As a kid, I collected tabletop roleplaying rulebooks. Rifts, the Lord of the Rings TTRPG, Spycraft, Shadowrun, Exalted, Vampire: The Masquerade, you name it… but few books stuck with me more than the 3rd edition Dungeons and Dragons core rulebooks I picked up when I was young.
Of those three books, the most exciting of all was probably the Monster Manual.
I can still remember the incredible sensation of rifling through the pages of this just amazing tome of fantastic creatures, monsters, and beings, sparking my imagination in a way that has effected much about who I am today. The art, the monsters, the statblocks… these still make up much of how I remember DnD monsters today.
Now, multiple editions later, I’ve had a lot of time to look at the way monsters are designed and have had years to ruminate on what sorts of monsters I might make… and today we’re gonna talk a little bit about some fun ideas for that.
Generally speaking I have three ways I’ll approach the design of a monster, and a couple sub-approaches I’ll take depending on the route I go.
1: DMPC (Dungeon Master Player Character)
This isn’t always my favorite route, but it’s very self explanatory so I’m starting with it.
How this works is you… make a character, much like you would a PC. This I find works well when I want a “monster” that is an essentially typical humanoid PC race like you would find in a sourcebook, that I want to be a bit more complex and memorable of a fight than something a statblock might allow. I’m not going to go too in depth on how this works as it is… largely just filling out a character sheet, but there are a few notes. Firstly, just write in whatever ability scores you want unless you really feel like rolling for some reason. The creature should function how you want, don’t worry about it. Generally I won’t set a Background, worry much about equipment except what matters for an engagement, and will just pick some proficient skills that make sense for the creature. This doesn’t have to follow precise rules for making a PC the way a player might have to; this is your creation, and is built to have a function within the story or encounter you’re trying to have.
2: Rules-Driven Design
I don’t have a great name for this one so I went with rules-driven design. What I mean by this is I’m aiming to make something that mechanically fits what players expect something to be able to do, and may even be familiar to those that know the rules very well. This means pulling very directly from other creatures or even class abilities; one of my favorite player classes to pull from and add to monster stats are Battle Masters Maneuvers and superiority dice. This has lead me to fun designs like a Goblin tribe boss who took Battle Master abilities like Commanding Strike or a reversed version of Goading Strike (enticed to attack his own goblin cronies rather than him) to give him some interesting flavor on top of otherwise just being a slightly buffed up goblin.
Paladins are full of great flavor rules you can pull from for things, but basically anything is open game. Maybe the Ogre has some abilities from a Drunken Master monk, or the astral-touched Kobold is shimmering in and out of existence for an effect like a Displacer Beast. Mixing in other, existing abilities to fit your design needs is an easy way to add some flavor while also knowing you’re working with mechanics that probably aren’t going to break the game too much.
3: Flavor Driven Design
Again, not a great name for this one.
When I’m wanting to do something really interesting, I take this approach. Some aspects of this design direction actually comes from 4th edition, which, while divisive, did some really interesting things with monster design that didn’t carry over as much as they could have. Matt Colville, on his great Running the Game series, also has a bit where he talks about some similar concepts here.
The thing about monsters, and being a DM creating a monster, is that they can do… basically whatever you want. An existing rule doesn’t have to be in the game, it doesn’t have to follow a pre-built design really, and if you can structure it into any of DnD’s existing combat systems, you can probably make it work.
This is where you get into coming up with abilities and ideas that just… aren’t available to the players. These entities, monsters, whatever they be, can just do things player characters are not able to do, or don’t have a great equivalent for. I’m going to talk a bit about a statblock I used that is ABSOLUTELY A SPOILER for episode one of our Astelian Account series which you can find here on youtube.
These are the two statblocks for The Lion of Astelia, the final encounter of our first episode. There are some slight errors here (the second block should have 300 hp, 21 AC). You’ll also note this is a very “DM facing” statblock, as it has very shortened rules writing on some things (the “sentinel” feat not being spelled out, for example.)
This statblock was designed to be the final encounter with a group of four level 15 characters, with the fight leaning in the Lion’s favor as they were not intended to necessarily survive, although I kept it open to the possibility. The main things to point out here that are uniquely designed for flavor purposes are:
The Mythic Action system originally unveiled in the Theros campaign setting. This essentially allows for a multi-phase fight in a very cool way, but I did not take the system *exactly* as it is designed within the book. Specifically, he does not gain temporary HP and lose his Mythic Actions when he runs out of that HP; he instead essentially gains a full new health bar, and just has his new set of Legendary Actions. You could argue this really just makes it so he turns into a new statblock and… fair… but making it function as a system similar to Mythic Actions made sense to me.
The Armor Class is basically arbitrary, and was set intentionally to make him as hard as I wanted him to be hit. I’ve seen this question from DMs before, where they’ll try to justify an armor class, and I’ll say that on a creature statblock… you don’t have to. Plenty of DnD monsters will just pick a number and throw “Natural Armor” on there which honestly I just take as mental shorthand for ‘it’s the AC I wanted it to be.” Don’t feel like everything has to have a super clear 1:1 mechanical justification; this is about a fun encounter that tells a story.
Strange Recharge number. Recharge is used for things like a lot of breath weapons on dnd sheets, but it tends to use a d6 and recharges are on a 5-6. This isn’t really spelled out as a necessary rule, but I felt like I wanted slightly different odds. 1/3rd of the time, on average, felt like too much here, but a 1d8 recharging on a 7-8 felt more correct to how often I wanted him to have access to his Roar in his Mortal form. I then shifted it to the 5-6 for his ice form, which is meant to be far more intimidating. I also allowed him to use his breath weapon equivalents as a bonus action which made him much more powerful in an action economy sense and much more mobile, while also not forcing me to make the abilities as extremely powerful as a typical high-damage breath weapon to account for the reduced action economy.
“Reaction” Legendary Action. I’m unsure if this has been done before, I haven’t seen it, but I wanted him to have access to an interesting “parry” type Reaction but force a higher resource expenditure to do it.
Now, the Lion is (I think, anyway) a pretty complex creature, but you can see how you can make some pretty interesting creatures by really toying with different mechanics and trying out different things Not feeling constrainted to existing rules and letting yourself let out your inner game designer and really tell a story with a creature’s design is a lot of fun, and can create a really memorable experience for your players.
Thanks for reading my little primer on monster creation! I’m sure it’s a topic I’ll hit up again before long.