7 More Monstrous Tips
Roleplaying Tips Newsletter #281
- Use Terrain To Tweak Monsters
- Ask ‘What If’ To Add Twists And Originality
- Pick Race Last
- Adding Character Levels To Monsters (D&D 3.x)
- Use Historical Monsters For Inspiration
- Shock The Characters
- Use the PCs’ Strengths Against Them In Unexpected Ways
- The Arcanovore Cloud
- Setting Building Tips
- Dealing With Powerful Characters
- Recurring Villains
- Cleaning Battlemats
- Hand-Crafting Mini-Laden Maps For OpenRPG
- More PBeM Sites
In July, Roleplaying Tips Weekly ran a contest for monster related tips of all kinds. Subscribers responded with nearly 100 entries, and many prizes were handed out. Below are a handful of entries from the contest. May your critters live long and prosper!
Use Terrain To Tweak Monsters
When creating a creature, remember what kind of environment you’re dropping it into. This will not only affect special abilities, such as energy resistance if it lives in extreme conditions, but should also affect the creature’s skills and tactics. A forest dwelling creature that lives in the trees would have a good climb skill bonus, maybe even tumble and balance. With this, it would probably do well jumping down from trees and grappling opponents.
Have the creature interact with the place it lives in for an advantage over its enemies. Another example: if it lives in a desert, then you might give it a special ability it can use with sand, either in a defensive or offensive way.
Ask ‘What If’ To Add Twists And Originality
From Aki Halme
When designing a monster tale it sometimes looks like the story is a bit ordinary. Any detail can be given the question, what if it were not so? For example, the original story might be about saving the protector of a forest – a unicorn – from an orcish hunting pack. Add a what-if: what if it the place were not a forest?
A unicorn is well-suited to a temperate forest setting, but move the whole scene underground, to mountain tops, or onto a glacier – the key concept of a magical beast as environmentalist facing hunters can be retained. And rather than a unicorn, what if it could be a polar bear or a goat – complete with a magical arsenal matching that of a unicorn but better suited to a different environment.
Pick Race Last
From Aki Halme
Design backwards. A natural way to design an NPC might be to pick a race first, then skills, levels, and gear, and then fitting that person to the role. How about doing it from the end to the beginning? Start from the role a monster has in a story, then see what kind of skills and powers would suit it well, and at the end, consider what creature type fits that niche best.
Adding Character Levels To Monsters (D&D 3.x)
From Alan Clark
Following are simple tips on adding character levels to monsters to make fights more challenging while keeping it within reason and not making too much work for the GM.
- Don’t use spellcasting levels unless the monster is already a spellcaster. For example, adding 9 levels of sorcerer to a mind flayer does not raise its CR by 9 levels because it will only have access to the spells of a 9th level sorcerer, and no party of characters of that level will be unable to save against its spells, and it doesn’t even gain its normal racial hit dice, instead settling for the lower d4.However, adding spellcasting levels to a creature that already casts spells is fine, since the levels would stack. For example, adding sorcerer levels to a rakshasa is just fine since they already cast as 7th level sorcerers. They don’t have to start from the bottom with their spells.
- When adding fighter levels, go for passive feats. Passive feats are ones that are already calculated into the monster’s stats, such as Weapon Focus and Improved Initiative. This helps to streamline the combat a bit more, so you don’t have to take the time to use complex combat options. This point is mostly for mook monsters, such as the minotaur or ogre fighters that are serving as bodyguards, not the big-bads who are supposed to do complex maneuvers.
- Be careful with monk and barbarian levels, more so than any of the other classes, because these class levels can go a long way. Giving a high wisdom monster a single level of monk can make it far more challenging then 1 CR higher. The same goes for a monster that already has a high strength and constitution with barbarian levels, since the ability to rage only once per day isn’t much of a limitation for a monster and they are only likely to fight once.
Use Historical Monsters For Inspiration
Few creatures of the human imagination – from medieval bestiaries to the latest D&D supplement – can rival for strangeness some of the real animals that lived 500 million years ago, whose fossils can be found in the famous Burgess Shale formation in Yoho National Park near the town of Field, in the Province of British Columbia, Canada – a bona fide United Nations World Heritage Site.
See this page at the National Museum of Natural History for some artists’ representations of Halluciegenia, with its 7 pairs of stiltlike spines and 7 tentacles. The commentary reads, “Obviously, the animal shown here in its most recent reconstruction resembles nothing remotely familiar to any of us today (did you try to guess which end was which?).”
My favourite is Opabinia, something like a paddle-legged centipede with 5 eyes and a long flexible proboscis tipped with grasping spines (the audience of palaeontologists presented this beastie in 1972 thought it was a practical joke).
In my campaign, I made them 3 feet instead of 3 inches, gave them sentience and the ability to mentally communicate with and direct any being they grasped with that “tentacle-hand” of theirs, and had them riding Anomalocaris – the 6-foot (in real life!) killer shrimp with enormous mandible-like forelimbs and four-sided toothed jaws that was the barracuda of its day.
Our legends of dragons probably largely originated from fossils of dinosaurs, but much yet remains in our world’s fossil record that can be mined for Story.
Shock The Characters
In the computer-game Blue Shift, a subterranean laboratory gets invaded by various critters from another planet/ dimension. They range from little dog-like creatures to large, flying ones. Most of them emitted an electrical ray of varying capacity and damage amount. After shooting at you, they had to take some time to recharge before being able to fire another time.
Many fantasy roleplaying systems have some sort of ‘electrical’ beam (as opposed to, for instance, fire- breath). We all know of fire breathing critters but they rarely use natural (magic) electrical weapons. A nice change IMHO.
Use the PCs’ Strengths Against Them In Unexpected Ways
From Loz Newman
The main point of my tip is to take an opponent’s strengths and use them against him in unexpected ways. Consider the PCs as springboards rather than obstacles. Just don’t overdo it…too often. Monsters are supposed to be beaten, eventually. But nobody said it has to be easy the first time round!
Guidelines for doing this:
- Important Questions * How can I attack the PCs’ weak spots? * How can I make it so that the PCs’ uber-combat abilities are irrelevant? * How can I make it so that the PCs ubercombat abilities are disadvantages?
- Remember, as the DM you have an immense power to create, modify, or adapt any monster. Develop a creature’s powers that are logical for its role (i.e. roaming predators often have highly-developed senses or special sensing powers).
- Take an opponent’s strengths and use them against him in unexpected ways.
- Consider the PCs’ capacities, strengths, and magic as potential springboards, rather than obstacles. Try making them into adversary advantages for the next monster they encounter.
- Develop a background for the monster (necessary to develop your defences against any “That’s unfair!” arguments, and to fully develop a monster’s logical secondary capacities and limitations. Tie this background thoroughly into your campaign world (monster’s creator, ecology, terrain, reputation). Better yet, let the details needed to make this monster inspire the creation of new historical events, locations, NPCs, and thus inspire future possible scenarios.
- Look for minor tweaks and links to other details that could allow you to upgrade the monster’s effectiveness (i.e. their creator having a magical “sense” of the monster’s location and health, and the ability to remotely command them to scurry to specific locations).
- Deprive players of that vital opportunity/information needed to customize their actions for maximum effectiveness (i.e. design a custom monster rather than use one as-is from a book).
- Don’t be afraid to upgrade a monster’s capacities in mid- encounter _if_ this doesn’t contradict previously observed capacities or behaviours. Do this to make a boring encounter challenging or to provide a fun surprise or twist, not to penalize the PCs for good strategy.
- Monsters are supposed to be beaten, eventually, but nobody said it has to be easy the first time round. Just don’t overdo it. Make it a challenge, not a DM-imposed disaster.
Here’s an example creature crafted using the guidelines above:
The Arcanovore Cloud
A powerful mage (let’s call him “The Creator”) didn’t want any other mages or niggling paladins to set foot on his territory. He created a cloud of carnivorous, piranha-like mites. Individually, the creatures are so small that perception rolls receive large penalties (especially at night). In groups (collective noun: clouds) the mites look like drifting, dark-grey smoke.
The clouds were set loose to roam the Creator’s territory. They easily get under plate-armour to start chowing down on some prime Adventurer flesh. Non-area effect blows just slice through the cloud with almost no effect. Area effect spells (the next logical step) will reveal the cloud’s secret: it feeds on magic to increase in mite number and size. Vaporize it up with a fireball? You’ve just increased the cloud’s size by (damage inflicted)%!
Damage done above the beastie magic-eating capacity (to be carefully set by the DM beforehand) is going to damage the cloud (the individual mites can’t even take 1 Hit Point without dying).
If clouds benefit from absorbing magic, then it would make sense they would seek out magic sources and feed, such as on a group of magic-armour-clad, Two-Handed God Slayer-wielding adventurers who happen to wander by.
Clouds can also increase the difficulty of adventures by targeting the PCs’ mounts, equipment, magic objects, henchmen, and so on.
Some possible PC solutions:
- Dump several magical items in a heap and run away hoping the cloud will stick around to devour the magic items and become sated.
- Lure the cloud to some magical source (e.g. a long- duration spell) and run like crazy or bombard the source with area-effect spells.
- Blast everything in sight with area effect spells so powerful that they’ll overwhelm the cloud’s absorption capacities. This will draw the attention of all clouds within miles. Ditto for any being capable of sensing magic (such as the PCs’ main enemy?). Certainly, the Creator would sit up and take notice.
- Use non-magical area effect attacks (flapping cloaks, fire brands, stink bombs). Area effect alchemical products can be a true life-saver in this case. You know, that “non- magical” part of a PC’s inventory that players tend to neglect so much….
- A well-informed group could try to simulate the Creator’s Magical Aura (which the Clouds won’t attack).
- A fully-charged-up arcanovore cloud chasing a PC group can be “lured” into another cloud, which will promptly try to eat the “charged up” cloud. In the confusion, a fast- moving group of PCs without too much magic on them could slip away.
- Run to the Creator’s lair real fast and beg for his protection….
Making encounters tougher:
- The Creator could have a minor mental link to his creations. He’ll feel any exceptional activity, and possibly be able to direct other clouds towards the PCs. He might even be able to push one or more clouds across those pre-set territorial limits previously mentioned, or possibly profit from a percentage of the energies the clouds absorb. As the PCs get weaker in the magic department he’ll be getting stronger…. He’ll certainly be warned of the PCs’ approach, movements, magic level, and possibly classes/skills.
- Monstrously tough: Any magic absorbed by a cloud could boost its absorption capacity up to, say, 500% of their base capacity. Alternatively, the arcanovore could simply be heavily magic resistant or even immune to offensive magic.
- These beasties had to be created somewhere. Perhaps the Creator has an arcanovore hive-queen (perhaps in a cave at the bottom of his lair) that can hatch eggs on a few minutes’ notice. If the eggs can be pre-laid and then stored away for years in dark, dry store-caves, then potentially the Creator could have nearly unlimited supplies of arcanovores. Wow, with enough prep-time this guy could literally threaten the entire world. (Notice, suddenly, that exploring a single monsters’ concept and background is inspiring thoughts on lair layout, scenario ideas, and plot hooks, rather than it just being a pretty-coloured heap of hits points and attack scores for the PCs to slice ‘n’ dice.)
NEW D&D: Magic of Incarnum
This official supplement introduces a magical substance called incarnum into the D&D game. Characters can meld incarnumÑthe power of souls living, dead, and unbornÑinto magical items and even their own bodies, granting them special attacks, defenses, and other abilities (much as magic items and spells do). Incarnum can be shaped and reshaped into new forms, giving characters tremendous versatility in the dungeon and on any battlefield.
This book also features new classes, prestige classes, feats, and other options for characters wishing to explore the secrets of incarnum, as well as rules and advice for including incarnum in a D&D campaign.
Readers’ Tips Of The Week
Setting Building Tips
From Dwayne al’ Trawick
I love to build settings and have recently been building another one, honing my skills. Here are a few of the things I’ve learned:
- Write every idea down. Don’t worry about prettiness, just get it down on a paper you should always keep handy. Avoid using loose sheets too, as you’re more prone to throw them out or lose them than sheets in a notebook.
- Stay organized. I put my latest setting all on my computer. I have one doc for my cultures, one for locations, one for items, one for people, one for adventure ideas, and one for miscellaneous things. Every time I worked on the setting I put all my notes in documents that are easily separated and cross-referenced.
- Remember credibility. I’m a credibility freak. If something doesn’t make sense, it destroys your players’ willingness to believe. I’ve seen it a hundred times. Be your own devil’s advocate and try to put yourself in your players’ shoes. If it’s doubtful they’d buy it, rework it.
- Be trite carefully. I have a lot of friends who are huge fans of the Final Fantasy and Xeno what’s-it games (I refuse to call them role-playing games). If I were an equally big fan, I might include airships in my fantasy campaigns, giant robots in my sci-fi campaigns, and whatnot. Borrowing ideas from favorite video-games is okay (until you try to sell it) but be careful to not take it too far.
Dealing With Powerful Characters
From Eric D.
My tip is dealing with powerful characters and powergamers and comes from one of my recent games with a fairly experienced group of players with mixed play styles.
A more powerful enemy is not necessarily the best way to challenge them. Try something they would not expect or are not used to. Two of my players are roll-players (powergamers) and tend to make characters that can blast through any opposition I put in front of them. I decided after losing a few baddies I wanted to be re-occurring villains that I would throw them a curveball.
Before I start describing what happened you should know the PCs have attracted the attention of the local thieves’ guild by stopping “projects” they were working on in the past. The reprisal encounter happened in a large city, on a busy street.
The PCs were going through a street market looking for things they could sell for profit somewhere else when the thieves struck. Rather than attacking outright, the first attacker drew a stiletto dagger and stabbed the party cleric in the back as he walked by. The group immediately drew weapons and tried to find the attacker. As they looked around, the second attacker struck, again while walking by.
There were too many people in the immediate area for the PCs to know for sure who attacked them. After a few more such attacks, the PCs fled to a more open area to fight the attackers, who did not give chase.
I presented my group with a combat challenge without resorting to powerful monsters and such (the attackers were all 2nd level rouges and the PCs are 5th-7th level).
From Fanagann, Poland
Have you prepared your final battle well, spent weeks planning the climactic final battle with your villain? And what if the PCs end up beating your Boss after just a few rounds? You say, “Congratulations! You earn 10.032exp!” but you’re thinking “Damn, all that planning for nothing…” This tip can help you, if you want to consider bringing the villain back.
Imagine this: your great villain dies. Is it true? You can do things like making him return after few days, or just arise now with new powers. Perhaps he permanently dies, but in his last words, he calls his master/his best minion/his golem/the chaos power. Then players have another person to slay And remembering that the PCs defeated your villain without a scratch, this one can be a lot heavier!
Here are a few other possibilities:
- He summons his minion when he is very weak. This gives him time to heal, and he can do it again after a while, until players realize that defeating those golems or whatever you throw at them gives them nothing.
- He calls in help during battle.
- He morphs into a greater form.
- He combines his powers with those of his powerful minion. It probably will make him a lot more powerful than he and his minion together, and it can make him look as a beast, with twisted body or something like that.
- He doesn’t do anything. After his death, his master, god, or whatever, comes to avenge him. It is possible that players can’t defeat this new foe and have to do something to make him weaker.
From Garry Stahl
Two words, Denatured Alcohol. It will remove sharpie and like markers. Being a modeling type person, I keep it handy. [Johnn: A quick disclaimer to try any and all methods for cleaning your mats carefully. What works for one gamer might not work for you due to different ink, mat material, and so on. Test on a small corner section first and wait for awhile to see what happens.]
Hand-Crafting Mini-Laden Maps For OpenRPG
This tip will likely work on any online program that has a map function. I use OpenRPG and the map, despite upgrades, seems to have difficulty with a lot of minis. One can build a great map using the numerous minis out there, but such a map is large, cumbersome, and prone to crashing the program. Earlier versions were more prone to this and maybe it is just my system, but here is a fix.
- Download the minis’ graphics to your computer. I download the tiles for the structures and things like tree, turrets, and so on.
- Create a map in a paint program of a defined size as a default and save it as such. This will save time later when making more maps of the same size. I use 300×500 pixels and Photoshop. Other programs will also work, but Photoshop for me is quick.
- Most minis have a transparent background, so you can build your map by adding them in as layers. If they don’t have transparent backgrounds, you can use Photoshop create Transparent Image. Select the background with a tool like the Magic Wand and select the choice of “I’ve selected the Parts I want Transparent.”
- In Photoshop, I can use one mini for all parts, like walls, periodically copy and merge the base unit layer to create longer units, and use the transform function to rotate, resize, and so on. You don’t need to work in layers, but at times it helps when moving particular pieces or deleting something without going back a few steps or losing the whole map.
- When you’re done, create a background layer and put it on the bottom. I usually also adjust its opacity down so player minis are more visible.
- I flatten the map in Photoshop and do a “Save for Web”, which can create a great map that is much, much smaller in KBs than any other way.
This method works great for me, loads usually in 10 seconds, and has never caused a program problem. Here are a few of the maps I created for my D20 Modern game called Unit93:
The last map is by far the most detailed and is only 132kb, but all maps were very small, loaded fast, looked good on OpenRPG, and caused no program faults.
More PBeM Sites
- Barrok’s TowerFrom: The BT PeopleBarrok’s Tower (Barroks Tower) is a fairly laid back place to play, and strives to be more family oriented than a lot of sites. We try to keep the adult content to a minimum. All the staff like to think we’ve made a place where just about everyone can be comfortable.Our forums are open for lurkers to come in and have a peek at the things happening. On our boards there are several different systems, including BESM, Call of Cthulhu, D&D, d20 Modern, and The Window, as well as many others. We write a lot of resources, as well, and have been working on netbooks that include the great work of our members that will be free for download on site.The Administrators and Mods are very knowledgeable people and ready to help everyone – from first timers to experienced players. We just want everyone to have a great time!
- Refugee RPGsFrom: treece, aka velveeta the cheese queenWe have a posting gamesite at: www.boreders.com/phpBoreWe are always interested in new, serious players. Thank you for allowing me the opportunity to let other gamers know about our little home, and we hope someone drops by and checks us out.
- Ramath-lehiFrom: JodieHey Johnn,This is sort of a belated response to your e-mail concerning online forum gaming. My friends and I have been running an online forum game for about three years now called Ramath- lehi. It’s fantasy and futuristic based, and well, it’s been rather fun. The site is currently undergoing a layout change, but that should be finished up within the next week or so, if all goes well. Horrible college schedules that we’ve got. We accept new and veteran players. Anywho, the URL is www.ramath-lehi.comI love your mailing list.