How To Get More From Your Monsters – Part 2

From Andrew H.

Roleplaying Tips Newsletter #0324

A Brief Word From Johnn

The Darkness That Comes Before

I read this book, by fellow Canadian Scott Bakker, while on holidays. It’s an excellent read. It doesn’t follow your standard fantasy clichés, but goes in its own direction. There are a few characters you follow through the story, but it doesn’t use a boy-becomes-king, or central character type of plot. I think this is an excellent book to inspire world builders.

I’m thinking of darting off a few questions to the author. Are there any questions you’ve always wanted to ask a published fantasy author?

Back-Up Your Stuff

A quick reminder to backup all your computer data. Now.

Can’t Wait For September

My campaign went on hiatus over the summer, but it’s starting up again soon. Yippee! I’m running the classic Temple of Elemental Evil campaign, updated to 3rd edition D&D thanks to conversion library at ENWorld:

The PCs have just cleared out the Moathouse, though Lareth escaped their wrath…this time. What will the PCs do next? Guess I’ll find out next session. Personally, I think they should pool all their gold and build a statue of me in the center of Hommlet, but hey, it’s their money.


Johnn Four
[email protected]

How To Get More From Your Monsters – Part 2

Many of the following tips have been suggested before over the years, in this column, in gaming magazines, and elsewhere. I hope this will be a practical spin on them 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 Exactly As The Manual Says

If human intelligence is normal and we have such a huge range of intelligences, from Not Able To Function In Society to Supra Genius, why shouldn’t the monsters too?

Every other human attribute also varies by just as much. Why should the next Gengen be normal? Maybe it will be stronger, smarter, or quicker than normal, but the least likely encounter should be just normal!

The aim of this method is surprise and shock value. Even if your players know the name and the manual game stats of your monsters, they won’t know what’s in store for them.

Give your monsters an unusual choice in weapons, an unexpected strategy or battle plan, greater or lesser strength, and so on. If a monster’s capabilities have been reduced, what strategy has it found to survive? Remember that these oddities may be worth more experience if the players overcome them. After all, the players’ true reward for playing is fun, adventure, and achievement.

Motivation and ideology vary perhaps even more than descriptive characteristics. Think of all the motivations humans have and vary your monsters just as much. Given some smarts, why can’t the Thorgordrin learn to gain experience and skills like the players? It’s no longer just a Thorgordrin; it’s a 10th level warrior/thief Thorgordrin.

The extra work involved in this method is a more thought (and notes) from the GM. Rather than having one set of figures for all 20 members of the patrol, you may need 20 different stat blocks. This could take a few more seconds or an extra half hour.

It is possible to run a campaign where the players battle just one type of enemy, such as for a war front type of setting. At first, they battle the weakest members of a tribe; those sent out to do menial jobs the strong and powerful can’t be bothered with. Then the players graduate to stronger tribe members, each having different tactics and methods. After gaining power and prestige, the PCs progressively face stronger and smarter tribes, each tribe having markedly different strategies and abilities. Finally, the PCs face the warlord(s).

How This Worked For Me

I often use non-standard game stats for specific monsters. One time, the players faced a particularly intelligent and charismatic hobgoblin king (charismatic to other hobgoblins, at least). They carefully avoided battle with him, never realizing that he was physically and martially (combat skills) weak. He ruled with intelligence, cunning, and hobgoblin charm. He effectively and ruthlessly silenced any opposition, and was greatly feared. However, if the party had launched a straight out attack, they would have found his bodyguards difficult but the warlord to be a pushover. Role play won over hack and slash.

Players will appreciate the extra variety, mystery, and realism this tip can bring to your games, especially if (have I mentioned this before?) they are rewarded with bonus experience for surmounting each different challenge.

Adventure Hooks

  • A tribe of relatively weak monsters is now led by a highly intelligent and cunning chieftain. How will this change their behavior and motivations? Maybe they no longer raid for food and gold, but for tactical information.
  • The tribal fiends have an adventuring party composed of above-average individuals who are adventuring in human lands for loot, fame, and experience. They could be quite an adversary for any party. As the players gain levels and power, so too might the enemy.
  • The party is hired to slay the enemy champion before he can inspire his kin to war. The PCs would have to find this champion, defeat him, and escape alive.
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It’s Never Just Another Kill

A monster isn’t interested in a fair fight. It will set traps; use overwhelming numbers, poison, or missile weapons to advantage; and run when the odds are against it. Too many combats boil down to “walk into the room, fight to the death, earn the experience,” especially in game systems that encourage experience rewards for a kill only. Fights to the death should be the exception rather than the rule. Most fights should be to the pain, the first wound, or until the first chance to flee or surrender. The aim of this policy is to give players more chances for victory, particularly at low levels (see below), and monsters more chances to become enduring foes.

Wounded monsters should flee, but not into a dead end where they will become easy prey for the players. They flee deeper into their own territory, which they know better than the PCs. They might know what moss or local remedy to use on wounds and so might heal quicker than the PCs expect. They might use an underground river, waterfall, peat bog, or swamp to evade the PCs.

Think of those old movies where the clever prisoner wades down a stream bed to elude tracking dogs, backtracks to confuse skilled trackers, lays false trails, and so on. Any cunning monster should be capable of the same, especially one in fear of its life. If its movement rate is not as good as the PCs, so escape would normally be difficult, it might try to slow the group down. Can it move over a particular terrain type better than the characters?

It might try to wound, not kill, so that the party has to stop and treat the wounded, to give it more time to make a getaway. Why should the monster take the extra time to finish off a PC when that will mean getting caught and possibly killed by the rest of the party? Surely it would rather wound and make a run for it. Have the monster behave as if it were your own beloved character, whom you desperately want to survive to fight another day.

How This Worked For Me

The one that got away became the villain that dogged the PCs for years to come. They came to groan every time it looked like she was behind some plot yet again, but I know they liked it. It added to my enjoyment, anyway. 🙂

Players will appreciate this approach if they get suitable experience points for their victories, and also because this strategy can often allow players to survive serious wounding and other situations that otherwise might have led to death.

Both the players and the GM win. The players get to survive, earn experience, and learn from their mistakes. The GM now has a monster on the loose who has also gained experience from the encounter. Even if your game system does not specifically allow for monsters to gain experience from their encounters, I recommend this method to you.

Adventure Hooks

  • The small goblinoid takes the loot and flees into the overgrown forest. The party follows along a path, requiring them to crawl through (or waste days hacking through). The small monster leads the party into a den of bears, a scouting party of fiends, or some other mischief. The PCs need to overcome the new threat and find the monster with the loot.
  • Only one orc escapes the battle. She was an orcish camp follower, pregnant with a litter of baby orcs, but, as she escaped, she vowed revenge on the humans that had slain the father of her children and despoiled her tribe. In time, she learns the skills to advance as a fighter and thief and becomes a real problem to the players – as do her offspring.
  • Fiends raid the party at night. They are defeated, but at least one fleeing fiend has taken something valuable. Which one shall the party chase and how far will they chase it?
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The Loot Is Never A Neat Pile Of Coins

In any society most of the value anyone owns is in hard-to- carry items, such as furniture, clothing, housing, animals, stores of useful items, and so on. Make the players work to get the lair full of antique furniture back to town and then have them realize they need to get it to a large city to get its full value.

The aim of this ploy is to make the players go that extra mile to get their hard-earned reward into a more bankable form. They will appreciate actual coins all the more. In lower level adventures, the weapons used by the monsters could be the most valuable items to be had. Maybe the only treasure in the lair is the stores of food and supplies the monsters were hoarding. Maybe they were raiding merchant caravans for cloth, which their skilled seamstresses could make into clothing to be sold for a profit.

Intelligent monsters might have marketable skills, which they may be using to create wealth. Maybe the goblins are raiding because they want quality forged tools with which to dig more tunnels, in which case the loot is several cart loads of tools that weigh several tons and will bring only a moderate, second-hand price.

This gives GMs extra reward flexibility. If you were a little too generous in the adventure design, then see that they don’t get the price they wanted at market.

The extra work involved in this ploy will be listing the loot, rather than just noting 2000 gp. Also, you can expand your adventure with anything from a bit more thought for the furniture to designing the thieves guild/bandit enclave that steal the valuables away from the players.

How This Worked For Me

The players found a rich haul in a wizard’s lair, but by the time they got it back to the nearest town it was only a good haul. Once traded at market and auction houses, they only got a modest return on their labors. However, since they had achieved the one thing they had been striving for, the wizard’s book of arcane spells, they were still happy. And miserly old me, I was even happier: I had advanced the plot without giving them too much.

Players will appreciate the extra realism this brings to the game once they get into the habit of (at least at low levels) thinking of any saleable items as loot.

Adventure Hooks

  • After winning the battle, the players realize they need to get a large cart or two from town just to haul the loot. They have to go back to town, rent, buy, or steal some carts, get back to the lair, load, and then safely transport it all back to town. Then they have to sell it for the best price they can, all without having it stolen, being attacked by bandits, conned by cunning persons, or damaged by careless handling.
  • The loot attracts several con artists to the party’s new found wealth. A clever con man might open a bank in the village to cater to its new elite.
  • Some local merchants decide they can sell the players’ second rate goods and pocket the extra profit. After all, the adventurers probably won’t be staying around for long.
  • Thieves. Don’t forget thieves; some members of the party might even be thieves.
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Any of the points made in both parts of this article can be the core of an adventure in itself. The key to using these ideas successfully is to find ways the players can continue to gain experience during these parts of the campaign. Award bonuses for clever thinking, avoiding problems, solving problems, or dealing with wandering monsters. Give experience for driving the monster off or for defeating it, rather than just for a kill. Always be prepared to let the players try some approach you have not considered before. It empowers them in the game setting and can lead to great things you would never have though of on your own.

If you have gone to the trouble of designing an adventure, then with these articles’ ideas you can expand that one adventure into a whole campaign. We have only considered some aspects of the actual monster, the encounter, and the loot. We have not yet thought about the politics of the local town, duchy, kingdom, nation, religion, and more. Use these points to turn a single encounter into an adventure, a single adventure into a campaign. Politics, trade, and religion can turn your campaign, built around one actual adventure, into a world of mystery, intrigue and fun.

Tips From Roleplaying Tips Game Masters

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

Have An Alignment Talk With Your Players

From Xen and the People of the DM Advice List

When my players choose alignments (even good ones) they have to discuss their character’s personality with me. A lot of times new players have the wrong idea about alignments and pick one totally wrong for the character they want to play.

For instance, I’ve had several players who wanted to be evil characters so that they wouldn’t have to listen to authority. Once I explained to them that chaotic was the alignment they were looking for, most dropped the evil part. Very few players want to play characters who are truly going to be evil. Most just want to be able to do whatever they desire without having to worry about consequences, and in those cases, a paladin or cleric isn’t the right class for them anyway.

If someone truly wants to play an evil character, then the first thing the GM should do is sit down and talk with the player about why they want to play an evil character. Then the GM needs to figure out if it will reasonably work in the world they have in mind (is the player going to have fun?). Then they need to discuss this with the rest of the players (are they going to have fun?). If everyone is okay with it, then an evil character should be fine for the game. By this point, the GM and player should have some idea about the character’s personality and motivations, so making up a list of do’s and don’t’s should be fairly quick and simple.

I’m a firm believer that in party oriented games like D&D everyone should discuss character concepts together. Once a group has been organized and has the potential of working together, then more detailed characters with hidden secrets and motivations can be added. There is nothing worse for a game then having two or more characters so at odds that their conflicts take away from the rest of the game. I’ve seen games degenerate into chaos because someone played a lawful good paladin and someone else played a neutral evil thief. Not everyone has to be buddies, but some basic level of agreement must be available or else the group is will self-destruct.

It’s the responsibility of the players to make characters that fit within any guidelines the GM gives them. It’s the GM’s responsibility to make sure those characters are ready to be played when the game starts and that everyone has the information they need (within reason). I think a moral code should be the first priority with a paladin in the group.

If the character is getting punished for breaking a rule he was unaware of, that’s the GMs fault. However, certain basic understandings are fairly obvious in my opinion, and just because there may not be a written rule doesn’t mean the character should get away with it.

Genuine confusion on the part of a new player can be forgiven, but the GM should point out the mistake at that time so the player can choose a different option. I warn my players before they go against their alignment, against the law, or against a higher power. It’s something the characters should know and the PCs should be given the chance to change what they are doing. I give several alternate options, but sometimes the PCs choose to go ahead anyway because it is what their character would do They never get mad at me when they get punished later because I gave them the choice.

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Storing Dragonscale And Other Counters

From Jeff Wilder

Altoid tins make great storage bins!

BTW, I took advantage of a sale by Dragonscale counters to order a large number of them. They’re truly worth the money. Heavy plastic, full color, 3/4 or top-down view, and you can write on them with overhead projector pens. If you haven’t looked at them, Johnn, consider this a recommendation.

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Tracking Bonus EXPs

From Henry J. Oliver III

I liked awarding (and penalizing) XP for various things in my game, but the players never knew exactly what they were getting points for. To help steer them toward more productive play, here’s something I’ve just started doing in my games: I have a piece of paper on the wall with a column for each player’s name and two rows. The top row is bonuses, the bottom penalties.

Every time a PC (or sometimes a player) does something clever, brave, or interesting, I make a mark or two in the top row under their name. When they do bad things (in my game, this consists mainly of too much table chatter, out- of-character speech/actions, taking too long to think during combat) I score in the bottom row. At the end of the session, I apply a +5% modifier to their XP for each good mark on their name and -5% for each bad mark.

The great part about this whole exercise is that it gives them instant feedback on their actions without slowing play. Further, I keep each sheet (marked with a date and session number) so I can trace players’ improvement.

I have a GIF of the sheet I use if you want to see it.

Thanks, keep up the good work.

[Johnn: You can find Henry’s chart in gif format here: And in Word doc format here: ]
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Transporting Fantasy PCs To A Modern World

From JF

Some things to think about in general terms, rules terms, and gaming terms when transporting characters from a fantasy milieu to a modern one:

  1. Ensure you are fully prepared to deal with the details of modern technology: guns and vehicles in particular.
  2. Properly prepare your players for the transition. Give them ideas on how you think they could roleplay their characters in a modern environment. How much culture shock do you think they should suffer? How quickly can they adapt and learn? How will they communicate?
  3. Skills. How adaptable are they? What cross-overs will you allow?
  4. Health. How will you deal with viruses and bacteria? The PCs will bring new ones with them, and the modern world will introduce new ones to them.
  5. Try to give the PCs strong hooks, goals, and ideas of what to do. A modern environment allows many more possibilities (because the players are more familiar with the world, and things happen faster) so be aware of irrelevant or confused side-tracking.
  6. How will you deal with magic? That’s a tricky one. Does is work? If so, do other modern citizens wield it? Why or why not?
  7. How will you deal with deities? Do they still exist? Do a few modern people know this? Can spells and divine magic function?
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The Ten Commandments Of Character Construction

From Mike Bourke, Sydney, Australia

With the advent of points-based systems for character generation, there was a paradigm shift in roleplaying. With a random-roll system, the characteristics are determined and character background centers on assessing the implications of those characteristics; but points-based systems rely on having a character concept before you start construction.

As a result, there is far greater emphasis on the strength of the initial character concept. Points-based systems generally involve more work in constructing a character, and if the character concept isn’t a strong one, that can be time wasted. The strength of a character concept can be easily assessed in hindsight; what is needed is a checklist to judge the concept in advance. This article is intended to provide just such a checklist.

  1. A strong concept is not a weak concept. (Sounds obvious, right?) Weak concepts are often described in inanimate terms: cutout, two-dimensional, single-purpose, cliche, plastic, wooden, cardboard cutout. If any of these labels apply to a concept you’ve created, think very carefully before proceeding!
  2. A strong concept is fun to play. If you don’t enjoy playing it, you won’t play it. A must!
  3. A strong concept has a broad range. The character should have a range of reactions available in any given situation. Not even the Hulk was limited to Hulk-Smash ALL the time.
  4. A strong concept is consistent. A suave, sophisticated diplomat is strong, if a bit cliche (in need of customizing). A scruffy, street-smart diplomat who settles his problems with a .44 Magnum is confused.
  5. A strong concept has limits. There are things the character cannot or will not do. If the character has no limits, he has no challenges – a sure recipe for boredom. It’s important that these limits not be exclusively things that the character will grow out of with experience. They may be weakened or modified, but never eliminated.
  6. A strong character has assets that can also be liabilities. So your character is strong enough to juggle elephants – how does he go with Baccarat crystal?
  7. A strong concept is focused. It’s easy to confuse broad with diverse, and diverse is only a half-step away from inconsistent. Batman is a broad character, with a vast array of skills to employ in his war on crime. Superman is a diverse character, his powers having several unrelated points of focus. The Composite Superman, a villain with all the powers of the Legion Of Superheroes, was inconsistent, unfocused, and a weak concept, which is why he was never used for more than an issue at a time.
  8. A strong concept has a world in which to act and react. If the referee isn’t interested in the character, it doesn’t matter how brilliant a concept it is – file it away and save it for a different campaign.
  9. A strong concept doesn’t hog the limelight. If the concept demands the character be the centre of attention all the time, or the character will take up a disproportionate amount of game time, the character weakens the campaign. Either it won’t receive the attention it demands, because the Referee is being fair to the other players, or the other characters will be spectators too often for too long. It’s unfortunate that this applies to most super-speed characters due to game mechanics, as practicalities eliminate this classic character category.
  10. A strong character has room to grow. Like most species, it will either expand or stagnate, and stagnating characters’ stop being fun to play. Note that this means growth in character, not capabilities. It’s also worth observing that an excessive level of capabilities can actually limit growth in character; that’s why DC has revised Superman’s power level so often. Tough is fine; unstoppable is boring, eventually.

So there you have it. My ten commandments for the construction of strong character concepts, characters who will be an asset to the campaigns in which they appear. And of course, always the remember the golden rule of RPGs: it doesn’t matter whether you win or lose, it’s how much fun you have in the process!

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Standing Orders

From Tommi Brander

RPG toolkit wiki contains a concept much like standing orders, but called instincts.

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Standing Orders For PBeM

From K. Amaloo

I use standing orders in my PBEM to avoid getting bogged down too much, especially during combat. Here’s the list I append to the character sheets:


  • Attack if/when:
  • Flee if/when:
  • Other:


  • Primary tactics:
  • Secondary tactics:
  • Primary spellcasting tactics:
  • Secondary spellcasting tactics:
  • Withdraw from combat if/when:
  • Flee combat if/when:
  • Rest (camp):
  • Rest (village/town/city):
  • Spell preparation (typical):
  • Lvl 0: spell name, alphabetically
  • Lvl 1:
  • Lvl 2:
  • Lvl 3:

After they’ve filled in the blanks, it’s easier in particular to get through the initial stages of combat – especially since I roll all the dice anyway.

I ask that players send me their basic standing orders as above, but put their current plans and goals in each post to make sure they’re up to date and relevant.

I hope it’s useful to other people, too!