Here’s a quick list of ten things you can add to a monster to make it even cooler. By cooler, of course I mean that in an “appealing to the inner GM” kind of way. If you’re feeling kind, toss a few more XP in the pot for defeating this particular twisted nasty, or merely make the “encounter” a precursor of events to come. Forewarned, as they say, is four armed. Never did understand that one.
1. Flight. Any monster is improved by giving it the power of flight. Perhaps it’s Kobolds with leather wings, Gnomes with rocket packs, fairy-winged Rust monsters, angelic steampunk Ogres or whatever. These are critters that take the battle into three dimensions, totally shred 4e’s area effect rules and generally make the players wish they’d brought more missile weapons. If they see a Flock of Ogres (oh yeh!) in the distance, they’ll know it’s time to head into town to repair that cannon.
2. Intelligence. Take a dumb monster and make it clever. Perhaps the critter was granted smarts by a tossed potion, genetic breeding or deific malice, but whatever the reason, it’s every bit the equal to the players. I remember one scenario where we had an Otyugh spouting (bad) poetry during the battle. He didn’t last longer than any other Otyugh, but the players remembered him for quite a while. Don’t spend too long creating the beastie (do that after the first encounter if the players feel compassion – yeh, right), but if you’re using 4e D&D adding a class template is a matter of minutes. Want a Gray Wolf Warlord? You got it!
3. Value. Tell the players that undamaged Snow Ape pelts are worth 50gp each and you’ve added a tactical wrinkle to the player’s plans. They’ve got a reason to use less common weapons such as Blowguns, blunt weaponry and non-blasty spells. Alternatively, have the “monsters” be cursed villagers who have been shapechanged by Bad Juju Magick, so the players must subdue rather than kill their foes. Have the players rewarded for each villager they subdue then bring back alive.
4. Multiple forms. Whether it’s humans who can change into giant rats or goblins that turn into wolves, there’s something to be said for critters that can turn from one thing into another. Grab two monsters from the Monster Manual that are of roughly equal level, and you’re ready to roll. Save the Big Reveal for that “My god! The elf was really the Phantom Killer!” effect and add a suitably implausible rationale for the transformation. For example, maybe blood was spilled on the flowerbed where the elf’s murdered body was hidden and that allowed her to assume mortal form during daylight hours – but at night she reverted to her undead ghostly form! Or something.
5. Equipment. A single Orc isn’t a threat, but a single Orc with a hunting horn can bring a whole bucket of trouble down on the players. Equipment in the hands of the monsters falls into four categories: stuff the PCs want, things that the players don’t want the monsters to have, stuff that looks like junk but isn’t, and just junk. Things the players want includes such dungeon essentials as keys, maps, pie (mmmm…. pie) and that handy orc-armour disguise that always seems to work in the movies. Things that players don’t want the monsters to have include: the Wizard’s stolen spellbook, That Rope They Tied At The Top of the Well, the aforementioned hunting horn and a vial of acid. Ouch. Junk that ain’t junk usually means primitive jewellery. That shiny rock handing round the Goblin’s neck shows he’s a member of the Shiny Rock Clan. Show it to the Dull Rock Clan’s leader as proof of the kill, and you’ve got an allegiance. Oh, and the junk? Dude, that’s just junk.
6. Appearance. Once you’ve created the encounter and totted up the XP total, give the monsters a minor make-over. Whether it’s tentacle-chinned Orcs (I like those), feathered Ogres, Displacer Beasts with stripes or Golden-eyed Kobolds, make your stamp on the monster description. The key here is to be consistent, and when you’re inconsistent, have a reason. If all Kobolds have Golden eyes then when the players meet a clan of Silver-eyed Kobolds there’s a plot hook, right there. Link otherwise unassociated monsters by their appearance so that when the players encounter a clan of Gnolls wearing ornate feathered head-dresses, they’ll know they are dealing with a Tribe of Ogre-hunters.
7. Language and more. Similarly, use how the monsters make a noise as a cue for the players. Perhaps most Kobolds are ssssssibilant, or all Goblins like Yoda talk. The lack of sound can be particularly powerful. If Orcs are genetically mute, silent from birth but adept at Orcish Sign Language, that’s one heck of a twist to their usual roaring savage image. Mute Orc Ninjas! I think I’m in love.
8. Behaviour. If Goblins usually scatter like rats, skirting pools of light like vermin then the players will know something is wrong when that behaviour changes. Perhaps your Gnolls are honourable combatants who always recite their bloodline before battle, or a local Ogre leaves gifts for a human woman he’s besotted with. How your monsters act doesn’t have to be by rolling Initiative as soon as they see the tinned food…. I mean, see the adventurers.
9. Magic items! Give a Hobgoblin a spell and he will fight for a day. Give him a Wand of Fireballs and he will stay in your players’ minds forever. It’s in the players’ interest to beat this guy ASAP before he uses all of the charges and they’re just left with scorched clothing and a pretty stick. Charged items put a time limit on the combat, and reward the players for fast, efficient tactics. Have the Wand-wielding opponent call out the remaining charges as he fires them off, just to rub it in.
10. More monsters. One Dragon is cool, but a matching pair…….. If you’re using 4e D&D there’s always room for Minions, and just because the players can’t see more than 8 Goblins doesn’t mean they’re not there. Sneaky buggers, those Goblins. Have extra monsters enter combat after d6 rounds, perhaps attracted by the sound of combat or scent of blood. Unintelligent foes are a good choice for this as they’re as likely to target either side in the battle, meaning you can use this tactic to give the players a break. Just think how embarassed they’ll be to have been saved by Giant Rats. Heh.
One word of caution – don’t be tempted to go overboard. Flying Ogres are cool. Flying Ogre Ninjas with a lisp might sound even cooler, but it’s not. Coolness isn’t additive – you can’t make something more cool when it’s cool already. So don’t try to use all of the goodies at once, ok? Save ’em, use ’em sparingly, and you will be a wise GM, my son.