Monster menus (School of Adventure Year Five part 2)

I’ve started prepping encounters by outlining menus of things that the antagonist/s might do in that encounter. I suppose this may be a beginner-to-intermediate point for many GMs these days, but if that’s where you’re at in your gaming journey or if, like me, you started GMing with a game/edition that didn’t explain this technique, then maybe this might be a useful idea for you.

(‘Monster menus’ is a working title. I actually want to say something more like ‘encounter playbooks’, but these days in TTRPGs ‘playbook’ seems to mean a character description that centres around unique abilities and options, or even narrative mechanics, and is built into the system, more or less taking the place of DnD’s character class I think.)

Basically, when you’re preparing an encounter for your game, you come up with a number of different things that the antagonist/s can do in that encounter. With a simple heading that your eye can find, you sum up the tactic, then you add a few notes that give you helpful information like the relevant rules or rule numbers, some descriptive vocabulary, or circumstances under which the antagonist might pull this move.

Here’s a simple example from the last two weeks’ School of Adventure games. The SoA uses Dungeons & Dragons 5e so the example includes numbers from that system, but the principle is applicable to a wide range of systems, and to scenes other than combat encounters.

Ankheg infestation

Following a couple of fights and some investigative conversations (detailed in my last post), the PCs set out to rid a small town’s fields of an infestation of Ankhegs (a DnD monster like a horse-sized spiky ant that tunnels through earth). They arrived at a deserted agricultural landscape pockmarked with the entrances to the creatures’ burrows.

Ankheg plays/actions available:

Rush From Tunnel  Say 5ft of movement required to emerge from hidden position so 25ft move and still able to Bite and Seize in the same turn. Adds an ankheg to the encounter (use as many as appropriate), shows/confirms that the tunnel mouths are threats, may pop a monster up amidst or behind the party depending on positioning.

Bite and Seize  Attack roll at +5. If successful, three-step dramatic narration

  • 10 (3d6) slashing damage from the sharp mandibles (don’t forget most PCs reduce dmg/BPS)
  • 3 (d6) acid damage from the dripping secretions (not BPS)
  • Target is now grappled (speed 0; target can use action to try to escape, DC 13 Athletics or Acrobatics)

Pull Into Tunnel  Following a successful bite, as action economy allows. Move (at half speed, 15ft) with grappled victim to a tunnel to eat them at leisure or feed the nest. Chew resisting victims (use action to attack as Bite and Seize with advantage).

Retreat  Withdraw to tunnel or safe distance if injured 20+hp in one round or reduced to less than 10hp. Drop grappled character if they deal the damage.

Spit Acid  Save until after initial melee attack for dramatic development. 5ft line 30ft long, 10 (3d6) acid damage, DC 13 Dex save for half. Aim at a cluster to catch 2+ characters. That ankheg can’t spit again until recharge with 6 on d6.

Burst From Ground  As Rush From Tunnel but making an opening where there wasn’t one before. Cat. Pigeons.

(The Bite and Seize and Spit Acid plays are based on actions listed in the monster manual. The others are more about how the creature can use movement in the encounter and respond to different events, and how as GM I can flex the encounter for an enjoyable session.)

The Queen

The PCs wanted to ensure the ankheg infestation was stopped at source, so after killing or driving off the surface ankhegs they immediately went down into the burrows to find the nest and eliminate the queen. I also at this point should mention that some of the PCs have dogs that they are trying to train to fight alongside them, and that they encountered the queen in the egg chamber of the nest.

The queen’s plays included the Bite and Seize and Spit Acid moves from the list above, but with bigger numbers (edit: I discussed this in the next post I made). Also, since the players had seen both those attacks already, I removed the note to save the acid spit for development (in the event she spat first attack since the PCs kept their distance initially). For this encounter I also added:

Protective Mother  Move to, and Bite and Seize, anyone attacking or damaging her eggs, second priority anyone else who approaches her eggs.

Chew and Manoeuvre (replaces Pull Into Tunnel) With a grappled victim, continue bite attacks as long as target resists. If under attack from other PCs, move so as not to be surrounded, potentially backing towards a narrower tunnel. If grappled victim no longer struggles, drop and bite new target.

Desperate Frenzy (replaces Retreat) If injured 25+ hp in one round or reduced to below half hp, and if required to restore drama when PCs are winning easily, queen can bite or dash as a bonus action on each of her turns. (This is a homebrew rules tweak not appearing in the monster manual; many GMs use something like it, in DnD especially since 4e.)

Reinforcements  Normal ankhegs can appear from side tunnels (as Rush From Tunnel) or even the walls, floor or ceiling (as Burst From Ground). If desired to balance/pace the encounter.

Dog Gets Involved  If desired to complicate the encounter, a PC’s dog bounds into the melee, either rushing to attack the queen (ineffectively) or yapping at the PC. The queen may attack it but will miss—aim for jeopardy not tragedy. Demonstrate the drawbacks of normal dogs in mid-level DnD combat. (Actually, I could have put this in the first encounter, but I didn’t think of it at the time.)

Eggs Start to Hatch  To ramp up the drama. Young ankhegs could emerge in a round or two, or could be a slower process just adding a feeling of time pressure. Could use normal ankheg stats for hatchlings if they do emerge, or reduce as seems appropriate.

Features

This is how I draw up the menu to help me run the encounter

Ordered by likely course of encounter  Probable openings are at the top, the likely next moves following, and optional/later developments at the end. This helps my brain flow through the course of encounter when reviewing the sheet before the session, and helps my eye find the necessary paragraphs in play.

Rules and necessary numbers in-line  I try to anticipate what I might need to check (or forget to include) from rulebooks, monster listings and character sheets, and put them in abbreviated form in the play descriptions. Anything that saves referencing a page you don’t have open is good.

Table management notes  I try to cover narration and at-table considerations like what to do if the pace or drama drops off, as well as the game rules and the internal logic of the setting. (I’ve always been a fan of an immersive world that follows its own logic, and I’m in the habit of aiming to follow consistent game rules, but I’m increasingly coming to appreciate the importance of the playing experience and indeed the GMing experience, and the role of what some might call metagaming in improving those experiences.)

Aide-memoire  The version of the playbook that I use in the session doesn’t have to say everything about the encounter in full sentences. (I have slightly expanded some of the above to be clearer for you the reader.) Creating and looking over the playbook goes alongside preparing the encounter in my mind, and the text in the session is just to nudge my memory and map out my options for how the antagonists might behave depending on how things go. (Things like different PC actions, the fall of the dice, the pace of play and time available, the mood at the table.)

One Encounter To a Page  The playbook should be no more than one page, preferably less. This is to ensure that I can keep it all in sight while running the encounter. Also in prep it may serve as a test for whether I’m overcomplicating things.

Just a Menu  I don’t have to use all the plays from the menu during the actual encounter. In fact, with the School of Adventure sessions limited to about an hour and the inevitable debates and distractions of five primary schoolers playing online, although each half of this encounter took most of a session I didn’t end up using Burst From Ground, Reinforcements, Dog Gets Involved or Eggs Start to Hatch. And that’s fine for me: the players had a good time and I’ve now got in my toolkit some encounter menus that I can use another time (probably with cosmetic and/or technical changes) with developments in them that the players haven’t seen. The interplay of familiarity and surprise is a great dynamic for the playing experience, and anything that saves me prep time for future sessions is a blessing.

So, that’s how I’m starting to use encounter menus/playbooks. What do you think? Does it seems like a good idea? Do you do this already? How does it go? How do you do it differently? Let us know in the comments.

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