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July 7, 2010 / JBencomo

Playing Dr. Frankenstein, 3 Quick Tips on Monster Design

“Only a great villain can transform a good try into a triumph” Roger Ebert

The foundation of DMing art is imagination, our goal is no other but to combine creativity with the proper set of tools in order to create. Worlds, stories, monsters, events, in the end are just the pieces we use to form an entertaining experience. I’ve have already talked a little bit about World creation, today I want to provide a set of 3 short tips to facilitate another aspect of the Dungeon Master labor: Monster Creation.

1.- Try not to reinvent the wheel:

There is some merit in creating the monster you desire/need from scratch, then again, WoTC’s Monster Manuals are packed with almost a thousand different monsters, they have provably made something close enough (if not exactly like) to what you need, even if you decide you want something different of what’s written, you can at least take some leading ideas for your design. The different types of monsters (of the same race you want), the special mechanics they implemented, etc, all of theses can and will help you create and implement similarities and tweaks that wont brake the whole balance of the monster, the section about lore and even the suggested encounters can help you determine the history behind your monster.

May be you are not aiming for a completely invented foe, but a creature that already exists in another source , try to research a little how this creature is depicted in other works. You might also be trying to convey a “sentiment” with the creature, if so, look for inspiration on other media (books, movies, even music) depicting creatures that portrait such feeling, this will really help out.

2.- Dreaming it out:

Now that you have checked out official sources for anything that would help the design of your soon to be hero killer, its time to construct it. First make a list of the features you want your monster to have, don’t worry on mechanics or implementation methods at this point; once you have a comprehensive list, try to study each item and see how can you implement it, I use these categories: Monster Description (something that is presented when describing the monster) Monster Personality (stuff that can be portrait by the monster while role playing it in battle or otherwise) and finally Monster Ability, which you will translate later in the specifics powers or traits your monster will be given.

Not all the items on the list can nor should be implemented as mechanical power/traits to use in combat, and some definitely do, if I want to convey a monster is really fast I can implement this trait as mechanics: all enemies making opportunity attacks against this creature most first succeed a dexterity check of 15. If I want to portrait the enemy as a frightened beast defending itself, falls more in the grounds of Monster Description/Personality. The more characteristics of these types you add to your monsters the more memorable they’ll be.

3.- Setting the gears:

For me this is the more delicate part of Monster Design, you should try to find new and interesting ways to implement the powers and abilities your monsters have but be very careful not to use imbalanced ones, the easiest way I find to do this is taking an existing monster ability/power as starting point and then tweaking it into having the desired form, a general rule of thumb is, if you find yourself watching an ability like nothing else in any of the Monster Manuals, its provably unbalanced, not necessarily, but probably; reconsider it and play test it if possible.

The basics of developing a monster from scratch can be found in the Dungeon Master Guide page 184 but, in 4th edition D&D we have a huge advantage we didn’t had before regarding Monster Creation, when you are designing monsters I cannot send you in another direction but the WoTC Adventure Tools. A program designed to facilitate DM’s creative process, at the moment it just houses the D&D Monster builder, this simple to use software will guide you trough the creation of your Monster while doing the heavy lifting of Mechanics, if you are interested in knowing more about this excellent program check out this Monster Builder Manual By Sarah Darkmagic, I’m sure it will cover all your needs



Leave a Comment
  1. Tourq / Jul 8 2010 6:13 pm

    Man, what a convenience the Monster Builder turned out to be. 4e really set the bar there.


    • DM Baloo / Jul 13 2010 8:24 pm

      Tell me about it, I’m just hoping they will trow some new Adventure tools in 2011

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