I have spent a lot of time reading about D&D monsters.
It’s all part of my Cornerstones project, where I hope to create groups of monsters that share thematic or mythical similarities, to be easily dropped into an encounter table or campaign. Cornerstones is primarily a GM tool.
But I’ve been researching monsters for longer than that.
Years back, I started work on complementary design concepts of “scale” and “scope,” which were intended to relate the numerical qualities of “level” and the world-threatening qualities of uh . . . Challenge Rating. Kinda.
In retrospect, I hoped to accomplish more with Scope than could reasonably be expected. I don’t regret my efforts, but now I see there really isn’t a way to translate some of the more abstract components. It can be salvaged though.
The final piece of this puzzle was of course the inordinate amount of time I spent studying Monster Manual entries, comparing creatures across editions of the game (1e-5e), and research into myths and legends.
For starters, I became hugely dissatisfied with how monsters were represented from some legends. I mean, Lamia, Medusa, Hydra, Pegasus, and Chimera are all named creatures. They aren’t “types” of creatures. They deserve respect.
Then, in all the time I spent evaluating and sorting monsters, I noticed enormous amounts of overlap, not to mention redundant creatures. I mean, how many bird- or dog-beasts do you really need? One for each creature type, I suppose?
Like, demon-dog, alien-dog, faerie-dog, zombie-dog, mutant-dog, giant-dog, and maybe a regular dog-dog. There are some other variations you can go with, but they need more context than what they usually receive.
Repeat ad infinitum for cats, bears, snakes, birds, fish, and hoof-beasts.
Anyway, that context I’m talking about could be served by Cornerstones, but there’s a bigger problem. Animals make for really boring encounters.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m totally going to make a Monster Manual-equivalent with all the bells and whistles, because animals have a point, just don’t put them on your encounter tables. They are super-boring encounter fodder.
Animals, like the controversial fur they provide for human outerwear, are better for decorating encounters with other creatures. I don’t care if you like throwing a rapid wolf at the party for a change-up, or if you think lions are territorial enough to ambush parties of marauding adventurers. Don’t do it.
Don’t put animals on your encounter tables.
There’s a very specific niche that animals fill in encounters, which otherwise must be relegated to lame, made-up critters like the “blood-bag imp,” or the occasional winner like the “undead slaymate.” YMMV
And that niche is sidekick.
Animals make great sidekicks. Putting them in a supporting role allows them to shine. Let’s take a couple of scenarios, which is scarier: a pair of starved lions, or a starved lion kept on a chain by a bandit lord?
Some monsters are just better in supporting roles. Like actors. Like the “straight man.” Honestly, the straight man is often the funniest actor in the group, because without him there would be nothing to laugh at. You’d have a routine composed entirely of weirdos with a bad sense of timing.
I’ve prattled on about this long enough. I hoped to talk about novelty monsters (of which there are many), but I’ll have to talk about them at length another time. There’s a place for them which is also not on the encounter table.
More on that later.