Monsters have personalities. Dragons are haughty. Goblins are sneaky. Hobbits are tricksy (or so the Stoors of the River-folk claim), and so on.
I think in d20 fantasy games there is a tendency to view monsters only by their stats, by their combat capabilities. And by following those statistical qualities — playing to their strengths, as it were — the GM is defining them adequately for the task.
Even so, I think there are cues to be found in the flavorful descriptions in the Monster Manuals and Bestiaries of these games and in real-life resources, too, that lets you personalize them, and make them even more daunting. Find out what makes these creatures tick — find out why the dog barks, so to speak — and you can up your game.
Present the creatures as something more than spears or claws with limbs, and I think you’ll find players, as to their outlook, delighting or dreading in the next encounter.
We always have a tendency to paint gnolls as we have maligned their real-life brethren, the hyena, but all that about hyenas being cowardly scavengers is mostly myth, persistent though it be. I think gnolls behaving closer to hyena behavior — they converge upon, claim their victims and vigorously defend their kills — is far better. A pack of gnolls, singling out the adventurer perceived as weakest, then pouncing upon them and dragging them off, is for adventurers far more daunting a tactic. This one is better with foreshadowing, with the wise NPC ranger advising the party, “You know the thing about gnolls is …” Before long the wizard is quivering in his boots.
Werewolves and such
It’s always described as the “curse” of lycanthropy, the person tormented by the sure knowledge that they must give over to their beastly nature as the moon turns. (It’s the same with a Jekyll and Hyde-styled creature). Now, you can have the werewolves behave as completely ravenous beasts, relentless stalking (in human form) and then becoming killing machines (as a were). But once they’ve transformed, it’s also interesting to have them act with moments of indecisiveness, as if the human aspect of their personality is fighting to gain control. Does the creature inexplicably pause to consider its actions, providing “breathing space” and opportunities for the PCs? Does the lycanthrope, as the beast within surges to reclaim mastery, respond to these moments of indecision with bursts of savagery? And are they, once again in their human forms, identifiable by their visible torment and guilt?
We shall consider the rubbery regenerative type from D&D-lore (though both the rock monster types and the Scandinavian marauders are also interesting). They are driven by their ravenous appetite. Does this make them gluttons? Or are they desperately hungry, always on the verge of starvation? The latter is an interesting consideration. With their relatively low intelligence, I think that this would make them desperate creatures, and they would act impulsively and with abandon. But always grasping, always slavering. There is something zombie-like about this, though without the hindrance of the lurching shuffle. No, trolls should be explosively quick when need be, and because of their keen sense of smell, ardent pursuers.
Well, that’s my take on three traditional monsters. Do you have a favorite you’d like to expound on? Share in the comments section below.