Knowledge is Power (Part 2)

by Ameron (Derek Myers) on October 26, 2010

By now most players know, or should know, that a monster knowledge check can make all the difference when you’re fighting a monster for the very first time. Knowing that a monster is undead, has a vulnerability to fire or has a breath weapon will have a significant impact on what you do during the encounter. However, in practice I’ve discovered that making a monster knowledge check isn’t always as simple as rolling against the DCs set in the PHB. There are often other mitigating factors that need to be addressed when determining the success or failure of a monster knowledge check.

In Knowledge is Power (Part 1) we emphasized the importance of making these checks. Most DMs allow the check as a free action. You either know something useful or you don’t. I’ve even played with a few DMs who feel it’s their job to ask players to make the check before they ever roll initiative. However monster knowledge checks are run at your gaming table; make sure you do it every encounter.

According to the PHB a monster knowledge check represents anything and everything that you’ve heard about this kind of monster. PCs with scholarly backgrounds have read up on this kind of monster, PCs that have grown up in a savage environment have seen or heard about this kind of creature from their kinfolk, tribe or clan. Whatever the back-story and in-game rationale, the check is a quick way for the DM to decide what this PC knows about this specific monster.

Monsters at Varying Tiers

In a recent paragon game my PCs fought Drow for the first time in their adventuring career. These Drow were all paragon level so when the PCs decided to make the appropriate monster knowledge check, I adjusted the numbers accordingly. They rolled high enough to realize they were fighting Drow, but they didn’t roll high enough to learn anything else. Then one of the players brought up a good point. Since there are Drow in the Monster Manual in the heroic tier, shouldn’t the players get to roll a monster knowledge check against the heroic DCs to at least learn things like the racial powers? After all if all Drow can use darkfire or a globe of darkness what difference does it make if the monster is level 1 or level 30? Shouldn’t the appropriate DC reflect the lowest instance of those powers?

It was an accurate observation so I said “yes” and gave them any information that this paragon level Drow had that his heroic counterpart would also have. And from then on, whenever I used a monster in my encounters that existed in the lower tiers of play, all monster knowledge checks were scored against both the heroic and paragon DCs. If the PCs made the heroic level DC then they only got the heroic information.

This began adding an extra level of excitement to some encounters because the PCs thought they knew all about a creature (and they did, assuming it was only the heroic level version) but every now and then the paragon versions had new powers and resistances they were previously unaware of.

Learn From Experience

When PCs begin their adventuring career the monster knowledge check represents what they’ve learned about monsters, most commonly through secondhand sources like books and anecdotes. So the first time a PCs fights a Blue Dragon he relies on what he’s read or what he’s been told about the creature. But what about the next time he fights a Blue Dragon? Does even he need to make another monster knowledge check?

It’s pretty reasonable to assume that he remember his previous fight with the Blue Dragon so he should already know everything a monster knowledge check will reveal. In cases where this is a more powerful Blue Dragon (perhaps he fought a level 6 young Blue Dragon before and this is a level 13 adult Blue Dragon) is this PC entitled to any kind of bonus to a subsequent check?

Looking back to how I handled the Drow situation described above, I’d assume that a) this PC should automatically get everything a monster knowledge check would reveal about the kind of creature he originally fought; and b) that any new check to discern information about the new creature be made with a substantial bonus. I’d recommend +5. After all this is like skill training. You’ve already fought this kind of create so you should already have a very solid foundation about discerning the differences you may face this time around.

Record Keeping

Once players realize that their PCs get bonuses to monster knowledge checks during subsequent encounters against the same creatures they’ll see real value in keeping a monster log. I know that as a player I don’t remember every single monster I’ve ever fought, but I think my character would remember the battles with a lot more detail. By writing down the monsters I’ve fought I’ll be better prepared if I ever face that creature again. As a DM I try to remember what I’ve thrown at the party in the past but I often forget. If the players keep monster logs then they can tell me as combat begins if they’ve faced this monster type before and at what level.

I think the idea of rewarding record keeping of this type is just. The way I look at it, this just adds to the role-playing. Although the player needs to keep a journal his PC probably doesn’t. By writing down the creatures this PCs has faced the player can, in character, describe details and I, as the DM, can help fill in the blanks he might have forgotten. After all, a monster log means more work for the player and if they’re willing to take this extra step I’m going to reward it.

Knowing is Half the Battle

Knowledge is power. Never forget it. Keep making those monster knowledge checks. I encourage DMs to use the guidelines I’ve suggested above and see how they affect your game. I find that PCs with monster knowledge tend to be more creative. Because they know more about what the monster can do, they can better devise a strategy to beat it. Rarely does the tank just run headlong against a foe he actually understands. Knowledge arms the characters with another weapon and once they’ve got it they’ll find a way to use it most effectively.

Have you added any house rules to your monster knowledge checks? Do you think that my suggestions are out of line? Are they giving the PCs too much information? Is it possible to give the PCs too much information when it comes to monster knowledge? Are you any more or less likely to use similar monsters again and again if the players get the kind of advantages to their monster knowledge checks I’ve described above?

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{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Brian October 26, 2010 at 10:04 pm

Would you ever give PCs info about a monster that wasn’t part of the “monster knowledge heirarchy”?
Brian´s last blog post ..Weekly Roundup First Edition

2 PinkRose October 30, 2010 at 4:22 pm

I use Passive Knowledge checks.
Such that when I am making up my adventure and let’s say they are fighting a Paragon-level troll. Natural Humanoid, so Nature is the skill. The Wizard in the group has a +12 so that’s a 22 Passive Nature check.
Since it’s higher then 20, when I describe the monster before them, I tell them it is a Two-headed Troll. Large natural humanoid.
If it was a Heroic level Troll, I would tell them, it’s Two-headed Troll. Large natural humanoid. It has vicious claws, likes to knock it’s target’s prone, because of its two heads it gets twice as many actions in a fight and it is extremely difficult to stun or daze or charm. And like all trolls, it can regenerate.

I use passive skills because it speeds up the game, my players didn’t remember knowledge checks when we started and it gives me something to describe when they enter the dungeon room.

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