Joseph Erwin – Freelance Dungeon Master

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Re-Interpreting Familiar Creatures

What with all the discussion surrounding brand and copyright of familiar creatures (yes, the OGL has been restored, but let’s not forget just because one battle has been won; many elements of the hobby are still tied to The Brand, and WoTC won’t back down forever), I thought it would be prudent to cover something which I find greatly important when it comes to creating a satisfying game: surprise when it comes to creatures.

Now obviously we shouldn’t treat RPGs as only a protracted combat simulation (though it’s fine if that’s your bag), but it’s a little hard to escape the fact that combat tends to be an exciting part of most games, even intrigue-based ones like most eldritch horror RPGs. Combat, like good drama, is an easy way to use high risk and physicality to create effective tension. And to create the best tension, you need cool things to fight.

I’m reminded of something Tim Kask said in an interview years ago; that he creates his own unique stat blocks for creatures because he got sick of people walking into rooms, knowing exactly how the creature operates, and removing all challenge as a result. “Ah, you may think you know how a hell-hound works,” he said, “but not at my table.” Usually he would design his creatures around specific weaknesses and strengths which were not so easy to intuit as “vulnerable to fire” or “resistance to poison.” A philosophy I have adopted in the years since.

“Don’t worry guys, he seems scary, but all we have to do is cast lightning bolt a few times.”

Because really, who wants to play a game where everyone knows everything about every creature and danger before they get a chance to interact with it?

So in an effort to encourage breaking from traditional creatures and brand ideas, let’s try reinterpreting some classic creatures.

The Beholder: The face of the modern brand. Dialing down the “eye” theme, why not make it small and agile? Possessed of evil intelligence perhaps, but more unknowable and alien in personality. Perhaps the gaze itself carries no dangerous effects… however what the Beholder sees within you may be of great concern…

I love me my mind-flayers (or Illithids)! One could easily dial them back in such a way that they do not have a complete society, ruled by cruel slavery, but perhaps are more of an open secret. Perhaps they are people, and psychic powers slowly twist their bodies into these new shapes.

There are always new ways to make psychic powers more interesting too, such as limiting their mind control to only certain people, or making it so pervasive that anyone who wishes to confront them must work through a series of complex mental blocks in order to gain control of their own body at all.

Hell Hounds are like certain Pokemon: their appearance easily gives away their strengths and weaknesses. This could be subverted by saying that they are only harmed by water from a certain place, but then you just have people gathering vials of the stuff to use without a second thought, and we’re back where we started.

Instead, what if they behave like fire? The more they are attacked and manage to harm people, the larger and stronger they get, creating situations where whacking away at them is the last thing you should do? Instead they would need to be disarmed and diminished by having to calm them, maybe even risk petting their viscous flaming hides… ouch!

I can just imagine a barbarian, all coiled muscle and scars, having to remain calm as they stroke the searing fur of a hell-hound, trying desperately not to scream in pain.

And finally Kobolds, those angry little buggers who basically end up serving as scaly goblins. I’m all for a redesign (the picture does a good job of making them look more like burrow-dwelling rabbits), but adding a few other details can really open possibilities for unique details and interactions.

Really wyrd it up! Maybe they can remove their limbs in order to escape tight situations or squeeze through inaccessible places. Maybe they are creatures of stone which turn back into rock when they die, creating a need to find space for all their past dead. Don’t even get me started on cleaning up after a large battle with them… it’s much harder when the bodies weigh as much as two people and can’t decompose…

Some of my favorite moments in recent games have been watching as players are forced to come up with new and unique ways to deal with a creature they cannot simply whack until it’s dead or know everything about it because they have committed the “Official Licensed Creature Compendium Volume VII™” to memory.

Published by Joe Erwin

I am an independent creator and GM with a deep love of storytelling and adventure! I desire most to share these things with others, and I hope to do that through my work and my writing.

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