A couple of years ago, I had an idea for my then-upcoming campaign: don’t use any stock monsters — and by “monsters,” I mean “adversaries” in general. This sounded like fun, and it was, but I encountered a few stumbling blocks along the way.
Let’s take a peek at two reasons why you might want to use custom critters, five ways to do just that, and a bit of advice about what works best.
What’s a stock monster? Stock = as-is, straight from the book. Monster = anything the party is likely to fight (a dragon, a platoon of space marines, a trio of MIBs, etc.). There’s nothing wrong with stock monsters, but they also don’t hold many surprises for experienced gamers (and no surprises at all for the folks who can memorize rulebooks!).
There are two big reasons why avoiding stock monsters is neat: as a GM, it’s fun to take a break from “the usual,” and because your players won’t know what to expect. The goal is to have fun by restoring some of the sense of wonder that comes from encountering something potentially deadly and having no idea what it does. This is obviously less important in games where “PCs vs. environment” isn’t the main source of conflict (like Wraith: The Oblivion, or — even further down that spectrum — Primetime Adventures), and more useful in games like D&D.
With that in mind, here are 3 ways to mod your monsters:
- “Palette swaps” (to borrow a term from video gaming), where you use the monster’s stats as-is but change its appearance.
- Templates, which add a layer of changes to the monster’s stats.
- Custom abilities (“These fire elementals can shoot flaming darts”).
…plus 2 methods that don’t involve modding them at all:
- Make up your own foes.
- Use monsters from obscure sources (which, while technically still “stock,” accomplishes nearly the same thing).
“No stock monsters” was one of the things I wrote in my notes while planning for my Selgaunt campaign, and I tried to implement that rule throughout the game. It didn’t go so well, for two reasons: at low levels in D&D, the monsters are so weak that you don’t have much room to fiddle with them; and second, because mechanical changes can be pretty time-consuming.
Back to the problems, then — let’s start with low level foes. After poring over my books looking for templates that could be applied to things like kobolds — and finding very few that met my needs — I gave up and switched to palette swaps and obscure monsters. By and large, that worked pretty well — the PCs fought some things that were memorable not because of their mechanics, but because the group didn’t know what they were.
At later levels, I found that prep time became the larger issue: even though I could use things like templates and custom abilities more easily, picking them took too long. More recently, I used a template on a couple of monsters in my Airship Privateers campaign — but didn’t have time to modify their stats before the session. The result? I had two books open at the table, and during combat I forgot one of the most important things about the monsters.
Based on my experience, the two easiest ways to avoid stock monsters are to pull from obscure sources or use palette swaps on familiar foes. Neither approach requires much in the way of prep time, and done right they can be pretty powerful tools.
Customizing abilities can also be fairly straightforward: just take out one element and replace it with another, and try to keep the monster’s overall power level about the same. Make sure you pick something that’s likely to come up during play, though — because while deciding that these orcs are immune to poison is fine, it’s a wasted effort if none of the PCs are going to use poison against them.
If you go the template route, or make substantial mechanical changes, make sure you do it during prep. In the case of D&D, many books with templates in them (like Advanced Bestiary, from Green Ronin) also include one templated monster for each listing — a nice timesaver, if the sample creatures sound like fun to use.
What are your experiences with avoiding — or not avoiding — stock monsters? Do you have any tricks or suggestions about the 5 methods listed here?
Stealing an idea from an previous GM, I use monsters with class levels. It’s disturbing what can be done with a Goblin with five levels of Barbarian.
Also, running an Iron Kingdoms game, there’s going to be a lot of interactions with non-monstrous NPCs, so I use a lot of NPCs with PC levels and NPC levels. I have about a 50/50 mix of stock and non-stock monsters in my games. Taking a look at the Monsternomicon by Privateer Press, they have a list of 10 (approximately) “quickplates” that can be applied to any monster rather easily.
I make a lot of use of the “palette swap” myself (coincidentally, I call it “a new paint job” as well). My players are pretty grizzled, so they know many of the classics and it keeps things fresh. However, I do also throw in a few stock baddies due to ease of use. Templates can be fun, but be warned they can enhance abilities much further then the “Effective Level” might indicate. Case in point: I applied the “Corpse” template from Book of Vile Darkness to a high level spellcaster. I believe this adds 1 or 2 to the EL, but having a powerful mage with a d12 hit die and undead traits seemed a lot more powerful then the a 2 level bump would indicate, considering that he would have his nominal “mage buffs” up as well. I went a bit easy on the party at the end, but he and a couple of cronies did wipe out 4 of 6 characters in a epic battle.
Btw, I would mention that using certain “stock” monsters has a certain appeal all its own. For example, all veteran players know to fear the power of a Beholder. Letting them know that creature “is coming” can be just as fun as the unknown. In this case, the players were on a time-important quest, and came to a crossroads in this underworld area. Their guide said they could take the long winding route out of the caverns “or fight the Eye Tyrant just down this tunnel who lairs in the cave entrance.”
A nice debate ensued: “Do *YOU want to go down and fight the Beholder??”
“But think of the time we could save…”
“You do realize they have this ability called ‘disintigrate’, right?”
So, the bottom line is, a few “well placed” classics can be quite fun as well.
PS: I dont consider that meta-gaming when it’s a classic monster. I just think of it as well known lore that people in a fantasy world know do to legends and tales.
The last D&D game I ran I was so sick of facing exotic (and strange) monsters for so long as a player, I did a “tribute” dungeon with nothing but classic monsters. I loved it. The players loved it.
Were I to ever run D&D again (ha!) I would do the exact opposite as you, Martin: 100% stock monsters from the core books only.
I’ve recently run some games with non-stock monsters. I ran a Talislanta game and a Tekumel game. On top of that, the games were run with Cold Iron (friend’s homebrew) which practically means any creature is non-stock (at least from a player perspective).
The problem for me with non-stock monsters is that the tactical style of play I enjoy really requires the players to know the rules, and that includes at least a good idea of what the monsters do. The stumbling around having no clue what’s going on was cool when I first started playing. I don’t think that’s cool anymore.
I think it would be impossible to use 100% non-stock monsters since technically any monster with significant PC class levels is “stock” (in that the players know the abilities).
On the flip side, I do think it’s interesting to spice things up with a bit of unknown, so I wouldn’t never use a non-stock monster.
The bulk of the adventures I’ve run have been published, which means that they’ve been more or less entirely staffed with stock monsters. I’ve experienced the same sense that my players have become bored with the standard fare.
I’ve found that templates are best reserved for specific-purpose encounters. If a key encounter involves a hydra infused with infernal power, go ahead and apply the half-fiend template. If, however, you’re just running a suprise ambush, those orcs don’t need the shadow creature template.
To make a particular monster more memorable and to reduce the instinctive metagaming that can occur with player knowledge, I like to do the palette swap with a minor ability change.
Consider an ogre. It deals 2d8+7 damage and wears hide armor. Change that to 1d8+9+1d6 acid and convert the hide armor directly into a natural armor boost. Call the great club an acid-injecting tongue stinger, and now you’re ogre is the Kal-Ereth, frog fiend!
The real strength of this method is that it can be done right at the beginning of the encounter with no preparation.
Oh, I agree whole-heartedly with Sarlax. In my current home game, the townsfolk don’t venture out very far on winter nights, because of snow beasts. The players have no idea that they are baboons with white fur, and a tolerance for cold. It adds a lot of intrigue, and I did basically nothing.
While modifying monsters is fun, don’t overdo it. If a creature has really crazy abilities, it’s appearance should match. Poisonous monsters in our world are usually brightly colored, for example. If players move up to the hulking form in the shadows and get turned to stone for their trouble, they might be a bit mad.
With the previous snow beast example, it was clear that the town had walls and a night watch, and as soon as they started buying expedition supplies, they were warned to be careful.
I too lean toward more stock creatures and/or palette changes, since prep time is precious. Plus the monsters have meaning, like Judas’s Eye Tyrant example.
You illuminate the drawbacks well; another drawback is seperating PC & player knowledge. How much does the average adventurer know about dragons? Alignment? Breath weapon? That plus its intelligence? Do you want to make that same decision for each creature you fight?
For context: we fought a white dragon 5 or 6 sessions back. We had a lot of trouble figuring out: would our characters know that it wouldn’t keep its word? Different players came up with different answers… which really messed with group cohesion, characterization, and implementing a coherent response.
I mostly run long campaigns. One of the things I like about that is that I can introduce “new” or otherwise changed monsters (as discussed in the article) when the campaign starts. But I limit myself to relatively few creatures–unless a particular encounter demands something odd. Therefore, the monsters become defacto stock as the campaign progresses.
I don’t mind prep time, but I want some milage out of that prep. My players enjoy this, because they get the fun of the new and the increasing advantage as their characters learn about the world.
(I’m back from my trip now. :))
(Don) Were I to ever run D&D again (ha!) I would do the exact opposite as you, Martin: 100% stock monsters from the core books only.
Along with what Judas mentioned, I can definitely see the appeal of this. 🙂
(Frank) The stumbling around having no clue whatâ€™s going on was cool when I first started playing. I donâ€™t think thatâ€™s cool anymore.
I’m not sure it’d be as dramatic as that — after all, a seasoned player (one target audience for this idea) will be able to adapt to an unexpected monster pretty well.
Even though I haven’t responded to all of these comments individually, they were all enjoyable — and illuminating — to read. 🙂
I think Rudolf Kraus is right in that palette swapping can be interesting but needs some limits. The threat of many stock monsters with powerful abilities like turn to stone, death touch, blindness, paralysis, etc is mitigated by player knowledge. The litmus test here is whether the PCs can reverse (or escape) the monster’s ability during the encounter. Getting knocked out of the game without knowing you were doing something heroic/stupid is no fun. Monsters that walk through walls, resist lightning, spit sticky goo or whatever are all fair game.
(Joe) The threat of many stock monsters with powerful abilities like turn to stone, death touch, blindness, paralysis, etc is mitigated by player knowledge.
True, but you can also tweak the encounter slightly to show the players a creature’s deadlier abilities before they get into combat — a garden of statues, etc. This has the added benefit of inspiring nervousness over a palette-swapped monster’s known abilities, as well. 😉
Were I ever to run a fantasy campaign, I’d avoid stock monsters. Not so much because the players know them and their abilities, but because using unique monsters will make the setting less “greyhawk”.
This is a cool blog! As a DM who has DMed a LOT of low level campaigns, I began to get bored with Orcs and Goblins. What I do is run a combination of stock monsters with new monsters that I make up.
I think it increases the excitement of final encounters for players to be fighting their way through stock henchies to find some unknown monster at the end. One does always have to be aware that players can be caught completely caught off guard and unaware by new abilities, so I usually just give new monsters one or two bizarre abilities at most.
I don’t have a lot of time, so this allows me to add some spice without spending too much time designing new monsters. I would wonder if people would want to post some of their odd monsters for stealing? I’ll do it when I get more time.
(Pocket) I would wonder if people would want to post some of their odd monsters for stealing? Iâ€™ll do it when I get more time.
If you mean posting full monster writeups, I think that would be a bit off the beaten track — but ideas, or summaries of what you changed? Fire away! 🙂
One thing that I’ve found that helps with non-stock monsters (and this works best with SRD located monsters, or some other place where you can cut & paste wholesale) is to throw it into your word processor, edit any changes into the document, then print it. That way, you’ve got all the relevant information on the customized monster right at hand.
Good tip, Jason — I hadn’t thought of that. 🙂