Making Monsters Memorable

 Posted by on December 20, 2010  Filed as: World-Building  Add comments  Topic(s):
Dec 202010

Welcome Worldbuilder! I’m told that you want to make your monsters stand out from those of other crafters, that you want your fell creatures to still be known for what they are, yet also distinctive and refreshingly new. You also want them to be challenging and full of surprises for those who’ve studied them from other realms, yes? You have set a large task for yourself, but I can help you in this, listen carefully. I will take one monster and show you what to do, the rest lies in your hands.

Subject Matters

Before you can begin to reshape your monster, you need to have one. Pick a denizen of your world and I will show you what could be! The Hobgoblin? Hmmm… a complex one, that. Now, you must know who Hobgoblins are in order to envision what they can become.

  • What are they like?
  • What base inclinations colour their thoughts and behaviours?
  • What is their history, both in and out of the game?
  • What information and inspirations are available for them?

My studies tell of an intelligent race with a natural bent for strategic warfare, and a natural observance of hierarchy, yet not without their weaknesses too. They are born racists, universally believing themselves superior to all other races, even other Goblinoids. This imparts to them a lack of empathy towards other cultures and greatly affects how they treat prisoners and slaves. They respect power, gravitating towards those who prove themselves in battle and leadership. They are violent and not above cruelty. They are more dexterous and tougher than Humans, but no wiser, smarter or stronger than Man. They are gifted with the ability to see in the dark, and are naturally stealthy, better able to silence their movements when necessary. While technically capable of living into their sixties, they rarely do so due to their war-filled lifestyle. Not as prolific as their Goblin cousins, they do breed quickly and bear small litters of young who attain adulthood in little more than a decade. They make war on all other races and sometimes even fight among themselves, although their tribal leaders tend to stop interracial fighting whenever they can.

The Destination Sets The Journey

Now that you know who they are, you need a goal in mind for what you want to achieve with your monster. What role will they play?

  • Do you want them to be more dangerous in battle?
  • More cunning before battle is joined?
  • Do you want them to have a larger effect on the ecology of your world?
  • Do you want them to have a more involved role in your world’s societies?

Where do you want to take them? Decide this and you are half done. To illustrate my technique, I will select two contrasting goals so that you may learn more of the methods behind the results.

For my first goal, I will make them a dangerous horde, threatening to leap from the shadows of the civilized world and overwhelm the cultured races with chaos and death. For my second goal, I will shape them to be more long-term in their strategies. They still wish to rule supreme, but they need not burn the world in the process. I will call the first ones the Savage Hobgoblins and the second ones the Empire Hobgoblins. While it is possible to have both types in the same setting, it is not often done unless you are severely limiting the numbers of different monsters in your world, and wish to have multiple types of each that you do retain.

Pimping Your Ride Isn’t Everything

There are many things that can be done physically to a monster to surprise your players. Indeed, many books have been written on this very subject and doubtless many more will continue to be published in the future. While such methods are useful and have their place, they are not the only solution. Regardless of what changes you do or don’t make in their abilities, be mindful of two things:

  1. Maintain a consistent theme, and
  2. A few carefully chosen changes can be more impressive than a host of blatant ones.

The minute your players see a 12-foot tall, winged Hobgoblin with chitinous armoured skin and flames shooting from its eyes they’ll know you’ve upped the ante. They may be more challenged when fighting it, but they won’t be terribly surprised after the initial sighting – it’s too obvious and cheesy. That is the overcompensation tactic they are expecting. Instead, use subtlety, and sneak up on them with the changes you’ve made. Also, remember that physical changes are not the most dangerous ones in the long term. Altering how a monster thinks and acts is far more devious as it can not be immediately detected.

A Savage Mind, And A Will To Match

For our Savage Hobgoblins, we will make only slight stat changes, removing the racial +4 bonus to Move Silently and replacing it with the Toughness feat to represent their lack of focus on being sneaky and a greater focus on being tough Barbarians. Moving beyond the Monster Manual stats, we can consider how they may behave differently than a standard Hobgoblin.

First, lets make them act more savagely. They don’t care about what’s left after they destroy an enemy, so their battle tactics will be more destructive than would be expected. With no concern for prisoners or treasure, they won’t hesitate to do things like set fire to a village in the dead of night (burning all within), or cause a mud or rock slide to crush a town at the bottom of a hill. Only after softening up their foes, will they attack.

In actual combat, they will focus on maneuvers that quickly maim their opponents, allowing them to move on to the next opponent. A group of Savage Hobgoblins will deliberately sweep through an opposing force, delivering maiming attacks as they pass and then returning to attack again. This behaviour will be quite different from what most players will expect. Most times a monster will rush up to a PC and exchange blows until one side is dead – not so with these guts. Players hoping to get a bead on them for area of attack spells will be faced with moving targets.

Beyond distinguishing them through their battle methods, there are many other ways to make them stand out from the page. No matter how advanced or primitive a race is, they will have a culture with specific features both shaped by and serving to reinforce their actions. Perhaps these Hobgoblins live a very austere life with their only decorations being tattered remains from their victims – a scorched painting tied to a pole and placed outside a leather tent, body parts of their victims hung from tree limbs around their village, etc. Since they live to create as much destruction as possible, they won’t stay long in any one place. They won’t build permanent structures, preferring tents that can be taken with them as they migrate across the land. They will worship the most destructive forces of nature, such as lightning, tornadoes ,or fire, seeking to emulate them as much as possible.

A Winning Strategy Forged in Blood

For the Empire Hobgoblins, we need make no stats-oriented changes, concentrating instead on their equipment, tactics and cultural mindset. These Hobgoblins have a long-term goal in mind. They wish nothing less than total domination of the world, subjugating all other races, bending them to their will. They are very calculating in their territorial expansions, only choosing to fight when the odds are most favourable. Leaving as little to chance as possible, they will employ overwhelming numbers of heavily armed & armored, well-trained troops fighting in strict formations, backed up with mobile siege engines.

Their empire is very well organized and designed for both maximum defense and ease of troop transport through their lands. In addition to being expert fighters and superb tacticians, they are also quite skilled at mining and road building. Lastly, the Empire Hobgoblins are very accomplished slave masters, utilizing the various races to their most effective uses. Dwarven slaves make their weaponry and serve as the empire’s civil engineers, designing the cities, highways and fortifications. Elven slaves make for the best mages and diplomats to as-of-yet unconquered lands, while Humans can fill out the ranks wherever more bodies are needed.

Even the other Goblinoids and Humanoids do not escape servitude. Goblins make excellent tunnellers and front line fodder, Bugbears and Orcs are well suited as the mainstay of their infantry, while Ogres, Trolls and Hill Giants are reserved as heavy-hitting shock troops. Despite the comparatively shorter lifespans of the Hobgoblins to races such as Elves, Dwarves, Goblins or even Humans, their rigorous adherence to a military hierarchy in all aspects of their society and their severity in dealing with any rebellion has served them well in maintaining a firm hand on their slaves.

Meanwhile, their precise, almost surgical strikes upon select locations at the borders of their ever-expanding empire are rarely met with resistance that is able to be sustained indefinitely. So singlemindedly obsessed is their entire culture upon the goal of one day ruling the world from the seat of a globe-spanning empire that they do not fret any setback or delay in their expansion, simply regrouping and planning a greater battle at a later time to ensure victory. Even if this victory comes several generations later, it is of no concern to the Hobgoblin warmongers as they are secure in their belief in their inherent birthright of being innately superior to all other races. They know that Hobgoblins are destined to be the masters of all, and thus do not care how long it takes to reach this inevitable and inescapable goal.

When the PC adventurers encounter Empire Hobgoblins who hold the above to be true, their interactions with them will be very different than if the GM’s Hobgoblins were nothing more than the stats copied from the book. Their attitudes, history and beliefs will colour everything they say and do in ways that will have the players remembering them for a long time to come!

Applying The Lessons Learned

These two samples of what a simple Hobgoblin can be expanded into (when refocused through the lens of a goal and the robes of a theme) are but the leading edge of the creative blade. Any combination of monster, motivation, goals, cultures, settings and circumstances can be used as the creative seeds for adding volumes of racial character to a generic stat block. With practice, a prospective Worldbuilder will reach the point where the biggest challenge will be reining in their leaps of creativity so as to allow other aspects of the setting to equally sparkle for the attention of the treasure and XP-seeking hearts of your players.

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Spiralbound began imagining worlds at a very early age. Once he discovered roleplaying, his fate was sealed. Now he had a pseudo-legitimate justification for all his worldbuilding and compulsive research into every topic imaginable! When not toiling away at his real world profession, he can usually be found toiling away at his obsession of imagined worlds! During particularly wild and indulgent delusions of grandeur, Spiralbound hopes to one day be published with RPG and novel credits to his name. Profile Page / Article Portfolio

  5 Responses to “Making Monsters Memorable”

  1. Welcome, Spiralbound! I love what you’ve done with the Hobgoblins – excellent demonstration of the difference between changing a few numbers around and giving the things a setting specific role and personality. Nice job!

  2. Wow, I just figured out what my next campaign is going to be about, and I’ll give you one guess as to who the antagonists will be.

    And more Classic Fantasy, please!

  3. Welcome, Spiralbound, and kudos on your premier article!!

  4. Thanks for the warm welcome, and I’m glad that people like the techniques I’ve shown. I’ve used these methods to customize many of the races of my various homebrew settings over the years and the players always seem to enjoy them. 🙂

  5. Nice stuff. I like it. Very good tips.

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