Saturday, May 16, 2015

How many monsters does a campaign need?

This is a curious topic for me as I am a monster-junkie but how many different monsters does a campaign need? Not the game itself the game could have thousands of different types of wicked humanoids, devilish fiends from beyond, and gobbling grues in volume after volume but ... how many does a campaign actually need?

Years back I made a gentleman's bet with another D&D player that you could run a healthy campaign with 60 or so monsters, I did weasel out and have normal animals and player races excluded from the count of monsters. I dug into my monster books of the time and came up with a trimmed roster of monsters that fit the campaign and they did the trick for a few years until the campaign grew beyond it's original scope.

About 60 monsters did the job fine and dandy when the campaign focused on a large valley region of a continent. Some adventures could start out elsewhere onto the continent but most took place in the same 5,120 square mile region.  I do not have the original monster roster on hand any longer but it did include an abbreviated humanoid line-up of Kobold, Goblin, Orc, Gnoll, and Bugbear. There was a short list of giant-kind including Ogre, Troll, Stone Giant, and Fire Giant. Undead had the classical mix for Skeleton, Zombie, Ghoul, Wight, Wraith, Spectre, and Vampire with Death Knights topping out the list.  I Used the chromatic dragons and just Silver and Gold for the metallic ones. There were a few fairy types and a number of odd-ball monsters (mostly from the fiend Folio). When you got down to it about 60 types of monsters, player races (as NPCS), and normal animals was probably crowding up the place.

No one noticed a shortage of monsters and it wasn't until the campaign went deep into the underdark and to foreign continents, other worlds, and times before I had to expand the roster of what was likely to be creeping behind a door and down a tunnel. It's clear from that (for me) that a tailored monster list helps define a campaign setting as I didn't feel the need fro more until the players and I stretched the size and scope of the campaign.

So I suppose I knew the answer the whole time before I asked the question: A campaign needs as many monsters as it takes to define the campaign and entertain the players. You want to meet some expectations but you also want to change things up a bit; while I restricted myself to a small variety of monsters (for post monster manual D&D) for a good long time I did make use of gimmicks like character levels for intelligent foes, unique equipment, and changing the relation ship of monsters. One area (composed of the orignal restricted roster) was plagued by berserker cultists with elite members able to change themselves into werewolves, all lead by bad-guy druids; that arrangement worked well enough the PCs relationship with druids was always a tad restrained and bersekers were feared much more than their 1+1 HD would indicate they should be. Trying to do more with less led to more inventive and creative use of monsters and reduced the monster zoo feeling of dungeons.

So how many monsters do you think a a campaign needs?


  1. Your 60 sounds about right. Using the 3.5e categories of monsters (which at least are publicly available) I'd say 5-9 of monstrous humanoids, elementals, undead, magical beasts, constructs, and vermin; about half that each of giants, fey, aberrations, oozes, plants, outsiders, and dragons. Using an average of 7 for the first set of categories and 3.5 for the second set gives 66.5, before animals and humanoids. For things like dragons and outsiders and aberrations, they're supposed to be weird, so picking a few at start and placing them in specific places and keeping them off random encounter tables makes them even more special.

  2. I doubt I actually use as many as sixty different monsters in a D&D campaign, especially if you don't count normal animals or humans.

    However, I would be reluctant to deliberately limit myself.

    1. Make the deliberate limit less "what is in this world" and more "what's found around here." You can still use things that aren't on the list, it's just that you have to have a reason for why it's there.

      Was it brought in on a ship? And if so, was it cargo, (bound for a menagerie perhaps?), or a stowaway?
      Is it the creation of a strange wizard, (and just what was he thinking? Combining a bear with an owl?!)
      Perhaps it's simply something that can travel great distances, but why has that dragon flown half-way around the world?

      Also, having regional restrictions can make for player surprises when they go travelling, (or a reward should they do some research), and discover that many creatures south of the Great Badlands are resistant, (if not immune), to fire.

  3. Well I already invented more than 40 for my mega dungeon Castle Triskelion so I suppose I am going way over.

  4. I've used 82 at last count in my current game, and there are a ton already in my dungeons that they haven't yet seen, so it's going to at least double your sixty. But my game is certainly monster-heavy, and depends heavily on "more and more monsters" and the freshness of new encounters.

  5. Discounting the assorted player races, I think I have only trotted out about twenty five in the last two years underground. As that would translate to about three of Peter's sessions, the rate is maybe a bit higher.

  6. 60 plus character races? I hardly call this a challenge. If you want to push yourself to being creative with limited monsters, I think you could easily go down to 10.
    I think 60 is probably the upper limit I would be comfortable with. When I started with my setting, I deliberately tried to keep the number of creatures low. And it soon turned out that a lot of monsters, especially in D&D, are really just very slight cosmetic variants of the very same concept who do the same thing. Picking just one and adding some elements from the otherss that you like can very quickly reduce the length of a monster list by a lot. Weed out the redundant creatures and it gets a lot tighter. And in my oppinion just feels a lot more believable.

  7. I was thinking about this recently, because I was considering the possibility of having a method of the PCs reaching another world (actually, my campaign-world's moon). What I wondered was, whether I should people the other world entirely with the monsters I don't use from the material I have. There's no particular reason another world should have Orcs or whatever, or even an analogue of Orcs; but I've got a lot of monsters that I don't think I've ever used. Perhaps they could be the inhabitants. That would at least mean that encounters should be fairly different (in tone if not ecessarily in mechanics).