Mutating the Monster Manual
We are creating a new series on our website and will be featuring guest writers every once in a while. For our first guest, we have Zac Goins from A Bite of D&D.
One of the my favorite tools for creating fascinating creatures, encounters, and campaigns was found in the Monster Manual. It took me a while to find it. The tool isn’t listed in the table of contents, nor in the appendix. In fact, it took more than reading the thing from cover-to-cover for me to crack the egg and hatch my discovery.
My players had encountered orcs, goblins, zombies, and awakened shrubs so many times that we all knew exactly what to expect from each of them as soon as the encounter started. Well…maybe not the awakened shrubs.
I was thrilled with the 2016 release of Volo’s Guide to Monsters, and then thrilled again with Tome of Foes in 2018. New monsters! Variety! Meazels!
I think it was when we were recording an episode comparing the new troll variants to the OG when I stumbled upon a realization that I should have discovered a long time ago. Here it is:
The small changes made all the difference.
I found that I loved these new variants, especially rot trolls. Not sure why. It could have been because they lined up more fully with what I’d always imagined trolls were like. But the realization that small changes had made such a world of difference led me to re-dive back into the Monster Manual -- now with a purpose, and a test.
From that point on, every time I pulled a monster for my campaign, I changed one thing about them. It is my recommendation that you do the same.
It can be small, it can be large, but change one thing. It can be a weapon, the creature’s list of resistances, or even how an ability works. The only thing that’s important is to make the change. This serves a few purposes, which I’m happy to outline here.
First, it keeps the players guessing. This especially applies if you’re running for some old pros. And here’s a little secret. They want this to happen. Everyone’s fought a goblin, but have you fought a goblin that can climb walls? It can completely change an encounter and will certainly surprise your players. Just be sure to have an answer as to why these certain goblinoids have a special ability. Maybe they worship Lloth, and she’s blessed them. Are they perhaps a wizard’s experiment? A collection of strange, interspecies breeding? It doesn’t really matter, so long as there’s an answer somewhere.
This brings us to the second purpose of the changes: it sparks creativity. What was meant to just be goblin raiders for a first level party, now perhaps, is a tie-in with a spider lair hidden deep within the jungle forest. What’s more, now we’re thinking about what other cross-bred versions of these arachnigobbos might look like. Are there drider goblins (gobiders)? Many-eyed goblin scouts? Goblin web-slingers? The sky’s the limit.
You’ll find interesting tidbits that can tie neatly into your larger campaign. Over the course of several adventures, you’ll notice you have a fondness for the insect hybrids, which leads you further down that course. Now the standard Storm King’s Thunder jaunt is anything but. Imyrith has been replaced with a grotesque creature known only as the goblin’s Fang Mother, which is really a deformed drider high-priestess, hell-bent on ransacking the Forgotten Realms to earn back Lloth’s favor.
Finally, making slight changes like these will help you better understand balance and mechanics. We don’t truly know where the goblin ends and the spider begins until we slice it open, pull out the innards, and give each one a little taste. Giving goblins a climb speed may not change much, but what happens if we give them the Ethereal Jaunt of the phase spider? Yeesh. These guys become untouchable, especially at the lower levels. It sounds cool though, so maybe we’ll try it. You’ll only know how bad of an idea it is once you’ve done it.
Eventually, you’ll have the experience to know that (a) it’s a cool enough idea, so you should do it, but also (b) you should probably only make the boss a phaser, and save dropping a crew of them on the party for a few levels down the road.
Changing one thing might not be the answer for every ailment, but I’ve found the tool works wonders most every time, and it’s increased the utility of the standard Monster Manual tenfold. With over 130 different kinds of monsters, all with different weapons, characteristics, and abilities, it will be a rare occurrence that you’ll ever need to stray outside this book for inspiration, ever again.
As a final note, I’ll quickly mention that I absolutely love the standard creatures found within the Monster Manual. There’s nothing inherently wrong with them, and that’s what makes them the perfect building block for us to use as our foundation. Customizing a creature from the ground up is a whole other, next level creation that comes with a high price tag of time and expertise. There’s a time and a place for everything, I suppose, but I find it seldom that I need to be creating something whole-cloth. Perhaps that’s a good discussion for another time.
Zac co-hosts the weekly podcast A Bite of D&D as well as traveling the convention circuit running games for hundreds of people. There's no place he'd rather be than behind the DM screen. If he could be any monster, he would choose the grey ooze.
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