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?

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

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