Friday, February 19, 2016

Video (screencast): Devising RPG Monsters – Do's and Don’ts (2 parts)

Following is the text of the slides:
Devising RPG Monsters – Do's and Don’ts
Dr. Lewis Pulsipher
From the “Game Design” channel on YouTube

In the 70s and 80s I made up lots of monsters for White Dwarf and Dungeon magazines (as well as for my own campaign)
I designed several monsters for the original Fiend Folio
“The Princes of Elemental Evil” are particularly well-known (even have their own entry in Wikipedia (Archomental))
Some of this screencast will draw on a panel discussion I attended at GenCon15 including, among others, Wolfgang Baur and Jeff Grubb

NOT “Bosses”
I have never thought in terms of "boss monsters" in tabletop D&D, that's a video game mentality
I tend to use numerous monsters (with several different kinds) at a climax rather than one super monster "boss“
It varies, of course
But in tabletop RPGs, unlike video games, if you die you don't have a "save game" to go back to (well, barring a Wish)
Video game bosses are designed to kill you several times before you succeed
You can't play tabletop RPGs that way – even with the easy healing prevalent nowadays

No Save Game?!
So in video games, the purpose of the monster is often to kill the character(s) the first several times
Whereas in tabletop, the purpose is to scare the snot out of the players by threatening, but not killing, their characters
So a video game “boss” tends to be much tougher than the monster(s)-met-at-a-climax in tabletop RPGs

A Fundamental Difference
Video gamers would be disappointed if, almost every time they hit a climax, they won first time
They’d feel cheated
It’s a matter of expectations, as much as of game functionality
Of course, there are many ways that tabletop RPGs are unlike computer RPGs, because of that same lack of Save Games

The Major Element - Surprise
Some game designers say that the major objective in any game is to surprise the player(s)
So, perhaps the most effective way to design RPG monsters is to surprise the players
Many of my suggestions derive from surprise
Of course, surprise may work only once
Which is one reason why so many people keep making up new monsters!

So What do we Look at?
The Unknown
One unusual characteristic (kind of a loop)
Two Types of Monsters Cooperating
Characteristics from two types combined into one
“Worse things than killing you”
Really Smart Enemies
Time Pressure
Relentless Hordes

The Unknown
A major reason to make up new monsters is to surprise the players with the unknown
Yet the players will feel it’s more fair, and perhaps more true to real life, if they can divine some of the characteristics of unknown monsters
From past experience
From appearance (if it looks like a giant, it may be about as tough as a giant)

One Unusual Characteristic
This may work particularly well with well-known monsters that have a single, surprising, quirk
But a single characteristic can be the focus of unknown monsters, as well
Some refs won’t want to go to extremes, such as “flying orcs”
We don’t mind the flying monkeys of Wizard of Oz . . .

Unusual . . .
I made up a group of several kinds of lightning-spitting monsters (roughly analogous to military tanks!)
They were big and looked dangerous (and were) even without the lightning
The cat-like ones were fast, the slug-like ones were really hard to kill, and so on
But it was the lightning that set them apart – and scared the players

Part 2

Two Types of Monsters, Cooperating
There’s hardly anything original “under the sun”, but combinations of things can provide new experiences
We see this whenever a monster type normally employs a different monster type as guards
And powerful monsters may enslave entire groups of weaker monsters
Who can nonetheless provide good interference when heroes come after the masters

Characteristics from two types combined into one
Classic: the owlbear, chimera, gryphon, dragon turtles
Normally unintelligent monsters with human intelligence
Or normally intelligent monsters, that aren’t . . .
Some combinations may not be very believable
Though in this age of TV and movie silliness, not too many people care

Play on the expectations of the players:
Change appearance
Pretend to be another monster
Change the stats – but it’s easy to overdo this

“Worse things than killing you”
Monsters don’t have to kill, to be frightening:
Turn bones to rubber
Rust monster eats equipment
“Permanent” level drain
Capture (slavers are monsters too)
Theft (lots of monsters that nick your items, such as leprechauns)

Clues signaling danger
Even something as simple as noises
Helps foster fear of the unknown even as it may provide some information
One of the best things about foreshadowing, is that it can be used with any monster, well-known or not

Really Smart Enemies
Face it, classic movie enemies are often DUMB
This is why the Evil Overlord list of vows exists
Do read it if you haven’t:
Even relatively dim monsters can be cunning
(Muhammed Ali was often said to be a dim-brained man, but a cunning boxer)
YOU have to put YOUR brain into the monster preparation – if you’re not trying to be smart, how can they be smart?

Time Pressure
This is the classic video game way to make things harder – there’s NOT ENOUGH TIME!
Time-stress leads to mistakes
“Watch out, it’s going to blow up!”
Or they’ve diverted water into a room that’s filling up
Or there’s a fire spreading
Or the monster itself has some time limit associated with it

Classic: Balcony protects otherwise-wimpy archers
Simple barricades
Very low ceilings (with/for short monsters)
Burrows can also be hard to move about in
Water barriers

The group as a whole may be more effective than the sum of its individual parts
I often find that a group of monsters, even if individually weak, is more effective than one powerful monster
Especially if they’re subordinate to a powerful leader, the “commander” (or “master mind”)

Relentless Hordes
Sheer numbers can be terrifying, even if individually weak monsters such as orcs or kobolds
The D&D 4e “minions rule” is quite brilliantly simple, in this connection
Any damage kills a minion
This is the opposite of the video game “boss syndrome” where an often-lone monster is super-tough

Remember, depending on game type (TT or VG), monsters have a somewhat different purpose: to scare, or to kill at first. But surprise is the key.

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