Monsters and creatures are essential elements in most games—as a GM, you can use them to tell stories, create plot hooks, and show the lore of the world without explaining it. We interviewed Celeste Conowitch, Senior Designer at Kobold Press, about monsters—here’s what she had to say!
Where to start? Worldbuilding!
So, first things first, it’s important not to create monsters in isolation. Instead, think about how the monsters you create can effectively support the RPG setting you’re building and show off its details. Remember the golden rule: show, don’t tell! If you can use monsters to ratchet up the tension by stalking, threatening, or outright attacking the party, that’s much better than having an NPC tell the players they’re in dangerous territory.
Another important aspect to consider is the connections between monsters and their environment—what role do they play in their ecosystem? They could know each other, form packs, be predator and prey, and even worship another monster. Ask yourself why do the monsters act the way they do, and why it’s important for the world and the plot. These monstrous ecosystems can be a key element in your worldbuilding too, and will make the whole thing much more real and engaging to your players.
An example of worldbuilding through monsters is the Ravenloft campaign setting. One reason it has such a dark and mysterious atmosphere is the fact that so many of its creatures are tortured, dark, and messed up in general. You don’t need the GM to tell you it’s a forbidding, ominous place, you can just feel it.
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Create monsters as plot hooks
Monsters make for great plot hooks too! Who controls the monsters? What are the monsters doing? Why are they there? These are all questions that can lead to new adventures—and you’ll find even more questions if you look at your RPG setting and your meta.
One way to do this is by exploring the relationship between the monster and its lair. Lairs are usually places where the normal rules of the world don’t apply (which is why D&D has lair actions!)—it could be merely environmental, like a dark mist that covers everything, or be game-changing, like amnesia! To enter a lair, the characters must leave the familiar behind, which means their assumptions about the world will no longer be correct. This creates an emotional response in your players (they’ll feel more defensive or vulnerable), which is exactly what you want!
Another way to use monsters as plot hooks is through the design of the dungeon. Dungeon design is a hard exercise, as it plays into all of these questions to the extreme. Especially if you’re building a large dungeon, it’s very important to know why would all of these monsters inhabit it. A plausible explanation for their presence will automatically create a more authentic atmosphere, which will turn dungeon-delving into an actual story rather than just a monster-killing game.
Use them to reinforce theme
Reinforcing the theme of a campaign with monsters can be a challenge, because it requires balancing narrative elements with mechanics that will work. One way to achieve this is through the use of lair and regional actions—the mist and the amnesia I mentioned earlier! If you want to reinforce mystery, you can add lair actions that make people see things that aren’t there, for example.
Scary monsters are a big part of that, as frightening your players will create that emotional response you’re looking for. To achieve that, make sure the monster is always hidden until the final confrontation. Instead, focus on its victims and the wake of its terrors. Your players will build up a sense of dread and anticipation that will make the final encounter more impactful. There’s nothing scarier than the unknown!
For more tips, check out our tips to run horror campaigns!
Of course, you can also make monsters friendlier than they seem if you want to keep your players guessing. Give the monster a scary reputation or appearance, but make sure that if the players interact with it, they realize it isn’t actually evil. If you challenge their assumptions, they’ll be more paranoid about any future monsters they encounter.
How to choose monsters
The most important part of choosing monsters is variety! Using the same monsters over and over again will get boring fast—so shake it up and keep things interesting for your players. That said, if you’re planning for a long campaign, it’s a good idea to use familiar monsters in the beginning, like giants rats or goblins. And as the campaign progresses, you can introduce more interesting monsters and challenges! From emotion-driven encounters with banshees to large-scale fights with dragons, your players will be better equipped to deal with those later in the game.
Take a look at your player characters’ backstories for inspiration too! Characters will sometimes have a dark past where a terrible monster killed their family, for example. Or take warlocks—they’re a walking plot hook! If the warlock’s patron (or one of its servants) is a villain in the campaign, that will create a very interesting conflict.
Listen to the full interview!
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Who is Celeste Conowitch?
Celeste Conowitch is a game designer in Kobold Press and the DM of the Venture Maidens podcast. She’s also the co-founder of Penwitch Studio and has worked with companies like MCDM Productions, Wizards of the Coast, and more. Check her out on Twitter!
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