Monster Features and Terrain Game Changers

CannonBy Ben Scerri

Monster Features: The Premise

Monsters in RPGs have had a long history of special abilities that add additional cool tidbits to encounters. For example, a dragon’s fiery breath and a rust monster’s corruption of metallic objects.

However, seldom do they have attributes that cause players to think outside the box or that kill them in a specific way (think Medusa from Greek Mythology here).

Consider the following two examples:

Without Monster Feature

The party fights a dragon with a breath weapon. To avoid it and kill the dragon, all the players need to do is hide whilst the dragon breathes, then strike whilst it recuperates for its next attack. Difficult, but not that exciting.

With Monster Feature

The very same dragon has draconic armour covering its entire body. There is no way the party can touch it. However, just before the dragon releases its breath weapon it must expose its neck and then it is time to strike. This introduces a level of risk. Should you attempt to cut its throat even though a few seconds later it will be erupting lava from its mouth?

If overdone, this could be seen as railroading or corny. But I guarantee if used now and then as something special, it will stick out in the minds of the players.

Monster Features: How Do I Make Them?

Take a normal monster, add a power, and then attach a weakness to this power that isn’t obvious.

Then, have the players fight the monster and make it clear something needs to be done to kill it.

For example:

  • The Rancor in Star Wars Episode VI had to be killed by dropping a spiked door on its head.
  • Medusa (as mentioned above) had to be killed by reflecting its gaze.
  • The Basilisk in Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets could only be faced once its eyes were destroyed.

Terrain Game Changers: The Premise

Terrain features introduce a game mechanic element to the combat environment. For example, loose or slippery floors, periodic explosions, varied elevations.

Terrain Game Changers are there to enforce a different style of play. If your players usually run into an area shooting their guns at everything that moves, perhaps add in some explosive barrels that will kill them as well if they go off. Or maybe a piece of technology or art they need. Or hostages.

Terrain Game Changers will get your players thinking on their feet and increase their awareness of alternate tactics.

Terrain Game Changers: How Do I Make Them?

Consider the standard moves of your players and insert something that prevents them from doing this.

For example, if your players usually shoot, add in something they can’t damage at range. If they usually go in swinging, prevent them from getting close enough to the enemy (or give the enemy something that would make getting in close too dangerous).

More examples:

  • The shields employed by the Gungans in Star Wars Episode I that prevented the Trade Federation Army from using their tanks.
  • The invention of the cannon that removed the purpose and usefulness of castles.
  • The Fire Nations’ use of catapults in the Avatar: The Last Airbender episode, “The Cave of Two Lovers,” which forced the Aang Gang to travel underground instead of in the air.
Matthew Brenner

I am totally in love with this type of creative encounter design. I try to do a lot with terrain and monster variations, but never anything so explicit as the door with the Rancor. Something like that would make for a great skill challenge in a combat scene, especially if the different tasks were spread across the battle field. “Cutting this chain will require an Athletics check. Someone will need to use Thievery to disengage the lock mechanism at the top of the cliff….”

Thanks for giving me several new ideas for my next adventure!


I love adding interesting terrain to encounters. Puzzle-style “traps”, hostages/turncoats, a powder keg or boiling lava or bubbling acid, weak supports and columns, or similar. Usually I try to add multiple to each encounter and sometimes do it on the fly with what would look cool without detracting- sadly, it can be overdone.

I like adding it to monsters as well, but I’ve found unless it’s a big bad the players aren’t going to take the time to find out the trick. They’ll often just slug away against it until it drops, even when I’m doing my best to give hints without telling them right out. A big bad that they get to know, are legitimately afraid to face, and spend some time around the tavern table discussing is more likely to benefit from a special weakness.


I think just about every encounter should have at least a minor feature or two, I like to break things up into categories

Common Features – So, goblins are ambushing the PCs as they walk through a forest, underbrush will offer concealment off the path, ropes attached to trees will allow goblins to swing down on the PCs, trees will offer cover for the goblin archers and the uneven ground will make a counter charge require a difficult roll – common features crop up all the time as cover, concealment, doors, cliffs, chandeliers to swing from, chairs to hit people with – make sure the monsters take advantage of them and watch the players do the same and there will be a new dimension to every battle as the environment gets involved

Obvious Features – PCs stumble into a room of fire, flames spurt from specific places and a pair of fire elementals appear out of the fire pits to attack the party, the PCs must dodge the spurts and battle the elementals, once the battle is over and the PCs have worked out the pattern of spurts a smart PC might lure the platoon of hobgoblins back to this room and use the fire against an opponent that is not immune to it. Obvious features should be important to a fight and easily assessed on the spot. Used somewhat sparingly these can give great flavour to set piece fights

Subtle Feature – The PCs come face to face with a Shenbit Bonecrusher in a cave on Barab I, the creature hunkers low to the ground and growls at them. A perceptive character with a bit of local knowledge might realise that the Bonecrusher is female and it’s young are in the back of the cave, if they back away the creature will not pursue but if they fight it will be all the more ferocious because of it. The subtle feature should reward the thinking characters by giving a significant advantage to those that know about it or do the research in advance but the encounter should be manageable if the feature is not discovered in time.

Key feature – Mostly for the big bads the key features are the weaknesses and intelligence that the PCs will gather and prepare for before a major confrontation, maybe the dragon is only vulnerable for a moment before it breathes fire so the characters invest in a couple of potions of speed to give them a better chance of exploiting this small window. Key features should be discovered in advance to allow a party to prepare a response. These are the features that might allow a small group of fighter pilots to destroy a giant planet killing space station.

Each fight should use different features and favour different tactics/characters, the bullrushing warrior can find great advantage in a sequence of platforms with long drops to push people off, the agile rogue will love the rooftop chase, the ranger will enjoy being a sniper, with cover, concealment and no direct route for the enemy to counter charge him

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