Formatting a Monster Book

The Bad Child's Book of BeastsAs I mentioned the other day, I’m working on a monster book. The project is going swimmingly so far. For awhile I focused on creating a binder filled with ideas for monsters. Anything from a doodle, to a fully developed creature I’ve used in my own games. After I finished cataloging all of the stray ideas I had already come up with (in the process of which coming up with twice as many NEW ideas, which also had to be cataloged), I started drafting. The goal with drafting is to figure out the broad thrust of what the monster will be like, and work it into a playtestable state. In the last few weeks when rolling an encounter, I’ve just used a random page from my drafts binder. Everything has turned out better than expected so far.

Now that I’ve had the opportunity to playtest some of the drafted monsters, though, I’m starting to wonder about making more formal drafts. All I have for most of the monsters is mechanics and either a doodle, or a short description of their appearance. What else ought to be included? The obvious essentials for every monster are art, statblocks, and descriptions of abilities. That last one is the most problematic, since some monsters have abilities which can be described in a paragraph, while others have more complex abilities requiring 3 or 4. My favorite LotFP monster so far (The Watcher’s Second Creature from Better than Any Man) requires no less than 7 paragraphs to fully describe. With such a wide variance in essential information, I’m not sure how to plan a standard set of supplementary information.

Here’s stuff I’d like to include.

  • A bit about the monster’s origins and typical behavior. Not much, mind you, since I don’t think many people find this sort of thing quite as interesting as I do. Over-explaining a monster’s ecology has been a failing of mine in the past which I’m determined not to repeat with this project. All the same, I think it’s nice to include a little background. Maybe the monster came from hell, or was created by a priest trying to rid his town of non-believers, or was crafted by a wizard, or a mad peasant who got very lucky with some gibberish he was screaming. I enjoy coming up with that information, I think I just need to present it in a much more concise form than I have in the past.
  • Brief, written descriptions. If you own a recent D&D or Pathfinder monster book, you’ve probably seen the italic text right under the monster’s name. Such as for the Ogre: “This lumbering giant’s beady eyes are devoid of wit or kindness, and its puffy face features a mouth with ill-fitting teeth.” I think this is a great addition to a monster book. Sure, a person gifted with descriptive talents could easily draw upon the art for this, but for those who are not, a line or two like this can provide a good springboard.
  • Rumor tables / plot hooks which might inform the players about the monster, and lead them to hunting it down. This would be particularly useful not only because it’s a great assistance to the GM, but also because it’s easy to vary in size. If the monster’s abilities required 10 paragraphs to describe, include only 3 rumors. If the abilities took 2 paragraphs to describe, include 10 rumors.
  • Size scale. This one actually shouldn’t take any additional space. My idea is to find open source silhouettes of humans (which I’m sure shouldn’t be too hard) then place them somewhere in the art, and scale them so that their size is correct, relative to whatever monster is depicted in the image.
  • What to do with dead bodies. I find this idea particularly fascinating. In every game I’ve ever run, at least one player wants to make armor or weapons out of a dead monster’s body parts. Wouldn’t it be cool if monster bodies had some explicitly spelled out uses?
  • Quick reference icons. Another idea from Pathfinder’s bestiaries, where every monster has a number of icons next to their name indicating the creature’s type, native terrain, and preferred climate. While the informational content in Pathfinder’s books isn’t terribly interesting to me, the method of communicating it is. What if intelligent monsters had a little brain next to their name, to let the GM know that these monsters could talk & make deals with players, while any creature without a brain would act as a beast. What other icons might be useful?

I’d be interested to hear my readers thoughts on these. What information is important to you, and what information isn’t?

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4 thoughts on “Formatting a Monster Book”

  1. Origins – Possibly useful, depending on DM, campaign, and system. For homebrew stuff, I think a lot of people shoehorn monsters in, either because of their abilities or strength or appropriateness to the adventure, as opposed to their origin. Still, for a few lines, I think it’s a nice addition as flavor, and might spark some ideas with people. I’m also with you in that I enjoy that kind of stuff.

    Typical Behavior – This is just great, and so useful. I don’t think it needs the depth of the 2E Monster Manuals (number of young in lair, etc), but knowing things like how they organize, what they eat, how they hunt, and what they do when confronted is just great info, and useful to everyone.

    Description – Probably the least useful for me personally, though I think it should be included. As you mentioned, it’s nice for newer DMs or people populating on the fly to be able to rattle off a line or two.

    Rumor/Plot Hook – Wonderful idea! Adds some creativity and variety without pigeonholing. I’ve definitely had moments of writers block when trying to come up with adventures, and things like this are just the thing to get things moving.

    Scale – Somewhat useful. As you say, it doesn’t take much room to display and gives a much better reading than “Large” or “Medium”. I’d definitely include this, provided it doesn’t take up a lot of time. This actually reminds me of Sandy Petersen’s excellent Field Guide to Cthulhu Monsters, which had a great silhouette scale fold out in the back. I did always love that book.

    Uses – This is great stuff as well. Anything from weapons and armor to reagents to food preparations would be great to see, and add both flair and hooks to a creature.

    Icons – Minimally useful, personally. I think the issue with things like this is books tend to go overboard. There are so many icons spread amongst so many creatures that they tend to lose cohesion. Was that sword for Aggressive or Uses Weapons? What does the star mean again? If you go this route, I’d suggest keeping it to a limited number (like maybe 8-10) and placing a key every few pages for easy reference.

    Sorry. I think my response might be longer than your post. All in all, I think you have a great set of descriptors here, ranging from standard and necessary to extra and super-helpful. Things like Rumors and Hooks and Uses are completely value-added on the purchasers part, and I think it’s really going to make your work stand out. Just tell me where to send the check :)

  2. I’m way late to the party, but “what to do with dead bodies” is brilliant. Unintelligent monsters are technically wildlife, but no one ever seems to focus on how they interact with civilization aside from “Agh, it’s eating us/destroying our stuff!”

    Having an economic motivation for monster hunting and harvesting, or even farming could be a lot of fun. (As long as it doesn’t devolve into a random drop system, mind you.)

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