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Monster Updates
Design & Development
Logan Bonner

As one of the designers on the Monster Vault, I was extremely pleased with how the book turned out. We squeezed in a ton of classic monsters, and boosted them with new story text chock-full of adventure hooks. We got the rust monster in there! Frost giants! The classic elementals!

But wait. Where are the aboleths? The wights? The chuuls and grells and sahuagins? So many monsters languished, pariahs among their 4E Monster Manual neighbors. Wearing the scarlet letters "NO": not optimized!

To right this wrong, I pitched an article series that would bring these stragglers up to modern standards, with shiny new damage dice, pimped-out stat blocks, and a fresh coat of flavor.

What Monsters Do We Pick?

I made a big list of monsters that appeared in the Monster Manual but didn’t make it into the Monster Vault, and pared out a few that very few would consider crucial. I then organized this list with the monsters on top that I most wanted to update, plus those that folks had been saying were too weak or should have appeared in the Monster Vault. The D&D Insider taskmasters were then in charge of selecting a theme for each set of updated monsters.

How Much Do We Change?

The updates were going to look pretty much like Monster Vault entries; that much was for certain. The real question was how to handle the monster stat blocks themselves. I worked with the Insider crew to figure out what would work best.

As I saw it, our options included:

  1. Burn it Down, Build it Again: For Monster Vault, we looked at the monsters that were already out there. We slightly updated some, radically revised others, and made new monsters to fill gaps. We could also go this route again, or:

  2. Super Soldier Serum: Take the monsters we have and beef them up. Make them match the new monster numbers, but don’t add or remove monsters. Or:

  3. An Unholy Hybrid Abomination: Take a path somewhere between 1 and 2. Keep the monsters there, but remix ‘em. Add or remove powers, and possibly change the core abilities of some of the creatures.

Every choice had some plusses and minuses, and we knew that picking any one of these options would annoy some people. We went through a few stages: My pitch was basically option 1. That didn’t fly, so we moved to option 3. After pushback from fans about other changes to the core books, and a desire not to stray too far from what was originally printed, we settled on option 2. This makes it easy to convert old adventure content and browse through the Monster Manual when hunting for monsters. It also keeps the monsters from diverging wildly from expectations.

Writing an Update Step 1: Research

Where do I start? In the middle of this big stack of books:

First, I look through the Monster Manual and other 4E books that include background on these monsters (such as Open Grave for undead or Underdark for creatures from down under). That gave me the following baseline: Here’s what’s been said about the monster in this edition.

After 4E, I drop back to 1E. The short entries in the 1E books tend to sum up what makes the monster unique (or drives home that there really isn’t anything, and so the monster is long overdue for a schtick upgrade). From there, I move forward through time, checking out the 2E Monstrous Manual and 3.5 Monster Manual, plus Dragon ecologies and other supplements from previous editions.

For monsters that exist outside D&D, I look to mythology books and pop culture sources. What have I seen ghosts do in movies? What about Tolkien’s wights can inform the D&D version? Did a different monster from mythology or literature inspire this one?

While I’m going through these sources, I’m compiling story notes on the monsters. This is really just an outline with tidbits, mostly ones that I think I can turn into subheaders in the monster entry. A list for wights might include “desires life force,” “no soul,” and “live in catacombs.” The story text provides most of what I need, but I also look to see what the stat blocks are telling me. Wights are predominantly melee combatants. By talking about how they use solid tactics and arise from the bodies of warriors, I can differentiate them from all the other undead shambling around.

Writing an Update Step 2: Rewriting Stat Blocks

Redoing the mechanics is the most straightforward part of the process. . . most of the time.

Changing monster numbers doesn’t take much work, nor does retyping the stat blocks in the new format. Some things we’d do differently with new monsters, but that we wouldn’t change with old ones; for example, a new soldier would probably mark an opponent on an effect instead of only on a hit, but a Monster Manual Update probably won’t make that change.

The big changes come with monsters that just don’t work, usually because a power has the wrong action type. Elites and solos from Monster Manual tend to fail at actually being elite or solo due to a lack of actions. The grell philosopher is a great example: For one thing, it doesn’t have an at-will multi-attack power, unless you count venomous mind. As for that power, you can kind of tell how it’s supposed to work, but good luck figuring out how “must choose a random target for any melee attacks it makes” actually works by the rules.

Writing an Update Step 3: Fleshing Out the Story

Now I go back to the outline I have, reorder the items, and flesh out the entries that have the most potential. The format’s just like Monster Vault:

  1. Lead off with the monster’s mission “statement.” If a DM reads only this, he or she should know what the monster is all about and have a couple of ideas for encounters or adventures.

  2. Include a quotation that might appear anywhere in the article. It sets a scene or describes what it’s like to be in the presence of this creature. I usually avoid that level of tactile detail in the rest of the entry, so this is a great place to use it.

  3. The intro paragraph is always the toughest part for me. It needs to talk about the monster, but not duplicate anything from one of the paragraphs below. The content can vary. The story of the creature’s origins, an account of how it relates to other monsters, a description of how it fits in the world, or a flavorful description of the creature’s badassery could appear hear.

  4. Paragraphs set out with bold subheaders fill out the entry. Each subheader distills the paragraph to come, and each sentence is (ideally) an adventure hook of its own! The entries, like those in Monster Vault, are set up to be skimmed. Read the mission statement. Like what you hear? Look at the first paragraphs and the bold headers. Did one of those inspire you? Read the rest. By now, you should have a handful of ideas for an upcoming adventure or session.

Here’s hoping that after these updates, you’ll give some of these old-timers a second chance!

About the Author

Logan Bonner's credits include The Slaying Stone and Monster Vault. He lives in the Seattle area and works as a freelance game designer, writer, and editor. You can follow him on Twitter, where he’s @loganbonner.

Claypipe & Tinder

Since we’re on the topic of monsters today, we end with the latest comic from Micah Farritor:

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