How To Get More From Your Monsters – Part 1

From Andrew H.

Roleplaying Tips Newsletter #0323

A Brief Word From Johnn

Back from Holidays

Camping in British Columbia was great, though the weather didn’t always cooperate. Thanks for your patience in waiting for this issue. Hopefully, you’ll find Andrew’s monster tips interesting and useful.

Standing Orders – see Issue #316. Got any more ideas?

In Issue #316 there was a tip about creating default actions – standing orders – to help games speed along faster. I have received a reader request for more standing orders ideas and examples. If you have any, or know of a web site that lists a few, please drop me a note.


Johnn Four
[email protected]

How To Get More From Your Monsters – Part 1

Many of the following tips have been suggested before, over the years. I hope to give you a practical spin that will enable any game master to turn a single adventure into a whole campaign. I have used these techniques in my campaigns and found them to be effective.

It’s Never An Orc

It’s a Greater Georlocke to the locals, a Drop Bear to foreigners, a Kellerman’s Fiend to the Duke, a Tribal Gengen to the sage, and a Thorgordrin to the nearest clan of elves. If any two players can agree on what to call it, they still won’t know what it is. The aim of this approach is to keep the monster’s game stats unknown to the players. This helps keep the mystery and sense of discovery in the game.

The work involved to make this worthwhile is to craft a set of descriptions, rumors, tales, and folklore to flesh out the monsters. This can be done with an extra ten minutes of design time.

The players should know only what NPCs can tell them about the monsters. It shouldn’t be an orc, it should be:

“The Dark Terror of Ovens Lane that took Fred the Smith last year and was stalking Hilda last month.”

“When Billy the Farm Hand was injured last summer he took longer than he should have to recover since his wounds got all infected.”

Just one rumor about poison or magic will make the players approach the fiend differently than they would an orc. This is a great opportunity for both the GM and the players to roleplay.

Players will not believe there be vampires here if they are first level, as they could not be expected to fight such a powerful monster. But if they hear something more in line with their own strength, they are much more likely to believe, and act accordingly.

How This Worked For Me

Like many GMs, I invent names that sound like they belong to a particular language. Elven names are fluid, musical with softer consonants, etc. I deliberately chose a name that sounded like an elven name and used it as the local name for gnolls. Then I added some eye witness accounts of a raid on a merchant caravan. The players were convinced they were facing a new monster I had designed, and they spent time thinking about the enemy’s tactics, strengths, and weaknesses. The players approached the monsters more cautiously than they would have ordinary gnolls! Players will appreciate this approach, especially if they get experience bonuses for good roleplaying based on what their characters have heard about the fiend.

Give bonuses for good ideas and preparation. If the PCs thought to bring some antidotes with them, reward them with a small experience bonus, even if the orcs don’t use poison- -they are playing their role well and thinking (always encourage thinking)!

Adventure Hooks

  • A sage suggests to the players that, if they could find the true name of the monster, they would find out its weaknesses and be able to defeat it. Turns out they only need to locate the lost manuscript of the sage Alvin Cork to find out.
  • Two party members cannot agree on what the real name and nature of the monster is. They decide they must travel to the homeland/town of each of PC and consult their elders, sage, grandmother, or whatever, to come to the truth of the matter.
  • A sage hires the party to help her write a treatise on the monster in question. Either the party has to make notes about the monsters, characteristics, combat strategy, and abilities, or worse, they have to babysit the sage as she comes along to take her own notes. Of course, they don’t get paid if she doesn’t come back alive.
  • The deceitful Duke refuses to pay up his promised reward for ridding his lands of the fiend because it is not a Kellerman’s Fiend but a Gengen. Ask any of the villagers.
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It Never Looks Like An Orc

Rewrite the description in the manual in your own words. Try not to use a single descriptive word from the book. This alone, without actually changing anything, has a good chance of convincing the players they are facing something new and unusual. The aim of this policy is to keep the monster’s game stats unknown, and to give the players more variety and excitement in their roleplay.

Have you ever seen an exactly “average” human? No? So why should the next Tribal Gengen have a description “ripped” straight from the manual? Instead, this Gengen has spiky tufts of dark hair covering its misshapen head and brown warty skin, stands 6 feet tall with a humpback, and walks with a limp. It gives a gleeful whicker as it approaches with its rusty axe in hand. If you throw in just one color the manual doesn’t mention, the players won’t be so sure of themselves.

In my experience, size is one of the key features that players use to identify (from the manual) what monster they are fighting. Change the creature’s height and they will never know what it is unless you tell them. Bear in mind that a healthy, genetically “normal” human can be anywhere from about 4’6″ to 7′. That is 2.5 feet to play with, so feel free to vary the monster’s height and size by 25% or more.

Context can also have a large effect on the perception of your monster. It looks like an orc, but is scrubbed clean, smells of perfume, and wears the latest in court style. Is it an orc? Or is it the king’s cousin no one ever talks about?

What if the monster is deliberately trying to disguise its race? Consider an orc wearing a mask and a long concealing robe, or a goblin wearing height-boosting boots. This is good for roleplay and gives the opportunity for discovery of the “new” monster’s traits by trial and error.

How This Worked For Me

In my game, I changed only two key points about the actual description of a monster (a type of evil dwarf): their eye color and skin color. Additionally, I used my own description, adding embellishments due to circumstances, (flickering shadows from the torches, etc.). The players were mystified and consequently did not suspect the abilities the monsters had (straight from the manual).

Players will appreciate the policy of not letting on what the names of the monsters are in the manual even though they’ll want to know, after an adventure, what the monster was in game terms. In my experience, they will enjoy the mystery and adventure of the campaign more if you resist telling them. Always refer to the monsters by your campaign name for them in your GM notes, and all discussion.

Adventure Hooks

  • Why was that orc trying to hide its presence in the capital city? And where was it going in such a hurry? Say, isn’t that a temple robe from the local Light Bringers Church that it’s wearing?
  • The wizard hires the party to bring him the liver of a lesser red crested swamp fiend. But the creature the party killed was yellow crested. They had better find out for sure what it is before delivering any livers to the testy mage.
  • A strange monster has just been slain by the party. The mayor of the local town asks (maybe offers a reward) the party to take the carcass to the capital and get the college of sages to identify the monster. It could be a long trip, fraught with danger.
  • After ridding the town of the nasty Gengen, the party notices the weird body painting all over it. What does it mean? Maybe one of them recognizes a few of the symbols. Maybe the local sage does. Impending invasion or tribal outcast – the PCs are hired to get to the bottom of it before potential disaster strikes.
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It’s Never The Same As Before

The adversary is different, varied, and might be called something different by the locals. If it’s from a different tribe, it might look and behave differently and be named yet differently again.

Why should the Running Fist tribe have the same battle plans and tactics, the same preferences in food, and the same religious inclinations as the Shield Biters tribe? The aim of this tactic is variety and surprise. Keep the players guessing about a monster’s behavior and motives. This keeps boredom low and interest high.

Maybe one tribe is on a religious quest for a perfect human skull, which to them is a powerful religious artifact, or will herald the coming of the next leader. Their religious seekers might be ritually painted up for the search.

The next tribe might be trying to expand its territory because it has overgrazed its current territory and they are starving. Their warriors might be posing as ghosts in night raids and/or waging a quiet war of terror amongst the farmsteads to drive the farmers off the land.

Individuals from these different tribes will behave and be motivated differently. This relates strongly to the It Never Looks Like An Orc tip: never make your monster look typical. Never have two encounters look the same, especially if the game stats are the same.

Give an individual monster some distinguishing feature, such as a scar, unusual coloring, birthmarks, body piercing, the visible effects of disease, (open sores running with pus look good on any ogre or orc). Ritual tattoos, body painting, or garments can dramatically change the look of your otherwise stock monster.

The extra work for this tactic might be new descriptions and the additional thoughts and/or notes you might need regarding possible behaviors and motives. This could take a few more minutes or days of extra detailed planning, but I recommend just a few notes; after all, infinite variety begins to look the same after a while. What you should aim to achieve is just enough variety to keep the players’ interest, but not so much that they expect a unique find in every encounter, and so that the players are not sure if this is a significant plot device or an insignificant detail.

Note a short list of 4-5 descriptive phrases you can use to describe the creatures at different times and places. For example, goblins from different tribes, or just with different patrol leaders, could be any or all of the following:

  1. Short hairy humanoids with a combination of woodsman’s axes and crude polearms made from rusty kitchen knives strapped to sturdy tree limbs.
  2. Fine-boned childlike creatures in scavenged leather and rawhide, carrying finely honed daggers of some craftsmanship.
  3. Small, apelike caricatures of human form, hiding in the trees and throwing down stones, branches, and the odd piece of broken crockery.
  4. A troop of motley, armored, dirty children in disciplined formation, each carrying a spear and several well-cared for blades.
  5. Large-eared, small creatures with wrinkly faces pulled into sneers. They carry a collection of sharpened stakes and scavenged crossbows.

Remember that individuals can also vary within a group or tribe. As with the above, having some neat phrases handy can be useful. For example:

  1. A white lock of hair that hangs down in front of the eyes.
  2. A mottled, purple birthmark that covers most of the left side of the face.
  3. A star-shaped tattoo on the back of the right hand.
  4. Missing two joints of one digit on the left hand.
  5. Eyes that are running with a yellowish mucus discharge.
  6. Mouth pulled down on the right by an old scar.
  7. Bridge of the nose pierced with a carved ivory ring.
  8. Wears a stained wooden bracelet on the right wrist.

Even if it is “only” a wandering encounter, having just one oddity, or unique description, action, or item will greatly enhance the game and the roleplay.

Additionally, a list of unique items for placement at whim would be useful, especially if the monsters in question are likely to scavenge things they discover or pillage.

  1. An ivory handled knife, badly splintered and chipped, that once had fine carvings on it.
  2. A sword, rusty and pitted, but with the etching of a war elephant still visible on the blade.
  3. A scrap of parchment, water stained and partially burnt, but with some lines of atrocious poetry still visible.
  4. A lump of charcoal worn to a point, and a pot of ochre. The slain was some sort of graffiti artist.
  5. A foot-long twig of wood, worn smooth, with a chip of flint bound to the tip.
  6. A rough disk of stone, with many concentric rings from the centre out to the edge.
  7. A finely embroidered piece of cloth that may have been the hood of a cloak, long since torn off.

How This Worked For Me

By varying descriptions of the same monsters and how they reacted to the magic the party was using, the players came to some surprising, and completely wrong conclusions about the monsters’ motives and strategies. Consequently, when they finally did uncover the truth, the surprise was all the

greater and the adventure all the more satisfying. The players had been used to having every unusual thing be a plot device, so unrelated extra detail confounded them, but was more rewarding for all in the end.

Players will appreciate this for the added variety and interest it injects into the game. They could battle ten tribes of orcs, but everyone can be different, varied, and never boring. It does, however, take a little extra work. Additionally, experience bonuses for players who can work out the monster’s battle tactics, and/or motives, will encourage thinking (did I mention, always encourage thinking?).

Adventure Hooks

  • The players are hired to kill the shaman of the local tribe. The tribe is too powerful for the party, so they must find a way to target this one individual. They are not told she is the shaman, however, only that they need to kill the one who wears the feathered headdress at tribal gatherings.
  • Arrows from their first encounter have yellow and black feathers. Arrows from the second have blue feathers. Does this mean there are two tribes in the area? Can the party get them to fight each other instead of the villagers?
  • One of the players, or an NPC if a player is not suitable, has a grudge against a specific monster. “The Kellerman’s Fiend with the white lock that slew my father and took his ears as trophies.”
  • The party is hired to collect the toenails of ten blue fiends. Does the tall, black, warty one count? Does the short, smooth-skinned, green one count? And just what shade of blue/grey/green did that priest mean anyway?
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It’s Never Just Another Fight

Many of the common, low-level monsters are noted for their cunning. Low, dirty animal, sneaky, sly, desperate kinds of cunning can make for a difficult encounter and some nasty surprises.

The aim of this stratagem is surprise, challenge, and variety, probably in that order. Hack and slash wears thin, nasty surprises are always in vogue. The players will like it.

Ambushes, surprise, night attacks, kill the horses, damage the weapons or supplies. Cunning fiends might do all of these things and more. They will run, hide, sneak, surprise attack, find, and use their natural advantages.

Why should they make things easy for the players? They might not be highly intelligent and capable of complex planning, but even animals have an overwhelming drive for self-preservation. Watch a kitten at play and you will see it try all of these things and more. Most monsters are supposed to be smarter than an average kitten.

More likely, they will assess their chances in a fight and then try to even the odds: stalk the players, trap them, split the group, lead them into bad terrain, lead them away from the lair. Use whatever advantages they have, avoid their weaknesses. In short, it’s not just a fight, it’s a struggle for survival where no one plays fair. If the PCs are invading the lair of the enemy, the enemy has all the advantages. Very few adventures seem to take full advantage of this.

The extra work for this stratagem is the extra thoughts and notes required to formulate the strategies and tactics of your monsters. This could take from a couple of extra minutes to as much extra time as you want to sink into it.

How This Worked For Me

I had a party of 5th and 6th level characters (AD&D 2nd Ed.) flee, thoroughly beaten by goblins and their lair (in this case, I did use the real name from the manual, to better surprise the players once they learned how tough they were). They had not managed to kill even a single goblin, and while no actual PCs died, they lost some NPCs and never went into a goblin lair again.

Lowly, weak, cannon fodder goblins now have status in my campaigns, and the appellation Goblin slayer means something. While the players did not appreciate the adventuring setback at the time, it did, ever after, facilitate roleplaying. Have you ever had your players walk into a tavern and buy an NPC several rounds just because he was a veteran of several goblin nest invasions?

Players will appreciate this stratagem if you remember to reward the players for meeting the challenges posed with bonus experience as appropriate. I like to give the players half, two thirds, or even the full kill experience points for driving a monster off, and have awarded bonus experience for staging an intelligent and successful retreat (from the goblins mentioned above), because, if after two hours of game play all the party gets is the experience for killing one orc, they will be disappointed and frustrated.

Adventure Hooks

  • The players track the raiders to the lair of a large and powerful tribe of monsters. Realizing they cannot defeat the tribe in open combat, they engage in guerrilla warfare. This could become an entire campaign in itself.
  • The duke almost slew the powerful fiend, but it escaped into the dingy forest. As the duke does not have the time because he has been summoned to the king at the capital, the party is hired to track it down and finish it off. It could be a powerful monster and very intelligent, but weakened enough that it seeks to escape even a low level party.
  • The tribe of dark, forest dwelling goblins like to fight with bows and slings from the treetops, firing down onto larger creatures below. Unusual tactics and unusual situations could result.
  • A much weaker monster or tribe of monsters might be using cunning tactics to rob merchant caravans (that they could not defeat in a straight out battle). The party is hired to either guard the next caravan or to find those responsible. The party has to find them, defeat them, and figure out how they were succeeding and convince the merchants guild that, “Yes, those weak goblins were holding up twice their number of experienced and well-armed guards,” or risk not getting paid.
  • Design a lair. Use every aspect of the monster to advantage. Have a lot of them. A low level party will have to carefully chip away at the tribe until they can defeat it. The tribe’s behaviors and tactics will change over time in response to the party. A party of beginning characters could advance to intermediate experience just on this one lair/campaign.

Tips From Roleplaying Tips Game Masters

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

GMing Convention Games

From Jeff Wilder

To a large extent, a game intended for a convention has to break the great Cardinal Sin: it has to railroad players. Clues have to be unmissable, and motivations for the pre- generated characters (always use pre-generated characters) need to be strong.

Develop encounters for the time you have available. In a four-hour time, slot, I try to fit in three combat encounters (only one of which will be major), two roleplaying encounters, and a problem-solving encounter. Obviously, you can do more in a six- or eight-hour slot.

Generate characters who are interesting, but mechanically fairly simple. Make sure you know the rules those PCs use: if you build a ranger who uses a whip and a hand-axe, know the whip’s special properties, the rules for tripping, and the rules for sundering weapons.

For each pre-generated character, I write down six “areas of expertise,” and I build the adventure so that those areas of expertise come into play. It isn’t necessary that every single skill and feat be used during the game, but if a PC has Knowledge (architecture and engineering) at an incredible level, the player will love the chance to use it in a vital situation (i.e. quickly shoring up a bridge or arranging for its collapse). It’s okay if the areas of expertise overlap, even within the same character. Three, four, or six of the fighter PC’s areas of expertise might very well be listed as “kicking much butt.”

Clearly designate one character the leader in the write-ups, and make hooks between characters broad and unsubtle; you want to encourage roleplaying as much as possible. Don’t build in serious conflicts between characters, unless that’s intended as a major part of the game. Oh, and I make PCs genderless, with ambiguous or alternate names, so the 6’5″ 300-pound guy doesn’t get stuck playing the elven princess if he doesn’t want to.

As much as possible, allow players to choose the character they want. (Sometimes it helps to have alternates: fighter or barbarian, cleric or favored soul, sorcerer or warlock). I’ve found this isn’t as big a deal if players aren’t forced to play a gender they don’t want, however. It is important to clearly identify one character as the leader, and make sure (to the extent it’s possible) that an active and asserting (but not overbearing or aggressive) player gets that character.

Keep the action moving. In my home campaign, I make my PCs tell me when they’re ready to do whatever they want to do. At a con game, where people are usually all strangers, the DM often needs to prod the group to keep things moving. Summarize often, presenting the obvious options clearly to the players, to minimize decision paralysis.

GMing convention games can be a lot of fun. Look at the opportunity as a way to stretch GMing muscles that probably don’t get much of a workout in your home group. I find that I go much more over the top in my portrayal of NPCs at cons, for example, which is fun for me, but sometimes difficult to do in the company of my friends back home.

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Organizing Game Music

From Loz Newman

On the subject of ambiance music, I personally find it is a great help to get players into the mood of a scene or scenario. I use an Archos Jukebox MP3 Player linked to the Aux port of the stereo in my games room, which allows me to switch between playlists at will.

I’ve gone over my stored music and classified each CD track according to genre/type so that I could develop “ambiance” playlists.

The play lists I developed (and use in every game-session) are:

For Medieval Games

  • 1-Battle: Inspirational music for PCs in serious danger
  • 1-Creepy: Used for those dungeon-crawls/Call-of-Cthulhu moments/mystery plots
  • 1-Hell: Stressful/oppressive music to put the players ill-at-ease
  • 1-Jungle: Semi-creepy jungle noises and bird sounds for jungle-walking
  • 1-Peaceful: For those visits to paradise/rare relaxation periods
  • 1-Sorcery: For spell-casting rituals/strange magical laboratories
  • 1-Temple: For visiting the temple to get healed, talking to the high priest
  • 1-Town: Just trotting around town/visiting the marketplace
  • 1-Voyage: For traveling by merchant convoy, traveling along long trails
  • 1-Wilderness: Wide-open-spaces music

For Sci-Fi Games

  • 2-Tech-Battle
  • 2-Tech-Creepy
  • 2-Tech-Nightclub
  • 2-Tech-Town

The “1-” and “2-” prefixes sort out the playlists (otherwise the “tech” playlist would be stuck in between “Temple” and “Town”) to avoid half-a-dozen button-presses when changing between playlists within the Medieval genre. Why don’t I sub-divide into Medieval and Tech sub-directories of playlists? Because the “Peaceful”, “Temple” and “Hell” playlists are also useful in Science Fiction scenarios and I want to avoid having to jump around to switch between playlists. This way, I can manipulate the Jukebox quickly, one-handed.

Don’t try to develop these playlists all at once. Add a few at a time (i.e. one CD at a time). Also, please only copy tracks from your store-bought CDs. The record companies shouldn’t have too much of a problem with that….

N.B. Credit where credit is due: this is based partly upon an idea found in a old Dragon Magazine Annual article, but has been expanded since.

Safety tip: beware of cables on the floor. Not only can your players trip over them, they will also thus rip the MP3 player from its place! My solution: a “cable run” flat plate screwed to the floor to protect the cable, and sticky kitchen hooks (to wind the cable around once) stuck under the table edge to take the weight off the cables (to avoid the weight of the cables dragging the MP3 player off the table).


  • The playlists are set to random shuffle.
  • The volume is generally set as background level. I also use a remote control for varying the volume of the stereo as the pace of the scene requires, as it is faster than the MP3 player’s volume controls when you are in the playlist section.
  • Don’t over stress your players with the Hell playlist.
  • Keep your remote control and MP3 player close at hand. If you can use them without losing to much eye-contact with your players, that’s just about perfect.
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Being A Kinder, More Gentle Sci-Fi GM

From Jochen Linneman

  • Let NPCs use non-lethal ammunition or weapons, such as riot control ammo, tear gas, sleep gas, water cannons, tasers, tanglers or stunners.
  • Give defensive agents to the PCs, such as prism or blackout gas against lasers, electro stat armor against shaped charge ammo, or personal force screens.
  • Provide for some emergency healing agents, such as wound patches or rapid healing nanos. As a last resort, put the PCs into the statis chamber until professional help is available.
  • Provide cover opportunities when fighting; wise PCs will use it.
  • Avoid letting NPCs use cover (that may be silly, but many movies portray them that way).
  • In space battles have escape pods available.
  • Don’t play out every tactical advantage NPCs may have.
  • Inspire PCs to improvise (for ideas, watch MacGuyver or the A-Team).
  • Don’t use nuclear weapons against PCs! If you really need to apply weapons of mass destruction, then use biological weapons. This way the PCs have at least a chance to survive. It is no fun to hear your GM say: “The last thing you see is a star-bright flash. KABOOM! OK, let’s create new characters….”
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Dramatica: Excellent Though Expensive Story Software

From Johan Adetorp

I would like to recommend excellent software called Dramatica. It is mainly designed for screenplay and fiction writing, but it can be used for many other things. I have used it to plan and write several adventures and RPG campaigns. Dramatica is a wonderful tool that helps you plot and design your screenplay, adventure, etc. It can also help you design NPCs, assign personality traits to them, and see the relationships between these personalities. It is rather expensive, but you can download a demo at their homepage to see what you think before buying.

Check on Dramatica.

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Tweaking Yahoo For Roleplaying Tips Delivery

From Kate Manchester

I actually have copies of the e-zine delivered to both a Hotmail and a Yahoo account, and have few problems with delivery of my issues. The spam filters for both are a bit picky though, so I suggest readers make sure that they put [email protected] on their Contact List as they are usually pretty good about making sure those mails get into their account. Alternately, be sure you check your junk mail folder, as that’s where such things often end up (and Yahoo often has a habit of reclassifying items you listed as Not Junk as Junk, so you may have to repeat the process with them.)

Admittedly, though, Yahoo’s been having a few issues of late.

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Free Games at

From Brandon Blackmoor


PBEM News, which used to be at, and which supports both email and play-by-post games, has been at for the better part of a year. If you are looking to host or play a game, swing by and check things out.