A to Z Challenge: Monsters with Quirks

It’s nearly April again, and that means it’s almost time for the A-to-Z Blogging Challenge. Last year I talked about the characters my players have brought to the table and what made them memorable, for better or worse. This year I want to talk about things from the other side.

When you think about a fantasy world, certain tropes come to mind. Generally you think about a very specific magical version of medieval Europe. But D&D can exist even if you twist that; the game stills work if you make magic rare and mysterious, or move the setting to feudal Japan, or drop in an extraterrestrial weapon. There are very few constants to the setting, and even if you change it drastically the play experience remains mostly the same. I would say there’s really only one thing that’s a fundamental part of every D&D world, regardless of style or tone or location: monsters.

The designers know this. Since the roots of D&D as a wargaming system, it’s been designed as a system to stab funny-looking creatures and steal their stuff. There’s a reason the three Core rulebooks are a guide for players, a guide for DMs, and a list of monsters: all three are necessary, and without any one you aren’t really playing D&D. Monsters are designed to exist at every levels of play, at every power level, in every location, in every role, to challenge or support or annoy every group of players. “Can I play as [monster]?” is probably the third-most common question I’ve heard in my career* and there’s nothing that gets players worked up quite like a new creature to, often literally, sink their teeth into.

This is why I’m frustrated by 5E’s limited and, frankly, backward way of looking at monsters and race. In a fantasy setting where literally anything can exist, doesn’t it seem strange that all goblins are savage, unevolved, evil versions of real people? Is there no place for an especially smart goblin, or one who decided to hone her skills with weapons to become a more effective hunter, or one who decides to lead a tribe to do great things? Why is it that all dragons are dangerous campaign-ending threats with ludicrous power? Why are all golems unintelligent? Why are all liches solitary? Why is everything stuck in the tiny box it’s given in its tiny monster entry? Why can’t we make the monster’s role as interesting and varied as the monster itself?

Why can’t we treat monsters like characters?

For each non-Sunday in April I’ve chosen a monster. Some of them are common, but you’ve probably never heard of several, so I’ll give a brief non-copyright-infringing description of what the monster is intended to do. Then I’ll talk about what I did in my campaigns to instead make the monster interesting. In some cases I took the monster’s abilities and turned them up to eleven, and in others I subverted the monster’s intended role. Often I looked at the monster’s place in its setting and logically extended it to see what would happen, but sometimes I flipped it right on its head. I’ll also talk about how the players reacted to it and which changes were better-received then others. My goal is to show that almost any monster, even the most intentionally drab, can become fun if it’s treated as a mutable tool for gameplay instead of as a strict, canonical creature who can only exist in the exact place the designers envisioned.

I’ll be starting on Saturday with the letter A and ending 30 April with Z. If you want a quick and easy way to see every post, I’ll be updating the links in the header about as sporadically as I did last year.

* — After “Oh, it’s my turn?” and “What bonuses apply here?”. The most common type of question I hear is along the vein of “What happened in a previous session?”, but as far as specific questions go I think these win.

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