Monsters are an integral part of D&D, but designing new and interesting creatures comes off as no easy task. Much of the advice online suggests doing slight variations in the features of already existing monsters, such as color, abilities, and overall look.
While this might work for an encounter in a dungeon hallway, creating a compelling monster to inhabit your world and to remain in the minds of your players is more complicated than that. In this article, I’ll be giving you some insight based on my process for bringing your nightmares to life… In the form of spooks and creepy crawlies.
Use the force of folklore
The monsters of folklore have an incredible power to them for a simple reason: If people have repeatedly told their stories across the ages, it must be because they hold something within them that is innately cool. Think about vampires, witches, shapeshifters, goblins, ghosts. Almost all societies and cultures from across the globe have their own version of these myths because, for some reason, we find awe in them.
What I mean with this: A very useful tool when making monsters is to take a look at the stories of old, tales about beasts of legend, and try and understand what makes them last in the collective memory. Maybe some of these monsters are symbolic, and you can play with that, giving the monster abilities inspired by what they represent. Maybe they speak about a people’s history. Maybe they’re plain weird.
Folklore also helps because since a lot of monsters come from known archetypes, people have a set of expectations about them. You know that a vampire is going to be elegant, cruel, and tragic. You know that a werewolf is going to be a savage killing machine. You know that a Faerie will be wild, chaotic, and sometimes terrifying. This sets your players on a certain mood, which might be helpful if said mood is what you want to inspire on the table. You can also look for monsters that aren’t very well-known or that are from cultures very different from your own; these will still have the strength of ancient stories, but will give your players a good surprise.
Books on folkloric and legendary monsters will be a great ally to you in this quest. The world is full of legends about nasty critters, and you’d be hard-pressed to find something that doesn’t inspire you.
Monsters are characters
The creatures that the adventurers will face need to have a defined set of characteristics (I don’t think that’s controversial). If you take a look at the most popular monsters in game, you’ll see that a lot of them have traits that you could classify as character traits. Dragons are proud and high, Gnolls are wild and ferocious, Goblins are cowardly and malicious, and so on. A lot of these features are, as you might have already guessed, perfectly describable as character traits. Try to keep these personalities simple. Not that monstrous characters can’t be deep, all the contrary, but you want your monsters to be defined so that they can be differenced from one another. This will also let your players interact with them in unique ways, and use tactics that might work particularly well -or particularly poorly- due to these characteristics.
This can even be helpful when you design the looks of a monster. If your monster’s main characteristic is a fake pride and an inferiority complex, how does its appearance show that? (Learning about character design can be useful here. Let your imagination run wild) Even better, how does the monster’s abilities show its personality, goals, or behavior?
Which leads us to my next point…
Abilities based on concepts
Once you come up with the concept for your monster, and maybe its personality and looks, you’ll want to design its abilities for combat. Let’s take the example of the previous point: A monster whose main characteristic is a fake pride and an inferiority complex. How can we express that through its abilities? Perhaps the monster is a dragon and instead of breathing fire, its breath weapon is poisonous gas accompanied by small sparks of flame along with a painful shriek, as if it could not throw a fully-fledged fire breath.
On a related note, unusual weaknesses can be very fun to play with, too. We all know that werewolves cannot stand the touch of silver, that vampires are paralyzed if staked through the heart, and that a Lich is doomed if its phylactery is destroyed. If the monster is much more powerful than the party (As vampires are in a bunch of stories), giving the monsters a weakness that doesn’t depend on the party’s level or power can not only balance things out, but give your players more options when looking for a way to destroy the monster. What about a stealth quest to infiltrate a vampire’s castle and put a stake through its heart to avoid fighting it directly?
Monsters have always represented part of what we are. Maybe that’s why we fear some of them so much. Now it’s your turn to make sure that your players fear your own monsters as well.
We hope that these tips have been useful! Be sure to comment any thoughts that you have on them. As always, thank you very much for reading. Stay tuned for more content coming from the ND Hobbies crew.
-Mauricio A. Rosel, writer and editor.