Saturday, November 17, 2018

DMs, Remember, Monsters Don't Have To Be MONSTERS

Before we get started, I've got some exciting news! My new novel Crier's Knife is finally out! So if you'd like to sink your teeth into some old-fashioned sword and sorcery, go take a look. The first few chapters are free, so you can try before you buy.

Now then, where was I? Oh yes!

Being Monsters Doesn't Make You MONSTERS

Real talk here, dungeon masters. How many times have you had a character at your table whose sole response to any situation is mindless violence? You ask them to politely hand over their weapons when going into the bar, they do their best to kill the bouncer. The merchant gives them a price total on their order, they try to kill them and take the goods. Enemies surrender, they go down the line execution style. An NPC says hello, and they deck them full in the face.

"Good afternoon, Sir! How are-" I take my surprise action to attack!
I'm exaggerating here, but only just barely. There is nothing worse for storytelling and immersion than someone who is clearly here only to kill things, regardless of if it makes sense in that situation, is true to the character, or destroys immersion.

Consider that frustration, and ask if your players feel the same way about some of the monsters you put in your game.


There are some monsters that are always going to turn to the PCs and start attacking, no questions asked. Mindless undead who have been set a task, constructs with specific orders, and animals whose territory has been invaded (barring a party with a ranger or a druid who can talk said beast down) are never going to be more than an opportunity to cross swords or a chance to use serious stealth skills. That's what you put them there for!

But what about the rest of the time? When you have intelligent creatures on the board who should be using their heads instead of just reaching for their weapons because, hey, we're an hour and a half into the session and it should be time to fight something right about now don't-cha-think?

"What you all doin' in my woods?"
Give you an example of what I'm talking about.

During my group's play through of the adventure path Rise of The Runelords, there's a bit where you have to go into a cavern network and deal with a bunch of stone giants in pursuit of a ranger's corpse. Now, a majority of the encounters we had went like this:

- Party sees stone giants.
- Stone giants see party.
- Initiative is rolled.

However, there was one encounter that went differently. There were three giant hags, all gathered round a cauldron. A dangerous situation, to be sure, but one that was approached differently. Party members who spoke Giant announced us, and made the proper, respectful remarks. The hags, all deeply amused at the little adventurers, asked if we were there to kill the king. We told them no, we'd just come for the body of the ranger. They cackled at that, and told us that the ranger had been giving them quite a time... lot of trouble, for a dead man. Sadly, we'd likely have to slay their ruler to get to the ranger, and then we'd have to kill the thing he'd become. Ah well, the "king" wasn't worth much, and they would rather go back to their nice, warm swamp anyway.

And then, just like that, they teleported out. Information gained, combat avoided, and the only NPCs who felt like a genuine part of the world in that whole cavern system were gone.

I wonder what they're up to, these days...

Make Your Adversaries Real Characters, Too

It's true that, a lot of the time, the PCs and their adversaries are in direct conflict with one another. They're raiding an orc stronghold, and the guards have to keep them out. They're confronting a death-worshiping cult, and the cult sees no reason to listen to outsiders. Etc., etc.

But what about all those other situations? What about when there are pirates who don't want to lose any men, so they open negotiations for surrender? How about evil fey who, despite their desire to crack your heads and drink your blood, are still bound by specific (if unknowable) rules of courtesy? What about orc war bands who hail your party, and demand to know their business instead of just attacking them on sight? Or trolls who demand to know the party's destination in their swamp?

These are all potential situations where, sure, combat could still happen. And you might argue that a monster revealing themselves and engaging the party gives up a key advantage in that the PCs won't be ambushed if combat does happen. Fair points... but what are you giving up by assuming that every interaction is going to devolve into initiative? What effect does it have on your game when you don't bother figuring out the motivations of your bandit leaders, or the situations under which your dragons would not only not attack the PCs, but actively listen to the case they're making?

What does your story lose when you shut off the potential for NPCs like hags, gargoyles, redcaps, giants, ogres, gnolls, and all the other creatures to actually contribute more than another notch on the PCs' belts?

Or their swords, depending on how hard the bad guys' armor is.
It's true that you'll need to do a little extra tactical planning if you make your bad guys less into static obstacles and more into real characters, but you'll notice something when you do. Your players will begin to realize that these NPCs are just as real as their PCs. That they aren't just challenges to be slain, but that if they are treated differently they could add completely different elements to the story. If they know those orcs have names and motivations, then they might try to become their leader (or patron, if they'll turn mercenary), turning them into a helpful NPC war band. If they know the hill giants are capable of reason (even if they are thick as mud), then they might try to broker a lasting peace with the regional towns instead of just trying to kill everything 10 feet or taller that they meet.

And so on, and so forth.

There are still going to be situations where it's shoot first, ask questions later. Enraged manticores aren't all that interested in the motivations of PCs too close to their nests, and hordes of shambling undead can't be turned aside with anything short of shattered skulls. But you'll get a lot more mileage out of all those thinking, feeling NPCs if you present the opportunity for the party to interact with them in meaningful ways outside of rounds.

Just saying.

Also, if you're looking for a handy chart replete with antagonists that are still characters in their own right, then you might want to check out 100 Random Bandits To Meet. It's from Azukail Games, and authored by yours truly!

That's all for this Fluff installment. Hopefully it got the wheels turning for some of the DMs out there who would like to see their players do more than sling steel or spells when they see a creature. For more of my work check out my Vocal archive, or look at my Gamers page to just see my tabletop articles. You should also stop by Dungeon Keeper Radio, where I get together with other gamers to make fun videos for players and dungeon masters alike!

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1 comment:

  1. I pretty much try to go along with the suggestions you've put forth, but all too often I'm the one who forgets them and attacks the party without so much as a "Howdy do?".