How to Generate New Monsters in Minutes

Table of Contents

This post by contributor Chris Longhurst.

How to Generate New Monsters in Minutes
How to Generate New Monsters in Minutes

How to generate a unique 4e monster in less time than it takes to get served at McDonalds

Well, maybe not that fast, unless your local McDonalds is staffed entirely by people who are locked in a cupboard or dead. But you get the idea.

Say what you like about 4th edition – I know people will, and that’s A Good Thing, since edition-based flame wars are a cheaper way of heating my flat than paying the electricity bill – but you cannot deny that it makes the DM’s job much easier. Going into the precise ways in which it manages this is a post for another time; today I’m just going to demonstrate some of that flexibility by showing you how to stat up a new monster in double-quick time.

1. Levels: The Great Leveller

The DMG has plenty to say about adding or removing levels to existing monsters, so I won’t repeat that here. It’s not a bad way to bring one kind of monster slightly more in line with the appropriate level, if you want to keep re-using old monsters as the characters level up, or if you want to bring a higher-level creature down to the characters’ level – an ogre boss for your goblin tribe, for example. But by and large this is kinda boring. A halfling slinger is a halfling slinger whether it’s level 1 or level 30, although things get really screwy if you just level it up to 30.

On the plus side, this is super-quick and very easy. On the down side, it’s not really making a new monster. It’s just a useful thing to know.

2. A New Coat of Paint

One of the first things you do when you’ve stolen a car is get it resprayed, since very few people will look past the colour to see the other details. Stealing cars will not help your D&D game, but stealing the ingenuity of the criminal element will! Also, it appeals to my sense of irony.

The simplest way to create a ‘new’  monster is to use the stat block from something else and describe it so that the players have no idea what it is. Need some halflings for a low-level encounter? Just a few pages backwards in the MM you’ll find the goblins, small humanoid stat blocks just waiting to be resprayed in ‘halfling pink’ (and shortly afterward resprayed again in ‘blood red’, if the typical encounter is anything to go by). If you’re feeling a bit clever you can also switch out the goblin’s racial ability of Goblin Tactics for the halfling racial abilities of Second Chance and Nimble Reaction. Voila! New monsters.

This technique also works in older versions of D&D and, frankly, any other game in existence. It’s also a bit cheap and players who have the MM memorised (you know who you are) will spot it sooner or later.

3. Night Classes in Asskicking

If you’ve got a strong theme for your campaign, you may find yourself running out of halfling-equivalent enemies. There are only so many small humanoids in the MM, and you’ll be stretching disbelief a bit when you introduce the Large halfling who punches for 3d6 + 7 damage, explodes in a hail of stone when slain, and otherwise bears a suspicious resemblance to a stone golem. But things need never go that far, because you’ve got this article to hand! Read on you lucky, lucky people.

If you need new variants of an established enemy type, the easiest way to do it is to take an existing enemy of that type and teach them something new – in other words, give them some new powers. You can make up these new powers yourself, or you can steal them from other stat blocks.

For example, let’s say you want a halfling sorcerer-assassin for those inevitable moments when the player characters have stolen the royal jewels, urinated in the royal soup tureen and passed out in the royal bed. Start with a halfling prowler (MM p153) for the assassin elements. Then we can go scouring the MM for equivalent-level enemies with magic powers to add the sorcerer part.

The tiefling heretic’s Serpent’s Curse power makes a good start, and then you can add the human mage’s Dancing Lightning or Thunder Burst depending on whether you want multi-target firepower or an AoE dazing attack. (Remember to bump the attack rolls by +2 to reflect the increase in level.) If you’re feeling generous, you can ditch the prowler’s Crowd Shield power in the name of fairness, or you can just assume that this sorcerer-assassin is just a prowler who has taken the titular night classes in asskicking and add the new powers to their basic lineup.

And there you have it! One halfling sorcerer-assassin. Combine this with the new coat of paint, and the players will never know your unique enemy was built from spare parts.

4. Templates and Themes

I’m actually not so fond of templates and themes for changing up 4e monsters – in general, I find that after spending the requisite amount of time poking around the DMG and modifying the stat block of the original I could have just built my own monster with the theme I was looking for. Plus I find the powers the DMG templates provide to be somewhat underwhelming. That said, they are right there in the DMG (or DMG 2, for themes). You’ve got nothing to lose by giving them a look.

5. All New!

The real deal! When nothing else will do, you can generate a monster from scratch. 4e makes this very simple – the process is explained step by step on p184 of the DMG – so rather than reproduce what’s there I’m just going to cover the bits where the DMG is a little vague.

  • Setting Ability Scores. By and large, you know what sort of ability scores your creature is going to need. Is it as strong as an ogre? A dragon? Could it outdraw a drow? Is it as tough as a stone golem? In a lot of ways the ability scores are the least important part of a 4e monster, so just write some arbitrary numbers down and move on.
  • Choosing Powers. Picking the right powers for your new creature is probably the most important part of creating it, and consequently the part that the DMG covers in the least detail. Designing powers is a complex enough exercise that it would make another post in its own right, so I’m going to assume you’re stealing them from the MM as described above.  All creatures need a basic melee attack. Most will also want a basic ranged attack. Then a creature will want between two and five other powers that it can use in other circumstances – powers with a recharge roll, auras, powers that only work in a close burst 1, encounter powers, reaction or interrupt powers, and so on and so forth. Feel free to give the powers a fresh coat of paint (see above) if you want them to fit the creature concept better; changing the type of damage, for example, is the easiest way to convert a fire-slinging warlock power into a Thunderstrike for your genasi monk. Just remember to tie all attacking powers to the creature’s best ability score. There’s no reason not to, really.
  • Equipment. Equipment only matters in three cases. The first is magical gear – does the monster have any magic items it can use? If so, take a note. The second is armour – if the monster wears armour, make a note and boost the AC by the requisite amount. The third is weapons – note down a proficiency bonus on weapon-based attack rolls of +3 if it’s using a sword-like weapon or +2 for anything else. You can look it up in the PHB if you like, but it’s generally not worth opening another book. The damage a creature dishes out is dependent on its powers, not the weapon it’s wielding, so that’s really all you need. All other equipment is icing on the cake (literally in the case of a cake golem; figuratively the rest of the time).
  • Details, Details. If your monster needs resistances, immunities and/or vulnerabilities, here is the place to think about them. Give it a couple of appropriate skills, make a note of its passive Perception and Insight (on the off chance the characters want to talk to it rather than slice it into bite-size chunks), give it darkvision, low-light vision, tremorsense or any other special senses it needs, and give it a speed score. To be honest, anything you miss here can be made up in play without your players ever noticing.
  • Check Your Monster. Crack open the MM and compare your creature to one or two equal-level creatures with the same role to make sure its stats and powers are in the right sort of ballpark. Are their attacks and defences more or less equivalent? If these monsters had a fight, would one effortlessly trounce the other? You may need to tone down (or up) your new creation to bring it into line with existing monsters. The enemies in the original 4e MM are a little weak in most cases, but the enemies in MM3 and the Dark Sun Creature Catalogue are suitably likely to savage the PCs and leave them broken and weeping challenging.

6. Minions

Something to bear in mind when using minions: these guys have a lifespan roughly equal to that of a snowball at a flamethrower convention. They need a basic melee attack, a basic ranged attack if you’re feeling generous or if they’re supposed to be ranged attackers, and a single power to make them interesting. Minions with high defences benefit from powers which encourage characters to target them, drawing fire away from the stronger monsters. Minions with weak defences benefit most from powers that encourage characters not to target them, or only to target them under specific circumstances, which mostly take the form of “when this minion dies, everything goes terribly wrong”.

If you’ve got a spare few minutes, you can get away with giving minions one fancy power per tier.

It’s Alive!

With these hints and tips, and a little practice, you should be well on your way to generating new monsters in under 10 minutes a shot. I suggest you make best use of this time by also practising your maniacal laughter; timing it to match a convenient background thunderstorm is a tricky skill. Useful phrases include “They called me mad! MAD!”, “Fools! I’ll show them all!” and “Behold the terrible power of my magic!”

This post by contributor Chris Longhurst. Chris eats like an animal, slacks like a professional, and dresses like a homeless lumberjack. He has been gaming in one form or another since he was nine years old, and is now old enough that that is a hell of a long time. If you look carefully you can find his name on several RPG products, most of which he got paid for. He is always the GM.

5 thoughts on “How to Generate New Monsters in Minutes”

  1. This article covers what is arguably one of the most important skills for a GM to develop. Especially when lucky enough to run a long-winded campaign. And I agree that 4e really makes it easy to reuse stat blocks for “new” monsters. Great post. Lots of great detail. Everyone who DM’s should remember this trick.

  2. I think one of the best things WotC has done with 4e so far are the Character Builder and Monster Builder tools. I love that, in CB, you can put in whatever details you want and then have the program flesh out the rest. It usually does a very nice job and you have an instant _FULL_ NPC. I know that NPCs are generally stat’ed out like monsters, but I really like having the major characters in my campaigns with a little more depth.

    And you need a new monster quick and in a hurry? Jump into the Monster Builder and you can do any of the options above without the hassle of digging through tons of books. You can pull powers and stat blocks from other monsters, or even edit an entire entry and export your own custom creatures and NPCs, lickety-split.

    I know these are subscription services, but they are SOOO worth it. My group uses these and Masterplan (which is great, but still needs some work…which they are doing) and I don’t think we’ll ever go back to actual pen & pencil gaming again.

  3. Well, these are great ideas, and I loved the comedy inserts=P

    When I started making enemies of my own, it always was a slow and tedious process, and the games I ran were slower because I constantly were so attached to the stat blocks. I also kept reading them from the DM tools offered by this site, and.. Well, it was slow. I wanted to make complicated enemies, and we all can see the problem in that.

    After a while after, though, I learned that it was for the better – nowadays I can throw completely improvised monsters on the spot, and usually at least my players are completely fooled. It also gives a varies experience, since there is another DM in addition to me holding the campaign who runs many if not most of the sessions and draws the material the players want and the world we’ve created is quite large and diverse – often cases the players travel and then they encounter a full new host of enemies. This also makes it more free on me, since I don’t have the problem of forgetting what the same monters did last time this way.

    I also tend to roll the dice so that the players don’t see them since I use my laptop to record different stuff like initiative and exp earned. Sometimes I lie about it to favour/challenge the players during the situation, and using powers thrown from my head really mixes up an illusion which(or what I hope to achieve, at least) lets the players have a more fun time, while being appropriately challenging. I don’t want to kill the PCs too much though, so I think having great improvisation skills is really worth it.

    And that is why you should make lots of your own enemies – it will become easy to throw appropriate damage/stats/equipment/obscure aftereffects of a power/anything else on the spot.

  4. I’m a huge fan of reskinning stuff and adding powers. One suggestion: when doing it on the fly, make notes! My players were somewhat unimpressed when the shadowy underground humanoids had mostly different powers the second time around because I forgot what I used for their stats the first time.

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