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Background

I am a brand-new DM, about to lead a game for brand-new players. I have a lot of knowledge of rules from playing Baldur's Gate and Neverwinter Nights over and over, leafing through a friend's books, and finally buying the three basic books for myself.

Question

How much information should I give to my players about monsters they encounter?

Should I essentially read the entire MM entry to them, or let them figure out how the enemies operate through experience, or (as I assume), something in the middle? Keep in mind, only one of them has even peripheral experience with D&D (they are very good sports for giving it a shot!), so they won't be bringing background knowledge to the table. For example, do DMs generally let players know what immunities creatures have, or do they let them figure it out by trial and error? What about offensive abilities? For example, if a player has a potion of fire resistance, should I give them a heads-up about the fact that the chimera they're facing has a fire breath attack?

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    \$\begingroup\$ Warning: Baldur's Gate and Neverwinter Nights do not use the same rules as you've bought. Best forget everything you know and begin learning the new game fresh. \$\endgroup\$ – SevenSidedDie Dec 15 '14 at 23:18
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    \$\begingroup\$ May I suggest that commenters and answerers not do so if they're not familiar with 5e? I suspect we have plenty of site users that do use 5e that can give actual expert guidance rather than guesses based on other editions. Thanks. Also, take discussion about whether it's OK to scope this question to 5e to Meta. \$\endgroup\$ – mxyzplk Dec 16 '14 at 17:28
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    \$\begingroup\$ [Related] Can player characters identify monsters? \$\endgroup\$ – SevenSidedDie Jan 31 '15 at 0:28
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Generally, you should only tell them what their character knows. Some DMs don't even tell them the creature's name until afterwards, they just describe its appearance.

Let them make a skill check to see how much they know (eg arcana, nature, religion, history - depending on the type of creature. Or perception, if there is some visual clue).

Or, if you decide they would have encountered the creature before, or the creature's abilities are common knowledge, then just tell them.

Otherwise, it's an unknown creature, let them discover its abilities by experience. You'll have to tell the players what's happening during combat, so they know if it is resistant or vulnerable to their attacks. For example, "The red dragon hardly seems to notice your Fireball. But it roars in pain as the Ray of Frost hits him."

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    \$\begingroup\$ I'd also add that it's good to tell how effective some attacks are. As an example (with a troll in mind) "the sword gash quickly heals over, becoming a mere scar. That scorch mark, however, remains" \$\endgroup\$ – PipperChip Dec 15 '14 at 23:39
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    \$\begingroup\$ +1 "What the character knows" is the key here. If you decide that goblins are common in your world, it'd be weird if players didn't know about them - but if your world had humans as its only intelligent race until the Day of Rifts came, those hideous malformed creatures could be anything... \$\endgroup\$ – GMJoe Dec 16 '14 at 0:28
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    \$\begingroup\$ If your characters are heading into an area known for certain monsters, perhaps an NPC might warn them to beware of the Jabberwock, and if they come across one do not waste time with fire spells, just stick a sword in its belly. \$\endgroup\$ – chooban Dec 16 '14 at 16:19
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    \$\begingroup\$ This, especially the naming part becomes important when your players become experienced with the game. If they've encountered that monster before while playing a different character or campaign, they'll know exactly what that monster does if you give them a name. Even though good players don't metagame, it's extremely hard not to instinctively have your character avoid dying based on what you as a player know. Therefore, it's a good idea to just give your players a description, leaving them to second-guess themselves at the monster's exact nature if they fail their Knowledge rolls. \$\endgroup\$ – Lucas Leblanc Dec 16 '14 at 22:22
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    \$\begingroup\$ I play with a really new group who know almost nothing about the MM or the world, meaning they're really at a disadvantage when it comes to what types of abilities a monster would even have. I encourage knowledge rolls, and try to give them something on rolls of 15 or higher. Even if it's "even though you don't really know what it is, it seems to fit with what you understand to be undead" or "You read about these creatures in your studies but it's pretty hazy. The only thing that comes to mind is that they can't be poisoned." \$\endgroup\$ – Faye Sep 22 '16 at 22:31
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I generally don't give anything away. Discovery is part of the fun to the player.

I try to give a very detailed description of the monster as the players would see it (if it's in low light they may not see ALL the tentacles).

If a player has a skill that might give them some more information I'd let them roll to see if they'd know a bit more.

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    \$\begingroup\$ I tend to show them Google image searches, to give a clearer idea of what the monsters look like \$\endgroup\$ – Mooing Duck Dec 16 '14 at 21:54
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    \$\begingroup\$ @MooingDuck Back in the day (before Internet access was common) I would sometimes show them the MM illustration after their PCs had had enough visual exposure to warrant it. \$\endgroup\$ – SevenSidedDie Dec 17 '14 at 0:26
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You have to balance out the fun of discovering a new monster with how devastating a LACK of knowledge could be to the party. Consider the harpy, with it's ability to lure in folks who fail a DC11 wis check. This could wipe out the entire party if they don't know to plug their ears. So is it more fun (for the players) to know about this and act accordingly (not be able to communicate verbally, poor perception checks since they can't hear, etc) or risk getting wiped out? Same with a lycanthrope immune to damage from nonmagical, non-silvered weapons. Is it more fun for the party to figure out how to defeat this ahead of time or "learn" it in the midst of a battle they can't win? Depends on the party of course as there are usually ways to magic up weapons on the spot but a novice party might not know this.

Somewhat minor abilities, like the hobgoblin's "martial attack" (increased damage when a target is next to an ally of the hobgoblin), can easily be learned about in-battle ("that hobgoblin hits harder, using his ally to distract you") as it shouldn't be an insurmountable challenge.

Give the party the opportunity to interview survivors, survey the scene of a previous attack, or observe the creature from a distance. After a few fights they should realize that monsters don't all fall to the same "attack, attack, magic missile!" combo. If they insist on rushing in, ignoring your role play opportunities, then let the chips fall where they may.

Giving the party advance warning of a creatures abilities and weaknesses lowers the encounter difficulty. If a fight is intended to be "deadly" then less info serves that purpose. But if it is supposed to be an easy/medium threat only, then not knowing about something that could crush the party doesn't fit that description (see DMG p82).

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This depends on your playstyle and the way you want to play.

Would the characters' reasonably know about these creatures and is that something you want to have the players' have access to as part of play?

Now, there's plenty of old school play where you pretty much know nothing about a creature until you've dealt with it enough to figure out what it can do. This works either where the monster is rare and the characters would know nothing about it, or in videogames where player skill is created through repeatedly encountering the same thing over and over until you gain understanding of what it is about.

Another alternative is to give the description based on the characters' understanding - presumably the druid knows about many animals, the necromancer knows about ghosts, etc. and can tell the differences between the well known types and has a good idea about what their abilities are. This is where characters having appropriate skills or backgrounds can be very useful.

You can scale the description up or down, accordingly. The average person figures out that it's an animated statue. The cleric says, "No, this is a golem, a divine secret that should have been used to protect a place." The character who can cast the "create Golem" spell probably knows enough that you might as well give them the stats for the average golem, and so forth.

Also be aware that players may see this as a game like many people see videogames - of course you look up the stats on the monsters you face. Some players might just love the lore and look up stuff on the monsters because they're cool and fun. So the whole point of mysterious monsters usually drops away quickly for most gamers - you then end up with the second problem of what happens when players begin using information their characters couldn't possibly know? Do you force players to play suboptimally, or do you accept it like how when someone replays a videogame they already can speed through because they know what to expect?

There's no one right answer, there's just what sounds fun for you and your group and it's good to lay out those expectations up front.

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Don't read the MM. Either send monsters with no killing tricky features (like harpies have), or give them the important information (or some opportunity to get it) through skill rolls (as others suggested) or NPCs and other in-game ways.

The more emphasis on stats, the more the players will take it as a PC game, just with graphics substituted by imagination. If you emphasize challenge within fiction over a rule-combining challenge, players will be more likely to treat the game as something like Hobbit, just interactive - which is more fun for most of us.

To be concrete, in my campaign the PCs defeated their first vampire in a short (but still challenging) clash, but after a session focused on information gathering (where they heard tales of sir Irisian making various feats of supernatural strength and of his full village of pale, unhealthy looking women, whom he used as "refreshing blood cans"). The PCs didn't find for sure that he's a vampire, so we played an extra session with one of the PCs playing an NPC scout (his PC from a previous game), who found some sign that this knight really is a vampire. When the scout appeared to tell the PCs, he also gave them some silver arrows.

I should have added some complication to penalize the PCs for failing to find the information in time, but making them face an invulnerable (and high level) vampire without countermeasures would be no fun. The extra one-to-one session is not necessary, just make sure that learning of weaknesses of the monster they are likely to face is fun by itself. Off course, don't do this before every encounter with any monster, just for those who can make too much trouble before the players/PCs find how to fight them.

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It might be smart to consider how expendable you view your players characters. Is it okay for them to die once in a while fom their mistakes, or should the game never really punish for making bad choices. While it might not be nice for a chacter to die (it sucks really), always keeping your players alive might have draw backs as well. IE your players will always expect to succeed with the least amount of effort, expecting information to be handed to them. If players know the world is a harsh and dangerous place, they will be more gratefull for a chance to learn how to survive a battle.

Since your players are starting you should give them a good push in the right direction the first couple of times (oh hey you have knowledge arcana? you can try to use that to see if you know more about this creature) other wise it would be way to frustrating for them.

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Just what they see. Never ever read out the contents of the MM to a player, no matter which edition or indeed RPG.

If they want that detail they should go to a sage or learn from experience (or a skill, since 5e uses those). In particular, you should never feel you have to stick to the MM so you're boxing yourself in if you read out the content. If a player gets their own copy of the book, remind them that you are the DM and are not in any way obliged to use the monsters "as is", so that bless crossbow bolt may not do what they expect it to unless they have found out about it in game.

Obviously, if the character is from Iceopolis, City of Ice Elementals it's perfectly legitimate for them to know a fair bit about Ice Elementals, but even then there are limits to what a layman will know, and probably to what any non-elemental would know. But for "new monsters", they have to rely on their senses and brains to work out what's happening.

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