Monsters or Men, Part One: Kill the Beast — the excellence of inhuman enemies
A: We’re beginning with a pretty basic topic—what do you think about using monsters as enemies versus using NPC antagonists? What are the advantages and disadvantages? Which do you prefer?
C: We should say that this is mainly in regards to combat encounters. You probably don’t want monsters as shopkeepers.
A: Although, now that you’ve said it…But yeah, focusing on fights for now.
C: So we mostly have combats using bestiary monsters—maybe editing them a bit, but essentially using the pre-planned creature stats that you find online—or, we build enemy NPCs from the player classes, like cleric, oracle, witch, that sort of thing.
A: The three classic enemies.
C: Don’t judge me for my character choices.
A: I…okay, let’s begin with monsters then, and move on to NPCs.
C: Sure, although I probably don’t use monsters as much as I could.
A: You use them way more than I do.
C: That’s true.
A: It’s partly because I’m a fan of NPCs, but mainly because, for a long time, I didn’t understand how to read the online monster sheets. Why do they put damage in brackets? For hit points they put the calculations in brackets next to the number, but for attack rolls the number is just given without any breakdowns, and then the brackets are damage. It makes no sense. Also, for lots of creatures the attacks are listed as ‘2 talons’ or ‘2 claws’—is that two attacks, or do the claws rake together in one attack?
C: It takes a little while to comprehend. I think once you find your way, though, it’s much easier to digest. I work almost entirely digitally and I build my NPCs using the format online.
A: Really? I write my notes by hand in notebooks I stole from work.
[Clarification: Angela’s workplace gave her old notebooks which would otherwise have been thrown away. There was no thievery.]
C: To each his own. But to return to the advantages of using monsters in encounters, I like monsters in part because I spend at least 20 minutes customising a pre-packaged creature from the online bestiaries, which can feel like a lot, but is much, much less time than I’d spend building up an NPC.
A: Yeah, an individual character in a class I’m not that familiar with can take hours and hours.
C: Especially since you guys aren’t very low levels anymore. In my game, you’re all mostly level 6, soon to be level 7, and I need to build NPCs to be equal or, more realistically, a couple of levels higher than you guys. That’s a time sink, honestly. And I get fixated on building character and it takes hours to get it right.
A: That’s true, and then when that NPC dies, it’s the worst. When I use monsters, I’m not generally fussed when they die, but with my NPCs, it’s much more personal.
A: Like, in my very first campaign as a DM, I spent hours and hours making this rogue who had all these fun feats, and I thought he would be a great antagonist for you guys. He arrived wearing this dramatic cloak, standing on the bow of a boat with crossbows in both hands and a lackey behind him ready to reload them for him. I thought this fight was going to be epic. He had this over-the-top monologue prepared as to why and how he was going to kill you. But you guys didn’t even let him finish the first sentence; you just went for him and smashed him to pieces in about a round.
C: We caught him monologuing, and we murderhobo’d him.
A: And that was a…fun learning curve for me. But it was hours and hours of work and my beautiful villain with perfect hair ended up a bloody mess. If I’d just used a monster it would have saved on prep and I wouldn’t have been quite so bitter at you guys.
C: Yeah, I feel like we’re going to pay for that early victory down the line.
A: I mean, I looked into so many rogue talents and feats, you guys are guaranteed to meet another rogue in the future who can shoot two crossbows because I spent so much effort on how that would work.
C: I expect we’ll meet the same rogue.
A: Yeah, the party didn’t kill him in the end—possibly because you guys are mainly aligned good, or possibly because you felt bad for me.
C: Also, sticking with the advantages of monstrous opponents, on the one hand, I like to have big fights—I want to have combats where the number of enemies at least matches the number of players. But those fights take hours, and generally the game moves at its quickest pace, and players feel most involved, when they have more turns, so if you can keep the number of enemies in a fight to a minimum, that works best. And in my opinion, that’s easier to do with monsters than high level NPCs.
A: I’d also say that there’s an advantage to using monsters when you’re throwing low-level enemies at your party—if you realise you’ve underplayed it, you can just have another couple of boggards, or whatever, show up late. That’s harder to fix with NPCs because the settings tend to be different.
C: Yeah, that’s true, though there is still that risk of getting it really wrong with monsters by making them too powerful. If you have one or two enemies, they by necessity have to be significantly stronger than the player characters. In my campaign we had a fight recently where you guys were fighting a group of relatively low-level NPCs and a couple of monsters backing them up and when an NPC would crit on you guys, it would do maybe half your health. But the monsters could do so much more damage. You guys were lucky that it wasn’t the ogre who rolled a nat 20. As a DM, you need to try to maintain a balance so as to avoid unavoidable death.
A: True, and lots of monsters get grab and the suchlike, which can really put tip things in their favour. I had that recently when you guys had to fight some giant grubs in a catacomb; I put them in more for flavour than as serious enemies, but they really did some damage.
C: Right. And I think there’s a lot of creatures who end up being like NPCs in a sense. Maybe not the grubs, but I’ve done this with creatures where you’ll get a base from the bestiary, and then you’ll add class levels. For example, you have an ogre and then you add two levels of barbarian to it.
A: I don’t do this. I have enough trouble with monster sheets without adding anything onto them. Maybe I should branch out.
C: Hell, you can use the monster categories to level one up and build them entirely yourself—I need to give that a try sometime. But with respect to these two categories, I think it adds a lot to combat when you mix up the enemies, giving them class levels. Equally, I’ve sometimes heard some DMs say that it’s a waste if you use the same monster twice, especially in Pathfinder which has, like, five bestiaries. But I feel like you can build up knowledge of an enemy. Even ordinary monsters need to be scouted; you don’t know all of their powers when you first encounter them, and learning about them as you fight them creates a cool narrative, whereas if you’re fighting an evil druid, you know roughly what he can do based on what a level so-and-so druid can do.
A: That’s true, and monsters can also have those fun weird quirks and immunities which you find less in NPCs. It makes it interesting when players have to think on their feet.
C: And I think the game at a base level is orientated around two or more people confronting a big monster, gradually defeating it. That’s not to say that we shouldn’t branch away from the original formula of dragons in dungeons—I think we’ve both done campaigns counter to it at some point, and I like doing solo missions with one player character, and I like having fights which are evenly matched or where the players are outnumbered.
A: Those are a lot of fun.
C: Right? But there’s still something to be said for good old traditional monster battles—they’re very approachable, for players and for DMs.