The many worlds of Dungeons and Dragons are home to an incredible stable of creatures, races and monsters. From halflings to storm giants and from fleas to the mighty Tarrasque (pictured above). Every Dungeon Master has gotten excited about using crazy exotic creatures to test, challenge and even kill his beloved players. Back in 1980 when I first started down the path of becoming a Dungeon Master I was guilty of just randomly picking the coolest monsters I could find in the monster manual or fiend folio, and hurling them at my players with over zealous disregard for their ability, level or geographical location.
“As you wander down the path that leads to the Hamlet of Flearun, you hear a rustling in the trees. Suddenly five beholders burst from the undergrowth. What does your level four cleric, fighter, wizard and rogue do?”
Granted I was Ten years old, but I see adult Dungeon Masters doing much the same thing. They start a new campaign and within the first few game sessions the players have faced all manner of rare and exotic creatures, even such things as greater demons, dragons and giants. Months later the players have little to no wonderment left in them when it comes to encounters, and have no belief in the echo system or archeology of the world they are trying to imagine.
“WELL each to their own” I hear you say. While I agree with this statement, it is still a poor use of monsters and a terrible way to create any real long term excitement in newer players. In short it’s a newbie Dungeon Master mistake. The fledgling Dungeon Master who does this is probably throwing around artifacts, powerful and unique magic items, or wishes like candy too. This is a topic for another time and probably a sister topic to this one, so for now let’s get back to the monsters at hand.
When you look at the profile of any monster you will see comments on it’s frequency and the environments it can be found in. Depending on which edition you are running, you will either see it specifically stated in the profile block (such as in 2nd or 3.5 edition) or in its description (in 5th edition). In some cases it is a combination of both. If the monster is rare or unique then next to no one will have encountered them. Granted, player characters go places and explore terrain that few else would, and as such are more likely to find such exotic beasts, but even then not with any frequency. Such creatures and enemies should be reserved for special or climactic encounters, and not random or minor ones. Over frequent use of such nasties will leave your players asking questions like “With all these incredibly dangerous monsters everywhere, how does a simple village survive?” Or “Who the hell dares leave their home?” And they would be right to do so. One minute I see a group of players in a village and the next minute (a mile or or two down the road) a storm giant just happens by. Lets say it together shall we, “THAT Is Bullshit Dungeon Mastering.” Now there is a time and a place for such things and maybe, just maybe that is the hook for the adventure. Defend the village from the giant or better yet find out what is the giant doing so far from home and in the open? If is not just a random encounter, but the main aspect of the entire adventure that is a little different.
Higher level parties of course need bigger and tougher challenges, so a slight increase in powerful and rarer monsters is expected. Where they are encountered however, they should still be a huge factor and probably the players have traveled to remote or dangerous locations to find them. You simply will not see a frost salamander wandering in the desert or in a nice warm tropical forest.
Where and when a monster is encountered is as important as it’s rarity. I was speaking to a player in another game last week and they we’re telling me about an encounter they we’re playing through. The player in question has only been playing around six or seven months and he was introduced to playing a high level character in this his second game (another error in my book. If you play Mass Multiplayer Online Role Playing Games like World of Warcraft, I know many of you get pissed when someone has purchased a Max level character and has no idea how to play it right? Learn before you leap, and yes it’s your fault Dungeon Master!)
well he was telling me of this encounter with a greater demon. The Dungeon Master had no real explanation as to how or why this monstrosity was present. He had done no real work building up to what in my opinion should have been an epic encounter. The player in question had lost some interest in the campaign and some respect for the Dungeon Master. I asked him if he knew how experienced his Dungeon Master was and he told me that he was sure he had not been a Dungeon Master very long, maybe a year at most. I explained to him that as much as he (being a new player) expected people to cut him some slack due to his inexperience, he should afford the same courtesy to his Newish Dungeon Master. Now this being said we can blame inexperience for the encounter lacking any depth but the effect is still the same. The Dungeon Master probably thought (as I did decades ago) that the players may be wowed by the greater demon battle and think ” our DM is awesome and makes such epic encounters,” where the actual truth was to the contrary.
Some of the best and most memorable encounters that my players tell tales of are the ones with clever and exciting use of common creatures and monsters. Not the time they battled Tiamat or that army of storm giants. Incidentally I have used Tiamat one time in the past three decades.
If you want your players to respect your encounters, you need to be sure they make sense first and foremost, and that you have a darn good reason to explain anything that may not seem to fit naturally.
“Excuse me Mr Dungeon Master but why is this polar bear walking down the road on this blistering hot day two thousand miles from the nearest snowy environment?” “Well remember that circus that was set up in the town ten miles to the south that you passed through. And the bear tamer who was mumbling about losing his star attraction?”
See you can come up with a plausible reason but make sure it makes sense and even then keep such I’ll fitting encounters to a minimum. Treat rare monsters and creatures with respect and use them to increase the depth and power of the story you are telling. Its hard to get to a climactic campaign or adventure conclusion with a dragon if the players have already battled way worse and with more frequency…….