How To Rock Your Encounters With This Monster Design Tip
Roleplaying Tips Newsletter #0746
Here’s a tip from Faster Combat: when you chose or design a monster, start with how you want the PCs to defeat it.
I say “choose or design” because it doesn’t matter whether you’re picking the foe from the monster manual or homebrewing an original critter. The benefit is the same to your encounter.
What do you dislike most about your encounters today? Do they grind on? Do monsters just feel like reskinned hit points and damage dice? Do you feel like your encounters need that special spice you can’t quite put your taste buds on?
Start next encounter design with how you want the PCs to win. Then choose or build your monster and work backwards.
For example, four goblins in a room. The PCs break down the door. They attack. Dead goblins turn up 5 gold pieces, 12 silver, and 101 copper.
Another example. A hydra in a room. The PCs break down the door. They attack. Dead heads turn up 500 gold pieces, 1200 silver, and 10,100 copper.
Ok, so what if we want the PCs to capture the goblins and interrogate them? Great roleplaying and an awesome device to help you guide the plot.
And what if we want the hydra to be a puzzle kill? If you don’t attack its weakness, it’s too tough to grind down.
The course goes into greater detail, but today we’ll take a simple but effective shortcut approach. Using bullet points, work backwards to brainstorm encounter elements that support the objective.
You aren’t enforcing one way to win the encounter. You always let players make their choices.
But through good design, which is a skill you learn with practice, you can create situations more likely to go the way you have planned, which is a good thing because what you have planned is exciting and fun for the players.
Goblins In A room
- Interrogating a prisoner
- Beg for mercy after losing 50% of hit points
- A bundle of papers on a table
What does this mean?
Having monsters interrogating gives players two strong hints. First, the goblins can be parleyed with. Second, interrogation is an idea.
Cowardly goblins begging for mercy gives you character exploration moments, roleplay during combat, and reinforcement of your idea to interrogate the goblins.
The bundle of papers will be opaque to the PCs, pun intended, haha. Put them in code so the goblins are key to unlocking their meaning and value.
Two encounters with the same four dumb goblins. But encounter #1 is ho-hum. Encounter #2 could be amazing.
We want to make the players think.
- Broken bridge
- Goblin archers
The riddle is our classic puzzle. Get the answer right and the PCs win the encounter and can advance without losing a lot of resources.
Picture an underground bridge linking one cavern to another. The middle 50′ section has collapsed. On one side is a hydra, guarding its lair.
If the PCs try to cross the gap, the hydra spits poison. Poison because it’s unexpected. And a good hydra lougie goes far. Add in four goblin minions with bows to complicate things with additional ranged attacks.
Two ideas for a puzzle.
First, the goblin leader demands information the PCs have on behalf of the hydra. But none of the creatures is smart or eloquent. The hydra wants to know the name of another monster in the dungeon — a rival, perhaps. “Ugh. Name the spikey one! Ugh.”
Second, the hydra wants smart minions to beat a wizard deeper in the dungeon. In the past, dumb minions just burn and die. And then the wizard drops by with a painful admonishment. (The wizard likes the hydra as entrance guardian to keep out the riff raff so he can do his research uninterrupted.)
So the hydra asks the wizard for riddles “the entertain her” and then uses those riddles against interlopers to screen possible mage murderers.
Again, the PCs might just charge in and fight. Regardless, the encounter is more interesting now with the minions and bridge. And now you’ve got an idea for a wizard doing dark deeds deeper in the darkness….
Try it yourself next encounter you build.
Start with how you want the PCs to win. Brainstorm supporting design elements. Then build it out. Feel free to share your encounter designs with me for feedback.