Avid role-playing gamers are known to learn about the monsters they expect to encounter, especially players who also are game masters (GMs). This has made for a steady market of expansions for new monsters. But, then the race is on once again as the players get a hold of the expansion and soon know about the new monsters. However, there are some tricks a GM can use to bring in *new monsters their players won’t know. Here are some ideas in creating monster encounters that will keep players guessing about what they are running into.
I am not the only GM who has prepared a new role-playing game (RPG) adventure and wonder what monster I can use as an encounter that my players won’t know. Since my gaming group has members who have been playing Dungeons and Dragons for over thirty years (and most of them over twenty), when we play they have a good understanding of the monsters in the standard works and many of the outlying supplements. Providing an encounter where they don’t immediately know what the monster is, and how to defeat it, can be a hard hurdle to get over. This isn’t just the long-standing classic games either – players like to be prepared, but GMs can prepare as well.
Dealing with this escalation of knowledge can be handled in different ways. One of the popular ways is to buy another book of monsters for your game system. These books provide a multitude of monsters to draw upon. For this to continue to work for surprising your party, you need to make sure others in your gaming group are not dipping into the pages. These additional books are great for games with complex creature building systems and for when you don’t want to spend the time building up a new encounter.
Many people like building new monsters. Building your own creations allows you to specialize the monster to the setting, adventure, and encounter you want to run. Another advantage of having the monster be your own creation is you control the information. Unless you give it out, no one at the table is going to know the monster they are encountering. The downfall for creating these monsters is the time involved in making them.
I have used another method of creating encounters which is quicker and easier, and I still surprise my players. I use existing monsters and provide variations to the look, stats, or another factor of the monster already presented. This has worked both with my home group and an open gaming table game that I GMed. Let me provide a couple of examples…
I was GMing a party of beginning characters with both new and experienced players. I wanted to make sure the new players would get the awe factor of the encounter without the experienced players voicing their knowledge about what was happening. The group entered a swamp and a number of creatures were swimming up the open channels and surrounding the small island the party was camped on. I described the creatures as overgrown frogs of 3–4 feet tall when they stood on the ground. The experienced players were making judgements of what the characters were seeing based on the players’ knowledge of the monsters. None of them were able to discern what they were really encountering. The new players were given the opportunity to play out the encounter without corrections about how they described it, or the actions they chose. In simplicity, I had changed the description of kobolds and gave them claws instead of spears.
I did a similar twist with another group of experienced players. They party was moving along a road through a forest and found a small outpost besieged by short, odd-shaped lizardmen. These were lizardmen straight from the Monster Manual with a twist on their description and fighting tactics. Because they didn’t fit into the knowledge some players already had about lizardmen, the players maintained a steady conversation about how to handle them. They started referring to them as prehistoric lizard folk, further back in the evolutionary line. (That worked well because I used that point further on in the adventure.)
This also works well for larger, bigger, and meaner monsters. In past adventures, I have used the statistics from a race of giants and (with only minor changes) presented them to the party without them knowing what to do. And, who says a dragon has to look like a giant lizard? Yes, it makes them look mean. But, Asian dragons have always been described differently. With a little bit of a change, a dragon can appear like a giant dog, a long coiled snake, a lion, or even a ferret. The concepts of demons and devils also open up great tweaks to existing statistics. The main block of statistics can be used with only a change in the description.
Even with my most experienced players, the changes in description and minor adjustments to abilities has kept them guessing at what they are dealing with. The other important item I have learned is, even when players are not meaning to, a certain level of meta-gaming occurs. To provide an encounter that limits the meta-gaming, don’t work straight from the books. Players who also GM know the books, if they see where you are referencing in the common book of knowledge, they will have ideas of what type of creature you are working with. This, in turn, will modify their play. Keep your monster notes on another piece of paper, notebook, or laptop away from view of the players. This will help keep the suspense higher, which (in turn) will modify how the players react.
Another easy way of hiding what the party is encountering is by hiding them in plain sight. Use the hidden traits of skill, feat, advantages, training, or whatever is available in your game and drop them on a monster. This can be done as easily as changing a movement from climbing to swimming.
I also reuse other resources. I have collected character sheets of player characters and non-player characters to use. When I need an easy encounter, I have the *enemies already worked up. A few fast adjustments and it’s ready to go. I did this awhile back with an encounter with orcs. The main part of the encounter was a fight with the orcs, but they used the stats and abilities of the past character party. I have also done this by recycling the stats of an encounter from modules others have written. There is a wealth of available encounters in adventures from the past.
Creating your own adventure is rewarding. When you’re running a campaign and have a regular weekly game, there is pressure to create new and exciting things for the rest of the group. It takes time to create the wonders when you have to do them from scratch. Luckily, there are years-worth of material you can use, adjusting it to meet your needs and desires. I have never had players complain about me using these tactics to create adventures. Many times they were pleasantly surprised when they found out what I had done. With this strategy of creating encounters, I know you can alleviate some of the fear and frustration of running a game, because it has worked for me.