Spicing up your monsters

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Spicing up your monsters

Post by Jayce »

Since this forum's target demographic is mostly veteran players, I think we've all encountered this issue at some point - monsters and foes eventually become all too predictable. Sure, the first time you encounter a Green Dragon it's super exciting, and its probably still pretty exciting the second or third time....but after 10, 15, or 20 years of encountering dragons of all different pigmentations, you feel like you know them like the back of your hand: you've conversed with them, killed them, stolen their treasure while they weren't at home, maybe even played a game of chess with them. Of course one of the luxuries of playing 2nd Edition AD&D is that there is a nearly limitless supply of Monstrous Compendiums, and there is literally nothing stopping you from using that Dragonlance one in your Mystara campaign - variety is one of the greatest strengths of 2E, after all.

But 2nd Edition has another strength that I feel is overlooked all too often - super easy monster customization. Of course every edition has allowed for monster customization, but the ease with which it can be done in the earlier editions is really quite fantastic - this is one of those areas where 2nd Edition (and also BECMI) truly shines. All that is needed is an existing monster, page 69 of the Dungeon Master Guide (I use the 2.5 edition myself), and a little imagination, and voila, even my 12 year old non-native English speaking self was able to do the trick.

I personally think the key to changing monsters is often "less is more". Sure you can change your ogre into a level draining ogre that regenerates three hit points per round, has 100% magic resistance, and can become invisible at well, that hardly makes for a compelling villain. And this is what ultimately I think is the best way to keep the boredom from setting in: create an ogre, perhaps a chieftain or shaman, that is unique, that stands out - an ogre that is more that 4+1 hit dice and 270 experience points, but one that makes your players wonder WHY he can turn invisible.

As a Dragonlance fan I've never really been satisfied with the way dragons have been handled, mechanically, in any of the editions. Dragonlance fiction contains frequent allusions to the dragons great inherent magical power, that is "matched only by Krynn's greatest sorcerers". Indeed Verminaard's dragon Ember is shown not only to be a magic-user of considerable power, but to actually spend a significant amount of his time in humanoid form. The problem with Ember in 2nd Edition AD&D, however, is that he can only cast two 1st-level spells, as well as a single 2nd-level one, and as a red dragon polymorphing isn't one of his innate abilities. This hardly makes him seem like the awesome sorcerer who is able to spy on humans in humanoid form for his Queen of Darkness. *

In one of my Dragonlance campaigns (set roughly between the Legends and Second Generation era), I've used a Green Dragon that played a role that was quite similar to Ember's - a dragon who, while not a wyrm or great wyrm yet by any means, commanded significant magical power, and spied on the elves of Qualinesti for Takhisis. To boost his magical power I used the spell progression used for the Dragon-Mage kit from the Council of Wyrms boxed set: all of a sudden instead of a measly three 1st-level spells, my adult Green Dragon (who was supposed to become a significant villain in the campaign) had no less than three 1st-level, three 2nd-level, two 3rd-level, two 4th-level, two 5th-level, and one 6th-level spell at his command - truly a magic-user to be reckoned with. Dragons being extremely long lived, as well as highly three dimensional creatures, I feel it would make perfect sense that sometimes there is that one Green, Blue or Black that stands out when it comes to his command of magic, whether through raw talent, discipline, or ambition. In addition, I gave him the ability to polymorph three times a day, similar to the polymorphing ability used by metallic dragons - this particular power was a "gift" of sorts by Takhisis, a granted power not unlike what she'd bestow upon a high level priest: a particularly talented Green, a species of dragon known for their sneakiness and cunning, makes a valuable servant, and this particular power would turn him into a highly effective spy. A little boosted magical power, and the ability to spy on just about anyone, not only made my dragon much more formidable mechanically, but also helped me turn a "monster" into a "villain".

I'd be really interested in hearing some of the ways others have customized their monsters, not just dragons but pretty much anything you can think of, in 2nd Edition AD&D. Or maybe you've had an idea about a unique twist on a classic AD&D monster that you've been wanting to try out. Please share your ideas and experiences, I'm dying to hear them. :D

*Note: IIRC 3E largely resolved the issue of Chromatic Dragons as somewhat incompetent spellcasters, but I've always felt that edition went overboard with them in terms of raw physical power. That's purely a matter of personal taste, though.

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Re: Spicing up your monsters

Post by Sturm »

With the passing years and the influence of some Mystaran products such as Gaz10 The Orcs of Thar, The PC1-4 series and others, mostly I stopped considering the mosters as such. I mean that I abandoned any idea of evil race or absolute evil. This it's important IMHO to create original villains, keeping in mind that no one consider himself "evil". It's all a matter or perspective. The "monsters" will think of themselves as defending against the human invasion.
Obviously you can still have quite evil creatures, such as demons or undead, but even them will have an agenda which is good for themselves and their allies.
Another important point to me is to think to the social organization such "monsters" will likely have. If dragons live centuries it's very probable they have the time to learn any magic they may desire, as you said.
It's unlikely they will sit alone on a pile of gold when they could have a thousand minions, traps and vaults defending them, plus an extensive family or subdued smaller dragons.
Sure this will make them very powerful but if they are intelligent and long living, it's quite obvious they should be.

It's also unlikely that humanoids will do nothing else than kill and steal. Probably they have at least some horticulture and domesticated animals, and trade. It would be safe to bet they could find humans willing to trade with them, or villages willing to pay them for "protection", or raids against other villages.
In the real world, everywhere and everytime, no nearby cultures ever had a war-only relation. There was always a complex picture of competition, trade, enmity, espionage, traitors, wars, marriages, attempt to create peace and much more.
This could simply explain why the ogre could easily have a potion of invisibility...

Most D&D products are quite superficial with their treatment of monster ecologies and racial relations for intelligent "monsters".
I think BECMI and partially AD&D were evolving to a more mature, logical direction of creatures with developed societies, while 3ed and later editions turned back to monster as cannon fodder and nothing else.

There is nothing wrong in playing the game as skirmish and fights only, but it could get old quite fast. I think that more developed "monsters" could make the game much more interesting. All "kill the monster and take its stuff" game are the same, while there is a possible infinite variation of exploration/diplomacy/intrigue games...
Just my 2 cents..
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Re: Spicing up your monsters

Post by Cliffrice »

Well monster combos are cool. Iron golem minion of a red dragon. Golem get heals every breath weapon. Creative and clever monsters are also cool, Just another red dragon? Lets rush it Avoid the lava pit. AW CRAP it reversed gravity spell on the lava and were drawing on the cealing. "Oh got my lungs are full of molten rock."

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Re: Spicing up your monsters

Post by Tim Baker »

Perhaps I'm lazy, but I often turn to bestiaries for ideas on how to add new twists to monsters. This isn't limited to bestiaries for my system of choice, but various other systems. It's not so much about looking for new mechanics (although those can be great if you can find them), but new ideas. This can come from a couple different sources. First, if the bestiary has a new take on a monster (let's say dragons), you can incorporate that into your game. Second, you can take monsters that are unique to that bestiary and "reskin" them to become a monster that you want to feature in your own game. I'll provide an example that's easy to understand, but wouldn't work as a real example, because both monsters are too common: imagine a game where there were no trolls in the setting and the players had never heard of trolls or their mechanics. If you picked the Monster Manual up for the first time, and came across the entry for trolls, you might say, "This would work well as an unusual type of orc!" You "reskin" the troll, so it's a new type of orc that the players have never encountered, and suddenly the PCs are in for an out-of-the-ordinary encounter.

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