I'm not a very experienced GM, and I'm looking for advice on what the "best" approach is to selecting creatures/monsters for combat encounters. I'm not really thinking of how to set up encounters of the proper level or difficulty since those rules are pretty straight forward, and there are some really good tools online to help in that process.
I'm more interested in how you "mix and match" creatures into an encounter (or maybe more encounters in a bigger dungeon) in a way that feels like it makes sense in the Golarion/Lost Omens setting? How do I know which creatures would work together thematically?
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When building an dungeon, I usually start with a theme, like undead or swamp or something like that. Then what kind of encounters you are looking for. Try to mix up monster types. This avoids the problem of PC1 only has mind-affecting spells known or your party is all clerics and Paladins.
It's very much an art.
In longer campaigns against reoccurring enemies (like an organization, though it's worked for a megadungeon too), I've made a roster of monsters and enemies that fit into the campaign's theme/power levels and/or I'd like to see/play. This would often inspire more choices, variants of monsters, and combos right off the bat. Then I'd figure out how many would be available, i.e. (effectively) infinite giant rats and level 1 thugs, but only three Hill Giants. This means killing off tougher creatures matters, having a known impact on enemy forces, which might lead to stories about them recruiting/breeding/summoning more.
Then I'd determine who'd play well with whom (i.e. the Medusa w/ the blind thugs) and which were intelligent enough to take sides in the ongoing story (often as mercenaries).
Since I start w/ a map in mind I can sprinkle them throughout, often in strategic ways (if led), but also ways that make sense so two apex predators aren't parked adjacent. This also means PCs might encounter monsters outside of their power levels! Which means warnings should be woven into the setting too, like "scorched village" = "don't go here, newbies" plus there could be sightings, rumors, etc., maybe even conversations w/ the baddies if there's no animosity (yet!).
Then as the campaign progresses, and PCs get closer to more important targets, the bigger monsters are guarding, the bigger third parties are poking their noses to see what's going on, and so forth.
Poring through looking for fun monsters is IMO fun! Yet it also develops the fluency w/ monsters necessary to more easily find or improvise the combos and flavor you want.
I guess it's comparable to making a song vs. making an album, with music being a field both for the studious and the intuitive.
I agree that theming the dungeon is a good first step. Fitting in with the game world at large isn't a big concern, Golarion is a very eclectic setting.
It's totally normal to start from "this monster would be a good fight, I just need to justify it." What's important is having an explanation for why a monster is where they are. This can be really simple. Intelligent monsters need some motivation, (typically a paycheck, or actual loyalty to a leader) while mindless constructs and undead just need a creator who left them to guard the place. Outsiders might be bound there with varying degrees of consent and loyalty. Or, depending on alignment, they might be invading to destroy or protect something here. An evil fey might just like the atmosphere! Aberrations might have been captured to be weaponized, or might have caught the normal denizens off-guard. A dungeon room being sealed off to contain a monster run amok is a pretty common design trope.
You don't need whole paragraphs of backstory for even a named NPC. If your party starts asking questions of what was supposed to be a straightforward fight with some goons, it's a good opportunity to move things in a more interesting direction than you had really planned. Maybe a guard is willing to defect if the players prove their employer is evil. Maybe a devil bound to serve as a guard resents the BBEG, and could let the PCs kill them, so that their contract is over.
As an exercise, we can look at the Shield Maze in Wrath of the Righteous's video game adaptation.
Theme: low-level Demon Cult
Expected enemies (no explanation necessary):
- Big bad cult boss
- cultists of various classes
- low-level demons such as quasits, dretches, and cambions.
Less expected enemies (given some explanation, either through quick dialogue or environmental story-telling):
- corrupted humanoids (an ally explains they were driven mad by the demonic presence)
- Earth Elementals (clearly being used for construction, judging by scaffolding and equipment near them)
- Monitor Lizards (broken cages nearby implies there was an attempt to tame them before their room was sealed off)
- Powerful Water Elemental (letter carried by an enemy explains that the cult summoned it but lost control, possibly while trying to make a drinking water supply)
This also notices and addresses a player concern, the party may not be able to overcome demonic damage reduction, since they may not have cold iron weapons. There are treasure stashes throughout the dungeon which do include such weapons, and the actual demons don't appear until further in. (this is not such a big concern in PF2 as PF1)
I tend to build encounters "plot-first" so I think of where the encounter is going to happen, what kind of purpose I want it to have in the scope of the campaign's tale, and why creatures are there and motivated to act in the way the encounter needs them to act - and then once I know those details I go browsing through monster books to find creatures that fit.
For example, let's look at a traveling section of an adventure: I start with where the party is traveling, and how, such as if they are following a trade road up the coastline with a wagon and some horses. Then I think about whether I'm trying to show the area as dangerous, wild, or more well-patrolled and "safe". Let's say I am looking to give the players a sense that the road basically belongs to criminals, so there's going to be some kind of bandits present to try and get some valuables off of the characters. Since I'm wanting it to seem like the criminals feel like they can do whatever they want and no one is going to bother trying to stop them or resisting, I'll set it up like it is a toll booth - the criminals are just here, camped out in plain sight by the road so everyone has to pass them, telling everyone that wants to pass to hand over something valuable of they'll take it by force. Then I go looking for (or building) specific NPCs that fit that encounter design/purpose.
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A campaign is both a story and a game. The creatures selected for a combat encounter must advance the story in addition to being an exciting combat challenge.
I have been converting the PF1 Ironfang Invasion adventure path to PF2, which has called for substituting some PF2 creatures for PF1 creatures that do not yet exist in PF2. And the player characters often leave the expected path and journey their own path.
I have the basic theme of the Ironfang Invasion, that the mostly-hobgoblin Ironfang Legion has invaded southwestern Nirmathis to carve a nation for all monstrous humanoids. The modules sprinkle some non-goblinoid creatures, such as centaurs, morlocks, and minotaurs, into the Ironfang Legion forces to reflect that "all monstrous humanoids" theme. Early in the 1st module, Trail of the Hunted, the party rescued refugees from the invasion and hid with them in the fey-inhabited Fangwood Forest. When the party avoided the Ironfang patrols searching for them, they instead had encounters with animals, beasts, and fey.
An Ironfang encounter advanced the story of the invasion. They had to be set up as a disciplined band of warriors with regular soldiers and a more capable commander, but did not have to fit the forest. An animal or fey encounter advanced the story of the Fangwood. Those creatures had to seem like they would live in the forest and be vicious or mischievous enough to explain the deadly reputation of the Fangwood. Any other encounter would be filler, combat just for the sake of combat, unless I figured out a way of tying it into the stories of the campaign setting.
The 2nd module, Fangs of War, dove into the story of the Chernasardo Rangers, the elusive forest-dwelling protectors of Nirmathis. The Chernasardo were mentioned in the 1st module, a half-blind NPC Aubrin the Green was a retired Chernasardo Ranger and one of the PCs had a backstory that he was training under Aubrin. Having three active storylines--Ironfang, Fangwood, and Chenasard--meant that I could sometimes work two stories into an encounter. An encounter with a maenad in the Fangwood would have been a fairly boring combat, not worth the trouble of porting the PF1 creature to PF2 myself. But then I realized that the maenad could have had met Chernasardo Rangers and I could advance both the Fangwood story (PF1 maenads are not fey, but they have a similar flavor) and the Chernasardo Ranger story (I invented a deal with the Chernasardos where the maenad would keep her humanoid victims alive for a week to give the local Chernasardo Rangers a chance to trade some tasty livestock for them).
We can see storytelling through encounters in fantasy novels such as J.R.R. Tolkien's The Hobbit. The party enters Mirkwood Forest, loses track of the overgrown road, and grow hungry while taunted by the sight of wood elves picnicking with food that somehow they cannot reach. Then they are attacked by giant spiders. Elves are supposed to be generally helpful, but these elves had a quarrel with the dwarves of Lonely Mountain and disliked the party with its 13 dwarves. The spiders represented that well-tended Mirkwood was degenerating into nastiness. The spiders were still creatures natural to a magical forest, but nothing that would work with civilized people, not even nature-aligned wood elves. The rot of evil spread to Mirkwood, and the encounters illustrate the rot.
Let me elaborate on thenobledrake's coastal road example. Bandits shaking down merchants at their own tollbooth represent that the local government no longer controls the road. Bandits who strike from ambush and retreat to hide in the forest tell the story that they are worried about patrols from the local government. A pack of wolves led a talking warg gives a message that humans no longer control that area. Sea devils attacking from the ocean could mean that a new threat has arisen that challenges the humans for control of the coast. Which message would fit the story of your campaign?
One important thing in my opinion is to always have "wild" places in your dungeon. By "wild" places, I mean rooms that are not in line with the dungeon theme. Like an abandonned cave a giant spider took for its nest, a weird portal that called an unexpected outsider, these kind of things. They are places that the main denizens tend to avoid and leave be.
The goal of these places is multiple:
- Vary the type of opponents. If the PCs are facing a demonic cult, it means they will mostly face demons and humanoids. Being able to bring an undead encounter or an animal encounter will help everyone to participate uncluding those who have "anti-animal" abilities and no "anti-demons" ones. Putting always the same type of opponents during a long period is boring and demoralizing for the characters who can't affect such enemies much (another ooze, I guess my Rogue will once again be a spectator).
- Increase the number of fights in the dungeon. It's hard to come up with many different fights around the same theme at a specific level. If you sprinkle the dungeon with unexpected enemies it's easier to have a big dungeon without repeating the same fight configurations.
- Increase the types of interactions. These denizens are not in line with the main them of the dungeon and can, as such, be unexpected allies or just bring new forms of interactions.
- Bring the monsters your like. If you find a monster that is funny, it's always nice to be able to put it in the dungeon.
- Vary the ambiance: these encounters can have very different ambiance.
- And certainly many more I don't remember.
The only issue with these "wild" places, is that they are not very logical (most people clean their home from spiders). But it looks like it's the way writers see the world of Golarion as APs feature a lot of these.
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Another bunch of advice regarding tough encounters:
- Vary tough encounters between boss fights, mook fights and in-between fights. If all your tough encounters are against solo bosses, you basically tell the Fireball Wizard that his character will never be decisive.
- Avoid putting the toughest fight as the very last fight of the dungeon. It just kills all the pleasure to play a spellcaster (and other resource-limited characters) as you'll basically have to hoard your spell slots for the very last fight. And if the very last fight is a breeze (because of a nat 1 against Slow or the critical hit of the Pick Barbarian), your spellcaster players just hated your dungeon. Sprinkle the tough fights around and be sure your players know about it.
- The first fight gives the mood. An easy first fight and your players are confident, a very hard first fight and your players are scared. I love very hard first fights (especially if I have confident players). I very often design the first fight as the hardest of the adventure/dungeon.
Players will in general remember the tough encounters. Choose them so they will be memorable:
- Avoid random encounters against tough monsters. It's just not funny.
- Spend more time designing tough encounters so the monsters have more reasons to be here and are more often foreshadowed.
- Avoid tough encounters against non-memorable monsters. What makes a monster memorable varies, but if it's just "another fight against an ooze", it's not memorable. Dragons are super memorable, for example.