adventurers every couple of months may be capable of some quite heroic deeds, but they’re not out there to stay, either.

Who do the villagers turn to for protection?

The most powerful creature in the area–as long as it is intelligent enough to be dealt with reasonably, and as long as the village has something for it to offer (from baubles up to human sacrifice). Treating humans as part of the local critter ecology makes for a nice blurring of lines.

Example:A village (or several villages) in a wilderness plagued by orc raiders is protected by a giant living in the nearby hills. The orcs know about the badass giant and leave the village alone most of the time. The villagers pay the giant in smoked beef and schnapps, two things the giant likes but doesn’t have the skill/patience to make for himself. The giant’s price may be exorbitant or not, or perhaps the villagers fool the giant into thinking they’re poorer than they are. Anyway, it beats getting run over and burnt down by orcs.

Along comes a party of adventurers. Maybe they’re questing for an item the giant is supposed to have, maybe they’re just passing through. Either way, interaction with the villagers can become pretty interesting. The villagers will want to conceal their relationship with the giant for fear of reprisals (the King’s judiciary will have them all strung up if they hear about it!). If the villagers find out (or even just think) that the adventurers want to slay their protector, they might warn the giant. Maybe they disagree about what should be done about the disturbance in the local balance of power (the party), and the adventurers overhear a whispered debate.

  • We must warn Master Grum!
  • No! He will come and kill them, and then others will come looking for them!<
  • But they will go and kill Master Grum, and then what about the orcs?
  • Everybody knows Master Grum can’t be killed. He’s too big!
  • But they’ve got an elf and a wizard! What if they witch him when he’s drunk and poke his eyes out?
  • Don’t talk like that about Master Grum!
  • …Perhaps we should do something about that wizard.
  • Whatever the case may be, the party will soon get the impression that the locals are acting pretty strange.

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Tips From Roleplaying Tips Game Masters

Have a roleplaying tip you’d like to share? E-mail it to [email protected] – thanks

One Way To Handle Split Parties

From Chris Schlosser

Thanks for putting out a great newsletter! I’ve found the following method to work very well with a split party.

First of all, this will only work with co-operative players. If you have discipline issues in your group, this will not work at all. You need to control your gaming group with an iron fist for this, otherwise you will have a big mess on your hands. If done properly, everyone will have fun.

The big trick is taking over everything that’s going on at once and keeping it organized while suspending the disbelief of your players. It works pretty well once the players get used to it.

Next, watch a few Friday the 13th movies, or any sort of horror movie involving drunken teens that split up. Pay particular attention to how the film switches between the different scenes. Take the same approach to running your split party. Make each party splinter have their own “scene.”

Mind the following:

  • Make sure the party has a common goal, otherwise you won’t get them back together again.
  • While the scene is going on, make sure that players not in the scene remain quiet. They are playing the role of the movie audience.
  • If the other players start to blurt out hints, be firm that they cannot speak to the active players.
  • If they start telling you what they are doing in the other party< splinter, silence them and let them know you’ll get to them shortly. Relax and enjoy!
  • Keep the time that you pay attention to one splinter of the party very short. This way, your players won’t get bored.
  • Leave the players hanging without an outcome often. This will keep them on their toes.
  • Stay aware of how long certain things take. Picking a lock takes more than one round of combat.
  • Glaze over tedious bits of roleplaying. If the blademaster wants to kill the sickly goblin, it’s a safe bet that he’ll be successful. No dice rolling is needed here.
  • Try to stick with a steady timeline to avoid having to “rewind” time and change events.

Going back to the horror movie example, this is what an evening at Camp Crystal Lake might look like as a roleplaying session:

Billy: Player 1
Boomer: Player 2
Jenny: NPC
Jason: Monster / serial killer

Billy, Boomer and Jenny are sitting in the living room of a cabin watching a football game on TV. Boomer makes fun of Jenny, who gets mad and goes out to the porch.

GM: All right Billy, what are you doing?

Billy: I’m going to share a beer with Jenny on the porch, smooth things over, and try to convince her to go skinny dipping.

GM: Jenny is standing on the porch, leaning against a pole, staring out into the moonlight. Her giant 80s hair looks gorgeous! She smiles when she sees you approach with 2 cans of beer.

Boomer: You should have brought more beer!

GM: Please be quiet Bommer, you’re not there.

Billy: All right, I give her a can of beer and ask her if she’s all right and ask her if she wants to go for a swim.

GM: Roll a diplomacy check.

Billy: Uh, 17. (GM notes that this is a success, but doesn’t tell Billy.)

GM: Ok, you start talking to Jenny, telling her that Boomer is just a dumb jerk.

(Switch to Boomer)

GM: Meanwhile, Boomer, the TV you were watching goes dead. Billy just walked away with your last 2 cans of beer.

Boomer: Just great! I think there’s more beer in the fridge. I’ll go get some.

GM: You go to the kitchen in the back of the cabin. Make a spot check.

Boomer: Oh no! 4! (This was to notice the murderer with the hockey mask peering into the kitchen window, but poor Boomer failed.)

GM: All right, you spot the fridge and start looking for more beer. Roll a search check.

Boomer: 15. (Doesn’t matter, but we’ll let Boomer roll a dice to make him think something’s up.)

(Switch to Billy – Jason is hiding in the bushes at the back of the cabin and starts moving towards the door. Billy and Jenny are on the porch and might hear something.)

GM: All right Billy, Jenny likes where this is going. You finish your beers and get up. Make a listen check.

Billy: 22!

GM: You hear some rustling in the bushes at the back of the cabin.

Boomer: Do I hear this?

GM: I’ll get to you in a second.

Billy: What was that? I shout, “Boomer, is that you?”

GM: You wait a few seconds and get no response. Jenny says, “It was probably just a squirrel. Let’s go to the lake.”

Billy: Uh, sure.

(Switch -Jason has opened the back door and is sneaking up behind Boomer, who is digging in the fridge.)

GM: Boomer, you found some beer way in the back of the fridge. Make a listen check.

Boomer: 18.

GM: You hear the back door open and some footsteps behind you.

Boomer: I look behind me.

GM: A big man in a hockey mask just walked into the kitchen. He has a bloody machete! Roll initiative.

And so on.

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Settling The Players Before The Game

From Derek McKay

Whenever the gaming group meets, there is always that time of catching up on news, serving drinks, setting-up, and generally socialising. The problem is getting the group to calm down and start the actual gaming. My solution to this is to have a well defined format that serves to introduce the session, provide a background for the players, remind them what they were up to, and to say: “okay, quiet everyone, we’re gaming now!”

My introductions always start, “As we sit here and contemplate the next adventure for our party, let us cast our minds to another time and place, in another world, which exists only in our imaginations….” What then follows is a vignette of some other part of the campaign world, some snap-shot of a simultaneously occurring event or some common event that the characters would have heard about. At the end of this, I then say, “When we last left our heroes…” and follow it with a statement or two about where we got up to last time.

These opening words are the same every single time, and have come to define the beginning. The otherwise rowdy group settles immediately, knowing that the set phrase is the marker for a snippet of information about the campaign, and a tale of the glory of what the heroes had last done. And then, quite focussed, the game begins.

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An Example Mapping Process

From The Chicken Reborn

I would start by visiting Medieval Demographics Made Easy

This helps you flesh out the details of a medieval-ish setting. It helps you with numbers like population, amount of cities, towns, fortifications, etc. If you don’t want to use this, then just disavow the parts of the following steps that include them.

Step 1: The Materials

Get together your materials. For basic mapping, I like to use a large easel pad with 1? squares (really helpful) and Sharpie Markers. For a more finished look, you can use anything from commercial art programs for your computer to paint.

Step 2: The Basics

Make some basic decisions. Are you going to map the whole world first and then zoom in, or just start from your region? Mapping your world can be as simple as making an ellipse and putting continental shapes in it, to determining winds, water currents, vegetation and so on.

Decide how largeyour region is–have a general area in mind. Use the tools given in the above website to determine population, etc. This will help you decide how many cities, towns, and other settlements you have.

Step 3: Roughing It Out

Startwith a sheet of paper and rough out the basic landforms. Coasts, mountain regions, major rivers, islands, whatever is applicable. You don’t have to draw the mountains, just mark general areas where the mountains are.

Step 4: Determining Regions

Decide the general regions, kingdoms, territories, or whatever. I see two paths to this: The Historical path or the Simplistic path. With the Historical path, you decide where people came from, migrated from, exodused from, or whatever. You determine where the first settlements were, why they were put there (defense, good hunting, arable land?) and later you can make these into your major cities or ancient ruins.

Then you decide where the kingdoms are by determining from the history how the spread of population pooled into individual kingdoms. You might want to add in some basic borders for the kingdoms. Mountains and rivers are usually pretty good candidates, but aren’t necessarily the only places for borders to creep up.

The Simplistic path is, well, simple. You put cities and towns where you want, and put borders where you think the shape of the kingdoms are cool, with little thought as to why they are there.

Step 5: The Symbols

If you’re anal, like me, you’ll want to decide what you’ll use for symbols. If you want to detail every single village, creek and hill, okay, it’s your funeral…I mean map, but generally you’ll want to draw the line at towns and cities.

Will you draw out the mountains or just use brown dots to show “mountainous regions?” Is a city a dot, a circle, or a dot in a circle? What about a town? Is a castle a black square, or a little drawn tower with crenels and a flag? How do you show forests? Is a navigable river a dark blue and a non-navigable river light blue? Will you show a difference between roads, trails, and paths, or just show roads, or show no roads at all?

If you’re _really_ anal, like me, you might make a few sample maps first, using different symbols to see what style you like. You will usually flow to a middle ground between an almost artistic, authentic-looking map with everything drawn out and a more sterile map with very abstract symbols for things. It’s up to you. What you should have at the end of this step is a small key for your symbols. You’ll want to add this to your finished map.

Step 6: Finish It Up

You can either finish the map you’re working on and call it good, or remake a “finished” map if you want to be really slick. What I did for my first setting in my current campaign world was, I made a large map of the region as the basis for the finished map. Then I scanned it in and made a full-color map in Adobe Photoshop. You can also use mapping software, like NBOS’s Fractal Mapper, which is pretty good.

Well, that’s it. If you want some of my samples, you can check my poor, neglected campaign website for some finished examples: www.wowway.com/~chickenreborn

Note, the “finished” maps are not very pretty, but they’re much more utilitarian than fully stylized mountains and colorfully drawn cities, etc. I hope this helps.

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Planning And Running SF Games

From Garry Stahl

When creating a world, don’t create too much. It is unnecessary to build an entire planet if the PCs never get out of the main spaceport. I don’t worry about the details unless it will affect the game. Concentrate on the overall picture. Take a lesson from Hollywood: build very well what the character sees, the rest can be unfinished lumber and fake walls. If they are about to enter a false front, dance.

Make it up on the fly. You don’t need the entire world–as long as you are 1% more knowledgeable than the players about your new world, you look pretty smart. This goes for any genre of gaming. If your detective isn’t headed to the Northside on this adventure, don’t place valuable time in detailing the Northside. In your fantasy game, if the Mystic Mountains are to remain mystic this time around, don’t detail them.

Once you create an item of detail, don’t forget it. I have GMed in the same fantasy setting for the last 27 years. I accumulate detail over time, and continue to use it.

Remember what SF role-playing is. You’re doing Sinbad written large. In the beginning, man told tales about the strange lands over the seas. One famous such set of tales was the Voyages of Sinbad. (I recommend dumping all the films and reading the original stories. I spent many an hour over that book, and regret not a minute. Medieval SF.)

As our knowledge of the world increased, we ran out of places to put strange new lands, so we looked to the worlds around our own sun. Golden Age SF will point the direction here. Mars, Venus, and the moons of the gas giants all held strange life and weird places.

Onceagain knowledge caught up with fiction, and we knew the other planets to be barren. We moved our strange lands to the stars, and there they have stayed. Whatever the genre of your SF universe, be it classic Space Opera (Star Wars, Lensman), Science Fantasy (Star Trek), or hard science, you are telling the tales of Sinbad once again. Remember your roots, and you will build a firm foundation to your worlds.

Hereis one of my SF inventions to help describe worlds: the Terran Standard Climate System. I don’t worry about weather in the short term, but I do consider climate.

Terran Standard Climate System: A means of classifying the climate of class M planets. Due to the curved nature of planets, they never possess a single climate unless some unusual factors are at work. Planets are expressed as a range of climates from extreme to extreme. Worlds with extremes beyond those given in the TSCS are considered marginal class M.

sA — Super Arctic: Average yearly temperature of -10 degrees Fahrenheit
A — Arctic: Average yearly temperature of 10 degrees Fahrenheit
Sa — Sub arctic: Average yearly temperature of 30 degrees Fahrenheit
Tm –Temperate: Average yearly temperature of 50 degrees Fahrenheit
St –Subtropical: Average yearly temperature of 70 degrees Fahrenheit
T — Tropical: Average yearly temperature of 90 degrees Fahrenheit
sT — Super Tropical: Average yearly temperature of 110 degrees Fahrenheit

World climate ranges are expressed as max climate/mini climate. Earth would have a Terran Standard Climate of: T/A.

The Terran Standard Climate System is useful only in indicating the range of a world’s climate and does not indicate aridity, surface features, land/water ratio, or lifeforms.

I list planets, when I go to this level of detail, like this:

  • Association: Alpha Hydrosis Three
  • Class: M
  • Gravity: 0.997 G
  • Diameter: 7800 miles
  • Period: 297 days
  • Rotation: 30.3 hours
  • TSCS: Tm/sT
  • Satellites:
    • Hare — class: D
      gravity: 0.01 G
      diameter 990 miles
      period: 7 days
      rotation: 168 hours
    • Tortoise — class: F
      gravity: 0.11 G
      diameter 2990 miles
      period: 45 days
      rotation: 55 hours
  • Life: Vertebrate, complex nervous system, aquatic and terran forms, sentient transplanted
    Ane 80%
    Human 10%
    Other 10%