How many goblins have you killed in your day? Can you recall each and every one of their faces? Can you still hear their screams? Probably not. They’re just goblins. Nothing to really remember. What about their leader? Can you remember his name?
I know in my years of GMing and playing I can only recall a few of the monsters I’ve killed or ran. Right now I think my favorite monster fight was one I ran. The players were in Sharn from Eberron. Sharn is a city of towers. So when the stuff hit the fan they were a few miles above the ground surrounded by towers. They were attacked by this creature that resembled an ape for general anatomy but was covered in the mist that made it hard to be seen. The creature had been sent to the players to kill them. Now Sharn is a very populated city so needless to say collective stuff his lots of fans.
If you ask my players what their favorite fight in an RPG was they will probably talk about this one. Why though? It wasn’t a system thing. We were playing D&D 4e, which is a fun combat system but fairly restricting in what you can do, and we’d been playing 4e for at least a year or so by then. I don’t think it was the fact I was GMing. I usually GM and I’ve ran plenty of boss monsters that no one can remember. So why does myself and my group keep remembering that as the most bad ass monster and fight we ever had?
Most people have five senses. As a GM you should engage as many as possible. Usually we only give audio and visual. That’s good that we do so, but that should be the minimum. Always try to engage the other three as well. Smell is an easy one to do since we can’t really turn it off and it works over long distances. When an ogre sneaks up on you, you’ll smell it before you see it. Touch is another easy one. When the ogre grabs you, you feel the steel cables for fingers wrap around your throat. Taste is tricky. Unless the group tries to eat their attackers they are probably not going to taste them, but in the case of the ogre one could describe the bile rising in your throat trying to clear your air way. The ogre is coming alive in your mind right now and I never even talked about what it looks or sounds like.
When they faced the ape creature in Sharn. It smelled like rotten food. I remember describing it as smelling like cheese that was left out in the sun. Basically lots of bad BO, but you can’t just say that. You need to give the players something they know that they can grab hold of. When someone was grabbed I described the fur as feeling like cow hair (we live in or by farms so we all knew what that’s like). It’s short, stays close to the body and is kind of pokey if rubbed the wrong way. The beast sounded like that of an ape but the group could only see the fog wrapped around it. They saw red glowing eyes coming from the fog. It really helps to give the players a solid idea of what they are up against.
It Does Whatever an Ape Man Can!
During the fight players were being pushed and thrown around on the balcony where they were fighting. Every time they would land closer and closer to the edge. Finally I went ahead and forced someone off completely. The player was freaking out. Remember the base of the tower was at least a mile away. The player then found out that the next floor down had a balcony that stuck out farther than the others and he landed in a stall of mangoes. Soon the ape was beaten badly and started retreating from the party. It jumped away and started climbing on the sides of the towers. The players followed suit to awesome/disastrous affect. It only took the ape about four tries to get away from them.
Now here is a secret. The ape should have tossed the players off the edge on the first push. I was afraid of hurting the PC and ruining the fun. The ape could have made the leap on the first roll but I didn’t want the players to feel like I was screwing them out of a hard won victory. Then I finally pulled my head from my…but I digress. I finally made the right decision to let the players see what this creature was fully capable of. Once I did that the fight became epic. I stopped pulling punches and let the PCs have it. I tended to fudge my dice in the favor of the PCs in hopes that it would make the game more fun, but what I was doing was neutering my monster. Don’t be afraid to let the players have it. They can’t experience the full awesome of a creature if you don’t let them have it. This doesn’t mean you should fudge your dice rolls to destroy your players, but you shouldn’t do what most anime characters do in a fight. Lead in with your awesome. Otherwise you may end up with a fight where your big bad ends up dead before he could breath fire, or shoot lasers out of his ears. Do that and your players will never know how close the fight may have truly been.
In This Room You See 3 Goblins. That’s what the last room was too.
I’m a firm believer in not putting the players through fights that are just there to drain resources. Every fight needs to have a point. If you put your players through a fight and there is no chance that the players are going to lose, skip it. If the monsters are just there to be in the way and not move the story forward, then I’d skip them and move on. No one is going to remember the three goblins that were stationed at the third room in. If you want your monsters to be memorable you need to give them goals. They need to be up to something. That goal can very well be “Guard This Room”, but you as the GM need to bring that goal into your decisions and figure out how it will affect the story. “How well will they guard the room?” “Will they run if it gets bad?” “Can they warn their leader that they heroes are coming?” Now the goblins are coming to life.
My ape monster was trying to kill the party. Once I let him honestly fulfill his purpose then he came alive and a real threat. Once it was obvious that it wasn’t going to accomplish it’s task, its new goal was to get away and regroup with its master. When you keep goals for the monster it starts to act like a living creature and not just a block of hp.
Engage your players 5 senses whenever you can. Let your monster be awesome, hurt the players. Make the monster have a point. Give the monster a goal and follow it.
Thanks for reading.