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Old Hat Monsters: The Encounter

Old Hat Monsters: The Encounter

TrollkittlenWe’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.

The Jack in the Box: A simple way to take an otherwise ho-hum encounter and spice it up is to add a trap or a haunt to the battlefield that the monster is aware of but the PCs may well not be. An example of this could be as simple as having a monster take a withdraw action to flee down a trapped hallway the monster is familiar with. In the heat of combat, caution also might be thrown to the wind, and the PCs could well lose the advantage when they take heedless actions, such as following their foes down this hallway. Another way to spice this encounter up: Consider using a monster that has a movement form the PCs do not, such as a spider racing across the ceiling of our previously mentioned trapped hallway.

Strange Bedfellows: Ecology sections on monsters are actually critical reads. You can come up with all sorts of interesting combinations that stem from ecological convenience. For example, trolls are always hungry. This is partly due to their size and the demands of their regenerative abilities. This hunger drives them to prey on other intelligent races. The vampire, on the other hand, simply needs blood, and troll blood is likely dangerous to it. Why not have the two form a partnership of sorts? Your PCs could investigate local disappearances and find troll tracks, thinking they have the encounter licked. Then, when they confront the troll after making themselves ready for its acid and fire vulnerabilities, the vampire partner summons a swarm or two and rushes to the aid of its troll ally, anticipating a feast ahead for them both.

The Face Routine: A personal favorite of mine uses your classic villain setup. The villain uses Diplomacy checks and good roleplaying to talk it out with the PCs, distracting them from things its minions are doing behind the scenes. As a DM, you can set Perception check DCs beforehand and allow the players to roll as the villain’s minions move into position to throw their big punch. Whether these minions flank all the PCs when revealed (thanks to some fancy footwork or magic), or otherwise gain an advantage in a fight, the key is to get the PCs to drop their guard for a moment—just long enough for the villain to achieve his or her goal.

Protect the Football: I lied—this setup is my favorite. Victory isn’t always about winning the fight. Sometimes it’s about stopping something really bad from happening, and the fight itself becomes a secondary objective. A villain with a hostage about to be sacrificed is the classic example. Getting that hostage clear of the threat is a major objective for the group, and your fighter might decide not to use tactics to evade attacks of opportunity in favor of rescuing the hostage. Another great setup involves the completion of a ritual. If the minions hold your PCs back long enough, the whole fight could change drastically when the main villains complete the ritual.

Updated: 5/1/13

15 thoughts on “Old Hat Monsters: The Encounter”

  1. I realize with fascination that in a recent adaptation of House of Cards to D&D4e I used all these tropes to engage the players in what was turning out to be an impossibly long dungeon.
    The ritual is the one I like most, and I would like to see several implementations of that.

  2. Clarification If I get 8 comments I’ll write an encounter for each as long as each response includes all of the mentioned info.

  3. I like the Protect the Football encounter style. A CR of about 3-5. Favorite monster would be a beholder, and a locale in/near a volcano.

  4. I like the Jack-In-The-Box concept and would love to see more of these, especially for typically “clever but not one-on-one dangerous” foes such as kobolds.

    -The Gneech

  5. I’d like to see Strange Bedfellows for approximately CR 6. Since you’ll need two or more types of monsters, a couple of my favorites are dragons and gnolls. Three interesting terrains are ice fields with crevasses covered by thin layers of ice, needle hedge (difficult terrain that grants cover but does damage if a creature moves through it, even if it’s forced movement), and necrotic ground (areas where undead are healed and healing magic is only half effective).

  6. I know for a fact these encounter spice ups work and work well, as I have seen them in action first hand done masterfully by their author, keep up the good work and spread the word. Old monsters and speed bump encounters will find a new place in the GM trick bags of the world yet. Also, for everyone out there, the face encounter works very well, as I said, I should know, the man does it to me often, and with impressive results.

  7. Since I have 8 comments and 4 takers (3 that followed instructions, 1 close enough) I’m crafting a series of encounters now should be up by tonight.

    I’m actually going to target tying them all together as a series of locations within John’s lost city ruins.

    -1st encounter will be goblin CR5 face encounter with a goblin alchemist who once assisted a mad scientist type that used the ruins as a place to conceal his twisted experiments. If run properly the encounter should present a tough but winnable fight the ends with the alchemist goblin fleeing.
    -2nd encounter leads into a massive trap that drops the party into a necrotic underground setting where a pair of mutated tatzleworms lair with an intellegent flesh “gnollum” Satisfying both The Gneech and Tim B.
    -Finally our heroes will catch up with our alchemist once more in front of a fissure that has opened up in part of the city where a strange ritual is taking place. While the goblin’s master a much more potent alchemist died, his tumor familiar did not, he had improved familiar granting him an eyewing/beholder like creature. On its own its not much of an encounter as our goblin is at least a little depleted by now and the familiar is well still just a familiar. But if they combine our 5th level alchemist gains 1/2 the difference between himself and his master becoming a 10th level alchemist! An array of strage (but not too strong) minion stand in the way.

    Whole series of encounters will be CR 5-6 range and might level your players to 6th (haven’t gotten past 1st for crunch yet: almost done!)

  8. If you click on my name you’ll get linked to my bitewing goblins. For your encounter they could well be the experiment of a civilized goblin alchemist named Chesiree I’ll stat out here. He engages the party in a street in your ruined city, playing like he is a stupid greedy hungry goblin looking to get guide work. He only needs to keep the discussion going for 3 rounds which is 36 seconds real time I usually double that for non combat.

    The bitewings are actually high up setting up for dive attacks. dropping nets on the party (entangled condition -2 to attacks no dex to AC) during the surprise round. At which point our Goblin alchemist will use a grease spell to get the party prone. The Bitewing Goblins are pretty high up which will grant a +3 circumstance bonus to their stealth +14 as long as the Chesiree keeps the PCs engaged in conversation give the Bitewings the result of an aid another +2 for a total of +19 stealth. Perception checks should be rolled once on meeting Chesiree, low results mean they just spot him, super high results they spot movement up high in the ruins, a knowledge nature check DC 15 tells the PC the movement was “wrong for a bird.” Roll Chesiree’s bluff if the party asks for a sense motive, only give them one perception check unless they ask for more during the conversation.

    Add a pair of shadow worgs into the combat once the fight has been going for 3 rounds one attacks the party the other serves as a mount for Chesiree, he will then gather more minions and kick off other attacks on the PCs as the explore the ruins. Basically Chesiree was a lab assistant disfigured in an explosion that killed his hermit master who took up residence in the city about 20 years ago. Chesiree finished teaching himself from the books and turned out to have a talent for mutagens in particular. He has also found a radioactive element he is using to make the changes he makes to his allies permanent.

    Chesiree CR 4
    Male Civilized Goblin alchemist level 5
    NE small humanoid goblin
    Init +5; Senses darkvision 60ft.; Perception +ZZ
    ===== Defense =====
    AC 19, touch 15, flat-footed 15; (armor +4, Dex +4, natural, size +1)
    hp 35 (5d8+12)
    Fort +6, Ref +8, Will +0
    ===== Offense =====
    Spd 30 ft.
    Melee shortspear +3 (1d6+ your favorite poison),
    Ranged bombs +8 (3d6 or treat as stinking cloud, or fog cloud)
    Special Attacks +2 Corrupting touch melee touch
    Alchemist Extracts prepared (CL 5th)
    1st bomber’s eye, Expeditious retreat, True strike x2 2nd Fire Sneeze, Vomit Swarm
    Prohibited Schools enchantment, illusion
    ===== Tactics =====
    Before Combat He’ll take a bombers eye infusion if he has the chance.
    During Combat Chesiree will lead with grease from his wand, then throw some damage bombs, holding his stinking cloud bomb for last. If combat looks like its going against him he will flee down an unstable street that supports the combined weight of no more than 3 medium creatures.
    Base Statistics If the creature has buffs and other effects active that modify its stats, the base stats should be quickly summarized here.
    ===== Statistics =====
    Str 8, Dex 18, Con 13, Int 14, Wis 8, Cha 16
    Base Atk +3; CMB +1; CMD +12
    Feats Brew Potion, Skill Focus: Bluff , Throw Anything, Weapon Finesse , Elditch Heritage: Infernal, *Alertness
    Skills Appraise +6, Bluff +15, craft: alchemy +10, Disable device +12, fly +8, heal +7, kn arcane and nature +6,Perception +5, sleight of hand +8, spellcraft +6, Stealth +17, Use Magic Device +11
    SQ Discoveries (tumor familiar viper, smoke bomb, stink bomb)
    Combat Gear potion of bulls strength, potion of invisibility, 3 vials of alchemist fire, 3 potions of cure light wounds, wand of Grease (17 charges); Other Gear +1 studded leather armor, potion bandoleer carrying various alchemical supplies, mule chords, Quick runner shirt, boots of spiderclimb

  9. I have really enjoyed you Old Hat Monsters articles and have liked all the things you have pulled together.

    I would love to see a Jack-in-th-Box monster for the higher CRs, especially in a ruin. Yeah, i saw the goblins above, but ruins make such interesting environments! anyhow, how about some sort of critter, perhaps a displacer beast combines with a haunt? Somewhere in the CR 9-10 range (which coincidentally the level of my players in my home campaign now) As for favorite classic monster, there are lots and lots. I mentioned the displacer beast. How about a manticore? Or perhaps some savage/mutated owlbears? (Owlbears are always good.)

  10. Note to self less criteria next time… Thanks for the kind words Bobby. Will add optional epic 9th level encounter to the mix. I will consider sinister partnerships with the monsters mentioned and I’ll toss in a haunt or something as well. So strange bedfellows with a jack in the box, we’ll call that a Kitchen sink encounter…

  11. Having escaped the party Chesiree leaves an obvious trail in his wake (survival DC12) to get the party into an alley way with a deep tunnel underneath. A series of columns supprt the street, which the goblin has clevery rigged with explosions draw a map 10 squares separate the two buildings, Chesite is at least 120 feet away when he sets off the trap the middle 8 squares all collapse immediately and in 2D8 rounds the two buildings will also collapse trapping the party in the tunnels.

    Its a difficult perception check to realize what the goblin is up to as he is fairly distant and he’s setting off a chain event so DC35. Reflex save DC20 for 1/2 damage as there is an underground river one can fall into to halve the damage (25 feet) its a slow moving river so only DC 12 to swim.

    Hand-wave that the PCs land on the proper side to walk up and out of the tunnel divide the tunnel with a River which means the party can only go single file or be separated and go in 2 single files. After about an hours walk for a medium creature they will find a stairway up and into a building.

    Unfortunately the building’s basement served a cult of (insert evil necromantic god of your setting) and the ground is unhallowed/ necrotic. Good aligned clerics will definitely feel uneasy and paladins will have the magic evil radar throw off lots of blips.

    Tatzlewyrms are here http://www.d20pfsrd.com/bestiary/monster-listings/dragons/tatzlwyrm
    Add advanced template to raise to CR4 add mutations (tail slap 1 pt, stinger 1pt, improved nat ac 1 point, poison evolution but instead of poison injects 2D6 acid making tail attack 3D6. This raises them to CR5 while there are 2 of them one has been blinded and relies on her partner speaking to her in draconic.

    The flesh “gnollem” is just a flesh golem made entirely with gnoll parts that has actually regained its intelligence. It also has a “Irritating laugh” talent that acts as a witches cackle. Odly it seems to be very protective of a certain area of the dungeon. After they slay everything they find a set of tazlewrym eggs, closer inspection yeilds that the gnollem was entirely comprised of femal parts, apparently a mother instict was still present.

  12. Thanks, Frank! Very cool stuff. I particularly like the “gnollums.” I’ll be using them in my campaign!

  13. Our heroes survived the initial onslaught of bitewing goblins, alchemy, and shadow worgs. They survived the trap and faced off against a gnollem and her mutated Tatzlewyms. But Chesiree has eluded them.

    Most groups will take a rest at this point. If you want to do random encounters there’s plenty of options with an alchemist using radiation as a catalyst the limit is your imagination. Here’s a few “quick and dirty ideas though”
    -Grab a Kali Troll its a CR 6 so he’s a good fight for the party solo
    -shadow worg + reskinned winter wolf convert frost damage to acid breath and make it look like a mangy dog. The dog’s acid damage gets rerolled as it persists like acid arrow.
    -Look at the RPG superstar round 3 monsters and grab the thoughtstealer ooze or a group of calibans they fit the theme well enough.

    For the final encounter with Chesiree he is trying a ritual that will swap his tumor familiar and absorb his former masters, the party arrives in the final minute of the lengthy ritual meaning you have 10 rounds to stop it. Chesiree is clever and has made and managed to use a few scrolls to summon enough help to keep from being interrupted. He’s at a radioactive fissure as well which causes a 25% arcane spell failure unless you have adapted to a radioactive environment (like Chesiree.)

    The environment is fine for magma elementals he summoned I medium (CR3) 4 small (CR2) which can earth glide and will try flanking tactics. Throw in some magma mephits, steam and ooze mephits and you have a nice little throw down to keep the party occupied while the football is out of reach.

    For the purpose of the tumor familiar its a flying bat creature with a oversized central eye. Replace the invisible at will with a constant blur effect and the poison attack with eye beam that does 3d6 non lethal + fort save DC 13 vs dazzled effect. Remove all other SLAs.

    If the ritual is completed Chesiree flees as he can engage the party once again after he has prepared enough extracts at this new higher level.

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