Friday, December 2, 2016

Use High Powered Monsters Right Away!

In reading some reviews of Volo's Guide to Monsters, I stumbled across one that mentioned the emphasis on lower-powered creatures.* This echoes something I've heard - games spend most of their time closer to "zero" than "hero" so you need more "zero" challenge monsters.

The big, cool, badasss monsters?

They're end-game icing-on-the-cake monsters. Campaign pinnacles. Special moments.

Dungeons first, dragons later, once you're earned them.

I'm guilty of this as well - look at my monsters encountered list in my higher-powered** DF game. Many of them are quite low powered. They turn up the most often. While it's taken forever for my players to fight giant rats, orcs, hobgoblins, goblins, lizard men, newtmen, etc. show up all over the place. Annoying-level oozes slime around the dungeon (and annoying slimes ooze, too.) And stirges, stirges, stirges.

I've tried - a dragon right near an easy access point. Trolls on level 1, along with weapon-resistant gargoyles, packs of wights with an unholy cleric wight, cultists with delver-level offensive firepower, electric jellyfish, a unique demon lord on level 2, etc. etc.

But still, there are so many cool monsters my players have yet to encounter. I'm not trying to husband them for later, but effectively, I have. By putting sufficient obstacles between them I've made them less common.

While I'd like to bill my game as pitting your powerful and capable dungeon delvers against dragons, demon lords, flying eye monsters, ghosts, and elder beings and reaping amazing hoards . . . it's all too often turned into the supermodule DULL1-7 Against the Fodder.

And that's my fault.

I need to get better at using things right away.

Not at the end of a long dungeon where it "fits." Right away. Put a beholder in room 1, and then challenge yourself to make a better boss at the end. Use dragons enough that - like in Skyrim - you never take them too lightly but never too seriously, either. If mind flayers are a thing in your game, use their minions in game one and the flayers in game two. When you need a cool monster later, just make one of the others, cooler.

Our Gamma Terra game is a good example - in the first two sessions we played we fought badders and hoops and a mutant wolverine with a force screen, killed the latter with a torc grenade, and got a warbot. In most games I've played, a warbot is something you read about but never, ever meet. We fly around in one. A death machine? Legend, not reality. They're out there to be encountered. This hasn't made the game worse but better.

The longer you hold off, the more your players are tempted to hold off - it's so tough, let's wait until we're good and ready. The more you're tempted to hold off - it's so special, I don't want to waste it.

No monster is wasted.

No good idea used is wasted.

No challenge is too soon.

Use them right away.

Players? This means you guys too. Go right after the dragons, the demon lords, the nests of vampire lich trolls you've heard about. Don't put them off until "when we're all powerful enough." That'll be never.

I've said much of this before.

This post is as much a reminder to me as it is to you reading it.

Use the cool monsters right the **** now.

And by the way? Same goes for magic items. I'm sorry it took so long for my PCs to find Gram, and then lost it. I should have just put the Machine of Lum the Mad or Blackrazor or the Ring of Jaylin (one of my players will know what I mean) in B2 and let the players have at it.

* That and the fact that norkers were considered, but reject. Dammit, I love norkers. Great name, cool monsters in the original AD&D form, and they make good menaces in GURPS of all power levels.

** Well, DF-standard, erring on the lower powered side of "higher powered." Cut-down race list, cut-down spell list, cut-down item list, cut-down template list, and more grit than heroism. Had I started out lower-powered, I bet it wouldn't be "wipe out this army of orcs" but even smaller change we'd be playing for. The saving grace is that characters were powerful enough that orcs by the pack are time-consuming but not actually threatening.


  1. One the advantages I had in Castle of Horrors was that I was basing it on Castle Ravenloft, which is a mid-level D&D module. So the first encounter was fire dragonlings and the second encounter was nigh-invulnerable gargoyles and the third was four-armed siege beasts armed with organic repeater crossbows. Cool stuff early and often.

    In general, I think DF works better if you crib off the mid and high level D&D adventures than it does if you crib off the low level stuff.

    Admittedly, that was all accidental in my case, and hasn't been 100% replicated in my AtE game. Though even there the PCs found a pimped out SUV in the second or third session and just completed a chase sequence against a horde of pirates in a power boat, so I haven't exactly been skimping on the cool stuff.

    1. Accidental or not, it's a good example of what to do.

  2. I have one gang of high powered folks deciding not to chase the horde of big bads, and at the same time the henchmen group is gunning for some extraplarar action and a little bit of a domain game. Go figure.

  3. Good post. My initial gut reaction is that I *like* zero-to-hero, and I like it when PCs are a bit cautious rather than going nuts and getting themselves TPK'd, so I somewhat disagree with the idea that they should go dragon hunting right away.

    But there's a balance. If I had a group that had been hanging out on mostly the first 2 levels of the dungeon for years like yours, I'd be wanting them to get a wee bit more aggressive. "There's some cool stuff on level 7 guys -- maybe visit it sometimes." Your players are very tactically astute and worried about watching their back, but if the dungeon keeps restocking, that can lead to farming orcs on level 1 forever.

    In my DF game, I've been mostly avoiding restocking the dungeon for this reason. If I leave things that have been cleared mostly empty, and don't have too many wandering monsters, then the PCs will go downstairs, because there's nothing else to do. Also, my dungeon levels are much smaller than yours, so it is actually possible to clear level 1 in a few sessions.

    Also, I think it's easier to run low-powered adventures for low-powered PCs, because there's less on the character sheets to remember. So it can be a bit scary as a GM to bring in too much too soon. But GMs also need to get out of their comfort zone, if that's what everyone needs to have fun. I'll try to remember that.

    1. I'd just say, no matter what power level you like, saving the high-powered, coolest, best, most iconic monsters for later is a potentially big mistake. The likelihood that "later" is more fun than "now" isn't that great. And if you only use the big cool, iconic, and interesting bad guys sparingly later one, then the earlier is by definition on less cool, less iconic, less interesting bad guys.

      If there is one thing I think I learned gaming this long - I've regretted not using monsters at all or until too late but I have rarely regretted using them right away. And no matter how soon I put them in, it's never yet been too soon.

  4. I agree with you about not waiting to get the cool monsters. If you wait for the end of the adventure for the PCs to get to the room with the cool boss monster then there is a lot of pressure to make the fight awesome and many times it doesn't work that way. Also it is sort of lame to have goblins and giant rats on level 1, orcs and ogres on level 2, and mindflayers and beholders on level 10, neatly organized for some strange reason. I have found that part of the fun in an adventure is that the PCs don't know what expect. You could go from orcs to dragons by just opening a door. Stormbringer was a game that broke me away from long slow adventure that is supposed to come a climacticencounter towards the fast-paced anything goes monster selection where the other monsters are just as cool as the boss monster.

    1. I think that for some reason people think RPG adventures should be written like novels where there is suspense built up waiting for the showdown with the boss monster.

    2. It seems logical to plot adventures like stories. And it can work - I just think it's better to think of it like a short story collection, not a novel. Lots of short arcs that punctuate in awesome, repeated over and over, not a slow burn until the dramatic ending.

    3. Stories do start with the big monsters.

      Perdido Street station, anything Cthulhu mythos, Beowulf, Witcher 2 starts with a Dragon.

      The finale is usually killing the monster, but that's just until the next Conan adventure aka session #2.

      Many of those stories have multiple battles between the monster and protagonists. You certainly can have that in an adventure (unlikable monster, fleeing etc)

      Have the PCs walk into the lair of Orcs and a slake moth eating the Orcs! That's a wake up call! By watching it decimate the Orcs they know it's habits and potentially weaknesses. Then it's full until it comes back ten minutes later.

      Have the PCs in the Dragon's lair with it trying to get to them and them hiding in holes, small tunnels and so on. Sure the small monsters are in those tunnels bit it's a level one encounter with a Dragon. With a chance to snare a handful of treasure for sure.

      D&D broke this kind of story with its emphasis on zero to hero.
      That's not DF. You are heroes day one. You are (almost) Eric, Conan, Tarzan etc

    4. I like those ideas for using monsters you can't kill right away, without making them purely "cut scene" material. It can have great impact on play, too.
      "The villages say a dragon is attacking them, please help them."
      "Sure, we're just starting out in this game. I'm sure it's a crippled wyvern or a baby dragon or a crocodile with horns glued on or something, or maybe it's an illusion by some wizard's apprentice gone bad."
      Cue actual dragon they actually need to deal with . . . somehow. That should be memorable.

  5. Thanks for this. I'm designing a megadungeon at the moment and this was a timely post.

    I'm going to chew it over some more before I start keying level 1a (only three more sections to level 1, yay!)

    1. Hurrah for timeliness!

      You don't have to go all silly and make level 1 the beholder and dragon level or something. Just whatever you think is the "right time" for awesome and cool monsters is, move it up a lot. Don't listen to that voice that says, "No, save that" when you have an idea or a monster seems to fit. Yes, use it now!

    2. Too late, already keyed in herd of fifty tarrasques.

    3. Fair enough, you have to leave them in now.

      To be fair, it's the herd's shepherd that's really dangerous, not the actual terrasques. They're pretty quiescent in groups, until you stampede 'em.

  6. Except those stories generally introduce the monster early on

  7. How do you avoid the starting characters becoming beholder/dragon chow?

    1. Check Unachimba's comment above for a starting point. And remember, everything does not necessarily need to be a fight, nor balanced or fair if it is.

  8. I could start my Discworld campaign with Shroom the silent from the actual DRPG book.

    I'm 50/50 on it, but if I took my actual advice then I probably should. Just trying to work out with a way for the PCS to deal with him without any problems.


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