So, as I prep for my Star Wars game (aka daydream about it), I was thinking about monsters and how to create a good cohesive campaign with fun cool monsters that make sense. The Monster Manual from Wizards of the Coast and now Volo’s Guide to Monsters provide so many amazing monsters. Sure, there are the normal ones that you want to play with because they are classic like Goblins, Orcs, Trolls, Giants and, of course, Dragons. But there are so many other interesting monsters out there. There are some really cool devils and demons in the books, there are owlbears, bugbears, and bear bears.
So, how do you pick what you want to use in a way that doesn’t make it seem like you’re just picking from the book at random or what looks like it’s the coolest?
One helpful tool is that in the Dungeon Master’s Guide they have different monsters and creatures split out by habitat, so you can go ahead and pick out what works for the area that you are in. If you are in the jungle, you’re probably not going to see a frost giant, if you are in a freezing cold mountain and there’s a dragon, it’s probably a white dragon. That’s one way to help keep things focused in, but what if you really want to pick crazy monsters from the book?
My suggestion there would be, instead of having an obvious story reaching over everything, be a group of big game hunters who are paid to go around and find these wild and exotic creatures. You could need to bring them back alive, or maybe someone really want to have the horns of a minitaur, the shell of a flail snail and the beak of a owlbear for their collection. It would be an interesting game to play, and if you have a group where sometimes people miss, it would be easy because you don’t need everyone there to play, you just need enough people to kill the beast (hopefully) and birng it back.
But what if you’re already in a game and you’ve bounced around the world and you have a big story going, but you want to bring in something that wouldn’t make sense?
You have a few options, maybe you have the creature get loose form a cargo ship or a zoo. You can try and fit the monster into your story some way, there are a ton of different options. For example, in Dungeons and Flagons, the group has faced off against human pirates, Yuan-Ti, goblins, hobgoblins, a red dragon, elementals, devils and/or demons, and are now facing off against a beholder. They’ve been hopping somewhat all over the globe, but each of the monsters had their part to play, including the hobgoblins who were mainly there to be a distraction.
Finally, what do you do but the monster is too powerful or too weak?
Goblins are puny, if any of the characters in Dungeons and Flagons were to attack a goblin, it would either be killed a single sho or they would use their second attack on a turn ot kill it. How do you make your goblins scarier? You bring them in large numbers. When each player has four goblins attacking them, that is scary, even if they can dispatch one per turn, they’ll still get attacked a minimum of six times. Or maybe you don’t think that would be that much fun, well, maybe you have the goblins be a scouting party and signal another group of goblins who are a distance away, after the adventuring party has finished off that first group and is starting to think about looting the goblins bodies, you bring in that second group.
But sometimes you really want them to face off against that one really strong boss, and that boss is supposed to be a goblin, but the toughest goblin in the book isn’t tough enough. My first option would be to have other goblins with him, but sometimes that doens’t work or that isn’t what makes sense for your story. The second option would be to find a creature that makes more sense to face off against the characters (aka. is stronger) and call it a goblin. They have, in the back of both monster books NPC stat blocks for different types of people. There is a necromancer back there, it doesn’t say that it’s a goblin necromancer, but you’re in charge of your game, so you get to decide. Grab that harder bad guy and pu them in front of the players. Then instead of describing your necromancer as a pale human with a guant face who is wearing dark robes, describe it as a goblin who has a staff and who has raised the zombie horde that you saw in the courtyard. He has dark tattoos of demonic symbols across his body, roll initiative. And there you have two characters who would be the same stat block, have the same skills, and might even have the same evil plan, but ones a goblin.
That’s an easy conversion, but sometimes conversions make less sense. You want a really strong brawler to come up and challenge your group of adventurers and take a swing at them in a bar but you don’t like any of the options in the back of the book. Well, depending on what level they are, look at an owlbear or bugbear or some other creature. Sure an Owlbear is a bear body with an owl head and has a bite attack, but just don’t use the bite attack, use the claw attack and call it punches. Simply by reflavoring the attacks and calling them something different, you can take on creature and make it into another.