Monsterology 101 – Playing for Keeps

Like many of you, I dabble in games outside of the RPG realm. Throughout the fall months, one game in particular demands an inordinate amount of my time – fantasy football.  Who to start each week? Can I swindle someone in a trade? How awesome is it I nabbed Arian Foster for $11 in the auction?

My own personal monster - Arian Foster, Level 30 Elite Skirmisher.

These types of questions bombard me throughout the week, intensifying as Sunday looms. However, as the season rolls along, one question takes precedence over all others – which two players should I keep?

Yes, my league is a keeper league; every season we must tab two players as keepers (players who will remain on my roster next year).  This question is more difficult than it first seems? For example, do I let go Antonio Gates, #1 TE, on the gamble that Arian Foster will keep things up next year? Hmm . . . we’ll see how the year plays out.

Last column, I argued generating strong origin ideas is important, but so is boiling them down. In other words what are the keepers out of a monster’s origin idea that must make it to the game table?

Well, let’s take a look at the process, shall we?


These are what I identified as the key components of what a wendigo possibly could be. All in all, this list is culled from my research (research = Wikipedia, Google, X-files, & Marvel Comics)

  • Cannibalistic
  • Lycanthrope-like, hulking, feral
  • Revered/Respected/Feared by cultures more attune to nature
  • Spirit
  • Possession
  • Looks like something dead or dying
  • Prone to / Examples of excess, greed, & gluttony.


Before I get to far down this road let me say that 4e does have one cool ‘trick’ for helping you decide how you want to realize your monster at the game table. This ‘trick’ is the monster role.

Look at the list above. If I knew I wanted to create a brute, the second bullet would fit that niche very well. If I knew I wanted to make a controller, I may play with the feared idea (third bullet) and give the creature an aura.

Though this is not the process I used for my version of the wendigo, it is a very viable way to trim a great set of monster ideas into one stat block. Often times, when a DM is creating monsters, he likely has an idea as to how he wants to use them. Thus, this ‘role’ method should apply in most cases.

However, as convenient as that method is, I opted for trying to tease the monster out of the ideas listed above rather than use a role to pare away the fat.

To do this I looked at my iconic wendigo list and tried to visualize how each of those items would play at the table. My list came out like this:

  • Cannibalistic (Ongoing bite damage? Healing from a bite attack?)
  • Lycanthrope-like, hulking, feral (Brute. Claws. Boring, done to death)
  • Revered/Respected/Feared by cultures more attune to nature (More for the lore section, probably. Could possibly have powers that demand obedience from people . . .)
  • Spirit (sounds like insubstantial)
  • Possession (cool power – like dominate but has to give up its own body to do so)
  • Looks like something dead or dying (again a flavor thing – the wendigo is not undead . . . it would be too close to the ghoul)
  • Prone to / Examples of excess, greed, & gluttony. (maybe it can’t help but to bite bloodied creatures? Or just see if this stuff fits into the background.)

So, what did I keep? (See my last column for the stat block)

Well the CANNIBALISTIC idea got altered a great deal from my initial impressions. While it does deal some ongoing damage, it also got folded into the POSSESSION aspect. When a wendigo touches someone, they become driven with a cannibalistic urge (Cannibal’s Touch power). Also, Taste for Flesh reinforces both these aspects by making it difficult to shake free of the wendigo’s possession by reinforcing the cannibal aspect.

POSSESSION itself is the big key power – devour spirit. Although it acts more like a gargoyle’s stone form (hence the lurker role) than dominate, it does provide exactly what possession should do – control another being while the wendigo’s body becomes immune to attack.

The NATURE and GLUTTONY aspects got not only rolled into a useful backstory, but also popped up in the power names. I believe power names are a simple, cheap way of giving a monster a theme. Oh, and the SPIRIT aspect did materialize as insubstantial.

While I was able to keep most of the key ideas of the wendigo, I want to stress two things:

1)      Don’t feel like you have to cram every idea you have into the stat block. It just so happened with the wendigo a lot of ideas chained together nicely – insubstantial nature spirit that possesses people and drives them mad with cannibalistic hunger. If you can’t link those ideas together in a similar phrase as that, you may have too much on your plate.

2)      Not all ideas become powers. Powers are only one way that a creature presents itself to a group of players. A quality monster should also arise from unique setting, unique action, or unique behavior.

  1. My final example – The wendigo has cool powers. It possesses people and forces them to eat others. However, it is much cooler when the wendigo is at the center of a cannibal cult. This way it has willing victims. Victims who are clearly disturbed and vile – this helps build an atmosphere around a monster that makes it more than a pile of hit points waiting to get chopped down. Being at the center of a cult (or something similar) enchances the powers, the story, and the gameplay of the Wendigo.

Next time, we will talk about story hooks and what purpose monsters may serve in a fight/adventure/campaign.

Until then, good gaming!

Part idiot. Part old man. All geek. Matthew A. C. is a struggling writer, professor, family man, and gamer. Yes, he struggles at all those things. However, he's been fortunate enough to publish a few things here and there. You can find his RPG stuff at RPG Now and follow him on twitter (@thelastrogue).


About Matthew A. C.

Matthew A. C. is a struggling writer, professor, family man, and gamer. Yes, he struggles at all those things. However, he's been fortunate enough to publish a few things here and there. You can find his RPG stuff at RPG Now and follow him on twitter (@thelastrogue).
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