Reskin and Tweak Old Monsters
If you already own a collection of published monsters, or an archive of monsters you’ve previously made, one way to get extra mileage is by reskinning them into something new. This is particularly useful if you want to avoid metagaming issues from players who memorize all published monster stats. Throw them off the trail by describing something they’ve never seen before.
The resident power gamer and rules lawyer may know exactly what to expect from an elf on a hippogriff, but if you take that stat block and describe the encounter as a wild fey riding a giant wasp, then they won’t have any idea that it’s a creature whose strengths and weaknesses they’re already familiar with. With a couple of keyword swaps to finish the reskin, like replacing “claw” with “stinger,” you get a completely fresh experience from an old creature.
A small step up from the effortless reskin is to make minor adjustments to the stats of existing monsters. Lots of interesting abilities can be swapped in to make a monster play uniquely in combat. The players at your table who focus on game mechanics will notice and get particular enjoyment from these creative tweaks. With our above example, a few small adjustments to the Giant Wasp could be adding poison to its stinger, and reducing its fly speed in exchange for adding the ability to hover in place.
Now let’s say that the monster you want to use is just too tough for the level of your players. Or you want to make another attempt at introducing a villain that was skipped last month, but at the current party level he’s too weak to pose a challenge. Most game systems are forgiving enough that your enemies can have their difficulty increased or decreased without going through a full leveling process. Small adjustments to attack and defense bonuses, damage dice, and hit points can bring an encounter into a range that will be appropriate for your party. You don’t have to worry about revising it into a perfectly balanced opponent – you’re only aiming for something that is reasonable for the party level.
Create One Villain for Multiple Uses
If you’re starting from scratch, you can make a palette swappable enemy right out of the gate. If your players are fighting a group of goblins, orcs, or humans, then the most noticeable differences between their fighting styles will result from weapon choice. Start with one stat block as the base, and then build out a number of variants. The wild fey wasp riders train with lances and charge directly at the enemy. But some of the sneakier wild fey use poison darts when attacking from above in the jungle, and those that prefer melee combat will dart in and out of their opponents’ reach using pairs of long knives.
While each type of fey warrior is using the same basic stat block, the different weapon options mean that they appear to be three unique enemy types in the eyes of your players. These particular specializations may require mutually exclusive feat and ability choices, but that’s okay, because no single NPC will be switching between all three styles.
Or will they? This one stat block can, in addition to giving you three basic enemy options, also be used for the group’s leader and your adventure’s villain. The wild fey champion first encounters the PCs on a giant wasp, but she is able to continue fighting after her mount is killed by switching to blades or darts. Level up her attacks just enough for the players to feel she is a greater threat, and increase her hit points so she can last through the fight or maybe even escape the first encounter. And just like that, with one reskinned monster and one villain stat block, you have enough encounter options to last a small story arc featuring a tribe of fey wasp riders.
Organize Resources for Quick Reference
You never know when an unexpected player decision will give you the perfect opportunity to reuse monsters and villains you painstakingly prepared for games past. To seize on this opportunity, and avoid remaking old work, you should organize your creations in an accessible manner.
My favorite method is printing monster and character stat blocks on 5×8 cards. Most stat blocks can fit on a single 5×8 with a decent font size and large title. On the opposite side, write descriptions to use in play, characteristics that the stats represent, and other ideas on how you can use it. Not only will this let you organize and store monsters without taking up a lot of room, but they will also be easy to flip through during your game sessions.
To make your monster library even more useful as a pick up and play tool, write out some themed reference cards and place them at the front of your stack. On each reference card, list which monster stat blocks can fit within that grouping, like “flying,” “low-level,” “humanoid,” etc. Avoid groupings like “grassland” or “arctic.” Since you can easily reskin and tweak a dire ape to serve as a yeti, you don’t want aesthetic or regional groupings to limit your creativity.
Once you have a library of monsters and villains, you’ll be able to quickly choose what you want, grab the appropriate stat block or reference guide and be good to go. This lets you cut down encounter planning, and allows you to spend more of your valuable prep time on the other parts of a campaign, like setting and story.