We’ve all been there. No matter what level your players’ current characters are at, your players have seen it all. Like a perpetual arms race, you can frantically try to find new monsters to throw at their CR or make up new ones, but the fact remains that the novelty of new monsters wears off. No matter how many monsters there are, your players will adapt, and they all eventually become old hat.
If you’re caught in this trap, remember that the classics are classics for a reason. The solution isn’t to abandon the iconic monsters that built a genre—it’s to bring some of the novelty back by changing things up a little and using these classic monsters in a new way.
Today, we will discuss some tricks a DM can use to breathe new life and challenge into our old favorites as well as introduce some new templates to revitalize them. Join me after the jump to discuss “civilizing” some of the monster races, plus explore the effects of doing so on both a monster’s ecology and statistics.
Monstrous races are often assumed to be in some way savage. This assumption tends to limit a monster’s motivations and tactics, and it generally makes them predictable and repetitive. A civilized monster, however, breaks a player’s expectations. Throw in some unexpected tactics, and suddenly that old hat monster becomes an encounter again.
The primitive monster assumption is often reflected on the stat sheet as much as under tactics. When a GM decides to give the rare monster class levels, the math tends to go against more monsters than it should. Encounters are more memorable when a monster is truly capable of challenging the PCs, this is impossible when your monster’s stat array is in the proverbial penalty box.
Goblins: +4 Dex,–2 Str, and –2 Cha = Net +0
Kobolds: +2 Dex,–4 Str, and –2 Con = Net –4
Orcs: +4 Str, -2 Int, –2 Wis, and –2 Cha = Net –2
Let’s take a look at how the statistics play out above in terms of ability scores. Generally, it looks like size Small means the creature takes a penalty to Strength, which is expressed in halflings and gnomes as well. It also appears that being uncivilized is likely to result in a Charisma penalty. I’d go a step further with kobolds and say that they are so weak that they are malnourished, which is why they could have a Constitution penalty. An overreliance on Strength might have trained orcs to use their Strength to solve their problems, thus neglecting Wisdom.
Now, let’s make them civilized, shall we? We’ll try for a target that is net +2 overall.
Goblins: +4 Dex,–2 Str = Net +2.
Goblins, when civilized, control their impulses enough to become socially tolerable.
Kobolds: +4 Dex,–4 Str,and +2 Int = Net +2.
Civilized kobolds are healthier and gain superb Dexterity when nourished properly. Kobolds seem to take to the education that accompanies becoming civilized extremely well and many remark they are fast learners.
Orcs: +4 Str,–2 Wis = Net +2.
Civilized orcs become less hostile, which improves their ability to handle social situations. An education helps them better understand the world around them, but they remain overly confident in their abilities and are swift to attack.
Now that we have addressed the ability score tweaks, let’s examine what creates conflict with our more civilized versions and what roles they might adapt to well. The goal, as always, is to create an exciting encounter, after all. Isn’t that why we GM in the first place?
Our civilized goblins had the subtlest change since they no longer have a Charisma penalty. With their size and Dexterity, goblins still make very fine rogues, and now they can apply social skills as well. They’d make great fighters with Weapon Finesse, but perhaps the more intriguing options are the ones more relevant to the change. A normal charismatic goblin with sorcerer levels and a high degree of disguise and magic could be posing as a civilized halfling by day and indulge in its repressed pyromaniac tendencies at night. Perhaps instead our social butterfly goblin is a bard that has been welcomed by a group of bandits. With a little well-placed magic and the buffs provided by song, the bandits are more dangerous then ever.
Our kobolds have practically an ideal statistics array for a magus utilizing a Dexterity build or a rogue/wizard working toward arcane trickster. Perhaps our kobold gets dismissed or insulted by the PCs and decides to stalk them until they approach a dungeon. The kobold then pulls ahead of them and starts adding more modern and nastier traps.
Our orc still seems well suited as a barbarian or fighter, but perhaps, more interestingly, it could be a potent cleric with a strong enough Wisdom and Charisma to perform that role well. Give that cleric Selective Channel and a group of barbarian orcs, and your player characters might find orcs exciting again.