The Pathfinder RPG design we do around here is generally thought-out and playtested. But what happens when you’re in the midst of a game and you need to do some tinkering? We are speaking here of encounters and monsters, not basic rules of the game.
Sometimes you throw an old favorite monster at the players and they freak out! They scramble to get to the fight, but wonder aloud if they should flee. But other times, someone at the table goes, “Oh, it’s just minotaurs again.” This may be accompanied by a yawn or the opening of a laptop to do some crossword puzzles. What do you do then?
Well, you can’t exactly take back your minis and pretend it never happened. GM’s need their mask of infallibility! Simply adding a new monster to the mix can be almost as problematic–the fields of history are littered with the bodies of players whose GM mistook ambivalence for boredom.
Instead, what you need to do is some on-the-fly tweaking. What if one of those axe-wielding minotaurs pulls out a whip instead? Change one feat to Improved Trip (very easy to remember), and voila! The whole situation is different and more than a little scary (being prone is no joke).
Here are three paths you can take to making monsters fresh and interesting without doing too much work–or even writing anything down.
Switch a feat for Improved Trip, Improved Grapple, Power Attack, or the like to suddenly make a humdrum Strength-based beast do something surprising and dramatic. What’s great about these options is there’s really very little difference in description that’s required. You can even have monsters hang on to this ability until late in the encounter, then change everything in a round if you have to.
When a monster is tainted (or blessed!) by arcane powers, it may develop a few unusual powers that can really shake things up. There’s nothing wrong with opening the rulebook at the table, picking a spell from a level-appropriate list, and slinging a spell at the players. It’s probably best to give the monster the ability once or three times per day, so that you don’t have to make a whole lot of fundamental changes. This can be a fascinating surprise! Oh, and if the players ask why you’re looking through the rulebook, just say that you needed to check how one of the monster’s abilities work.
If you haven’t already gone and described the monsters in full, go ahead and change a major physical feature, like wings and a fly speed. No one’s going to care if the skill ranks don’t add up properly or whatnot. Nothing changes a monster like a weird or unusual body! Give them a pustule that explodes when struck, fins and a swim speed, shovel claws and a burrow speed, horns, a tail with spikes, an extra bony arm, an extra eye, a stinger, a really long tongue, or maybe teeth where there shouldn’t be any!
The important thing to remember is that Pathfinder and all RPGs play best when every encounter is stranger and more unique than the last.