“Son, you got a panty on your head,” the old hayseed tells Nicolas Cage’s convenience-store robbin’ character H.I. in “Raising Arizona.” And sure e’nuff, somewhere beneath all that nylon is the Nicolas Cage we know and love – even though it’s pretty hard to recognize him just by looking.
Experienced D&D/3.5 players know their monsters backwards and forwards, just from hearing the description or showing them a picture. Tell them you’re facing a lizardfolk band, and well, they know how to deal with that, right down to the best tactics.
Designing new monsters from scratch is hard work – too hard for me – and monster sourcebooks, well, they’re too expensive.
So how do we – figuratively speaking, that is – put a panty on the head of a lizardfolk?
Here’s a few tricks:
Change the color.
Color changing is the oldest trick in the DM’s toolkit, exploited best by the late Bob Bledsaw and his crew at the Judges Guild back in D&D’s heyday when there were far fewer monsters to choose from. That’s how all those different hued humanoids ended up populating the Wilderlands. Change the skin color, and insta-presto, you’ve got a new monster.
So let’s make our lizardfolk yellow, or yellow with brown spots, and call it a desert variety.
Change a few statistical categories.
A favorite tactic of DMG author Monte Cook. For example, the Shard Hound of Ptolus is just a winter wolf with bony armor and an overbite (see http://www.ptolus.com/arch_dmonly1.html).
In our example, let’s make the desert lizardfolk rangy with a tougher hide, but more feral than his swamp-stomping cousins by eschewing crafted weapons and shields.
- Rangy, so increase his speed by 10 feet. It now moves 40 feet instead of 30. (This also makes up for the fact that all those swim-based characteristics are worthless in a desert landscape).
- Hide is thicker, to keep out the desert sun. Increase its natural armor +2, making it 17.
- Talons are longer than claws, so they do 1d6+1 instead of 1d4+1 damage, and it flings slingstones for 1d4+1 damage instead of making javelins for hunting.
Adjust the ecology.
Logically, this new monster has to fit in. The green-backed lizardfolk of the Monster Manual are aquatic creatures, mainly. Making the yellow-backed ones fit for the desert takes some adjustment, but not much.
Exchange its special quality Hold Breath for something we’ll call Desert Camoflauge, giving it a +8 bonus to Hide in desert terrain when standing still.
Skills: Change Swim +2 to Climb +2.
Bonus Languages: Exchange Aquan for Terran.
Congratulations, you’ve just put a panty on the head of the lizardfolk.
Altering monsters (or races, even) in this fashion is another bonus for the DM’s toolbox. It’s also a fun way to stretch your own imagination and improve your mastery of the 3.5 rules. Above all, by offering something different to fight, you keep your players on their toes. That way, they won’t become jaded or be able to anticipate that you’ll run straight out of the Monster Manual.
If you’ve used this method, something like it, or an approach that’s completely different, I’d love to know what worked for you.
Hey, thanks a bunch for this tip! I’m going to be starting a seafaring campaign soon, and you’ve just made statting up the monsters a hell of a lot more fun! Thanks!
If you’ll be tinkering with aquatics, check out these variants for PC classes from Unearthed Arcana over at the Hypertext SRD. They might be good inspiration.
I’ve changed monster colors before (I think of it as a palette swap, from the original Ultima Online’s tendency to do just that), but I don’t tend to fiddle with characteristics.
I like that with a few relatively simple changes, you’ve managed to come up with a thematically different creature without doing too much work. This sounds like an excellent approach.
I’ve rarely changed the color of monsters, but I’ve used stat blocks of creatures or NPCs with different descriptions or a switched out power. I tend to play fast and loose when building up combat encounters. What matters most to me is that my players have fun with the combat and feel challenged and rewarded by it. I think I’m going to have to start doing this more and more, as my players are advancing past the sweet spot for the monsters I like to use.
P.S. I love your use of the word thematically Martin. It is one of my favorite gaming ideas.
I like the way you basically ‘tweaked’ your way to a new critter. Mechanically, it’s almost identical to a Lizardman, but the players don’t know that (and don’t need to, either).
For me, one of the biggest problems with monsters is that once the characters get to level 6 or 7, even large numbers of goblins and orcs no longer present a credible threat, but it’s hard to imagine an ecology in which large groups of giants or demons abound, just to keep PC’s on their toes. I think the best thing the DM can do in those cases is keep basic monsters (or slight tweeks, as above) but give them character levels so they can still compete with the PC’s. This can be explained by emphasising that the goblins they were challenged by at level 1 were the weakest goblins in the world, but now they’re facing the elite troops of the goblin empire. Or something like that.
Interesting observation. In fact, I’ve got a post cooking on just that topic. Only it involves bugbears, not goblins (but only because bugbears are cuter) 🙂
character levels to monsters can be tougher to manage or longer to prep for.
I like to slap one monster’s whole stat block on another monster’s appearance. Easy.
You can even generate what players think are whole new monsters by adjusting your descriptions. Minimize or obfuscate the details that are clear clues as to the monster type while waxing poetic on qualities that could arguably be more salient when the heroes encounter something that the players are familiar with but they’ve never seen before. “Before you charges a snarling band of horrors, black eyes, mottled skin, and needle-sharp fangs grinning from their diminutive forms.” Your players might realize that it’s just goblins, but can they be certain enough to be complacent?
For months I had my players terrified of the dreaded demons that were invading an underground society by flooding it from beneath, sending forth their skin-sloughing horrors to do battle and vitrifying any that were unwise enough to venture near the deep, stagnant pools. If they’d cottoned to it just being an attack of aboleths and skum, the game would have gone a lot differently.