Have you ever poured through books to find ideas for antagonists appropriate for your game, only to discover that nothing quite fits? For a lot of D&D GMs, turning to the Monster Manual for inspiration is a time-honored sport. Unfortunately, if you want something specific, you might be out of luck.
For me, the problem was often in the descriptions. I tend to like less fantastic opponents, something the player could easily imagine running into in a dark alley. Especially in recent editions of D&D, though, the trend is going in the exact opposite direction: more fantastic, and less realistic. I’m also adamant that opponents should fit the theme of the game.
What I finally realized was that I didn’t have to be ruled by the tyranny of the words on the page. I’m frankly embarrassed that it took me so long to come to this conclusion. You’re the GM, you create the world, and you can describe it however the hell you want!
A Lion by Any Other Name
It was our first game of 4th Edition D&D. We were playing gladiators, fighting our way through the dark underground pits of a seedy foreign city. During a break, the GM mentioned that the jackals we had just fought had really been a lion and several smaller animals from the Monster Manual.
I had even seen the concept of multi-use NPCs in other games, where you could pick a set of mechanics, and describe them to fit the scene. It had somehow never struck me until then that the same idea could be used in D&D; that the blocks of statistics in the Monster Manual had little to nothing to do with the descriptions. Though the concept is simple, there are lots of advantages.
The primary benefit for me is the ability to fit NPCs to my own theme. One of the first games I ran in 4th Edition also happened to be my first try running the pre-written module Keep on the Shadowfell. An early encounter involved a big lizard thing. This struck me as overly fantastic, and seemed not to fit the rest of the scene at all. My solution was just to describe it as a big dog. Problem solved.
The plot of the module involves the Shadowfell (big spoiler there), and lots of undead. However, one of my players had included in his character backstory a lot of references to a Cthulu-esque entity. Accordingly, I changed the opponents in the story from supporters of the original antagonist, to a cult of the character’s nemesis. For instance, instead of describing vampires as expected, I described them as slimy humanoid things with lamprey-like faces, which better fit the aberrant feel of the new enemy. While leaving the stats the same, this allowed me to create in-game links to a character.
In a more recent game of my own design, the enemies were supposed to be undead, but I couldn’t always find ones that fit my needs. Instead, I picked out a mix of undead and living monsters whose mechanics I liked. I found ways to describe the living ones as undead, changing them as necessary, for instance to do necrotic damage instead of psychic. One example I used in the climactic battle was a large animated jumble of stitched-together parts that crawled across the battlefield. It was essentially a Gibbering Mouther, with a thin coat of paint. This not only made the creatures fit my game, but also provided the players with mysterious opponents, whose capabilities they wouldn’t expect.
In the middle of writing this, I read a recent Gnome Stew article on a very similar topic. Just as DNAphil points out, separating description from mechanics can also make for faster planning. He advocates preparing your own generic NPC frameworks that you can modify as needed, but I don’t think you even have to do that much work. By accumulating a toolbox of useful stat blocks, you can skin them however you want. This will speed up game preparation, and make it far easier to come up with NPCs on the fly.
Only Skin Deep
If I am an example, there’s a danger in coming to think of a game’s books as canonical. As GMs, we need to remember that the books are just a guide, and the game is what we make it. Throwing off the constraints of the flavor text has allowed me far greater freedom in creating my games. It’s also helped me to fit pre-built modules into my campaign, and to come up with NPC statistics quickly and easily.