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In classic fantasy, the following holds true almost universally: monsters are rare, monsters are either evil or instinctual (that is, operating on instincts humans cannot understand), and monsters are dangerous. Monsters do not think like humans. They have their own, alien kind of logic, or worse, no logic at all beyond the question of where their next meal is coming from. In short, monsters follow the kill or be killed (and possibly eaten) paradigm. Put simply - they should be scarce, but terrifying.
The reason for this is simple: monsters suffer from a severe case of Conservation of Ninjitsu. ONE monster is a terrifying and deadly threat; an army of them are cannon fodder. Extend this slightly, remember that familiarity breeds contempt, and the more monsters your PCs see, the more likely they are to see them as mere cannon fodder, regardless of their “phenomenal cosmic power.”
Familiarity Breeds Contempt
Monsters in classic fantasy should be rarer than monsters in other settings, depending on whether you’re leaning more toward Tolkien or Howard in your interpretation of the world. If not especially rarer, there should be fewer types with greater variation among them. See Tolkien’s army of orcs. In fact, let’s go ahead and count the number of ‘monsters’ in the Lord of the Rings. A few trolls and a dragon in The Hobbit; Hordes of Orcs and Uruk-Hai, and the Cave Trolls; a Balrog (which is basically a plot device, since only Gandalf is suited to fight it), the giant spiders, the Nazgul (Wyverns?), the Ring-Wraiths, Treents (albeit not evil, so these fall under NPCs), the ghosts from the mountain – okay, there are a few, but the point here is that while a given campaign might cover some ground, it will certainly not cover the entire Monster Manual.
More importantly, still speaking of LoTR, how many of these monsters do the PCs–I mean, Frodo and Company–even fight? They wind up running away from most of them, suggesting a more Sandbox-like feel to the game – players should be aware that not every encounter is going to be perfectly balanced to their level, and that running away is not only an option, but at times a very, very good idea.
Cherry-pick the monsters you’ll need for the world you’re creating, and spend the time necessary to polish them out to more than a stat block. If you have a horde, use them for what they’re meant to be - cannon fodder. Everything else, keep rare so that the PCs don’t get used to it. Remember the following formula: Perceived Threat = 1/F, where F is the frequency a given monster has been encountered in the current campaign or story.
In a more Conan-like setting, you might well be fighting humans for most of the game, with genuine ‘monsters’ being a truly rare event. Conveniently, this isn’t any more complicated mechanically in 4th Edition – just use anything from the monster manual that has tactics similar to those you want from your human NPCs, and refluff them accordingly. For that matter, there are entries for the human in the monster manual, so one way or another you should be able to find what you need.
The Devil in the Details
If there are fewer types of monsters, then varying their tactics and other details becomes more important. This is especially true for the rarer monsters (solos and elites), but even the more common monstrous races (if any) should receive some customization as well. Your horde of orcs, for instance, might include goblinoids to mix things up a little, perhaps even refluffed to blend into the larger horde in some way, and different groups might develop different tactics.
While there’s only so much you can do to describe the variation in individual members of a “horde,” solo monsters and elites should be individualized as much as is sensible. A good touch of melodrama never hurts, either.
Part of this should include monstrous description as well as detail – having read a White Wolf product or two I’d suggest that there are things to learn from the way they do things. Monsters should be scary, right? And I don’t mean the way White Wolf characters are; I mean the way that the monsters are scarier than the main characters. If you haven’t picked one up, read some of the flavor text sometime (I highly recommend the OWoD book Demon: The Fallen). Remember, the players can’t read your mind, and they can’t see anything that you don’t describe to them. You’re the DM - you have an infinite special effects budget, so use it.
If you feature something really big in a classic fantasy game, like say, a demon, or a proper dragon, or a devil, then that should be a huge event. Something that malevolent cannot / should not / must not be trivialized in a classic fantasy setting.
Show, don’t tell.
I don’t mean show them a picture; that’s too easy. I mean show them with your words, like you would in a book. You’re the storyteller, the dungeon master, the whatever-your-favorite-label-is, showing is a major part of your job.
This becomes even more important when your players have read the monster manual. Never, ever, ever – unless it’s blatantly obvious or absolutely necessary – refer to the monster by its name. Describe it instead, in as much detail as you can. Describe how the dragon’s wings blot out the sun as it rears backward, claws outstretched, white-hot flame sending ripples of heat through the surrounding air. Describe the slime that coats the many-eyed creature with the massive toothy grin. Give them legends, hints, and clues before you put them anywhere near anything that epic – if monsters are rare, then the existence of one should be a big thing worth writing about. Make it so!
A little bit makes a big difference. Examine the difference between these two scenarios:
DM: “You are attacked by a troll. Roll initiative.” Players: “Oh, gee, another troll. Cut it apart and burn the pieces.”
DM: “You find yourself confronted by a massive humanoid with pockmarked green skin, a wide, toothy grin revealing sharp and yellowed fangs. Acidic drool leaks from its mouth, the ground smoking where it falls, and it lurches toward you, its massive dirt-covered claws outstretched. The stench of swamp gas and mold assails your senses, and a hideous shriek issues forth from deep within the creature.” Players: “What the freak?!”
Now, obviously, this isn’t something you want to do over and over again for the same monster every time it shows up… so you don’t. This creature, whatever it happens to be, never shows up again. It gives the party a challenge, dies off, and the party probably doesn’t see another one. Unless of course it’s a named creature, then you might have to deal with its mother (See Beowulf for details. Actually, read the description of Grendel and his mother in just about any version of Beowulf – and please don’t settle for the Hollywood version. Read well, it’s an excellent piece of source material).
But this rolls into the previous point, monster rarity – you only have to describe a monster like this once, because the players probably won’t encounter another one ever again. Save your energy for describing a new creature, which will be much less ridiculous than trying to repeat the same flavor text and expecting your players to have forgotten. Unless your PCs are something like Vampire Hunters, you don’t really want them fighting the same thing often enough to learn tactics for fighting it.
There is one critical exception, and that is when the monster is something like the Ring-Wraiths – a recurring villain, or group of them. But in that case, by the second time the party meets the monster, they will have learned its name (hopefully several legends will exist and they’ll have done their research) and be able to recognize it on sight, which in this case is a good thing. Of course, its abilities may well have changed somewhat… or not. If you remember the Ring-Wraiths, the first time they were encountered was singularly bad for the heroes, and only Aragorn’s quick thinking and remembering that they were scared of fire saved the hobbits from a TPK.
Mechanical changes are far, far less important than sensory details. Sensory words, descriptors, adjectives – those are what make the game here. Mixing up your tactics a little doesn’t hurt, either - use the monster role templates to your advantage, if you need mechanical customization to back it up.
Threat = 1/N, where N = the number of monsters in a group. This is why armies of orcs are used as cannon fodder when a single orc champion can be strong.
Perceived Threat = 1/F, where F = the frequency that the given creature is encountered. The more often the PCs have seen a creature, the less frightening it will be to them.
Describe, show – don’t tell – and use vivid language to introduce a monster. Then make sure that it doesn’t show up often enough to become old hat, unless it’s part of an army. Tolkien gets away with a lot by setting his story in a war.