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Ontario Pathfinder Society | 5-Foot-Theatre: Monstrous Motivation – Role-playing monsters
5-Foot-Theatre: Monstrous Motivation – Role-playing monsters

5-Foot-Theatre: Monstrous Motivation – Role-playing monsters

“Battle not with monsters, lest ye become a monster…”

-Friedrich Nietzsche


Role-playing has similarities to the art of acting. Like actors, role-playing gamers take on the role of a character then try to understand their role in the overall story.  Unlike most actors who refer to established tragedies, histories and comedies of the real world, role-players have to deal with a world based on the depth and breadth of the human imagination, what’s more – all the acting in a role-playing game is improv. There’s no script, so acting is even more challenging. For GMs, an even more taxing challenge emerges. Whereas players get to role-play races that, although different from humans, still have similar or at least understandable motivations, GMs often take on the role of creatures so strange an otherworldly that role-playing them is extremely difficult. Creating a convincing portrayal of a creature so unlike the legal player character races requires a degree of study and reflection. Below you’ll find a brief outline about how to approach role-playing various creatures in the game, as well as a few resources.


Follow the Script

A word of caution before we jump into the study of monster motivation. In Pathfinder Society organized play, monster tactics and motivations are often clearly described in the tactics section of the creature’s stat block. The GM must follow these tactics as much as possible in order to reduce table-variation. Further, a GM can infer something about the monster motivations from the scenario/module’s plot or setting.


Be Specific

The Bestiaries are full of information about monsters, but looking to the Bestiary requires a caveat for PFS GMs. The Bestiaries contain general information about monsters. These entries are not necessarily specific to the Inner-Sea region of Golarion (where most PFS scenarios take place). If there appears to be a conflict between Bestiary information and information provided in the sanctioned scenario/module, remember that the specific trumps the general. In other words, whatever is spelled out in the scenario/module takes precedence. When there’s no conflict between the Bestiary and the sanctioned scenario/module, the GM should feel free to look for added flavour in the Bestiary itself. Below you’ll find an approach to how to use the Bestiary in order to role-play monsters.


Behold the Bestiary

The Bestiary, aside from containing stat blocks necessary for combat, offers additional information about each creature. For a GM who wants to learn more about a specific monster, they should start with the stat blocks themselves. Each creature stat block begins by identifying the Creature Type. The Creature Type is important from a crunch perspective since some class abilities, spells and other effects target specific Creature Types, but from a role-playing point-of-view, Creature Type provides the GM with a lot of information about how to portray the creature in question.

The majority of the Creature Type entry is full of crunchy, statistical information, but there are always a few hints about the creature’s origin, worldview, and motivation. Take for example the brief description of the Aberration type:

“An aberration has a bizarre anatomy, strange abilities, an alien mindset, or any combination of the three.”

What can a GM glean from this brief description? Well, when it comes to describing an aberration to players, a GM would profit from knowing that most aberrations have bizarre anatomy. Why not play that up when describing the creature? More interesting is the note that aberrations have an “alien mindset”. From an actor’s perspective, the GM should ask what an “alien mindset” is. Arguably, it means that the creature is motivated by a worldview far different from creatures of other types. What might be considered common sense to most creatures would seem absurd or unthinkable to an aberration. As such, an aberration’s behavior and conversation (if it speaks) should reflect this. Further, reading about the Creature Type helps the GM appreciate the Description section at the end of  each Bestiary entry. Below you’ll find a portion from the Description of one of the most important Aberrations in the game, the aboleth:

“As befits their hideous primeval appearance, the hermaphroditic aboleths are among the world’s oldest forms of life. Ancient even when the gods first turned their eyes to the Material Plane, the aboleths have always existed apart from other mortal life, alien and cold and endlessly plotting. They once ruled the world with vast empires, and today view most other forms of life as either food or slaves—and sometimes both. They disdain the gods and see themselves as the true masters of creation…”

Notice the key phrase here that echos the Creature Type description: “aboleths have always existed apart from other mortal life, alien and cold and endlessly plotting.” This takes on a deeper significance to the GM after reading the aberation Creature Type. The “alien mindset” is not merely strange, but is in some way outside of mortal life and even outside the designs of the gods. This sort of knowledge and interpretation allows the GM to go beyond role-playing the creature as merely being vaguely strange; it allows the GM to role-play in a more detailed and nuanced way. An aberration is disdainful of the gods, the natural order, and of mortal life in general. This is much more specific than looking at an aberration as something odd or weird.

When browsing through the Creature Types, the GM will find that most of the descriptions are limited to a few sentences. While these sentences can be very telling and informative, the descriptions of the relevant Subtypes are often far more so. For example, let’s compare the Creature Type Outsider to a specific subtype (Kami) description. First, the Outsider:

“An outsider is at least partially composed of the essence (but not necessarily the material) of some plane other than the Material Plane. Some creatures start out as some other type and become outsiders when they attain a higher (or lower) state of spiritual existence…”

But the Outsider subtypes are more specific about creature origins, motivation and mode of existence. For instance, the Kami subtype:

“Kami are a race of native outsiders who serve to protect what they refer to as “wards”—animals, plants, objects, and even locations—from being harmed or dishonored. All kami are outsiders with the native subtype…”

Aside from providing useful crunch, some of the subtype descriptions add an extra layer of fluff for the creative GM to consider when role-playing such a creature.


Description in the Bestiary

The description section of every Bestiary entry (as noted above) provides a lot of information about the origin, general behavior, ecology, general worldview, culture, and other key facts that make the creature unique in the game world. For a GM who wants to role-play a creature convincingly, reading the Description section is a must.



Each monster has an alignment. Game designers and writers sometimes use rare exceptions to the general alignment of a monster type for plot reasons. Otherwise, unless specifically noted in the scenario/module, a GM can assume that any creature she is running has the alignment listed in the stat block. As an important note, some spells and other effects are linked to the alignment of the target creature. For this reason, it’s important that the alignment be noted and played appropriately. When coupled with knowledge about the Creature Type, the creative GM can shade the creature’s alignment, making an aberration’s comments and behaviors far different from that of a demon or an evil-aligned fey. These creatures, even if they have the same alignment, see their place in the world differently and as a result their understanding of evil is going to be reflected in their worldview and thus their behavior.


Ability Scores

The six ability scores can be very informative for role-playing, particularly the mental stats: Intelligence, Wisdom and Charisma.

Intelligence determines how well your character learns and reasons.”

Since intelligence focuses on learning and logic a GM may tailor monster’s ability score to reflect how the creature behaves in and out of combat. For example, the higher the monster’s intelligence, the more likely that monster will figure out that a certain attack isn’t having the intended impact on the target and will likely switch targets whereas a creature with a lower intelligence score may take longer to learn thus, not realize until later that its attacks are ineffective.  Although this is more useful from a combat perspective, a creature’s intelligence will also help a GM determine how a creature might reason or try to problem-solve. It’s useful to note that creatures with a low intelligence may not even be able to speak.

Wisdom: describes a character’s willpower, common sense, awareness, and intuition.”

Creatures with high wisdom scores will be harder to fool and ultimately, more self-assured in respect to their code of behavior. This offers a great deal of role-playing opportunity. Knowing that a creature has a high wisdom will be reflected in their willpower and how they conduct themselves on ethical and moral matters according to the code that they adhere to.

“Charisma: measures a character’s personality, personal magnetism, ability to lead, and appearance.”

Creatures with high charisma are convincing, able to rally others, and are generally attractive in some way. Role-playing a creature with high or low Charisma offers considerable challenges to the  the GM. A monster with high charisma offers a lot of role playing opportunities for the GM and the players. It is creatures like this that can be very memorable, even likeable. They are the monsters who the players almost regret having to fight. Role-playing creatures with low-Charisma is equally difficult. A low Charisma score means the character doesn’t attract the attention of others, does not get selected as a leader and may have an unremarkable appearance. A low charisma character offers its own challenges for a GM to consider. As a note on crunch, GMs should be aware that the Charisma score of undead creatures does not necessarily have the same role-playing significance as it does for living creatures. Since undead creatures have no constitution score, Charisma is a measure of their unnatural “lifeforce”. So when role-playing an undead creature, be mindful of this.


Through the Looking Glass

As a GM, ask yourself how you might perceive the monster in question. Then put your words in its mouth. For example, if you think the monster is an ooze-dripping, chitinous mass of mindless muscle, perhaps the creature can say so, “You look at at me as an ooze-dripping, chitinous mass of mindless muscle, don’t you mortals?” If the monster has an intelligence high enough to warrant such self-reflection, this could be a good way to establish the dialogue as well as describe the creature to the PCs.


Speaking of Speaking…

One of the key aspects of role-playing a creature is its ability to speak a language that at least one of the PCs can understand. It’s an all too easy gaff to skip over the languages portion of a bestiary entry. So eager to do some role-playing, more than one GM has unwittingly had a conversation begin in Common only to find out (too late!) that the creature doesn’t actually speak that language. This becomes more problematic from a mechanical point-of-view when certain effects are language dependent. Checking the languages section is a little thing, but it can sometimes make a big difference.


Cosmology: The Great Beyond

Knowing where the creature fits into the game world is key to understanding its motivations. Some creatures are strong associated with specific parts of the Prime Material plane whereas others have origins in more distant reaches of The Great Beyond. Knowing where a creature is from, knowing something about the nature of that place’s  political, religious, and physical composition can add further detail for a GM wishing to make the creature more flavourful and interesting for their players. Understanding the nature of the universe sounds pretty heady, but in a fantasy world, everything’s laid out for you in a few pages of text.

The Inner-Sea World Guide explains the cosmology of the world in which PFS scenarios/modules take place. The nature of the Prime Material Plane, the Shadow Plane, the Positive Energy Plane, the Negative Energy Plane, the Elemental Planes, the realms of the Outer Sphere – all of these regions have specific fluff as well as crunch that can help a GM figure out the motivations of a specific creature. For example, knowing something about the shadow plane can help a GM understand and role-play a creature that hails from that realm. So too with every other creature whose origins are deeply linked to a specific part of the game’s cosmology. For example, the fey are related to the First World. Knowing something about the first world will help the GM role-play creatures from that place more convincingly.

Putting all the pieces together can add depth and shading to the creatures you’ll be portraying for your players. A little reading and consideration about how the plot, the creature’s stats, and the creature’s origin work together will help you make that creature more than just a stat block or a mini on the battle map. Monsters and other creatures are meant to make an impression on your players so when there’s a chance to add depth, seize it! Or to turn a phrase, remember that the devil’s in the details.


Today’s publication marks the 12th monthly edition of 5-Foot-Theatre. Thanks for your constructive criticism, spirited debate, insights, and most of all – for your support.

Blaise is a Toronto area writer and gamer. "...an excessive min/maxer is missing the point of the game. Reducing a character to a list of combat modifiers and dice rolls is not role-playing." -AD&D 2nd Edition DMG page 30 When you think about it, if the Hobbits were optimized it would have kinda ruined the Lord of the Rings.


  1. Gar G.

    Gar G. - July 28, 2014, 4:36 pm

    If you do it really well, encounters can become more memorable, or even not end in violence at all! After one scenario, a character of mine now has the incentive to spend Prestige on the Foreign Contact vanity, the contact being a friendly otyugh (for example).

    • Blaise

      Blaise - July 28, 2014, 4:40 pm

      Nicely played Gar (and GM!)

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