Four Things to Make Your Monsters More Monstrous

What is it about monsters that get us going as gamers? Whether we see them in movies, on television, or read about them in books and comics, every new creature gives us something new to dread, exploit, and plot as GMs…

A Recent Mind Map

A Recent Mind Map

But it’s left me wondering… What exactly makes a monster “monstrous”? I set out to figure that out and came up with this mind map you can see to the right of this post… There’s all sorts of things in that mess, but I think it boils down to four main things:

  1. Origin
  2. Nature
  3. Appearance
  4. Purpose

Each of these describes a different part of the monster’s context, basically explaining where they came from and how they fit into the world. It’s less about what they can do. Sure, how many teeth and claws and eye stalks they may have is cool – but why are they there? I’ve never been a big fan of generic random monster tables except as a way to help flesh an area out and offer some ideas on what might be stalking the characters… But how do you take one of those random monsters and turn it into something more?

Or even if it’s not a monster in the traditional fantasy world sense… Look at Khan from Star Trek. He’s just a monster at heart. A guy with some superhuman abilities. But it’s the backstory and his goals that make him interesting as a figure in those stories.

So what can you do with these qualities as a GM?

Let’s take an example of where you might go. If you take a lowly goblin, what do you see? According to the Hypertext d20 SRD

A goblin stands 3 to 3½ feet tall and weigh 40 to 45 pounds. Its eyes are usually dull and glazed, varying in color from red to yellow. A goblin’s skin color ranges from yellow through any shade of orange to a deep red; usually all members of a single tribe are about the same color. Goblins wear clothing of dark leather, tending toward drab, soiled-looking colors. Goblins speak Goblin; those with Intelligence scores of 12 or higher also speak Common.

They’re everywhere in standard fantasy worlds and seem to breed like rabbits in dark places. But how do you make your goblins stand out?

  1. Origin – My tribe of goblin nomads is from the far north of the world – a land of ice and snow. Until now they have been happy to hunt and gather as they’ve done for generations, living off the creatures they can find on the glaciers and tundra. But recently a large volcano has forced them from their regular migration path. As a result, they have pushed farther south into a warmer world full of things (and people) they don’t want to deal with but find themselves forced to anyway. This has caused some friction in already settled lands who see the ice goblins as pests to be destroyed.
  2. Nature – By nature, they are hardy creatures designed for an unforgiving landscape. As such, these are not your usual goblins. They are tough and resourceful, ready to adapt to whatever situation they need to to survive. But if attacked, they will destroy their enemies or retreat, regroup, and then try to destroy their enemies. Imagine a band of goblins attacking a polar bear on the open ice and then change that to an unprepared band of travelers on a northern road. Scary.
  3. Appearance – Used to the cold, they usually wear skins and furs and are fairly smelly. Plus, they have had no need to learn common, instead speaking an old dialect of goblin. This makes them nearly impossible to communicate with.
  4. Purpose – Their ultimate goal is to find a new land to call their own and return to their nomadic ways. But they are lost and trying to survive day to day, fighting anyone and anything for the supplies they may need.

Immediately this is a more compelling band of goblins than the ones you might run into normally in a D&D world. But they still can use the basic stats and skills for the existing creatures. We’ve just taken them and reskinned them a bit to give them a reason for causing trouble.

Ultimately this approach could be used to add some flavor to just about any monster, from the lowly henchman to the most vicious giant beast. Why not give an old monster some new paint and see what comes of it?

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