Monster hunting seems like it should be a core part of D&D. They have monsters a-plenty, PCs are accustomed to doing things for money, it should just work, right? Well, it should. And it can. But I haven’t been able to find anything in my books that describes the process. I’m sure various adventures have one off stories here and there that have a monster hunt, but there’s nothing as describing the framework for making monster hunting the entirety of your campaign.
So I started digging. The Witcher came up, surprise surprise. There’s also, apparently, a video game called “Monster Hunter” that people have made RPG adaptations for, with has been playing merry hell fogging up my Googles. I will say that Amellwind’s Monster Hunter PDF has some really cool things built into it; awesome statblocks for locations, details for solo monsters, and challenges for the hunters, etc. It’s not really what I want out of a system, though, so I kept looking. (At the end, I have some reviews of some material I checked on my search).
Statement of Agnosticism: While I wrote this for immediate use in my D&D game, I’ve realized that this could lead to a useful tool for any GM, in any system. With that in mind, I did an editing pass to agnosticize the content. You may have to define benefits and numbers for your game, but it shouldn’t take a ton of work to make it work.
What is a Monster?
Look, I know all sorts of things GMs can do to add twists and keep people on their toes. And that’s up to the individual GM. Let’s lay out some ground rules, for the purposes of this article. We’re defining a “Monster” with a rather limited scope. This will let us build on top of it, instead of flailing around.
First, Monsters are SCARY. Villagers, or even the army, can’t comprehend how to fight the creature. Wolves, sure, undead, maybe, but a true Monster? Scary is hard to pull off in D&D, but rest assured, Monsters will start with a higher CR than normal, then I’m going to make them dangerous. Essentially, the Monster Hunting story framework ends up with a serious boss fight that will probably be Dire Peril. This article will list some GM tricks to accomplish that in the For GM Eyes Only section.
Second, Monsters are Inhuman. Specifically, while they may be cunning, they are not intelligent. While they might cry out in the night, it’s a bestial cry, and not one of words. While they leave signs, they cannot read. This doesn’t mean that monsters are stupid, or even predictable. They just can’t be bargained with. Failing to understand a Monster’s drives is a great way to get killed.
“What is a monster?” is a tricky question that has been the basis of Science Fiction since Frankenstein. Lots of things can be a monster. But, honestly, it doesn’t matter what monsters are, just how the content is presented. If your idea of the monster doesn’t fit this way of doing hunts, well, you’ll have to use something else. (I have some samples of other game’s hunts at the end)
Third, Monsters cause trouble. In our standard framework, the party will be contracted to deal with the monster, but only after it’s caused problems. I’m not saying that there can’t be some preventative measures, but most of the stories will involve some people dying to the creature, the town calls in experts, and the story opens with the party wandering into town. We can’t hunt monsters, until we know they are there.
With the basic idea down, we hunt!
How do you Hunt a Monster?
A Monster hunt is part investigation, part heist, and culminates in a combat. Probably. You might get lucky and find a way to deal with the monster while it sleeps or something, but you have to play your cards exactly right (or your GM might be pulling a Sneaky Twist on ya!). Most of the time, you’ll have to figure out what the creature is, where it is, arrange to fight it, fight it, and then deal with the aftermath.
Where a Detective looks for Clues, a Monster Hunter looks for Signs. They function in very similar ways, except that Detectives rarely have to determine the species of criminal they’re pursuing. This information is crucial to the Monster Hunter, though. What works on one Monster just makes a second Monster mad and being able to tell that is what differentiates the Professional from the Amateur.
A single Sign may be enough to identify a monster, or it may reduce the number of possibilities. The more Signs you have, the more exact you can identify a monster. Signs come in a few different varieties, and are not limited to just these
- Physical Signs are things like tracks, bit of fur or scales, blood, slime, a victim’s remains, and so on. These are direct evidence of the creatures movements and actions.
- Verbal Signs come from talking to witnesses. The usefulness of these descriptions depends on the reliability of the witness.
- Mystic Signs are things the monster has done that echo in magic. Bad dreams, pockets of bad luck, curdled milk, all sorts of Omens.
- Natural Signs are the environment’s reaction to having such a monster in its midst. Things like birds leaving the area, fruit withering or blossoming out of season, strange weather. Look at a creature’s Regional effects for more ideas.
Example: Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets is an example of a Monster Hunt that was spread throughout the book. There’s a scene where Harry puts all the Signs together and IDs the creature. Here’s some Signs of the creature’s Identity:
- Hagrid’s Roosters were killed (Physical sign?)
- Water on floor indicates plumbing (Natural/Physical sign)
- Spiders are scared (Verbal Sign)
- Harry, a Parseltongue, can hear the voices (Uh…. Verbal?)
Hermione, with her high INT and proficiency in History, Arcana and Nature was the first to figure it out, but then her player couldn’t make the final session, so she was petrified and left a clue.
Having Signs doesn’t give you all of the answers, although they certainly help. Those trained in Monster Identification can try to ID a creature upon learning about a Sign. The difficulty depends on the obscurity or uniqueness of the sign and the rarity of the monster. A tuft of hair indicates a furry mammal, but it could be a bear or a wolf or all sorts of Monstrosities. A spider web that is only visible from one side, though, is a solid (well, semi-solid) indicator of a Phase Spider.
The more signs you acquire, the easier it is to connect the dots to figure out what things are. If you don’t know what a creature is, go hunt for clues! If you fail a role to Identify, a new clue will give you a new chance for a roll. You might also get a new chance at a roll from hitting the books and doing some Research.
You can learn things that move the story forward without giving you all of the mystery. You might not be able to identify them as dragon scales, but learning that the monster is a reptile might mean you have a few days before the creature will be hungry enough to strike again. Learning that the creature leaves fire in its wake means it’s a good idea to leave the Alchemist’s Fire at home and pack plenty of Rawst Berries to deal with the burns.
The Benefits of ID-ing a Monster
Identifying a monster lets you know a lot of useful Facts about a creature. These Facts aren’t just idle information. They let you predict the creature’s movements, identify weak points of the creature, and manipulate its actions. All of which are nifty things for a Monster Hunter to do.
Not all creatures have an enticer, and they might be too willful to fall from them. An enticer is a lure or bait of some kind, what the creature will be drawn to. Normally, this is a food source, but if you’re hunting a unicorn, finding a maiden is the trick. This aspect of a creature will probably be built into the adventure, as the creature has been targeting it’s Enticers in the pre-Hunt.
A Halt is something that stops the creature from traveling in a certain direction. It’s possible the creature can overcome a Halt, but others might be completely stymied by it. That depends on the willpower of the creature. Circumstances can arrange for creatures to overcome in desperation. Fire is a good example. Lots of natural beasts are scared of fire, making it a useful defense for Peasants. But a wolf trapped in a burning building might take the chance to escape through the flame. And it’s probably not in a good mood after that.
These are the things the creature is really good at. A dragon can fly, is armored, and tends to have an affinity to one element or another. All of these are things that make the hunt more difficult, but, with proper knowledge, you can compensate for these problems.
Don’t confuse this heading with anything built into a statblock- Weakness are a general concept, not one specific to your games. The exact mechanics of what they do vary system to system, but weaknesses are a great target for your hunters. Whether they do more damage or keep a Monster form activating a special ability, hitting a weakness is the goal in a monster fight.
Some creatures are more than a hack and slash. Dragons have a fire breath (or whatever their elements), vampires are hypnotic, trolls regenerate, etc. These are somewhat related to Superiorities, and I might consider mixing them in a future version . The big difference is that Special Abilities are an action, and Superiorities are just innate.
Not sure of the best word. Lair might work, but it’s more about the territory than it’s nest. This is where it is based and woe unto the poor peasants who build their village abutting a creature’s Demesne. This is the area the creature will venture from it’s hole, what it’s lair is like, and other things like that. For instance, giant spiders will have webs in the lair making it more difficult to traverse.
Of course, all of the information you gather really leads to one thing: The Fight. If you have time, and you know enough about the creature, you can have the fight be on a battlefield of your choosing, where you might have an ambush ready, or there may be few civilians, and things like that.
Remember how I said monsters are scary? They’re supposed to be. Exactly what that means in terms of your specific system is up to the GM. A lot of how a thing is scary is based off of description and tactics, rather than numbers.
In D&D, Damage dealt is in 5 different ranks.
- Absorption is anti-damage. If you attack a creature with this, they gain in health and power. Normally not a thing physical attacks have to worry about, so spell casters watch out. Empowering a creature you’re fighting is normally considered a jerk move.
- Immunity is non-damage. The creature isn’t phased by this damage at all.
- Resistance is half-damage. It’ll get the job done, slowly. This is the normal speed of a fight.
- Regular is damage. Weapons are working as they are supposed to. This might mean your weapons are made of a material that bypasses the resistance the Monster Possesses
- Vulnerable is twice-damage. Do that more.
Obviously, you want to be maxing the damage you deal that hits the vulnerable spot, and minimizing the absorption stuff, but less obviously, it might be better for the team if your turn is spent preparing someone else’s. If fire is the only thing it feels, enchanting the fighter’s sword instead of shooting it for a d8 is going to be a better return on investments.
For GM Eyes Only
Obviously, I can’t keep players from reading this, but I’m not going to try to hide this from them. I advise all GMs to take this article as advice, change a few things to personalize things for your game, and as always, make sure to cheat harder than your players.
A Hunt is like a Heist. If everything goes according to plan, then everything is easy. But, also like a heist, sometimes the planning and researching part is hard and boring and slow, and D&D players will elect for a smash and grab. Which, technically, can work, but will have a lot of risk involved.
A Hunt is also like a Mystery. The interesting bits are the unknowns. If you had to hunt a white stag and you just saw it standing in the next field, and you could just kill it, done, that would be lame. You want there to actually be a hunt, as you find the creature. So, like a mystery, you want each Sign to lead to another Scene for more Investigation. You do not want the investigation to stop once your player rolls low. There should be an easy to follow Clue trail that leads the party to a specific end. Succeeding on checks and connecting the dots should give the players advantages in the confrontation.
Be Brutal to NPCs
One of the reasons horror movies have side characters is for the killer to bloodily murder them to show threat. The “Redshirts” on Star Trek serve a similar purpose. We can’t have the core cast die, so we have an extra take the blast to show how serious the Borg are. Use NPCs like this, but don’t make it a joke. Have the NPC be helpful, and act in character for it’s final moment.
Sample Monster: Vampire
Let’s build a quick thing, just to demonstrate. Vampires are pretty well known and I’m not using them any time soon. So they’ll do.
Summary: Vampires are an ancient monstrous tradition, with many variations. In general, they are fanged creatures of the night, no longer living, who feed on other’s blood for sustenance. Specific details vary per world.
Vampire Signs: A lot of Vampire’s signs will come from their victims. Unlike most Monsters, Vampires don’t kill their prey. At least, not right away. There’s a few nights of moonlight feedings. The victim is probably an innocent maiden with puncture wounds on her neck and she’s been acting strangely. Learning it’s a vampire isn’t the hard part. Vampires masquerade as humans, so figuring out WHO is the vampire is part of the problem.
Enticers: Vampires tend to be attracted to blood, but unless they are very hungry, they aren’t going to act out of character. They also have a type, a maiden who they prefer. It’s a dangerous bait, though. Some Vampires are also a bit obsessive, needing to complete or organize things.
Halts: Halts very in stories. Some vampires are warded of with garlic, others cannot cross running water. Holy symbols can also give them pause. In some universes, they can’t come into a home without permission.
Superiorities: In addition to being maximized humans, they also don’t need to breath and don’t age. They can climb in a monstrous fashion. Sometimes, they can fly. Of course, they have a bite attack, but they are also quite intelligent, dangerously so.
Weaknesses: Sunlight is the big one here. Most vampires burn in the sun. They also have bad reactions to having a wooden stake driven into their heart. They have unique sleeping arrangements, and may need to be buried in the soil of their homeland, as you do.
Special Abilities: Vampires have a few abilities. First, they can make other vampires. There’s there’s two types. Thralls, (aka spawn or lesser vampires), have the physical characteristics, but not the mental ones. They also don’t spread Vampirism, so that keeps the plague of undeath from becoming an apocalypse. Second, they tend to be a little hypnotic. They can charm and mesmerize.
Demesne: Vampires tend to live in a large home that overlooks their feeding grounds. Big brooding place, kind of run down, lots of bats. Lots of mirrors, even though vampires don’t have reflections. They have hidden doors and basements with their coffins.
That’s the type of thing a monster would look like. I could probably spend a long time converting a bunch of monsters into this format. Be a good thing for people to mention…
- I Thought I saw… The party is hired by a nobleman who SWEARS there was a dragon in the woods, and wants the party to find it. With no clear trail or signs, this might be tricky.
- The Master’s Call: While normally monsters act on their own, sometimes they are controlled by something else. This changes the monster’s behaviors and signs.
- The Scooby Doo: For whatever reason, the monster is a fake! The signs of the monster are as good as the imposter can fake it, but it still isn’t quite right.
- The Serial Killer: A ‘human’ is acting monstrous. While this foe has less powers, they’re likely a lot more dangerous.
Other Games with Things
D&D is not the only game that fights monsters. I’ve gone through these here, skimming for content to see how applicable it is. If you’re trying to run certain types of Monster Hunts, these might be up your alley. (I still need to check out Gurps Monster Hunter, and maybe some titles you suggest…)
Monster Hunter International
Not a bad fit, and a book series worth checking out. It’s on my list of books to buy once I have shelves. If you want to play a game where each zombie you frag is money in the bank, this is where it is at. It’s not quite the feel that I wanted, and the setting is an interesting take on Modern, but not very useful in my case.
I just found out that one of the game designers who I’ve bought a lot of stuff from did a remake of this game, adapting it from Champion/Heroic system to Savage Worlds. Maybe this will make me care to learn Savage Worlds?
Monster of the Week
I thought the phrase “Powered by the Apocalypse” was familiar, but I wasn’t sure what it was. Turns out, it’s the same base system as Dungeon World, but simplified and focused in comparison. And it’s very very good. Like, I have to go rewrite the Nights black agent’s section, because THIS is the next book I’m getting (correction: got). This is directly designed to imitate shows like Buffy, Supernatural, and the like. A simple system with straightforward investigations, it would not surprise me if you could start playing with new and excited players in 20 minutes. Expect me to run and report on this soon (ish).
Night’s Black Agents
I should have known I’d like this. I’ve yet to meet a GUMSHOE book that I didn’t love. I don’t know how well monster hunting would work in GUMSHOE. It seems straightforward, which wouldn’t last long with how GUMSHOE does investigations. I’d be interested in trying it, though. I am buying this book
as soon as I can. right after Monster of the Week.
World of Darkness (Hunter)
Do you hate people who play Vampire: The Masquerade? Well you’re in luck! This is a game set in that universe, where regular people develop powers that let them put the fight to the darkness. This didn’t fit my schtick here because most of the monsters you fight, while certainly monstrous, don’t entirely fit my ideal of inhuman. They’re too smart and too powerful. It ends up being a paranoid laced game of trying to make a difference without rocking the boat. If you like World of Darkness and want to beat up werewolves and vampires, and like the idea of hunting Player Characters (or characters who are basically Player Characters) then check this out.
This article was not only released a day early for Patron, but they also got an ugly PDF with this material for ease of access. They also got it in their email! Crazy! Their support will ideally let me do this more often, so if you want to support me, go to www.patreon.com/mattwandcow and drop a buck in the hat.
This project felt like it might have legs. If you think a book like this but with more might be useful, please let me know.