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Roleplaying Tips Weekly E-Zine Issue #326

7 More Monstrous Tips


Edited by: Leslie Holm

This Week's Tips Summarized 

7 More Monstrous Tips

  1. A Way To Make Low Level Monsters Scarier
  2. The Wise Old Vampire
  3. Unicorn As A Villain?
  4. Find Inspiration From Our World
  5. Craft Clay Critters
  6. Build Suspense For A Special Creature
  7. But I Read the Monster Manual

Readers' Tips Summarized 

  1. One GM's Campaign Design Method
    From: The Chicken Reborn
  2. Make NPCs As Real As You Can
    From: Ian Winterbottom
  3. Craft Encounters By Considering Four Choices
    From: Ian Grant
  4. World Building: Don't Paint Yourself In A Corner
    From: Ian Tyrrell
  5. Citizenship: Right or Reward?
    From: Jared Hunt
  6. The Seven Golden Rules Of Character Design
    From: Mike Bourke, Sydney, Australia
  7. Add Pre-Planned Events To Spice Up Monster Battles
    From: Mat Hart
  8. Don't Railroad Your Con Games
    From: Buzz

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A Brief Word From Johnn 

Reader Poll: Links or Inline Content?

Recently I polled you on your preference of HTML and plain text for e-zine format. Based on your responses, I'll be sticking with plain text (and still posting an HTML version at the web site). Thanks for the votes and comments.

Now I'd like to poll you on another topic. I'm thinking about shortening e-zine length by hosting some or all of the content at the web site and sending you links to it.

So, I'd like to know if you would prefer to receive articles and tips inline in each issue, or if you'd prefer to receive links to articles and tips.

What is your inline content vs. links preference?

  1. I prefer receiving the feature article and readers tips in the e-zine
  2. I would prefer just receiving links to feature articles and reader tips posted at the web site
  3. I would prefer the feature article in the e-zine, and links to readers tips posted at the web site
  4. I would prefer reader tips in the e-zine, and a link to the feature article posted at the web site

This poll represents a potential major change to the e-zine format. If you have any comments, thoughts, or opinions, feel free to send them to me:

To fill out this poll online instead, visit:

Thanks for your time!

Back in the Swing Of Things

We had a great gaming session Thursday, after a summer hiatus. I was surprised at the rust I accumulated after just a couple of months off. I found it trickier than usual providing impromptu descriptions, remembering certain rules, remembering campaign information, and such.

Next time I take a planned break from a campaign that will last more than a month, I'm going to create a summary document of the current campaign state, plus ensure my notes are up to date. When I sit down to prepare for the first session after a long break, I want a document from myself to myself that reads, "Here's all the stuff you have forgotten but need to remember," just like in those movies where the main character has amnesia each day and needs to write reminder notes.

Get some gaming done this week.


Johnn Four,

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7 More Monstrous Tips  

In July 2005, Roleplaying Tips Weekly ran a contest for monster related tips of all kinds. Subscribers responded with nearly 100 entries, and many prizes were handed out. Below are a handful of entries from the contest. May your critters live long and prosper!

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1. A Way To Make Low Level Monsters Scarier 

From: Sparrow

One of the scariest things for a player can be his own imagination. You can use this to increase player entertainment by relying on some automatic metagaming.

Many players know the Monster Manual or whichever monsters you use most. You can make a player believe they are fighting an impossible opponent by creating a monster with an ability that seems similar to a more difficult one.

For example, you might create a humanoid that has a taste for brains. It gets to food by shooting out a tongue with a hard, sharp barb on it that breaks a hole in the skull and allows it clear access to its meal (yuck). A group of PCs stumbling onto a bunch of corpses who've had their brains sucked out might just think they're actually headed toward something a little more dangerous, such as a mind flayer.

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2. The Wise Old Vampire 

From: Aki Halme

The vampire is a challenging opponent, yet often seems mundane. Players view vamps in the cliched terms of its monstrous abilities and behavior: it only comes out at night to menace society, so the heroes can move in during the day with stakes and garlic to try and get the job done by sunset. Failing that, things get difficult. Thus, a smart vampire (and old vampires have to be smart or they won't become old) would therefore try to make its lair hard to find and navigate.

Anyone entering the lair is welcome to do so, as long as they stay for supper. A trapped maze would serve this purpose admirably, and also provide cat and mouse style recreation to the vampire when guests enter. The vampire's ability to become gaseous at will allows it to bypass traps, and provides passage through cracks in stone, grills, and grates.

The maze could also be home to creatures that do not threaten the vampire's existence. They would offer an additional buffer of protection to the vampire.

Should the vampire wish a fight, or be forced into one, there is no reason not to give it the same benefits that its opponents enjoy. Neck guards protect against bites, heart plates do the same against stakes. Fast healing, a gaze attack, and a daily ability to summon reinforcements to distract the opposition give the undead every possible edge.

A vampire need not be a beast to hunt. Vampires tend to be long-lived and can create additional vampires easily enough. Vampirism as a part of a Chaotic Evil religion could make for a very challenging city adventure, especially as the priests of the religion who become undead retain their abilities, including their ability to rebuke undead, just as they did in life.

Against such a religion, even a high-level party would be hard-pressed, especially if they're facing a physical threat to their existence when the leaders of the religion can make all their followers living dead. Should that happen, the living members of the community would have eventful nights ahead of them.

Vampire Spawns can be a real danger to most opponents, having a permanent ability drain power combined with charm. Attacking the vampires politically could be hard as well, due to the vampire's mental domination, infiltration abilities, and the charm of the spawns. Leaving a town to be saved in ashes with few remaining survivors is hardly what most employers would call a solution.

A vampire can be very old indeed, which allows for knowledge most have forgotten, especially if the vampire was a bard in life. The bardic mind-controlling music abilities work well with the vampire's abilities, and the search for lost lore matches the immortality given by a vampire's bite. As bards have a hard time turning themselves into liches from having fairly limited magical abilities, the less expensive way could be tempting to an aging song slinger. Such a combination does not necessarily mean the vampire would be something the player characters fight. It could be a mentor, patron, or someone to consult...possibly for a price partially paid in blood.

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3. Unicorn As A Villain? 

From: Aki Halme

Unicorns are protectors of woodlands with some immunities and weaponry, but not nearly enough to be a problem to a determined and unscrupulous hunter. They also literally have a price (prize) on their head. Unicorn hunting can be introduced into practically any story to make a moral point. However, if player characters are of shady intentions, there is no reason why the equines could not be a lot more than meets the eye.

Being as smart as the average human and superior in all other respects (with the exception of lacking opposable thumbs) there is no reason why a unicorn could not acquire levels as Ranger, Barbarian, or in a class of their own.

As written in my source books, a unicorn is a fairy tale creature that requires a romantic high-fantasy setting of maidens and pixies. Being a magical beast, it is an exception to any rule, and is certainly exotic enough to need its background thought through.

Even then, it might be badly suited to tales with foul thieves and murderous orcs where reality gives way to a good story, but plausibility is retained, and the nitty gritty details of magical engineering of how the world "really" works are built into the campaign itself.

In such a world, a unicorn could turn from a noble magical beast to a victim. If this is not desired, it might need additional touches.

A unicorn could be a hero type, an example of an alternative set of values, or more interesting, it could be a villain. While officially good from the tip of the horn to the points of the hooves, a unicorn is not one to bow down to the laws of distant kings even though its forest has been drawn on the kingdom maps. This could prove problematic when aristocracy hunting for sport is found skewered, lumberjacks are chased away or trampled, and passage through the woods is allowed or denied at the neigh-so of an authority other than the king. A unicorn could easily be the hero of a Robin Hood kind of a tale, a legendary creature forming a legend of its own. The merry men could then prove to be sylvan in nature.

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4. Find Inspiration From Our World 

From: Isaac Calon

Watch and listen to nature shows, read legends and myths, and peruse books about animals to find inspiration for new critters. The advantage to using an existing animal, myth, or legend as your inspiration is two fold: it saves you time, and you are able to draw on existing information that can lend credibility and interesting details to any encounter you devise.

Real-life vermin, like the assassin bug or the fire ant, make for implacable and highly-evolved PC killers. Arthropods encompass some of the most bizarre and amazing behavior in the animal world, which makes them excellent grist for your creative mill.

I recommend the Blue Planet series of nature videos for inspiration, as well as CBC Radio's Quirks and Quarks program, but there are many other fantastic sources waiting to be tapped.

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5. Craft Clay Critters 

From: lytdana

The best way to create new monsters is to have a craft session. Bring along different types of clay (or failing that, Play-Doh), pipe cleaners, google-eyes, and anything that you have lying around, including fake fur, twigs, and so on. Your imagination's the limit.

Then, hold a contest with your gaming group. Offer a special stat, or prize for the best monster created.

The crux? Each player has to design a monster from clay and the rest of the supplies, and write up a mini-bio on it, its relevant levels, and other stats. Offer a prize for the best written monster, and a prize for the best looking monster if you're feeling generous.

Now the fun begins. Take the monsters and their notes away, and later in that campaign you've got a whole slew of new monsters for the heroes to face!

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6. Build Suspense For A Special Creature 

From: Andrew McLaren

If you plan to use a special creature as an opponent in a game, don't just spring it on the PCs. Build suspense and wonder first. Let the characters come across evidence of the creature, let them speculate over what it is, and give them a few hints. When the monster is finally revealed, the players will already have a little history with it, and will remember the battle more.

For example:

  1. "You find the bones and carcasses of different animals lying on the rocks. It looks like some of these animals were dropped from a great height. Whatever did this was big enough to pick up a horse, take it high, and then drop it."
  2. Later: "You see that the orcs have built large ballistas to defend their camp. The ballistas are all aimed upwards."
  3. Still later: "You come across an orc commander proudly wearing a large golden feather as his mark of rank."
  4. "You're attacked by a giant eagle!"

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7. But I Read the Monster Manual! 

From: Leslie Holm

My players have read the monster manuals - all versions and all expansions - at least as many times as I've read Lord of The Rings. And they know them better! So when I say, "You see something that looks like a giant brain with a vicious beak and 10 dangling tentacles," I hear, "Eisel, would my character know that's a Grell?" Even if I say no, that player still has the knowledge, and consciously or subconsciously, uses it to battle the creature.

My world now has an ancient tower that once housed a brilliant wizard whose main hobby was creating and altering creatures. There was a horrible battle hundreds of years ago, and he was defeated and cursed into an undead creature, unable to leave the room he's in. All of the creatures he was working on were trapped at this time. Now the traps are failing, and the creatures are being revived. That Grell the players ran into just happens to be a sentient being now, whose only aim in life is to have its tentacles scratched. On the other hand, the house cat wandering around purring has poisonous needles embedded under its fur and would be almost fatal to anyone petting it.

For this portion of the adventure, at least, no player knows what to expect from any creature. It's my hope that even when they leave the tower, they will bring some of their lack of surety with them.

* * *

Previous Roleplaying Tips monster contest entries:

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Readers' Tips Of The Week: 

1. One GM's Campaign Design Method 

From: The Chicken Reborn, via the GMMastery List

The first question to consider with a new campaign is, what is your group like? For example, my group is full of method actors. They think about what their characters would do and how it would be fun for themselves. They rarely create connections for their characters. They don't put too much thought into advancing the plot. (It makes them sound kinda selfish but they're really good gamers.) They are generally great at creating spectacular character backgrounds with good NPCs and lots of niches into which I can fit my own plots.

So, what I do when I start a campaign is this:

  1. I design the general flow of the campaign. Then I zoom in on the first part (act, episode, book, chapter, season, whatever you call it).
  2. I create lots of connections between the plot and the characters (through NPCs, past events, and so on).
  3. I define lots of ways to link the characters and keep them bonded (after several failures in this department, I have become paranoid about keeping the characters together).

After these steps, I have a nice web connecting the plot to the characters and the characters to each other (in theory).

  1. We game.
  2. Use every element of your world you can to create a fun plot.

I like to start things out slow. I announce the campaign after doing considerable work on the world and a few plot ideas. The players start work on their characters immediately. The next session isn't really a session at all; it's just a time to get info and maybe some preliminary RPing. Then I ease them into the world. I like to gauge what their characters are really like, what the players really want to do with them, and how they are going to play. Then I start weaving. It's taken me three full sessions to get them rolling with the plot.

So, what I am trying to say in far too many words is: gauge your players and their characters, and then work with how they work.

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2. Make NPCs As Real As You Can 

From: Ian Winterbottom

Detail. Not pointless bits about colour, shape, sound, or whatever - though that is wonderful for describing the actual scene, so your PCs can actually imagine it. What you need is reaction and interaction. And the best way to find that is to make the people - the population - as real and as detailed as you can. The more detailed the character the more ways he has to spark off the others. There's only one of you and a lot of them, so best consider how to put on another head!

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3. Craft Encounters By Considering Four Choices 

From: Ian Grant

I just finished an article on choices in RPGs and a thought occurred to me: aren't all scenarios one of four choices?

  1. Fight
  2. Flight
  3. Negotiate
  4. Avoid

It seems to me you could build encounters with these four elements in mind. For example, encounter #1 could be: fight best option, negotiate second best option, avoid third, and whatever else the players do, flight is the worst option.

You could mislead players by initially presenting a description that favors one option and then switch to another as the encounter develops. Some options might be excluded, or so restricted by required high rolls as to be virtually excluded. Sense motive or tactician skills could be used to help players decide what option seems to lead to the best solution. A GM need think about only 4 solutions to each scenario and never be caught off-guard by planning for these four options as well as the consequences of failure.

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4. World Building: Don't Paint Yourself In A Corner 

From: Ian Tyrrell

A simple tip on planning your world: don't set everything (anything) in concrete until the players actually experienced it.

For example, by not giving them the history of the world in minute detail you can change anything at any point and they will never be the wiser. Plus, it means if you suddenly get a fantastic brainwave and think up a wonderful backstory to something, it will fit in fairly easily.

Having said that, creating some major reference points at the start is good because it will allow you to build upon a framework and embellish it. Throw in some details with no backstory and let the players figure out how it got to be like that, and then just tweak what they have said into "history."

For example, a giant obelisk coated with gold leaf and inscribed with unintelligible hieroglyphics is located in the center of a ruined city. The players may discuss this and guess the city was built around it and then was destroyed. You can then take this idea and let them know later on the obelisk itself destroyed the city after its inhabitants created something way too powerful.

Players will never know that the world and its details are being 'created' by them, but think they are discovering it for themselves.

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5. Citizenship: Right or Reward? 

From: Jared Hunt

In modern society, citizenship is generally something you are born with. Steps can also be taken to acquire citizenship in other countries with varying effects depending on your country of origin. Though it differs in detail from country to country, this is essentially the way most people perceive citizenship in the modern world.

A different method for achieving citizenship is presented in the book "Starship Troopers" (it is not dealt with in detail in the criminally bad movie of the same name). In that society, citizenship is granted only after serving a term in the military. In essence, only those willing to risk their lives to protect their country are granted the privilege of being called citizens. Citizenship grants the right to vote and to run for elected office.

Whether you agree or disagree with the premise, I think it would make for great campaign development material. All kinds of things could be related to citizenship:

  • Owning land
  • Running a business
  • Guild membership
  • Training and schooling options
  • Marriage
  • Carrying a weapon and/or wearing armor
  • Riding a horse (or other mount)
  • Housing (location, quality)

Also, consider other ways of being granted citizenship aside from military service:

  • Valorous deeds. Perhaps citizenship is akin to medieval knighthood.
  • Money. Citizenship costs money. Ancient Roman citizenship was so valued that foreigners paid outrageous amounts of money for it.
  • Genealogy. Only by proving you descend from a certain family can you be considered a citizen. (This could make scribes influential people.)
  • Magic. In a magocracy or other mage-centric society there may be certain magical performance standards that must be met to achieve citizenship.

Consider these questions for your campaign:

  • How do people view citizens compared to regular people?
  • Is there a badge or other display of citizenship?
  • Can it be faked?
  • If executive power (i.e. voting) is a right shared only by people with similar experiences, how will that affect the rest of society?

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6. The Seven Golden Rules Of Character Design 

From: Mike Bourke, Sydney, Australia

When you're generating a character background, it can be hard to tell when you've gone far enough. The two extremes of nothing but raw statistics vs. every last fact specified in full are equally unsatisfactory. There has to be a way of knowing when you've built enough detail into the character background. The best answers I've found are the Seven Golden Rules of Character Design.

Character Design Is Complete When:

  1. The character has become an individual, not a cutout.
  2. All the key events required to develop newborn child 'A' into character concept 'B' are incorporated without conflicting with the campaign background.
  3. No grey areas remain in the personality, signified by the use (implied or overt) of terms like sometimes, occasionally, usually. Also, there are no contradictions with other parts of the background.
  4. All aspects of the personality are justified by triggering and/or causal events, and no decision or action subsequent to an event contradicts any personality aspects without being justified by a stronger personality trait.
  5. All the character's past decisions and actions are justified by the then operative personality traits without contradiction.
  6. The key elements of the character's personality are recognizable themes within the character's background or are rendered dominant personality traits by recent experiences.
  7. There are a number of hooks for involving the character with adventures (at least one per life period) but no life period excludes the addition of more hooks.

When writing up your character's background, use these tests to map out what's essential.

One final tip: a lot of people generate the character and then try and fit a background to it. This is putting the cart before the horse, in my opinion. Character creation is carried out in stages. You start by coming up with a strong concept. The character background details how the character became what the concept describes him as being. Only when the background is finished should you make _any_ choices for the character construction.

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7. Add Pre-Planned Events To Spice Up Monster Battles 

From: Mat Hart

Create canned events that make encounters unusual or more interesting than a toe-to-toe hack'n'slash. For example, the party is wandering through the back streets near the docks of a fishing port. All around them are fish warehouses with big burly fellows filleting and storing on ice all manner of fish and sea creatures. A group of press-gangers feel the party is a reasonable target for 'enlisting' as oarsmen and attack.

Canned events I'd have in my notes would include:

  1. A barrel of ice gets kicked over (forcing balance checks, or even better, tumble checks to leap on top of the barrel and continue fighting).
  2. Someone loses their weapon and picks up a large fish as an improvised weapon (make sure you have the damage for a large fish in your notes).
  3. A party member gets bull-rushed/shoved into a group of fishermen, thereby embroiling them in the melee
  4. A gantry falls down while the heroes fight on it.
  5. Someone rolls a fuel cannister, barrel, or container down the street at the party and shoots at it.

Use inspiration from films and TV shows for examples of these set pieces, and work out a way to get them in without it seeming too contrived. Your encounters are guaranteed to become more exciting and interesting as a result.

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8. Don't Railroad Your Con Games 

From: Buzz


In my opinion, railroading is just as unacceptable in convention games and one-shots as it is in ongoing campaigns. "But Buzz," you may ask, "how do I get the players moving through the adventure if I don't railroad them a bit?" The answer is easy:

The players are there to play your game. They may very well have paid money to play in your game. They want to play. You don't need to convince them. What you do need to do, however, is give them clear goals and motivations. Let's compare.

Bad: "You're all sitting in a tavern when a stranger comes up to you and..."

The problem above isn't simply the cliche. The problem is that you're starting the adventure at a point where the players can say "no," and not giving them a good reason to say "yes." If you railroad them into this, even if it's just to get the adventure started, you're making them feel, right off the bat, like their input doesn't matter.

Good: "You and your guildsmen stand together before the entrance to the Pit of Despair, holding in your hands the map to the Ring of MacGuffin. That same map that has cursed all of you to die and be reborn as ghouls unless you can find the Ring before sunrise."

What's going in the good example?

  1. Motivation. The cursed map not only drives the players to act, it also provides a built-in deadline that screams, "Act now."
  2. In media res. We're starting with a clear goal and motivation already built into the situation. This isn't railroading. This is skipping the boring stuff; boring stuff that allows troublesome players to say, "No, I'm not going on your adventure." To give another example, you don't start the event with Marcus asking Indy if he feels like going after an Incan idol; you start with Indy walking into the hidden shrine as tarantulas creep up his leg.
  3. Connections. The example PCs are all part of the same guild. Go even further than this. Tie the PCs to each other. You're crafting these characters for your event, so give them a reason to be together and reasons to be going on the adventure in the first place. Make them companions, cousins, brothers, sisters, subordinates, commanders, rivals.

The key point is, by building motivation into the situation and the characters, no railroading is necessary. You present the PCs and the setup, and say, "Go!" The players then drive all of the action. You have complete control over the design of your event. Exert that control before the players sit down at the game table, not afterwards. Don't craft a story; craft a situation. Then present it to your players and let them go nuts.

Trust me. There is no worse feeling than schlepping all the way to a con, having paid money or gone through an arduous registration process, to sit down at an event where the GM just tells you what your PC does for four hours. It doesn't need to be this way.

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