Monsters as notable NPCs and player characters in D&D is something I’ve touched on in past columns, including last week’s exploration of the similarities between a TTRPG GM and a Swiss Army knife. Since then, I ran the “Grungle in the Jungle” adventure idea for my gaming group. Inspired by Stream of Annihilation’s One Grung Above from WotC Product Manager Christopher Lindsay this adventure puts the players in control of a band of grung from Volo’s Guide to Monsters.
Grung and other D&D monsters have feelings, hopes and dreams
Like Nerdarchists Dave and Ted and Nate the Nerdarch mention in this ArmorClass10.com sponsored video, more often than not taking the stat block right out of the Monster Manual or other source works fine to allow players to run monster characters in a game or to represent an NPC. Like any traditional NPC such as the crusty human barkeep, dwarven blacksmith or elven magic shop owner, the personality you present means more than the mechanical elements on the stat block.
While passing out unmodified grung stat blocks would have been simple, for Grungle in the Jungle I mixed it up by giving each green grung a special ability that lent itself to putting the little fella in danger. The other grung would need to rely on the low-caste greens for finding food in the jungle and spotting traps and hazards like quicksand. The blue grung, a step up from green, were the spirtualists that could use healing herbs and interact with beasts. The lone purple grung was caught in the middle, in charge of greens and blues as middle management for the orange and red grung, who were magic users and scholars, only one of whom could speak any language other than grung.
The players loved the adventure. Each of the players controlled a green grung and a nongreen grung, and watching them interact was a blast. Very quickly, all the grung developed distinct personalities and quirks as they traveled through the perilous jungle to save the village eggs that were taken by lizardfolk. Listening to the players assume ranks based on their grung castes and adopt an air of jungle superiority was fantastic. I was especially happy how quickly they picked up on the grung’s “hairless ape” servants as primitive humans kept docile through the poisoned food they were fed.
Going into this adventure session, I had some concerns about the grungs’ survivability. Since each player had two grung, my thinking was if a few died along the way, it was to be expected.
Very early on, the grung rescue squad showed me how capable they were. The grungs’ poisonous skin is ridiculous! A random encounter where they came near a fierce battle between a giant ape and a giant crocodile was meant to inspire fear and danger, and maybe they’d be nearly squished. But like players do, they attacked, reasoning that their village was nearby and this was a serious threat.
By the time the battle was over, half the squad had taken down the ape, which was poisoned, frightened and compelled to submerge itself in water or mud. The other half took down the croc, which was also poisoned, could only jump or climb and had to make a loud noise at the beginning and end of every turn.
Grungle in the Jungle only got weirder from there.
My other experience with monsters-as-playable-characters and unusual NPCs is my Spelljammer game. The characters ship has a growing crew that includes a githzerai zerth, an orog, an alehouse drake and a scout with…wait…I can’t tell you that last part. It’s still a mystery to the players. For all of these, the Monster Manual or Tome of Beasts stat blocks serve admirably.
Along the lines of what the Nerdarchy crew discusses in the video, different interactions with creatures like this gives both the players and their characters new perspectives on the environment of D&D or whatever TTRPG your group enjoys. In that same Spelljammer game, the characters regularly encounter “monsters” that are basically like any other species you might encounter. Wildspace is vast, and to lump every duergar, gith or orc (or scro as we spelljamming folk know them) into the role of villain or foe would be a shame. Heck, their adventuring company patron is a lounge-singing beholder! The characters in that game have learned to be cautious (and make lots of insight checks!) of any entities they encounter.
Using monsters in different ways can bring your D&D game to life in myriad regards. Traditional settings suddenly feel more diverse, and situations aren’t always black and white. Players will begin to look at creatures as individuals, rather than obstacles. The trick is to portray monsters as more than plot devices or ways to earn experience points. The lowliest goblin might simply be a victim of circumstances that put it in the party’s path. If we revisit Grungle in the Jungle, the players might learn more about what drove the lizardfolk to leave their territory and raid the grung hatchery, and perhaps gain their sympathy.
The simplest way to play monsters against type is by giving encounters a chance to breathe before rolling initiative and letting swords and spells fly. Even in a dungeon, the monsters aren’t waiting inertly at spawn points to aggro on any PC that wanders too close. There may be interesting reasons for their presence, or perhaps one or a few among them are just too frightened to disagree or leave the safety of their kind. Heck, the way adventurers treat most monsters, who can blame them?
This isn’t to say that all monsters are reasonable or potentially altruistic. There’s still savage hordes, cruel raiders and terrifying aberrations of malice and evil in your D&D world. But sometimes there’s a monster…sometimes there’s a monster…well, sometimes it’s the monster for its time and place. It fits right in there. And that’s the monster, in D&D. And even if its a scary monster – and monster can most certainly be that. Quite possible the scariest monster in the realm, which would place them high in the running for scariest worldwide. But sometimes there’s a monster, sometimes, there’s a monster. Aw. I lost my train of thought here.