When running adventures, especially in published/licensed universes, it can be tempting to add familiar adversaries as we often feel our players would appreciate it. After all, who wouldn’t want to face down Daleks or Sontarans in Doctor Who: Adventures in Time and Space, engage in a firefight with stormtroopers while avoiding a Sith Lord in Star Wars: The Edge of the Empire, or face down a beholder in Dungeons & Dragons?

While using familiar elements is a quick way to immerse your players in the setting and make them feel as though they are part of that particular universe, the big problem with using them is that there’s no suspense.

While turning a corner and being confronted by a Dalek makes for a fun and surprising development, chances are your players already know its strengths and weaknesses. They aren’t going to trust a word the Dalek says as they aim for the eye stalk and hope for the best. If they meet a beholder, at least one person at the table will be able to count off the abilities of each eye. If they meet a squad of stormtroopers – well, they’ll stand there confidently and shoot, since the armor provides little protection and everyone but Ben Kenobi knows that stormtroopers can’t hit the broad side of a barn (kidding aside the various iterations of Star Wars RPGs tend to favor the Kenobi interpretation).

Original adversaries don’t have that problem. Like the first meeting between the Doctor and the Daleks, the Enterprise crew and the Borg, or Frodo and the Black Rider, the characters don’t know what to expect when you present them with an original adversary. Can they be reasoned with, will conventional weapons hurt them, and are we sufficiently protected are all questions that the characters struggle with when meeting an adversary for the first time. Heck, learning how to deal with unknown adversaries was the norm in Dungeons & Dragons (until players started thumbing through Monster Manuals!).

Still, when you’re running a game with a particular set of tropes original adversaries often don’t have the same punch as well-known ones. One trick I’ve developed over the years is to incorporate the tropes into adventures that feature new adversaries. Here are a few examples:

The characters come across the broken remains of a known adversary. Daleks are terrifying, but what’s even more terrifying is that there’s something out there that laid waste to them. Is this new adversary doing the universe a favor by destroying Daleks or is it something even more evil?

A known adversary comes to the characters for help. The characters are aboard a starship in an unknown region of the galaxy when a Borg cube appears. As the crew prepares for the worst, the ship is hailed. The Comm Officer can scarcely believe it when she realizes that the Borg are asking for assistance. What could frighten the Borg? And how far can the characters trust their new allies?

A new adversary is a reskinned version of a known adversary. The Cybermen were once human, but replaced their bodies with cybernetics to survive the rigors of space as their planet hurtled through it. What if another adversary also had to adapt to difficult conditions, but used bio-chemical adaptations instead? What would such an adversary look like and what humanity did it lose in the process?

The new adversary is a distinct breed of a known adversary. This is a time-honored tradition in D&D, where many monsters are simply alterations of other monsters. The gas spore and neo-otyugh are fun examples from the original Monster Manual, being variants of the beholder and otyugh, respectively.

The new adversary is a bait-and-switch of a known adversary. The characters are flying through the Unknown Regions of the galaxy when they find a colony policed by Clone Troopers. The Clone Trooper Captain wishes to speak with them, removers her helmet to reveal that she is Rodian. Apparently a lot has happened in the last 20 years and the Clone Trooper armor has been passed on.

These are a few of the methods I use to introduce new adversaries while keeping “echoes” of known adversaries. How about you? When using an established setting do you find yourself dipping into the “familiar” well too often? How well do your players respond to new material? Have any of your original adversaries achieved the same status as known adversaries? What methods do you use to keep your campaigns both fresh and familiar?

Walt Ciechanowski

About  Walt Ciechanowski

Walt’s been a game master ever since he accidentally picked up the Dungeons & Dragons Basic Set in 1982. He became a freelance RPG writer in 2005 and is currently the Victoriana Line Developer for Cubicle 7. Walt lives in Springfield, PA with his wife Helena and their three children, Leianna, Stephen, and Zoe.

14 Responses to Avoiding the Familiar

  1. Another way of fixing the problem is to create a social contract where the players either accept the idea that the characters doesn’t know about the adversary, or that the game master let the players play characters that should know about the weaknesses.

    For the first part, I recall a rule in Feng Shui, where a monster got +5 on all stats if a player said what stats or powers it had. There were no explanation of the rule, like many of these kinds of rules in Feng Shui, but my interpretation is that a behavior like that destroys the mood so much that it should be avoided. In this case, it was spelled out as a punishment for the players but they should realize by they own how bad that behavior is.

    You don’t start to talk about what happened in the last basketball game during a final fight, as little as you should tell everybody that you know the stats for the creature you’re facing.

    For the second part, I don’t see why the characters can’t be monster slayers that knows the weaknesses of what they are meeting. Rolling for Monster Knowledge is not something you should do in all games, or all playstyles, or even in all kinds of premises that you can play with the same roleplaying game.

    If they are playing Dr Who: the RPG, then someone should know about the daleks. Or if you play D&D for the 103120th time, you can’t expect the same thing from the game that you experienced the first time you played it. You have to change as a game master to adopt to the players knowledge. I don’t know, but I think that’s common sense, as much as it should be common sense for a player to not reveal a monster’s stats. If someone doesn’t understand that, have a discussion about it. Yes, you can even have a discussion with the game master to change how person plays the game. There is nothing wrong with that.

    • My crew plays Shadowrun, so its a little different than a D&D setting (knowledge is more widespread), but I often let them play with player knowledge as in-character knowledge. Obviously, they can’t look the info up at the table, but if (for instance) they happen to know off hand that Vampires can spread the plague that created them but Ghouls cannot, then I consider it to be in character knowledge they happen to have picked up somewhere.

      Its not a fit for every setting and group, but it makes things a lot easier in the long term for us (no one has to remember if they learned that one Corp secret reading a wiki or in game three months ago). In any event, as Walt said, there is always the chance for misinformation or new expressions and twists on old foes that can be used to surprise players that think they know everything (Vampires are repelled by crosses? Ha! No, that’s an urban legend! So… good luck with that…).

    • I understand the Feng Shui rule, but I kind of hate it. Well, not in Feng Shui but in other games. My group just finished a Dresden Files game and an enemy had obscene refresh compared to the group. More importantly, we (the players) couldn’t figure out how the hell it had so many abilities. We just wanted to make sure thing could actually be fought and that we weren’t about to fight to the death.

      So we were trying to figure out roughly how strong the thing could be and what it’s attack and defense stats were like before we asked the GM if the thing was for real. I would have hated for it to get stronger because we were worried about dying to a demon lord.

      • Disclaimer: I’ve never read the Feng Shui rules, so I’m extrapolating from what Rickard said.

        Razjah, your interpretation of the rule seems incorrect. If you clearly did not know what the monster was, then it would not have triggered the “Feng Shui rule”. That rule is clearly there to keep someone from saying, “Red eyes. White Skin. Horns. Oh. It’s a Hyperalbinoid. They have a fire gaze attack, metal cutting claws, and…”

        Just trying to figure out what an opponent’s capabilities are should not invoke the rule.

  2. As a GM, I actively avoid the familiar at all times. I think of it like the old Ravenloft concept that you might see a skeleton approach your party. Is it just an animated skeleton, or could it be a mummy or lich devoid of flesh. One may have expectations, but that doesn’t mean what you see is what you get. Thus, I might use the familiar only superficially where expectations are turned on its head as a means to surprise the party, and make so any encounter lacks a familiar sense. The fear factor is turned up to 11. Of course I prefer more of a horror game, so anything to increase the fear factor is a good thing.

  3. I love creating new adversaries in my games, though I admit it is rare I get a chance to do one from scratch. Primarily I save it for unique, one off, climactic creatures the players will battle against.

    More often than not, I’m likely to use re-skinned enemies. D&D 4E actually made this really easy, as you could appropriate their level specific stats and use them with a completely different description and the occasional tweaked stat (the Chaos Beast deals Necrotic damage instead of Fire, etc.). I ran a short D&D campaign in a homebrewed setting that did exactly that for 75% of all the creatures they ran into.

  4. Re-skinning is one of the easiest solutions to this. Home brew worlds certainly help too. I ran a pathfinder game where I made orcs 10 foot tall monsters with acid blood that could burn enemies if they slashed an orc. They carried weapons the size of a man and took skulls as trophies from their enemies.

    Suddenly a fodder enemy was terrifying. When given the choice of going near the orc territory they chose everything else.

    I simply used Ogre stats and added a reflex save to save vs 1d4 acid damage from piercing and slashing attacks. Easy peasy lemon squeezey.

  5. I feel like this is less of a problem in systems that don’t base almost all their adversaries on what’s published in a “Monster Manual.” Putting the players up against human(oid) opponents prevents them from instantly knowing how powerful their enemies are. Especially in class-less/level-less systems, it’s almost impossible for the players to know exactly what they’re up against. In D&D it won’t take players long to figure out the class of the human(oid) enemies their fighting, and it takes all the mystery out of their adversaries. Even with a system like D&D it’s important to vary the known details of monsters and adversaries in order to deter meta-gaming.

  6. Good article, Walt. I’ve been using a few of your suggestions and some other ideas for quite a few years in my own games to combat the problem of player knowledge. As Rickard mentions above, a GM can take the approach of punishing PCs in game when players announce their knowledge out loud, but that’s really an incomplete solution. Players looking to get around the rules will simply learn to keep their mouths shut. Even the most honest players have trouble firewalling inappropriate knowledge from their players. For example, if a group of adventurers meets a medusa for the first time, but they are played by experienced players, how many of them are really going to approach her without concern that her mere gaze can turn them to stone?

    Anyway, the methods I’ve found to work best to keep a new game setting fresh are:

    1) Boost a familiar monster. This is really my favorite, though it must be used sparingly. You can’t just boost every monster! As an example, Orcs in my game are level 3 monsters. (There are plenty of other creatures at CR 0.5, 1, and 2.) They’re smart enough to use squad tactics. Leaders may have an extra level or two. I foreshadowed this at the start of my game by sharing with each of the players lots of background lore about how bad-ass Orcs were. They all predictably ignored it as “everyone knows” Orcs are 1 hitdie monsters. Their first Orc combat was a… revelation… to say the least.

    2) They’re not evil! A good way to keep players from getting away with out-of-character assumptions is to change up their opponents’ motivations. What if that Medusa I mentioned above isn’t out to destroy all life but is a morally good being struggling to rid herself of a curse? What if the tribe of Ogres are really just neutral, and are content to keep to themselves if Humans would just stop stealing their meager crops?

    3) There’s a special, elite breed. Similar to #1, but it’s a very small number of a common foe who are decidedly less common. Like the Orc who has wings and can fly. “Wait, these Orcs can fly?” a horrified group asked me. “Only this one,” I replied. “And while you were all gawking he cast a spell, hurtling yellowish bolts of flame at you. Roll Reflex saves.”

  7. Adapting the familiar to something new and unique to your campaign is the point of playing in a licensed/established universe. You want the familiar elements to aid in buy in by the players — there’s less work in establishing the setting — we all know what the bridge of Enterprise looks like, the uniforms of Galactica, what the aliens of Star Wars look like — but its the twists you throw in that make a game fly.

    For example: in a Galactica game, you might replace the leads with the players’ characters. Introduce ADM Cain as a man but with a similar personality, or take the character from the show and tweak her to make her more sympathetic.

    To use the examples above, your Sith Lord could be something unique, maybe a force user who is looking to balance the light and dark aspects of the Force. give them a new form of Stormtrooper appropriate to the setting. “The Swamptroopers arrive in their speederboats…”

  8. I like to put the familiar foe in an unfamiliar situation. Fighting a beholder in a regular dungeon room emphasizes the familar monster since he’s the only interesting thing in the room. Fighting a beholder and his vampire minions atop a castle that is beseiged by stone-hurling giants while part of the roof is on fire? Yeah, I think it’s fine that the players know what all the eye-beams do.

  9. Awesome article with a bunch of great tips in it. It is also fun to use those same known tropes and only have them be the same in appearance. This way when my players begin to delve into this familiar monsters it’s anything but.

    Or when using a modern style game bringing in elements of pop culture and than twisting them all about. I love the idea of using the known as foreshadowing I’ll have to incorporate a bit more of that in my games.

  1. Haste! Sticking with Stereotypes, PC Wealth:Creativity Ratio, and Hero Machine! | Words In The DarkWords In The Dark

    […] breaking tropes and how stereotypes really aren’t all that bad as we explore a blog post on avoiding the familiar.  What do you guys […]

Leave a Reply