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RPT Newsletter #1,178 | 4 Ways To Surprise Players Who Know All The Monster Stats

Stephan Hornick

Community Goblin & Master of the Archive
Platinum WoA
Wizard of Story
Wizard of Combat
Borderland Explorer
4 Ways To Surprise Players Who Know All The Monster Stats
From JohnnFour | Published November 1, 2021

Roleplaying Tips Newsletter #1,178

Brief Word From Johnn

I don't know about you, but my Murder Hobos know the monster guide inside and out.
So I asked guest writer Jonathan Hardin for ideas on how to mitigate meta-gaming and experienced player knowledge at the table.
I hope you find the four tips today useful if you are in the same boat.

Check Out Grinbeard
I have another Kickstarter to mention this week. 'Tis the season, it seems. :)
This one I personally contributed to for Jeff Stevens.
I was hired to create three villains along with notes on hooks and lair.
You can check out the original draft submission I sent Jeff here for Grinbeard, the mercenary dwarf with dreams of empire.
And if you're interested in the Potbellied Kobold's Guide to Villains & Lairs for 5E Kickstarter, click here.

Picture of Grinbeard

Ok, let's move on to Jonathan's tips for dealing with players who memorize your monster guide.

4 Ways To Surprise Players Who Know All The Monster Stats
From Jonathan Hardin (www.sojournersawake.com)

Hello Sojourner!

My players know all of the stats for every villain I place in their path.
Through searching on the internet, hours studying monster manuals, and good old fashioned wits, my players have found a way to circumvent the wonder of being surprised in battle.

As GM, I want to keep them engaged, even if they have already read the monster book.
My method is simple.
I change the stat block by creating a story and giving players hints.
Do you have the same problem?
Let’s look at 4 ways to surprise your well-read players.

1. Top of the Round
At the top of the round the monster takes a free action.
Require a dice roll from each character to save from an area effect caused by the monster.
For example, a monstrous slime normally stalks its prey slowly and only attacks melee.
What if you give the monster a ranged weapon attack?
At the top of the round, a large, slimy appendage extends to each player beyond melee range, strikes and damages them, pulling them closer to its oozing body.

The Story: This particular ooze has evolved over time. A nearby tribe worships this creature and feeds it, therefore changing its abilities over time.
The Hint: The characters witness carvings depicting worship of a slimy creature in the dungeons. Describe the creature as an ooze, but sporting bulbs sprouting from its top portion.

2. The Villainous Terrain
Make the terrain dangerous.
Use this tip to institute movement challenges via living and oppositional terrain.
For example, a burrowing predator native to the terrain hunts characters as they attempt to rest in the wilderness.
Things progress normally until the ground collapses, leaving players under the earth.
This affects movement and helps the players see the fictional world as three dimensional with depth and height, rather than just a flat two dimensional grid.

The Story: Besides a numerical stat block, you make your monsters (and characters) interact with the terrain.
The Hint: Foreshadow this surprise by describing soft, freshly tilled ground beneath their feet.

3. Kidnapping Monsters
Kidnap a player character.
Surprise players with monsters who stop at nothing to capture rather than kill.
For example, consider your average minion.
Characters can easily win a match against them, whether they be kobolds, robots, bangers, or any horde.
What starts as a routine fight turns into a mission against a specific character.
The minions use all of their resources to capture one PC and kill or leave the rest. Rather than fighting to the bloody death, they fight with a motivation and means to kidnap.

The Story: A more powerful villain employs the minions to capture the player for nefarious purposes, and provides the support needed for the capture.
The Hint: Run combat as normal the first round, but have one minion stand back searching the party for their intended target, maybe even calling them by name. Then unleash all forces on the capture.

4. Add a Reactive Feature
As the game master, you control time and space.
The monsters in your world are not static pieces of paper, but dynamic creatures.
Surprise your players by adding a new feature that shows maturation.
Consider an underground creature with tentacles.
It normally lurks, grapples, and eats.
The players are ready for this and know what actions the monster can take.
But by adding a dynamic feature, you bring surprise to the game.
Simply give the monster a dynamic reaction that triggers upon a player’s action.
Every time a spell is cast, the monster reacts.
Every time a movement is made, the monster reacts.
Every time the character strikes with a critical hit, the monster reacts.
You can fill in the blanks with what kinds of actions the monster can take.
Maybe they nibble off a few hit points for sustenance.
Maybe they gain a spell slot in response to the magic.
Or maybe they call forth their mate to come to their aid.

The Story: This monster evolved over time and learned from past mistakes of its kind.
The Hint: Describe this monster with varying colors, twice the eyes, or grant it speech.

When your players have exhausted their search for books and stats, it is time to get creative.
Take these methods and apply them to your game.
By using story and hints, draw your players to the edge of their seats in anticipation that this is no ordinary monster.

May your story continue!

Stephan Hornick

Community Goblin & Master of the Archive
Platinum WoA
Wizard of Story
Wizard of Combat
Borderland Explorer
Great addition to my portfolio, Johnn! I love it.
Even if my players don't know the monster stats, they have certain expectations.
Jonathan's tips make any combat encounters more dynamic in feel, I believe. Specific opponent tactics, missions, terrain, and reactions make for an even more memorable experience (System pillar), his hints to story hooks make for a more engaging experience and can also propel the story forward (Story pillar).
What I would be missing in this though, although the auther probably thought about it as given, is a rich description of typical features of an opponent, a description rich with flavors for all your senses (like slimy floors, rancid odors, the odly cold sensation when being touched by one of the ooze's tentacles, the things vaguely visible drifting within its body in half-corroded state, and that loud slurping sound whenever it misses and hits a wall instead with one of its tentacles, a sound like when you pull a big snail from a wall). Such descriptions makes for a more immersive experience (Setting pillar).

Stephan Hornick

Community Goblin & Master of the Archive
Platinum WoA
Wizard of Story
Wizard of Combat
Borderland Explorer
More Ways to Make Encounters Challenging
From RPT Gwydion

Thanks for all your work and the emails. (And all the joy and fun you bring to FaceBook!)
I do those things in my campaigns but also a few more - continuing the numbers: (the first one is paramount in my instruction to new GM's)

5) ALWAYS roll monster treasure BEFORE the PCs encounter it. NEVER roll treasure after it's killed.
There may be a magical item it can use against the PCs as a ranged, melee, area effect or delayed attack. (They don't want to die any more than the PCs do.)​

6) Advance the monster. Additional abilities means new attacks and defense.

7) Encounters do not always come 1 at a time.
You can further confuse PCs by having more than 1 creature present giving several senses information that doesn’t match anything they have encountered. (Maybe they are searching for a Goblin stealing from a town at night.)​

"As you walk the halls of this dank and musty mansion, you recognize the distinct scent of a Skunk slowly wafting into your nostrils, but also hear many skittering legs traveling across a wooden surface; a muffled sneeze is heard up ahead that makes you all jump with surprise into a battle ready stance."

8) Maybe the PCs encounter the enemy's (highly buffed for defense) FAMILIAR.
The opponent can then cast spells through it at the party.​

9) Jewelry makes even a Bugbear pretty!
Okay maybe not, but the addition of some well thought out magical items (especially if they are easily concealed, like a Wayfinder with an Ioun Stone) can change the encounter's APPEARANCE, stats and abilities.​

10) Suicide run.
Some monsters are literally NUTS. There may be one who's last act is breaking 1 (or more) wand before imminent death to lose all the energy at once, taking as many with it as possible when it goes (dying on its own terms...).​

11) As with #9, illusion is a great tool to confuse players.
It's not what you think it is. Maybe even be a valued part of society having fooled locals for years looking and acting as a respectable (or office holding) human/elf/etc.​

12) As with #7, the opponent may have partnered up with a creature that enhances or compliments its own powers.
Having a pugwampi as a cohort to be near the PCs (either invisible, shrunk, polymorphed into something cute or normal looking, etc) will severely hamper positive results in and out of combat.​

They may even be compelled to "rescue" the poor cute thing from the enemy before, during or after combat}.​
I used an "Ewok" figurine scared and trapped up a tree that could not be resisted. The enemy "Yelled a Curse" with its dying breath. After that, every roll for anything was rolled twice, taking the lower results.​
It was FOREVER before they figured out it was the Ewok.​

13) Most GMs forget that creatures ALSO have a deity they worship and can call upon.
This alone changes the dynamics of an encounter. (Some "Holy Days" can improve an encounters stats and abilities.)​

14) Change the encounters tactics.
You may not be fighting them but everything at their disposal instead.​
Adding an "elemental", by whatever means that makes sense, will screw up a party's plans for victory.​
(An earth elemental that grabs and drags an PC underground and leaves them there, moving away quickly will not only confuse but is often deadly.)​

15) The encounter could be infected, cursed, be a lycanthrope, spelled, have/wear/be covered with something that doesn't affect it but the PCs are allergic to or take damage from.

16) Elemental immunities or effects.
Remember burning skeletons that explode when you kill them? The monster could have corrosive effects to their natural attacks that compound/stack.​

17) Add Sneak Attack and Bleed damage.

18) A hidden magic user is buffing the encounter from 30' away (greater invisibility).

19) Many monsters also HIRE lesser minions!
You may 'start' to attack your "known foe" only to be surprised by a plethora of lesser creatures swarming you.​

20) Speaking of swarms:
a wand of summon swarm, staff of swarming, vomit swarm ability or just the random appearance of a swarm (must make sense to the area/weather/terrain) will change a battle.​

These are just some of the ways I "change it up".

Remember, if everyone had fun you are a successful GM!