This post is the result of a request made on Reddit, asking for more information on designing Dungeon Crawl Classics monsters. While I would argue that this process is more of an art than a science, it is an art which, like all arts, is informed by rational principles. I’m going to break down the statblock first, and then talk about general design principles. Well, that’s the theory. As you will see, some general design principles are embedded in the statblock itself.
Init: Generally, human values run from -3 to +3. The easiest thing to do is to have an Init of +0. That way, when you roll the die in front of the players, what they see is what they get. However, if you have a monster which is known for speed, such as a cobra, increase the value to reflect that. For slower monsters, decrease the value. You are allowed to say “always first” or “always last”.
Remember, slower monsters are less likely to get attacks in before they are ganged up on by the PCs, but a slower monster with good defenses, or that is likely to get a surprise round, can be terrifying!
Atk: This is an easy one. List the kinds of attacks the creature can do, and then give them damage values. Weapon ranges for damage are a pretty good starting point when determining what damage you should assign. Give bonuses (or penalties) for Strength as seems appropriate to you.
You will note a tendency to give the best attack bonuses to the attacks that do the most damage, at least when you examine creatures in the core rules. If you are going to do that, consider upping the creature’s Action Dice so that the secondary attack(s) get used. Another way to go is to make the less damaging attack more likely to hit, or to include some special effect, so that the judge (playing the monster) has a real decision to make about which attack(s) to use.
Ranged attacks make a creature far more dangerous, if it can choose a location that takes advantage of them!
Attack bonuses also have a synergy with Action Dice to define a creature. More on that later.
AC: How hard is it to hit this creature? Dungeon Crawl Classics uses static AC bonuses for various types of armor, starting with a base AC of 10. This should make choosing an AC simple. Equal to leather armor? That is AC 12. Full plate? AC 18.
AC can also be affected by things like size (small things are harder to hit, but big things might be harder to hit in a meaningful way if they are big enough), ability to dodge, and special qualities like being semi-corporeal. Make these factors clear in your monster description, if you can. That way, the players know why they are missing, and might be able to Mighty Deed or use a spell to alter the situation.
HD: You have two decisions to make here – how many Hit Dice, and what type of die. These decisions actually matter, because Hit Dice are ties to both hit points and critical hits. They may also interact with spells that affect creatures on the basis of their Hit Dice.
Imagine that you want a 26 hp creature. You could make this creature have 9d6 HD, for instance, or 1d50. The first creature’s critical hits will be far more devastating than those of the second creature. One is M/d14, the other M/d6. The creature with 1d50 HD is also far more susceptible to spells which specify how many Hit Dice of creatures they affect.
You are strongly encouraged not to bloat the hit points of various creatures unnecessarily. DCC combat is fast and loose; don’t make every combat a slog!
But see also Action Dice, below, because there is a strong synergy between Action Dice and Hit Dice.
MV: An unarmored human moves at 30’, a dwarf or Halfling at 20’, and a horse at 60’. Gauge your monster’s speed by these benchmarks. It may also have one or more unusual movement speeds: fly, climb, swim, burrow, etc.
If converting from a game where the average human speed is 120’, divide by 4 and round to the nearest 5’.
Act: Here we get into some of the niftiest ways to play with DCC monster design. They don’t apply to every monster, but when they do, they are useful. The basics for Action Dice are 1d20, with a critical hit occurring on a natural 20.
Multiple Dice: If you have more than one attack method, you can use multiple Action Dice to ensure that weaker attacks also get used. Action Dice can be used for movement as well, so a creature which is designed to move-attack-move could have two Action Dice. The description should tell the judge what behavior is expected.
Larger Dice: If you want a creature to get criticals a lot more often, consider using d24 Action Dice, with criticals occurring on a 20-24. This is how giants work. Even with a low (or non-existent) bonus to attack rolls, the creature can be horrendously effective.
Smaller Action Dice: A Halfling using two weapons gets a critical hit on a natural 16. That is not a normal thing. By dropping a creature’s Action Dice to 1d16 or lower, you can prevent it from gaining critical hits at all. This allows a cool synergy with attack bonuses – a creature with Act 1d16 but an attack bonus of +8 is going to hit almost every time, but it is never going to do more than its normal damage because of a lucky swing. This is a good option for small creatures where, in general, critical hits are unlikely to happen.
Synergy With Attacks: By shifting the Action Die up or down, one can alter the attack bonus to make hits more or less likely to succeed. What this really does is adjust the chance of a critical hit….from very likely to impossible, as you see fit.
Synergy With Spells: As with dragons, you can have an additional Action Die that can only be used for spells. This allows you to determine how likely the spell is to go off, and how powerful it will be when it does. Casting bonus is also important, obviously, but even with a high bonus, the chance of a natural “1” becomes increasingly greater the smaller the Action Die. You can have a creature which casts 1st level spells, for instance, using 1d3 with a +9 bonus. The spell goes off, weakly, 1/3rd of the time, is lost 1/3rd of the time, and has serious potential problems 1/3rd of the time.
Synergy With Hit Dice: Remember that type of Hit Dice determines what size of die is rolled when a critical hit occurs, while size of Action Die determines how likely a critical hit is to occur. If you want a monster that has horrendous criticals, consider “HD 10d3; hp 15” as a real possibility. That same monster is just harder to defeat with color spray if it has 1d16 for Action Dice, and is extremely likely to cause a critical hit if it has 1d24.
SP: Special abilities include infravision, bonuses to specific checks, and just about anything the judge can think of. A number of things that come up in General Design Principles, below, deal with special abilities. Did you give your creature some cool “Death Throes”? If so, include it here so that you don’t forget when you run the encounter.
SV: Saving throws. You can use a general law of averages, and divide up (say) 3 points of bonus per Hit Die, but that is rather boring. The better way, in my opinion, is to consider that an average gong farmer has +0 to each save, and then consider how much better (or worse) your creature is from that. You can also say that the creature should save like a 6th level warrior and look up those saves.
What do you want your creature to be susceptible to? What makes the most sense? Remembering that Will saves are tied to morale in DCC, it is completely okay to make a creature immune to mind-affecting magic as a special ability, but give it a penalty to Will saves because it is also cowardly.
AL: Weird Lovecraftian monsters, and things that disrupt the natural order are typically Chaotic. Things that are well organized tend to be Lawful. If you can’t decide, the odds are that it can’t either – Neutral is your friend.
General Design Principles
Really, this is nothing more than asking “How do I come up with cool ideas for new creatures?”
First off, there are tables in the Dungeon Crawl Classics core rulebook for making monsters mysterious – use them! That bit about “Death Throes” in the core rulebook? That is gold – use it!
Secondly, if you don’t have a copy yet of The Random Esoteric Creature Generator – buy one! Spend an afternoon or three just rolling up random creatures. You are not turning them into DCC monsters yet, and you are not deciding how to use them. You are just filling a few pages in a notebook.
And then, when you have done that, start deciding how to put the pieces together. Again, you are not devising encounters yet. You are just making a stable of interesting beings – some of which may not even be monsters in the traditional sense – to spur your creativity.
Other books I have found useful in this context include The Metamorphica and The Monster Alphabet.
Third, when you are reading some fantasy or science fiction novel (in Appendix N or otherwise), keep a notebook by your side. Jot down quick stats for the creatures you encounter. Some of these you might want to revise later for your own adventures. If you encounter an interesting idea, write it down! The very act of doing so will make it more likely to come to mind when you are stuck for ideas.
Finally, here are three things to keep in mind:
What’s the worst that can happen?
Really consider that question. And then make it happen…or, at least, make it possible that it can happen, and make sure the players realize that it is possible even if it never actually occurs. My first published DCC work includes a monster that can pull the skeleton out of your body while leaving you alive. Give some honest thought about what would terrify you. Make it possible.
Target something other than Hit Points.
Hit points exist as a buffer protecting your PC from harm. Not every attack should target hit points. A 1st level and a 10th level character are not that far apart when Agility damage slowly turns you to stone.
And the thing being targeted doesn’t have to be a statistic within the ruleset. You don’t have a stat for having your brain stolen by mermaids from Yuggoth, but that doesn’t mean it can’t happen.
Monsters don’t play by the rules.
In some ways, rules mastery can be a hindrance to creating cool critters. Instead of thinking “Here is a great idea. How can I make it work within these rules?” the poor designer ends up thinking “What can I design with these rules?”
Putting the rules before the design is a serious mistake. All it can do is limit your creativity.
You can get around this kind of thinking by taking creatures from very different games and converting them to Dungeon Crawl Classics. The less direct rules conversion you are doing, the better. Your goal here is to allow the idea of the monster to take precedence over the game statistics. Then, and only then, do you consider how that idea interacts with the game mechanics that you are using.
For instance, imagine that you are converting a creature from a game system with mana-based magic, and that this creature consumes the mana of spell casters. That idea – that it is consuming not only magical energy, but the magical energy that fuels spells – is the important thing to keep in mind. DCC wizards don’t use mana, but they do use Action Dice to cast spells. Perhaps a successful attack from this creature should reduce the die used to cast spells? And perhaps this loss takes time to heal – the die increases by +1d per night of rest until it is its normal value?
Here’s an example of the “Potted Plant” converted from the Munchkin card game!
I would be remiss if I didn’t point out the tools on People Them With Monsters, or the excellent Monster Extractor Series by Inner Ham. More example monsters than you can shake a stick at can be found at Appendix M or on this blog.
Dungeon Crawl Classics gives you a surprising number of dials for the creation of monsters, as examination of the statblock shows, but those dials are almost all fairly intuitive. It is by trying to imagine the monster as a whole, outside the rules, where truly unique creatures begin to appear.
Feel free to ask questions in the comments. I will do my best to answer them. I’ve enabled some level of comment filtering because of the proliferation of spam, but I guarantee that any non-spam comments will be allowed through!