There are many ‘How to create a DnD Monster articles and videos.’
Some of them are excellent. Some of them navigate you between Attacks and Abilities and show you how to reskin properly.
In this article, we won’t cover step by step process, but rather take a deep dive into its core.
We will sit next to the monster’s heart, as if we were inside the Magic School Bus, and ask why, what, and how.
Why are some builds the way they are, what makes a fun one, and how should we approach it?
Building – The 2nd Pillar
In our last article from the Monster Creation series, we talked about the 4 pillars of monster making: design, building, integration and utilization; and covered the 1st one.
When it comes to building, as a passionate MMORPG player I immediately think of a signature ability – a flash of magic, a ground-shaking battle move.
And I wondered, how many people start creating with this in mind?
So I asked Twitter what comes first? Is it the creature concept or the ability around which we layer it?
About a quarter said ability first.
M. Allen Hall for example, while writing his books, starts with the ability he needs for a monster to do in a specific scene.
Silence and Darkness in a gloomy room? Sure.
What is huge and menacing, a terror of the dungeon?
A Stone Golem, he whispers while scribing with a grin.
This led me to think of a few ways we can start our builds.
Starting with Signature Ability
Breath Attack. Engulf. Eye Rays.
Personally, this is the most exciting beginning considering the number of books, movies and games we can draw inspiration from. When implementing a signature ability, it is important to answer two questions:
Why does a monster have the ability and what does it use it for?
The 1st one helps us with world integration and creature’s intrinsic logic.
We can go in-depth as much as wanted – from a sentence to a grand evolutionary tale.
Perhaps first Red Dragons were tiny lizards, producing fumes from their nostrils to hide from predators. They evolved and grew, their breaths becoming hotter, transforming into flames. Becoming predators. Their anatomy changed, allowing a second stomach that holds flammable gasses.
Or simply long ago, there was a mighty dragon who liked their steak well-done, so they learned how to fire.
Perhaps once, all Gelatinous Cubes were jelly puddings but the Arcanum Assembly had a major catastrophe. Now they are stalking the dungeons, seeking revenge upon their former gourmands.
Chances are, months will pass and your players won’t inquire how the monster became the way it is. They will remember nearly dodging a Death Ray and sear the moment into eternity. But when such a question finally arises and you present the answer, it will make your monster and the world cohesive, alive, and purposeful.
However, like all advice you hear or read, this too is to be taken with a grain of salt. Not every monster needs to have its own anatomy book. Pick your battles.
It is perfectly fine that for some we slap good old band-aid recommended by 9 out of 10 pharmacists:
The answer to ‘What does it use it for?’ influences monster stat block.
Official White Dragons use their Cold Breath to kill the prey. There is a saving throw, and then damage.
But our homebrew version can have slightly different abilities. What if our dragons like their food soft? What if instead, their breath makes solid obstacles, springing glaciers into existence capturing the pray in a maze-like battlefield?
Or maybe they create white, thick fumes that obscure and camouflage them? Imagine the different levels of menacing, when you are stuck in a blinding fog, with a DRAGON inside it.
That is an intense game of hide-and-seek I tell you.
This information provides insights into monster lifestyle, battle tactics, and the game mechanics. All we have to do is ask questions.
Do invisible monsters use their ability to attack or run away? If they save invisibility for the attack, does it grant them extra damage?
What spells does a Lich have and why? Which one will it use when escaping? Does it plan to do so at all?
It’s the little things that convey the believability of our monsters.
Next time, when you are creating an arrogant, self-absorbed, cocky, vile, villainous Lich whose time has come, leave out escape spells.
Not all defense, just the escape ones, for the Lich sees no need for it, right?
And when the tides turn and players prepare for the killing blow, the Lich will flip the spellbook and look for an absent way out.
And the sword will cut, and the players will jump and yell:
“Of course you didn’t prepare teleport, you arrogant son of a sheep! We knew it!”
The build meets the monster’s nature.
Starting with a Scene
Heroes tread the gloomy corridor with a light step, squinting. They hold their breaths and make a corner and suddenly, a dark cloud engulfs them and they are blind, and they hear no sound. Weapons are drawn but a moment too late, as a Stone Golem already towers over them.
Allen Hall gave us a wonderful insight into this method. He envisioned a specific scene and modified the monster accordingly. He wanted to catch the party at disadvantage and spark thrilling chaos by depriving them of senses and magic. Two spells slapped onto a Golem later, and the terror of the dungeon was born.
Starting with a scene builds a monster for a specific encounter but that doesn’t stop us from further use.
In the mentioned Golem’s case, we continue to ask: “Why does a Golem have such specific abilities?”
Because it guards the treasure of the dungeon, it is needed.
Who built it?
Mages of Arcanum.
To keep the knowledge away from other mages.
In just a few sentences we painted a picture of a purposeful creature. We started with a scene, an ambush in the dungeon, and made a stat block by reskinning the known Golem monster. We integrated it into the world and decided on its utilization – the guardian of knowledge. Voilà.
I am now bound to throw the Allen-ator 3000 at my players in the future.
Until then, I shall continue imagining big burrowing beasties. I’m a big fan of such scenes: adventurers traversing the wilderness, unaware of the lurking horror beneath; the ground breaks, the rocks and dirt explode as humongous maws encircle the potential meal.
It makes me anxious, in a good way.
Perhaps that is me fighting thalassophobia on my own dry terms, who knows.
When crafting any scene for a monster to populate, the important question is: what is the purpose?
• Putting heroes at disadvantage?
• Setting things in motion so a specific player can shine?
Then we direct the scene and once again ask: what monster and why does it have such an ability?
However, if nothing sparks of this, do not avail my friends, for there’s one last cane.
The scene misfortune exercise
Similar to the two-column exercise from the 1st article, we start with two columns, nice and easy.
On the left, we write a scene: a location, a creature, a specific moment.
On the right, we write a logical misfortune for the corresponding scene on the left.
Simple so far: the Kraken emerges from the sea, the king botches the deal against his will, the thugs fill the tavern…
Now let’s take a scene from the left and connect it with a different misfortune.
The ship and mind-controlled king don’t make sense at a glance.
But what if the ship is being mind-controlled? What if the ship is sentient? What if the ship has an evil mind of a pirate? What if the pirate has arcane abilities?
Now the monster is not the Kraken from beneath, but a ship itself that fights the heroes. It is sprouting rooms into existence, shooting the party with cannons, strangling them with ropes!
Because an evil brain is hidden in the hull.
Royal negotiation and brawl fight seem disconnected.
But what if the brawl fight turns into a guard fight.
Our heroes are trusted to see this royal deal through, but guards start hacking and slashing. All of them.
The heroes defend, confused, and clear the 1st wave. But more and more are coming, drawn by the ruckus, and as they enter they become furious, enchanted in rage.
Yes indeed they are enchanted by no other than a bard of a strenuous power who sits in the corner, playing the flute.
Why this bard? Who are they? What gives them such an ability?
What of tavern reunion and emerging monster?
Surely the heroes are drinking and telling tales; the atmosphere is jovial and the harvest was rich. Music hums, the laughter echoes, and then CRACK!
The barrel breaks and ale starts pouring out. Quick, the barmaid comes, followed by the owner and curious eyes. A moment passes and from the puddle, a monster rises – an ale spirit, nay an ale elemental!
And the scene cuts into a commercial and the Game Master says:
“This monster is brought to you by jealous competition and a skilled mage.”
Starting with a Monster (Reskinning)
Starting with something already established is the bases of reskinning: you take a monster, modify it to fit your narrative, and change the name accordingly.
Here I almost always default to two categories:
a cinematic ability of let’s say a Rhino transforming into a bolt of lightning
or a comical ability like a hamster pooping fireballs.
The important thing is that your modifications, whatever chosen, are justified and consistent.
‘How’ is up to you.
By all means, slap that magic band-aid. After all our worlds brim with arcana, and some of it spills over into our creatures and if we accurately explain how it changes them, we’d kill the magic. But it has to stem from somewhere and the stats have to represent it.
Let’s take a look into Yetis, good old guardians of winter, build a new version, and drag them through our 4 pillars of creation.
Primal as they are, we can play on antagonistic moods and assign them a comical ability. I want it to be winter-themed, yet truly worth holding your belly because it hurts from laughing. And slowly entering our vision is a scene, a huge yeti chasing the bard across the hill. The bard falls and tumbles, casting Dimension Door in desperation.
The yeti doesn’t sway and keeps up with the bard because… because it’s a ball of fur.
Nay, it’s a SNOWBALL.
Yes, once per short rest, these furry beasts can roll up into a magical snowball and crush their enemies.
Don’t want to tumble downhill, Bard?
Don’t tell your jokes to a Yeti!
The design aspect revealed itself. The creature is a fairytale, comical and dangerous beast who guards the tundras of the north. Our design is centered around the snowball ability which players won’t expect; which, given the circumstance, will be feared or laughed about. Hopefully, both.
Why does a monster have such an ability?
Perhaps our Snowballing Yetis were once ordinary but were affected by a powerful ritual that went wrong. Now, all the Yetis from that area are snowballing.
We can write the legend of the horrific ritual with a horrific name, which is now known as Snowballing Day. After all, decades made some of the Yetis friendly, their nature changed by the ritual. Some are even playing with children, posing as snowyetis in the town’s square.
What do they use the ability for and how can we use this monster?
For the hunt. Transportation. Camouflage.
Yetis melded so well with society, that we can make a special breed of soldiers, the Snowriders. They mount the Snowballing Yetis and balance on them into the battle like acrobats. The snowball hits the enemies and tosses them into the air. A raging Yeti materializes followed by the leaping attack of the Snowrider.
a dramatic wave of the hand
The dynamic duo.
The Snow Calvary, the backbone of Snowland’s army, leading the nation to many victories!
In just a couple of paragraphs, we built a special kind of fluff. We started with a monster and then used a scene to envision our signature ability. The methods, like our 4 pillars are cooperative.
It is a fun and cartoonish fluff embedded into our worlds, and if given time, possibly hearts.
Thank you all for reading and venturing this far.
The next entry will have a short continuation of this article, covering Good and Bad Abilities and what makes a fun build. I opted to give it some room of its own.
As always, let me know how you approach the monster building. What are the methods you hold dear? Share with us in the comments or reach me on socials.
See you in the next one,