There are many campaigns that struggle because the players think they know everything there is to know about their enemy. And the sad thing is that they are often right. Most roleplaying systems release specialised books filled with antagonists to fight and monsters to slay. These books often go into excruciating detail on the creatures’ psychology, physiognomy and culture, all things that are an excellent source for green and veteran storytellers alike.
Often this information becomes common knowledge, as is the case with the standard D&D troll’s vulnerability to fire and acid, or with nosy players combing these tomes for information between sessions, not out of malice or spite but out of sheer interest in this shared hobby of ours. While this is often the first step for a player transitioning towards the storyteller’s chair this can also lead to a kind of arrogant ennui as they deftly counter each monster in turn, remembering every blessed crossbow bolt that will instantly kill as well as recalling resistances and vulnerabilities to certain damage types on the fly. The more min-maxing of these players will try to get abilities that allow them to change their spells on the fly to take advantage of this knowledge such as the Loremaster for 5e Dungeons and Dragons or certain metamagic feats from earlier editions. For them being forewarned is being forearmed.
This also afflicts veteran dungeon masters when they get a chance to sit on the other side of the screen, a sort of occupational hazard, having prepared games for years and most likely having seen stat blocks for your favourite monster a hundred times. They don’t mean to spoil your fun by knowing the maturation cycle of the Blue Slaad or how long it takes a Lich to reform by its phylactery after being dismantled by the party but still the knowledge lurks within them and so is the tendency to use it.
But what can you do when this well of experience starts to poison your table? My experience is that you need to mix it up once in a while but there are degrees to which you need to go depending on your group.
A Change of Pace
The first thing you can do is to try moving your game to a setting that is slightly off kilter to what you’re used to. One of these settings is Eberron by Keith Baker, a masterpiece in my opinion, where the classic tropes of D&D are re-imagined in a sort of industrialised society existing on top of a series of older civilisations that have risen and fallen through the ages. The setting itself is very well thought out and provides endless plot hooks for standard storytelling but for the purposes of this article it is its alternate use of often tired tropes that we will look at. Chief among these is how he uses the often typecast drow race. Instead of their tired backstory of a betrayal and a fall so closely mirroring Abrameic religions. They exist in the southern jungle continent of Xen’drik, a continent shattered and cursed by magic so old it predates almost all the other civilisations on the continent.
The drow are former slaves to the titans. The titans are waging a guerilla war against their giant offspring for control of the continent. The drow rely on stealth and the gifts of magic and poison from Vulkor the scorpion god to fell their physically superior foes. In this interpretation, the dark elves are tribal savages and not aristocratic slavers, honourable instead treacherous and favour martial classes over the classic magic users of Greyhawk and the Forgotten Realms to the extent that they have several unique weapons at their disposal. This take on the drow was so fresh to me that I, a long time hater of the mere existence of the blasted dark elves, fell in love with the concept and even partially forgave the race its past sins. There are a myriad of other similar changes in Keith Baker’s work and I highly recommend this approach if you want to spice things up without going overboard.
I myself once ran a game, many years before I read the Eberron setting, where my players were colonists in a new land. Races were restricted to humans, dwarves and halflings residing in a small coastal town recently established as a beachhead to explore this new land. To make a long story short my players were the first in their time to find the elven empire and then wish they didn’t as these Elves were based on the Aztecs, only more bloodthirsty and with lifespans stretching into the thousands of years. Just the thought that the horrible enemy was not an Orc or an Oni performing these atrocities but bloodthirsty Elves seemed to spark a new life into my players and I took a lesson from that.
Take a Walk on the Wild Side
Another more extreme but excellent example is Dark Sun. This D&D setting from TSR took the bold step of throwing the whole monster manual out the window along with almost anything a player would recognise. Nomadic elven runners in the deserts, wild and tribal dwarves in the ruins of their ancient civilisations, cannibalistic halflings more akin to Piranha swarms taking down much larger prey, this setting took every common trope behind a shed and shot it. Along with that they published a set of new monster manuals unique for the setting (Terrors of the Desert and Terrors Beyond Tyr) as well as a revised and expanded system for Psionics to take partially replace the standard magic arcane and divine magic, that where much rarer. All this set in a blasted hellscape of a world bereft of even water after a titanic genocidal war that elevated some magic users to the ranks of Sorcerer Kings but left the rest of the world dead or dying.
Of course this is a much larger step to take to shake up a stale table but it’s not one to be taken lightly. If you think this is a step you have to take I suggest you start by using the Dark Sun setting over home-brewing something as extreme as it as such a big change to the normal game state and a huge undertaking. It can easily appear daunting for the players. My first real experience with Dark Sun came during D&D 4e as fellow Yawning Portal contributor Þorsteinn Mar ran us through the renowned adventure City by the Silt Sea and I highly recommend it as a starting point to the world. Just remember that the harshness of having to keep track of your drinking water might be too much for some.
Other systems tackle this problem by having things less certain. Monsters have no overarching absolutes and it falls more on the storyteller to nail down exactly what a certain monster can and cannot do.
A simple version of this was presented in the World of Darkness supplement Antagonists from White Wolf Publishing. In this excellent book they presented a system for storytellers to design for themselves what a zombie, walking dead, shambler or whatever you want to call it meant in their world. Are they slow or fast, do they instantly die from head trauma or not and is their condition infectious or are they maybe animated by some fell magical power and controlled by the true enemy. For fans of horror games I cannot recommend this book enough as its insights into antagonist creation are great for storytellers running almost any system, not just the World of Darkness.
Another example of this is the Ennie winning Night’s Black Agents from Pelgrane Press. This modern day spies vs vampires campaign is written wholly with the idea in mind that the vampires are complete unknowns. During the whole reading of the campaign there is no mention of what powers or abilities the vampires possess but a chapter in the back of the book then allows the storyteller to design what a vampire is in his setting. Are they strange aliens from outer space or the brood of some Carpathian mass murderer? It’s totally up to the storyteller.
You can take the same approach if you are ready for the increased workload and preparation time. What is a Dragon to you really? Is it just a set of hit points with an armour class value or is it its ancient reptilian intellect and unparalleled greed? How do these choices affect your game on the table and what do you need to change to keep things fresh and interesting to your players?
In the end how you adapt to all of this comes down to experience and openness to new ideas. When you feel things are getting stale around the table don’t ever be afraid to change up the pace or the setting. If it doesn’t work out you can always change it back and cash in on good old nostalgia…