This article is part of a series. Check out the Classic Fantasy homepage!
Part one is brought to you by Jonathan Baldwin.
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.
Part two is brought to you by Spiralbound.
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.
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:
- Maintain a consistent theme, and
- 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.