Welcome to the Hearty Dice Hearth: the start of a series where we gather round an imaginary internet fireplace and answer your questions in more detail, and perhaps in a more actually-useful way, than we do on our podcast. This week:
DJM ASKS: How do you include monsters as NPCs without the players getting all murder-y?
GRANT: You make them very, very hunky.
CHRIS: Or you humanise them, make the players actually want to find out more about your favorite monster.
GRANT: There’s nothing more human than a hunk. Imagine: a beautiful otyugh. Maybe he’s preppy. Button-up shirt. Glasses. Do they have eyes?
CHRIS: I’m fairly sure they have eyes, although they’re hidden beneath a rotting pile of filth. Just how hunky can you make a creature who literally lives in poop?
GRANT: Bad example, perhaps. I don’t think otyughs can talk, anyway, which kind of rules them out of being NPCs in the first place. I think NPCs have to be able to talk to the players in some way, so you’re looking at stuff with mouths, vocal chords, intelligence 5 or more… or maybe just powerfully telepathic shit that can mind link. Or mimics. What the fuck is going on with mimics? Can’t I just ask one what happened with their whole… deal?
CHRIS: I think mimics must have their own little communities. A mimic walks into a mimic party and it’s like the the most confusing fancy dress party going.
GRANT: Let’s try some of that advice. That’s why people are here. So: you hit on it earlier when you said that you need to humanise the monsters, right? That’s a core requirement. And I think the most human thing of all you can do, and pretty easily, is to give them a name.
CHRIS: Naming them is super important. Also give them a trait, some little physical or verbal action that sets them apart from the standard Illithid or Owlbear.
GRANT: What’s a good name for an owlbear? Asking for a friend.
CHRIS: You can go two ways: go noble and call them Ignatius or more traditional and call them Howlbeak.
GRANT: I was thinking Hoots McGinty but those are good too. I mean, either of those could be used as an actual name for an owlbear, so top work there. I think the name and trait thing applies to all NPCs in your game, even ones you want players to do a murder on, so: what’s the thing we can add that stops the knives coming out?
CHRIS: Illicit compassion. Whether that be pity, friendship or empathy it’s useful to have an NPC that isn’t looking like they will smash your face in given half a chance.
GRANT: If we look back to the roots of D&D, get back to the old school, there are reaction tables that determine a creature’s general mood when they meet the players – and what they want, too. (The Black Hack, an excellent short-form game, has a good one of these.) It’s boring, not to mention dangerous and unrealistic, to have everything want to kill the players the second they rock up. What do the monsters want? Once you determine that you can make them a lot more interesting. ALSO: give them kids.
CHRIS: You can also bake it into your setting. If the players are at a point where goblins cease to be a threat have them just flee when they see the party. One goblin stays and drops their weapon and tries to communicate.
GRANT: I like that; I like the idea of the players getting all I Am Legend on the monsters, you know? As in: they become a legendary threat, a terrifying thing, that the monsters talk of in hushed, feared tones. So maybe you find goblin wall art depicting their raids on the dungeons, you know? That’s kind of fun. There’s also a big difference between intelligent and unintelligent monsters, too. Like: do they have culture? Are they, for the want of a better word, people?
CHRIS: Even have the wall art depicting everyday life. Remind the players that these are more than just bags of hitpoints and loot. Keep the fact that they have lives outside of being murdered. When the players see how much care you put into the “monstrous” races then that can start to rub off on them.
GRANT: For sure. I think we should try and boil this down to a FIVE TOP TIPS thing. I’ve read those articles before. They seemed useful. Does that seem like the sort of thing you’d like to do, right here, with me, in front of everyone?
CHRIS: Yeah, let’s start with 1) Give your monster a name and trait.
GRANT: 2) Work out what your monster wants, and what the smartest way of them getting it is.
CHRIS: 3) Humanise the monster by giving examples of how it lives and interacts with the world and others of its kind.
GRANT: 4) A bit mercenary, but: give the players a good reason not to kill the monster – it offers them a deal, etc. And don’t have it turn on them, either! It might be fun the first time but you ruin future potential monster encounters.
CHRIS: 5) Remember that it is still a very different creature to the players. In their interactions it will act in a way that fits a member of its race: an owlbear’s instincts will lean towards being protective and tearing off arms, for example.
GRANT: Okay! That’s good. Also 6) Make them super, super hunky. Can’t stress that enough. Everyone wants to smooch the monsters; that’s the secret that the player’s handbook won’t tell you.
CHRIS: Never not hunky.
GRANT: Imagine a hunky beholder. Just try to imagine that.
CHRIS: Flexing its ripped eyestalks and posing for the party in speedos.
GRANT: Where do the speedos… go? Anyway. That’s probably enough for this question. I’ll be in my bunk. Bye everyone!