Ever play a video game or read a story with monsters when a ‘special’ type of a common species turns up? If not then there really isn’t much more to explain. Heroes run into an elite version of a common monster and are suddenly challenged. This may be done for three reasons:
- Surprise the audience! They expected this creature to be like the previous ones or work off their pre-existing knowledge. Now, they see it’s something more and can no longer predict the battle. SHOCKING!
- Give a leader to the common monsters. These elite creatures end up being generals, kings, queens, and other high-ranking beasts. It gives the monsters a sense of organization and that opens the doors for more possibilities. Maybe a heroic version or a hidden civilization.
- Author is too lazy to create a new creatures, so they just made a mutant version of something they already have. Pretty sure most of us have been there at some point, especially if it’s a spontaneous decision.
I find these monsters both fun and difficult to use. Fun because of the first two reasons above. I like throwing this kind of curveball at my heroes and audience because you never know if something is going to be off. This also expands the monsters I’ve chosen and I can flesh them out more in another story. Maybe there are more of these elite and there’s a reason they exist. That brings me to the difficult part.
While it’s very tempting to simply have this elite monster exist and blame magic, I think it’s important to at least hint at an origin. There are thousands or millions of the common versions around, so there has to be a reason for this stronger, different one. It could be a mutation, an ingested potion, a revived prehistoric version, or anything that can give an origin. The characters don’t even have to know, but can simply guess. Otherwise, this type of creature comes out as random and feels like it isn’t an organic part of the world. You can break a setting by simply dropping a variation of a common beast in there and hoping people don’t question it.
Another challenge is deciding on how different they’re going to be. Some authors go totally off-the-wall crazy with upgrades. A goblin with wings, extendable horns, lightning breath, fireball farts, a beautiful singing voice, an extra 3 inches, and hyper-regeneration is a terrifying challenge. It’s also so over-the-top for that species that it might as well be named Tryin’ Toohard. You can get further with a few or even one power as long as it’s a good one. Being more intelligent or stronger always work as a foundation. Then, you give it something that makes it really stand out and be a threat. For example, take that goblin from earlier with heightened intelligence and hyper-regeneration. Now, you have a smart and hard to kill creature that isn’t too extreme.
There are other things you can do with these. Names are optional, but can give them more weight. Prophesies about them help make them special and can act as an origin. Some can even be used as recurring enemies if they are able to survive. Making an elite monster really does open the door for expanding both their species and their own role in the overall world. It really depends on how far you want to go and if they were planned or spontaneous. Though, you can still love it so much in the moment that you want to run with it or have another show up later for revenge.
I really do need to use elite monsters more often. I’m so busy trying to show that some of the monster races aren’t as monstrous as people think that I forget about this. The goblins and giltris (lizardmen) of Windemere are practically sub-species now. So, adding an elite wouldn’t be the same as if I did it with a peryton or troll. Something for me to consider down the road.