11 Monstrous Tips

Roleplaying Tips Newsletter #0355

A Brief Word From Johnn

World’s Largest Dungeon One Sandwich At A Time

Next week I starting running the World’s Largest Dungeon D&D adventure at lunch. We will play twice a week, and with roughly 45 minutes core gameplay each lunch, I calculate we’ll be done in 10 years. I’ll let you know how it goes.

Thanks For The Monster Feedback

Thanks to everyone who filled out the monster survey last week. All entries were anonymous, so I can’t e-mail you individually with thanks, but your comments and feedback were awesome! Much appreciated.

Currently, I’m planning to release a freebie beta of a critter or two to get some design feedback. If you’d like to participate, drop me a note and I’ll e-mail you when things are ready.


Johnn Four
[email protected]

11 Monstrous Tips

Last July, Roleplaying Tips Weekly ran a contest for monster related tips of all kinds. Subscribers responded with nearly100 entries, and many prizes were handed out. Below are the last, but not least, handful of entries from the contest. May your critters live long and prosper!

Even Monsters Need Someone To Understand Them

From Aki Halme

Even monsters need someone to understand them – and that’s the GM. Monsters should have an identity – short term and long term goals, values, fears, priorities. In most cases, this can be kept fairly simple, but doing it at least on some level gives depth to the encounter. Only mindless creatures (such as golems, some undead, possibly some mind-controlled or insane creatures) lack these. The motivation for all but the most simple-minded of creatures should consist of at least two different drives that interact in decision making – more for highly intelligent monsters.

For example, consider a gang of goblins led by a single orc. The goblins might be driven by lust and fear – lust for conquest, loot, and causing pain on the one hand, fear of outsiders, fellow goblins, and especially the big orc leading them, on the other. The orc leader shares the lust, which gives it common ground with the goblins, but fear is not a driving factor. Rather, it is guided by pride. As a result, the orc gathers an increasing number of goblins around it and uses the gang to commit raids against ever more challenging targets in search of bigger spoil. The infamy resulting from this serves the orc’s pride, and increases the fear of the goblins in the gang and the fear in other goblins that the orc recruits. The gang is kept together by a combination of bloodlust and terror, but has to keep moving or it is whittled away and eventually destroyed. Should the orc fall or even be severely wounded, the gang would self-destruct as a menace.

An aging vampire could be driven primarily by self- preservation and thirst, but also from a need for company and the thrill of the hunt. This leads to dilemmas in, amongst other things, the choice of a lair and the level of procreation. A secure place far from those capable of ending its existence is hardly the best possible hunting ground. Procreation gives vampire hunters other targets, provides defensive strength in numbers, and means company in the eternal night, but also makes the vampire coven a higher priority for hunters and taps more deeply into the blood reserves of the nearby communities.

When adding a monster, give some thought to how it thinks and what it values. Some things are familiar and there by necessity (such as self-preservation for most creatures), others can be alien to human psychology, and familiar drives can be either missing or in an unusual order of priorities.

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Curb Your Monster

From vtdad

It near impossible to predict how a party is going to fare in a combat or the one before that. I’ve run into situations where I have a number of pre-planned encounters that prove either too tough or too weak for the party of victims, er, heroes. So, I provide some padding by holding some of a creature’s abilities in reserve until it’s apparent the characters can handle the full challenge.

Examples of special abilities that can easily be held in reserve are: Spell Resistance, Damage Reduction (or the requirements to beat it), Enlarge, Spell Use.

It’s easy to explain why a monster didn’t use “x” special ability with, “because it didn’t see you as a real threat,” or, “it lost its ability to do that from a previous situation.” Naturally, these lines aren’t handed over verbatim, but perhaps discovered by the characters during roleplaying, either with the defeated creature or back in town by a local who knows.

A cool benefit is when the characters run into a fearsome monster that normally has dreadful, “known” abilities, such as a high Spell Resistance or Damage Reduction. The players collectively groan in anticipation and then sit on the edges of their seats waiting for the “stuff” to hit the fan.

This is a benefit that matures with age, too! After a few combats with modified monsters, the party begins to soften up and then goes into shock the next time they encounter such a creature, which then pulls out all the stops and blows them away. After that, the players always remain on the edge during combats. Of course, a DM has to remain pure to the ideal that the adventure is supposed to entertain.

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Tweak Familiar Monsters

From Paul Darcy

I’ve always liked throwing in simple, small twists on otherwise familiar monsters and encounters to give the players a little variety and keep them on their toes. Often, they suggest themselves as play progresses. For instance, instead of harpies, the party might find themselves surrounded by creepier skeleton harpies. Or maybe, for a little color, that mage the adventurers meet is a bit eccentric and has a pet chicken named Gertie as a familiar (which gulps down that magic jewel they were asking the wizard about). And, nothing says that the band of orcs about to be faced can’t have better arms and armor than typical – a tougher, more interesting fight with usually easy-to-beat creatures.

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Use Distracters

From Casey V. Dare

I have a monster combat tip for your contest that I call “Distracters.” These are rolled prior to initiative by the party leader. I liked d100 but d20 dice are fine. I create the scale for each beast based on their senses, environment, disposition, and magic spells. If the roll falls within the scale, the beast is “distracted” and the PC gets a free move.

For example, during a fight with a red dragon, my scale would allow for a “free move” on a roll of 20. One roll per round. I would roleplay it by saying something like, “The dragon lifts its head and seems to sniff the air, then it screams and lifts off beating its wings. It flies to a nearby hilltop and swoops down behind the hill. When it rises into the air, a wildly bleating sheep thrashes in its claws just before the dragon shreds it apart with its fangs. It circles a few times, then turns back toward you. What do you do?”

Distracters are easy to plan, and they keep a battle from getting bogged down in boring exchanges of “you go, I go.”

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Meanness And Preparation

From Steve Davies

For every intelligent monster, I roll two stats: Meanness and Preparation.

Meanness is a measure of the extent to which the monster will go out his way to be mean. It gives me a quick and dirty way to determine if the bad guys will, for instance, stop to burn the town when it would be better tactically to move out quickly. Monsters should be fought because they’re bad, not just because they are in the book.

Preparation measures just that: how prepared is the monster. For instance, a monster with a high preparation will have many traps in his lair, alternate ways out, and probably a warning system or two. Those with low preparation are basically sitting at home and watching the equivalent of T.V. Note that while Intelligence can help be prepared, it does not measure the same thing. And having a stat forces me to think a bit about how the monster has planned for the inevitable raiding party.

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Monster Support Groups

From Steve Davies

Most GMs will roll out treasure before an encounter and have the monsters use the items that apply. You can also go one step further and have the monsters in an area trade with one another! Items that one cannot use can be traded with others in the area, services can be traded, etc. So, an evil wizard might receive an orc honor guard in return for periodic renewal of spells that protect the orc tribe, or support when the warning fire is lit.

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Mommy Loves You

From Steve Davies

Monster encounters are always more interesting when there is something unique about the setting. One setting that is rarely used is the nursery: little monsters need somewhere safe to grow up.

Depending on the monster, this can add a level of interest in terms of potential to capture slaves or trainable monsters. Of course, most adults will fight to the end to protect their young, and if there are any survivors, the party will have an enemy for life.

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Monster Weaknesses and Risk Assessments

From Tim R.

Many monsters have weaknesses for PCs to exploit. When creating new monsters and baddies, don’t forget to include weaknesses every once in a while. The players I play with tend to enjoy discovering new weaknesses.

Weaknesses could include weak points in armor, such as the land shark, or elemental weaknesses. Perhaps a monster fights strongest at twilight and weakest at noon. Perhaps a creature is exceptionally susceptible to piercing weapons, but slashing weapons are unable to break their a ring-mail- like exoskeleton.

One last thing to consider: once a party discovers a monster’s weakness, their strategy becomes solely exposing a monster’s weakness without much further thought. Therefore, sometimes make a creature most dangerous when its weakness is exposed. For example, there’s a quadruped monster with an exceptionally hard shell. Every four rounds a flap on the armor raises to reveal a weak point. However, this exposed area also ejects acid, forcing the players to assess the risk of exploiting a weakness.

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Monster Ball

From Tim R.

The PCs have been invited to a masquerade. There are people flamboyantly dressed, mimicking many different types of monsters. People are dressed up like goblins, orcs, vampires, and so very many other creatures. Everyone is dancing and enjoying the celebration. Then a scream is heard and the party stops. Then another scream from a different location. Screams begin to come from all directions. One of the PCs then witnesses someone dressed as an orc stabbing someone. He realizes that it probably was an orc, and now the party has to try to seperate the monster(s) from the dancers and slay them to protect the people.

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Monster Clashes

From Tim R.

Generally, PCs perform the only killings, and the only other deaths that don’t arise from their biddings are their own deaths. However, there are always monsters that are more than willing to fight other monsters. The PCs could be pitted in between a monster clash, stuck between two warring creature groups amidst their important mission. The PCs now must either try to kill their way out, ally themselves with monsters they probably despise, or pay their way out.

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Sneaky Goblin Maneuver

From Tom Thiessen

The entry for goblins says they are sneaky and devious.

In a dungeon encounter, a group of 3 goblins are laying in ambush inside a small room. When the party opens the door, one of the goblins drags a PC inside. The other two goblins close and bolt the door then drag something heavy in front of it.

The goblins then proceed to beat the PC while the character’s fellow party members desperately try to bash the door open. Knowing the rest of the party will be too much for them to handle, the goblins quickly exit through a second door (but not before looting the body) and set up another ambush elsewhere in the dungeon.

Tips From Roleplaying Tips Game Masters

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

The Organized Game Room

From Jeffrey G. Strause

Comment from Johnn: Jeffrey has a very organized game room, and he’s kindly given me permission to share his photos with you. Hopefully they will inspire good organization of your own.


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Encounter Idea: Under The One-Eye Banner

From Aki Halme

A party needs to travel across hostile territory. It is known that the locals – say, orcs, ogres, or trolls, depending on the power level – consider attacking someone who is under divine protection a bad idea, and prefer not to do so. Humans occasionally make use of such reluctance by carrying a banner that indicates they are under the protection of the orc gods.

The situation gives the players a dilemma. Religious characters would shun the idea of hiding under the symbol of the enemy god. Humans encountering a party under the banner of an orc god might not be very impressed, and it may also be that some orcs would not be swayed. And of course, the orcish gods themselves might take an interest.

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Tip For Rolling x10 Dice

From Gary Whitten

For your game system, you might see things that indicate a roll * 10 or 10d(x) like “+ 10-60%”. If you don’t want to roll 10 dice and you don’t want a round number from multiplying, try the following method instead.

Example: 10-60. Roll the indicated die, just like you would with a d% roll. For a 10-60, roll a (d6-1)*10 to use as the ’10s’ digit, and add a d10 to it for the ‘ones’.

For example: Rolling a 4 on the d6 and a 8 on the d10 would be 38 or rolling a 6 on the d6 and a 10 on the d10 would be a 60.

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Start Your Campaigns With Action Scenes

From Chris Heismann

I prefer alternative campaign starts rather than the standard, “So you’re all in the bar” type start. There are a bunch of different methods that work, but almost all require cooperation from your players, and I’ve found the more restrictive I am on the character requirements, the harder the start is on me, which is why I never use the military or police force options. Instead, I like to focus on a single point in space and time, and start in the middle of the action.

What I like to do is require PC backgrounds and motivations from my players. Before the campaign starts, I will set a scene in a paragraph or two and ask the players to write up how they came to that point in their background material. Some players will give me detailed 12 page essays detailing everything, others will be a generic 1/2 page background saying, “Ok, I left home and travelled there.” But, even if they’re vague, with all the preliminaries done by the players, I can then start them in the thick of the action, and after that all I have to do is find a hook to keep the party together for a couple sessions until they bond. I can usually find those hooks in their backgrounds.

If you give the players a starting point, and give them complete freedom to get their PCs to that point, they will usually give you the leeway to write up a short bit on how they came to be in the action, particularly if you start with the action itself – they don’t have time to question their motivations until after the fight is over.

For example, in one campaign I told the players their PCs were drawn to a town known for its history as being the beginning of many great adventures and adventurers. I told them, when they got to the town, they found out it was _way_more expensive than they expected, there was no affordable lodging, and they all managed to find lodging by hiring on as part-time guards for an estate just outside of town, but that this job was not in any way tied to the adventure. How long they had been guards there was completely up to them.

When I got the backgrounds back from the PCs, one player had stated he had worked there for three months, another one had just hired on the day before, the rest were in between, but right around the one week mark. With each of them writing that up themselves, as soon as the players got together, they compared notes and all knew exactly how long their PCs had known each other.

The actual start of the campaign on the first day of play was having them each place their PC on the map I drew of the estate as each player arrived, and then once everyone was there, I attacked them with some raiders. They successfully drove off the attackers, and we had fun diving into the campaign with a fight instead of the usual getting to know each other stuff. That first combat was memorable, because the group had never fought together before and the combat brought out personality traits of the PCs that stuck for the rest of the campaign.

Since this wasn’t the real focus of the campaign, the group was fired the next day by the owner, who decided to replace them with professional mercenaries. That left the group having an exact track record of how long they had known each other, somewhat bonded by the combat, unemployed, homeless, and stuck in one of the most expensive towns in my campaign.

When I threw a “simple” job at them by an intriguing NPC who had heard of their success in driving off the raiders, they jumped at the chance. Well, not all of them, but the NPC presented the job so that they had to take it as a group – he wanted the group that drove off the attackers, not just some of them.

There was some great roleplaying as some members of the group convinced the holdouts to join them. After that, I just had to drop a few hooks for each PC here and there to give them all the same general goal, and they stuck together through things that most parties would have split over.

I will use the same general strategy for my upcoming d20 modern campaign. I’ll have each of the players tell me why and how their PCs ended up at LAX on a given date/time. Then each will be given a 1 page write-up that explains how they all came from that point to ending up in the hospital, wounded by a terrorist attack. The game will start with them being transferred in an ambulance, and the ambulance coming under attack by the real terrorists, because they were the only survivors. Afterwards, they’ll have to figure out why they were attacked, and the only people they’ll be able to trust at first are each other, because the media will be blaming them for the original terrorist attack.

A variation of this method would be to simply start with an action scene, such as a fight or car chase, and after it’s over, let the players figure out how their PCs got to that point. This is probably best if your players are slouches about doing any background work before a campaign.

What it comes down to is this: if you start with the action, most roleplayers will figure the motivations needed to work their characters into the scene that happened, whereas if you start before the action occurs, you have to provide those motivations for them before the action can even start.

In some cases, the action scene itself will provide all the motivation needed for the PCs to stay together. In other ones it’s up to the GM to provide the hook afterward. The teamwork they show in the action can solidify that hook in many cases. In my examples above, it was the NPC only wanting to hire them as a group, or the PCs being accused of a crime they didn’t commit, leaving them having to work together to prove their innocence.

Some ideas for starting with an action scene:

Bar fight

Start the game with the bar fight in full swing. When the authorities show up, have everyone arrested. If the PCs attempt to escape, only ‘let’ them if they work together. If they get arrested, they all end up in the same cell. If the PCs work together, they can all tell the same story, and get off scot free. Or they can escape together. Reward them for doing anything that shows teamwork.

Car Chase

Start the game with a car chase in mid chase, either with the PCs doing the chasing, or being chased. Once the chase is over, “flashback” to how they got there.

Plane Crash/Shipwreck

This one is used quite a bit, but usually the action of the crash/wreck is over when the campaign is started. Start with the actual crash/wreck itself, and play through the PCs fighting for their lives.

Merchant caravan

Start the game with the caravan under attack. Have the players decide how they came to be in that particular merchant caravan. Were they a guard? A traveller? One of the merchants?

Refugees From Massive Storm/Natural Disaster

Like the Crash/Wreck above, starts the PCs out in the middle of a natural disaster, fighting for their lives – fleeing a hurricane, outrunning an avalanche, etc. Again, let the PCs decide how they got to that point.

Monster Attack on a Village

The village the PCs are in is under attack by a monster or monsters. Start with the battle itself, let the PCs decide why they are at that village, and afterwards hook them with an adventure that rewards the teamwork they showed during the action.


All the PCs start in the same place. One of them realizes they’ve had their wallet/purse lifted, and goes after the thief. As everyone else checks the room, the other PCs should find that they’ve been hit too, and all of them should go after the thief. After they catch the thief, follow-ups could include them getting an award from the local government.

Note of Caution on This One

This relies on all but one of the PCs being pickpocketed without noticing. Not all players will like that, so know your players before you use this one. In any case, the PCs should always catch the pickpocket if they work together, and they should always get their stuff back. This might work better if you start in mid chase of the thief, too.


Start the game with the PCs in the middle of rescuing someone in distress – hanging by their fingers from a cliff, etc. Afterwards, send them off to an awards ceremony where they get ‘suckered’ into a job. This one will probably only work if the PCs are somewhat altruistic to begin with, otherwise some players will protest that their PCs would never have been there.