As a GM, the fantasy creatures you add to your gaming sessions are your characters and for this reason probably the most important aspect of the game as well as the one that can give you the most pleasure. In practice and as a player, I’ve seen even the best GM’s floundering with their creations because of a lack of preparation or an unanticipated situation that leaves them rustling papers muttering “speak amongst yourselves for a minute”. Equally frustrating can be the implausible scenario where monsters that hate each other live side by side in some abstract dungeon that simply doesn’t hold up to scrutiny. I know this is fantasy role-playing but well thought out monsters, well planned and ultimately well played are the key to a successful game. So here are my top tips to get the most out of your beasties.
1. Less creatures are more fun!
I really believe you should resist the temptation to fill your gaming sessions with an endless stream and variety of fantasy creatures. Resist because a few well thought out monsters can, under the right conditions pose far more of a challenge and hopefully hours of entertainment. Although your players may have read the Monster Manual from cover to cover, the GM knows his players and their characters better. My first tip is to pick a few well-chosen creatures that you know will challenge the party and plan to do so. Obviously monsters chosen to exploit holes and weaknesses could be a little unfair if taken too far. You should avoid throwing your victims into situations they are entirely unsuited to. A party of rogues going toe to toe with a troop of plate-clad goblins could be a good example of an inappropriate fight. But, given some warning, ways to circumnavigate the goblin sentries and the opportunity to set some traps, the rogues are back in business and probably planning the bragging rights when they get back to the guild house.
2. Fantasy, but rational creatures please!
Keep a theme to your game and choose to populate it with a host that holds together. One of the best series of sessions I participated in was based in a ruined city entirely populated with undead. All the living creatures in the area had gone because the undead would eat, drain or drive them off. On the reverse, you can mix your fantasy creatures but with care and a rationale. In the same way herd animals in Africa can live alongside predators, a whole host of warm blooded fantasy creatures might live in the tunnels around a haunted tomb but not if the attrition rate is too high or the rewards too low. A band of orcs might willingly lose high numbers if the prize was digging out a priceless relic or mining a fortune in gold. Like good actors your monster luvvies “need a motivation”!
3. Surprise and challenge you players
As I mentioned earlier, most players cannot resist doing some homework and reading the Monster Manual. Others, as frequent GM’s cannot avoid having an encyclopaedic knowledge. I personally avoid doing this because I really don’t want to know what makes the enemy tick until I meet them. The danger is that parties end up with formulaic methods to deal with the challenges set and there is little fun in running out a tried and tested method. My third top tip is to cheat! Fantasy monsters like characters had lives before they crossed claws with the party so use the opportunity to equip them appropriately. A usable magic weapon, armour, extra skills, feats, traps and tricks are all good ways of unraveling the party expectation and stretching them. Better still, the 3.5 experience point system allows the adventurers to be rewarded for the extra trouble you put them through.
4. Let rewards fit the challenge
Breaking the rules can also work for the party as well as against it. Another little gripe of mine is random treasure (or crap, inappropriate treasure that no self-respecting fantasy monster worth its CR rating would bother to hoard). Some monsters are not going to be carrying booty but they might have a potion or an item of jewelery or possibly some valuable material components with them. Most creatures caught in their lairs can justify a treasure trove but where will it come from and what will it be like? The conventional backstop is that treasure is taken from other adventurers but is this always going to be the case? Most fantasy creatures will hoard what they like and what they can get (possibly from their neighbours). Non-intelligent creatures may end up nesting in or close to something intrinsically valuable if not to them. Be creative and fair with treasure but keep in explainable.