The best way to shake up a party is for them to encounter a monster they don’t recognize. This is especially effective on players who have that smugness that can only come from an encyclopedic knowledge of the monster manual. When something totally new comes into sight, they find themselves in the uncomfortable, but exciting, situation of not knowing what to do.
However coming up with a new monster, or at least a new monster that makes sense, is hard. Just by flicking through some of the stranger creatures in the monster manual you can see how easy it is to create a completely rubbish monster that no one will ever use. But don’t worry, There are two good tricks to creating monsters that your players will respect.
Have a Story
Monsters do not just appear out of thin air. Natural monsters will have evolved to fill an ecological niche and this gives them certain strengths and weaknesses. Monsters that have been bred or magically created by someone, for a specific purpose. This will define their mix of abilities as strongly as evolution ever did.
As a GM you need to know the story of your new monster species. A creature created to guard a wizard’s dungeon will be very different from a predator evolved to feed on wild cattle on a vast plain.
Turn Things on Their Head
This is a good trick for any form of creativity but it works exceptionally well with new monsters. Take the player’s expectations and reverse them. Stupid monsters become smart, slow monsters become fast, weak monsters gain deadly poisons. Coupled with a good background story, this is a sure fire way of creating a new, interesting monster.
For example, the film 28 Days later took the traditional idea of a slow moving zombie and made them fast. This worked so well because there was also a backstory that made sense (in that world anyway).
A Lesson in New Monster Design
One of the masters of new monster design is Adrian Wood, creator of the four armed Quorakons (watch out for Quorakon news later in the week). The latest of Adrian’s monsters to make it into metal is our new Dark Troll miniatures.
Starting with the basic ideal of the classic, stupid, claw-claw-bite D&D trolls, he turned the concept on its head. Dark Trolls could be considered to normal trolls what Ogre Mages are to normal Ogres, smarter and far more magical. However, without a backstory to explain why they exist and why they are so much more than ordinary trolls, they would just be a fun encounter. Like delving deep into a dungeon and discovering a dragon in a locked room. Its great until someone starts asking questions like “How did it get here?” and “What does it live on?”.
By building a backstory, it ensures the new monsters have a credible place in your world. In Adrian’s campaign, Dark Trolls are “pure” trolls and originate on a strange and dangerous distant plane. Other, lesser troll types (common ones) are a debased hybrid of Dark Troll blood mixed with other creatures (possibly hill giants for example). Where common trolls are big, brutish and lacking in magic, Dark Trolls are highly intelligent and powerful users of evil magic.
Dark Trolls are 8-12 ft tall and up to 140 stone in weight although they can alter their form at will and hence can vary their appearance quite a lot. Their skin is black and mostly smooth; their eyes are red, teeth are black and nails pearly white. They are pure evil and usually involve themselves in big evil conspiracies although their motives are rarely very clear. It is like they just enjoy doing evil things for their own sake. They are brilliantly intelligent but often flawed in their thinking. Most seem to be insecure and hence they keep a low profile and hide themselves away in dark places.
Their twisted genius often results in strange obsessions and so their appearance, equipment and methods can vary a great deal. Our first troll miniature favours armour although his helmet and arm guards are made of strange and unearthly insect parts. The second, larger one, is more typical in wearing less and collecting “bling”.
Dark Trolls seem to favour domination, change and destruction magic over other types. They also use curses to great effect. A number of powerful Dark Troll-made items have been discovered, all of which were dangerous or corrupting.
Because they hide themselves and their motivations, Dark Trolls might work for other dark powers (evil gods or demi-gods) but would often draw minions to them to do the running around. Agents of Dark Trolls might be orcs, gnolls or other, lesser trolls so they make a great end-of-dungeon boss fight.
A Richer, More Distinctive World
With a few short paragraphs, the Dark Trolls have developed in to a challenging monster and a rich source of adventures. The novelty and fear generated by the first encounter with a new monster will wear off, but time investment is your monster backstory makes the whole campaign world richer.