Author Topic: How I reinterpreted the monster manual (and how you can do it as well)  (Read 4248 times)


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How I reinterpreted the monster manual (and how you can do it as well)
By Belchion

Monsters are a traditional and welcome staple for fantasy RPGs. The monsters from the D&D Monster Manual have even become cliché in many regards, both for good and for ill. A couple of bloggers have started to newly interpret the existing monsters, myself among them.

(Note: I blogged in German, but reading my blog is not necessary to understand this article. If you do not speak German and want to read my blog, you can use DeepL to translate my posts. When I tested their automatic translation on my posts, it achieved sensible results.)

An improvement on your actual Great Aunt? (Source)
What I wanted to achieve

My goal was not to to change monsters just for the sake of it. Instead, I wanted to look at monsters from different angles and turn them into something more useful for my games. If I liked a monster, I would often just add some ideas for how to employ said monster creatively, instead of changing the monster more fundamentally.

A good example of this approach is the dragon turtle. Since I liked the dragon turtle, I did not change its description at all. I just added the idea that merfolk might use them to sink ships or for armoured transport, as well as an adventure seed called ‘Great Aunt Dragon Turtle’.

How I looked for inspiration

First, I always looked the monster’s description up in an encyclopedia like Wikipedia or Encyclopedia Britannica, but I also visited some encyclopedias that specialise in folklore or RPG settings. Here I tried to discern how the monster was typically used and what alternative uses existed. For example, was the monster’s name also used for a vehicle, a piece of software, or weapon system? If so, what did this choice of name imply? Did it appear in other media, and what role did it play there? In one case I even read a PhD thesis because it offered an excellent overview of frogs in art.

Where words were too archaic or particularly common I looked them up in a dictionary, too, either to learn about their history or to find synonyms.

I took sparse notes with a reminder where I got the ideas from. Those notes would be put randomly on a piece of paper, to be connected by coloured pencil later once I started to connect the dots. I made sure not to drown in detail, but keep it short and specific.

Another very important tool was the picture search. I would enter either the monster’s name or, if I did not find anything or just too much stuff, a synonym, and I'd then look at whether there was anything out of the ordinary. As an example of a monster inspired by a particular picture, look at the goblin.

Putting the Corpse back into "Corpse Flower?" (Photo by Rod Waddington)
How I organized the entries

My posts always started with a paragraph about the monster’s typical use. In a few sentences, I would describe it and how it was employed in adventures. If I renamed my version of the monster, I would also mention the original name. This allowed readers to identify the original monster I'd used quickly.

As a second step, I usually offered some insight into the monster's uses outside the RPG and fantasy genre, be those uses older (like folklore) or in other genres. I kept this short, a paragraph or two at most.

Third, I gave ideas of how the monster might interact with the rest of a campaign world, what ecological niche it filled, and how to best spice one's adventures with it. One of the results was gardening necromancers, who combined their undead guards with blood-sucking plants as a means to keep their refuges safe.

Fourth, the monster’s stat block, as written in the Basic Fantasy RPG.

Fifth, and finally, the new description of the monster. This usually entailed one paragraph for physical description, one for fighting tactics, and a third for other ideas regarding the monster.

How long did it take?

I spent between one hour and three hours per entry, depending on how clear or diluted my vision originally was. All in all, I re-interpreted 93 monsters, which took me about five months.

How difficult was it? Can I do it?

The first few monsters were extremely hard, and took a long time to accomplish. Over time, researching the background information turned into a routine though. It also became easier to establish new connections between different versions of a monster and turn them into something useful for role-playing games. Writing new monsters is definitely a skill that can be learned and honed.

It is important to interact with other people and talk to them about your monster ideas. If you have a friend or good aquaintance with similar interests, talk with them. Micro-blogging platforms like can also be helpful, as they force you to write your idea consciously whilst allowing you to bounce your ideas around for new thoughts and threads. Without such support, I would have definitely faltered on the second ooze monster instead of turning the grey ooze into a colour stealing flubber.

So I would say almost anyone who does not despise language and art can do it! Simply start with the first monster in your bestiary, research it a bit, write your ideas down, add the stats and a short description. The first few attempts will probably not feel right, but that is normal. Set yourself a pace, for example one monster per week, and a publishing rhythm, for example a Tweaking Tuesday. Then, go ahead, publish your first monster on a forum or a blog, and continue to practice each week with a new entry. After about twenty or so monsters, you will get the hang of it!


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Re: How I reinterpreted the monster manual (and how you can do it as well)
« Reply #1 on: January 20, 2018, 01:27:38 PM »
I really enjoyed this article, there are some good tips here :)

I did some monster design myself recently for a competition (and won, to my great surprise), though that was designing a wholly new monster which was a bit different - a lot of the process was the same though, it's all about dragging together the different mythologies and sources and welding them together effectively. Even for "new" monsters, you need that background to root it in the real world and make it effective I think.

I should also plug the podcast that organised the aforementioned competition, James Holloway's Monster Man ( which is a really good expanded source on ideas for how to use monsters in games and what their roots are, I'm enjoying it a lot! I may try looking through your versions, too - my German is pretty rubbish, but it might be a good way to improve it a bit (and given I now live in Vienna I really ought to work on it more...)
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Re: How I reinterpreted the monster manual (and how you can do it as well)
« Reply #2 on: January 20, 2018, 02:51:40 PM »
Thanks for the tips Belchion - I completely agree that it's a good idea to research your monsters. Using them exactly as described in the monster manual will lead to them being nothing more than a series of numbers for your players to role dice against. Thinking about how the monsters behave and how they are unique leads to much more interesting encounters. I once adapted a monster to make it invincible unless it was pushed into a nearby river - the player's got a lot more satisfaction out of realising that and succeeding in the mission than if they had just kept rolling damage on it.