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Making a Monster Palette

by Jae
Monster Palette

Most people don’t randomly choose enemies when they’re doing their session preparation. Much like a painter choosing the colors for their artwork, you have to choose a selection of monsters that work well together. The themes can range from basic enemies like the undead to complex creatures from a jungle ecosystem. 

No matter what you decide, these choices will have a profound impact on your session design. Let’s dive into the choices and considerations behind a monster palette.

What’s in a Palette Anyway?

A monster palette offers you a lot of advantages when designing a session. The primary purpose of building a palette of enemies is that it places restrictions around your thought process. It makes you consider how each choice affects the session itself. 

In its simplest form, you will be choosing a handful of monsters you’re going to use in the session based on the themes and settings you’ve laid out. If you’re exploring a crypt you’ll likely use undead. If you’re delving into fungal caverns you might make a myconid and cave creature pallet.

These are basic palettes in that they’re enemies you expect to find in a given area. A more nuanced approach might have you start by picking enemies that would make combat interesting and then figuring out how they fit into your setting or adventure. 

By choosing the monsters near the beginning of the planning process you leave yourself room to “re-skin” functionally useful creatures, promoting both thematics and gameplay.

How to Create a Monster Palette

When you begin planning a session that could have combat, you’re ready to dip into palette selection as soon as you know the basic outline for that session. From here you’ll need to decide a couple things:

  • Where does the session take place?
  • What kind of battlefields will be available?
  • What are the general themes/tones of the session?

Knowing the answer to these questions will help you with your most basic choices when flipping through the Monster Manual. You’ll start by selecting monsters that can be used in a setting and cutting out ones that cannot. 

If you’re creating an aquatic adventure it rules out a lot of monsters and opens the door for many others. If you’re fighting in a desert, that shark you selected for the aquatic adventure is no longer a good pick. At this point your first choices are all determined by which enemies you can work with logically.

Moving beyond the obvious choices we get into the questions of functionality. Does this enemy add anything to combat? Will this enemy cause status effects, movement restrictions, or otherwise control the battlefield? 

Once you have a list of monsters that you can pick from, typically as restricted by their ability to survive and thrive in an environment, you’re going to start trying to choose monsters that make the game more fun and challenging.

Lastly, your monster palette will outline how the enemies available to you can work together. Your primary focus here is to find enemies that when combined are more than the sum of their parts. 

To do this effectively, you really need to get to know your monsters. At this step you’ll want to understand the monster’s behaviour, their individual combat style, and any special abilities that they might have. 

That can be a lot to take in, and if you really want to get to the bottom of that we highly recommend you read The Monsters Know What They’re Doing, a fantastic book that will change the way you think about monsters forever. Short of diving into the recommended supplemental material, it’s important to think about a monster’s primary objective: survival.

Putting Your Palette Together

This can seem like a lot of work at first, especially when we haven’t shown an example of it in action. So let’s start with an example everyone will be familiar with: An ancient tomb.

The setting is a sealed ancient tomb, so likely the monsters in there are either creepy crawlers that can survive in the environment or the classic choice of undead monsters. 

The undead theme opens up a lot of different avenues, but we’re going to lean towards the more primal undead like ghouls and away from the refined undead like vampires.

Now that we know we’re working with bugs and undead creatures, we’ve narrowed down our list of possible choices, so we’ll pick some enemies that make combat interesting. 

For the basics we can grab zombies or skeletons. Next, we’re going to be more interested in things like ghouls and ghasts that have combat shaping abilities. We also understand the tomb will be cramped and crowded, so selecting swarms of insects over giant insects or spiders is better since they can occupy an enemy’s square.

Once we have a basic idea of what this palette looks like, we need to consider how these creatures work together. Zombies are good tanks: they soak damage and are hard to kill. Insect swarms can move in and out of combat without being blocked by other creatures, so a group of zombies doesn’t stand in their way.

Ghouls and ghasts have a built-in functionality where the ghast will make nearby ghouls harder to turn. Additionally, they all offer paralysis effects on claw attacks that can be devastating to an adventuring party. On the downside, all of these undead creatures are affected by Turn Undead. This simply means more work for your party’s cleric.

Now we have a set of monsters that work pretty well together. They’re rather basic, but they can be pulled up for any combat we want to run for this session. 

After this you’re just using your encounter design fundamentals to build out a fun and engaging combat for your session. Each combat session you add allows you to look at your palette and work out different combinations you can use to get the full range of easy to difficult encounters.

This was a simple example, but it shows how versatile this idea can be. We’re choosing monsters that can be used all throughout the session and can be mixed and matched across different encounters in different ways. If you want to take this a step further, you’ll need to consider the types of enemies you choose based on the roles that they fill for the enemy team.

The Primary Enemy Types

Just like your players’ party has a meta structure for tanks, DPS, and healing, so too should a collection of enemy creatures. Each enemy on the field of combat fulfills a different role and your palette of monsters can be designed to capitalize on this idea. Let’s take a look at some of the roles that enemies add to your combat toolkit.

Basic Combat

Basic combat enemies have little to no special abilities. They move forward and attack and simply soak damage or dish it out. Despite being so absolutely basic, there really are not a whole lot of enemies that can fulfill only this purpose. Most enemies have something that makes them unique or useful in combat. The ones that do not are typically normal, wild animals.

Even though they’re more rare, the role of the basic combatant is one you’ll want to fill in your palette. If you don’t have a creature that is doing some sort of attack every round or tanking hits from your party on a regular basis, you’ll end up with combat sessions that are all flash and no substance. These basic enemies allow you to keep the pressure on the party and support your enemies with special abilities that have to be used in place of an attack action.

Conditions and Effects

Status conditions are often underutilized by DMs. A lot of this can come down to how hard it is to track everything going on, but they really do make combat more interesting. A few monsters in your palette should be able to impart some sort of condition to your players’ characters to add an additional challenge that they will need to work around. 

Combat without the use of conditions usually feels flat, but more than that, the numerical advantage is almost always in the players’ favor when you look at raw combat statistics alone.

Try to spice up your combat by including a few monsters that specialize in conditions that will impose lasting effects on your players during a fight.

Positioning and Movement

Outside of conditions and effects, positioning is likely the next most important option any enemy unit can have. This can be something that is achieved through its own innate movement capabilities, like the ability to fly, or in the form of an ability, like how a ghost can choose to be corporeal or not.

Abilities that facilitate positioning and movement help you form more strategic combats. Kobolds and wolves gain the benefit of Pack Tactics, which encourages you to position them near each other and encourages your party to want to break them up. 

Other enemies like swarms of insects take advantage of reduced movement restrictions and can occupy and move through enemy squares.

There are tons of monsters that can take advantage of positioning and movement mechanics and your game will be better for utilizing them. Even just throwing in a few flying enemies from time to time can shake things up and push your players to explore new tactics or use abilities they normally wouldn’t. 

When making your monster palette, choosing enemies that can help control or regulate the battlefield and the movement within it will really push your game to new levels.

Bringing Them Together to Create Something New 

The enemy types outlined above are not all encompassing, they just represent some conceptual ways to think about enemies. Depending on which enemies you choose for combat, monsters in your palette might fulfill multiple roles at different times. 

A zombie can be a basic damage soak, but in a crowded room their resilience and numbers can act to restrict player movement just by standing around. A ghoul might act as a condition mill in combat, but the condition of paralysis is a positioning controller move, filling both roles at once.

The best thing you can do with enemies that fill these roles is to pair them up and see what you can get. Another example would be fighting an iron golem. On its own it’s a tough foe, however if you pair it with a creature that can heat metal or use area of effect fire damage, you’ve easily quadrupled the danger of that encounter; the iron golem will heal when it takes fire damage and the additional foe still poses a threat.

There are hundreds, if not thousands of good tactical combinations you can make with monsters in the Monster Manual, you just have to look for them.

Thematic Pairings and Re-Skins

Pairing monsters based on their type and combat roles is a good start when you’re making monster palettes to play with. You can use them to incorporate themes that might not be obvious at first. 

Monsters can pair thematically in a lot of different ways. You can pair monsters by type like we did with the earlier undead example. You can pair monsters by settings, like choosing swamp creatures if your players are entering a swamp.

You can also pair monsters by goals or affinities. Smarter creatures and humanoids might all be working towards the same goals in a session. And less intelligent creatures might all be attracted to an element or magical force.

Even with just these creatures we are only covering the basic concepts of thematics because we’re only looking at the obvious creatures for any given setting. The more complex the area, the more complex the starting points you have to build around. 

Let’s take a cursed battlefield, for example. This is a foreboding place. A cursed area might entail ghosts and undead creatures, but you could just as easily pull in enemy warlocks and cultists seeking cursed lands for dark rituals.

Beyond this you have the normal fauna that would have lived in the area suffering from the side effects of living in cursed lands making them into dire beasts. Lastly, you would have creatures that are either attracted to curses or are bad omens in and of themselves.

There are so many possibilities. As with everything, you’ll get much better at building these enemy palettes as you practice with them.

The Pre-Built Palettes of DnD

Some monsters come pre-themed and the palettes are already set up for you, like the Kuo-Toa. The Monster Manual provides several variants for the creature, each with their own abilities, strengths, and weaknesses. 

There is a clear theme provided with the lore for the creatures and they easily pair with much more difficult enemies like Mind Flayers or in rare cases even Aboleths. The Monster Manual has several of these pre-built monster palettes set up for you and they should not be overlooked if you need to build a session quickly.

Reskinning Monsters

If your monsters don’t fit your theme but they group well for combat, just change their descriptions. This might sound weird at first, but one of the things we often do for low level combat is just change the description for goblins to fit the setting we’re in. It’s quick, easy, and saves you a ton of time. 

This is essentially what standard beasts are in DnD anyway. They don’t have special abilities, so creatures of the same types are only differentiated by their descriptions and maybe a few stat changes based on their size. It would be wild to create dramatically different stat blocks for deer, elk, antelope, etc. At the end of the day, they’re all roughly the same.

So what do you need to do to reskin your monsters? Not a whole lot, actually. Once you get the combat pairing you’re looking for, you simply remove the description. Now you have the stat skeleton, you can write a new enemy description to put on top of it. It doesn’t get any more complicated than that. 

The description is for the players’ imagination but the stats are for the game. Just make sure that your descriptions give your players a hint about the types of abilities a monster has or the dangers it may pose.

Restating Humanoids

You can reskin a lot of creatures to fit your theme. But if you’re using humanoid creatures that can use weapons and armor you don’t need to redo their whole description to change them. You simply need to equip them for your setting. 

You can even create a whole palette this way with a single monster. Let’s say you’re using a bunch of human bandits. All you need to create is a set of four or five loadouts that alter their abilities appropriately. If the bandits fit your theme and settings already, you’re just adjusting weapon types, consumable items, and armor to change up combat.

If you’re using creatures that can use weapons they may be able to use magical items or consumable combat items that replace the need for monsters with specific abilities. This way you get to keep the themes you aimed for originally with a small selection of enemies while still granting yourself the flexibility to create more rich combat encounters

One of our favorite variations on this is humanoid creatures looting a wizard tower. They likely have no clue what sorts of magical gear, scrolls, or wands they’ve picked up and each changes combat in a big way.

How Enemy Palettes Help you The Most: Time Saving

Monster palettes are not very hard to build and once you start building them they can save you a ton of time. A good palette will allow you to create combat scenarios on the fly, generate logical, random encounters that actually have some depth to them, and avoid searching through the book for stats once you pull them out the first time.

A good palette gives you limits to work within. This helps narrow your options for everything down to a handful of things. The mental overhead you need to maintain when creating a scene or encounter is already really high, so reducing the complexity by creating a palette can make the whole process dramatically faster.

Good palettes in painting ensure you’re not going too wild with your choices and creating a mismatched mess. Monster palettes do the same thing by establishing a clear and consistent use case for each creature you’ve chosen. 

A simple palette might only be a few enemies, just like how you can do a lot with only a few colors in art. A complex palette might be 10 or more enemies and allow you to do more detailed design work. 

No matter which you go with, you’ve still given yourself a valuable set of restrictions that help you create more consistent content for your campaign much faster than you normally would.

Getting Used to Monster Palettes and Using Them in Your Game

Creating a monster palette is a skill, just like everything else in DMing. You’re not necessarily going to get it right on the first go. Practice makes perfect here and the great thing about these palettes is that you can prepare them well in advance. Try out a few you like, get comfortable with the basics, and then expand your horizons by making a few that are more complex.

So long as you understand the theme, combat roles, and modifications you need to group monsters for your sessions you’ll be able to create reliable and reusable monster palettes. 

These simple conceptual tools will help you to make better sessions more consistently and with a lot less time than before. 

Be sure to let us know if you have any monster palettes of your own that you’d like to share with the community. We’d love to see what kind of creative pairs you can come up with!

Happy DMing!

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