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Tome Uncased: How the Sausage Goes In

Tome Uncased: How the Sausage Goes In

The Expanding Codex and Tome Unbound/Unleashed series have dissected, reassembled, and borrowed from over 50 monsters published by Kobold Press. More are on the way!

But before the next series begins for Tome of Beasts 3 (and the Tales of the Valiant Monster Vault coming next year!), I’m going to show you how an entry comes together behind the curtain.

See how I make altered versions of monsters by looking at their stats and backgrounds to derive alternate traits and actions, thematic magic items, spells, and other design elements.

Using these tools, you can make your own versions of any monster you want to tweak to keep your players on their toes. I’ll use the zilaq (see Tome of Beasts 3) as an example.

Alternate Traits and Actions

The key to a good subject for the Tome series is a wide suite of abilities and a robust description, elements found in many Kobold Press offerings. The zilaq has several abilities that allow for some tinkering.

  • Sonic Yelp provides the opportunity to choose a different damage type.
  • Enthralling Speech opens options for alternate effects for the action.
  • Two-Headed as trait allows for some shenanigans.

The key, though, is to ensure none of the changes appreciably affect the zilaq’s challenge rating. This rules out increasing or decreasing damage unless it trades off with something to support the updated damage.

Switch Damage Types

Switching out damage types is one of the easiest ways to throw curve balls at players who have depth of knowledge about monsters. For instance, based on the zilaq’s background and other abilities, it’s evident that psychic damage can replace sonic damage from the zilaq’s yelp.

Note that changing damage type thoughtlessly can mess with the feel of the monster. The change needs to flow from its description or other abilities. For the zilaq, it’s easy to make the case for psychic damage since it can manipulate emotions and generate illusions. It might strain credulity to give it fiery breath, though.

Expand a Trait

Instead of direct replacement, expanding an existing trait adds some unpredictability. The zilaq’s Enthralling Speech has a couple of fun options which create a launchpad for other ideas. For example, the zilaq can reverse the hostility effect and instead make two affected creatures cease hostility. It could also create a suggestion effect as an option. A wide range of choices requires some limitation to the ability, so a creature could receive a new saving throw at the end of its turn to offset the new flexibility.

Look for Similarities on Other Monsters

The zilaq’s two heads are reminiscent of the hydra’s multiple heads, so it’s possible to borrow the hydra’s regeneration mechanic for the zilaq but limit it to only one head regenerating. Other monsters with dual natures sometimes deal two kinds of damage. Applied to the zilaq, its two heads can combine with the sonic/psychic damage from earlier, with one head dishing out sonic damage and the other psychic. To offset an additional source of damage like this, reducing the recharge is often an easy fix.

Go from Strength to Strength

Immunities and resistances also provide tinkering options. The zilaq could replace its immunity to thunder damage with an immunity to psychic damage. It could also gain magic resistance or resistance to nonmagical weapon damage, but it would have to lose or reduce the effectiveness of another ability to balance this change (for example, forgoing Enthralling Speech or Phantasmal Oratory).

Alternate Versions

Different manifestations of a monster sometimes present themselves. If the base monster is huge or gargantuan, creating a smaller or younger version of the monster allows a GM to introduce it at an earlier point in a campaign. Then it can foreshadow the larger or adult version in the monster later in the campaign.

Similarly, tiny monsters lend themselves to collecting in swarms, assuming the background supports this. Obviously loner-type monsters would never gather to create swarms, but zilaqs are engaging conversationalists who love books, making it conceivable for dozens of them to talk among themselves or scour an ancient library.

Humanoid creatures lend themselves to specialization, allowing for different builds based on combat or magic skills. Many Kobold Press books contain multiple options for different humanoids, but due to page constraints or other concerns, openings come up!

New Feat

In rare cases, a monster’s abilities inspire a new feat. For example, the zilaq has eidetic memory which could translate well into a feat.

New Magic Items and Spells

The final design section of a Tome article contains magic items and spells. These take their cues from the base monster and not from the alternate choices devises for the article. So, you could derive a magic item from a zilaq’s Sonic Yelp, but not from the psychic substitute.

Usually, this section avoids replication of concepts across magic items and spells. For example, the zilaq’s two heads lend themselves equally well to a transmutation spell or a wondrous item (a collar of duo-headedness), but not both. Phantasmal Oratory works almost as-is for an illusion spell, but it could be part of a magic book where reading a page brings a creature to a semblance of life. Enthralling Speech works wonderfully as an enchantment spell, especially for bards.

Generally, avoid converting abilities that deal damage in an area and do nothing else. It doesn’t add much. So the zilaq’s Sonic Yelp would typically remain on the cutting room floor. However, a fun way to tweak the ability to achieve a similar effect might occur to you. In this case, I might include an element to enhance armor that triggers when an opponent scores a critical hit.

Adventure Hooks

The closing piece of a Tome article features adventure hooks or ways to introduce the monster to a game. Typically, these hooks offer one opportunity to interact with the monster and one to fight it.

In our example, an antagonistic hook could concern removing an inquisitive zilaq from a library where it has been using its abilities to drive away patrons. A social encounter might have the zilaq requesting that the adventurers find a rare book for its collection.

Tome of Beasts 3 has over 400 new monsters! Here’s what people are saying:
“Lots of great new monsters to terrorize your players with.”
“. . . This one does not disappoint.”

Head over to the Kobold store to get your copy of Tome of Beasts 3 on sale now!

about Mike Welham

Mike Welham started gaming some time in the Mesozoic Era and has played at least one game in each edition of D&D. He has been happily writing for Kobold Press for over ten years and is partially responsible for all the darn drakes flying around Midgard.

3 thoughts on “Tome Uncased: How the Sausage Goes In”

  1. Robert Fairbanks

    Fantastic article! And, terrifically written.
    Plus, he’s giving away free design secrets! Take heed, new game-design aspirants, there’s more than one ‘Rosetta stone’ tucked inside here.

    Well done
    Thanks for this M.W.!

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