Monsters generally come in three parts: Stat Blocks, Descriptive passages (which some people refer to as Fluff), and Templates, enabling you to add the “monster description” to an existing race – sort of an ersatz Class. Lately, I’ve been thinking about the differing values and usefulness of books on the subject. NB: This is an unabashedly d20/3.x article. YMMV with other game systems.
A year or three ago, Roleplaying Tips and my co-writer here at Campaign Mastery, Johnn, introduced me to the concept of “Reskinning”. The notion itself is simple: come up with an idea for a new monster, write the appropriate Fluff, then select an existing creature from your preferred source (The Monster Manual in the case of 3.x D&D) that most closely matches your fluff and use it’s stat block. You may need to swap out one or two of the source creature’s abilities with more appropriate ones, but in most cases creating the new monster becomes the work of minutes or seconds, not hours, days, or weeks.
This is a powerful tool, there is no doubt about that, but it is not without its flaws. It requires considerable knowledge of the sourcebook you are using – especially the dull and dry stat blocks – to choose the best creature to reskin. There are inherant assumptions about the usefulness and effectiveness of various abilities. And there is absolutely no guarantee of consistency.
The Monster’s Handbook
In my 2009 series, “The Gold Standard”, I recommended “The Monster’s Handbook” from Fantasy Flight Games. This book describes ways to upgrade creature types to make them more challenging, more unusual, or just plain different, and offers a well-thought-out system for adjusting the CR of creatures after you’ve tinkered with them. It looks at the strengths (and how to maximise them) of the different types of creatures, and the vulnerabilities / weaknesses / shortcomings of the creature types, and how to minimise them. It continues to be an invaluable resource.
It’s when you put these two ingredients together that you start coming up with some interesting new ideas.
Instead of treating The Monster’s Handbook as a set of blueprints for tweaking existing monster designs, consider it a bible for reskinning. All that is required is the insertion of an unwritten assumption: that the contents of the book are examples of how to reskin, and (by sheer coincidence) the skins chosen just happen to match the creatures that are normally associated with the fluff and base stat blocks.
Thus, the section on Giants ceases to be about Giants, but instead describes creatures that have been re-skinned as giants, whose core just happens to match the preexisting Giant.
A new type of Monster Compendium
Originally, that was as far as I intended this article to go. Subject complete, time to sign off with no danger of overstaying my welcome. But then another thought or two intruded. Sepcifically, I asked myself:
What is the ideal format for a Monster Manual that has been optimised for use in this way? It would be an extraordinary coincidence if the traditional arrangement were the best choice.
In order to reach an answer to this question, we first have to deconstruct the standard model, seperating it into its constituants, and then looking for the most effective way of putting humpty-dumpty back together for its new purpose.
The description of the creature, in theory, contains the central theme around which all the other elements are arranged. The description justifies and explains the powers, the behaviour, the culture (where necessary), the psychology, the stat block contents – everything.
The Stat Block is the connection between the description and the standard game mechanics. The central concept of reskinning is that these stat blocks are – within limits of CR and other categorization considerations like creature type – interchangeable.
Feats, in this context, represent customisation elements of the stat blocks. The number of feats a creature receives is roughly determined by the number of hit dice it has.
Powers & Abilities
Spanning the gap between these three componants are the power descriptions. Changing, upgrading, or enhancing these is at the heart of reskinning. Sometimes, this is achieved by altering the feats list.
Finally, some creatures contain information about using the creatures as the foundation for other characters and encounters, acting more as a preset group of alterations or a “standardized” reskinning operation. Want an Owlbear Ghost? Take the Owlbear writeup and add the Ghost Template – then get to work explaining it, or simply give the resulting compound a new name and decide “that’s the way it is”.
The concept of reskinning revolves around the use of the Stat Block as the central hub. The Description, suitably modified, is the wrapped around the stat block, and Feats, Powers, and Abilities all hang off that.
That means that the correct starting point is with a careful collection of stat blocks. These should represent all the permutations of CR and creature type.
Feat Slots, Power Slots
Each such “universal stat block” should also include a couple of new elements: a tally of the number of (empty) feat slots, and an entry listing the number of “power slots” for extraordinary attacks, defences, and abilities.
Standard Powers & Feats Lists
The next section of our hypothetical “master monster cookbook” would be a list of items to occupy those empty slots, with descriptions. Each extraordinary ability should be rated in terms of the number of slots that it consumes – most will only be one, but there may be a few – or perhaps a few combinations – that are adjudged to be more powerful, and hence consume an extra slot.
Employing slot requirements as a variable makes it easier achieve universality in the stat blocks; the number of slots available represents a fixed power level, making it more practical to associate them with a given CR.
These three componants – standard stat blocks, by creature type, with a menu of powers and feats – form a universal foundation which individual ‘skin’ descriptions can draw apon. An entry consists of the usual descriptive text, plus a statement as to which elements from this foundation, plus any comments on how these choices should interact.
In addition, something that I would like to see as a standard element of all monster descriptions is “tactical advice for the busy GM” – how best to employ the creatures in battle. The current information in that respect often seems to be an afterthought thrown out by someone who has never played a game – I once read a ‘battle strategy’ involving the casting of no less than six spells before the creature entered battle in an official supplement (I’m not sure which one it was, now, so I can’t name names). I’m sure that the intent was for these to be cast prior to battle commencing, but the circumstances of the encounter were such that the chance that the creature could cast even a single spell prior to battle was vanishingly small, since they were almost certainly going to be taken by surprise. (Come to think of it, that might have been in a module – but the principle remains).
Later Monster Supplements
The “Universal Foundation” forms the “core rulebook” for each creature supplement that is to be released. Third parties can add their own powers to the available repetoire, and their own ‘skins’.
That is what is needed to have a monster-creation system that is built for skinning. What do you think?
Disclaimer: This article was inspired by the receipt of a free review copy of “Tome Of Monsters” by 4 Winds Fantasy Gaming. You can buy the product here.