Thanks once again for visiting my weekly feature, Irreverent Reading. It’s where my son and I read the D&D Monster Manual together, and ferret out the fun and the funky for you…
I’ve been looking forward to this for awhile. A lot of people own the Monster Manual, but how many of them make it all the way back to the low-art ghetto of Appendix A? Okay, yes, your buddy that plays a Druid lives in there, but everybody else, not so much.
I love Appendix A.
It’s like finding that old dusty box of creatures under your kid’s bed. You’re about ready to toss it out and then you’re like, oh wait, I needed a couple of tigers for my game, and, aw… here’s that fun purple octopus, and, wait, this two-headed lizard would be perfect for the next boss fight! Pretty soon that demented Noah’s ark of cheap plastic is sitting on the shelf right next to your bin of “extra” dice.
I’ll admit it; Appendix A has some snooze inducing stuff here and there, but don’t make the mistake of thinking it’s all Deer and Frog write-ups. You’ll find straight up monsters in there, and some of them are surprisingly tough.
So, please, flip past the Xorn, Yeti, and Zombies, and take a tour through the marvelous menagerie of miscellaneous monsters…
All Meat, No Potatoes
I like a well written creature with an origin story, hopes/dreams/fears, and suggestions about how to deploy it at the table. On the other hand, if I’m in a hurry, it’s also nice to build an encounter around a simple threat. In general your Appendix A creature does one or two things well, and that’s it. The Axe Beak can run your ass down (move 60ft.!) and peck the fool out of you. Don’t ask it to do more. So, if you’re looking to build a straightforward last minute encounter, then start with Appendix A.
Your One Stop DIY Shop
Seeing all these builds together really makes it clear how easy it is to remix a stat block. Even though 5E doesn’t lean on tags as hard as other systems, like FATE and some Powered by the Apocalypse games, you can still treat monster abilities that way. There are tons of off the shelf features to play around with like: Pack Tactics, Amphibious, Blood Frenzy, and a lot more. Also, adding a mode of travel to a creature is as easy as penciling in “burrow 10ft.” If you want to keep your players guessing, then kitbash something together for them to go up against. Just remember, if you add enough good stuff you should probably bump up the challenge rating.
Here’s an example:
So, we’re at the mid-session break. The players have been exploring a frontier town. There’s been some cool RP, but it’d be nice to bring in just a little action before we wrap up. Plus, the townsfolk have been whispering about the ones that come at night, but they clam up when our heroes try to dig deeper. It all started as an improvised moment, but now I want to back my play with something interesting. Thanks to a few favors they’ve done, the PCs are staying on the top floor of the nicest local inn. They lock the door at night, and sometimes even pull watches to keep an eye on everything.
Their room overlooks the river, and so there are couple of windows. Hmmm… what if I hit them with something flying, but burly enough to carry them off? I want it to be eerie or at least odd. We’ve got a few minutes left on our break, so I start flipping through the appendix. The Ape listing catches my eye… yeah, that’s a good solid chassis to build on. And an Ape with wings makes me think of that one Conan story. So, let’s add Flight 30ft. What else? The image of a Bat pops into my mind… maybe because… flying mammal? So, I flip over to the Bat listing and pick up Echolocation. Now this screeching horror can fight blind. (Remember, the ones that come at night, right?) Alright, I’m sensing we’re almost done here. Three is the magic number, so I want one more ability in the mix.
So far we’ve got a flying ape thing with horrifying bat ears. Right. What’s the point of bringing a bat into a game it it doesn’t want to suck some blood? I pull that Blood Frenzy ability from the Hunter Shark listing and now I’m good to go…
BUT, I’m not quite done. Let’s go full circle and bring it back into the story. Why don’t the townsfolk want to talk about these awful things? After all they trust our heroes at this point… what’s going on here? Ah, they’re ashamed! Obviously they offer up strangers to these horrors to protect themselves. They hate themselves for doing it, but they do it. So, the window latches in the “nice room” don’t quite lock all the way. (Maybe make a Perception roll with Disadvantage on behalf of the paranoid player that looks for secret doors in every outhouse.)
If they PCs live through the night, they’ll be highly motivated to get to the bottom of this…
Remixing creatures is a blast, but don’t take my word for it, go do it yourself. Frankenstein something together for your next session! Be ready to see some puzzled looks from the special someone in your group that loves to meta-game.
Announce Future Badness
If you’ve avoided using creatures from Appendix A because you don’t think they’re challenging enough for your PCs, you might consider that not every encounter needs to be challenging. Sometimes there are story reasons for giving the PCs an easy win, or a different sort of problem to solve.
Let’s say you’ve prepped a story arc that involves our heroes discovering, and hopefully defeating, an ancient menace. Using dark magics this menace has raised a city, destroyed by the gods millennia ago, from the ocean depths.
Instead of signaling the impending threat with strange lights in the sky, a terrible storm, or a tsunami, you opt for a more subtle approach. When your PCs are down by the river haggling over the price of passage to where they think they’re going next, a fishing boat crashes into the docks. There’s total chaos… fisherman are screaming, running, and getting snipped at by their bycatch… a net full of Giant Crabs.
These crabs are nasty. Without a swift intervention by our heroes these snappers are going to murder some folks. (Depending on how dark your game is, they might have already carved up the boat’s captain and a few unfortunate fisherman.) When the carnage is over, the Fisherman’s Guild will be highly motivated to hire some hardy folks to look into this. Now, you’re off and running.
You can use this approach with even “weaker” creatures. Take the humble Goat for instance. Imagine a goatherd is bringing his flock to market when for no apparent reason they run amok. Our heroes, blissfully asleep in the local inn, hear shattering glass and screaming. Poking their heads out the window, they see Goats ramming carts and ripping up market stalls. If the PCs start blasting his flock, the goatherd runs at them saying, “No, please, this is my livelihood, just help me catch them!” In this case, the Goats’ relative fragility (4HP) makes the encounter interesting.
You give the players a tactical challenge that doesn’t involve murdering everything in sight, and it’s a nice entree into further adventure. Could the Goats have become tainted with madness by grazing at a corrupted site? (On a meta-level have they been exposed to some creature’s lair action?) Has someone trifled with the herd just for fun?
Does the goatherd himself start acting erratic later in the day?
Tactically these encounters might not be much, but they hint at the sort of trouble ahead; it’s spoor of the big game they’ll be gunning for later. Also, these moments give our heroes a chance to BE heroes. In my experience, most players like to be genuinely helpful. If that’s the fun your table likes to have, then deliver that fun every now and again.
Monsters Without Borders
If you’ve avoided using creatures from Appendix A because you don’t think they’d challenge your PCs, you should dig a little deeper. There are some surprisingly beastly beasts tucked in among the Lizards and Owls. A pack of Winter Wolves is no joke; they’re challenge rating 3, but come well stocked with HP (75), Snow Camouflage, Pack Tactics, and surprise!, a breath weapon. King Kong ain’t got nothing on the Giant Ape, who’s built as stoutly as you’d expect. The Blink Dog and Death Dog both add texture to a run, even if they aren’t overwhelming… and I defy you to tell me your game doesn’t need a running gag involving Blink Dog puppies.
There are a lot of mounts and weapons platforms, too. You can roll Hannibal-style with the Elephant or Mammoth, or scale down to the Mastiff and Worg for the smaller PCs and NPCs in your life. There’s even a charming write up for the Giant Sea Horse, the preferred mount of Sea Elves.
Remember how the Sahuagin can control sharks? Appendix A gives them a lot of options, from the reclusive Reef Shark to the truly frightening Giant Shark, with the Hunter Shark tucked in between those two extremes.
If I have a favorite Appendix A creature, it’s the Phase Spider; maybe because it shows what you can do by adding one thing to a standard creature, or maybe it’s because of the sweet little illustration. If you look at the build closely it’s just a slightly beefed up Giant Spider with an ability to slip through the Ethereal Plane. But, what an ability! Not only does it allow the Phase Spider to do an unsettling thing (essentially teleport), it also adds some rich narrative spice. What are we to make of its dual nature, the fact that it’s got a foot in two worlds? Does the Phase Spider make webs in the Ethereal Plane, too? Is that how it crosses back and forth? Come to think of it, why do they exist in two planes? Is it something inherent to their life cycle, a magical accident, a blessing, or a curse? Do they like to infest portals, and snag victims out of the in-between space when they’re crossing over?
Phase Spiders suggest intriguing alchemical possibilities, too. Perhaps a group of drow, or an eclectic band of thieves, have developed a serum based on Phase Spider blood. It’s dangerous, unstable, and agonizing to ingest, but it allows the user to slide into the Ethereal Plane for short bursts. The stuff is awful, but using it might be worth it for the right prize. Come to think of it, maybe these thieves could feature in a plot to steal a Tarrasque controller?
Take the Appendix A Challenge
Now that we’ve talked about the cool possibilities for Appendix A, Dear Reader, I’m throwing down the gauntlet!
I challenge you to run an entire adventure just using creatures from this appendix. Maybe it’ll have to be something for lower level PCs, but so be it. Approach your scenario like an artist, and let this limitation be your friend.
Bonus points if your players never realize what you’re up to!
If you pull it off, be sure to write in and let me know…
Appendix A is a surprisingly long section, but I couldn’t see breaking it up over multiple posts. Luckily it’s summer, so we just swapped a little of Xander’s bridge work time for monsters. I’m glad he was on board with doing a few small illustrations; it felt like a perfect fit.
One more to go. I’m ready to move on, but I’m so glad we did this…