Creating monsters that are original and amazing, whether for your story, DnD campaign, or RPG adventure, can be tough. But here are our 5 tips for creating creatures and encounters which will thrill your players and readers… and terrify the living crap out of your characters too!
1. Creating monsters? Why do the monster mash?
It’s a Classical approach, and I mean that literally —the mythologies of ancient Greece and ancient Egypt are full of these. After all, what is a gryphon but a lion-eagle? Or how about the sphinx —ancient Egypt’s answer to the cat-lady, with the added bonus that she can devour you if she doesn’t like the answers to your questions?
This is something that the Tome of Beasts by Kobold Press does very well! Take for example their Felid-Dragon. It’s part cat, part dragon, and all terrifying death from above. Or how about the Swamp-Naga? All the terror of a giant snake BUT WITH FREAKING VINES GROWING OUT OF ITS FACE!
This tactic is a very strong one for creating original, and fascinating creatures, for two reasons. Not only is it relatively quick to make concepts for, it also has the benefit that your players and readers will be able to grasp it easily. After all, the problem with indescribable horrors is that they are, not to put too fine a point on it, indescribable. So, how do you quickly convey the horror for a monster to your party or main characters? Combine two known aspects into a deadly, horrifying hybrid!
Psst —if you’re creating dark worlds, don’t forget to check out our 5 tips to make a dark campaign setting!
2. The mix of monster and man makes the most terrifying encounters
So dumb monsters are scary enough, but what about writing monsters that are scheming, conniving, and downright smart? As Christopher Booker from The Seven Basic Plots puts it:
“Whether it is animal, human, or a mixture of both, the monster will always have some human characteristics but will never be represented as wholly human.”
Combining a dash of intelligent viciousness with a soupçon of animalistic brutality can create a very compelling monster. And even better, a formidable enemy! Mix in a little vindictiveness and you have a creature worth of a Big Bad, rather than a minor encounter.
After all, think about the iconic monsters, who’ve stood the test of time: Dragons, Frankenstein, Dracula, and even Beholders are all intelligent creatures. They mix monster and man. And that combo of smart and scary will create an incredible encounter —and an excellent overarching villain — for any story.
3. Dig into biomes when creating monsters!
As civilized humans (or other humanoid species) we’ve grown apart from our environment —and that makes us aliens to it. So, make sure to show how synergeous a creature is with their surroundings! This could be the desert, forest, clouds, or water they live in… up to you! But it’s a great way to build up a monster who is at the same time unique, competent, and terrifying.
As an example… it’s DnD Storytime!
“In a recent campaign, my low level character was fighting a small, green dragon. Even though she was hopelessly outmatched, I wasn’t afraid when we were trading blows. What freaked the living hell out of me was when the wyrm retreated, shot into the treeline… and LITERALLY DISAPPEARED.”
The fact that the dragon was so “at one” with the environment, and that I was so ill-suited to it, really put the combat in perspective. After all, that thing could be anywhere! And…. what else could it do?! This makes the creature feel even more terrifying —the fact that they’re so much more at home than your characters to this setting.
To dig into the environment the creature calls home, think about the major challenges of the area. In the desert, that’s usually finding water and nutrients. In the ice, it might be retaining heat. Figure out how animals camouflage themselves, and if you have magic in your world, make sure to extrapolate how they might use magic to enhance the effect even further!
And of course, remember that on World Anvil you can use the Species worldbuilding template for creating monsters of any kind, and it’s full of prompts like this! Our worldbuilding templates are full of prompts to help you flesh out everything about them. From their lifecycle and eating habits, to their active regions and preferred maiming tactics. You can even build their statblocks in World Anvil —we support DnD 5e, as well as all other major systems.
4. Motivations and tactics are crucial for all creatures!
Whether it’s a vindictive vampire, a territorial T-Rex, a hungry hydra or a maternal manticore, make sure you know why it’s attacking, and what its end goals are! Even monsters should have goals, whether they’re related to the 4 Fs (fighting, fleeing, feeding, and, err… mating) or a more intelligent long game. And hopefully, a reason for tangling with your PCs or main characters. Even if that reason is just that they’re in the wrong place at the wrong time.
Motivations for devils, ancient vampires, and dragons are usually Machiavellian long-games of death and destruction. They enjoy manipulating mortals and immortals alike to their will. For more predatory monsters, think about how your monster attacks and hunts. Is it a loner, or will it use pack-tactics? Will it stalk prey, lunge after them, or lay a trap like a web? If you’re creating DnD 5e Monsters (or other RPGs!) you can even make these movements into a roll table (or, you know, a cool interactive roll table!)
And finally, it’s good to decide on a “breaking point” for your monster. Will it fight to the death, or will it cut and run if this prey seems too challenging? Assuming you give it the opportunity, of course! Does it have a special retreat strategy, like squid ink, or Dracula turning into bats? Thinking about this can help you figure out how they will behave during the encounter or the scene. And it can lead to a great repeat encounter where the characters must figure out how to defeat it once and for all!
5. Remember those immersive little details
When describing terrifying beasts, it’s really important to dig into the five (and more) senses to get the most out of the encounter. Do the characters hear them first, or smell them? Does the creature stamp, scurry, lunge or slither? Does the creature make the room feel cold when they enter, or summon the crackle of static electricity in the air?
This video series below expands on some writing tactics you can use to make your monsters (and your worldbuildling) even more vital and immersive!
Think as well about how to introduce them —it will really set the tone for the whole encounter or scene. Are they illusively camouflaged, stalking the characters through the jungle, or charging through the undergrowth. Thinking about how your creature makes an entrance can really start a scene with a bang. This is doubly important for DnD and other RPG games. Since the dice and rules can take over during combat, and some of the atmosphere gets lost, it’s vital to set a great mood for the scene at the beginning.
For more inspiration on marvelous, macabre, and mortal-mangling monsters, make sure you check out the amazing Tome of Beasts 2 from Kobold Press, available as hardcover and PDF! It contains the work of some of the biggest names in the TTRPG world, the illustrations are mind-blowingly evocative, and it’s the perfect addition to any DnD5e game!
Which are your favorite monsters, or tips for making them? Share in the comments below!