Mysterious Magic and Monsters

One of my players emailed me recently with a question about the description of a particular monster.  My response became so long winded I thought I should rework it into a post here (and that will still happen in the future).  However, as I did that I found myself addressing a question that deserves its own post: why am I letting my players read monster descriptions?

The easy answer is that it’s not like I could really stop them.  One thing I rather like about the format of OD&D and AD&D is the separation of such things into separate books.  With B/X’s all in one book format, the monsters and magic items are right there in the player’s faces.  AD&D’s separation into a player’s and a DM’s book is something I tried to replicate when I was printing my own books, but that turned out to be too much of a hassle to maintain.  Interesting side note: I’m completely fascinated by what AD&D 1st edition decided to withhold from the player’s book, such as attack matrices and turning charts.  I love the intention here, but it does make the PHB kind of a strange beast, as it really is kind of incomplete.  Of course one could argue that likewise a game with all players and no DM is equally incomplete, but I’m veering off topic now for a third time and really have to stop.

Even if you use a system that hides monster and magic item descriptions in another book, the fact is that this game is over 30 years old.  Some of your players will likely have encountered these monsters before, or even controlled them as DMs themselves.  They will have all the standard monsters memorized, and know simply from memory that green slimes and trolls require fire to destroy, or that lightning is a poor choice when facing a black pudding.

Is this even a problem?  Certainly it’s easy to explain in game that stories of the monsters that inhabit your land may have circulated in the lands of men.  Even a new first level fighter may have heard the tale of how that one armed man he met in the tavern saved his life by burning the slime that covered his arm.  I do believe Matt Finch’s second Zen moment “Player Skill, Not Character Abilities” applies here:

The player’s skill is the character’s guardian angel – call it the character’s  luck or intuition, or whatever makes sense to you, but don’t hold back on your skill as a player just because the character has a low intelligence. Role-playing is part of the game, but it’s not a suicide pact with your character.

However, I also believe that this is a game of exploration.  That doesn’t mean just mapping dungeons, that means exploring all the details of the world your character inhabits, which includes discovering strange monsters and mysterious magical items.  One of the most fun aspects of the game is trying to noodle out how to deal with a particularly nasty creature or whether the glowing sword you found will wreath itself in flames or try to take control of your mind.  How do we achieve this when every player can simply look up all the details of every item and monster in a book?

The most common answer seems to be simply to create new monsters and items.  Just look at how many exist in the modern versions of D&D.  That’s not to say this doesn’t exist in the old school either.  Heck, half of the printed material in Stone Hell seems to be new monsters and magic items.  Honestly, I think this is a fine tactic, as long as it isn’t taken into the land of the bizarre or self-referential.  Take a spin through Monster Manual 2 and Fiend Folio and you’ll find plenty of examples of both.

Personally, I’ve been finding that small tweaks to existing stuff works even better.  A little variance here and there keeps the players on their toes and is pretty easy to do on the fly.  For example, I’m personally not a fan of level drain, however I didn’t want to simply gimp every undead in my game by removing a power.  I printed out Dyson Logos’ table of unique undead powers, and whenever the party faces an undead that should have level drain, instead I roll on that table.  The beauty is that not only has it kept the power level of the undead in my game at an appropriate level, it’s introduced a wonderful amount of variety to those creatures.

It’s easy to do similar things with other strange monsters as well, introduce new immunities or weaknesses, add a different attack, etc.  At one convention I found myself wanting a 5 HD giant spider, but the MM only has 4 and 6 HD varieties.  I flipped a couple pages back and found a nice 5 HD scorpion.  I took that monster as the base, switched his stinging tail for an equally poisonous bite, and gave him the ability to walk on walls and ceilings and create webs as per the spell.  Bang, just like that, a seemingly custom monster made on the fly that’s really just another monster in disguise.

You can do this with items too.  The easiest thing to do is just look for stats that can be made variable, like the capacity of a bag of holding or the duration or number of uses of a ring of invisibility.  Limitations can be cool in the form of uses per day, strange activation methods, or target creatures (eg. a wand of magic missiles that does +2 damage vs. orcs).  Or just change the object type: instead of a ring of invisibility, how about a hat of invisibility?  A backpack of holding, gauntlets of paralyzation, a rocking horse of flying.  Doing so may bring up new questions: do those gauntlets paralyze the user, shoot bolts of paralyzation like a wand, or give you paralyzing attacks like a ghoul?  Do boots of ogre power only give you super strength when used to kick?

So go ahead players, read the source material all you want.  Sometimes it will pay off, to which I say good on you.  Just be prepared when the magic footwear you pull off that dead elf turn out to actually be boots of devouring.

4 thoughts on “Mysterious Magic and Monsters

  1. “Honestly, I think this is a fine tactic, as long as it isn’t taken into the land of the bizarre or self-referential.”

    I think that is so very true. Funny thing: Whenever I offer the game to brand-new players (a bit older now), they are usually apologetic, like “Oh, I couldn’t, you have to be an expert to play those complex games.” But if I get them into it, it’s really one of my favorite gaming experiences, because you get to use all the classic, myth-founded stuff (not self-referential BS) and see the excitement as they reason out for themselves how things work as they try to save their character’s life. That even just happened last night (new monsters in BOW), and it was pretty great.

  2. Varity is the spice of life, but I think knowing can be a good thing as it comes down to surprise and suspense. Alfred Hitchcock put it best with his bomb under the table example. Two people at table are having a nice talk and suddenly a bomb goes off, there is 15 seconds of surprise. If we knew there was a bomb under the table that was going to go off in 15 minutes, there would be 15 minutes of suspense.

    There are have been times in a game when I knew we were facing X and thought crap, when will it do Y or how will we deal it with it. I was on edge for more of that fight.

    For example when we fought a gray ooze for a second time. It was scarier and more instance even though we beat it more easily. Because I knew how bad it really was and what it could really do to us if things got out of hand. The first time I had no idea what it was until later in the fight so it wasn’t as scary at first.

  3. Several of my favorite moments from running in your campaign involved putting my player knowledge to work. The floating rat skeleton/gelatinous cube, the green slime fight with Yogund’s pants, the medusa at Koral Gesh. Just ‘cos you’ve read the stats doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s gonna be easy to take ’em on. The tactical stuff we did with the medusa or the cube was some pretty rich gaming, and we barely made it out of both with our skins.

    That said, I’m in full agreement about switching stuff up to keep that sense of wonder and WTF going.

  4. Definitely if you can use them the classics are most enjoyable. I’m also not implying here that every single monster needs to be tweaked to keep things fresh and interesting. I guess like all things related to good DMing, you’ve got to keep a good pulse on the flow and figure out when a little extra something is needed to add some excitement.

    Towards what Matt is getting it, I think a good dose of the original can be really great if you then follow it up with something just a little different:

    “Good job taking out those trolls with your fireball wizard. Now, any idea why that didn’t kill the big one with two heads? Crap, here he comes!”

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