Many times, we tend to focus on the players and their characters. But they’re only half of the equation, and every hero needs a good antagonist. Whether or not a goblin really counts as an antagonist and not just a semi-sentient EXP sack is still unclear, but the point stands.
So today, lets talk monsters. Get out your Monster Manuals and Volo’s Guides to Monsters and (for you time-travelers out there) your Modenkainen’s Tomes of Foes for good measure. Can I maybe have one of those, by the way? I won’t spoil it, promise.
Now look under the bed, and get ready to give in to the nightmares…
Your Inner Monster
When it comes to creating good monsters for Dungeons and Dragons, one thing I like to start with is a simple reminder.
Monsters have lives outside of getting killed by adventurers.
You’d be surprised how many people fail to realize this, but monsters in D&D are not like monsters in video games. In many games, enemies exist only when the player is near, and only take actions that involve the player. This is changing over time with games like Dishonored or The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, but it’s still largely true.
But D&D doesn’t work like that, friends. D&D is more immersive, and so you need to immerse yourself a bit more to make some good monsters.
Personally, I use the old 2nd Edition method of monster logging as my method for tracking what a monster is like when adventurers aren’t around. The old Monster Manuals would list a bunch of things about each monster, from in-game stats to general overviews of the psychology, history, and society of each monster.
So when I start out, I always try to figure out what a monster truly is first, and then work towards the full features list later.
Just the Essentials
Every living creature needs a few things to survive as an individual and as a species.
Unfortunately, D&D monsters frequently smash those rules into tiny pieces because, well, magic. Science ain’t got a clue what’s happening there. Nevertheless, it can serve as a useful guide.
So, what does your monster eat? How does it obtain food? If you want to get real specific, figuring out how your monster eats is also a great way to nail things down well. Does it eat at set times every day, like many humans? Or does it eat only when hungry, and so can only be found hunting when its hungry? It could even store its food for later, and if it does, where does it store things?
Next, what relationship does your monster have with others of its kind? Is it social, forming large families/clans/tribes/nations? Or is it solitary? If the latter, is it territorial and hostile to others of its kind, or does it tolerate them better?
If any sort of society exists, what is it like? Are all members of the species in the society, or only some? Can any other creatures be found within the society? Most importantly, what kind of values does society espouse? And what values do outcasts from that society believe in?
Like I said, some monsters may not interact with some or all of the above. But even still, many will. In any case, lets continue and talk about some distinct types of monster.
A Monstrous Menagerie
Different monsters serve different purposes in game, and have different structures. I usually break things down into a few different categories.
First are the most common creatures your players can encounter – beasts. Not the technical, Monster Manual beast, though, just “beasts” in general. These are animals, they have very recognizable needs and methods. They all need food, and generally get it either by hunting, grazing, or scavenging. They typically have less than stellar intelligence, and no ability to speak.
Examples Include… Ankhegs, Hippogriffs, Owlbears, Purple Worms, most actual “beasts”
Important Non-Examples: Displacer Beasts (as they hunt for sport as well as food), Shambling Mounds (too magical/malicious), Unicorns (far too intelligent)
Next up are the more supernatural beasts of the world. Much like plain old animals, these are generally less intelligent and more driven by basic needs (such as food and reproduction). The big difference is magic – these creatures either have magical origins, a degree of control over magic, or possibly both. This also applies to creatures that were created for a specific purpose, which they pursue alongside the typical need to eat and reproduce.
Examples Include… Darkmantles, Displacer Beasts, Grells, Manticores, white dragons, oozes, many unintelligent creatures from the Feywild
Important Non-Examples: Unicorns (again, too intelligent/sentient), lycanthropes (too sentient), non-intelligent fiends (doesn’t rely on normal needs for food/reproduction)
This is probably the largest category. It includes everything from normal humans to mind flayers, ogres, giants, gnolls, hags… everything. These creatures have (usually) very humanlike wants and needs. They need food, they want to reproduce, and they ultimately have to die eventually. However, unlike animals or mythical creatures, they’re capable of making decisions and electing to have their own personal goals. Sometimes, these goals can even be to the detriment to the creature itself – a zealot may beat themselves for perceived sins, even to the point of death; similarly, a lazy creature might die of starvation just due to lack of motivation.
Examples Include… Any non-immortal, non-undead humanoids – humans, elves, orcs, ogres, goblins, hobgoblins, lycanthropes, etc.
Important Non-Examples: Demons and devils, angels, unicorns, and other celestials, and any undead
The easiest category, the immortals are basically the same as the mortals, just more powerful and more long-lived. Many immortals don’t require food/hunting the same way mortals do – instead, they usually have other desires. Elder Brains need sustenance, but of a psionic kind; many fiends subsist off of souls or suffering; angels don’t eat at all, but when separated from their divine masters they may wither and grow weak.
Examples Include… Angels, fiends, elder brains, Fey, genies, elementals, non-white dragons, etc.
Important Non-Examples: Undead
Undead (or Animated Objects)
Yes, I know this is literally just a normal monster category. But undead are weird. Most types of intelligent undead fit in with the Immortalkind category – liches require souls and have very long-term goals, vampires drink blood and also have long-term goals, etc. But unintelligent undead are unlike anything else. They don’t require food, and they don’t reproduce. Most do not hunt, and instead only kill things that come within range of them or otherwise trigger them to action.
Anything animated by magic in a similar way can be considered in this group as well. Flying Swords, Rugs of Smothering, Animated Armors… all of them exist to do what they were made to do, and that’s it.
A Monster’s Features
Now, how does all of this fit into making new monsters? So far, we’ve had a lot of talking and very little homebrewing – but here’s where this changes.
Features stem from behavior. In a similar way to evolution, a creature won’t have a feature if they never have a reason to use it in their day-to-day life. Very few creatures keep things around to just use them once in their life right before being slaughtered by adventurers.
(Of course, any creature that spends its time in conflict with other creatures is an exception – mind flayers confront enemies daily, thus they have offensive abilities to deal with them.)
Lets look at a few examples.
Basilisks: They’re fat, they’re slow as hell, and they’re predators. How do they manage to ever catch anything? Well, stone is a lot slower than even they are, hence the Petrifying Gaze feature.
Goblins: They’re puny, weak, pathetic in every sense of the word, and aren’t even a threat when found in a crowd. The only reason they survive anything is thanks to Nimble Escape – if you’re weak and pathetic like a goblin, it pays to be able to easily get away.
Invisible Stalkers: Created for the sole purpose of hunting down the enemies of its summoner, the invisible stalker has one obvious benefit – Invisibility. It’s other feature, however, is Faultless Tracker – a must-have for anything summoned specifically to hunt something down.
Kobolds: Despite being small and mostly impotent, kobolds actually can pose a threat when encountered in large numbers. They’re a swarm enemy type – they’re meant to be found in 2’s and 3’s at a minimum. To emphasize this, they have the Pack Tactics feature.
Piercers: Always a fan favorite, the piercer actually has no methods of harming anything other than falling on it. But with False Appearance and Spider Climb, this is all it needs.
Treants: Ever watch Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers? Or read it, for that matter? Pretty much the whole concept of “treants” seems to stem from that one scene where they all swarm Isengard and break stuff, so you’ll note that the monster in D&D has the Siege Monster feature. Go figure.
Zombies: Just for the sake of example, we can look to zombies to see how certain traits and features are shared across monsters to establish a connection between them. All types of zombie listed in the books have the Undead Fortitude feature, which makes them harder to kill outright (without using radiant damage or getting a lucky crit). This reflects the somewhat relentless nature of undead in general, and the ability of zombies to keep functioning through grievous wounds.
Basically, the point here is that figuring out the non-mechanical traits of a monster can really help to define its features. So, by looking at how the creature is meant to behave we can figure out what features it should have.
I’m out of space for going into more depth, so we’ll cover that next time. For now, this should help with deciding what generalities you want for any new monster, so keep an eye out for next time when we get to stats!
Thanks for reading!
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