Monster Design and Execution

Monsters, the back bone of any good campaign! My players are highly experienced, I can litterally describe a creature to them and they can tell me what it is, how many Hit Dice it has, the Armor Class, weaknesses and attacks to watch out for. This is no good! Sure, sometimes, if I feel that I can establish the correct amount of tension with a monster, then I’ll use one as written, and I’ll put minimal work into a monster whose soul purpose is to simply slow the party down, and throw some d20s! An activity that all players love to be engaged in! But what about monsters that are more then just sword fodder, that you want to make more of a big deal about? The kind of monster which will test the party to their limits and really move the campaign forward? Do we need to create our own monster?


This is a big factor with a party. If everybody knows how to take out a troll in 5 rounds or less, then it is probably best not to use it in the first place. We could still use the troll, but we should alter it some. Do trolls worship a god? If so, then they would have clerics! What would happen if the troll was already dead? Surely a zombie of a troll would be highly valuable to a necromancer, but what would happen? Would the things regeneration still work? Could it possibly dominate the wizard who attempted to enslave it? We must ask some questions, or we can simply mess with the things stats.

There are tons of different species of trolls, so lets pick a different monster. The Zombie would be a good one! In D&D the zombie is a slave which will do only as instructed by it’s maker, a necromancer. Zombies make excellent 1st level challenges. They never win initiative, which when your most powerful PC will be lucky if he has 10hp, this can make the difference between life and death. A zombie is also incapable of pursuing the party if they retreat. They aren’t intelligent and will fall for the phoniest of traps, but what makes them work is their numbers, which the DM can control.

Zombies are great!!!! But what about levels above 5? Sure, you could throw hundreds of zombies at the adventurers, but they will chop right through them. What we need is a more powerful zombie!

We can increase the zombies attack speed, or give him a better THAC0, but if we do all of this, why not just go with a stronger monster? BECAUSE WE DON’T WANT TO!!! We want a zombie, and there for we have to build a better zombie!

In movies, zombies are MUCH scarier and more dangerous then D&D zombies, especially the really fast ones that have appeared in today’s films. Zombies also eat people, their bites are infectious. THIS is different. These zombies aren’t created by wizards, but by evil magics gone horribly wrong! Perhaps this wasn’t the exact monstrosity that the mage was going for, but while researching a better zombie . . . Maybe one that is faster, he accidentally creates doom!

Cannibal Zombies! They are faster, they get an initiative and can outrun a standard human. They never get tired, they are capable of running at top speeds until something breaks or they locate another source of food. The cannibal zombie is uncontrollable, and cannot be dominated by anyone. Their AC is better, as the only way to harm them is a direct attack on their heads, depending on the level of the adventurer this can be any number that you want, with a minimum of AC6 and they must specify their target. The Cannibal Zombie also has a mean attack that is a Save or Die. If the player saves, then the damage that they got came from a fall or something, but they avoided being bitten, a failed save means that they will loose a point of CON every turn until they get to 0, at which time they will die and be infected, thus THEY are now cannibal zombies.

Walking into a city in the aftermath of this horrible infestation would test the resolve of even the most skilled PC, even characters of epic levels. Is it TOO dangerous? I don’t think so, but I’m the kind of DM that will knowingly drop the PC’s into a situation where they are completely outnumbered and they’ve got to rely on their brains over their brawn. This kind of monster would challenge my PC’s, and it would absolutely murder and piss off other groups, so when tinkering with monsters, it is important to know and understand your audience, the PC’s.

Many monsters simply need to be altered to give the sense that this is a new creature, but when you do do something to this effect, you have to make sure that the characters can spot that something is amiss right off the bat . . . Well, unless you think that you can gain more drama by holding off on it until the right time presents itself.

Some monsters are capable of classing. This can be as difficult or as easy as you want it to be. We do want to reserve it for specific things, so don’t put a Lizard Man Mage on a list of random encounters, if we are going to do this, then we should do it right. Give the Lizard Man a history, why is he so intelligent? How did he learn the art of spell craft? What level is he? Does he flaunt it or does he hide it. I think that the rule of thumb should be that a classed monster shouldn’t have more Hit Dice then normal. We look at our Lizardman Mage, he should be a King, thus he’ll be 8th level. WON’T THAT SURPRISE THE SHIT OUT OF THE PARTY! He also might have an apprentice or two, depending on his character, either way it will force the PC’s to change their course of how to handle this situation at a very inopportune moment. It will also keep them thinking further on down the road, and they won’t take anything that you do or say for granted, which is good!!! Obviously this is a tactic used for experienced Players who can easily wipe out a clan of lizard men, not novices who haven’t ever fought them before. We do want to play fair!

So, we’ve got classing a normally non-classed creature, and modifying established monsters to different established monsters who still follow the rules of their fictional counterparts. Now we go into an area where some DM’s refuse to go, actually sitting down and creating a brand new being.

We look at the Monster Manual, and I will tell you that damned near everything in that book is based on myths on this planet. I say this because the most heated argument is that there just isn’t enough room for everything, but I think that DM’s tend to over think things. Yes, clans of Ogres take up space, and you should refrain from creating your own brand new races, unless that is what you want to do! The game is about being creative, and that is the first and most important rule of the game. Creating your own races will bring about a different set of headaches, but if that is what you are willing to endure then more power to you! You still have to ask yourself what is the best way to flesh this race out. It is during prep sessions, or have you a player that you think might be talented enough to do the fleshing for you and introduce it to him as a PC. THIS MIGHT WORK! And it might not, but you’ll never know if you don’t try.

Creating UNIQUE monsters is much easier, but you shouldn’t create a unique monster simply to express your creative side, the thing has to breath and live of its own power. Again, we’ve got to give it a background, we’ve got to establish it’s history. Perhaps it escaped from another plain of existence? Perhaps it was called upon by a powerful wizard, or maybe it lay buried in ice from some forgotten catastrophe which happened before the time of man? These are questions that you have to ask yourself. Another good resource for new monsters that you’re players may not had heard of lies in the past. Former editions of the game offer a wealth of knowledge that have been cut from the game. For instance, devils and demons were cut because of public outrage at the time, they were replaced by Tanar’ri and Baatezu. Why not pick up an old Monsterous Manual and take some time converting them over to your edition? There are lots of monsters that were left out of the great MM, for no other reason then that there just wasn’t enough space!

Picking and Mixing

One of the most mutable monsters are your undead. The MM has about 9 different classes of ghosts, taking a ghost and borrowing powers from different forms will give you a brand new monster. Just as an example, I took a weak spirit for my last active session, a womans ghost which was totally nuts, no thoughts or emotions except for sadness. Her motivation was locating her daughter who was also dead and she won’t find the girl on her own. She has two attacks, which are purely incidental. The first is a weak aura of sadness and despair that is always around her when she becomes corporeal, also not up to her, she only appears during the three days of the full moon. Her main attack is a keen, exactly the same as a banshee, however instead of issuing a siren-like scream, she yells, “Where is my baby?” and all of those around her must save or die. She has no idea that she has this ability, and refuses to even engage in combat.

Her daughter is a ghost as well, with completely different powers, and completely different motivations, but I won’t go into those yet, as the PC’s haven’t figured her out yet. But the point is that with monsters such as ghosts, you can easily mix and match abilities. The more abilities that a ghost has, the more HD and XP it is worth. A ghost which has all of the abilities of the ghosts would be a fearsome adversary worthy of only the greatest of PC parties to take it out.

Vampires are much the same way, with the exception that the older they get, the more powerful they become. Most vampires that a player will ever run into are stupid fledglings, these guys are under 100 years old, but imagine a vampire who is thousands of years old! He would be able to control humans with his will alone, he would have the strength of a god, and a wisdom to match it.

Speaking of D&D vampires, I’ve never liked the typical Level Drain power they get. I change that, and only use unique vampires. The usual vampire would drain the Con ability, 1d4 ability points per round with a successful attack, 1 point being permanent lose each round. If the player loses all Con then it is up to the vampire if he wishes to turn them or destroy them. Of course you can have a vampire feed on something other then blood, some feed off of spinal fluid and drain the INT of a character in the same way. Vampires should have their STR altered, as well as more stats. They also keep class abilities that they had when they were alive. Maybe it isn’t a totally new monster that your campaign needs, but a specific and unique take on an old idea?

Study your monsters, get a good feel for them, and put them in nightmare situations! The purpose of a monster is to insight fear and terror into those that are forced to bear witness to their atrocities. They should be rare, the typical 0th level folks that make up your world will never see one (well, be able to tell about it anyway)

Setting up Encounters

Now that we’ve got our perfect monster, we don’t just want to throw him out there. That would be pointless! We want to establish some foreshadowing first. This should be a combination of different things.

Myth & Gossip

Folks talk, but of course we don’t want our NPCs to ever just come out and say what it was. This thing is going to have everybody spooked, and most folks won’t talk to strangers . . . In fact, it could had been the strangers that brought the thing on to begin with! Force the PC’s to use those CHA scores! Modify the check and have the PC’s make Cha checks to get anything out of a NPC, and even then we can keep things to chance. Roll a d6, if it is even, give them something true about your new monster, if it’s odd, feed them bad information. Folks will be talking about it, but that doesn’t mean that the things that they say will be true. This can go either way, you can describe a monster that isn’t there, that way when they think that they have it figured out and bring the correct tools for that monster, they will be caught off guard.

Let the townsfolk do your setting for you, don’t ever give anything away for free. Let the PC’s track down folks who might had seen this thing, or that had a loved one killed by it. Maybe the town will declare that an old witch who lives in town is behind the matter, perhaps this is true and perhaps it isn’t. Investigations work real well as long as there is something there to actually investigate!

Crime Scenes

Murder most foul! The PC’s will run across different scenes. First scene should be a clean one that the constable or guards have cleaned up already. We have to know what went down, what was the motive of the monster? Something about this scene should give small physical hints that something is amiss, and it should be evident that perhaps it wasn’t a man that did this, but as the adventure moves along, we want to slowly move the monster more towards the PC’s. Eventually they will run across a fresh kill. THIS is where they will see the horror first hand. We must know our creature, did it attack with a weapon or with it’s bare hands/claws? Did it kill because it was seen, or did it kill for food? Did it take the body, or try to before it saw the PC’s coming and it got scared off? Give it emotions, does it hide and aware that it is being hunted? These questions should be answered with this encounter. Again, you don’t come out and say anything, the PC’s must worm every scrap of info out of you. Just describe the scene, if they get false impressions, then so be it! Next we’ll bring the thing all the way home. Look at your NPC list, and pick a victim from it. Somebody who the PC’s trust and love, or maybe someone that they suspect? Give them an opportunity, that if they think quickly and do exactly the right thing, then they can stop what is about to happen, but if they screw up or waste time, then the monster will claim another victim and it will be their fault! Eventually it will be time to unleash this thing upon them with it’s full fury. It is time for them to see if they can survive its rage. The entire time, especially with an intelligent creature, you’ll have to keep an eye on your PC’s. If they screw up at any time, such as separate from their companions, then kill them . . . Well be fair about it. The monster should be strong enough to make short work of one PC, don’t describe it to them, but if they can’t work together then let them have it. Keep it in the shadows, and use their fear of the unknown against them. If it has a lair, then make them work to find it. If it is living among them, give hints but not details. Give rewards, not gifts.

If an investigation isn’t what you want to do, then just shorten it. There may be some chatter about this thing out in the hills, evidence of it’s existence will be stumbled upon. When it attacks, keep it hidden for as long as possible, treat it like a monster in a movie! If it can, then let it win. You did the extra work on it, you might as well milk it for all it is worth! Let the characters discover it’s history, or marvel at it as it does things that it isn’t suppose to ever do. Make it more real then just a bunch of numbers, give it flesh and a heart beat and a purpose and it will reward everyone who encounters it. Good Luck!


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