Building Better Monsters Part 1: Meet Your Maker, Monster

by Bauxtehude (Liam Gallagher) on April 18, 2011

This article is the first in a series of four on designing monsters from scratch, getting the most out of your homemade monsters and understanding the mechanics of monsters so that you can use and build them creatively in your game.

  • Part 1 deals mostly with the larger ideas behind monster design so that you’ll be able to build the monster that fits the bill.
  • Part 2 is about the stat block, what it means and the relevant in-game and out-of-game factors that can change your understanding of the stat block.
  • Part 3 is about designing statistics for your monster and how various interpretations of the statistics can change the way your monsters will function as part of a narrative.
  • Part 4 is about implementing your designs and the process of review. Now let’s begin.

Understanding the Task at Hand

Designing a monster is like building a car, it is equal parts engineering and art. Consider a sports car. Sports cars need to look fast at a glance, they need to sound fast when you fire up the engine, and when you grip the wheel and stare past the dash they need to make you feel like you are about to command a powerful machine. It’s not enough for the car to look fast though, when you drop the hammer the car needs to accelerate rapidly, it needs to hug the corners through a turn and it needs to top out at an incredible speed. If you want to make a good monster you need to understand its goals so that the monster will function the way you want it to and leave the impression on the party you want. Not every monster is a racecar though, some are tow trucks or dune buggies.

Understand that the esthetic and functional parts of the monster are distinct from each other but they are inseparable. If you want your car to look fast by putting the largest engine you can find on its block, it won’t look very fast after the car tears itself in half. On the other hand fast cars never appear slow because fast cars have common qualities and it is the appearance of these qualities that causes the fast look. If you show me a picture of a fast car it only takes a second to realize and prove that that real car moves much faster than the picture despite their similar appearances. So a monster that is dangerous will appear as such due to the mound of decapitated bodies it stands on, while it will prove itself to be dangerous as it decapitates you. We call this a “proof of concept.”

It’s important to identify the difference between form and function because this understanding will help you identify what building blocks the monster is actually made from. If you know what the monster building blocks you need, it’s a lot easier to put one together. Remember that there’s the appearance of the thing, and then there’s the actual mechanical implementation of it. I’ll pick a well-known monster as an illustration; a Kobold.

In the Shattered Sea campaign, Kobolds are greasy little reptile men who live under ground, set traps and eat tongues. They breed quickly and have very little value for an individual Kobold’s life. Despite being very clever they have no understanding of long-term gain.

The aesthetic form I have created for them is that they are equal parts hilarious and annoying. They have squeaky little voices and permanently wear either confused or oblivious expressions. They often have missing fingers or clipped tails from various accidents and screech in fear at just about anything. Despite this they look hunched and always seem to be scheming. Though the traps they design look deadly, they are always in plain sight.

The functional end of things is that they are impossible to hit minions that appear in droves. It’s hard to get your hands on one of those little buggers but when you do the splatter satisfyingly. They typically sport an Intelligence score of 18 or greater with a Wisdom of about 6, so they would design a nuclear reactor to toast bread. In their lairs there are always vicious traps that more often than not only kill Kobolds, though they’d hit six Kobolds with a area of effect for the chance to get one attack on a PC. The Kobolds behave mechanically in one way and their aesthetic reinforces that behavior and vice versa.

The Monstrous Idea

Armed with powerful concepts, you now need an idea. There are lots of monsters in fiction, as well as in the history books and so there should be no short supply of inspiration to work from. Literally anything will do. “Monster” is a pretty loose term in D&D; your idea for a monster could be a nine-headed, fire-breathing dolphin, or it could be the mayor of the city your campaign takes place in. Pick something!

Now that you have your creature in mind you need to breathe life into them and create a personality and appearance from your initial idea. What is your goal for the monster? In D&D, things you create will have goals even if you don’t intend for them to have goals. You created the monster and you had some sort of motivation for doing so, if you can identify your goal you can work with it directly rather than trying to beat around the issue. Your goal can be very straight forward, something like “I want a TPK.” or something more abstract like “teach the world to sing.” Depending on what your goal is you might need to spend more time contemplating the ways of the universe before you can begin designing your monster. Let me know when you’re ready.

Consider the case of the mayor, your goal could be fairly straightforward: “The mayor needs to run the city.” Or the goal could be pretty complex “The mayor is a shape shifter who is trying to build an empire.” Consider the interests of your party as well as what kind of story you would like to tell and tailor your design around these considerations. In either case the mayor will need a certain set of abilities in order to accomplish your goals for them, these will need to be reflected in their stats.

What about a monster whose inspiration is more mechanical? Sometimes your idea for a monster can come from a very different place than something storied. Maybe one of your players has a defender who isn’t being challenged because nothing can hit his AC. You can always create a monster with a monster a stupid high attack score, but that’s kind of boring and not fair for everyone else. Instead you dream up a monster that lowers the character’s AC so that the minions can really dig their teeth in. From this mechanical idea a story will form easily. If something has minions it likely keeps them obedient some how. Maybe this monster is a military leader whose unit is specialized in taking down armored units, they have specialized equipment to boot.

What about a theme for your monster? Though this article is appearing first, any in the series could have been first because these ideas form a nice tight circle. I’ll be writing about ideas of theme and implementation in greater depth in a later article, but it’s worth thinking about briefly now. While monsters like the mayor are going to have a life time of various experiences, there is room for monsters that are dictated strongly by a theme or a strong central notion. A good example for something like this is a fire elemental, a creature that is the cognoscenti manifestation of fire.

So that’s your head start. Think about a monster you would like to design and try to make sense of how all its various features fit together. Think about how the distinct parts of a creature come together to compliment each other and develop your idea. If some of the things detailed seem too lofty and high minded don’t worry, just remember the KISS rule – keep it simple, stupid. Remember the task at hand: designing monsters. Often it’s enough for them to just eat PCs. Feel free to post ideas about the monsters you’re building or questions about the process of building monsters so far.

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1 skallawag April 18, 2011 at 11:35 am

Bauxtehude, typically encounters are based on a certain xp level and therefore each monster within the encounter would be assigned a certain xp value. I would assume that powers/abilities given to a monster would be worth some value. For example, a creature who teleports, can go invisible, has damage reduction, performs multiple attack actions against multiple PCs, self healing when bloodied, gains temporary HP on a successful attack as well as puts a non-save condition on multiple PCs. What amount of xp would you assign to such abilities in order to create the monster?

At say level 18, I would probably give these creatures a Leader-Skirmisher role and maybe the following values for its abilities:
invisibility would be worth say 500 xp
teleport ability 500 xp
damage reduction 500 xp
multiple attack actions against many PC’s 1000 xp
self healing when bloodied 500 xo
gains temporary HP on a successful attack 500 xp
puts a non-save condition on multiple PCs which gives bonuses to monster damage 200 xp

So, the value of each of these monsters would be 3700 xp at level 18. For a party of 5 PCs where the encounter xp budget is 2000 per PC (10,000) I could afford maybe 2.7 of these monsters, but since I think my group is seasoned, I’ll have them face 3 of these monsters.

I’m not sure if you’re covering this in any of your next parts, I just want to make sure I wouldn’t break the encounter xp system and frustrate my PCs. Thoughts?

2 Bauxtehude April 18, 2011 at 3:00 pm

@ Skallywag

I will be taking about xp budgets in the 3rd article and how it relates to the mechanical math of 4th ed. On account of your comment I’ll spend a little bit more time on the idea of experience points as part of a point buy system for monsters. Sorry to make you wait.

3 Sunyaku April 18, 2011 at 7:40 pm

Some of my best monsters were created completely on the fly during an improv game. I’m all for good planning, but I suspect this happened because I focused on translating the visual and practical aspects of the creatures into their abilities. This forced me to describe each attack in greater detail, and led to a more vivid player experience. The creatures were sensible, but not predictable. I also improv’d hit points, defenses, and attack bonuses based on level and role. All in all, it worked out pretty well. And the great part is, if an encounter isn’t playing out like you hoped, you can easily add or remove creature powers.

I should note that this does become more difficult at higher levels with bigger numbers. I should also note that I gave the storyline of the encounters a lot of thought before playing through them, so I did have a good idea of what the group would be up against, and how the tactics would play out.

4 Alton April 18, 2011 at 8:59 pm

Cannot wait for the other three

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