Veteran game masters might fall into the trap of viewing every monster in terms of its hit dice and combat capabilities. It’s too easy to just plug in a monster that matches the requisite challenge rating, call for initiative, and play on.
Resist that urge. Freshen up those monsters.
Every time your group rolls up new player characters or you start a new campaign, you have a chance to make those familiar entries in the Monster Manual new again – legendary even.
The key is in the set up. A little planning – and A LOT of foreshadowing –Â can pay off.
- Who rules the dark forest? A winged woman, part raptor, whose entrancing dirge will be your doom.
- In mountains at the top of the world are the howling giants, the abominable snow beasts who guard their territory without fear.
- What roams the forests when the moon is full? Otherwise good folk are transformed by ancient magic and old wounds into ravening, snarling, blood-thirsty beast-men. These are nights of terror.
Freshen up such monsters as the harpy, yeti, and werewolf by laying down a preamble of legend and myth before you allow the characters to ever encounter one.
1. Backgrounds: A character’s family has a tie to the legend, an ancestor who encountered (or became) a legendary creature. The outcome of that event is passed down in an oral tradition, parent to child, until the present day.
2. Rival or ally: This is the place for the big-game hunter to appear. The hunter’s tales are part of the build up. Even this experienced hunter knows the adversary is daunting. Drop a “van Helsing” archetype into your midst and watch the stakes rise.
3. Local folklore: Everybody knows things about the creature that has terrorized them for years. Here’s a chance to mix in a lot of misinformation, perhaps even make the foe seem more daunting. All sorts of evils are attributed to the creature, it’s up to the PCs to sort out the myths.
4. Remote: Put the encounter in a remote place. The harder to get to, the better. The more isolated the victims, the scarier the situation. (You can’t call for help.) The journey to reach the creature should be just as arduous as the creature is legendary.
5. Monster’s handiwork: Before ever encountering the creature, the PCs should see evidence of its handiwork, remains of victims or rampant destruction. “See, look at this! Now we know what we are up against! If anyone wants to back out now, this is probably the time.”
If you have any good foreshadowing tricks, we’d love to hear them. Write them in the comments below.
Troy, this is good stuff. I want to reread it later when I have some quiet time.
Also, all your tricks don’t require any tinkering with the stats. Though that is one good way. Sometimes a minor change can make a monster totally different.
Though one thing I would suggest is making the monster look a bit different. That way players can’t look them up in the monster books and try to call you on it. I’ve had it happen, should’ve made that roper look totally different.
Good suggestion for altering the monster’s appearance.
I, too, was afraid that you might call for changing a monster’s stats. My group and I are in the process of switching from 1e to 5e, and I wouldn’t feel comfortable taking a scalpel to a game I have never played before. I especially like the ideas of folklore and handiwork — I am definitely going to try to work those in for a series of connected “little bads” leading into my big bad. Thanks!
We try not to make our advice system specific, when possible. Sure, sometimes we talk about specific games, and I am generally known as a DND and Pathfinder player. But the gnomes are at our best when our tips will work with most game systems.
Good suggestions. I like to use Google Image search for unusual monster pictures to show my PCs, even when I’m just using a hill giant stat block. Showing a towering, eagle-headed humanoid or a skinless, muscular brute and giving it a different name always puts them on their toes in a way a regular hill giant wouldn’t.