DnD Monster Creation – Design

DnD monster Design article header

Creating a DnD monster is a daunting task. In this series of articles, we will cover the process of making and using monsters in our TTRPG games with the aim to provide you with inspiration and advice for your creations. It’s tailored towards newer Game Masters but even those with worn-out books and years of experience will find a spark.
The ruleset is D&D5e, but methods and inspiration will hopefully transcend and illuminate your lantern, no matter the system you play.
From a starting seed and mechanics to the interesting hooks, we will see how monsters come to life and how to pull players to deeply care for our creatures.
Even if that care is only about how to decapitate them.
Sometimes that’s enough.
Sometimes that’s all we need after a busy work week.

4 Monster Pillars

For a monster to be complete, for it to become a brush to paint the setting, an adrenalin shot in a lulled session, a bounty turned into a pet, there are 4 pillars we should look at:

  • Design
  • Building
  • Integration
  • Utilization

When all 4 pillars stand strong, the monster becomes a tool for any aspect of the game. When you know its insides and outs, you can seamlessly weave it into any moment the story needs. It allows you to improvise, giving you the confidence to do so because you know the rules of its existence.
You’ll be able to answer questions you never thought your players would ask, because of the groundwork you layered before.
Or better so, by knowing what these 4 pillars entail, we are better equipped to call upon a needed one, and slam our unsuspecting players, truly spicing what seemed like a slow part of the session.

In my experience, each step has its own place and rules, but creation itself is rarely linear. The borders between the pillars are blurred and their contents mix and spill, influencing each other.
And they should.
Only then we can make our monsters cohesive with the game, the story, and the world. Only then we can lay threads that make our players go: “Aha!” when discovered.
When such thoughts arise, it is important to honor them, to see where the threads lead, and then either cut them loose or adjust the current pillar we are working on.

The Breakdown:

In design, we will cover every aspect of the first steps towards sewing our monster. Where to start? How to start? Where to get the spark when our engines are burning low?
In the building section, we’ll go over the mechanics, numbers, and abilities, creating from scratch and reskinning, and avoiding “flow-killing abilities”.
During integration, we’ll talk about the worldbuilding with the monsters, creating the lore and myths of our creatures giving them depth and vividness.
And finally, in utilization, we will look at hooks and quests, tactics and battle, and using monsters to paint powerful and memorable scenes.

Design – The 1st Pillar

Design is the pillar that comes first but is influenced by others the most. It remains malleable until the end, until everything is integrated and solidified. I picture ‘design’ as a translucent silhouette that is to be filled with an overarching theme. And often, in search of the theme, we needn’t look any further from our pillars.

Many times, the starting thought comes from the monster’s intended use – the utilization.
“I need a guardian of a desert temple!”, you proclaim as a pharaoh, still waking up from the sheets. And the sand and the stone collide, and a spark lights your room. Suddenly you are researching Ancient Egypt, pyramids and gods, trying to build a framework.
What will the guardian be like? Is it a titan made of stone and sand or a jackal-headed Anubis soldier?
Knowing how you might use a monster – its function – may give you a theme.

Other times it will be world integration. Perhaps you’ll be sipping tea, looking at your world map, scratching your head: “Why did I name those Ash Mountains again?”
“Oh! Right”…
‘A monster which turns people into ash lives high above the clouds’, you write slyly. The setting and habitat now dictate possible designs.

Several sessions later, you’ll be planning a big boss fight, one that goes down in phases, and you’ll need a creature with a huge hit points pool, a punching bag for the heroes. So then your building pillar will influence the design, and whatever you do, you’ll have hit points in mind, and further questions will open.
What design aspect allows this creature to have so much health?
Is it huge and meaty, or is it a skinny Lich with a crystal heart that can receive all that beating? All the threads will converge to one, the main string that drives the design.

But what if nothing comes to our minds? What if we have no idea how and where we will use this monster? What if we want to make something from blank, with no particular goal in mind?
For that matter, I turn towards two things.

1. Known tropes

“There’s no originality, but beauty in taking the known and presenting it in a fresh way”,  is the quote that can sum up the thinking of many I meet.
Our greatest inspiration comes from all the things we’ve been exposed to.
But there is a tender way to conceal the warm familiarity of a trope and present it to players in a way unique to you and your world.

An old, evil wizard at the tower’s top can be only that of course. He may or may not be called Saruman. But what if we take the trope and spin it. What if the wizard isn’t a humanoid at all, but an evil book that was so powerful it fashioned itself a body?
Now this monster has a different dimension and a ton of opportunities and questions your party has to battle with. We have a framework – a book becoming a human – and get to play while building it. What spells does it know? What actions? Where do we put the tower?

What if you make a demon in order to possess your party, but instead of ‘you fail a check, I make you do things’ it actually empowers the player? What if instead of brute force, it tries to appeal to the host with the might it can offer?

What if our aforementioned Temple Guardian cannot be defeated by force, rather by peace?
Much like Seraph in Matrix, the Guardian tests the players before granting passage.
Here, the design frame is an unbeatable guardian, and further questions are:
What design aspect makes this guardian unbeatable?
Is it truly that way, or does it only seem like it?
What abilities can represent that?  (building)
Where to put it? (integration)
and so on and so on.

I had lots of fun spinning the tropes. I once made a deadly sin Gluttony eat his Goblin servants (sorry Gobbies) to empower itself. It was gruesome, vivid, and memorable. Other times I had a pirate captain with a crab’s arm. Some tropes I presented without any twists and had the feeling of re-watching our favorite movies.
Some were epic and made players gasp, and some sucked, honestly. Or rather, they were all right designs that weren’t fun to fight against. In that case, I was too rigid, not allowing utilization to influence the design.  
But that’s all right too.
For without past misses cool things cannot come – cool badasses like Big Flammy below.

2. The two-column exercise

The two-column exercise is another great tool for a rough design.
What is something that you envisioned and always wanted to try? What superpower did you want to have as a child?
Telekinesis?
Teleportation?
Firebending?
Which of those abilities can you pair with known monsters?

For this exercise, I jot down some monsters and animals, concepts and constructs, lost items, and sentient weapons. Right next to it, I write another column containing the abilities, from the most common to the weirdest.
I then pair them up, seeing what lights the candle of imagination.

DnD monster creation example

The Big Flammy

Let’s look at the example.
Pairing a little pet and firebending immediately made me picture a small hamster with a flaming Cherokee haircut.
They’re my favorite animals and having those little cuties look badass brings joy to my heart. The next question I asked is why is this hamster on fire? What prompts it?
I imagined a hungry hammy having lost all nuts, going into a raging tantrum of such intense it lit itself.
Now we have a flaming hamster that can scorch your fingers if you neglect its appetite. Better have the seeds at the ready and do not touch the stash!
But what if we mix air intake in there? What if the hamster can suck the air inside its cheeks with such a force it makes small objects fly across the room like Kirby?
The fastest way to be content and full.
What if then, it turns its cute bum, the fire punk vibing all across its back, and starts shooting little poop fireballs at you?
“This is for the same diet you’ve been giving me for the past year! No wonder I get only two years of life!” is what Flammy probably thinks while you are ducking and hiding papers.
Cute still!
A nuisance, but cute.
Now let’s bring Flammy up to a Large size, give it 2000 pounds and a big tummy. He’s so big that he needs to roll around, and that is only when he needs a bathroom and such things. If he wants to reach something, air intake is there.
Now, this, this is the guardian of a secret vault where heroes have to break in.
I think Big Flammy would do wonders for a dynamic and comical battle. I think children would adore him. And if your heroes circumvent the encounter by feeding Flammy up until he falls unconscious, then you give them inspiration.
I love Big Flammy.
I’ll make his stat block. In fact, I’ll draw a Vault map as well.
We have to give it life, and I am all ears about what he’s guarding.

What do players say?

A great deal about our games we can learn from our players. True, there are books and advice blogs such as this one, and many brilliant minds that studied and perfected this hobby for decades. But they too learned from their beta testers, their confidants of crazy ideas, advisories in imagination. After all, our players are who we create all this for, and who ultimately breathe life into our worlds.

I asked mine what is the most memorable monster from our campaigns.

A decisive winner was The Guardian  – a French-sounding Beholder, the keeper of an experimental mage vault (I have a thing for guardians of all sort). He was sewed from many different parts, was cunning and paranoid, and liked to sing to himself. He even offered them an alliance.
The reasoning for his Hall of Fame admittance was his appearance, his confidence, and frightening presence, his mind and character, the dialog and accent.
From this, I can conclude that the winning pillar is the design. I made him almost like an NPC, a friendly neighborhood guardian who is a bit loony. I haven’t touched any of Beholder’s abilities, rather made him different from others of his kind with character. Even before I decided what monster to use for this boss fight, I knew I wanted a grotesque creature with a magnetic persona and a french accent.

Second place goes to Ygvarr, the Black Shadow Dragon, found in the depths of the Abyss.
The reason for his memorable appearance can be found in the 3rd pillar – integration. A player vividly remembers venturing into his layer, the shadow and darkness deceiving their eyes, the acrid smell filling their nostrils. They covered their faces to protect themselves from fumes and pushed forward. When players finally arrived, they saw green, gleaming pools of acid, dotted with countless coins and gems, and Ygvarr slowly emerging from the biggest.
His integration with the world, his lair, and the grand reveal made a lasting impression on my friend.

And last but not least was our ranger player. She couldn’t decide on one but listed three: The Guardian, Remorhaz, and Sugoloth (homebrewed monster of the Abyss).
All of which she chopped and carved out, taking their spikes, fangs and claws. The winning pillar here is utilization, but not how I used the monster, rather how she utilized what remained of them. Lately, she became a tribe in one, crafting all sorts of tools and weaponry from bones.
Even to this day, she asks me: “Does it have claws, and how big?”
“Full Bag of Holding and I’m happy”, she always says while pulling an arrow from the carcass.


Closure

Did you find some utilization from this article? How do you approach design?
Leave a comment or reach out on socials and tell me what is inside of Big Flammy’s Vault.
Share with us a cool story or advice regarding our suffering creatures without whom weapons would go dull. 

Thanks for reading,
Nikko

5 thoughts on “DnD Monster Creation – Design”

  1. Oh wow! SO much inspiration here! I love the pillars breakdown and the way you describe the first pillar of design as being translucent and malleable – that’s always exactly how it feels! I loved this article in comparison to all the mind-blow-stat-crunch-formula ones I’ve read – this process is so much more relatable, practical and familiar and relates everything in monster creation to in-game action which is super useful! I adored hearing about all your monsters! No wonder your players loved them so! And Flammy Hammy is adorable! Please do stat him up and give him a dungeon – I have a kids group who will utterly adore him! (I’m writing an adventure where they have to find the missing gems of a baby’s birth-bracelet that fell in a river so I’m thinking Flammy Hammy has one in his treasure trove and is jealously guarding it like a tasty exotic nut! XD )

    1. Thank you so very much, Penny! I am glad the article served its purpose.
      I agree with you. Sometimes we get too technical (sometimes that is necessary, true) but then we accidentally forget why are we making the monster in the first place.
      Big Flammy is coming to us in a blaze of fire in the next few weeks – all with stat blocks, VTT and a printable map, and possible encounter hooks!
      If you end up using it, you have to tell me all about it, so we share kids’ genius with the world.

  2. Nice breakdown on pillars. Very coherently put together! Do you have a pillar you prefer to work on? Or a pillar you dislike to work on the most? For me it’s building pillar, I love coming up with mechanics, but numbers tire me.

    1. Thank you, Matt, I appreciate it!
      I get you. It is very interesting to come up with mechanics but when it comes to math, uh, does it take a toll to balance everything out. I’d say that is my least favorite one, or rather, the one that takes me the most energy.
      I enjoy utilization and integration a lot. The lore, the myths, how it ties to the world and how will I use it against the players.
      Love it when I toss a curve with an odd quest, only for players to checkmate me, and take the monster into their family haha.

  3. Pingback: Make Combat Exciting Again: Instincts and Combat Curves - Cereal Dm

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