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CREATURE ROULETTE: A CASE STUDY

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Ever just flip open your monster book at random? I call it “Creature Roulette”, and it’s just one of many strategies for getting out of writers’ block. In this article, we’ll talk through one method for using creature roulette to plan an adventure. We’ll start with a fantasy scenario, and see how to adjust it so that it can work with science fiction and modern genres as well.

GETTING STARTED

For this example, I grabbed my 4th Edition Monster Manual for no other reason than it was handy. Opening the book, I hit the page with hook horrors and horses. Reading through the details on each creature revealed that hook horrors often work for other underground ne’er do-wells. Also, some horses are somewhat magical, much like Shadowfax in Lord of the Rings. Since I already had underground worm-men in my campaign, it would be easy to weave these two creatures into the story.

THE FANTASY SCENARIO

The party will be contacted by Tulpar, magical lord of the horses. He will ask the party to look into the disappearance of several members of his pack. A local woodsman will reveal that he has seen the horses being taken to a nearby cave by creatures with great hooks for hands. He will also offer to sell them moonshine. The party will then have to infiltrate the cave (which may be trapped or guarded), fight the hook horrors, and save the horses. While there, they will learn that the hook horrors were working for the worm-men who planned to use the horses to attack the party’s home base.

Now let’s see if we can extend it to other genres.

THE SCIENCE FICTION SCENARIO

The party is contacted by natives of an agricultural world. Their pack animals are disappearing, supposedly taken by hooked creatures from their legends. In reality, the creatures are robots designed to terrify the villagers and keep them away from caves in some nearby mountains. There, enemies of the party are using the beasts to quietly (and illegally) mine minerals. These minerals can be used to power very destructive super-weapons. Laser gun battles ensue.

THE MODERN SCENARIO

There are horses missing from a local fair. The night guard claims he saw devils with great hooks tear through the fence and steal the horses. Others say his visions may have been those of a wild turkey or thunderbird. In reality, the beasts are creatures summoned by a local cult. They plan to sacrifice the horses to bring more powerful creatures for their evil ends. That is, unless the party can stop them.

For a more gentle session, the creatures are actually horse thieves in disguise. They plan to get the horses out of town once the dust settles and sell them illegally. It would take a Great Dane and a scruffy teenager to solve this one. (I’m putting on my ascot now).

CONCLUDING CAVEATS

Creature roulette should be a tool to jog our imaginations, not tie our hands. If you pick an inappropriate creature, simply try again. No sense sending a tarrasque against a first level party. If a particular creature doesn’t work for any reason, it may still give you an idea of where to go. Maybe lava creatures won’t work, but you’ll use ice or water elementals.

Have you used creature roulette successfully? Had a horror story? Tell us below.

7 Comments (Open | Close)

7 Comments To "CREATURE ROULETTE: A CASE STUDY"

#1 Comment By Kingslayer On August 1, 2016 @ 7:20 am

Great article John!

I think you could easily make it “Image Roulette” and get some great results too. The timing on this article is great! I say that because I’m prepping a trilogy of sessions right now that I got the idea for by seeing the cover image of the last article here on Gnome Stew: John Arcadian’s review of Shadow of the Demon Lord.

The image of the demon carrying the massive hammer (mace?) gave me the idea for a McGuffin chase. The Heroes and the Agents of the Big Evil Boss Guy are racing to find “the ultimate weapon”. The first session ends with both “teams” getting to the weapon, which turns out to be a hammer or mace so large that no creature or being on earth could possibly wield it, which of course will lead to the “what the heck is going to swing that” question!

So if creature roulette doesn’t work for you, flip through just about any RPG book you have and see if the images spark your imagination!

#2 Comment By John Fredericks On August 1, 2016 @ 4:32 pm

Yes, I use image roulette as well. I came across a great old painting of Joan of Arc while searching for other things the other day. Now I NEED to figure out how to get her into the story (well, a female knight, not the historical Joan).

Thanks for the kind words and the good advice.

#3 Comment By Blackjack On August 1, 2016 @ 12:01 pm

Great article. It’s a useful creative technique to start by throwing a (proverbial) dart or two, seeing where it lands, and going from there. Here are two examples of how I’ve employed it in my games:

1) When I know I want to build a story around a particular monster but I’m not sure what to put around it, I take a look at what monsters are on the same page and the facing page in the source book. Doing this helps cut short the searching process and forces a bit more creativity as alphabetically similar monsters are not always easy pairings in-game.

2) Rather than pick a monster at random, let the players pick. I placed a hook for a side adventure when my PCs were visiting a questionable ally’s outpost near the front line of battle. Late at night an overdue scout, feared MIA, stumbled into the base badly wounded and poisoned. “Captain,” he croaked to the night watch officer, “There are so many… More than 250… Almost 300…” A PC rushed over to aid him and heard the man’s last word before he succumbed. “What was it? Almost 300 what?” the player asked. “You tell me what his last word was,” I answered. “MINOTAURS!” the player exclaimed, his eyes widening. Some time later (after debating whether the flaky ally deserved their help or not) the group went off to fight a tribe of 283 minotaurs.

#4 Comment By John Fredericks On August 1, 2016 @ 4:35 pm

That second one is gold. I’m stealing it. (and thanks for taking time to comment.)

#5 Comment By Blackjack On August 1, 2016 @ 6:07 pm

Help yourself! A few additional notes about the idea:

— In my notes I called it “The 283”. No similarity to “The 300” intended. The idea began, simply, that 283 monsters of some kind were joining a war, either as new enemies or merely on a new front (if a species already engaged in the war was chosen).

— While the exact monster was flexible I planned well ahead of time that the enemy would be organized. With 283 members, they’d have road blocks, check points, scout patrols, and of course a well guarded main camp with leaders and shamans. I was able to sketch out various encounters in the adventure without knowing the specific monster.

— The idea scales with power level. I kept this idea in my back pocket for years (LT game) before the group got in place for it. Initially I imagined that it would be 283 hobgoblins. Later, 283 bugbears. Finally, when the group pursued the hook, even 283 minotaurs were a bit underpowered for them. There I used organization as a lever…. These 283 minotaurs were highly organized. And they had two unexpected allies keeping an eye on them on behalf of the Evil Overlord. Those really put the fear back into the players!

#6 Comment By FutureOreo On August 2, 2016 @ 9:36 pm

The comment related discussion here does a good job of comparing and contrasting random generation from the monster books to other things. The pro of pure “image roulette” is that you can come up with really off the wall ideas, but the con is that it can be really hard to implement the idea mechanically (at least in D&D 3.5!)

Meanwhile with a book based method, the pro is that your ideas are always going to be mechanically accounted for, the con being that it might be harder to make a situation in which your players leave thinking “Wow, where did that insane concept come from?” I’m not saying one is better than the other, rather, it’s just two different tools for getting two respective different kinds of results. I’ve seen a lot of methods for pure image roulette, and I like having the option the mechanically easy contrast that your method provides.

#7 Comment By NikMak On August 3, 2016 @ 7:04 am

ahh, reminds me of random encounter tables 🙂

I used to use those puppies all the time when i was stuck for an idea. I love blackjacks suggestion #2 as well – tell me, as the GM at the moment the word ‘minotaur’ being uttered did you get a mild sinking feeling? did the letters ‘TPK’ flicker through your mind!? 😉

as it panned out, sounds like your players were more than ready to cope with things, so perhaps you were not worried at all?