Zombie Murder Mystery

Crashing Hill Giant parties and other fun activities

Written by Expy - Published on September 25, 2009

This is a guest post by Ben McFarland. He is an occasional contributor to Kobold Quarterly, and one of the contributing authors of the Ennie-winning Tales of Zobeck, which was recently released for public consumption. You can also find his contributions in Wrath of the River King and Halls of the Mountain King. He aspires to one day gather his own army of dedicated minions.

Flying monkeys will make your campaign better

Ah, so you’ve assembled your group and given them a reason to work together, but have you given them something appropriate to work against? Just as Vader had his Stormtroopers, Star Trek’s Founders had their Jem’Hadar, and Sauron had his orcs, a proper villain needs an iconic foot soldier to do his dirty work. Hell, even the Wicked Witch of the West had her flying monkeys! You want a creature that isn’t overused, one suitably evil and brutish but with enough flexibility to fill a variety of roles. I have just the monster! Allow me to offer you the Hill Giant. Drawing again from Kobold Quarterly #10, and this time looking at Richard Pett’s article, The Ecology of the Hill Giant, you can turn hill giants into more than just a meaty catapult and battering ram combo platter, but a suitably malicious thug that keeps your players on their toes.

Familiarity breeds contempt

But why bother with evil minions of a particular color? A common theme to an enemy’s troops has a number of benefits—it allows players to immediately recognize a significant situation. They can spot the creature and know that their enemy has a stake in what’s going on. Even if the motivation isn’t immediately apparent, the players know that something is afoot, perking up to look for any possible association. Using a particular race also allows you to create reputations and rivalries between the party and the soldiers’ officers over a series of encounters. After establishing a particular monster as the BBEG’s mook of choice, you can begin to work in some deception by using variants and modified versions of the monster, or even traitorous troops that confuse your players’ perceptions and leave them wondering about allegiances. All of these elements create both theme and immersion—and that’s a good thing.

Suspension of disbelief

“Why should I care about those things, Ben? What good are theme and immersion in my game?” I’m glad you asked. When you have a solid theme in your game, you make it easier for players to “get into the game,” for them to immerse themselves, because the world you’re establishing has consistency. They have a better idea of who is friend, who is foe, and who is just window dressing. Armed with that knowledge, they can begin to focus more on the adventures and on their characters, becoming comfortable with the sort of setting shorthand you’re establishing. When players are comfortable with their game world, that’s when they can become immersed in the game. Immersed players are more focused during the session, they spend less time with off-topic table talk and more time driving the gameplay.

“Great!” you’re thinking. “So why does Ecology of the Hill Giant matter?” That little article is fantastic because it gives us a whole toolchest of goodies to create our foot soldiers and give them both depth and range of abilities. Just look at it! There are bits on their nature and demeanor, culture and society, plus feats and a template. All of this helps us create important aspects of our Evil Overlord’s foot soldier:

General Description – This is what establishes the enemy as iconic. If I say you’re facing Imperial Stormtroopers or Jem’Hadar or even flying monkeys and you have an immediate mental image of your bad guys.

Modus Operandi – How do the villain’s troops act and behave? Are they standardized? Are they disciplined?

Their Motivation -Why would the Hill Giants join your villain, what do they get out of the arrangement?

Variety! We can’t just face the same enemy all the time. Players demand you change the tune of the dance from time to time.

So how does The Ecology help us? Easy. It provides us with the sorts of details that really flesh out an enemy, providing a robust character foundation you can develop over time. An important point to remember is that your collective mook army is really an NPC of sorts, but one with an endless supply of bodies and group memory that allows them to hold grudges, shout insults based on past events, and act as a foible to the characters. Details give that NPC more depth, and we can draw extended descriptions—like what they wear, wield for weapons, or the range of their physical features, or mannerisms—such as how they socialize, how they relax, their family units, their general demeanor. Pett does an excellent job of providing a number of great hooks here. One in particular is a game called “Rugbyalive,” where the ball is a living creature and the objective is to smash its head against a large standing stone. Imagine the look on your players’ faces when they realize the NPC they’ve come to save is in the middle of a great hill giant scrum and being lateralled about the meadow like an old pigskin?

Crashing Hill Giant parties and other fun activities

Following those details, we get a great amount of inspiration on how hill giants excel in their role as the evil mook army. They ravage towns for livestock, taking slaves, killing men, breeding with captured women and ruining villages as they turn them into squatters’ encampments. They extort and enslave communities for crafts and goods that they can’t be bothered to make but desire anyway. Their lazy attitudes allow for entertaining infiltration scenes where it isn’t necessary for every character to be tricked out for stealth or magically enhanced silence. Their willingness to trade or negotiate for creature comforts and other goods permits encounters where even moderately charismatic fighters and a bit of good roleplaying might bluff the party’s way to success. These personality weaknesses, pointed out quite nicely for us, become strengths for creating entertaining sessions that don’t seem forced or handicapped.

The HG lifestyle

All this greed, laziness, and brutish temperament make it easy to see why the Big Bad wants the hill giants for his foot soldiers, but what do they get in return? Well, first and foremost, the giants get license to make as much mayhem as they please—within reason. When the villain needs an example made, or a threat enforced, the giants respond with overwhelming force which not only provides them with the loot, slaves, and lifestyle they want but saves them from having to spend the time seeking out appropriate targets. This arrangement is perfect for the hill giants who would rather just “phone it in,” and it underlines the evil of your villain while creating player motivation to stop such terrible incidents. Your monster evolves from casual encounter to dedicated enemy.

But a one-note enemy becomes boring after the second battle, and The Ecology does a good job of making sure we can put variation into the hill giant. The Living Club and Living Rock feats permit the hill giants to viciously use prisoners as weapons and missiles. It’s tough to save the peasants and townsfolk when the bad guys are lobbing the baker at your wizard and trying to beat down the rogue with the local butcher. How do you throw a fireball into melee when the giant has a belt of crying children that double as both trail mix and throwing stones? The idea of shrewd covens of adept and druid giantesses functioning as the secret guiding power of hill giant tribes provides shapeshifters and spellcasters who fill the roles of commanders and spies. The half-hill giant template allows you to create lesser redshirt troops and weaker versions to fill out encounters and create level-appropriate challenges while keeping your theme. Such half-breed troops might inspire either pity or revulsion, depending on how you portray them, and anytime you can evoke an emotional response, you’ve got players becoming immersed in the game and creating that elusively fantastic emotional investment.

Keeping encounters fresh

Which brings us full circle. By choosing a particular monster to act as your villain’s foot soldier you better establish a theme and an immersive environment. A single race of monster allows you to play on the creature’s strengths and weaknesses, and Richard Pett’s Ecology provides us with a wealth of examples demonstrating how we can use those aspects to create useful and iconic details. Now, as your once-dead heroes continue the investigation into their murders, they start to see the BBEG’s involvement and presence every time they engage the hill giants, encouraging them with this subtle reinforcement. By generating the detailed creature material, we can turn around and incorporate it into our adventures—highlighting the plot of our Evil Overlord, accenting his awful nature, giving an old beastie a new twist that keeps old and new players engaged and having fun as they progress through the story arc. And in the end, isn’t that the goal?

See you next month, where I’ll be taking a last look at Kobold Quarterly #10 and the nefarious haffuns before digging into KQ#11.

Ben McFarland is an occasional contributor to Kobold Quarterly, and one of the contributing authors of the Ennie-winning Tales of Zobeck, which was recently released for public consumption. You can also find his contributions in Wrath of the River King and Halls of the Mountain King. He aspires to one day gather his own army of dedicated minions.

Powered By DT Author Box

Written by Expy

Meet Expy The Red Dragon

Expy is the mascot for DungeonMastering.com and the real mastermind behind Expy Games. He likes to hoard treasure, terrorize neighbors, burn down villages, and tell white dragon jokes..

No matter how fearful the legends claim dragons are, they always end up being defeated in 5 rounds by adventuring parties they encounter. That’s what dragons are – experience points for the heroes in your Dungeons & Dragon party. And this mascot is no different, hence the name Expy.

GD Star Rating

2 Responses to “Crashing Hill Giant parties and other fun activities”

Zombie Murder Mystery
  1. Kolbold Minion Says:

    In a particularly exiting game of mine the BBEG was breeding and using Sahugin-like fish people as his favered minion. The characters learned to loath and love these creatures. Their odd aquatic mannirisms and speech made them fun to roleplay (by the mighty and awesome slick left tail lobe of the Great Whale!)and their disiplined-to-savage combat was a blast. Players were soon talking like the fish people during skill chalanges with them and exploiting their weaknesses at every chance. Things really got spiced up when, on a raid to the fish-peoples base, a vial a venom from the PCs fell onto the liquidy eggs. Mutated and retarded fish people were attacking the PCs as a result, for better or for worse. My players still love to fight the creatures the devoted so much energy into learning about.

  2. Friday Links for October 2, 2009 | Moebius Adventures Says:

    […] Ben McFarland on the Dungeon Mastering Blog came up with some awesome ways to enhance villains in any campaign – just think of the flying monkeys! http://www.dungeonmastering.com/campaigns-adventures/crashing-hill-giant-parties-and-other-fun-activ… […]

Leave a Reply