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Troy’s Crock Pot: Why does the dog bark?

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.

13 Comments (Open | Close)

13 Comments To "Troy’s Crock Pot: Why does the dog bark?"

#1 Comment By froodbuffy On June 9, 2015 @ 8:01 am

I am now terrified of trolls.

#2 Comment By Trace On June 9, 2015 @ 9:08 am

As well you should be.

#3 Comment By Troy E. Taylor On June 9, 2015 @ 9:06 am

Aren’t we all? That’s the beauty …

#4 Comment By black campbell On June 9, 2015 @ 9:45 am

On topic, but outside the D&D realm: I always found the Reavers of the Firefly universe intriguing until the movie ruined it. Oh, look, space zombies… I always thought that a CULTURE of people that were so secretive, violent, yet capable of shrewd tactical operations — one that based off what was seen in the show recruited by finding people that could be molded into the Reaver image — was terrifying.

Instead of drug-addled space crazies, what if you have a culture of people that have taken body modification, anarchic tendencies, and counterculture ghettoization to a point where they simple don’t quite fit as “human” anymore? They prey on ships, but where do they get that flight data to intercept? Space is big; you’d miss your prey without intelligence. what if some of these folks look and act “normal” (til they ask you, Hannibal-like, to dinner) and work jobs that allow them to find prey, and to recruit the young, disaffected (like the legions of war vets), and power-mad that can’t achieve through the system set in place?

You could have an infinitely more dangerous, driven group that eats its prey (in this case civilization itself) from the inside and outside.

#5 Comment By Troy E. Taylor On June 9, 2015 @ 9:52 am

Interesting approach. On a smaller scale, that’s how intelligence agencies work to recruit new agents.

#6 Comment By black campbell On June 9, 2015 @ 4:17 pm

…and guess what field I was in before I turned to academia?

#7 Comment By Roxysteve On June 9, 2015 @ 11:55 am

Nice article. Gnolls have had such a varied life over the umpteen different iterations of D&D it’s easy to see why people always go for the lowest common denominator when using them. After all, hey are only in the box for low level characters to fight.

But the “cowardly” Gnolls, when en-masse, form a pretty formidable threat to even a higher level character, especially if they fight smart with nets and pitfalls, and will be braver thanks to “mob mentality”.

I imagine a largish group of Gnolls, played carefully, could capture a reasonably high level magic-user using swarm tactics, and have no-doubt whatsoever that non-magic tossing types would be easily swamped and brought low.

The model here would undoubtedly be Tuckers Kobolds of course.

Terry Pratchett had a great take on trolls, making them get smarter, faster and more agile the hotter they got. I forget in which book he did that, but it would be one of the later ones, possibly Thudd. It has been a while since I read the book in which the phenomenon was discussed.

I’ve been toying with an idea dredged out of Norse legend to make *all* wilderness monsters “trolls”, or all the ones that might be found living in caves or underground labyrinths anyway. The monsters would be as varied as they always are in a fantasy campaign, but they would be called trolls by everyone, leaving the characters to fear the unknown.

Townsperson: “There’s a troll down there!”
Adventurer 1: “What kind?”
Townsperson: “They come in kinds? I don’t know! The big and hungry kind!”
Adventurer 1: “Okay, calm yourself. We’ll go take a look. We laugh at trolls”
Adventurer 2: “We do? I don’t think we do.”
Adventurer 1″ “The last lot were four feet high and armed with improvised weapons. Don’t be such a wuss!”

Enter the Umber Hulk.

#8 Comment By PolakoVoador On June 9, 2015 @ 12:21 pm

Regarding Discworld’s trolls, it was the opposite. Since they have silicon based brains, the colder they are the faster they can think.

#9 Comment By Troy E. Taylor On June 9, 2015 @ 12:40 pm

I have a fondness for Pratchett trolls, who indeed get a good treatment in Thud (as well as in Monstrous Regiment). A game with that template for trolls — really closer to D&D style stone giants — would be interesting.

#10 Comment By Swanthony On June 9, 2015 @ 2:20 pm

Superb ideas. What would you say about dragons?

#11 Comment By Troy E. Taylor On June 9, 2015 @ 6:17 pm

Dragons? Maybe something for a follow up column. Any other suggestions?

#12 Comment By Blackjack On June 10, 2015 @ 1:09 am

Good article, Troy. I’ve been asking these questions about the monsters I write in to my games for years. I call it Monster Ecology. It’s all about how the monster fits into the ecosystem:

— What does this monster do on an ordinary day?
— How does this monster fulfill its basic needs of food, shelter, safety, etc?
— How does this monster interact with others of its own kind?
— How does this monster interact with other significant species in the area?
— What goals, needs, or characteristics drive the monster’s behavior?

When you start fleshing out the answers to these questions you can devise some really interesting, monster-driven stories. If you’re willing to deviate from the rulebooks at the same time you can really surprise your players. For example, what if goblins are mostly neutral and content to live in peaceful communities of subsistence farmers, but have sub-human intelligence and thus are easily swayed by smarter, more powerful creatures– including their malicious kin, the hobgoblins– to be pawns, slaves, or the occasional snack?

#13 Comment By Troy E. Taylor On June 10, 2015 @ 7:40 am

Five excellent questions to ask, especially if a certain monter fits into a particular theme or purpose for an adventure.

#14 Pingback By Friday Faves: 2015-06-12 | Ravenous Role Playing On June 12, 2015 @ 11:51 pm

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