I own seventeen monster manuals, tombs, and guides across a variety of systems and editions that now clutter up my gaming shelf – the vast majority of which haven’t been opened in years. The monsters that fill these volumes range from the common flesh and blood variety, so gauche, to clockwork creations that move about automatically and deliver a sterile, clinical death.
I have demons, deamons, devils, extraterrestrial beings, reality shifting monstrosities, and even the odd elemental man. There are robotic dragons, electric men, ambulatory furniture, and sentient toasters. Tribes of goblins, gobbers, hobgoblins, bugbears, ogres, ogrun, and giants for every type of geological feature and weather pattern imaginable.
Of dragons there exists one for every type of gemstone, both valuable and common; as well as, a dragon for every color found in a box of crayons. The are good, evil, misunderstood, and selfish assholes.
There are more than two hundred monstrous creatures than I can let my players play instead of making them villains but all of them must be outsiders, loners, rebels, shunned by their tribes, raised by a people different from their own, the exception to the rule, with gruff exteriors and hearts of gold.
Without question I have the best villains money can buy, and yet many of these books haven’t been opened but a few times since I bought them. Why is that?
Since I began playing Dungeons & Dragons, and have since expanded out to other role-playing games, I have used a fraction of the monsters in the books I’ve bought. Often many of the monsters left behind are either so situational that I haven’t had an encounter where their appearance in the game they made sense or they’re part of an endless reimagining of a common creature.
Now, don’t get me wrong. I love to use orcs, goblins, and hobgoblins. I can’t wait to spring them on my players in unexpected ways and to have players who have struggled to reach epic level see a lone goblin down the hall only to hear them say, “Oh shit. It’s a goblin.” But when I look at a book of monsters and see yet another orc with some window dressing I get bored.
A few years ago I decided that one of the things I was going to be doing as a Game Master was to take the humdrum, common creatures that we all see in the early levels and make them the sort of thing that my players get nervous about challenging. To do this I decided to start making low level creatures attack my players tactically. A narrow ledge went from being a tedious piece of window dressing into a great place for a swinging log trap and a kobold ambush. Low ceiling enclosures found swarms of goblins hiding behind every shadowy outcropping, stalagmite, and pile of rocks.
I made the transition from my earlier style of Game Mastering (often characterized by an enemy that moved and acted predictably) slowly – something I still do when introducing new players to my style of Game Mastering – so that when I really took the gloves off they were ready for me to push them to their limits. I wanted my players to find the game challenging so that when they succeeded it felt like a meaningful accomplishment. To put it another way, if there is no chance for failure then there is no meaning in success.