Feral hunter-scavengers, gnolls are demon-twisted humanoid hybrids. With the head of a hyena set upon a tall though hunched humanoid body, gnolls are covered in thick fur that ranges in color from brown to yellow, and their fur is usually matted with the filth they bathe in. With dull black eyes, amber nails, and a curled bushy tail, some subtypes have black spots, and others, thick bristled manes. Male gnolls are a few feet taller than most humans, and females tend to be slightly larger still, though are otherwise similar in appearance. Gnolls wear a hodge-podge of chain and plates for armor—a virtual chart of past kills, with each bit holding fond memories of carnage. Gnolls feed on warm flesh and rotting carrion with equal satisfaction, and their hunting parties, bands, and tribes are encountered in both desert and tundra. Breeding prolifically, they have huge nurseries in their Underdark or fortified surface lairs, and, when food is plentiful, they collect slaves to serve various needs. Most gnolls embrace their demonic heritage, making the majority of gnoll societies tribal and violent. That said, some “civilized” gnolls live in urban areas, where they control their animal instincts and even tolerate other races.
We’ve civilized, mutated, and mashed our classic monsters into a fantasy paradox; they’re familiar yet new. On the horizon I have at least three more monster templates ahead that may well breathe new life into your old favorites, but I must confess that sometimes the best way to surprise your players isn’t to change the monster at all.
The encounter is easy to hand wave. All too often I see GMs simply place their player characters and monsters in the same room, figuring the encounter will sort itself out. It works well in dungeons; mostly the monsters are traumatized or enclosed, and the PCs are likely a food source or a threat, so an immediate fight is a foregone conclusion. As soon as the PCs enter the room, you tell the players to roll initiative and go from there. More advanced GMs will have the monster hidden and have the players make a Perception check against the monster’s stealth to see who is surprised the first round. It all boils down to seeing monster/villain and then fighting.
The advantage to this type of casual GMing is minimal prep work. For some groups, minimizing the roleplaying in favor of getting to the combats is preferred. Also, it’s not uncommon for encounters to be speed bumps to the “boss fight,” so why give those encounters much thought? In video games, this way of handling things is referred to as a grind, and it’s considered lazy design. If you want otherwise mundane encounters to become exciting again—to the point of being something memorable instead of a mere grind—join me after the jump. I’ll discuss some different setups that are both easy to run and a twisted challenge for your players.
Try to remember for a moment a more innocent time in your life. Back then, the thought of vampires and werewolves lurking in the dark might have sent a chill down your spine. These days, though, when people discuss shows such as The Walking Dead or Being Human, it’s not with the same sense of fear that they once had in the past. The classic horror monsters have become mundane. Zombies, werewolves, ghosts, and vampires lost that mystery of the unknown that made them scary and instead they have become tropes.
It happens at gaming tables, too. Eventually, many gamers are lucky enough to settle in with a long-term gaming group. Many of our favorite roleplaying games are rooted in strategy games, and those playing them begin to form strategic patterns as they play. These patterns often mean that careful planning by the GM is somewhat wasted, because not only do the players see your favorite moves coming, but they know each other as well and have transitioned into being a good team when confronted by the familiar and common threats they’ve faced in the past. This is fun for awhile, but if all they face are familiar threats, then you’re dealing with a form of stagnation that no longer challenges your players to think as much. As a result, your game will either change or everyone will get bored and find other things to do.
I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: The fantasy genre is at its best when you mix familiar with new. We’ve discussed civilizing and mutating our old hat monsters, and today we’re going to reverse the formula to keep your players guessing by adding classic templates to some monsters that might be less familiar.
You can find the templates I’ll be discussing here. Join me after the jump as we discuss making vampires, lycanthropes, and zombies scary again in “Old Hat Monsters: Mashed.”
Last time, we went over a quick system for mutating your monsters so that they can provide a more unknown challenge for your player characters to face. Let’s take a look at a few examples, starting with the humble goblin.
For starters, goblins are not CR 1. To get there, they need 2 player character class levels. The stats below reflect a 15-point buy, the goblin template located here, and 2 levels of rogue, which are highly favorable for our nasty little foes. Evolutions are as follows: 2 points for winged flight, 2 points for poison attack, 1 point for reach (total: 5 points). Replace the skilled racial trait with hard head, big teeth for a 1d4 primary bite attack. The reach attack is bite. Add the Fly-By Attack feat, and use Weapon Finesse for the 2nd-level rogue trick. So, how did our newly created bitewing goblin turn out? Take a peek at the statistics block.
A good GM is one part entertainer and one part engineer. And, like a magician, you are only as good as your last trick. Players are like a savvy audience at a magic show—you aren’t going to wow them with the standard magic act. All too often, it seems like they’ve seen behind the curtain. So, when you apply templates to a monster, doing so can be akin to using a little of the magician’s skill at misdirection: The player expects to see the same old monster, but when he or she gets something unexpected, suddenly it’s magic!
In terms of templates, the advanced template can be applied quickly, and it adds challenge to the encounter, but it can fall short of instilling a sense of wonder, awe, or fear that a monster can bring to the combat. The young template applied to a monster outside the player characters’ CR can make for an exciting encounter, but it takes a deft hand to work with it in a way that doesn’t guarantee a total party kill. Also, you can apply the giant-sized template to make your monster bigger and badder in a way that’s more exciting than the advanced template, but then you’re faced with making it work for the story and campaign flavor that resides in each monster’s entry.
A great contrast to the civilized template is to make your next monster more monstrous. Join me after the jump for a handy way to customize monsters with a balanced approach. I introduce mutated monsters, the next rabbit to pull out of your old magician’s hat.