Author’s Note: This article was originally written for a Pathfinder site, but applies to Dragonlance as well. I hope you enjoy it.
If anything has caught my eye about Pathfinder, it’s the monsters. The guys at Paizo are truly love monsters, and it shows. There’s just something about how they can take a common old monster, typically one that is cannon-fodder, and reinvent it into something truly unique and fun. Truth be told, I haven’t had this much fun with goblins and kobolds in ages! But I digress…
Creating your own unique take on monsters isn’t a difficult task. The following are some tips and tricks on how to do just that.
Let’s take a look at the kobolds. Originally, they were these small creatures with a dog-like yap. Nothing too big. The 3rd edition of the D&D game changed them to be more draconic in appearance. Better. Then Pathfinder comes along, associating them with chromatic dragons, making them all chromatic in appearance as well. We’re still wondering a bit about the gold one, but I’m certain there’s a story there waiting to be told. The designers asked themselves what sort of steeds kobolds would have since goblins typically rode worgs. Enter the slurk, or as I like to think of them, the “saber-toothed froghemoth.”
Identity can come from a variety of sources. Sometimes, the identity is as close as the monster itself. For example, Wizards of the Coast are redefining the gnoll to act more like jackal-men. Gnolls will be hunting in packs in 4th edition, bumping them a step up from cannon-fodder. Or, take examples from the real world. Ogres in Pathfinder act like murderous hillbillies. You can take inspiration from various media, such as books, movies, or video games. How much of Pathfinder has already been inspired by horror movies?
Give The Monsters Personality
Goblins are one of my favorite monsters. I never thought I would say that, but here I am gushing over goblins! All of a sudden, these common monsters have started to come alive, and all due to Ten Fun Facts About Goblins. They don’t get along with horses or dogs. They love to sing, and in fact, their songs alone sold me on them. Plus, with their love of junkyards and fire, they’re just lovable (in an evil sort of way). It doesn’t hurt that they look like Stitch from Disney’s Lilo & Stitch.
When redefining an old monster or creating a new one, try to think of some fun facts about them. Try not to think so much in terms of rules, but more so in terms of personality quirks and racial traits. Does your monstrous race have a funny way of talking? We see this tactic used many times in Star Wars in such characters as Yoda and Jar-Jar Binks. Do they have odd mannerisms? Dragonlance’s kender are kleptomaniacs and gnomes are tinkers. Certainly they’re not forgettable. What about where they live, what sort of clothes they wear, who they like, who they hate, and what they like to eat (amongst others)?
Make Some Monsters Unique
Many of our D&D monsters are based on Greek mythology. For example, there are medusas and minotaurs. Yet in mythology, those weren’t run of the mill monsters. They were one of a kind.
Don’t be afraid to make some creatures the only one of their kind in the world. If some ogres are trying to kill a unicorn, well, so what? That’s dinner. If some ogres are trying to kill the last unicorn in the world, that’s adventure!
Take this a step further too. Not only are the monsters one-of-a-kind, they have an identity. Facing a medusa is boring. Facing Merilith the Serpent-Haired, former queen of an ancient kingdom who was cursed for bargaining with a snake god…that’s just golden.
When creating a new monster or redefining an old one, try to break away from established stereotypes. Start fresh, from the ground up. Look at the defining characteristics of the monster, give it a theme, add some personality quirks, and you’re ready to transform your monster from encounter to epic.