It’s often surprising to us as GM’s as to what sticks in the players’ minds about our games. An NPC we overlooked or simply plopped down as something to interact with, a statement intended to be taken as face value, a strange artifact that you handed them simply to make them feel accomplished, whatever it may be. A smart GM will use the player’s paranoia to shape the game and co-create a story with the players. Letting the players unwittingly write the story is one of our most clever and diabolical tricks. But we’re not here to talk about tricks this time, but more so about what we actually do on purpose to iterate a point.
Tone is easily one of the most important elements of a game. It dictates how players role play their characters, how important decisions are made throughout the story and it’s actually the first thing you set at the table, knowingly or not. I could sit here and cram recommendations for a session zero and setting the bar early on into your eyeballs but we all know this stuff already. The million dollar question today is: How can we reinforce a tone with monsters in combat scenarios?
Sticking a certain monster in two different environments can actually have completely different impacts on how the situation is received at the table. Indeed, a powerful weapon to be used. If you have orcs in the sewers of a city, it looks completely different from having them in the wilderness. It could imply that there’s something at work out of sight, or maybe it could hint that the particular city has weak defenses. Either way, most minds will already be thinking about what this could mean from a story structure standpoint. Choosing the right monster for the job is absolutely crucial to successful foreshadowing and reinforcement of tone.
When I’m using this technique, the first thing I look at is what point I’m trying to hammer home. My home campaign is mainly centered around the undead monster type. I’m using it as a vehicle for political intrigue, playing off of the relationship of the Lich King and everybody else within 13th Age’s Icon system. With this in mind, my players know that if they come across an undead creature, it’s either foreshadowing something awful coming their way or can be a gateway to a nugget of information. A lead or an omen, and boy, do they know it. More recently (not yet annotated in the Ald Sotha campaign summaries), I used a sort of pseudo-undead type idea to serve as a misdirection. Being in a town’s crypt and coming across specters hints back to the overarching plot of the game. However, I used it as a completely unrelated side quest where half orcs were angry at the villagers for taking over their ancestral home. They raided, burned and killed, cursing the bodies to leave their souls in a state of unrest.
To my players, it seemed like the necromancer that had sacked Ald Sotha was moving westward, preparing to make New Port hist next victim. In the end, the whole misdirection helped my players be less murder-y when they figured out the true nature of the situation. It helped me create a sense of dread, fear, and desperation. Many things could be pulled from this example in relation to how to build a plot and all that good stuff, but the hidden gem, to me, is how I misdirected them solely with two monsters. The half orcs helped make the statement that intelligence can be a destructive weapon to generations of beings. The specters made them draw a conclusion before the endgame was truly revealed.
Tapping into an emotion with a combat scenario is a good milestone to hit. To hit on primal fear, using an animal like a Bullette or owlbear is great. Reinforcing the fact that people can be the most frightening adversary due to their cunning and cruelty is also horrendously easy to do. But what about using a monster to stand as a sort of allegory for something in out world? Quite honestly, demons and devils are immense fun to use in this aspect. Throwing them behind the curtain of a political fallout can not only be a fun reveal towards the end, but also very easy to shroud throughout the entirety of the game.
To my knowledge, most demons and devils don’t have a human form ability to rely on. As a GM, if I found it dramatically appropriate to have this one or group of such to have it, then, damn it, they’re going to have it! Perhaps the concept of a demon/devil being the BBEG without it being incredibly obvious could be this:
That’s a ridiculously broad overview of what I would do with the general idea, but maybe it’ll get your mind jogging as to how to make this a campaign. Stuff like this needs to be broad, simply because you know your table and players best. Anyhow, that’s a very grand type of example on having the right monster for the job. Gamers have short attention spans for an overarching plot and like to muck about in places you didn’t plan them to. A perfect vehicle for expressing themes that aren’t in the spotlight of your game.
Everybody has that one sweet miniature they want to use for something but simply can’t find a way to weave it into the plot. This absolutely reeks of two words: side quest. It’s a good way to keep your players from getting bored with the main story and a great exercise for you as a GM to think outside of the box. Tying all of your stuff together can be a challenge, but using monsters to help you do that becomes incredibly easy with some practice.
Using a mage-like monster/adversary can be a really interesting change of pace if you use a low-magic setting. It adds a sort of shock value and could create a small sense of fear, mainly due to the flashy lights and “OOO look at me. I’m powerful!” type of display but, hey. Stirring the pot is great, and what better way to do it than with monsters?
Stay Metal \m/