Level Up (A5E) Making Monsters Matter - Ecological Analysis

Xethreau

Josh Gentry - Author, Minister in Training
The encounter tables in the A5e books are not just good, they're amazing. Besides being able to generate random encounters appropriate for your environment and level (making overland travel quite nice), the tables mix a combination of encounters from all three pillars. Even individual monsters have many pre-built encounters which improve by level.

But the theme of this thread series is about challenging our fundamental assumptions about how monsters show up in our game table, with an eye toward capturing the mystique of monsters as they appear in fiction, folklore, and film.

To that end, it is my desire to create an encounter-building framework I call "ecology of gravitas." An ecology of gravitas is centered with a given creature of consequence at the top, with the creature's encounter tables based on its real ecology and on the party's proximity to it. My insights on this matter come from my reflection and analysis of three monster movies I really like: Annihilation, Cloverfield, and The Blair Witch Project.

Be advised that the analysis below contains spoilers for each of these movies!

Research: Annihilation
Annihilation really could have been a DnD game! The party of badass women goes into the Danger Zone to find out Why the Danger Zone Exists, all the while finding increasingly horrific creatures and encounters. We find out the Danger Zone and all its effects do have a single origin: a meteor made from exotic matter which is contaminating the region.

Real Ecology - Annihilation.jpg


The "random encounters" in Annihilation are held together not only by a theme but by a single, shared etiology. The characters never have conclusive answers for the phenomena they find until the very end, but they do have enough to go on to realize 1) they are in danger, and 2) it is within their power to find more answers.


Research: Cloverfield
Cloverfield was the film where I learned that monsters are scarier the longer you keep them off-screen. This principle stands somewhat at odds with the TTRPG concept of the "random encounter." Typically random encounters are out in the open, and typically the main monster is something possible for the PCs to kill---neither of these are true in the case of Cloverfield. And that makes me excited because all too often, low-level players never get to encounter high-level creatures. Besides being a letdown, it also creates the perception that player characters are always in a safe appropriately-leveled sandbox like in Skyrim—and I don't think that's a helpful assumption.

Real Ecology - Cloverfield.jpg


Clearly, the monster (and even most of its spawn) are big and bad enough to one-shot-KO the characters. And that's actually a great thing because the monster itself causes enough chaos in the environment to represent its own adventure. If the players "f*** around" they will "find out", so wise players will just focus on their specific character's goal. Their objective will be met by the natural consequences of the creature being in the environment, and "appropriate encounters" will represent the PCs' and NPCs' attempts at survival. Note how all the creature's "collateral damage" are basically the premise of exploration challenges or hazards.


Research: Blair Witch
The witch I think is one of my favorite fairytale monsters that are just done so dirty in TTRPGs. The witch appears, she's green, she snarls. Also its not a witch its a hag. Ooops now I'm losing interest…

The Blair Witch Project stays with me because of how it addresses the matter of monstrous territory. The entire tragedy of the story was avoidable had the characters not ventured so horrendously into the witch's woods.

Real Ecology - Blair Witch.jpg


Something that is apparent to me is how much the matter of proximity to the witch comes into play. The surrounding village, though outside the witch's territory per se, is still wary of the witch and traumatized from a 300-year history of mutual harm. As the characters enter the woods, even though we never see the witch on screen, her presence is still felt when as her harassment and terrorism escalate. Creepy noises outside the hut aren't enough, she puts rock piles and creepy wooden figurines all around to prove she was there…

At the game table, it makes me wonder if this traumatized village might also see creatures afoot and out of (well-placed) superstition consider them to be familiars. What if the entire woods is considered the hag's lair, and offers her lair actions specialized for spying and harassment? What if she can see out from the rock piles, and cast vicious mockery out from the stick figurines?


Proof of Concept: The A5E Vampire
Having mapped the relationships between the monsters in some films, I wanted to see how this approach would work on monsters based on their express lore in the MoMe. Suffice it to say I am not displeased.

Real Ecology - Vampire.png


As you can well imagine, this chart is not yet done. If I were better at Obsidian.md (I just downloaded it today), I would try to characterize the connections visually so we could tell the relational and power dynamics at a glance. Still, we can begin to glean some interesting relationships just by looking. There are tons of undead that all just blur together for me, so it's neat to see some of the relationships more clearly, especially the fact that some creatures are specifically under a curse. That makes a storyline about curses much more versatile!

Mini-Tool: Real Ecology Analysis
Most of the time when we talk about the "Ecology of" a given monster, we aren't actually talking ecology–we're just providing a basic description of what the monster is and where it lives. And that's an important question, but what we really want to unpack is the creature's vast web of relationships. Questions like "what does it eat" and "how does it reproduce" are questions safe and basic enough for children's books, but somehow those questions tend to get skipped in monster lore! :p

So to help develop that information, I developed a questionnaire for use with a given monster to help Narrators better situate that monster in-world.

NAME

Tags

Creature type, traits, misc.

Lifestyle
Home: ---
Motivations: ---
Food: ---
Reproduction: ---
Other Needs: --
Strategies: ---
Weaknesses: ---

Relations
Boss: ---
Kin: ---
Allies: ---
Subordinates: ---
Foes: ---
Fodder: ---

Sightings
Impacts: ---
Reports: ---
Omens: ---
Signs: ---

And this is how I filled all that information for vampires.

vampire questionaire.png

This tool is still in development, so keep that in mind. Some terms aren't as appropriate to some monsters as others. Still, this approach has changed how I look at creatures in my books. (I'm excited to tell you all about which creatures burrow, which eat rock, which eat gems and metals, and which ones can't! )


Mini-Tool: Theory of Proximity
This tool is definitely still in development, but I am still much proud of it! Using this theory, we can begin to lay out encounter generation tables for a given monster based on proximity (and its real ecology). We rate threatening proximity to a monster on a scale of 1-5. At 1, the existence of a monster is tentative, shrouded in rumor. At 5, you're probably rolling initiative.

1. Rumor
  • Word of this entity is spread among the people; mix of falsehood and reality
  • Knowledge checks used to debunk rumors or confirm plausibility
  • Authoritative knowledge of monsters by common folk is rare
2. Influence
  • The zone where the creature's reality is felt, even at a distance
  • Ambiguous but disturbing signs and encounters with subordinates
  • Players can begin to develop concrete list of suspects re: monsters' identity (see previous thread on knowledge rolls)
3. Territory
  • Creature's active hunting ground. Avoided by all but the creature's servants
  • The creature can learn about, stalk, and terrorize trespassers
  • Lair Actions appropriate for large territory (alarm spell, scrying, long-range cantrips)
4. Presence
  • The immediate impact of being nearby the creature, even if it is unaware
  • Collateral damage, auras
  • Last chance to hide
5. Direct Encounter
  • The creature is aware of your presence
  • Flee, negotiate, or fight

Clearly, the theory of proximity still needs polish, but even at this stage, it does a lot of work. It helps me to frame what exactly an encounter with a monster can be. :)


So yes, these are just some thoughts I've had recently on overhauling monsters in my own mind. It definitely has made reading monster lore much more interesting to me, and I hope these kinds of encounters fill my players with dread and wonder. PEACH, and let me know what you think!
 

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lichmaster

Adventurer
Just one word: chapeau!

What you're creating here is basically an engine for sandbox pen and paper RPGs. There are similar tools for other games (Stars without Numbers comes to mind), but 5e does not have any and would really benefit from something similar.
If we link this behavioural-ecological proximity "engine" with economic and social aspects as well, we have a tool for creating very connected, plausible and organic sandbox settings and adventures. This could also plug in seamlessly with a5e's exploration challenges, exploration tiers, etc.

I'm seriously interested in this. DM me if you'd like me to collaborate someway
 


Steampunkette

Rules Tinkerer and Freelance Writer
Supporter
This is incredibly cool and insightful. And it could be used to create Food Webs for given locations as well. Let's take a look at the "Rolling Grasslands" Tier 0 encounter table as an example.

You've got Bandits and Social Encounters standing outside the standard food-web because while Humans can be killed and eaten by animals we're largely considered outside the natural predator/prey setup due to our societal structure and unnatural alteration of environments to accommodate our existence. Same could be said for Giant-kin, Hobgoblins, Kobolds, and to a lesser extent Goblins and Gnolls which are presented as quasi-civilized but not -really-.

But look at every other creature on the list! Perytons and Hipogriffs and Stirges. Wolves and Stampeding cattle. Goats and Eagles and Bloodhawks and Ankhegs!

You could make a pretty great food-web out of those options, with Akheg Spawn holding one of the more important lower-levels in breaking down dead creatures and killing goats and stuff, and then higher tier creatures like the Hippogriff who doesn't really have many challengers or predators because he's a big flying monster who can either escape or kill pretty much anything else on that list.

Like... a Hippogriff might not be able to kill an Ankheg in a fair fight, but the Ankheg can't -get- the Hippogriff to eat it, and a group of Hippogriffs could stomp an attacking Ankheg to death in 6-12 seconds if it doesn't immediately flee into the ground.

But an Ankheg Spawning Season could deplete the goats that the Hippogriffs rely on, forcing them to attack more dangerous prey for a meal or to feed their young.

It could also result in goblins and kobolds raiding nearby settlements, or each other, for food that is suddenly scarce in the area through no fault of literally anyone. Creating a perfectly plausible and logical antagonistic encounter that can't be easily resolved, even by killing off all the Ankheg Spawn in the region since the goats can't be "Uneaten".

Who needs Evil for Evil's sake when you can create an ecological disaster that creates a more compelling story in 20 minutes of glancing at an encounter table?
 

Xethreau

Josh Gentry - Author, Minister in Training
This is incredibly cool and insightful. And it could be used to create Food Webs for given locations as well. Let's take a look at the "Rolling Grasslands" Tier 0 encounter table as an example.

You've got Bandits and Social Encounters standing outside the standard food-web because while Humans can be killed and eaten by animals we're largely considered outside the natural predator/prey setup due to our societal structure and unnatural alteration of environments to accommodate our existence. Same could be said for Giant-kin, Hobgoblins, Kobolds, and to a lesser extent Goblins and Gnolls which are presented as quasi-civilized but not -really-.

But look at every other creature on the list! Perytons and Hipogriffs and Stirges. Wolves and Stampeding cattle. Goats and Eagles and Bloodhawks and Ankhegs!

You could make a pretty great food-web out of those options, with Akheg Spawn holding one of the more important lower-levels in breaking down dead creatures and killing goats and stuff, and then higher tier creatures like the Hippogriff who doesn't really have many challengers or predators because he's a big flying monster who can either escape or kill pretty much anything else on that list.

Like... a Hippogriff might not be able to kill an Ankheg in a fair fight, but the Ankheg can't -get- the Hippogriff to eat it, and a group of Hippogriffs could stomp an attacking Ankheg to death in 6-12 seconds if it doesn't immediately flee into the ground.

But an Ankheg Spawning Season could deplete the goats that the Hippogriffs rely on, forcing them to attack more dangerous prey for a meal or to feed their young.

It could also result in goblins and kobolds raiding nearby settlements, or each other, for food that is suddenly scarce in the area through no fault of literally anyone. Creating a perfectly plausible and logical antagonistic encounter that can't be easily resolved, even by killing off all the Ankheg Spawn in the region since the goats can't be "Uneaten".

Who needs Evil for Evil's sake when you can create an ecological disaster that creates a more compelling story in 20 minutes of glancing at an encounter table?
I'm not very far into uploading my creature notes to Obsidian.md yet, but I am starting to see some very exciting emergence just in the way you describe.

For example, cambions and doppelgangers are both shapeshifters. Cambions in particular love to corrupt the nobility and other figures of authority with their lies. Know who hates (and can detect) lies? Certain angels and certain animated objects. So if that wasn't enough to complicate a political intrigue storyline, know what creature (admittedly not in the MoMe) is BORN from lies?

the false hydra
 
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Alhazrael

Villager
When A5E started talking about Node based design for the upcoming Dungeon Delver's Guide, this is more what I thought they were referring to (node analysis rather than an acronym). This is great work. I use a very similar approach for Campaign design using organizations, a relationship web, and social ecology as the framework everything revolves around.
 

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