Holding a Successful Session Zero

By RJ on 23 February 2018.

A Dungeons and Dragons campaign is a collaborative storytelling experience. Sure, as the dungeon master, you’ll be creating the world your group adventures in, but the epic tales of terror and intrigue you tell will be created by folks on both sides of the screen.

Today, we’re discussing the fundamental first step of a successful campaign: Starting with a session zero. Specifically, five tips to maximize the success of your campaign’s baby steps.

Holding a session zero has become far more popular as of late. Perhaps it is the push of character’s being integrated into the story, or maybe it’s to discuss what the campaign should be about. Regardless, I’ve been a fan of sessions zeros for quite a while. They allow both the players and the DM to set expectations about the campaign before it begins. Most of the time, session zeros can solve any problems that may occur during play before they even arise, and they allow the players to participate in the building of the world.

Without further ado, let’s delve in!

Before meeting as a group, talk with each player privately.

During these conversations, try and ascertain what kind of character each player would like to play. Get them thinking about their character’s race, class, and background before you all meet for session zero. In addition, talk about what they'd like to see in the campaign. Are they searching for a romp through a mega-dungeon? Do they want a high seas adventure filled with sahuagin raiders, flamboyant pirates, and titanic monsters of the depths?

If everyone’s already thought a tad about their characters, and the campaign as a whole, I’ve found that character creation goes incredibly smooth, and is much more enjoyable for everyone involved.

Come prepared.

Before you ask your players to officially meet for session zero and create their characters, ensure you’re prepared for the process. For a campaign’s session zero, you’ll usually need the following:

  1. Information about the setting. Is the group beginning in the blistering deserts of a land forsaken by the gods, or are they delving into the depths of a jungle crawling with demons and undead? Know and remember this. Most of the time, I create a brief guide for the setting that the players can read if they’d like.
  2. Pencils, dice, and character sheets, as well as a few blank notecards and sheets of paper. The former is for your players, while the latter is for a campaign-building exercise that we’ll discuss soon.
  3. A sharp and open mind. The goal of session zero is to craft a campaign that fits both you and your players. Build on their enthusiasm, include them in the campaign-building process, and take notes on things they’re excited about.

Hold a group discussion about the campaign’s focus.

Everyone involved in the campaign should have a voice in what it’s primary focus or foci will be. In other words, the campaign’s core pillars should be decided upon by the players, with some input by the dungeon master.

I’ve seen many methods to accomplish this, but my favorite (and what I’ll be using from now on) uses notecards and dice.

Take an arbitrary number of notecards and write a genre/theme/mood on each of them. Examples include horror, slapstick, epic, weird, intrigue, tactical, exploration, and episodic. Set these cards on the table. Then, give each player four dice.

Now, have the players put their dice on the theme they want most. The more dice a notecard has on top of it, the more that theme will feature in the campaign. This allows the group to openly discuss what type of campaign they’d like and gives the dungeon master a solid idea of what their group prefers. Make sure to take notes during this portion of session zero. Using the thoughts and ideas that come from this can help make the campaign last AND be enjoyable for everyone at the table.

Establish the setting.

Before the player’s officially roll up their characters, make sure they understand the world they’ll be playing in. I’ll usually do this by giving an elevator pitch for the world and writing a short setting guide that accompanies by general world guide.

The pitch need not be long, but it should communicate the big ideas of the setting to the players.

In the setting guide, I include the brief pitch of the region or world, in addition to small patches of information on iconic locations and characters, character hooks, and a trinket table. This concise packet gives the players enough information to build on using their character's backstories, and for them to feel somewhat connected to the starting location.

Here's an example of a short and sweet setting guide for a campaign I run called The Bannerless.

Allow the players to contribute to the campaign.

Once the player characters are created, they’re woven into the world by their backstory, and the campaign is nearly ready to begin, I like to do a bit more campaign-building with the players. To accomplish this, I simply ask players a few, choice questions using a handout. 

The handout asks:

  • What’s a creature you’d like to face?
  • What’s an ally you’d like to work with?
  • What’s an item you’d like to see?
  • What’s a plot twist you’d like to occur?
  • If you’d like, please name:
    • An organization in the world.
    • A nonplayer character in the world.
    • A villain in the world.
    • A location of great wonder in the world.
Once this is done, I not only have the PC’s backstories to pore over but content that excites and was made by the players!

In Summary

Kicking your campaign off correctly is key to running a successful, fulfilling campaign. Holding a session zero is a great way to do that. During it, be sure to collaborate with your players and establish the setting that you’ll all be playing in for months and years to come. Remember:

  • Talk to each player privately about their character and the campaign. Encourage them to build something cool and unique.
  • Prepare yourself for the campaign. Think about the setting, the theme, and the starting plots. Come prepared to your session zero armed with ideas, dice, and paper.
  • As one, discuss the campaign with your group. What does everyone like? What do they dislike? How long should the campaign last?
  • Ensure everyone understands the setting by the end of the session zero. Explain its core ideas, where it is, who the important people are, et cetera.
  • Share the setting and campaign with the players. Allow them to build a faction, pitch a monster they'll eventually fight, or talk about a magic item they might seek in the future. Be collaborative.

Next week, I’ll be beginning a new series of blog posts about published Wizards of the Coast material. I absolutely love to read through adventures and books, pilfering any ideas I think sound great or would work well in my campaign or world. We’ll be starting with fifth edition’s premiere adventure book, Hoard of the Dragon Queen.

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Want More RPG Tips & Tales from RJD20?

As always, thanks for reading. Please send all inquiries to rjd20writes@gmail.com or leave a comment below.

Here's to greatening your game and world: cheers!

Divine Intervention

By RJ on 16 February 2018.

Friday night. Tonight is the finale of my first, true campaign. Over the course of the epic, thirty-one session adventure, my group saved an entire island from the rampage of a dragon-worshiping orc horde, reforged a legendary pair of phylactery-crushing gauntlets, and convinced the original antagonist of the campaign to become their devout ally. Tonight, their airship flies to a climactic battle between the armies of the lich trio, deemed the Dread Admirals, and the rebels of their conquered archipelago. However, after discussing the possibility of going after the phylacteries of the Dread Admirals as the battle rages, the party changes course. They turn their airship toward the lair of the Dread Admirals, a cove-fortress named Agsur Golad. The Dread Admirals, they decide, are going to die tonight. Their phylacteries are going to be destroyed, or the entirety of the archipelago of Altarin, the group’s home, will lose the war and submit to liches’ rule.

However, as the dungeon master, I know this is a fatal move, a campaign-ending decision. My group is unable to fight liches, their undead minions, and a surprise zombie dragon at their current level. I know that they are going to die on the doorstep of the liches’ domain, thus ending the campaign and the adventuring careers of their level sixteen characters.

Therefore, instead of letting them die, however heroic it would be, forcing them off their current path or adjusting the stats of the enemies, I make an on-the-spot decision to intervene.

Throughout the campaign, the group performed a plethora of heroic acts, saved a myriad of goodly folk, and vanquished a considerable amount of evil from the world. In particular, they had served a priest of Lagaria, the goddess of life and health. Thus, I decide that the goddess intervenes in their mortal affairs, an incredibly rare act in my world. She blesses the heroes, commends them for their bravery, and wishes them luck on what she believes will be their final adventure, before granting them immense power.

Each member of the party feels their proficiency grow. The barbarian’s muscles bulge with divine might. The druid’s mind opens up to a vast amount of lost nature magic. The ranger’s prowess with bow and blade becomes even greater. The sorcerer’s untapped potential finally unlocks. With Lagaria’s divine blessing, they become level twenty adventurers, ready to face the Dread Admirals.

As a preface: This type of dungeon mastering style might not be for you, and that’s perfectly fine! Everyone has their own style of play. No one style is perfect, no one style is the objective best.

Some DMs would’ve let the party try to infiltrate the lich trio’s stronghold at their current level and die. However, I didn't want that to happen. The campaign was near its conclusion, and I didn’t want to railroad them away from Agsur Golad or let them die attempting to reach the liches’ phylacteries. If the group was killed there, they wouldn’t have wanted to continue.

Therefore, I interfered. I gave them a chance. You can disagree with my decision, you can say that I was breaking the rules of D&D, and I certainly was! However, I was there and witnessed the joy of my players when the goddess came to them. They were ecstatic and surprised because I’ve never done that before.

That moment was the first occurrence of the infamous deus ex machina in the entire campaign, the first time the proverbial D&D god threw the players a bone. There’s the first lesson: Don’t overuse any of the advice I’m about to relay to you; it must be used sparingly to be effective!

Today we’re discussing how and when you should interfere with the narrative, either by assisting your players narratively or messing with the dice.

Let us begin.

Assistance from the Divine

When my group decided to turn their airship toward the Dread Admiral’s fortress, where they knew the liches’ phylacteries were hidden, I knew I had to make an incredibly important, split-second choice.

Do I somehow force them to the giant battle I had planned, in the skies above a toppling wizard’s spire built from the depths of the ocean?

Do I extend the campaign by attacking their airship with the minions of the Dread Admirals?

Or do I allow their plan to work? The last thing the Dread Admirals are expecting is an infiltration into their fortress. They’ve strangled the life from the region and knew the party was on their way to Azudon’s Reach. What the villains didn’t know is that the party were aware of the locations of the Dread Admirals’ phylacteries, and they had the means to destroy them.

My rule is to always allow the group’s plans to have a chance of success, but I usually don’t directly interfere with either side (success or failure). Yet, in this case, I knew they would fail horribly, and this failure would end the campaign on a negative note. 

I’m a proponent of having fun at the table. Thus, I knew I had to do something if I was going to allow this plan to have a chance of working.

That’s where divine intervention plays a part.

I only use divine intervention when the fate of the campaign and the players fun is at stake, and I never use it to give the players an assured victory or success. That would take away all of the suspense and the drama of the adventure. So far in my DMing career, I’ve only had to do it twice, and both times it was necessary.

I’m advising that you do the same. If the fate of your campaign and your player’s fun is at stake, I’d interfere with some grand deus ex machina. Again, do this sparingly, if at all.

This advice works on a group-by-group basis. Some groups will hate this type of play, despite how you integrate the intervention into the story, knowing the DM is directly helping them. Others will adore the assistance. If you think you have to pull this move, try and read what type of group you’re playing with.

Now, onto an even more controversial topic.

Twisting Fate

Moving away from today’s primary piece of advice, let’s discuss the ever-present and ever-debatable dice-fudging debacle. Should you foil fate’s plans and change the number on the die being rolled, ever?

My answer? Sometimes. Vague, I know. Allow me to explain.

Fate and its plans are enormous aspects of D&D. Taking them away removes a pillar of the roleplaying game. But, if you do so tactfully, it can help the player’s experience more than hinder it. In fact, as the dungeon master, you can utilize the dice to make your campaign far more dramatic and entertaining. Again, this must be used sparingly, if at all, and it depends on your group!

I live and die by a simple rule: The player’s enjoyment is greater than the campaign’s story, which is greater than the game’s rules.

I find rather than explaining this, examples work far better.

What if a terrifying red dragon is breathing fiery hell upon the PCs, a few of them are low on hit points, and you roll near max damage? You know this amount of damage will cause ¾ of your group to go unconscious. What do you do? This completely depends on your DMing style. Do you think the story will benefit by the party losing this battle? Do you have a contingency plan? Will all the PCs die here, and is everyone okay with that? What if you want the battle to continue, to give your party another chance? Then simply fudge the dice.

What if your group is finally facing the big bad evil antagonist of your campaign, and you can’t roll above a three? Do you let fate decide the battle completely, or do you fudge the dice a little to make the fight interesting? Again, it depends on your DMing style...and your ability to trick your players.

Fudging the dice is okay in some situations, but you must not let your players know that you’re twisting fate behind the screen. You need to understand the type of people you’re playing with. Will they be upset if they discover you’re doing this for the betterment of the campaign, or will they understand your reasoning?

Fudging the dice can make the campaign more exciting and dramatic, but it must be used sparingly.

In Summary

Today’s topic was quite controversial, and I’m sure I’ll receive some amount of criticism for advising dungeon masters to directly intervene in the world and fudge dice, but I stand by my words. Remember:

  1. Intervening is sometimes necessary to save a campaign from a bad decision or two. Don’t be afraid to help your players out if one of their mistakes risks sucking the fun out of the campaign.
  2. Fudging the dice is okay, but you need to do so subtly.
  3. Both of these divine interventions must be used sparingly, else you risk interfering with one of D&D’s core concepts: The integration of fate.

Want More RPG Tips & Tales from RJD20?

As always, thanks for reading. Please send all inquiries to rjd20writes@gmail.com or leave a comment below.

Here's to greatening your game and world: cheers!

Dungeons, Dragons, and Death

By RJ on 11 February 2018.

Friday night. The Iskryn group is exploring a tainted sanctuary of Bjornar, the god of stars, location, and urson (bearfolk). Thousands of years ago, Bjornar’s sanctuary was invaded by a force of demons and gnolls, the spawn of Yeenoghu. In a last-ditch effort, the leader of the divine structure, Andromedus, teleported the entire building to the Astral Plane, and created a divine barrier that prevented scrying, and disallowed those within to leave. The demons trapped within quickly slaughtered the remaining celestial and urson defenders and looted the artifact which they came to the sanctuary for, but they were unable to break Andromedus’s barrier or locate the celestial.

Back to Friday night: The party clash with the demons, led by Neegvym, Faithful of Yeenoghu. The battle is brutal and bloody, yet every demon is slain. Their bodies, though, are unable to return to the Abyss, so they simply lay motionless on the cold, stone floor. The victory comes at a cost: Rob Tully, the party’s ranger, and religious advocate died during the battle when Neegvym raked him with his enormous claws. However, his story did not end there.

After his death on the material plane, Rob’s soul materializes in Limbo, unable to find its way to the realm of his deity, Lykos, due to Andromedus’ barrier. In Limbo, he is forced to team up with Neegvym to survive the soup of chaos and impossibilities that is Limbo. Eventually, Rob takes a chance and exacts vengeance on Neegvym, cutting off one of the nalfeshnee’s wings mid-flight, causing the demon to tumble into the chaos of Limbo. Back on the material plane, Rob’s party succeeds; they cleanse the temple and lift the divine barrier, allowing Rob’s soul to journey to Lakotas, his deity’s realm. In Lakotas, Rob reunites with his family and makes peace, but learns of foul happenings on the material plane that entrance Rob’s player back into the campaign…

I recently had a PC die in my campaign, as described above.

When Rob died, his death scene was dramatic. The ranger passed within the sanctuary of one of his god’s sons, fighting his sworn enemies. Yet, his story didn’t end there. In a one-on-one session afterward, we played out his character’s messy journey to the afterlife and allowed him an opportunity to exact vengeance on the demon who slew him, which he was barely able to do. The oneshot ended with Rob reuniting with his family in his god’s realm, and learning that the villain of the campaign, the Woodsmaster, had managed to return to the material plane while the party cleansed the sanctuary. The extra session let his character be heroic one last time, gave the player closure, but also reinvigorated his interest in the campaign.

Today, we’re talking a tad about player character death in Dungeons and Dragons.

Player characters die in D&D. The event can be epic or sad, traumatic or dramatic, but in D&D, a PC’s death should always be memorable.

In addition, death should be a real possibility in D&D, especially during intense encounters. Without the threat of it, encounters with the incredible become far less interesting and exhilarating. This fact doesn’t only apply to combat encounters. Are the PCs dealing with a cutthroat gang of thieves, who could slit their throats at the smallest slight to their organization? What if they’re on trial for murder and robbery in the court of the king?

Moments during which the characters could perish are integral to D&D and should be present in almost every session of a campaign or adventure.

However, that doesn’t mean death should be mundane and expected. Deaths should be dramatic and carry the weight they deserve. Plus, after the character dies, their story doesn’t end in most D&D worlds. Instead, it continues in the afterlife, a soup of diverse planes and interconnected realms.

Alright, let’s dig into the dirt, and start with how a death should be handled.

A Beautiful Death

A player character’s death scene must be handled correctly. 

Players pour their ideas and emotions into their characters. Most of the time, it’s the only piece they brought to the table, and when it’s taken away, that can be saddening and upsetting. I posit, however, that the experience does not have to be this way. A death can be heroic and dramatic, even epic. In addition, as I stated before, it must be memorable.

I’m going to say something controversial here: When a character’s death is certain, let the player do what they want with their character’s death. If needed, assist them, but allow them to make the death memorable to themselves and to the other players.

Do they want to go out in a blaze of glory, perhaps getting one last attack on the big bad evil guy who is assaulting their fellow party members? Allow that to happen!

What if they’d like to get a chance to speak with the rest of their companions, and maybe even give some wise pieces of advice procured by the DM. Don’t object.

How about they protect a gateway or barrier while their party escapes, sacrificing their life to give the party a much-needed head start on the enemies? Sounds great!

If you don’t already, give your player as much agency as possible during the final moments of their characters involvement in the greater game. Let them make the scene memorable, and, if they need assistance, help them.

Handling the Dead

So, here we are: A PC is dead. You’ve handled their death scene well, but what happens after?

Foremostly, what occurs after a PC dies in D&D is completely reliant upon your world and style of play. Some believe the souls of the dead go to an extraplanar realm related to their deity or alignment, others posit they all end up in the same, dreadful place, and few think that their souls simply vanish, and the dead remain dead...forever. In addition, some DMs don’t care about this aspect of the game, and briefly brush over it.

I don’t agree with that.

Describing a PC’s journey to the afterlife gives a sense of closure to both the players and, in a sense, the dungeon master. Plus, it gives another layer of depth to your D&D world.

Quickly, we’ll go over each afterlife possibility, starting with souls going to a realm related to their beliefs during life.

When a creature dies, their soul leaves their body and goes on a journey to their particular extraplanar realm. This journey can be arduous and consuming, or it can be quick and painless. Depending on the type of DM you are, and the type of people you’re playing with, this can take seconds or minutes to explain, or can be played out over a single one-on-one session with the dead PC.

A single plane of existence for the dead is the second most common way to deal with the dead in D&D. Travelers to this realm are usually ushered along by an envoy, a reaper-like character. When the character is officially dead, perhaps the avatar of death in your world can make an appearance, or you can describe the character’s descent into the afterlife, following a path of thousands of other souls, or swimming down a river of ghosts.

The rarest, simplest, and most uninteresting way to handle the dead in D&D is asserting that they’re dead. When someone dies, they’re gone forever. They go nowhere, they can’t be communicated with, and their chance of resurrection is next to nothing. This goes against most D&D settings, but I’ve seen it used a few times. While it is uninteresting, I suppose it adds a sense of danger to your world that isn’t otherwise present.

Thinking about what happens when a PC dies in your world before it happens is important, and I encourage everyone to map it out. Remember, it need not be complex; simply stating that the character's soul leaves the material plane, passes over the elemental realms, soars through the outer planes, and into the realms of the gods suffices.

In Summary

Today, we learned:

  1. Characters die in Dungeons and Dragons, and their deaths should carry weight. Give your players a chance to describe how their character draws their final breath after being raked by a nalfeshnees enormous claw, or what their final words are to their companions who survived the encounter. Don’t just say, “You draw your final breath. You’re dead.” That’s boring and doesn’t leave the player or their friends satisfied.
  2. Death is not the end of a character’s journey in the fantastical multiverse of D&D. The souls of characters can go on an ultimate journey, through the various planes of existence, or end up in the single realm of the dead, or they just die, never to be seen or heard from again.

Want More RPG Tips & Tales from RJD20?

As always, thanks for reading. Please send all inquiries to rjd20writes@gmail.com or leave a comment below.

Here's to greatening your game and world: cheers!

Mordenkainen's Tome of Foes is Coming Through the Portal!

By RJ on 4 February 2018.

Mordenkainen is one of the oldest D&D characters created. Once, he was the wizard player character of one of the RPG’s founders: Gary Gygax. However, once Gygax was ousted from TSR Inc., he lost the rights to his arcane character. Since then, Mordenkainen has played many roles in one of D&D’s first and most famous campaign settings: Greyhawk. The wizard extraordinaire has been on the opposite side of the PCs, voraciously searching for more power, but he’s also assisted parties across the world for the betterment of Greyhawk (and his own interests, too).

Although a few of his own spells appear in D&D's fifth edition, and the wizard himself finds himself in Curse of Strahd, Wizards of the Coast recently announced that he will be the ‘narrator’ of their next book: Mordenkainen’s Tome of Foes.

What’s inside? Well, the official description is as follows:

“This tome is built on the writings of the renowned wizard from the world of Greyhawk, gathered over a lifetime of research and scholarship. In his travels to other realms and other planes of existence, he has made many friends, and has risked his life an equal number of times, to amass the knowledge contained herein. In addition to Mordenkainen's musings on the endless wars of the multiverse, the book contains game statistics for dozens of monsters: new demons and devils, several varieties of elves and duergar, and a vast array of other creatures from throughout the planes of existence."

The book releases on May 29, 2018, with 256 pages, and a price point of $49.99 (keep in mind online retailers usually set this to $28-$35).

At the moment, Mordenkainen’s looks to be a book akin to Volo’s Guide to Monsters, with a focus on the myriad of extraplanar realms of D&D’s massive multiverse. A Manual of the Planes, updated for fifth edition D&D, you could posit.

I’m excited. Why? Keep reading, friends.

Endless Possibilities

WOTC is trying something new with fifth edition D&D. Gone are the times of Monster Manual I, II, III…, and for that, I’m glad. 

These new books are superior to those of the past. Volo's had character and oozed inspiration, something the 'monster' books of previous editions severely lacked. Call me crazy, but I adore reading about beholder reproduction, the curse of the goblinoids, and the structure of mind flayer society. If Mordenkainen's is written in the same style as Volo's, I'll be insanely pleased.

Time for some speculation, folks.

I’m guessing that Mordenkainen’s will have three sections, each akin to Volo’s:

  1. Planar Realms, Conflicts, and Adventure Hooks
  2. Player Options from the Planes
  3. Monsters of the Planes
The first section will detail the most famous realms in the D&D multiverse, along with conflicts that beg to be inserted into a D&D campaign or adventure. Examples include the Blood War, Lolth’s eternal struggle, the creation of the slaadi, Sigil, and the Elemental Chaos. Among these, other, smaller bits and pieces of inspiration will be provided.

The second section will encompass various options for players who wish to build characters originating from the planes or connected to them in some way. Perhaps the gith will become a playable race, mystics will be added as a class, and a variety of backgrounds will be provided.

The third section, of course, will be filled with stats and descriptions of fiends, angels, elementals, and more extraplanar beings. Because the book focuses on extraplanar creatures, I hope WOTC includes a multitude of high-level creatures, meant for campaigns that stretch past level fifteen. My campaigns have lasted until the PCs hit level 20; thus, I’ve often been forced to create creatures without the help of the fifth edition ruleset. With Mordenkainen’s, I wish to see creatures deadly to high-level parties made by the masters themselves.

In Summary

Wizards of the Coast is releasing their next book, Mordenkainen’s Tome of Foes on May 29, 2018. The book’s page count is currently at 256, and its original, bookstore bought cost is $49.99. We know we’ll be reading all about the extraplanar realms of D&D’s multiverse, from primeval conflicts to crazy creatures.

Within, I hope to see a wealth of ideas, akin to Volo’s Guide to Monsters. In addition, I hope they provide new player options (class, race, backgrounds), and high-levels foes.

In the coming weeks, more information will be released, and I’ll continue to speculate in short posts like this one.

I hope you enjoyed this short piece and keep your sight true for more information on this next book; Mordenkainen’s sounds incredible.

Want More RPG Tips & Tales from RJD20?

As always, thanks for reading. Please send all inquiries to rjd20writes@gmail.com or leave a comment below.

Here's to greatening your game and world: cheers!

Monsters Abound!

By RJ on 2 February 2018.

Friday night. The Altarin campaign group is diving into the depths of Highkeep, the stronghold of the eccentric halfling wizard, Kenric Shallowren. Within, they hope to steal from the maniacal wizard’s vaults, which hold two items they need to reforge a legendary artifact. However, between them and the vaults is a labyrinth created by Kenric. Populating the dungeon are cruel traps, unfair puzzles, and mutated monsters taken from the nearby jungle. Unabashedly, they travel into the labyrinth. Inside, they battle a medusa with a serpentine body and a humanoid head, sacrifice valuables to massive-chested, sentient gorillas, and fell a winged, scaly monstrosity with four burly arms and venomous, regenerative flesh. At the end of the night, they emerge from the depths of Highkeep, items in hand, but bodies and minds scarred by these strange, new creatures.

Every battle beneath Highkeep was unique, every interaction new; this was because the creatures encountered were unknown the players. As a consequence, they had to rely on hints found in Highkeep to overcome the mysterious foes. That night was the first time I’d used creatures not found in the various Monster Manuals of D&D. Every creature I used was my own creation, and my players and I had an absolute blast.

Many folks play Dungeons and Dragons strictly by the books. This is perfectly okay, yet I posit that these people are missing out on an opportunity provided by the loose ruleset of D&D, fifth edition specifically. The rules are a framework, meant to be twisted and changed by those who create campaigns and adventures.

By altering the rules or making creations of your own, you’re able to weave far greater stories and moments that you could by simply going by the rules as written.

Isn’t that what we all strive for?

Today, we’ll discuss how this applies to creating monsters of your own, whether by putting unique spins on existing monsters, mixing monsters together, or creating totally new creatures. By the end, everyone reading will have the means to create limitless monsters for the D&D multiverse! Let there be monsters abound, folks.

Let's begin.

Familiar, Yet Different

My first tip for customizing creatures is simple: Put unique spins on familiar foes.

Otherwise known as reskinning, this tip is quick, easy and only limited by your imagination. The spin or change can be as minuscule as altering the number of arms the monster has, or as drastic as reworking its signature action.

Let’s use a medusa as an example.

A medusa is a classic creature, originating from Greek myths of yore. Everyone who reads, writes, or plays fantasy understands what a medusa is, which makes this snake-lady a less threatening or exciting D&D encounter.

Alas, we’re going to change that.

When my group encountered the medusa of Highkeep, it wasn’t a typical, humanoid medusa. Yet, all the tell-tale signs surrounded her lair. Statues lined the halls, locked in visages of bravery and terror. Sinister snakes slithered around, hissing as the adventurers explored the corridors.

Thus, my players knew: Alright, there’s a medusa here. They were prepared for the typical D&D medusa: a snake lady with a bow and arrow trying to petrify you.

They found something entirely different.

Instead of humanoid and lithe, her body was fat, slimy and serpentine, like that of an anaconda, and only her head was human in shape. She still had writhing hair made of snakes, and she was able to turn PCs to stone, yet changing her from human to beast made the fight quite different. She slithered around the room, utilizing her ability to climb walls and deliver massive, venomous bites with her fangs to wear down the party.

If she was a typical fifth edition medusa, she’d simply use a bow from afar, attempting to gaze at the various PCs, which is NOT what I wanted from the encounter. I wanted something brutal, something bestial and terrifying. I accomplished this by changing the medusa from a humanoid to a serpent. A quick and easy change.

Now, let’s change something more substantial, one of a medusa’s signature abilities: Her petrifying gaze.

Usually, a medusa’s gaze turns those who look into her eyes to solid stone. But what if we altered that? Instead of stone, the medusa’s gaze turns people to sapphire, emerald, glass, or coral. In essence, this doesn’t even change the monster mechanically, but it opens up a plethora of storytelling opportunities.
Say, a fish-like medusa that lives in a cove. Instead of snakes composing her hair, she has the lure of an anglerfish that hangs from her head and turns foes to coral.

How about an accursed medusa of the Elemental Plane of Fire? Her skin is dark crimson, her blood boils, and snakes of fire coil and hiss in her hair. When she is seen, her foes are immolated.

Both of the above examples are far more interesting than a regular medusa, and only took a few minutes of brainstorming, a few minor changes, and a tad of creativity!

Here are three other examples of small alterations you can make to spice up a few creatures:

  1. A goblin or kobold with four arms. They’re proficient with all of them.
  2. A white dragon’s breath forces PCs to make a save or be turned to ice for a certain amount of time.
  3. Vampires are able to instantly kill their own spawn to gain an amount of health back.
In essence, changing details of a creature can drastically change the experience of encountering it, and make the encounter more memorable.

Mixing and Matching

Another approach to creating creatures is to combine pre-existing ones.

This tactic is also incredibly quick and easy. Sometimes, you don’t even need to change any stats or abilities. You can just pick two monsters, and mash them together!

For example, my current group is fighting against minions of Yeenoghu, god of blood and savagery, racing these minions to an ancient gnomish prison they’ve not yet divined the location of. I’ve used an assortment of creatures: Cultists, lycanthropes, gnolls, and demons, but for the next climactic encounter with the Yeenoghites, I wanted something fresh.

As I flipped through the Monster Manual, one of my favorite demons caught my eye: The marilith.

However, I had a dilemma.

I see mariliths as main antagonists, foes who’ve been foreshadowed throughout the entire campaign. These many-armed, serpentine creatures were formidable, intelligent, and too elegant to just be thrown into a campaign.Yet, I realized I had an opportunity to use this beautiful but terrifying demon.
I could simply mix the savage brutality of a gnoll and the combat mastery of a marilith to create a monster of my own: The gnollith.

Now, I have a horrifying monstrosity that awaits my group. The gnollith is not intelligent, instead, the demonic creation of Yeenoghu himself is an entity of pure anger and strength. The gnollith must be controlled by a cabal of gnoll priests of Yeenoghu, else it will annihilate entire gnoll tribes, hungry for blood and the thrill of battle. Combined with this innate gnoll savagery is the combat mastery of mariliths. The gnollith has the upper body of a great gnoll with six arms, each wielding a blood-stained flail, and the lower body of an enormous, white-scaled serpent.

Using this simple method of combining two creatures, I’ve made a monster that is worthy of its own entry in the next Monster Manual or Fiend Folio (crosses fingers).

To get your creative gears started, I’ve included a few other examples of mixing and matching creatures:

  1. A fire giant vampire who forges weapons cursed with negative energy from his Shadowfell lair.
  2. An ice devil and a girallon, forming a bestial, four-armed, insectoid devil of chilling frost.
  3. A dracolich dragon turtle. Need I say more?
Once you’ve created a few creature combinations, doing this becomes almost second nature.

Limitless Options

Remember what I said earlier: The rules for D&D are simply guidelines. Go wild when creating monsters! Make new and wacky creatures with interesting abilities. After all, that’s how most of D&D’s craziest monsters were made in the beginning.

You shouldn’t limit yourself when preparing for your campaign or adventure. In D&D, you have limitless options when it comes to monsters.

Do you need a type of demon that doesn’t exist in the Monster Manual? Create it!

Are none of the dragons in the Monster Manual pleasing you? Birth a new breed!

Do you want an ultra-powerful antagonist with abilities that are unparalleled, and truly challenge even the highest tier of adventurers? Make them!

This is far more difficult than it seems. The process of creating a completely new creature is long, arduous, and, more often than not, requires lots of trial and error. Yet, it’s totally worth the effort.

In Summary

Don’t misunderstand me: I’m not saying to throw out the rules when creating new or edited creatures. Instead, use the rules as guidelines. In doing so, you’ll make an utterly unique foe, built within the confines of the game we all love and enjoy.

This process can be exhilarating. As we discussed, you can create creatures of your own using these three methods:

  1. Put spins on existing creatures, small or large.
  2. Mix different monsters together, creating completely new creatures.
  3. Create creatures that don’t already exist; the only limit here is your imagination.
Go forth, and create a plethora of new creatures, my friends. Let there be unique monsters abound, rampaging across the D&D multiverse!

Want More RPG Tips & Tales from RJD20?

As always, thanks for reading. Please send all inquiries to rjd20writes@gmail.com or leave a comment below.

Here's to greatening your game and world: cheers!