Save My Game 03/23/2007

Familiar Monsters

This column provides advice for DMs whose campaigns are in trouble. Do your players constantly bicker or complain about issues both inside and outside of the main campaign action? Do your best ideas fall flat? Have you set up a situation that you now wish you hadn't? Worry no more, because Jason Nelson-Brown has the answers to save your game!

Problem: Too-Familiar Monsters

I sometimes have trouble as a player. We fight monsters that everybody knows about -- beholders, mind flayers, vampires, medusas (medusai?), and trolls! These monsters are staples of the adventurer's diet, and each has special powers that all players know about. How do you determine "common" knowledge? Does everyone's character know that you need silver to hurt a werewolf? What monsters are "famous" enough to count? It seems silly that in a fantastic world of amazing creatures and bards that don't shut up, people wouldn't know at least a little about a few monsters.

-- Devin, from

First, the plural of medusa is medusae. Now that that's out of the way, let's answer your question …

I have written many columns on player knowledge vs. character knowledge, but I'll take a different tack here. Many of the monsters that we as players think of as being famous really only seem famous for one of two reasons.

1. They are famous outside D&D

We've seen monster movies and horror movies, including vampire movies and werewolf movies and movies with monsters from Greek mythology, so we are abundantly familiar with these monsters. We've seen them all over. Even generally forgettable movies such as Clash of the Titans had a cool medusa with a snaky lower body (maybe a factor in bringing the 'greater medusa' into D&D a few years later). We have seen these monsters a hundred times, so we assume that our characters have seen them or heard about them in equal measure.

2. They are famous inside D&D

For one reason or another, certain monsters become iconic D&D monsters, the ones you love (or dread) to face because you know they are going to be a great challenge and a conquest you can boast about. Brain-sucking mind flayers, ray-blasting beholders, regenerating trolls that just keep coming and coming … these are classic D&D monsters. Whether it's an eye-catching illustration, a fascinating back story, a unique special power, or just a long history of showing up again and again and again throughout a player's career, these are monsters everyone recognizes instantly. Everyone at the gaming table, that is.

Neither of these points, however, addresses how famous these creatures are in the game world or in the particular part of the world where PCs live and work. Some monsters will be common and well-known in some places (yuan-ti in the Serpent Kingdoms of the Forgotten Realms, the Grey Jungles of Al-Qadim, or Hepmonaland in Greyhawk). At the same time, they can be unheard of in other places. A monster such as a troll is common enough and adaptable enough to be found almost anywhere and everywhere and so is likely to be better known.

The answer to your question, then, lies in the most basic of all 3.5 Edition mechanics, an Intelligence check, in particular a Knowledge skill check. It so happens that all of the monster types have an associated Knowledge subskill that pertains to their type of creature -- Knowledge (nature) for animals, (arcane) for dragons, (dungeoneering) for oozes, (planes) for outsiders, and so on. What you as DM need to do is decide how hard it is to know things about monsters. You do this by setting a DC. At baseline, you have a DC to identify or know the name of the creature. Successively higher DCs may let you know more about its strengths, weaknesses, habits, habitat, and special powers. Creatures that are relatively rare should have higher DCs. Those that are common will be lower, as will creatures that, even though they may be rare in number and frequency, are extremely famous.

You need not limit yourself to DCs of 10 and above. Heck, you can set the DC at zero if you want for things that are so legendary as to be automatic knowledge (say, that red dragons breathe fire). If you want to establish that in the game world, some knowledge (lycanthropes and their vulnerability to silver, fire stops a troll's regeneration, what rust monsters look like) is easily accessible, then set the DC at 10 or below, because anyone can make an untrained Knowledge skill check (i.e., an Intelligence check) if the DC is 10 or less. Characters who have ranks in the appropriate skill will know a great deal more, but any character can roll to see if they know easy information.

This is one of the really nice features about the monster capsules (and, for that matter, prestige classes) in some of the newer rulebooks -- they do this for you. The problem is that you may not want to buy another book of new monsters -- you just want better information on the monsters that you already have. This feature has not been added retroactively for the core books, in particular the basic Monster Manual. That would be a really nice feature, and perhaps one of my enterprising colleagues could create a web enhancement for the Monster Manual to do just that.

But you don't have to wait on Wizards. Think about what monster knowledge should be common, well-known, and even legendary, and do it yourself. Set the DCs low enough for that legendary information that anyone will have a chance to have heard the news, but make sure to have higher DCs for each monster so that characters who decide to put ranks into Knowledge can get some payoff for their investment in terms of more detailed information.

Have a question for the Save My Game column? Head over to the message boards: What's a DM to Do or What's a Player to Do. Be sure to include "Save My Game" as part of your message's title. Or, send us a question directly, to Ask Wizards -- and again, be sure to include "Save My Game" in the subject line.

About the Author

Jason Nelson-Brown lives in Seattle with his wife Kelle, daughters Meshia and Indigo, and son Allen. He just finished his doctorate in education and is an active and committed born-again Christian who began playing D&D in 1981.

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