GM Advice: Reskin That Monster! (They'll Never See It Coming)
In a recent D&D game of mine, my players happened upon a massive, twisted tree wrapped in vines, with five thick branches sprouting out from a huge trunk. Each of the five branches ended in leafy pods. When the party got the bright idea to throw rocks at the suspicious-looking thing, it showed them just how animated a tree could get. Those pods opened into venus flytrap-like maws which attacked them with reckless abandon.
This is what I used for the monster...
Now, if you are familiar with tabletop games, or even Greek mythology, something here really sticks out; the fact that two heads sprout from every head destroyed. Instantly you can look at this and say, "Oh, it's a hydra, you silly man-beast."
It is a hydra, and it isn't one too.
"I'm so conflicted!"
Let me explain. A hydra is an excellent challenge for a mid-level party. Mechanically it is perfect for what I wanted to do, but the hydra wasn't going to fit in my happy little scenario. The party was smack-dab in the middle of the woods, hunting down a rogue druid. I wanted something hydra-esque as a guardian to this druid's lair, but just tossing in a hydra, which ecologically is partial to are aquatic environments, didn't feel like it worked.
There was a severe lack of verisimilitude.
"Verisimilitude is more important than you think."
I am weird kind of Game Master. I need to justify things. I can't just look at something that doesn't work, cry "Magic!", and call it good. It has to make sense, and the hydra sitting at the mouth of a mountain pass didn't make a whole lot of sense to me. But do you know what would have made a ton of sense?
A big ass tree.
Sure, I could have just thrown in a trent (or Ent for you Tolkien sticklers) and be okay, but I wanted something different. Something they had never seen, and more importantly, weren't expecting. I wanted a creature that reflected the chaotic nature that is this mad druid's mind. So I made a hydra that wasn't a hydra.
I reskinned the hydra, and it took all of two minutes.
"Tiiiiiime is ooon your side, yes it is!"
This isn't the first time I've used this little cheat to switch up a monster. The idea came to me ages ago when some friends and I were building a campaign setting for Pathfinder. I wanted to tell the story of how the sky became forever overcast in that world, so I cooked up the scariest monster I could, whose body would become the permanent cloud cover that encircled the world.
I had envisioned the monster in a fever dream (no, really). It was a creature of colossal size and endless destructive power. It's body was a swirling torrent of smoke, debris, and mist made solid. It was the ender of worlds. I wanted a force of nature that would challenge even the highest level characters, and in my opinion, there are few creatures that meet the apocalyptic prerequisites I was looking for quite like the legendary tarrasque.
"Gojira! Gojir-- I mean, Terrasque!"
Only I didn't want the tarrasque, because that would have made little to no sense. He looked all wrong, behaved all wrong. I needed something different, so I removed his skin, kept his stats, and reskinned the little dickens to meet what I wanted.
And it worked. Its such an easy thing to do, I wondered why more GMs weren't doing the same thing. I asked around, and each GM told me the same thing, "I wish I'd thought of that."
"Trust me. I am a skin expert."
How To Reskin A Monster
The first thing you need to decide is what kind of monster your want to replicate. The base creature should be chosen based on special abilities, challenge rating, and stats applicable for what you want the creature to be able to do (and do to your party). After all, the creatures mechanics are mostly untouched through the process of this reskinning process.
Secondly, you need to decide how you want it to fit. If the base creature's subtype doesn't reflect what you want, kick that thing to the curb, sista-friend. You don't need that kind of negativity in your life. Replace the subytpe with one that better suits the surroundings or theme you want to cultivate.
Next, look at its ability, namely those that might conflict with the newly chosen subtype. The hydra above originally had darkvision out to 60ft., but when I changed it into a plant, it no longer had eyes, and I could not justify tossing googly eyes on a venus flytrap. So I decided to switch its sense from sight-based to vibration-based (what with the no eyes), replacing darkvision for tremorsense. Thematically if was a better fit for the creature I wanted to make. The hydra also had a swim speed of 30ft, because hydra's love pretending they're ducks. Gigantic, many-headed ducks. The reskinned hydra though had roots for legs, and we all know what happens when we water a plant too much. The swim speed made no sense. But, the thought of this thing digging its roots down deep and burrowing itself under the ground made for a fun visual that, in a way, made some sense, so swim speed became burrow speed.
Some elements of the base creature just won't make any sense, and those things are best removed altogether. They are things like certain resistances or immunities. The changing of these elements shouldn't have too much effect on the creature's overall challenge rating, especially when you consider that whichever subtype you decide on comes with its own flavor and resistances and/or vulnerabilities.
Here is an example of a critter I whipped up this morning...
"This craven, emaciated fey descends from a people who had the misfortune of crossing a cruel and powerful fey queen thousands of years ago. Once a folk of rivers and streams, they were cursed to never to again know the soft touch of water against the skin. Once a folk of bronze skin who laughed and played in the sun, they were to never again feel the warmth of the sun on their shoulders The only light they would know was the lonely moon, with shadows as their only companions.
Most horrifying was that they were to never again cultivate and create life, but rather subsist off of it, draining the life force of living creatures to prolong its eternal, suffering existence.
Any attempt to defy the queen's decree leaves these misbegotten creatures in wracking pain, eventually becoming little more than dust swept away in the wind.
Twisted into madness by the power of the curse, these piteous, ashen-skinned creatures were forced to live in the shadows of the feywild/the first world, preying on unsuspecting travelers or wayward creatures.
They are tall, gaunt-looking creatures with long, scythe-like claws and long needle-like teeth. Their eyes glow with an unnerving blue. They dress in simple attire of blacks and greys, and walk with an almost unnatural gait."
The base creature for the life drinker is obviously a vampire. The tweaks made to it are minor. I changed the wooden stakes to cold iron, reworded a few abilities, and switched the subtype to fey, but otherwise it is very much the same creature as it was before. With a new skin and a short blurb it has become a creature that can feel new and unique, and could very well take your players by total surprise, which is fun when you are looking to try something new, or just messing with a rules lawyer.
Its a nice time saver if you are like me, and prescribe to the Lazy Dungeon Master style of game prep. You get all the flavor of a new monster without having to worry about cooking up the crunch. With all the time you save making a brand new monster from scratch you can focus on the important things in life... like reading this blog.
Has anyone else reskinned their monsters? What vile concoctions of hilarious mishaps have you made in your Game Master's lab? Drop some comments below, and tell your tales.
Roll well my friends,
+Ed The Bard
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