by Mike Shea on 19 May 2014
Note: This article updates the original published 5 November 2012.
You're about to learn a lazy dungeon master technique that can save you thousands of hours in game preparation time and lets the story drive your game at the table without sacrificing interesting monster mechanics. It's an extremely simple technique that lets you capitalize on the design work of the best RPG designers on the planet every time you throw a new bad guy in front of your players.
Today we're going to talk about the divine art of reskinning. Reskinning can bring deep and interesting game mechanics to any monster your devious mind can think up in just a few seconds.
Here's the single step instructions for reskinning a monster:
Take the mechanics for one monster, published in the RPG you're running, and wrap it in the flavor and description of the one you want to run at the table.
That's it. There's no step two. All you have to do is choose interesting an existing monster or NPC stat block in the game system you're running that fits the general theme and power-level you're shooting for. Then, use an entirely different description for the type of creature they're going to face.
Sure, you'll have to describe the actions differently. You might describe the mechanics of the seven-headed attacks of a hydra as seven slashing sword-cuts from a whirling blademaster. You might describe the mechanics of the dark elf swordmaster as a fiendish vampire. With a little bit of creative descriptions, any monster can become any other monster.
This also works well for NPCs. The mechanics of an ancient red dragon can easily wrap around the description of a powerful wizard. Describe the extended hit points as a magical shield of protection. Describe the fiery breath as a powerful burning hands spell. You can cheat a little bit and turn the dragon's melee attacks into ranged attack spells as long as the story supports it.
Monster manuals are the best tools to help you reskin. A lot of hours of monster design by some of the best designers on the planet went into those books. Their mechanics will run well at the table even when wrapped by a completely different description. It helps to be familiar with the monster stat blocks you might use at your game but it isn't mandatory. It should be easy enough to pick out a stat block as you're playing and re-wrap it with the flavor of the monster you wish to describe.
Generally speaking, stick to the primary monster books of your system of choice. Third-party monster books and books put out later in a series might be less playtested than an original monster book. This isn't always true, though. For D&D 4th Edition, the best monster book, by far, is the Monster Vault. Published late in 4e's publication cycle, the Monster Vault had the best designed monsters in the whole edition. The Dark Sun Creature Catalog and Monster Manual 3 are good second choices, particularly for high-level play.
Some GMs avoid using the technique of reskinning. Some feel it's cheating or that their players will figure it out. It isn't cheating, though. The mechanics you're using have been carefully balanced (most of the time) for the game you're running. If you're worried about it, give it a try it sometime and see how it feels. You and your players might find it more interesting when monsters don't behave like they expect and it can end up saving you a lot of time designing your own specific flavor of enemies.
If you find yourself saying that you'd rather stat out your monsters, consider where you might spend that time instead. Maybe you can use the time to figure out how to better integrate PCs and their backgrounds into the story. Perhaps you can use the time to mash up adventures into a detailed sandbox for your players to explore. Perhaps you can spend the time developing interesting NPCs with backgrounds and motivations. There are a lot of ways to spend our preparation time. With the technique of reskinning, you might find yourself able to spend monsters design time on other more valuable areas.
Here are a few other articles that can help you get a handle on reskinning.
DM of the Gods, Chris Perkins, wrote about reskinning monsters in his D&D design article Instant Monster. Here at Sly Flourish we have an article on reskinning a dragon into a cyborg assassin. You can also learn a lot about reskinning in the Lazy Dungeon Master which has piles of other information to help you prepare less and get more out of your D&D games.
On the surface, reskinning might appear to be too easy and too simple to work. It does work, however, and it works very well. For fun and rich RPG games, reskinning is an excellent technique to help you save time and run a more interesting game. Give it a try.