A topic I keep seeing brought up in some social media groups is one along the lines of letting players have access to the books filled with monsters, or dealing with players who know monster abilities/quirks and if their characters acting on this is meta-gaming.
Most people playing Fantasy RPGs, especially the oldest game, know how monsters work (by the book anyways). Even if we aren’t familiar with the numbers, most players are keen enough on Hollywood creature features to know how to take down vampires and werewolves. If our characters encounter a troll, whether we want to or not, players start looking for acid or fire to combat the regeneration that trolls typically have. Whether our characters know this weakness or not is another matter entirely.
This meta-knowledge touches on a key aspect of older games and home-brew games that other games won’t or don’t have: monsters as puzzles, and a particular sense of discovery.
There are basically two ways to handle this. The first is to let the players use their meta-knowledge in combat. The second would be to alter monsters in a way that feels natural, but don’t tell the players, letting them figure it out as they fight. I would suggest in either case maybe taking a nod from the GUMSHOE system in that, different characters should decipher different traits about different monsters, based off of class or background. A magical spy should know about doppelgängers, and an ice-age warrior know about dire wombats. A warrior-priest of The Warding Eye should recognize a basilisk’s dread gaze, and a ex-cultist thief a rudimentary understanding of altar-ghosts’ dirge chants.
The trick here is, in the latter case, to give them clues without revealing the solution. It also serves as an additional “what if” players must consider before engaging in combat. What if this mega-marsupial is not 100% like the book says? What if the DM has altered it? What if it’s pouch is a bag of holding, filled with smaller, angrier wombats?
Monsters once familiar lose some of their fright. It is why some of us research the things we’re scared of. Because if we understand it, we become less afraid. We learn that, should we encounter cube shaped poop in the outback, we are within the territories of our nightmares.
What’s more, for a game with a sense of exploration and discovery, knowing all the details of the creatures there-in removes their alien aspect, especially for those which are meant to seem completely foreign, like aberrations. That, I feel, takes away a lot of the “aha!” element of being the first to set foot in uncharted territory, or defeat an as-yet-unknown megafauna. Which is what fantastic adventure gaming is about: the weird we haven’t seen yet, and the familiar cast through a scrambling lens.
So, how do we change monsters to make them different than what the book states, while keeping them familiar? A fresh remix, or a well-done cover song?
The first way to do so is to steal directly or indirectly from other monsters, adding powers or body parts. An example would be, that in my home-brew world, dragons must be permanently killed in a ritualized occult manner, such as vampires being beheaded or having nails driven into them. It isn’t the exact same as the parent creatures, sunlight and holy water will provide no benefit, but it is terrible when they return years later full of fire and thirsting for their missing gold. When skeletons start having multiple heads and arms, none of which look grafted, we start asking ourselves as GMs and players “what did this belong to? How did something else defeat it initially?”
The second way would be to fixate on one aspect of the monster and add new abilities that make sense. A gorgon can freeze adventurers to stone, but what if we changed them to an ice-themed villain, making them like Sub-Zero, but also a great crystalline yak instead of a metallic bull. Or another example is that Beholders in my setting are literal Eye-Tyrants: if you see them, they see you. Across planes and planets, as they have given a command as the Kings of Eyes. Then we could even completely invert the powers of the monster: instead of an ooze that is a sentient blob of acid, it’s instead a sentient blob of sovereign glue, probably with a clingy ex-boyfriend personality and separation anxiety. Instead of taking your character apart molecule by molecule, perhaps it’s bonding them quite permanently to whatever else it was touching.
I’m sure there are other ways and thought processes for refreshing monsters to jaded players, or adding new facets to them to keep them interesting. This is, of course, dancing around but not acting directly with just making your own creatures, then populating your world or dungeon with such. Why not? Because I am lazy sometimes, if not most of the time. Sometimes it’s ok to just go buck wild and make up something new or slap-together a critter or two, see how it works. But also sometimes it’s good to use what’s already been written, just tweaking or re-skinning it as appropriate, and trying to make an old story new. Especially when it’s man versus beast.