My Monsters Sucked Until I Discovered This Special Approach
I realized last month I’ve been in a rut slinging boring monsters.
This troubled me because boring foes = boring games (h/t to Slapchop).
In my Terror in the Badlands campaign, for example, we had a crazy battle in a ruined underground city against a white dragon. It was tricksy with its moves, actions, and attacks.
In that battle, players felt like they earned the win. And I felt totally energized.
But in battles before and after, the same energy wasn’t there. The foes and rolls did not feel special.
I could tell the monsters were meh because the characters weren’t doing anything special.
You know a foe is awesome when it breaks players out of their routines and they make special moves.
Making Monsters Marvelous Again
So I realized I was setting up repetitive, one-dimensional, road-bump game critters wielded as mere distractions en route to foes twice as boring.
That changed when I started designing new creatures for my 5 Room Dungeons Zine.
I have a new system now to ensure monsters are marvelous again.
I call it the Feature Creature framework, and it plugs into my Adventure Building Master Game Plan.
I came up with this approach after watching Matt Coville talk about building monsters (h/t to RPT GM Mallidar for first pointing me to this video).
His recipe boils down to:
- Understand the Action Economy of your game system
- Turn extra combat action types into monster abilities
- Skin similar abilities from spells, other monsters, and character abilities for quick crunch
You might already do it this way, but I wasn’t.
Now I do.
For example, the D&D 5E Action Economy boils down to five things you can do each round:
- Action (attack, cast, climb, etc.)
- Move (up to your movement rate)
- Reaction (special triggered actions, like parry)
- Bonus (fast actions like cantrips)
- Free (talk, close a door, wave)
In Matt’s system, you create special moves themed around the monster for each of those categories.
This gives your monsters unexpected actions.
And it buffs foes up so they’re better challengers.
But this recipe misses a key element….
Three-Step Feature Creatures
I noodled on this awhile and started drafting up new undead in a cold, dark, submerged tower for 5 Room Dungeons Zine #1: The Tower of Drowned Shadows.
A creepy drowned shadow and drowned spectre later, I had my way to make monsters marvelous again => the Feature Creature.
Here’s my three-step Feature Creature framework:
- Spot the Creature’s Feature
- Amplify the Creature Feature with SLA
- Design the Combat
Let’s do a quick delve into what each step is about.
Step 1: Spot the Creature’s Feature
What makes this creature special?
Find that element and turn it into a theme so when your players encounter it your monster oozes with flavour and adventure.
Your Creature Feature could be hiding in:
- Special attacks
- Special abilities
- Physical trait
- Weird aspect
Maybe your Creature Feature is eyeballs, drinking blood, or magical teleportation.
Pick one thing to focus on as your Creature Feature and run with it.
For example, I’ll pick an ooze. What a slimy GM move, eh?
To spot my creature’s feature, I’m gonna be choosey with my oozy and pick a doozy.
Let’s say it’s pseudopods. The critter can stretch out and make appendages that attack and damage foes.
Step 2: Amplify the Creature Feature With SLAY
“Slay” stands for Story Role, Lair, Actions.
Address each element, riffing off your Creature Feature for tight theme and improved gameplay experience.
Why does this monster matter?
How does a win or loss against this foe change the plot?
A simple hack answer is to give the monster treasure and rewards the party needs to win later on.
You might also look at your plot arc and see if the creature can serve as an inflection point in the rising action.
For example, if I took my ooze and made them a guardian to an important place I’ve suddenly found a story role. I’ve got plot.
Story Role means giving your monster encounter a purpose in your adventure.
Extrapolate from your monster’s crunch and Creature Feature cool lair details that amplify gameplay.
This becomes description (juicy flavour), tactics, and roleplay.
For example, our pseudopod friend might benefit from a cavern packed with stalagmites. Thin ooze tentacles slide through narrow gaps questing for tasty flesh….
That would be tactical.
We could also add the five senses to paint a better picture of the scene to build things up better in player imaginations.
- Acrid smells that sting the nose
- Dripping sounds that echo strangely
- Wetness from deep puddles, perspiring cave walls, and dripping stalactites
- Twisted stalagmites and stalactites cast shadows on walls that look like tentacles
- An acidic taste in the air that burns the tongue and lungs
This would be flavour for description.
And because you’ve given players some great details, they now have enough to roleplay with.
When we have an important part to play in real life, we dress for the occasion.
So too should our encounter locations reflect the nature of our monsters.
Here’s Matt’s system at play.
If your creature has special abilities, or you want to add some (like Lair Actions in D&D 5E), use Story Role and Lair details to explain these abilities or give them excellent context.
Modify your monster’s rules to enhance theme, challenge, and story.
Step 3: Design the Combat
Now we want to weave in our monster’s Feature theme to make fights faster, more challenging, and relevant to the story.
To do that, we create a Mission, design the Battlemap, and form a 3 Round Combat Plan.
Make this encounter more meaningful by giving it an objective.
If the PCs don’t have an objective, then give your monster one.
The combat now has meaning and Stakes.
Use space, terrain, and environment to accentuate your Creature Feature and give one or both sides tasty tactical options.
Round Combat Plan
Decide how your Feature Creature might respond for greatest effect on Mission, challenge, and theme.
How Do You Make Monsters Marvelous?
The Feature Creature approach has been working awesome for me.
I keep discovering new ways to turn some aspect of a monster into a strong theme that improves the story, game, and milieu.
I’m working on a new critter for 5RDZ#3 right now that might be my best iteration of the Creature Feature framework yet. Mr. Slime Druid.
But that’s a story for another time.
How about you?
What do you do to make your monsters more flavourful and dangerous?
Hit reply or join the conversation.
Johnn “Feature Creature” Four