Hullo, Gentle Readers. In my Seowyn’s Crossing campaign, there’s the underlying concept of the Old Ones. The Old Ones are a race that existed before humankind, and their great civilization disappeared completely. Now, my players explore occasional Old Ones ruins, seeking magical treasures, but fearing the devious traps and magical menaces that may have been left behind.
An old story trope, yes? Well, I use this trope to take monsters that I might’ve had little investment, or little story concept behind, and weave them together. It breathes new life into what otherwise might be monsters I had no intention of using.
I thought it might be interesting for me to give examples of how monsters can be linked to make for more dynamic encounters, exploring concepts and combinations I’m actually using in my campaign.
Creator and Created
The Old Ones lived long before humankind. Their ruins dot the countryside, and their imagery depicts them as slender, six-armed creatures with faces that could be interpreted as insectile or avian and who venerate a disc symbol. Their creations, the Warforged, were virtually unknown until certain barrows near Old One settlements were opened, releasing a species of created humanoids. These humanoids seem peaceful, and most give them the benefit of the doubt, but they are obsessed with locating Greathome, an ancient Old One city that they believe may be somewhere nearby.
You may have recognized my Old Ones as being the creatures called Weavers. These were a race I didn’t have a ton of interest in until I had the concept of the Old Ones for my campaign. I wanted the Old Ones to be utterly inhuman, and, when the unfathomable Weavers appeared in 4E’s Monster Manual 3, I knew I had a perfect match. When and if the players in my campaign meet one, it will be an epic moment.
I struggled with a home for the Warforged in my campaign. I wanted them to be mysterious in their own right, and I didn’t like the idea of a slave race created in modern times. I did want to give them the feeling of looking for a place in the world that I felt they had in Eberron, and I wanted them to be something relatively recently discovered. When I conceived of them as creations of the Old Ones, it all fell into place. I could populate Old One dungeons with Warforged that had never encountered the outside world…that had no idea that their creators’ ancient empire was gone. And I could have modern Warforged looking to hire adventurers to explore said dungeons looking for signs of Greathome.
I also used the Old Ones to explain some of the kooky 4E undead such as the three-faced Skull Lord and the four-armed Skeletal Tomb Guardians. These became barbaric humans who broke into old One cairns and began to worship the dead Old Ones, doing terrible magics on themselves to make them more like the multi-limbed creatures. When the PCs found them, it made the encounter more eerie as they realized what these ancient people had done to themselves in reverence.
Summoner and Summoned
This is a pairing so common that it’s virtually a trope of fantasy. The evil wizard or cleric summons a monster from Hell, or the Far Realm, or what have you. The very first dungeon of my 4E campaign featured such a pairing, and I’ve been including such mixed-matched ever since.
In my campaign, psionics are essentially the taint of the Far Realm. I knew I wanted a Far Realm encounter early on (especially since one of my players is a Shardmind Psion who wants to defend the Natural World against the Far Realm.) I took set of low-level mage starts, reflavored them with more psionic titles, changed some of the damage descriptors (to psychic, for example), and used the Iadabolde mini for him. Thus was born Tarkantus, an evil Psion bent on bringing the Far Realm into the Natural World.
Along with some crazed cultists (minions and a pair of human berserkers), I gave the fight a couple of twists. I had a rift in the middle of the room (created using the technique shown here), and, in the second round of combat, Tarkantus finished his ritual to summon an Ethereal Marauder. When it came out of the Rift, the party was horrified, but not shocked. They quickly engaged in a Skill Challenge to close the Rift, making sure no more would appear.
Their willingness to accept this situation just shows how natural the idea of wizards summoning monsters is for purposes of building encounters. I’ve used this model to build encounters with necromancers “creating” undead, wizards summoning demons, and commanders calling in reinforcements. The trick is to build the encounter assuming the monsters are going to be there in the first place, or with a way for the players to stop more from showing up. If the necromancer can “Create” another undead minion with a minor action, then that necromancer has to go. If the crystal construct is spewing out crystal golem minions, it needs to be destroyed, and so on.
Sometimes, monsters can be together because they need each other…or at least one needs the other one. I had two examples of this recently that my players probably won’t be forgiving me for any time soon.
My players were battling a group of undead and shadow creatures – 2 Tomb Spiders, 1 Zombie Hulk, and 1 Flameskull. It was a decent fight…but when the Zombie Hulk was bloodied, its swollen belly burst open, revealing the two Tomb Spider Broodling Swarms that had been incubating inside. My players were NOT happy…at least in character. Out of character, it was agreed that it was gross and made things extra interesting.
In a battle with Limba, the Feymire Crocodile, the PCs began to realize that Limba seemed virtually invulnerable to their weapons…at least until the Greenvise Vines that seemed to have tendrils twined into its body were defeated. This provided an interesting challenge – kill the vines while keeping the undefeatable Limba at bay, then kill Limba.
Sometimes, all it takes to find a new way to use a monster is to match it with another monster. The relationships between monsters create story and adventure, and they make these monsters inherently more interesting by grounding them in a believable background. You can weave encounters out of some strange bedfellows by exploring what the relationship between them might be.
Have you ever paired up some really odd monsters in a way that worked out well? Do you think you have a good combo of monsters that needs some story tweaking? Maybe you’d like me (or the other readers) to “pimp your encounter”? Let us all know.