Monsters Matter: Myths and Magnalities

Hello Dear Reader, and welcome back! I am Jim the GM and I’m here to kick some names and take some other names.

Today, I thought I’d give some quick tips to help make your monsters more interesting to your players. After all, monsters are a crucial part of the game and we, as GMs/DMs, need to ensure that the loathsome creatures we bring against the players don’t become stale, boring, or predictable. A boring monster is no longer a monster: it’s just a stat block and challenge rating.

A quick word before we move on. What I’m gonna be saying applies to any creature that would only belong in a fantasy game. “Monster” in this case will mean both creatures that are found in the Monster Manual, and any other creature that you have added to your world from whatever source that isn’t found in our world. Except dinosaurs. Of course.

Now, how do you make a monster interesting? Well, what makes a monster boring? A couple things at least; lackluster descriptions, overexposure to the players, player knowledge of the monster’s statistics, and of course, too many of them!

Let’s tackle the last one. “How can you have too many monsters?” you say, “It’s a fantasy game, right? There are of course all kinds of crazy creatures out there, too many to count! Every creature in the monster manual has a place in my world, and there are probably more out there that I won’t know about until I buy the Monster Manual 2!”

I call this the Published Setting mentality. In a published setting, like Forgotten Realms, Grayhawk, or Eberonn, the world is filled with everything. And I mean that almost literally. Dragons, frost giants, mimics, oni, modrons, liches, vampires, aarakocra, Titans, and drow all live side by side with humans, dwarves, orcs, hobgoblins, gnomes, and githyanki. Tieflings and dragonborn wander the earth, meeting both halflings and djinn.

The reason these published worlds do this is so that any DM can run pretty much any game in their world. The setting can’t be restricting in any way, or the DM will have less reason to buy their published adventures. Now this is fine as it goes. Having worlds with everything can be interesting. It works perfectly for more hack’n’slash style adventures, as well as more traditional dungeon crawl games.

The problem is that when the players come to expect a basilisk in every forest and a vampire in every crypt, you have lost the element of mystery, which is so crucial to a good D&D game. Monsters are a precious resource. Think about great fantasy, like The Lord of the Rings. There are lots of orcs, goblins, and trolls, but only nine Ringwraiths, one giant demon spider, and one Balrog. And there aren’t mimics, mindflayers, and modrons. My point is that Tolkien chose his monsters carefully. They serve a purpose in his world. They are not random encounters.

Be as selective when creating a world. Don’t fall victim to the Published Setting mentality. Add your creatures carefully. Remember: not every entry in the monster manual has to exist in your world. There might be no such thing as Aboleths, or Dopplegangars. Maybe there are no orcs or hobgoblins, or maybe there is no such thing as undead in your world.

Being selective in this way gives your campaign more focus, and brings an element of mystery to your world. If the players know that you have left out half the book, they will be constantly wondering which half. When they meet a creature, it suddenly becomes important. Why is this creature here? Why was it included? Where did it come from? Are there many more of them? These questions only really matter in a limited world.

This brings me to a second point: it’s okay for a monster to be the only one of its kind. Look back to our ancient myths and legends. You have the Minotaur and the Hydra. You have Medusa and Cerberus. You have individuals and unique monsters. They have unique origin stories and are defeated only by heroes.

This can do wonderful things for your campaign. First of all, if you have a race of hydras, then where’s the glory in slaying one? There are countless more. If there is only one, now there’s an adventure worth remembering. To be the adventurers that slew another monster isn’t that exciting. To be the heroes that slew the Hyda is what adventuring is all about!

Second, a unique monster becomes a threat. If it’s the only one of its kind, it must be powerful, or else it wouldn’t exist. Metagamers will think twice before brazenly challenging it, not knowing if you, as the DM, will have “tweaked” the stats. Finally, if it’s the only one of its kind, the heroes can hear legends and myths of the creature long before they face it, allowing it to become a great and memorable adversary when they finally do.

There is one last point to bring up: creating or modifying monsters. Nothing gets players more interested than presenting them with something they have never seen before, either in this campaign or in any campaign. By making your own monsters, or modifying existing ones so that they seem totally different, you can instantly grab your players attention and keep it for as long as that creature is in the world.

The world becomes less wonderful the more we know about it. Not absolutely, but in a certain way. Knowing limits the world, makes it circumscribed. The ancient Greeks lived in a world, they thought, inhabited by Cyclopses, dragons, Gorgons, and harpies. The forests were full of satyrs, centaurs, nymphs, and dryads. We live in a world with spider monkeys and kangaroos. Let your players live in that mystery world by inhabiting it with unique and wonderful creatures. At the same time, keep them unique and wonderful, otherwise your players will get used to them, and they will become commonplace.

Let me know if this makes sense to you! What are some ways you have of making monsters monstrous?

Until next time, happy gaming!

And Always Split the Party.

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One thought on “Monsters Matter: Myths and Magnalities

  1. Along that same vein, I would encourage DMs to not throw the same monsters at the party over and over or to at least change the mechanics. Nothing will bore a party more than a flat terrain against 4 stat blocks that run and swing a sword. It loses the immersion for my players.

    Liked by 2 people

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