Active from 2005 to 2007 and dedicated entirely to system-neutral GMing advice, Treasure Tables was one of the earliest RPG blogs. It was also the precursor to Gnome Stew, so we decided the best way to keep all of its content -- over 750 articles and more than 7,500 comments -- accessible to as many GMs as possible was to move it here, which we did in 2012. Comments are turned off, just they as were when Treasure Tables closed in 2007. The GMing material and discussion archived below was originally featured on TreasureTables.org. Enjoy! --Martin Ralya

If you’ve been gaming for long enough, you’ve seen plenty of campaign elements more than once: giant rats and skeletons in low-level D&D games, sinister corporate goons in cyberpunk scenarios and the like.

When you first started playing, those things might have been pretty amazing. I know they were for me — when everything’s new, “old standbys” aren’t old to you. But what do you do when they become standbys?

How do you breathe fresh life into game elements you’ve probably used several times as a GM, and that your players may have encountered dozens of times before?

In a book, the author can just write “Seeing the advancing skeletons, Pippin was frozen in place. How could the dead be walking? And how could he possibly hope to stave them off?” In an RPG, Pippin would just hit them with his sword (or even better, his club).

Is there a way to avoid that? And is avoiding it desirable, or is it just me?

About  Martin Ralya (TT)

"Martin Ralya (TT)" is two people: Martin Ralya, the administrator of and a contributor to Gnome Stew, and a time traveler from the years 2005-2007, when he published the Treasure Tables GMing blog (TT). Treasure Tables got started in the early days of RPG blogging, and when Martin burned out trying to run it solo he shut it down, recruited a team of authors, and started Gnome Stew in its place. We moved all TT posts and comments to Gnome Stew in 2012.



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22 Responses to Can Old RPG Standbys Still Amaze?

  1. I’ve got one player in my D&D group who hates such low-level tropes with a burning passion. Two things I’ve found to be effective:

    1. Skip low levels. The afore-mentioned player is happy as a pig in poo even at 5th level.

    2. Cosmetic changes can go a long way. Take a kobold, or goblin, or whatever, make it look different, and slap a new name (and maybe ecology) on it. Bam — new monster. People’s eyes may glaze over when they hear the word “kobold,” but if they instead hear “a twisted mass of flesh and muscle, with green skin and faintly glowing yellow eyes,” they perk right up. :)

    My two cents.

  2. Descriptions, not just creature names go a long way. Same with not drawing out a room and tossing miniatures down upon it. Describe the scene and then go to mini’s if appropriate. (Just one reason in a long line of why I don’t favor minis in an RPG.)

    As for old standbys that still have a place in your game?

    Two words: Ninjas attack.

    ‘Nuff said.

  3. To the extent that it’s the GM’s responsibility to ensure the character’s reaction to a cliche is “proper”, yes – there are some things that you can do.

    Be vague. Don’t say, “four zombies attack”; say, “four shriveled corpses reeking of death and putrification shuffle towards you”. Are they just zombies, or are they ghouls, or something worse? Are they attacking, or merely hoping you have some lotion for that itchy dry skin?

    Obfuscate. Don’t make the one badass thug the obvious leader of a bunch of mooks. Maybe one of the mooks is the guy doing the talking, and Mr. Badass is in the background, ready to surprise the group when the SHTF.

    Bend the rules. Who says you can’t add class levels (in d20) to a monster? Wouldn’t a bear with barbarian levels be fun? How about a Skeleton with Rogue levels? (Kudos to Reed for opening my eyes to this one.)

    Modify the rules. Maybe taking a skeleton to 0 Hit Points (again, in d20) doesn’t kill it, but sends it to the ground where it can still attack anything in its square. (I’ve got a great image of a single skeletal arm attacking anything nearby.) A coup de gras (full round action) is necessary to make it truly harmless.

    Will – Forgive my pet peeve, but my players get scared sh!tless when they hear the word, “Kobold”. Goblins, on the other hand… feh. :)

  4. Any monster will seem ridiculous if you haven’t set the mood. Plop a dragon into the middle of a pleasant field of posies and the players will be like “Where the Hell did that come from?” Build up how a dragon has been randomly attacking places of peace and tranquility and it might work.

    Same thing with skeletons and giant creatures, you have to build up the scene for their entrance into the game. The skeletons aren’t just a bunch of skeletons, they are the tortured trapped souls of the village forced to feed on the life forces of the living that never satisfies their hunger. The skies turn dark as their evil march begins, and corrupts the very presence of nature resulting in huge giant bugs and rodents which attack and pass their pestilence onto others.

    Now you are not just fighting monsters, but a force of evil behind them.

  5. I guess I’ve willingly retreated so far away from standards like that in my GM style that I don’t use them often enough to feel they are old. The last time a goblin popped up in a game I was running the heroes traded with it for safe passage through their territory.

    A lot of what has already been said about description holds true. Drop a name out there “goblin” and people go to what they think of goblins. Start describing the “small green long limbed and toothy humanoid, his mowhawk of black hair and a bandolier of small railroad spikes, each tip bearing the dried blood of something it had killed on it.” and they may pick it out for a goblin, but they aren’t thinking of it as a goblin. Creativeness in changing the standard image helps as well. Maybe the mechanics are the same, but the players treat it completely different.

    Like will says about name changes, if you change the name you change some of the concept of the creature. Final Fantasy 12 was great about this. I was fighting wolves, and orcs, and all sorts of other gaming stereotype characters, but because the name was different and the “background” that they had written up for it was extensive it gave it a whole different feel.

  6. VV_GM, I don’t know. I kind of like the dragon in the field of posies. Composing poetry about butterflies, the song “(what a day for a) daydream” by the loving spoonful playing in the background, and a group of confused PC’s going WTF?????

    I mean what do monsters do in their spare time?

  7. I think the suggestions here are all very good. If I could attempt to summarize, I might say, “make old things new by changing them a little.” Telas’ ideas are excellent.

    Building on the “modify the rules” idea, I once had a couple ghouls in a crystalized volcano cavern guarding a big heap o’ treasure. “How boring is that?” I thought. Building on the background of their creation (they were dwarves killed on the work site after completing the excavation effort), I decided to infuse their bodies with the black/ruby crystal of the cave, thus giving them some extra armor and damage resistance. Viola! One small change and it’s a new monster!

    Making changes that integrate with the environment or story can be very effective at adding to the immersion of play.

  8. My players have been totally flummoxed by a manticore that I described as “a flying lion with iron feathers on its tail and wings.” Even after it started whipping tailfeathers at them, I don’t think they got it.

    :-)

  9. Hmm, I think part of the mistake is assuming only the new can provide enjoyment. But almost every day of my life, I take enjoyment, and even awe and amazement from the old. I’ve eaten spaghetti hundreds of times, yet, I still find a plate of spagetti with home-made sauce exciting.

    On starting out at higher than 1st level and skipping the “intro” consider chess. Chess starts with one of a handful of opening moves, yet many people continue to play chess for years. Moderately skilled chess players probably even repeat games. But playing chess is more than just playing out those moves. It’s a medium that allows connection to a real live person. And I think that’s where a lot of the awe and wonder and newness comes in, not through the rote mechanical stuff, but the sparkle of social interraction.

    Now granted, I don’t start characters at 1st level, but that’s because I feel like the survivability of 1st level characters is too weak and random, and also that some character types (spell casters especially) have too few options, and unlike chess, they don’t get more options after a few minutes of play, they often don’t get the additional options for several sessions. Probably D&D should be fixed so that 1st level characters are more survivable and have more options. Now there may be good reasons to occaisionally start at higher level games, and I remember back in my youth, taking Avalon Hill’s Gettysburg game, and a book showing several stages of the battle, and setting up the game at those later stages, so that kind of thing does have validity, but to always discard the intro part of the game?

    What can also be frustrtating about the low level monsters is that once the characters are beyond 1st level, fights with them can be foregon conclusions, however, it may still take an hour or so to run the fight. Long ago, after playing a computer game that had a “quick combat” mode (which spent more resources, but just took seconds to resolve), one of my good friends started wishing for a way to do such in an RPG. My usual solution is to ignore such encounters. On the other hand, I’ve recently started an AD&D 1e campaign, and I’m looking forward to how we used to resolve those foregone conclusions: use a charge from the wand of fireballs. Kerblam, encounter over. The wand of fireballs was primarily used to dispose of such annoying encounters, and not so much for the real challenges. I was annoyed that D&D 3/3.5 makes that wand so prohibitively expensive that players will probably never actually get one. 3.0/3.5 has really changed the way D&D is played.

    Frank

  10. There are other ways to change the stale monsters besides appearance and ecology. Instead, change the default assumptions of the society around them. For example: “In this world, most orcs are the standard, hateful tribes used by evil priests and black knights as fodder since time began. However, a substantial minority of orcs are members of the nomadic desert tribes to the south. The desert orcs are honorable but cunning, and generally dislike being associated with their racial counterparts.”

    Like a lot of things in RPGs, you don’t need a lot of novelty. You just need enough novelty that things aren’t *always* the same. Orcs (and rats and skeletons) serve a valuable purpose in RPGs, as things the players can simply smack. It doesn’t mean that the players should be able to smack thoughtlessly, though. The “change the description” trick works because it makes the players hesitate for a moment. Anything that causes that hesitation will work just as well.

  11. John_Arcadian – I see your point, but as long as you eventually explain the “WTF?” experience later in the story I think it will achieve the same effect as what I was trying to describe.

    Just having it happen though without any reason might be a bit of a let down for some players. I can see them afterwards saying “And then the GM just threw in a dragon for no reason! How lame is that?”

    Although I am guilty of casting verisimilitude to the side on occasion when a weird event makes for a memorable session. I’ve been toying with the idea of a “reverse gravity” room just to throw at the players. You walk in and “fall” to the ceiling. Walk out and you fall to the ground. Why? Just because that is what that room does.

  12. Many of the suggestions here touch on the issue, but I’d like to state it. The thing that kills the amazement is that the player isn’t experiencing any mystery in the creature.

    If the creature should be unfamiliar and frightening to the *character*, your work as GM is to make it so for the *player*.

    You can do that by describing it rather than naming it by its bestiary title (never say “zombies” when you can describe the sight of the rotting flesh, the stink of the creatures as they approach, and the details of the unnatural way they move); changing its description (figure something unique about this one creature, or about this one band of mooks, and emphasise that); or even changing the superficial aspects of its appearance entirely while keeping exactly the same statistics (instead of dire wolves, give them dark blue lizards with glowing yellow eyes).

    The latter option also gives you something more: the player *doesn’t immediately know how to deal with the threat*. In your “bash them with a club” example, that’s obvious only because the *player* knows how to deal with skeletons — low-level Pippin likely does not. Give him a creature with the same game effects, but a different superficial description, and the player is caught off guard, just as the character should be — even though the threat level is exactly the same.

    Yes, this is more work for the GM than simply saying “a kobold” or “three skeletons”. But it’s at the core of the problem: you want to amaze your characters, and level-1 creatures have every ability to do so — *if* they are described to the player in such a way that the player gets amazed as their character should be.

  13. Well, you can always introduce the characters to a gazebo and watch the fun begin!

    ;)

  14. I try to avoid that kind of staleness by creating races with familiar names and attributes but with enough differences from the cliches to make the experience novel. For instance, ogres are big, strong and dumb but they have very long lives and perfect memories. Civilized ones often find work as public record keepers (they memorize the material and are too dumb to find it boring) and even as the town library. They recite the tomes on demand. For a largely illiterate populace this works well. This also means that if you incur the wrath of an ogre and survive, a distant descendant may pay the price.

  15. I agree with the first comment. The tried and true monsters are often nicely balanced for low level parties, a few cosmetic changes can make them new and mysterious, or down right creepy.

    One game I ran I had carnivorous sheep and lambs. They were wolves right out of the book. But making them evil sheep added a level of perversion that made them extra scary.

    I also had a group of “mutates”, humans that transformed into hideous and power monsters. (I used the stats for Ogres). Just the idea that they were really humans, made them scarier somehow.

  16. I’ve not experienced the problem yet. When throwing new PCs into an adventure, I frequently give them a monster that’s far too tough for them early on, and force them to really think about how to get past it, or defeat it. After that, it’s almost a relief to fight “normal” goblins. ;)

    I also spend some time crafting individual cultures for my humanoid races. Fight Red Skull goblins isn’t the same as fighting Black Arrow goblins, and finding either where they shouldn’t be turns the dull “kill all the goblins” adventure into a much more intriguing mystery.

    – Brian

  17. Brian: That sounds like you’re already doing much of what every GM needs to be doing to engage their players: turn it from a mechanical rules problem into something they need to think about imaginatively. At which point the game-mechanic threat level of the creatures is not the only important factor, which makes “old standby” creatures fresh again.

  18. I’m not ashame to say I still have to use Stormtroopers to make my players feels it IS still StarWars !!!
    Do you think I should give them a mohawk and paint them in blue with fresh blood on their fists and nano-bolas ready to launch ????
    :)

  19. froidhiver: If the PCs are frequently going up against the Empire, then that would pretty much be defined by incidents involving Stormtroopers; and Stormtroopers are defined by the identical, face-obscuring uniforms :-)

    There are ways to make them different though. While Lucas showed virtually all Stormtroopers as being entirely fungible and tactical dunces, there’s no need to always do that in your SW universe.

    Have the Stormtroopers actually plan an operation well, for once; or, have the PCs catch them at a time when they’re *not* in full uniform; or, have them cooperate with low-powered mercenaries, or locals who are sympathetic to the Empire, who *can* be painted as individuals. Any of these will inject freshness into the Stormtrooper trope, without making them a significantly larger threat.

  20. (bignose) The thing that kills the amazement is that the player isn’t experiencing any mystery in the creature.

    Bingo. This is the core of the issue for me, and I wish I’d said it this well in my post.

    There are lots of great tips here for sparking that kind of reaction from your players — thanks, everyone! I know where I’ll be going the next time I’m running a game that features any old standbys (that’d be right here, for the record).

    (Will) Cosmetic changes can go a long way.

    I’ve always called this a palette swap, which I first heard in connection with Ultima Online: the devs would periodically introduce “new” content in the form of things like (drum roll please) orcs that were a different color. ;)

  21. “Bend the rules. Who says you can’t add class levels (in d20) to a monster? Wouldn’t a bear with barbarian levels be fun? How about a Skeleton with Rogue levels? (Kudos to Reed for opening my eyes to this one.)”

    That’s not bending the rules. You are allowed to add class levels to just about any creature. Its more common to add creature-type levels (outsider, humanoid, etc).

    I wouldn’t add rogue levels to a mindless undead like a skeleton, but definitely to a ghoul. :D

  22. Hehehe…

    Along the line of names, I once had a GM who had a habit of naming monsters and NPCs after celebrities. It had two general effects…

    1) Instant identification: If the players are familiar with the celebrity it’s a kind of mental shortcut.

    2) Mix-n-match: If you attach a name to a monster not normally associated with that kind of celebrity it makes for a degree of confusion and/or comedy.

    Imagine meeting a dragon that introduces itself as Joan Crawford! Or the goblin leader called Arnold Schwarzeneger!