How I make a monster


RPG Superstar™ General Discussion

Dark Archive RPG Superstar 2010 Top 32, 2011 Top 16 , Marathon Voter Season 6, Marathon Voter Season 7, Dedicated Voter Season 8, Star Voter Season 9 aka Boxhead

14 people marked this as a favorite.

Hi Folks,

With a bit of time before the monster round starts (and with no practical advice for maps), I thought I'd post some advice for fledgeling monster builders!

This is what I usually do, with a bit of background...
How I write a monster
I’ve done a few monster designs in the last few years, including a few Kobold contest placements and winners (Tin Crown winner Clockwork Stalker and Monarch of the Monsters finalist Echo Demon). I’ve written a few monster books (Monster Movie Matinee and Mindblast!-Classic Monsters Augmented), and have some other monsters out there in the wild (Ultimate Psionics by Dreamscarred Press kickstarter backers will have Psionic Monsters Revisited in their hands now too! Among others...).
I’ve learned a lot over the years, some of it from the design philosophy of 4th edition D&D. This is how I currently go about designing monsters, hopefully some of you will find this advice helpful!
One Big Shtick

Spoiler:
The first thing I do is try to figure out what I want the monster to do. This can be big picture: make a Tremors-style grabboid. It can be small: use the steal rule in a new way. Whatever it is, make sure your monster does it, and does it well. Make sure it has all of the powers it needs to make it work.

If the monster has sneak attack, can it use it? Does it have stealth, or appear in groups, or have a feinting ability? Is your big, mean beatstick actually strong? Is your invulnerable terror actually hard to kill for its CR?

Once you have the basic idea for the monster, you’re ready for step 2. Every monster gets one unique rule. This is its defining feature. This is why mimics are sticky. Why harpies have an enchanting song. What makes a monster iconic is its one unique rule. Every cool monster (and every Superstar monster) should have a single thing that is unique to it. A skill bonus doesn’t cut it. A higher damage ffie on claws doesn’t cut it. You need something better.
Have a look at the Clockwork Stalker. What stands out? Sneak attack? A Stealth bonus? Nope! High Gear, the new rule. It won the contest, all by itself.
Find a niche for your monster, and nail it.


Deadline Monsters
Spoiler:
I picked up the term from the old WOTC boards (pre-Gleemax). I think it may have been posted by Sean Reynolds. It doesn’t matter, the advice holds as true now as it did then.
The term referred to monsters that were simply an amalgamation of two dangerous animals or other monsters.

Classic monsters have used this-owlbears, hippogriffs and sea lions all leap out. Most of these are okay as creatures that have been grandfathered in or are drawn from mythology. It is a mistake to assume that such monsters are good. They have historically been published (likely as a result of the name of section), but your rhino with snakes for horns or tiger with a baboon head is probably (hopefully?) not your best idea.

On a side note, this goes double for scorpion tails in my mind.


Monster Ecology
Spoiler:
Take a moment to think about how your monster lives and thrives. Solo monsters are cool. Beholders were neat, especially as a spoiler boss. A group of beholders made no sense, because their powers didn’t work in each other’s anti-magic cones. If you have my Monster Movie Matinee book, you’ll see many examples of solo monsters.
Think a lot about how your monsters work. If your creature’s damage needs sneak attack to hit its level, make sure they work in groups. A solo monster with sneak attack only gets to use it once (under normal circumstances).

Also think about the opposite. Dragons are generally not suitable to be used in groups. Breath weapon refresh rates means there’s a lot of energy damage flying around (literally).

Then there’s the other path. Vrocks have an ability that only works in a group, but are suitable threats on their own. This gives them a great deal of flexibility to be used as opponents for PCs.
Also, pay attention to environment. Don’t claim your monster is swampy, but can’t swim. Or lives in the mountains and can’t climb. And if you can avoid it, don’t use Any with no caveat.


Universal vs. New
Spoiler:
If you can replicate what you want to do with a universal monster special rule or a spell-like ability—do it. Don’t hinge your monster design on it’s exactly like XX, except that it only works at night. Or it’s just like YY, except it’s perpetual. That shorthand already exists in the game.

Make your new rules really new. If you can sum up with existing rules—do it. If your monster has a free grapple with an attack, consider using Grab. Or Improved Grapple. Or whatever actually works. Same with Trip, or Breath Weapons. Use the rules, don’t ignore them.


Appearance and Name
Spoiler:
I’m going to take a moment to talk about a subject that has been done to death. The most important part of your monster (and the part I’m doing last). Make sure your monster has a good name. A pronounceable name. A name that doesn’t suggest a generic thing. A name that people can use and always be talking about your monster.
Don’t use generic adjective noun . There was a monster that was badly dinged in a past year for being the slithering horror. The judges noted that that phrase could never be used again without players trying to figure out if was a slithering horror or the slithering horror.

Make sure your description matches your monster. Heavy monsters aren’t stealthy, small creatures aren’t Strength 30, and iron-hided creatures aren’t AC 14. Unless you have a good reason ;)


Obviously, Sean’s rule 27 overrides. These are my goals, which I don’t always follow. Use at your own discretion. Your results may vary.

Scarab Sages RPG Superstar 2015 Top 16 , Dedicated Voter Season 8, Star Voter Season 9 aka Rusty Ironpants

Thanks for sharing your insight!

Dedicated Voter Season 8

Eric Hindley wrote:

Once you have the basic idea for the monster, you’re ready for step 2. Every monster gets one unique rule. This is its defining feature. This is why mimics are sticky. Why harpies have an enchanting song. What makes a monster iconic is its one unique rule. Every cool monster (and every Superstar monster) should have a single thing that is unique to it. A skill bonus doesn’t cut it. A higher damage ffie on claws doesn’t cut it. You need something better.

Have a look at the Clockwork Stalker. What stands out? Sneak attack? A Stealth bonus? Nope! High Gear, the new rule. It won the contest, all by itself.
Find a niche for your monster, and nail it.

Thanks for the great advice!

Obviously not every monster can be extremely unique, but a superstar monster can and that is what makes the difference. My main focus is to make something that is unique but not burdensome. The more complicated the "Shtick" is the less people will want to use it.

Liberty's Edge

And now I have this great idea for a monster because of you. And here I go trying to create a monster, even though I do not expect to ever make it to top 32 ;-)

At the very least I can always sick it on my hapless players :-))

Dark Archive RPG Superstar 2010 Top 32, 2011 Top 16 , Marathon Voter Season 6, Marathon Voter Season 7, Dedicated Voter Season 8, Star Voter Season 9 aka Boxhead

The black raven wrote:

And now I have this great idea for a monster because of you. And here I go trying to create a monster, even though I do not expect to ever make it to top 32 ;-)

At the very least I can always sick it on my hapless players :-))

If you entered the contest, it is best to assume you made the top 32. If you do the leg work and don't need it now, it'll come in handy later. If you do suddenly make the top 32 and haven't prepared at all, you will typically crash and burn. Trust me, that comes from experience...

RPG Superstar 2014 Top 16, RPG Superstar 2012 Top 16 , Marathon Voter Season 6, Marathon Voter Season 7, Marathon Voter Season 8, Dedicated Voter Season 9 aka motteditor

And there are plenty of other places to use prep/practice work for Superstar.

I had my alternate monster, which I didn't end up submitting last year, appear in the next Wayfinder (the deadline for the upcoming Wayfinder issue is Dec. 31, at which time perhaps we'll learn the subject of the next issue, so you can make practice monsters that might be able to fit in there).

I've also used a couple of the archetypes I thought up for 2013 in a couple products and the module idea I came up with in 2012 eventually became my AdventureaWeek.com module, "Ironwall Gap Must Hold."

Star Voter Season 6, Dedicated Voter Season 7, Marathon Voter Season 8, Marathon Voter Season 9

Nice Eric, thanks!

Dark Archive RPG Superstar 2010 Top 32, 2011 Top 16 , Marathon Voter Season 6, Marathon Voter Season 7, Dedicated Voter Season 8, Star Voter Season 9 aka Boxhead

1 person marked this as a favorite.

I thought I'd revisit this thread, now that we are at zero hour. Here's what I'm going to be looking at when it comes to monsters:

Name Does the monster have an evocative name? Does it clearly explain what I'm looking at? If it's a made up word, is it pronounceable?

Gimmick Do I “get” this monster? Can I pick a role for it? Does it do something interesting? Does it do that thing well? Is its gimmick appropriate for its CR?

Description Does it match the gimmick? Is it interesting?

Usefulness Can I use the monster all the time? If not, can I centre a campaign around it? If not, will it at least make a memorable encounter?

New abilities Does it have any? Are they balanced? Are they clear?

The rest Do the stats fall in line with the guidelines? Do they match the gimmick? Do the feats and skills make sense? Does it do too much? Plus anything else I want to say.

I'm going to try hard to comment on all 16 monsters using this template, looking forward to your entries!

Dark Archive RPG Superstar 2010 Top 32, 2011 Top 16 , Marathon Voter Season 6, Marathon Voter Season 7, Dedicated Voter Season 8, Star Voter Season 9 aka Boxhead

Woo! Time for my annual/seasonal bump! Note, I am not a judge, but I might judge you. And unlike last season, I actually hope to have time to look at entries this year...

Community / Forums / Archive / Paizo / RPG Superstar™ / General Discussion / How I make a monster All Messageboards

Want to post a reply? Sign in.
Recent threads in General Discussion