10 Monstrous Tips

Roleplaying Tips Newsletter #0340

A Brief Word From Johnn

Making Magic Items Interesting Supplemental Now Available

Over the holidays, I posted Making Magic Items Interesting: Supplemental #22. It contains reader tips and articles about making that lowly +1 sword a roleplaying and campaign gold mine.

Thanks to Matt Craft, Dave Schaefer, Karo Laakso, Shahed Sharif, J.L. Ford, Jeremy Hogg, Craig Fraser, Hayley Hummerston, and Matthew G.

Get the supplemental here: Making Magic Items Interesting Text

Holiday Contest Finished

The holiday contest is over and winners contacted. Thanks to everyone who entered. And thanks to the contest prize sponsors:

I thought you might find the contest statistics interesting:

# of Prizes: 23
# of Entries: 72
# of Entrants: 32

I’ll be posting the entries in future issues of this e-zine. Stay tuned.

Happy New Year!


Johnn Four
[email protected]

10 Monstrous Tips

If The Monster Is Smart, Treat It As Such

From Aki Halme

When playing an NPC that is exceptionally intelligent or quite simple-minded, one way to GM this would be to use various levels of plans and contingencies.

  • A low intelligence creature can, given the time and the need, make one plan and stick to it. If the situation changes unexpectedly, the creature has great difficulty in adapting.
  • An average intelligence creature can adapt better, so it can think of at least one what-if for the plan, and have the preparations for it in place.
  • High intelligence and genius level creatures have prepared for several scenarios and multiple contingencies, and even contingencies within contingencies.

For example, a low intelligence goblin horde might have realized they could be facing the usual fate of being overrun by armored knights. As a result, they have prepared pikes and perhaps even a trench. When the opposition does not charge in with cavalry and instead opts to use missile weapons, the goblinoids can’t adapt in a coordinated fashion. They may charge, break and flee, or stand, or all of the above at the same time.

Similarly, the lair of the horde has probably been prepared against the most obvious attack routes, but if they are struck in some other fashion, such as sappers breaking a wall rather than an assault against the gate, things get confusing.

At the other end of the scale, a well-planned dark elven ambush would involve quick and effective preparations against the most probable countermeasures, and several escape routes and rendezvous points planned with traps and lures at key points. The team could work well together and be able to adjust without difficulty to changing circumstances. It is even possible that the team could’ve scouted the PCs ahead of time and prepared some customized tricks to prevent the PCs from co-operating effectively. The drow could’ve anticipated their campsite and prepared it in their favor, maybe even subtly sabotaged the players’ gear or infiltrated their ranks.

Highly intelligent creatures might well have some surprises up their sleeves. These too are best prepared beforehand. A good GM ploy would be to have several tricks thought up and written down. Eventually something comes up that can use a trick in a particularly spectacular fashion. The players are also a great source of ideas for ingenious use of skills, gear, and stats.

Give the impression of a highly intelligent opponent by thinking ahead of time how the scene will unfold, and preparing several what-ifs. The NPCs can then adjust on a moment’s notice by using the plans that the GM spent a long time doing, giving the impression of superior intelligence.

Graphic of section divider

Excitement, Involvement, Emotion

From Aki Halme

Consider three aspects of the RPG monster: excitement, involvement, emotion.

Monsters tend to carry and give out a licence to kill, but the slaughter should have a point. Sometimes it is educational – this is how the system works. Sometimes the idea is simply to boost the characters with EXP and loot. Mostly, however, the encounter with the monster serves one or more of three key goals:

  1. They are a challenge and provide players opportunities to shine and solve a problem.
  2. They have a role-playing purpose or plot-related purpose.
  3. They trigger an emotional response.

A great monster does all three: it provides excitement and creates (or denies!) a sense of fulfillment, it builds the ongoing storylines, and has the players respond emotionally.

For the challenge, the monsters and the environment can be staged together as a scene. Consider how the monster fits in. Does it know the area better than the PCs, or is it out of its element? Does its mass and size play a role, or can it move in a way different from the PCs?  How does the weather affect the monster (or vice versa)? Giving the monster a unique setting makes for a more gripping scene.

The monster should usually not be there by chance. The way, time, and place it attacks, and the number and types of monsters present, are ways to discreetly give the players information about ongoing plotlines. If there are survivors on both sides, all the better.

A monster can evoke awe, disgust, pity, hatred, fear, even affection, depending on how it’s played. Decide first the emotion you seek to cause, and then find the means to evoke it. Don’t leave your cadre of players feeling nothing.

Graphic of section divider

Not Always The Ambush Or The Charge

From Aki Halme

Find variety in how the monsters fight. Magic, special powers and special movement give new options, as does the lack of conventional morality, and of course, the environment.

Minor enchantments turn hostages into cannon fodder forces for their would-be rescuers to waste attacks on. Troops capable of three-dimensional movement (or more, with spells like dimension door and plane shift) make flanking and surrounding much easier and taking higher ground faster for clear missile or ranged shots.

Burrowers and wall climbers can force the player characters to fight in all six major directions at once – back and forth, left and right, up and down – getting a real sense of what “surrounded” means.

Traps and invisibility, ability to move through walls, rockslides, tidal waves, fire – all open possibilities that give specific monsters an edge. Consider also that monsters occasionally have priorities other than defeating the PCs, such as ensuring that a fellow monster is conveniently slain by the heroes so that the surviving monster can take the credit and not need to share the spoils.

Always try to make at least two battle plans for the monsters, and consider joining them, which gives a third battle plan. An intelligent monster would pick the best option. A horde of less smart creatures might use all those options at the same time, leading to chaotic and suboptimal tactics. Sometimes smart monsters use suboptimal tactics as well due to reasons of their own.

Graphic of section divider

And Not Always A Combat Encounter

From Aki Halme

Trade, negotiations, religion, odd jobs in weird neighbourhoods – all provide chances to meet the monsters without drawing the blade. This opens far better opportunities for roleplaying the alien mindset than a combat encounter does. “Would the kind humans give a coin to this poor mother orc so she does not need to eat her young?” It can be an awkward and unusual situation for the noble hero to find himself needing to hire orcs, or work for them. More puzzling yet is to end up being rescued by them.

Try to find ways to have the PCs interact with the monsters peacefully, or at least have the (apparent?) option to do so.

Graphic of section divider

Us vs. Them and Them vs. Us

From Aki Halme

Prejudice and racism go easily unnoticed when something is given a suitable derogatory label. Consider whether the Us vs. Them thinking is appropriate for your game, or whether something more complex would be in order. Perhaps there is something to be admired in the orcs despite their numerous flaws? Perhaps those fighting them are not on quite as noble a mission as they let others believe? Are the ways of the Blind-Eyed Temple and the Good King Tyrannos truly the only ways of virtue?

While keeping to the gospel by and large, an occasional hint that things are not quite as black-and-white as the powers make them appear to be can get the players thinking. The festering doubts about how justified the anti-orcish cause of shoot-on-sight truly is can lead to a story of its own, with the ex-PCs adopting more heretical views about what-everybody-knows-to-be-true.

Graphic of section divider

Use Your Surroundings

From The Wanderer

The monster’s location is good for more than just flavor text. In swamps, monsters can hide in the murky water (concealment bonus). In forests, trees offer the best hiding places (cover bonus). In modern games, use the buildings. Abandoned warehouses, dilapidated restaurant shells, burnt- out office buildings…each has its own dangers, and each presents opportunities to the monsters.

Graphic of section divider

Save The Best For Last

From The Wanderer

If your monster has an always-hit, such as a dragon’s breath, it becomes an important part of the tactical scene. A Jumping Jack in D20 Modern has fiery breath, but prefers to “play” with its prey. It’s more likely to reserve the breath weapon until it’s needed. Conversely, the Mongolian Death Worm knows full well that its touch can kill, and loves to use its touch attack at all opportunities.

Graphic of section divider

Upbringing Is Important

From The Wanderer

Whether it’s an intelligent dragon or a genetically- engineered humanoid, how a creature is raised determines a lot. A moreau (genetically-engineered animal humanoid) in D20 Modern might treat humans as superiors, parents, monsters, or as slavedrivers. It all depends on how the moreau was raised.

Of course, upbringing isn’t everything. Wolves, even when hand-raised from pups, will never be fully domesticated. (As the old wolf-dog owners’ saying goes, “When you scold a dog for chewing your sofa, he’s sorry he chewed your sofa.

When you scold a wolf for chewing your sofa, he’s sorry you have such an unhealthy attachment to your sofa.”) Just imagine what that oft-referenced “domesticated” gryphon is like. “He left a horse on the doorstep again? Whose?”

Graphic of section divider

He Who Runs Away

From The Wanderer

Animals, unlike some other monsters, have few pressing reasons to fight. Most of the time, an animal will run like the proverbial scalded cat when confronted by a human. The primary exception is offspring: most species will fight to the finish to protect their young because that’s how their parents protected them. This means sword-swinging rangers should go for a Spot check before killing Mama Grizzly to spot the cub she’s protecting….

Graphic of section divider

Plants Can Be Dangerous Too!

From Wolf Bergenheim

Instead of having that Fabled Treasure(tm) guarded by traditional monsters, give it the protection of some meat-eating plants!

Some examples:

Strangling Plants

These vine-like plants wrap their victims in vines and softly squeeze them to death. The surfaces of the vines are coated with tiny hairs that inject a paralyzing agent. When the victim has stopped moving, the vines will dump the victim into the feeding pouch – a pouch filled with digestive acid and large enough to hold a man.


These plants lay on the ground and look like a 4m x 4m mossy clearing. When more than 6 trigger hairs (they look like some kind of fragile flowers) are touched, the whole plant will start rolling up, and hidden arrow-like thorns emerge to puncture the poor victim. The plan feeds on the blood that spills out. The rest of the corpse is dumped on the ground and the plant will unroll on top. These corpses make the ground look a little bumpy. A soft crunching sound can be heard when stepping on old bones under the plant “carpet”.

Crushing Plants

These trees look normal. The dangerous part is that they feed on decaying corpses. To catch victims, they drop large (50 cm) acorn-like “bombs” on passersby. If someone is knocked out, he will quickly be hit by a few more. The tree has thin sensor roots around it. These roots detect if something is stepping on them, and that is how the tree knows where to aim. Once the victim is no longer moving, the tree will start growing tiny roots that wrap around the victim and pull him tightly to the ground. Now the tree waits for the corpse to start decomposing and will then feed on it.

Thorny Bushes

These shrubberies look ordinary, except their thorns are extremely sharp and coated with a substance that accelerates bleeding of wounds. If someone would walk through these they would probably not reach further than a few meters before succumbing to blood loss from the wounds caused by the thorns. In addition, the branches and thorns are surprisingly tough (comparable to iron).

Tips From Roleplaying Tips Game Masters

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

Is Magic Overused?

From Jason Brisbane

I thought I’d send you a note about some thoughts that have taken place over at the Harnlist on Yahoo! Groups.

My thought was: Why tell the players that your world/system is magic rare? In my game, which is more magic rich than “normal” Harn, there are mages in my game, but the laws of the land (and the Mage guild) tell them not to use “overt” magic. Peasants and the like are mostly illiterate and only hear tales from their youth, or from bards or returning warriors back from the Wars. A mage (and magic) is generally unknown, and thus feared. Peasants shun mages and point at them, maybe protecting their kids from them and locking their doors. Thus mages need to be more subtle to protect themselves from having other mages attacking them for bringing the “brethren” into disrepute.

I think that a magic-rare setting helps us learn that magic, with the powers and abilities it grants us, is not the only way to play a game. Sure, you can throw 30 goblins with a few goblin mages and clerics to back them up and prepare for a war, or you can do what I did…

In a manor, the PCs were set up for murder by a noble woman who was the daughter of a duke that they had “taken land from” by saving the king’s life. The daughter wanted to “get one back” for her dad and set the PCs up. She did it with a common healing potion (makes you unconscious for 20-40 hours after which you feel great, if a lot hungry, and healthy), a servant woman whose testimony is worth nothing compared to a noble, and her own feminine charms.

The PCs had to go hunting for clues by themselves, and one of them was locked up for the murder of another noble. The PCs, who were free to roam around, had to present the info to the lord while not pointing fingers specifically to the noble lady because they are not nobles, and thus have no power.

And not once did magic come into it!

I think a lot of people tend to use the magic aspect to enhance the game when non-magic means can be used to completely throw off the PCs, making them think for a change instead of hack’n’slashing at everything.

Don’t get me wrong, I love magic and try to use it at every turn (I play a gnome diviner in another game), but sometimes we need to take a step back and make sure that we are using some of the more subtle methods of GMing. After all, burnout is common for GMs and it really does help to slow down once in a while and “smell the roses.”

Graphic of section divider

Hand-Crafted GM Screen And Minis

From John Blair

Personally, I love using graphic art when I game. I am fond of using Magic the Gathering (also known as Magic the Obsession) cards in my games. I created stats for the monsters to work with the game system I was running, and added them to the game.

I also download occasional artwork and still go to game shops and buy from the boxes and boxes of cards for various systems that so many of these shops have.

I made small clay stands that hold single cards upright and now I can use them as figurines on the tabletop. I have found my players love the visuals, and it gives me an almost unlimited supply of “figs” that I can use to game with.

When I do not have enough cards of a single monster to make a group, I have small cardboard pieces that say Front and Back on them. Sometimes, I use the card to show the monster, and then use the markers to represent them on the board.

My DM screen is made from thin plywood (1/8 inch) and clear plastic. I got a thin (1/8 inch) piece of plexiglass at a hardware store, drilled small holes down each edge, and laced it together to form the hinges. The far left panel is plywood, and the far right panel is plexiglass backed with 1/16th inch plywood. The center 2 panels are clear. I use the left panel to roll the secret dice I need as a GM, and I have also added paper clips glued into location on it to hold index cards of info. The far right is where I place a printout of an appropriate picture to set the atmosphere of the session. The center sections allow me to still have the advantages of a screen to hold up stuff, and yet being clear, allows the players to see and approach me as the GM.

Handling Rules Lawyers

Rules lawyers are a tricky bunch. A great way to deal with them is through good communication. My group has rules lawyers, and this is my policy: the group votes on any rule interpretation that anyone disagrees with, and then we keep it consistent for the rest of the campaign.

Another policy is: the GM can veto or override any rule, house or official, as long as the players know in advance or aren’t instantly harmed by the new ruling, and the GM plays it that way for the rest of the campaign.

The last policy is: the GM’s word is final on all matters.

They key for our group was to discuss these three policies (we did it in the middle of a campaign a couple of years ago) and have _everyone_ agree. If your group agrees to these then they have a stake in abiding by what they’ve agreed to, including the rules lawyers. If a player doesn’t agree, you can’t continue until a compromise is made or the player leaves.

Another key is keeping things consistent. I try to be a fair GM and the players sense that and thus trust my judgment. They know I’m not out to screw them during games.

Feel free to propose other policies like, “no bickering or whining after a rules decision,” or “all rules objections should be noted and dealt with between games.”

If the players in your games decide to argue about the spirit and wording of the policies, then you might need to:

  • a) Make policies about the policies. “The group votes on any policy interpretation that anyone disagrees with, and then we keep it consistent for the rest of the campaign”.
  • b) Write every policy down and create a group charter. Have everyone sign it.

Rules lawyers are often right. Their source of enjoyment comes from mastering the rules. So, in my group I try to channel that energy. I almost always refer to one particularly stringent lawyer for his ruling. If I agree I go with it. The rules lawyer is happy because he was consulted (in front of the whole group no less! 😉 and his advice was considered. Rules lawyers also make for great rules consistency during campaigns.

Hope this helps.