Know Your Monsters (Before They Know You!)

by mshrm

Poking around what’s new on the ol’ internet, I see this: It’s mostly about the expectations concerning level of detail in publish products and so forth, but there’s a bit in the middle that got me thinking.

“… For my purposes, I’ll be bold and take his statement the rest of the way:  because real-world monsters have survived as storytelling elements for thousands of years, players already know some things about them.  (30 years of D&D play might have something to do with it too)….
“I’ll generalize and say bloggers have a tendency to overvalue new and unique monsters – perhaps that’s a perception borne of selection bias since that’s what people post on their blogs.  For adventure gaming, those things have to be the exception, not the rule.  Otherwise you rob the players of too much agency, they lose an element of strategy and planning….”

In a way, this is why I’ve been converting classic D&D monsters. It’s certainly why I’ve been posting the results publicly, in a forum that my players can consult.

Let me give you some background. Now, keep in mind, this is just how I understand it, so I might get some details wrong; I haven’t done an actual survey or anything. But, here’s what I’ve gathered: In my group, I have at least one player who has absolutely no experience with any edition of D&D whatsoever. I’ve got at least two who have ran their own D&D games, under some edition or another. (I hear good things about this Pathfinder business.) I believe the earliest edition that any of them are familiar with is 2nd Edition.* I know I ran a fantasy game in HERO System, a long time back, for several of them, so we don’t have anybody who’s entirely new to the genre. Everybody has seen the Lord of the Rings movies, but I don’t know if I would bet on everybody having read the books – they’re aware of the genre but not a bunch of raving fantasy fanboys, is what I’m trying to say. Nobody speaks Elvish, but they all speak GURPS.

With this game, I’m looking to have the players create their own story. To do this, they have to take the reins. They have to make the decisions. They have to pick their targets. They can’t do that, if they don’t know what to expect from the monsters. The various Hidden Lore skills and so forth help out, here, but there’s really no substitute for the vague memories of having read the monster’s stats. 😉

Anyway, there’s a limit to how much info-dump can be tolerated at the table. I know my guys and the limits of their patience. (Remember, 60% took Impulsive!) The name of the game is “go into the dungeon, whack the monster, recover the treasure”, not “listen to a monologue on the ecology of the rust monster”. I like the results of in-game skill rolls to be more on the punchy side: “they’re vulnerable to marshmallows” or “they eat eyeballs”. The important stuff.

Back in my junior high days, everybody read the Monster Manual. We weren’t allowed to consult it at the table, necessarily, but everybody read the thing. And so, we knew what to do when we met a troll, we had an idea of how frightened to be of a dragon, and so forth. We had a shared vocabulary. I’m aiming to re-create that experience.

In game, I figure adventurers tell stories. Early on, there was passing mention of the idea of a school for adventurers, where they could learn the lore of the New World (in the form of Hidden Lore skills, of course) before coming over to make their fortunes. All the party members came over on the same boat. People talk. So, of course, they’re going to share stories of the nasty creatures they’ll all be facing.

I’m okay with the party having an idea of what they’re up against. This gives them an opportunity to reap rewards from good tactics. What’s the point of having the thief go ahead and scout, if all he sees is some unique creature with unknown habits and weaknesses? Much better if the thief can report back “three orcs” or “a couple of trolls” or “the tarrasque**, run!” and have everybody on the same page, able to plot and plan about how to deal with what’s before them.

But doesn’t that give them too much advantage? Absolutely not!

On the one hand, if I want to confuse and dismay them, I still can. Nothing says I can’t have the occasional one-off unique mutant. Much to the contrary; those mutants tend to be the bosses running their levels. Beyond that, there’s plenty of tricky magic, esoteric skills, and unusual complications to throw at ’em. I’m sure I can keep them on their toes without having every monster be a mystery. (I remember one time, as a player, early in my gaming career, being confronted with a gang of troll ninjas. Or possibly ninja trolls. Either way, it was a total rout until the magic-user pulled out a fireball. The old-school kind of fireball with lots of d6’s and a huge area of effect. Ah, the good ol’ days…)

On the other hand, just because they know what they need, doesn’t mean they’ve got it. Take the troll, the classic “monster with a key piece of information”. When the Delving Band With No Name encountered their trolls, they were lucky: they were carrying torches and hanging out with an elementalist who specialized in fire magic and rode a flaming samurai as a mount. Bad day for the trolls, even if the guys didn’t know the trolls’ problem with fire and acid. They might have gotten one good scare, but I bet “cremate the bodies entirely!” would come up, as a plan, shortly after the second time a troll got back up, if not before.

What if they ran into that same encounter today, knowing full well that they’ve got to burn the bodies? They might have difficulties, even with that knowledge. They’ve lost Tobey, the fire elementalist. Their new magic-using support is Mississippi Jed, a bard. While he’s remarkable adept at magic, for a bard, he’s still not any kind of slinger of fiery blasts. They aren’t even carrying lit torches, anymore, having switched to Continual Light. They’ve got the tools to light a fire, at least, but that’s hard enough in the woods with damp wood. Imagine how hard it is to ignite a wet, dead troll who keeps trying to get up, down in the damp dungeon, no firewood better than moist mushrooms, wandering monsters getting interested in the clacking of flint on steel…

This is where oil comes in handy. Not sure if they carry it.

Even if they know what they need, they might not have it. Silver for the werewolf. A cleric and wooden stakes for the vampire. Keg of oil for that dang troll! Skin full of wine for all the nasty gunk that you can only wash off with alcohol. Skin full of water for when the evil wizard lights you on fire. After a while, if nothing else, the encumbrance penalties start to rack up.

Really, I find the problem is coming up with ways to give information to the players. The more knowledge of the world they’ve got, they better prepared they are for taking it on, which makes watching them in action that much more fun for me. I’d get pretty bored watching PCs walk into a meat grinder through ignorance. It’s much more entertaining to see the trouble they get into after you give them plenty of rope…

* Yeah, I feel old. <shakes cane> In my day, if you were an elf, what was your class? ELF! And we liked it! Now get off my lawn!

** See, right there’s an example. If you know the source material, you know that the tarrasque is a one-of-a-kind, unkillable, walking natural disaster. If you don’t, what do you know?  “Huh. Guessing it’s French?”