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We’re in the homestretch – public voting!

Stephen Glicker
Stephen Glicker
September 15, 2020

When I first envisioned bringing the RPG Superstar contest back, I had a plan. Round one would occur during PaizoCon, and we would discuss and promote the contest with the help of Paizo during the con; judging would occur shortly after, and then we would hold public voting during GenCon. We planned on having all submissions and public voting to occur during con season to get the word out and talk with people interested in the contest. It was going to be an exciting time.

Of course, I don’t have to tell you that things didn’t quite go as planned. Timelines had to be adjusted, plans scraped, and code rewritten. But in the end, the contest moved forward (if a bit late), the best monsters were selected by our esteemed judges, and we are finally ready to unveil the most existing aspect of the contest – public voting!

Registered users can cast their votes on each monster once regarding the following categories:

  1. Concept and Flavor: Does the monster inspire a plot element, a moment of tension, or an exciting story?
  2. Abilities and Mechanics: Does the monster have impressive abilities? Do these abilities work to further the monster’s concept? Are the mechanics clear, easy to run, and functional?
  3. Threat Balance: Does this monster make an appropriate threat for the listed CR? Are the stats such as AC, Saves, attack bonus, and damage capabilities balanced? Does this monster have both strengths and weaknesses?
  4. Writing Style: Are the monster’s descriptions and mechanics, both written clearly and concisely? Are there grammar or spelling errors? Is the formatting appropriate?
  5. Originality: Does this monster feel new and exciting, avoiding cliché tropes and derivative concepts.

Your votes will help us determine the final prizes – copper, silver, gold, platinum, and the coveted Grand Prize!

In addition, we will be selecting voters at random to hand out prizes for just participating in the public voting portion! We are still determining the exact prizes, but make sure check to learn more and see the prizes.

Once again, thanks for being so patient with us and helping us determine which monster you believe is the best of the best and deserving of the Grand Prize of the RPG Superstar 2020 contest!

Musings of a Monster Maker: The Coffin Banger

Anthony Bono
Anthony Bono
April 18, 2020

Welcome back to my series on monster design for Pathfinder 2e. Last week we discussed the pikkwit, a pesky little fey trickster based on real-world hoarding rodents. This week we’re upping the ante by cranking the challenge a few degrees and tackling one of the most common enemy types in fantasy games: undead. Grab your holy symbols and prepare your calm emotions spells, because things are about to get spooky.

You can probably conjure to mind that classic scene in old horror movies where a decaying hand bursts forth from its grave to herald the rise of the living dead and perhaps grab an imprudent teen’s exposed ankle. Or maybe you envision an ancient funerary cask swinging open to reveal the reaching hands of a shrouded mummy. It could even be a plain old coffin sitting ominously in the shadows until the lid slams suddenly open and a slavering, grasping zombie emerges. No matter the specifics, we as humans have a morbid fascination with death, burial, and the possibility of reawakening after interment. At the very least, the slow approach to a sealed sarcophagus and the dreadful knowledge of what lies within are the perfect makings of a good jumpscare.

BAM! Enter the coffin banger. Yes, I know it sounds a little silly, but it’s an old-school name for an old-school spook. There are endless waves of undead monsters for GMs to choose from when designing an encounter, many of them highly eligible to pop out of their regionally appropriate casket and make a lunge for unwary party members. Why should (or shouldn’t) they choose this particular one? In other words, what’s the use case?

Coffin Banger

The answer ties back into what I hope to accomplish with this creature’s concept. Typically in these scenarios, the sarcophagus is just there to set up the “bust out” moment, which serves as the monster’s grand entrance. The whole thing is a cinematic prelude, occasionally accompanied by a Will save to represent how scary the situation is, but the real attraction is the combat that follows once the undead is free of its sepulcral trappings. Instead, I wanted to have a go at making a creature that was all about the “bust out.” It won’t leave it’s coffin during combat—in fact it can’t—and the coffin itself lies at the center of the monster’s abilities and the ways the PCs interact with it. Mind you, this is a bit of a mad experiment in creature design, and I really can’t know if it works well or not without playtesting it, but it should at least make for an interesting thought experiment.

So, how does a creature that’s essentially a Jack-in-the-Box work? I mean, what can it even do? Well, most obviously it can pop out and scare people, which it accomplishes through its Frightful Eruption ability. This reaction allows it to suddenly emerge from its coffin and potentially inflict the frightened condition on nearby creatures. Pretty much what I described in the paragraph above. It is important to note this ability only functions outside of combat. It’s requirement dictates that creatures be unaware of the coffin banger’s presence, and the reaction circumvents normal initiative rolls to ensure the scare goes off before entering combat proper. I’ll note that I initially drafted Frightful Eruption as a somewhat convoluted free action, but later changed it to its current form by using the Shambler’s pre-existing Shamble ability as a basis. As always, it’s important to do your research and find the most optimal, most accepted formatting available.

With the jumpscare out of the way, what’s left for the coffin banger to do, and how do we keep it threatening? The answer is slow, creeping, inevitable dread. You may have noticed this gravecrawler has a painfully low speed of 5 feet; far slower than your average zombie. That’s because this undead pulls itself along with its hands, dragging its entire coffin in tow (sidenote: coffin dragger and coffin crawler are my two alternate names for this monster). At this rate our poor creature will never get its bony hands on a PC...unless it has some way to even the playing field. That’s where Legs to Jelly comes in, giving the coffin banger a chance to slow or ideally paralyze one creature each round. The idea, hopefully, is to freeze a PC in place, perhaps for multiple rounds in a row, as the coffin banger creeps forward hand-over-hand, scraping its pine box along the ground as it comes. Pretty creepy, right? Now the ability to stunlock a PC, especially as a free action, may appear incredibly broken on a level 3 monster—and without some severe caveats it absolutely would be. I tried to keep this under control by limiting the ability’s use to once each turn, before the coffin banger has taken any other actions. We’ll cover why that requirement is crucial a little later.

Let’s talk about the elephant in the room. Imprisoning Coffin is an extensive, multi-part ability that seems pretty dense at first glance, so let’s break it down piece by piece. 1) Even though it’s bound to the creature, the coffin is always considered an unattended object with its own set of statistics. This means that players can interact with and even attack the coffin regardless of what the coffin banger is doing. 2) The coffin banger can emerge from or withdraw into the coffin by opening or closing the coffin’s lid as an Interact action. Other creatures can force the coffin banger to emerge or withdraw as well by interacting with the lid, but they must succeed an Athletics check to do so. Pretty straight forward so far. Now for the fun part. 3) While withdrawn in the coffin, the ’banger gains fast healing 3 and breaks line of effect with other creatures. This last part means PCs can’t target it with attacks or spells, and vise versa, as long as it stays holed up. 4) If the coffin is broken the ’banger loses the ability to withdraw into it and becomes quickened 1. Basically, once the coffin is busted there’s nowhere left to hide, but the coffin banger goes into a frenzy that grants it an additional action each turn. 5) Finally, if the coffin is destroyed, so is it’s occupant.

That’s a whole bunch of rules without a lot of obvious utility in combat. Sure, the coffin banger can withdraw to take shelter and heal up, but it’s going to spend so many actions just popping in and out that it won’t get much else done. Especially not with that move speed. That’s why it needs a special ability, Slam Lid, so it can hide at the slightest sign of danger. By shifting the “withdraw” half of the equation to a reaction, the coffin banger frees up a precious action on its turn while also gaining the ability to immediately take cover from threats.

Now hopefully the pieces are starting to fall into place, and the coffin banger’s role is becoming clearer. If the pikkwit from last week was a fey version of a greedy chipmunk, then this undead is really just a turtle. A big scary turtle. It may move slowly, but it can also paralyze a PC long enough to get within reach. It may be vulnerable to ranged abilities, but it can instantly shut itself up and bide its time until the danger has passed. If the players get wise and attack the coffin, they can shut down its defensive abilities at the cost of sending it into a frenzy. To return to our initial question regarding the use case, this monster is most effective when positioned as an ambush predator in an environment that isn’t too easy to escape from. Place it at the heart of a claustrophobic crypt or blocking the only exit tunnel so that players are sure to set it rattling, and minimize escape options so running away isn’t so easy. If they do manage to flee, a persistent GM could arrange a reprise when the monster comes crawling up to their campsite days later. It’s been tracking the party this whole time, Terminator style!

Terminator

If you think that’s sadistic, we haven’t even gotten to the coffin banger’s nastiest ability. For two actions, Entomb lets the coffin banger drag a creature into the coffin alongside it, slamming the lid to trap its victim in suffocating, draining darkness. Like the generic Swallow Whole ability on which it is based, Entomb imposes a number of penalties while dealing a mess of negative energy damage that keeps racking up the longer the creature is entombed. Now the need for rules on prying open the lid should be apparent, as well as the necessity of Improved Grab on the ’banger’s otherwise unnoteworthy Strike.

As you can see, the coffin banger is a complicated enemy, both for players and GMs. It has a number of abilities that trigger under specific conditions. Some of these must be granted for free to balance out the challenging action economy imposed by a 5 ft. movement speed. Each round, the GM is presented with a combination of aggressive and defensive options, some of which have an impact on the next round as well. Remember that overpowered free action Legs to Jelly? Recall that it can only be used at the start of the coffin banger’s turn before it takes any actions. This is all well and good if it’s out of its box, but remember that while withdrawn the coffin crawler has no line of effect to other creatures. So if it starts its turn inside the coffin, Legs to Jelly is a no-go. Now the GM has to choose between the free stun or the free withdrawal via Slam Lid, because they can’t have both.

In summary, the coffin banger is an interesting study in the push and pull of monster design. It has a lot of co-dependent abilities with the potential to shape the narrative of the fight as well as the tactical choices. Players will have to decide if they want to coax out its vulnerable body and deal with the stunlock, or force it to hide as they chip away at its shell. While the coffin banger may start off obnoxiously tanky, once its coffin is broken, it loses access to many abilities and becomes pitifully vulnerable. All in all this build may be a touch overwrought for the monster’s level, and if submitted to Paizo I would not be surprised to see this creature undergo streamlining before publication. I do believe this design accomplishes the goal of taking an unusual approach to the “pop out” monster by making continuous “popping” a viable and necessary strategy throughout the entirety of the combat. I can just see the look on players’ faces when a foolhardy PC wanders too close to the coffin, only to be frightened, grabbed, and entombed within the first round of combat. I can envision the ensuing panic as party members frantically attempt to get the coffin open, followed by a tense game of whack-a-mole as the GM juggles the tasks of ensnaring PCs and avoiding too much damage. I can imagine the cheer that goes up from the PCs when they finally break the coffin, followed by the dread of realizing their foe is not going down without one last furious frenzy. And at the end of the day, if I can tell myself a fun story with my monster based only on its stat block, I’m pretty satisfied.

Cheers, and happy imagining!

Musings of a Monster Maker: The Pikkwit

Anthony Bono
Anthony Bono
March 30, 2020

Before I get going on my first homebrew monster breakdown, I want to take a moment to give a shoutout to RPG Superstar’s monster creation tool. With built-in formatting and stat suggestions, it has proven by far the most seamless and enjoyable creature crafting experience I’ve had with Pathfinder. Also, if you haven’t yet done so, you should scroll down and read Owen Stephen’s Making an Awesome Monster post. Whether you’re a first-time designer or a seasoned homebrewer--especially if you’re looking to submit an entry to the contest—you should give particular attention to his explanation of concept, use case, and memorable options. In the weeks ahead, I will be touching on the same ideas in my own words, but his are probably better.

Finally, as a general rule, I will not be discussing how I arrived at any particular bonus, DC, or hit point total unless I feel there is a specific point worth making. Anything and everything you could want to know about numbers is found in the “Building Creatures” section on page 56 of the Pathfinder 2e Gamemastery Guide. Read this section, top to bottom. Memorize it (not really). The explanations are clearer and more comprehensive than anything I could hope to cover here. This section is also available as a free PDF directly from Paizo, and can even be found online at the Archives of Nethys. In other words, there are plenty of resources for you to peruse at your leisure.

Okay, enough boring stuff. You came for monsters, right? Teeth and tails, scales, and spells. Well, we’re not starting with a dragon. We’re starting small with a diminutive member of the fey folk. I present to you, the pikkwit. You will notice, first of all, that its stat block is almost as petite as its stature. Mechanically, the pikkwit is fairly simple. Barring the usual stats, its only notable entries include a special sense, a reaction, a couple of spells, and a somewhat lengthy special ability. In theory, however, this is all the information the reader will need to build a clear image of a pikkwit’s personality, talents, and likely behavior before they even take a glance at the creature description. Have a look and see for yourself.

Hopefully, you’ve gotten the sense that the pikkwit is a sneaky, devious little pissant who excels at vexing adventurers as it snacks on their trinkets and treasures. As implied in the creature description, my primary inspiration for the pikkwit is this:

Chipmunk

Like a chipmunk, the pikkwit has the potential to be cute, pesky, and above all else greedy. This was my core concept, and each of the creature’s stats and abilities are designed to support this concept. Developing a solid concept is often the most important, and therefore first, step in designing a creature. Everything about the creature should contribute mechanically or thematically (preferably both) to that concept. This is the key to building a memorable and distinct creature. No matter if you’re making a dragon, giant, goblin, zombie, or something completely original; you should strive to differentiate your creature from all the others in the bestiary through a strong, novel concept.

Now the pikkwit is definitely not the only trickster fey on the block. But it is, as far as I know, the only creature with an extradimensional space in its mouth. There are a thousand and one monsters scattered across both editions of Pathfinder, so maybe I missed it, but let’s operate under the assumption that this is a fresh concept. If building a monster is like putting together a puzzle, the Mouth Stash ability is my corner piece. “Cheeks stuffed full of goodies” was the main thing I wanted to emulate from my chipmunk concept, so I drafted a rough version of the ability before anything else. Of course, most players don’t consider seeds and nuts to be “goodies,” so I endowed the pikkwit with a proclivity for precious metals, gemstones, and maybe even the occasional level 1 magic item. Now it wants something that players want too. An obvious but important choice. Because Golarion is a larger than life magical land, I dialed the ability up to 11 by turning the chipmunk’s cheek pockets into extra-spacious pocket dimensions. Turning to the classic bag of holding for reference, I made it an Interact action to add or remove items from this space. Whenever you can, it's smart to use pre-existing items, creatures, spells, and abilities as touchstones for good design. More often than not the custom feature you need turns out to be not so custom after all, and much like writing code, it's often easier to utilize another designer’s syntax then spend time laboring over it yourself. It’s not ripping off. It’s borrowing. Not to mention any potential editors or judges reading your creature will thank you for using standardized language and established rules.

So our pikkwit has the oral capacity it needs. Now how can it go about finding treasure to gobble up? Well, I could leave it to GM fiat to simply assume it knows where every coin purse, cashbox, and secret chest is, but why not give it the mechanical ability it would need to do its job if there weren’t an omniscient god nudging it along? Goldscent is another ability unique to this critter, but similar special senses have a well-established precedent in the official bestiary. Plenty of creatures have the preternatural ability to see, hear, smell, or taste things like heat and vibrations, or even intangible concepts like “life” and “sin.” So the ability to smell precious metals isn’t out of place, and not particularly powerful since it has the Impercise trait.

Now the pikkwit can find its way to treasure, even if it didn’t initially know the treasure existed. This is a small detail that is easily overlooked, but it has big implications for your game’s story. Imagine a situation where players are searching for hidden treasure, but don’t know exactly where it’s buried. They could cut a deal with a pikkwit to sniff it out for them, like a living metal detector, in exchange for a share of the wealth. Maybe the pikkwit will play along. Maybe it will double cross them and steal as much as it can for itself. Maybe the pikkwit is actually the agent of a pirate gang who are planning to swoop in and claim the booty themselves.

Hooks like this are essential for your creature to be a cohesive part of the game’s narrative. They give you a reason to use the monster in one scenario over another. You don’t want to make a monster that is just a speed bump on the way to something more interesting. The gamemastery guide refers to this as the creature’s role while Owen Stephens calls it a use case, but no matter what you call it, everyone needs a purpose.

The pikkwit’s final unique ability is its Glittering Grin reaction. Our fuzzy little friend won’t last long if caught in a straight fight, but this ability might at least hamper a melee combatant long enough for it to make a getaway. I puzzled for a while over what sort of combat trick I could give the pikkwit that would compliment its concept as a magical gold-stealing chipmunk. I pondered using the mouth stash to gobble up a weapon mid-attack (an ability which seemed both too powerful and too unbelievable for my tastes) and even wondered if the pikkwit could somehow turn its mouth inside out to swallow itself up in its own extradimensional space (dismissed again for the same reasons). Then it occurred to me; if the pikkwit’s whole shtick is a mouthful of gold, then why not simply flash the stash? Dazzling an attacker with the glint of its shiny little treasure hoard seemed like the perfect fit for a tricksy thief, but only if the pikkwit had something to show off in the first place. Therefore, I made sure to give the pikkwit some starting cash already in its mouth stash, which also makes for a convenient bargaining chip in a pinch.

With these abilities in place, I felt I had captured the essence of what makes a pikkwit a pikkwit. I began filling in stats I felt would be appropriate. A pikkwit would clearly be more of a threat to a low level party, perhaps serving as the antagonist for a light-hearted first session, so I stat-ed it up for level 1. I gave it high AC to represent its tiny size and agility, balanced out by low HP and a pretty pitiful Strike. Those who read between the lines will also note that the pikkwit is pretty easy to snatch up with a grapple, but might prove more slippery than expected. Add some fitting skills for an evasive burglar, a couple of distracting illusion spells to reinforce its fey nature, a climb speed to access hard to reach places, and you’ve got the recipe for an encounter straight out of Tom and Jerry.

But there’s one more pretty big thing I haven’t touched on yet. You may have noticed that, just as with the bag of holding, the items in a pikkwit’s extradimensional space are permanently lost if the critter meets an untimely end. I kept this feature to deter players from simply solving the pikkwit problem with a big hammer; instead encouraging them to cajole, bargain, or trick the pikkwit into handing over its stolen possessions. (Note: this feature does have the side-effect of potentially derailing—or perhaps enhancing—plots revolving around small all-powerful artifacts that must be protected/destroyed. Imagine if a pikkwit got its mouth on the One Ring).

All this was well and good, but as I was putting the finishing touches on my monster, serendipity intervened. I was plugging in the common characteristics for fey creatures when I came upon that good old aversion to cold iron. I dutifully slotted it into the weakness section and was about to move on, but then I began to think: The pikkwit already has a habit of eating bits of metal, so what if it ate a piece of cold iron? Obviously it would feel sick, so I double-checked the sickened condition. Whoa. Hold on. The only way to clear the sickened condition (barring spells or remedies) is by retching up the thing that made you sick. What if, in addition to vomiting up the cold iron, the pikkwit had to spit out everything else too? If a PC was clever enough to make a pikkwit eat cold iron by deception or force, they could get the whole regurgitated stash in one fell swoop! That felt like a wonderfully thematic non-combat solution to resolve the main threat posed by the pikkwit, and hopefully makes a memorable option for both players and GMs.

That about sums it up for my discussion of my first custom monster for the series. Next time, I’m pumped to share a twist on your classic undead encounter.

Until then: Cheers, and happy imaging!

Musings of a Monster Maker

Anthony Bono
Anthony Bono
March 25, 2020

Hi there, I’m Anthony. Good to meet you. Welcome to my blog series on designing RPG monsters. Over the next few weeks, I’ll be sharing Pathfinder 2e monsters of my creation and discussing some of the logic and thought process I use when building a monster from the ground up. If you’re reading this, chances are really, really good that you are aware of the RPG Superstar contest – but in case you somehow missed it – you should know that it’s an exciting and storied competition that gives anyone the opportunity to try their hand at game design and get their ideas under the eyes of industry pros. Seriously, it’s a fantastic opportunity. If you have even a smidge of an inkling of an idea that you might have a knack for this sort of stuff, give it a go!

Now, who am I, and why is my advice any more reliable than fire safety tips from a goblin? To sum it up, I would call myself a dabbler. My educational background is in screenwriting and history, and my work experience varies from everything as mundane as copywriting for a facilities management company to the excitement of being a crew member on an HBO tv series. Along the way, I’ve worked freelance gigs as a graphic designer, social media writer, photographer, drone pilot, video editor, and – of course – writer for Paizo, Inc. That’s a lot of different stuff, but I like to think that underlying all of my work is a strong fascination with storytelling in its many forms.

All of this is to say that, while I have written a number of articles and created numerous creatures, starships, and vehicles for both Pathfinder and Starfinder, game design was not my first or only interest. When I started freelance writing for Paizo in July of 2018, I was probably a lot like you; an RPG enthusiast with many creative interests but no clear direction on how to break into the industry. Over the past couple of years, I’m proud to have racked up four contributing author credits (with more to come this summer), but even so, I’m still working on that breaking in thing. It’s a process, and it starts with practice. Here’s the good news: if you participate in RPGs, especially as a GM, then you’re already logging hours. The portfolio I submitted to get my first tryout with Paizo consisted of nothing more than some spruced-up and polished encounters I had homebrewed for the campaign I run with friends. Mind you, it took a lot of effort to get that material up to standards, but the core of it stemmed from my basic understanding of what players and GMs alike need for engaging and enjoyable play. The more you practice by playing, the more you get a sense for what feels boring or awkward, and what feels right. That gut feeling is telling you more than you may realize. My goal with this blog is to put into words things you probably already know at an instinctual level and hopefully provide some new tips on the side.

Okay, on that note: for this series, I’ll be practicing too by creating new monsters as I go. I will use the same resources available to anyone--namely the Pathfinder 2e Gamemastery Guide (official monster building rules also available for free here), the Pathfinder 2e Bestiary, and the monster builder tool on rpgsuperstar.com. These creatures will be raw, unfiltered, and un-playtested. They may have wording issues or balance problems, though I will endeavor to minimize these and stick as close to Paizo’s best practices as possible. Additionally, I will be adhering to the requirements for submission to the RPG Superstar contest, namely the 500-700 word count. The more loquacious types like myself may struggle to keep their entries brief, but official Paizo contracts for monsters are normally in this range – and usually on the shorter end – so learning to write succinctly is a good habit to get into.

I think that’s enough for one post. My next entry will follow shortly, in which I’ll cover some of my basic considerations for monster design and introduce an all-new homebrew critter. If you want to read my published work for yourself, my most relevant contributions are the Herecite and Yaganty monsters found in Pathfinder AP #153: Life’s Long Shadows. I also penned the Monasteries of the Galaxy article, the SDF Rampart starship, and the Flashfire Demon/Strox Ha monsters in Starfinder AP #22: The Forever Reliquary, plus the Military Vehicles article in Starfinder AP #24: The God-Host Ascends.

I am thrilled to embark on this adventure with you. Cheers, and happy imagining!

Making An Awesome Monster

Owen K.C. Stephens
Owen K.C. Stephens
March 16, 2020
Cover image for tips on building an awesome monster

There are a lot of things you need to get right to create a good monster. There is crucial formatting—making sure GMs will find attack information where they expect to, in an order they can use, with notations they understand. There’s rules language—knowing when to refer to things as reactions, or that attack rolls are a kind of check, or exactly what precision damage is. And there are the numbers—making sure a monster’s attack bonus, and AC, and Hit Points are all in an appropriate range for the kind of threat it is supposed to be.

That’s all important. But forget about it for a minute.

Because you can get ALL of that right, and still have a terrible monster. A boring sack of hit points that just makes a Strike every round and eventually is either worn down by the players, or manages to wear them down. Technically perfect in every game mechanical aspect... but not fun.

A great monster needs so much more than accurate numbers and clean rules language. It needs a concept, a use case, and one or more memorable options. Of all of those, the concept may be the most important, because it is from the concept everything else flows.

A perfect concept is interesting, easily understood, easily used by a GM, and naturally suggests what abilities, options, and adventures can be associated with it. That’s a lot to ask of course, but it’s difficult to overstate how crucial a good concept is. Basic fantasy tropes like dragons, genies, and giants all meet these criteria, but they’ve also all been done before. And, for the most part, the obvious variants of them have been done. Sure you could find a terrain type or material that hasn’t had a giant assigned to it (lake giants maybe, or silver giants), but that’s been done so often it isn’t nearly enough to make them stick out. And, more importantly, it’s the other details of the classic giants that make them, well, classic. Hill giants are cruel and brutish. Frost giants have strong Viking themes. No one much cares what slag giants are known for, because the idea just isn’t different enough from the pack to be interesting anymore.

Similarly you can’t just mix giants with their trollish cousins, or give them an unusual number of heads, eyes, or limbs, and hope you have a good monster. Cyclops in Pathfinder aren’t interesting because they have one eye, they’re interesting because they come from a fallen, largely lost empire and they can look briefly into the future. When looking for your concept, there’s nothing wrong with tying into what people are already familiar with, but you have to give it more of a spin than just a new descriptor. An acid giant makes perfect game mechanical sense, but it quite forgettable. You need to dig deeper, and find the thing that causes a GM to be excited to use a giant that happens to have acid powers.

The use case ideally comes from the concept. Some monsters are sapient, sentient creatures from their own cultures who can have all the aspirations and desires of any thinking entity, while others are wild animals, or geometric corridor-cleaners found in ruins and tombs. Ideally when a GM is looking for the right monster for a range of encounters, your monster will be a natural fit. Dragons can be local rulers, terrible invaders, greedy brigands, wise advisors, cunning masterminds, or all of the above if needed. It’s easy for a GM to add a dragon to an adventure.

It’s important to note that your use case doesn’t really have anything to do with how powerful your monster is. Dragons come in a wide range of challenges, and are always great as major encounters for adventurers of whatever power level they happen to be encountered at. Stirges and rust monsters aren’t particularly powerful in the grand scheme of things, but can terrify PCs even when encountered as minor threats. Rats aren’t generally that dangerous, but always carry the potential concern of disease, not to mention possibly being a spellcaster’s familiar or a wererat.

Memorable options are the things your monster does. These may be attacks, or they may be defenses, or reactions, or interactions with the environment. Something as simple as changing how a monster moves can make it memorable. A shambling zombie that tries to bite you is, at this point in our culture, a dime a dozen. A skinless corpse that crawls backwards up walls and across ceilings, which attacks by flexing its broken ribs that jut forth from its meaty husk and clamp down on you like a bear trap is (while gross), memorable.

For a great example of how to make monsters memorable, compare the Pathfinder Second Edition owlbear to its first-edition progenitor. The original owlbear is a cool concept and hugely popular as a neat idea, but all it actual does is fight like any other CR 4 monster. In the new edition, it has a bloodcurdling screech, and a disemboweling attack that can sicken foes, leading to far more memorable encounters than just a grab attack.

Also remember, you are making a monster for a contest. It’s going to be judged. There’s nothing wrong with a game having some rank-and-file monsters to fill in the middle encounters of a dungeon, but those aren’t the kinds of things that make judges sit up and take notice. You want your judges to be interested (and not annoyed by) your idea. Don’t make it a huge joke or pun. Don’t thinly disguise a creature from a movie or comic. Don’t just make a more powerful version (or weaker version) of an existing monster from any edition of the game.

It’s true that bestiaries often have examples of all those kinds of monsters.

But they aren’t contest winners.

-Owen K.C. Stephens
Head Judge, RPG Superstar 2020