Monster Introductions


Act 1 of Diablo 3, particularly the first half leading up to the death of the Skeleton King is exceptionally well structured and “paced” with the introduction of monsters and concepts. New elements are introduced, tested, and compounded before you are then thrown into the depths to find and fight the Skeleton King.

The game begins simply. First, you see a corpse. A clear, bloody, warning.

01 - Corpse

Then you see a zombie eating a corpse.

02 - Zombies Eating

Then you come to a barricaded town, littered with corpses. The living are there too, and the zombies attack. New zombies (crawling torsos) pop out in the second or third wave as a surprise escalation.

03 - Barricade

When you win, you go into town. The living are scared, and then omg some of the living transform into zombies!!!!

04 - Transformation

The living speculate there is a source. “Wretched mothers” and a “queen” that are supposedly the source of these zombies. You return to the barricade, part of it breaks apart as zombies, led by one of these wretched mothers attacks.

05 - Mothers

You go to seek the source of this problem. Now that you’ve been exposed to all the types of zombies, you are tested along the road by them. Basic zombies. Big zombies that can fall apart and become a torso only zombie, mothers who spawn in more basic zombies.

A new monster, Quillboars, can be found along the road, but they almost always found off the road near the extreme edge of the map. So if you stick to the road you will likely not see any until you get to the ruins of Old Tristram. You may also encounter elite versions of the Quillboar first, looting the cellar of an abandoned home. They are inserted as if they are a more “natural” type of monster that has been pushed to the fringes due to the current zombie apocalypse.

Then, you reach the Ruined Cathedral and are presented with a clear descent into the mythic underworld.

06 - Descent

Zombies first, but they are known (feeding upon a corpse) and you are introduced to a new mechanic of being able to use the dungeon against the monsters (falling chandelier). At this point, because a descent into another world has happened, most of the additional monsters are just kinda there and will be encountered at random. There is not a set introduction for these fresh horrors (skeletons, flying imp type creatures, big exploding horrors, leaches from inside the big exploding monsters).

07 - Use the Dungeon

Skeletons with shields are introduced, chasing the NPC you have come to the Cathedral to find, but they are immediately killed by falling rocks.

08 - Skeletons with Shields

The ghost of the Skeleton King then appears, introduces himself officially (you may have found a few books about him on the 1st level of the Cathedral) and proceeds to demonstrate how he can “warp in” skeletons to fight on his behalf.

09 - Skeleton King

Then we get a town break/info dump/go help the blacksmith who’s wife becomes a zombie. Kill the blacksmith’s wife and he sends you off to find the crown you’ll need to destroy the Skeleton King.

Upon entering the next section, you’re basically immediately rushed by demon dogs.

10 - Demon Dogs

All other monsters have been met before, and the focus remains on zombies (dead rising). You come to a graveyard, pass through the mass graves where the zombies rise to get you, and then reach 3 crypts, and smaller graveyard. The dead coming up out of the ground change from zombies to skeletons here perhaps due to association with the Skeleton King? You know the crown can be found in one of the crypts, but which…?

11 - Crypts

Again, entering into a new underworld seems to automatically indicate that new stuff should be expected. In addition to the previous monsters, you get a couple types of ghost, and imps that run around like corrupted children. Once you find the correct crypt however, you get one of the best monster introductions in the game. In an empty crypt, there is a large sealed door, like those seen in the Cathedral, and as you get close the door begins to move and you can hear heavy banging, and then BAM! A giant undead abomination pops out to get you.

12 - Abomination

On the other side of this door, another new monster, typically introduced (but not guaranteed to be) by its laughter from the darkness. A skeleton, surrounded by an aura of magic that has an appearance similar to the Skeleton King, that warps in skeletons. Visual connectedness and similar behaviors build on each other with each new introduction.

With the crown recovered and then repaired, you then return to the Ruined Cathedral where all of these monsters appear. Their introductions are over, the “test” begins, can you defeat the Skeleton King?

Obviously this is all pretty “linear” and “video gamey” but hey, it was made for a linear video game! Still, I think the guts are solid, and they jive well with other things we’re seeing in the OSR scene, such as Skerples Tomb of the Serpent Kings with its focus on “lessons” taught to you by direct interaction with the dungeon, and Chris McDowell’s “Three Step Dungeons” post that dropped today.

Monster Sets

I play Diablo 3 almost every night before going to bed because it puts me to sleep. The exploding corpses, demonic screams, and trash legendaries are apparently super cozy for me, and after about 15-20 minutes it take all my remaining energy to get from the couch to bed. Ultimately though, running rifts or bounties is really a very simple, thoughtless process that lets my mind wander, and simultaneously, the legendary drops provide just the right amount of lottery ticket style dopamine hit to keep me mildly interested.

But how does this relate to table top RPGs? There are a few things Diablo 3 does very very well that I think should be stolen by the tabletop world. Broadly, these are monster sets and monster introductions.

Making “sets” out of monsters is nothing new to tabletop or video games. There are monsters that commonly go together (goblins, hobgoblins, and bugbears), and the types of creatures/monsters found in the “starter forest” are typically different (even if simply recolored) than those found in the “mountains of doom”. I bring this all up because recently I saw a few tables for wilderness encounters that took an “everything and the kitchen sink is a possible encounter” approach. I personally don’t like it when the tables are too random. Random is definitely good. Incongruous results are definitely good because they challenge everyone’s expectations and get the creative juices flowing. But if each roll yields vastly different things, as far as I’m concerned, it’s much more difficult for the fantasy world to “gel” in a person’s mind.

“Wait, we’ve been walking through a forest and first we came across tiny clay golems, then a sphinx, then slaadi? Is this place special? Is Limbo leaking? Is there a portal? Should we investigate thoroughly? No? This is just the forest we’re supposed to pass through to get to the dungeon you designed? Huh….”

What the Diablo 3 designers did really well in this regard is that they seem to have picked/created a variety of monsters that work well with each other to put different and constant pressures on the player.

Usually, you’ll get the following:

  • The “front lines” monster. Basic melee pressure. Middle of the road in terms of stats.
  • Ranged attackers. Go down fast, but hard to get to.
  • The Threat. This is something that can hit very hard but it tends to be big and slow. You know it’s coming, and you know you’ll have to prepare or you’ll get dropped.
  • The “Attention” Problem, or perhaps a better name would be “The Immediacy”. This can come in many forms and fashions, and it’s the thing you need to deal with right now or it will make everything much worse. However, by putting your attention on it, you must expose yourself to the melee and range pressure, and allow The Threat to get closer (potentially too close).

The Melee, Range and Threat are probably pretty obvious. Here are some examples of attention problems.

  1. Monsters that put temporary shields of invulnerability on other monsters. Never itself. Usually applies the shield right as you’re about to kill your target.
  2. Swarms of small monsters that do not deal much damage, but will overwhelm you if ignored.
  3. A drum that must be hit two times to be destroyed. If a monster reaches it, it will begin playing a song that enrages/buffs the other monsters in the area.
  4. A monster in the middle of a ritual. If it is completed things will get much worse.
  5. A monster who resurrects other monsters.
  6. A monster who spawns other monsters.
  7. A monster who generates some sort of invulnerable and devastating “zone control” such as a poison cloud or fire patch.

These monsters are usually easily identifiable. The green nests that spawn in bat-like monsters with stingers are obvious and don’t change. Once you fail because you underestimated their ability to spawn in new monsters, that knowledge can be built upon and reused. It may seem kinda lame to use smaller sets of monsters due to repetition, but I think that’s a pretty foundational requirement for enabling player skill to shine. If each new monster encounter is with a fresh, random chimeric aberration, then the player skill being tested is meta “real world” type knowledge. If the monsters repeat with decent regularity, then the player skill being tested is based on in world, in character experiences.

I’d say, when making a dungeon or a zone, keep the melee, ranged and threat types pretty consistent and repetitive. This is a crypt with skeletons. Some have swords, some have bows or shoot fire bolts, and some drag a giant axe that can cut you in half if they get close enough. Repeat these basic things, but then keep players on their toes and ratchet up the pressure with a few different attention consuming monsters, and limit your random encounter tables for the area to these things.

Samwise - Khazra HotS

That’s all for now!