In an earlier post, I noted that the "numbers appearing" in OD&D's monster descriptions are very high - running into the hundreds in many cases. That's great when monsters live in tribes. But what if they operate in much smaller gangs? What if they're essentially adventuring parties?
Let's take "dungeon ecology". Having a vast area of subterranean ruins peopled by one or more tribes of humanoid monsters gets us into "number appearing" territory. That suggests the Mines of Moria as a default: large numbers of orcs (or whatever) that you definitely don't want to meet all at once, or at all if you can help it. Any small groups encountered are likely to be guards or scouts - and, unless extreme care is exercised, will probably summon more of their kind. There's excellent potential for the adventure as a chase - get in, get what you're after (treasure, knowledge, passage under the mountains) and get out.
But move away from the tribal model, and you get something different: a defined group of antagonists who become proper villains rather than faceless mooks. Rather than Moria, you get something more like The Texas Chain Saw Massacre. Or Kill Bill without the faceless minions.
There's a lot to be said for that. It's closer to the way a lot of RuneQuest games played out (because broos, trolls or tusk riders tended to be a lot tougher than the average PC), and it implies that the PCs aren't Achilles-style heroes who can cut down enemies by the barracks-ful.
Miniatures-based games incline towards this sort of play, for two reasons. First, the wargaming 'what you see is what you get' principle helps you to individualise monsters. Second, with many monster types, you won't have that many miniatures available.
Let's take this group of orcs. I painted them up to experiment with Spooktalker's method of just painting the jet-black skin black of a fire giant, without any highlights.
The one with the red band round his helmet looks more intelligent (and a little more human than the rest). So he's clearly the leader. Could he be a sorcerer? Probably. And why is he holding a relatively crude cudgel when he's got an ornate two-handed sword on his back. Perhaps it's a magic cudgel.
That gets us started. Let's give him three spells from the 1st-3rd-level list in The Black Hack: Fireball, Sleep and Magic Mouth. Sleep, especially, makes him very dangerous - and presents opportunities for the orcs to capture the PCs. Let's give him 3 hit dice, 6 armour points, a two-handed sword and a magic club that, if not parried, causes a CON save or 1d3 turns of unconsciousness - but just once per encounter (whether or not the save is made). We'll call it Brimir's Bludgeon. And we'll call him Ithrak. He carries a small amount of stolen gold and silver jewellery, all of which is of fine workmanship - demonstrating an unusual discernment for a monster. This includes two amulets which match the shields of Zrakil and Athrog (see below). He also has the Livre of Argumand, a spellbook written in a demonic tongue and bound in demon-hide. This contains the three spells he knows and several others he has yet to decipher. If the players meet him on subsequent occasions, he will may have learned more spells. Ithrak is driven by a desire to acquire more sorcerous powers.
What about the big guy roaring at the sky? (He's a Gremlin Miniatures orc and a shameless rip-off of Aly Morrison's superb Baron Brightgore miniature.) Let's call him Braalu. He also wields a mace despite having a two-handed sword, so let's add provide a reason for that. What could it be? How about a thunderclap effect on the first impact of each encounter that causes a WIS save for all foes within earshot or a turn of flight. But let's also say that each week of owning the mace drains a point of INT, permanently, to a minimum of 3. For every four points lost, the owner loses a language. Braalu has long since lost the power of speech, although he still responds to Ithrak's commands. Let's otherwise make him a 2nd-level fighter with high hit points and give him the berserker rule (disadvantage when parrying his attacks in The Black Hack). Braalu is driven by bloodlust, a resentful awareness of his descent into near-animal intelligence, and loyalty to Ithrak.
The top-knotted hobgoblin with the mace has an appointment with a Biostrip bath, so let's ignore him. But the savage-looking fellow with the horned helmet, axe and knife is fierce and heavily armoured. We'll give him 8 armour points and two attacks. He's a 3rd-level fighter otherwise and is Ithrak's lieutenant, now that Braalu has lost most of his mind. We'll call him Gathrak. He's even cleverer than Ithrak, though he knows no sorcery, and exceptionally ambitious. But he's clever enough to hide it well. He will, however, be perfectly happy to deal a deathblow to Ithrak if the opportunity presents itself. And he's cunning enough to present himself as a peacemaker to the PCs if such a situation arises. He's also Ithrak's brother and an enthusiastic torturer. And he's an excellent tracker, by scent. He carries little on his person but his weapons, a small kit of torture devices and a carved demonic idol about half a foot high. Gathrak is driven by a desire to obtain Ithrak's sorcerous powers.
The other two, Zrakil with the spear and Athrog with the sword, are ordinary orcs, though large and physically robust (maximum hit points). But Ithrak has bound a minor demon into each of their shields. This compels them to fight by his side and to use the armour points from their shields to protect him rather than them. Each shield is controlled by a corresponding amulet that Ithrak wears around his neck. Carrying the shield while you wear its amulet bestows no benefit. Gathrak knows how the magic works and covets the amulets. Zrakil and Athrog have 6 armour points each of their own, plus the 4 each that they will bestow on the amulet-wearer from their shields. NB: if Athrog or Zrakil is slain and someone else takes their shields, the armour points will immediately replenish themselves - and the shield-bearer will be compelled to put them at Ithrak's disposal even if trying to attack him. Zrakil and Athrog are driven by fear of their leaders and hatred of living things (including their leaders).
|Actually, Athrog and Zrakil should be flanking Ithrak, not Braalu.|
Ithrak's band will often be accompanied by other humanoids - or even humans - that they have pressed into service. Even Zrakil and Athrog lord it over these unfortunates.
Who are they? Some might remember tales of the wizard Argumand, who bred a race of ebon-skinned, fire-eyed orcs to serve him. A few might recall whispers that he was eventually devoured by these treacherous servants.
Where are they? They might have established themselves in some ruin or isolated manor. If they have been there long, they will have underlings, guards and half-orc whelps. But they may also be abroad, seeking sorcerous knowledge and a temporary slaking of the thirst for violence that throbs in their black hearts.
What do they want? Whatever the PCs are after!