Having finally pushed Playwright to a more testable form, I found myself a bit lost in my day to day. There is still plenty to do, but I need a break from it. Having just joined a small D&D 5E campaign with my friends hosted over Discord, I decided to go back to my design roots and make some custom D&D monsters as a quick intermission from heavier tabletop design.
I almost always create custom monsters when I run 5E games. The DM’s Guide and Monster Manual for this edition are pure gold for creativity in my opinion; the options and structure for NPCs lend themselves so heavily to themed expression and customization. When I create monsters for an encounter, I consider 3 major questions:
> Where are they fighting
> Why are they a challenge
> What is each side fighting for
The answers to these questions always provide a lot of depth when making abilities and situations for an encounter that can make it memorable. If I were to just throw in 3 wolves in a forest as a random encounter, nothing really stands out there. They’re fighting in a forest, against semi-dangerous predators, for….survival? It feels primal, in a way that’s exhausting and unwanted. Fighting for the sake of fighting is boring and honestly we face enough of that in real life. When I was deciding on what monster I’d create to spark a series of smaller design exercises, I wanted something stubborn yet dynamic; a force that would be just as competitive as the players. I saw an ad online for a horoscope, remembered my zodiac sign, and inspiration struck:
A giant flaming fire goat; a perfect pain in the ass.
I was honestly shocked to see no one had yet published the zodiac signs as D&D monsters. I’m sure to some degree they’re out there, but in my excessive Googling I couldn’t find them posted on a major website. So that’s going to be my first minor side project, starting with the first (and best :^) ) sign in the cycle, Aries.
With the theme of the zodiac creatures, I wanted to create beasts that fought like the animals they were inspired by while portraying the behavioral traits of the zodiac sign. Naturally, an impatient fire ram would be based on the build of the 5E goat, more notably the Giant Goat.
Pretty basic, but can be a pain depending on the situation. I do love kit / cycle based abilities that build off each other, and the Charge / Ram combo did that well. A cute 1-2 that knocks entry-level players down and has a surprising amount of punch (average of 12 damage from the charge & ram) if performed as intended. However, I was aiming to design most of the zodiac beasts to be CR 3 monsters, and you need some extra spice in your monsters if you want them to be a danger to a party of adventurers who just unlocked their subclasses.
I decided to shorten the charge distance, inspired by watching some videos of bighorn rams perform Bruce Lee’s one-inch-punch with their skulls. I increased the damage dies to a d8 to mimic the Minotaur’s damage (also a CR 3 monster) both on the ram and charge, and calculated their HP and AC using the hit die / CR creation table in the Dungeon Master’s Guide. Lastly, I swapped the damage of the charge from bludgeoning to fire, envisioning a very literally hot-headed ram that can coat itself in flames as it runs in a fury towards it’s enemies.
The last thing I wanted to do was to write its prose; to give it flavor text that would inspire DM’s to put the aries in a position that would make it fearsome to players. I began running small combat encounters, and found that the knockdown effect was more of a turn-burner than a lethal danger. Players could just use their movement to stand up and hit it. There wasn’t anything at stake, and nothing to compete over. I decided that, like the mountain goats that inspired the build, the Aries goat would only be found in mountainous or volcanic regions, and that their charge would mimic the Minotaur’s charge ability by dealing an additional 5t of pushback. Now, a simple charge could knock players off a mountainside (but naturally if you’re a DM who’s not trying to murder your players, you’d want them to take some fall damage but still be okay. Players, in my experience, generally don’t take well to being killed by creatures that mimic farm animals). Building off the sign’s competitive spirit, I envisioned a territory control side objective, where players scaling a mountain must fight and intelligently position themselves as they begin combat to control a small zone on a cliffside and prevent being knocked over the edge. The Aries, being naturally territorial, would fight to prevent this by attacking any player near the cliff. Players would need to play on an Aries weakness, drawing aggression between party members so that others can take the time to get around it. I came up with some lore about how the magic ‘worked’, inspired by how many of the monster abilities work in the Monster Hunter series (a fun mix of pseudo-science and magic).
I spent a bit of time trying to create a Monster-Manual looking Photoshop background before remembering that I shouldn’t be reinventing the wheel. I found a great Google Drive resource, filled with stain brushes, fonts, templates, etc. built to mimic 5E’s publication style. Everything you’d need to make your stuff look fitting for the Monster Manual, so I threw it all together.
My primary goal was to finish this within an hour as a design exercise in the morning, which I successfully did. Unfortunately, the internet was lacking in fire-goat-themed art and I couldn’t find anything that fit the style of fantasy realism the art in the Monster Manual had, so my main regret is the dead spaces in the corners where the illustrations would fit perfectly (in addition to some run-on sentences and weird wording, which I ran out of time to fix but aim to improve on). When I compile all the beasts together, maybe I’ll find a total set of illustrations so they’ll all match.
Doing something small for the first time in years was a great relief. It helped me to see the finish line before I started and understand where I was going throughout research. I plan on doing the rest of the zodiac in the same fashion, since this was such a short but good exercise in actually finishing something. I also realized that I’m very excited to write monster lore like the snippets above, illustrating how an creature would behave and what situations you could find the monster in. I found myself writing far too much and having to condense it down, but that just gets me inspired for for the next-in-line Taurus, where I will transform your average cow into an immovable force of hoof and hit points. It’s such a relief to be doing something manageable and completable for once, so I look forward to the next beast in a couple days.