We’ve all been there. Stalking down a corridor, weapons in hand, ready to do battle with the Forces of Evil. The corridor opens before us into a great chamber, stone pillars rising up to the vaulted ceiling above, the musty smell of ancient midden heaps assaulting your nostrils. Piles of filth have been discarded on either side of the room, twice the height of a man, leaving a narrow path through the center that leads to a pair of oak doors on the opposite side. You trudge cautiously through down the path, wary of danger, when, all of a sudden, the world explodes around you! You’re surrounded by jabbering, green skinned goblins, brandishing rusted swords!
Think about how you would react in real life. Surprise? Horror? Fierce determination?
The party coolly takes stock of the situation. Saving throws are cast to determine who is surprised. The fighter pulls out her trusty longsword, readying herself to attack the nearest one. The cleric whips out his holy symbol, summoning the blessing of his god. The rogue maneuvers to a flanking position, knowing that she can use her skills to move through the mounds. The wizard starts casting a sleep spell, which he knows is effective against low level bad guys.
So—where did the horror go? It evaporated in a mist of familiarity. Everyone in the party had an idea of what they were facing, and how to defeat it, even if their characters wouldn’t have. They knew all the basic stats—attacks, hit dice, strengths and weaknesses. Just as importantly, they knew how they squared up against their enemy, and had an idea of about how difficult the encounter would be. You know, the kind of stuff you’d WANT to know if you were about to get in a fight to the death. And exactly the kind of information that drains the suspense from an encounter.
Monsters Made Mundane
This is the problem with a stat-driven role-playing game. Your monsters are a collection of stats. They HAVE to be—that’s how we know if we’re winning. On a basic level, these stats determine how challenging a foe the characters are facing. But even the lowly goblin is more than just a set of numbers; it’s also a pretty face.
That begs the question, though: how monstrous do we really want goblins to be? Do they fit into your world as the dungeon equivalent to vermin, something to be exterminated by novice adventurers with no more thought than a sense of disgust? Or do you really want them to be mysterious, chilling, horrifying creatures that give heroes nightmares?
There’s nothing wrong with making some creatures in your world feel mundane, but that sense of the ordinary should be tied to familiarity with the characters. Every encounter should be fun, and present a challenge, but there’s no reason why every creature should inspire terror. More importantly, as characters progress in skill, encounters that once seemed overwhelming should be measured with greater degrees of confidence. When that happens—when the goblins that once inspired fear are greeted with a jaunty, “I got this”—just make sure that there’s something a little bigger, and a little badder, lurking just around the corner.
Mundane Made Monstrous
So, how do you do it? How do you take that old, familiar picture from the Critter Catalogue, and make it something new again? When experienced players start new characters or new campaigns, this can be especially problematic. How do you take veteran players and get them to suspend years of experience playing RPGs and get nervous about an encounter with a pack of goblins again? Make them monsters again. Throw a little something unexpected into the mix.
Creatures are essentially comprised of three elements. First, there is the description of the creature itself—how it looks, how it behaves, and how it interacts with the world. Second, there are the statistics that all creatures share—attack, damage, toughness, speed, and whatever else dictates the flow of battle in the system. Third, there are the special strengths and weaknesses of the monster type—immunities, special abilities, magic use, and a whole host of other potential foils for the players. These are the things with which the players have familiarized themselves. A few small tweaks can introduce an element of doubt, revitalizing the sense of wonder that the players feel.
The monster description is the easiest to tinker with. Goblins in your campaign could have beet-red skin, or could jabber incessently in an unknowable language, or could be six feet tall with long, lanky builds. You could make them tree-dwellers, or live in the swamps, or daytime raiders instead of attacking at night. You could have their gods require the sacrifice of human children, or give them a taste for livestock, or have them burrow into the cellars of human dwellings. None of these change the difficutly of an encounter, but these added elements give a sense of the unknown and reintroduce that dramatic tension.
Statistics are another good one. Your goblins attack with a short sword, for 1d6 damage? That’s fine. Mine have claw-claw-bite. When a player gets hit with that attack routine for the first time, warning bells are going to go off. Who cares that they do 1d2-1, 1d2-1, and 1d4-1? The players won’t know that! Give them a few more hit points and the players will be surprised when they don’t go down in one hit. When they run on all fours and have a faster movement speed, the characters will find themselves on the defensive so they don’t get flanked or surrounded. That ankylosaurus-like hide of theirs will make players wonder how effective their weapons will be. All of these are minor tweaks to statistics that refresh a stale encounter.
Special abilities can practically panic a party, making them feel like they have no idea what they’ve gotten themselves into. When the goblin invaders start conjuring balls of black fire into their hands and throwing them at the party, your players will react. They can have the same stats as a thrown dagger, ensuring that the encounter isn’t terribly unbalanced—but the juxtaposition of a lowly goblin with the realization that it may be summoning the fires of hell itself will do the job. Goblins that regenerate like trolls—refusing to stay dead without something like decapitation—can also be terrifying as the players struggle to figure out how to keep them down. Given all of the options in both rules books and your imagination, the possibilities are endless.
Location, Location, Location
Your campaign should be a realm with all sorts of places. As your campaign progresses, your characters may have the opportunity to travel to different regions. Each of these regions will have their own distinctive details, like setting, character races, the culture of its people, and the like. Why not use that to your advantage?
Everyone needs low level encounters. They help you build up the experience needed to face the truly horrifying things—beholders, mind flayers, the dreaded Demogorgon. But why should the goblins of the South March look like the goblins in the Sundered Hills? The goblins of the Plains of Arqaa ride war ponies. In the Hollow Wood, they are immune to charm and sleep spells. The goblins that inhabit the Daggertooth Mountains lick their swords with a venom that burns terribly, giving a -1 to all checks until it runs its course. Those from the Burning Swamp are seven feet tall, with mottled flesh, and they drop on unsuspecting victims from the webs that they spin in the trees above.
Sure, they’re all basically the same, low level creatures. None of them are terribly tough, and all of them look vaguely gobliny. But, for the players, they will be new encounters. As an added advantage, making them distinct can add a certain richness to a region, giving it another level of detail that makes your world a more well developed place.
Just as importantly, consider how civilized your world is. Then ask yourself how dangerous that civilized world should be. Most people aren’t adventurers. If there were ankheg in every farmer’s field, or giant spiders in the cellars of common merchants, or ROUSes roaming the sewers of your city, how would common folk survive? Imagine America with packs of rabid dogs that roam small towns, or leopards that stalk prey in Central Park. For most people, monsters represent an existential threat. Sure, people in Florida might find gators in their swimming pools—but everywhere else, anything big and dangerous enough to kill humans has to be contained or eliminated before humans will settle there.
Not so for the wilderness. Beyond the fringes of human settlement, terrible creatures await. Tigers stalk the jungles of India, and they are not above taking man as prey. Great anacondas slink through the treetops of the Amazon, ready to make a meal of the unsuspecting. And woe unto the unfortunate soul who tries to cross hippopotamus infested waters in Africa! Consider distributing monsters in your world in a similar fashion—making the truly dangerous creatures more prevalent as the characters get further into wild lands. The more players venture from the safety of the known, the easier it is to build a sense of the unknown.
Most importantly, encounters should be fun. You can keep the magic alive by mixing up the familiar with the unknown. Change a creature’s description and watch the players worry about what they’re facing. Have that goblin spit poison at the characters. Give it a banshee’s howl that makes it hard for players to communicate and cast spells. Give your goblins regional varieties that introduce new flavors to your campaign.
But if it’s fun to your players to clear a basement of garden variety goblin squatters—why not go with it? Your players will let you know what they think is fun. Most Antagonist Archives have plenty of different types of creatures in them already. If the players aren’t bored with them, feel free to stick with the source material. After all, why invest time in world building when you could invest it in story building?
In the end, it’s up to you to create a world that keeps players engaged. Regardless of what your creatures look like, your game has to be engaging and immersive. The dramatic tension of an encounter shouldn’t be undermined by a sense of bored familiarity. People play role-playing games to get into a magical, fantastical world, one where danger lurks around the corner, and any encounter can be a deadly one. It’s your job to foster that sense of mystery, of danger, of peril in your players’ minds. Players want to feel like children in the dark, imagining the monster under the bed, wondering what will befall them from the shadow of the tree in their window. When that starts to slip away, it’s time to reintroduce the monstrous to your encounters.
Even if it’s with the lowly goblin.