As I briefly mentioned a couple posts back, earlier this year I hit a stumbling block with I when I realized I’d been focusing my creativity in all the wrong places. What inspired me to take up this project in the first place were the mind-bending mechanics of the monsters in Better Than Any Man. I wanted every monster to be mechanically bizarre, so that was my primary goal: make really weird mechanics. What I ended up doing was creating a few really cool mechanics that I’m excited to share, and a lot of needlessly complex, over designed, try-hard nonsense. When I stepped back to look at all I had wrought, I realized that a shameful amount of my monsters were basically an interesting idea coupled with some bad rulecraft.
I spent time reading my favorite monster entries and asking “why do I like this?” Most of the time, the answer to that question wasn’t “It has weird awesome mechanics.” The answer was something like “Because it makes art out of people’s disassembled bodies,” or “Because its consciousness is in another dimension and it has no idea that its actions harm anybody.” Clearly, I’d fucked up. I needed to reassess my monsters to figure out what made each one great, then build on that. To facilitate that process, I wrote a list of questions to ask myself about each monster. I’ve found the questions to be a reasonably reliable process to help me take an interesting idea and turn it into something that I’m proud of.
Can it be unique?
As a rule, unique monsters are more interesting than species of monsters. So does the monster need to be a member of a larger group in order to reach its full potential?
If it is not unique, what is its culture?
More than one of this creature exist, so they must have some relationship to one another. What binds them together? What are their common feelings and beliefs?
If it can’t be unique, can it be a small group?
A single tribe of similar monsters is more interesting than a globe spanning species. If there’s only a few hundred of something, perhaps they can occupy a single valley or island. Or perhaps there are only a few, and they never or rarely have contact with one another.
Can it be an inverse swarm?
(I’d really like to implement this idea at least a couple times, but so far I haven’t found a good opportunity.)
Can it be smart?
Intelligent monsters can have more complex motivations. They can parley with the party. If it can be smart without losing what makes it cool, then it should probably be smart.
What is its worldview?
Does it have a philosophy? How does it regard us? How does it regard nature, or the divine, or concepts like love and hate?
What does it do?
Certainly it must do something more than simply kill and eat people. What does it do when there’s no one to kill and eat? Is that thing that it does interesting to the players? Does it set traps, or write books, or dig tunnels, or pray? Are the things that it does even a problem? Are they beneficial?
Does it make anything?
Can the players buy what it makes? Is it useful or interesting? What does it do with the things that it makes?
Why does it do what it does?
Does it enjoy the thing it does, or is it a hated necessity? Is it willing, compelled, or even aware of the things that it is doing?
How does it do what it does?
Does it force others to do the work for it? Does it make people watch while it does the work itself? Is the thing that it does a ceremonial act performed with pomp, or is it merely a task to be completed?
Might it deal peacefully with the characters?
Does it have to default to hostility, or can it start out as neutral or friendly? Will it be willing to bargain? Does it want something the players can give it? Does it have anything to offer them? Can the monster serve as a questgiver?
Does it have minions?
Are there creatures attending the monster? Are they willing? Are they happy? Are they similar to itself, or are they different? How loyal are they? Why do they serve it?
What is the creature’s lair like?
Does it have a home? Is it a simple cave or dirt hole, or is it constructed? Does it have a specific appearance? Does it contain any specific objects? Are there any specific hazards? Did it adopt a lair, or build its own? Is its lair in our world? Is its lair difficult to reach?
Does the creature’s presence affect its environment?
Is the area surrounding the creature’s lair affected? How does nature, or children, or animals react to being in the creature’s presence? Does it have an aura of any kind? How does magic react to its presence?
Does it have any special treasures?
What has this creature hoarded or taken from others?
How did the creature come to exist?
Did it evolve? Was it created in its current form by gods? Was it created by a wizard? Was it created by a curse, or a lingering energy? Did it originate as another kind of creature?
What are the portents of its arrival?
When the creature is coming, or being summoned, or thinking about going somewhere, is there a sign of its imminent arrival? Any weather phenomena or unexplained oddities?
What happens to the creature’s victims?
Do they all necessarily die? Are they kept alive? Are they changed?
Does the creature have any special weakness?
Does its weakness hurt or kill it? Does it simply weaken it, or allow it to be hurt more easily? Does the weakness restrict the creature’s options or movement? Is the weakness logical, or is it something completely oblique that only random chance or an ancient sage will be able to reveal?
Does anything special occur upon the killing blow being made against the monster?
Is there a blessing or a curse? Is it on the one who made the killing blow, or on someone they love, or on their player?
When the creature dies, what happens?
Does its body explode, or decay, or simply lie dead normally? Is any evil inside of it released, are any of its deeds undone? Was its life sealing away any good or evil that is now released? Is there any cool effect like everybody in 100 miles going blind, or the sun being brighter for a day?
Is the dead body useful for anything?
Do the bones make good weapons? Are there any spell components to be found among its remains? Is the body part ready-to-use as soon as its removed, or must it be crafted by an artisan? Is it a permanent item? A temporary boost? Does it have an expiration date?