6 Tips For Making Monsters Meaner

Roleplaying Tips Newsletter #0113

My New Campaign Got Off To A Great Start

Well, I had my first session in my new Temple of Elemental Evil campaign, and it went well despite my lack of planning. What saved my butt was my laptop and some useful random generators.

I found with 1st and 2nd edition D&D I could pretty much make stats and numbers up without hesitation, but D&D 3E is a different animal, at least under my regime it is. It’s closer to a wargame in combat, so I need to make sure my I’s are dotted and T’s are crossed.

Anyway, despite all that, I still managed to squeeze a story in there, and I’ve learned I need to do more prep before each session (until I get 10,000 hours under my belt, at which time it’ll all seem as natural and automatic as the older D&D editions were to me ;).

Do You Get Stumped When Players Go To Libraries?

My players want to know what every damn book is when they hit libraries in my games. That’s a good thing though as libraries are great for sewing seeds, planting hooks, and steering campaigns. But, oh! my aching head after trying to think up what lines those shelves.

Well, Steven Savage, Demi-God Of Random Generators, has whipped up this amazing tool: The Bookspinner.


It slices, it dices, it generates book titles, book quality, descriptions, and book extras. And…it’s free! Sweet.


Johnn Four
[email protected]

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6 Tips For Making Monsters Meaner

From Mark L. Chance

Check That Treasure

Look at your monster’s treasure. What is there that the monster could use against the characters? This is especially important when running published scenarios that often fail to give proper consideration this very question.

For example, why would the orc leader leave two potions of healing locked in a chest rather than carry them on his person, especially if he is expecting trouble?

If an item of treasure is something that a character would insist on carrying and using, then the sensible monster insists on the same. Depending on the nature of the item, it also encourages characters to vary their tactics. An enemy wizard who is not afraid to use her wand of magic missiles presents a double-threat. Not only is she using a magic item against the characters, but she is also using up the charges of the characters’ potential treasure.

On the Importance of Mental Ability Scores

How intelligent, wise, and charismatic is your monster? Consider one of the most over-abused character tactics: two fighters block the door in order to “force” the mob of monsters into a bottleneck where they can be dealt with a few at a time. Exactly how stupid would a mob of monsters have to be to cooperate with this set-up?There is nothing in the rule books that say monsters must actively cooperate in their own destruction.

Even some animals, such as wolves, display a startling degree of organization and intelligence when hunting. The next time the characters face a reasonably intelligent foe or group of foes, turn the tables on them. Have the monsters retreat, regroup, and refuse to be lured into anything but a truly clever set-up.

Best Defense = Good Offense

A defensive battle is a losing battle. Any monster who locks itself in its lair and just waits for the characters to act is a monster that will eventually die.Put the characters on the defensive by putting the monsters on the offensive. This is especially important if the characters have only penetrated so far into a lair and then retreated to recover hit points, spells, et cetera.

Would the monsters not give chase? Engage in harassment attacks? Set up ambushes for when the characters return? Do the monsters have spell casters in their midst? If so, examine their current selection of spells and then make appropriate changes. For example, a goblin wizard would be a fool to keep sleep readied if he is facing a party of elves.


What are your monster’s primary goals? Command and conquer? Defend the home front? Loot and pillage? Answer this question as precisely as possible and then adjust your monster’s tactics accordingly.Most importantly, if a monster’s goals do not require it to fight to the death, have it avoid fighting to the death (see Tip 5 below).

Determining a monster’s goals also determines what it is willing to sacrifice if those goals are threatened. This increases actual role-playing potential by introducing the possibility of character-monster negotiations.

[Comment from Johnn: here’s a brief goals list to expand on Mark’s great tip:

  • Power: Command and conquer
  • Safety: Defend the home front
  • Greed: Loot and pillage
  • Achievement: Prestige through great deeds
  • Lazy hunger: Get the most food with the least work
  • Revenge: Taunt and tease and make victims suffer
  • Nurturing: Defend the young’ns
  • Succor: Seeks sympathy and love, but lashes out
  • Companionship: Wants to talk about the weather
  • Survival: Get the job done any way, any how

Be sure to change monster goals as situations develop to help your strategy and GMing.

For example, an intelligent, demonic bug might crave companionship and acts accordingly until it feels the sting of a closed-minded PC’s blade. Then its goal changes to revenge for all the previous injustices it has suffered at the hands of humans. Finally, it seeks safety once the characters gang up on the poor thing and the dice start flying… ]

He Who Runs Away

If the battle can’t be won, don’t fight it. Do the characters pitch themselves suicidally into the fray, or do they find some way to retreat, recover, and return? Why can’t monsters do the same?If some degree of realism is to be attained, monsters cannot be treated merely as a collection of statistics pertaining to combat. The basic options when presented with danger are fight or flight, and the mob of monsters willing to die for the cause is an over-used cliche.

By way of example, a few times I’ve run for different groups of players a scenario that involved rescuing a kidnaped minor noble from a pack of wererats. One group in particular failed miserably. They waltzed blithely into ambush after ambush, lost a party member, and eventually fled back to town to lick their wounds for two days. During that time, the wererats killed the minor noble and left his body with a sarcastic note explaining how much easier it would have been to just pay the ransom, and then they packed up all their treasure and fled the province.

The characters got nothing for their trouble except scars and an opportunity to attend a comrade’s funeral.

Home Field Advantage

Considering all of the above, think now on how long your monster has had to make its lair liveable and defensible:

  • Are all the entrances covered?
  • Are there planned escape routes?
  • An alarm system (even if nothing more than yelling really loudly)?

The more intelligent the monster, the more sophisticated can be the preparations. Simple things like barricades not only slow down invaders but also provide cover for defenders. Of course, barricades can be turned into cover for invaders should the defending line fail, so smart monsters have plans to oust unwanted company from such positions.

For example, if the lair has more than one story, defenders can drop flaming oil, scorpions, acid, or other unpleasant things onto invaders. Also do not underestimate the humble pit trap. If the pit trap can be locked shut, monsters can travel over it freely. When forced to retreat, the pit can be unlocked in order to set up a defensive weapon against invaders. The same idea can be applied to a myriad of traps.

[Comment from Johnn: monster tactics are fun puzzles to think about when you should be doing other things like writing or homework.

Here’s a couple more:

  • How many times have your PCs entered a cave and you said “A few feet ahead the entry passage ends in a ‘T’, do you go left or right?” Clever monsters will lead invaders down the path of *their* choice through their lair, hopefully to an ambush or dead end (literally): “A few feet ahead the entry passage ends in a ‘T’, the left looks plain and empty, but to the right you spot a little blood, a feather and a discarded, rotted wooden shield. Farther down you see a flickering orange light…” Which way would your PCs probably head?
  • Divide and conquer is always a great tactic: instead of enclosed pits, have the PC drop into another cave or dungeon level. The monsters have simply poked a hole in the floor/ceiling to connect the levels and divide the invaders.Sometimes, it’s only necessary to delay PCs who have split up, so that the defenders can gang up on one small group at a time.For example, a wooden wall drops down to separate the last two PCs from the party. The monsters attack the pair en mass until the other PCs hack through the wall a couple of rounds later at which point the creatures flee. That’s two rounds of pure monster delight! Plus, who’s to say the creatures don’t drop another wall in the same spot again as the party turns around to help their bleeding friends, isolate another pair of PCs from the opposite end, and attack from the other side? ]

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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!

Elven Naming Tip

From Neil F.

Sources of names seem to be a perennial problem for GMs. I’ve just found myself inventing no less than twenty names for elven tree spirits, and it was surprisingly easy. For each tree, I took the scientific name and then ‘elvenised’ it.

As examples:

Yew (Taxus) became Dagduniil
Ash (Fraxinus) became Faracuniel
Holly (Ilex) became Iilecassie

In some campaigns, appropriate ‘Latin’ names might be used ‘straight’, without modification. Try Arenaria (the turnstone, a wading bird of rocky shores), Taraxacum (the common dandelion) or Libellula (a type of dragonfly).

The name might give further inspiration for the character. Perhaps the bold warrior Taraxacum wears a necklace of lions’ teeth (dandelion comes from the French dent-de-lion, tooth of the lion). Arenaria might be a mysterious witch living in a cave on a rocky headland, etc.

The duke’s butler might be called Eilemos (Eilema being the scientific name of a moth called the Footman). The elves of the sandy shore might be known as the calidri (Calidris being a genus of birds known as sandpipers).

Field guides to birds, flowers, trees etc are widely available in bookshops and not too expensive.

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Enhance Your World With Fashion

From Neil F.

I think there is a bit of a gap in many game worlds on the subject of what people wear (aside from the Chain mail + 6 and the Codpiece of Arrow Deflection, etc). Those who can be bothered to do so might like to devise particular items of clothing, which might be:

  1. Baldly descriptive (as in stove-pipe hat).
  2. Named after a place, like the coat known as an Astrakhan (after the port on the Black Sea).
  3. Named after the personage who invented or popularised them (like the Wellington boot).
  4. Named after a race and/or profession who invented or popularised them.

Of course, you need to have some idea of what these things look like and what they denote (social status, profession, geographical origin, etc.), but they can be used to help spice up NPC descriptions.

“The chief clerk approaches you. He is wearing a black Templefort hat, a long Elfmage tunic, and shiny Sidebuckle boots up to his knees…”

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Online Resource For NPC Pics

From Garry S.

“What a Character” is a excellent resource for NPC or even PC pictures. Hundreds of “Character actors”. http://www.what-a-character.com/

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A Quick Trip Inspired An “Alternate World” Campaign

From Moonhunter

A trip to Canada inspired an “alternate world” campaign. Coming from California and going to Canada, except for the touristy things, I could of been in California… almost.It gave me an eye for the little differences and strange quirks of another region.

Brands had different names, but the same logos, potato chips with weird flavors, discontinued cereals were still being made, the music on the radio was similar but different – with different stars, the play money (multicolored money that looks strange to every American), Loonies (their dollar coins), different fast food chains, normal chains with strange things on the menus, and the accents, were all little things that expressed the change. If you looked at it all through a science fiction filter, you found yourself in a different, parallel world.

[Comment from Johnn: being a Canadian, I found this email personally interesting but I also felt it made a great tip. Next time you’re out travelling, be it to another country or just another town, note the differences and use them in your campaigns to make your game world varied and fresh.]
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Generating Campaign Events

From David S.

A tip for generating campaign events in a region is using the chapter called Events and Encounters in the 1st Edition AD&D Oriental Adventures handbook. You can use it to develop yearly, monthly and daily events for the region that your characters are in. The tables are generic enough that they can be used in any system or scenario.

[Comment from Johnn: be sure to check out Dragon #293 for some excellent domain management rules by Ray Winninger. ]
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A Pair Of RPG Chatroom Tips

From D. J. Lower

  1. This is easy to do when roleplaying in a chatroom. Identify a signal (my favorites are ‘—‘ and ‘END’) to use when it is OK for the players to make their move.
  2. If the PCs are doing free roleplaying (i.e. talking something over) then you should intervene only when something significant or something that adds to the story takes place.