Saturday, December 6, 2014

Lessons in Monster Design, Part VI: Name, concept, and write-up

Here's the last part of the monster design series of articles based on observations in Here Be Monsters. From next week onward, I'll start writing about RPG Superstar, which (as the main page currently says) is "almost here".

Anyway, monster write-ups! Before you start writing one for your monster, it's good to consider what purpose the text serves. I think the two main purposes of a monster's write-up are:
  • giving the GM useful facts for building interesting adventures and encounters and 
  • making the entry thematically coherent by explaining and expanding upon information presented elsewhere in the entry.
Let's have a look at a few things that are useful to know about monster write-ups. (And a quick look at monster concepts and names!)

Monster concept and name

  • As a judge, two types of creatures make me happy: those that make me think "wow, I haven't seen anything like this before" or "I'm surprised no-one had thought about making a creature like this before". 
  • In Here Be Monsters, there were many interesting monsters from different mythologies around the world. I personally prefer myths from cultures that haven't been explored so much in RPGs yet. 
  • However, in my opinion, original creations test your creativity much more than just statting up a creature from a mythology or making a variant treant or hippogriff or what have you. I can't give you credit for coming up with a cool concept or name if it isn't something you came up with. Note however that in Here Be Monsters, all contest entries were more or less based on concepts detailed in the Bestiary 5 wish list thread, so this was not a top criterion for judging. In other contests, it might be a factor.
  • While monsters and wondrous items have a lot in common (see my earlier article Monsters aren't all that different from wondrous items), I think names are different. The name of a wondrous item should convey two things: an idea of what the item is or does, and a sense of magic. To accomplish this, a wondrous item's name should never be completely incomprehensible. Monster names, however, can be very effective even when unintelligible. For example, the sounds of the word "glabrezu" suggest malevolence, in my opinion.
  • If you can help it, pick a name that has a regular plural form. With unusual plural forms, it is sometimes unclear whether the author is talking about an individual creature or every creature of the same species.

A few comments on style and presentation

  • The monster's name should not be capitalized. Even the mighty tarrasque is written in lower case. There are some exceptions, such as the unique and deity-like Cthulhu. Most creatures whose name is a proper name are NPCs rather than monster entries.
  • Do not use the future tense ”will” at all. Avoid the passive voice when possible.
  • All the writing rules I've mentioned in the previous parts of this series also apply here.
  • A pet peeve: using quotation marks to indicate something is much like something but not quite. E.g. ”The caterpillar ”sings” using insectile chirps.” Rewrite!

General advice on the write-up

  • Unlike the descriptive line, the purpose of the write-up is to be informative, to provide the GM with facts he can use to build interesting adventures and encounters. But let's be honest, focusing 100% on facts would make the text boring to read, so include a few juicy bits of flavor text here and there. 90-95% facts, 5-10% flavor, maybe?
  • Speaking of facts: stick to the facts for the most part. Many bestiary entries (including Paizo ones...) have "scholars have long debated this and that" and the truth about the matter is never revealed. It's not very useful for the GM. That said, I do think rumors, tales, and scholarly debates have a place in monster entries if it's also revealed what the truth is.
  • If you are designing a monster for Here Be Monsters (which is setting-neutral), don't make too many assumptions about the setting's deities, cosmology, or other "big things".
  • If you are writing for RPG Superstar (or any other contest where a campaign setting is implied), remember to include setting tie-ins. While doing so, respect the setting's canon and build upon it. For example, don't introduce things that would totally change how the planes interact with each other. Don't change the fate of an entire race of creatures in the monster's backstory or make a deity do something that's not even hinted at in the canon. Also, bear in mind what implications the monster's existence would have on the setting canon. For example, if your urban monster is Huge in size, very populous, and thrives basically in any climate, why haven't we heard of it before? 
  • Don't introduce new rules text in the write-up. Generally speaking, rules text belongs in the special abilities part of the entry. It's possible that the GM doesn't get a chance to read the whole entry, so it's dangerous to hide rules text where the GM is unlikely to look for it in the middle of combat. There are some exceptions, though. Just an example off the top of my head, if the creature has a larval stage, it's probably ok to discuss what stats the GM can use to include larval/young creatures in an encounter. Things like animal companion stats, of course, require a sub-section for the stat block, but technically it's not part of the write-up.
  • Don't repeat too much of the information that is already available in the descriptive line or the stat block. In Here Be Monsters, I saw a few write-ups that had hardly any new information in them. It's perfectly ok to expand upon that information, and actually, it's a very good idea to create links between the write-up and other parts of the entry, so as to keep the monster thematically coherent. There's a huge difference between repeating and linking information.
  • People usually remember to discuss how a monster's special attacks or abilities affect its tactics in combat. However, it's less common to read about how having a particular ability might affect its everyday life. (Of course, it has to be something interesting and useful.)
  • Find a logical order for presenting things in the write-up. See if there are natural links between the different subjects you discuss, so as to make the transitions from one subject to the next as smooth as possible. For example origin > appearance > physiology > dietary habits > hunting > interactions with other creatures > communication. In other words, connect the dots! 

Things to include in the write-up

The following is a list of things you can discuss in the write-up of a monster. The list is not intended to be exhaustive, it's just a few examples. There's usually not enough room for everything, so pick a few things that seem relevant for the GM to know about.

  • If the monster's creation story is important for understanding why the creature is the way it is, why, when, where, and how was it created, and by whom? 
  • If the monster originated from somewhere else than where it's most often encountered, why and when did they migrate? 
  • Is there something important, interesting, or unusual about their appearance that wasn't mentioned in the descriptive line? Try not to repeat too much of what was already said there!
  • What is the typical height/length and weight of the creature? 
  • Are there any interesting anatomical or physiological features?
  • What do they eat? How much, how often? 
  • Are there different varieties, for example in different climates? Are they sexually dimorphic? Do they even have separate sexes or are they completely different from those of humans?
  • Where are they usually encountered and why? (If you include this type of information, don't just repeat what is already said in Environment; expand upon it!) 
  • Also, what places they avoid and why? (Or what time of the day?)
  • What are their abodes or lairs like? 
  • What items are typically found in their lairs? (An ooze might eat all organic matter, or a raven-like creature might collect silver, for example.)
  • Is there something that can be harvested from the creature or its lair, especially if it's worth something or useful for the PCs? A unicorn's horn, pegasus eggs, and young owlbear are good examples.
  • When are they mostly active? (Diurnal, nocturnal, crepuscular...) Does their behavior also change with the seasons, and how?
  • Is there something unusual about how they mate or reproduce? Do they mate for life? How many offspring do they produce? Do they look after their offspring?
  • What is their society like? What do they do when they're among their own kind? Or are they solitary? Or is it seasonal?
  • Other than members of their own species, what creatures do they hang out with? How did they end up in this relationship, is it a symbiosis, are they slaves or something else?
  • What do other creatures (including local humans and other people) think about these creatures? What rumors or superstitious/religious beliefs are there about the monster?
  • Why does the monster do or not do something? (I.e. motivations). 
  • How do they communicate? (If there's something unusual about it!)


  1. Lots of good tips here, Mikko. I wish I had read something like this before the contest—my entry would have been all-the-better.

    1. Thanks! You did really well in HBM, so don't worry about it. And well, RPG Superstar begins soon! Another chance to show what you can do.


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