RPG-ology #26: Monster Design

This is RPG-ology #26:  Monster Design, for January 2020.


Not long ago a member of the Christian Gamers Guild asked for advice in designing monsters.  This article has been republished from Gaming Outpost’s Game Ideas Unlimited series from August, 2001, only slightly edited for republication here, originally entitled “Game Ideas Unlimited:  Monster Design.”

Sometime a couple decades ago, someone I had known over the Internet and met at a convention asked me to be a judge in a contest he was running.  Dungeons & Dragons Third Edition was slated to be released in perhaps a couple of months, and there was already a lot of pre-release information about it floating around.  He wanted to have people submit new monsters for use in future D&D games.  Knowing of my somewhat intimate familiarity with the old Original Advanced Dungeons & Dragons™ rules set and acquaintance with at least three of the other versions of the game, he thought I would be able to contribute something to the judging.  He also asked two other people to judge, whose skills and perspectives were very different from mine.

I took the notion very seriously.  Before I looked at the first of the entries, I gave a lot of thought to what made a good monster.  Some of the things I valued were contradictory—that is, it would be very difficult for a creature to score high on every quality I sought.  But I reduced my consideration to eight qualities, eight aspects of creatures which I thought made them, in a general sense, well-designed monsters.

And if you’re designing monsters for your own campaign, or for some Internet contest, or for publication somewhere, you might like to give some thought to these qualities.  You won’t always try to make every creature score high in every category.  But if you’ve thought about the categories, you’ll be making tradeoffs that reach your goals at a reasonable “cost” in terms of what you sacrifice.

These qualities are in no particular order; or rather, they are not in any order that matters.  They happen to be in the order in which I was able to identify them and give them names.  The names are not important—perhaps you would give them better names.  But each identifies something important in the design of a creature for use in game play.

Clarity

Each creature has to be described, usually in words.  Even if you have a picture, you’re probably going to need words to describe what it is, what it does, how it works.  Someone, even if it’s only you next year, has to read those words and be able to understand what they mean.  If the description of the creature is muddled, then the reader is befuddled, and the rest of it falls apart.  Besides, when you’re in the midst of a game session, the last thing you want to be doing is trying to figure out how something is supposed to work because you can’t understand the text.

(Ever notice how many things are “the last thing you want to be doing”?  O.K., it’s an exaggeration—there are probably a lot of other things lower on the list.  But if the text is slowing you down, if you can’t make head nor tail of what this is supposed to be, then you’ve hurt your game significantly.)

Imagery

Writing can clearly express an idea and be dull as dust.  There is something valuable about a description which evokes images and ideas about the subject.  Seth Ben-Ezra’s Dreaming Out Loud series (formerly at Gaming Outpost) often evokes images and moods of his world, making aspects of the world come to life in our minds.  If in reading the description you can suddenly see what it looks like, how it moves, what it does; if the thing comes alive off the page in your mind such that you don’t just know about it but for a moment you know it; if it is as familiar to you as the creatures behind the bars at the zoo, it is so much easier to bring it to life in your games.  In reading so many sets of monster statistics, it’s easy to fall into thinking of them all as playing pieces in a war game, without any reality of their own–they are boxes for numbers, interchangeable parts used to adjust the difficulty level of the challenge.  They could as easily all be goblins, with increasing values.  It is the imagery that separates them in many cases, the ability to make them leap up and announce themselves as something different, even when they’re pretty much the same.

Excitement

This may seem almost redundant, repeating aspects of other qualities.  But it seemed to me to be a unique quality, even though it was in some ways my subjective response more than its objective value.  But there are sometimes creatures that you read about and suddenly say, I must include that in the game, how can I do it?  In contrast, there are far more about which your reaction will be, oh, yeah, another one of those, kind of like that with a bit of the other.  If the idea of a creature is immediately inspiring in the sense that you want it to be part of your game world, it is likely that it will also excite your audience, be they your players or your readers.  Ask yourself whether it really grabs you—er, without using its tentacles.

Coherence

You would be surprised at how many monsters I read through that didn’t make any sense.  Not that they weren’t well written, not that they weren’t interesting, not even that I couldn’t have used them in my game—it was just that some aspects of the creature seemed to contradict others.  How could it be both this and that, I wondered.  There’s a lot you can let slip, certainly—not everything has to make sense, especially for a creature that is going to be seen once and then not again.  But if it is not internally consistent, eventually the cracks are going to show, and the idea is going to fall apart.

Originality

Obviously, not everything can be truly different; it isn’t even necessarily always desirable.  Another kind of goblin is a nice change, as long as it’s similar enough to goblins that we know what it is but different enough that it’s something new.  But at least sometimes you want to do something very different, something that strikes your players as unlike anything they have yet encountered.  This is especially important in interplanetary space adventures; but every game should have the occasional “whazzat?” reaction.

Practicality

The question, I suppose, is whether you can make words mean whatever you want; but by “practical” I mean that the thing is easy to use during play.  This is one of those tradeoffs I mentioned.  Just about anything you can do to make a creature more interesting or more useful or more valuable to the game world will also make it more difficult to use.  The last thing (O.K., another last thing) you want to be doing during the game is trying to figure out how to make this creature’s attack work, or how it reacts to characters, or which phase it is entering, or just about anything.  If you can’t reduce the creature to a few notes on a room description, you suddenly have an expensive creature—one that will cost you in game time, game flow, game mood.  The tension is always disrupted at least a bit if you have to look something up, and much more if you then have to tinker with it, read it over, and work out the details.  Sure, make it interesting.  But don’t make it so interesting that it’s going to be a problem to use during the game.

Usefulness

I have seen some marvelously interesting well-designed inspiring beasts that I would never include in a game.  It isn’t that it isn’t a good creature, or that it doesn’t work well.  It’s that I really don’t know what to do with it.  I can’t envision my characters coming into a situation in which it would work.  That can differ a lot between campaigns.  If you do a lot of ruins, beasts that look like bits of construction are in demand.  Campaigns that run through lots of graveyards will find more varieties of undead worthwhile.  But if you give me a creature that only lives inside the Aurora Borealis, or in the Marianas Trench, I have to ask myself whether this is ever really going to become part of any game I’ll run.  And it doesn’t have to be so extreme as that to become, for practical purposes, useless.  A wonderful creature is not so wonderful if I’ll never use it.

Fit

This is not quite the same as usefulness, although it will seem similar.  A creature has to be right for the world.  You might have a wonderful idea for a creature that eats spaceships and sucks the life energy out of the crew, but no matter what you do to adapt it, it will never feel like it belongs in a medieval dungeon.  I’m also bothered by creatures with a lot of “baggage”—long back-stories that heavily involve the peculiar histories and mythologies of the world of the guy who made them.  Suddenly I have to rewrite my own history to match his, or I have to re-invent the same creature with a different genesis, or I have to just declare that there was some kind of dimensional rift and the thing fell through from another universe.  All of these approaches are awkward; they make for bad game worlds.  It’s much better if the creature feels like it belongs here without a lot of explanation.  The player characters probably aren’t going to read the explanation anyway—they’re just going to look at it and wonder from what plane it escaped.

If you were looking for a how-to on monster building, you’re probably very disappointed at this point.  Obviously I haven’t written one.  I’ve never even considered writing one.  Such programmed approaches to creativity are usually more stifling than helpful.  That’s worth repeating:  programmed approaches to creativity are more stifling than helpful.  I hope that what I’ve offered you is something much more useful:  a yardstick, a set of parameters which might actually enable you to measure your creature creations and find their strengths and weaknesses not as combat opponents but as world building tools.  As I said at the beginning, no creature is going to score ten’s in all categories; and a creature that doesn’t score above six in any is not necessarily useless.  But if you look at these things, instead of the neat mechanics or awesome statistics, you might come up with some truly inspiring beasts.

Next week, something different.


Previous article:  Transmats.
Next article:  Cures for Dropping Dice.

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