by Mike Shea on 30 January 2017
Note: This article is updated from the original published in 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 a simple technique that lets you capitalize on the design work of the best RPG designers on the planet and yet gives you the freedom to build any monster from the deepest and darkest reaches of your imagination. And you can do all of this in a few seconds.
Though we describe this technique for the 5th edition of Dungeons & Dragons, we can use this technique with just about any fantasy roleplaying game.
Here's the single step instructions for reskinning a monster:
Use the stat block for a monster in the Monster Manual but describe its apperance and actions as an entirely different type of monster.
That's it. There's no step two. All you have to do is choose a stat block in the book that matches the general challenge and style you're looking for and the describe it using the features and actions of the monster you want it to be.
Our adventurers are on their way out from plundering an ancient temple to the demigod Xvim. On their way out, a four-armed mechanical statue animates and attacks. We don't happen to have a great stat block for this monster but we want it to be really powerful and dangerous so we'll reskin an Adult White Dragon as our base. The hit points, armor class, save DCs, attack bonuses, saving throws, and damage will be that of the Adult White Dragon. Instead of all of the different types of attacks the White Dragon has, we'll just use its claw attack and say it's a scimitar attack. We'll give it one extra attack as part of its multi-attack to make up for this lower damage and to fit the theme of the four-armed scimitar-wielding tomb guardian.
Instead of cold damage, we'll change the breath weapon into necrotic damage to fit the undead nature of the guardian.
And that's it! Just by looking at the Adult White Dragon stat block and some creative descriptions of a four-armed huge skeletal tomb guardian we have an entirely new monster.
Whenever we choose a monster stat block to reskin, we're likely to have to change the actions around a little bit. We can save ourselves some work by choosing a monster's stat block whose actions roughly fit what our new imaginary monster has. If we can get it close, we can usually wing the rest right in our head.
We can reskin NPC stat blocks the same way by wrapping one NPC stat block with the description of an entirely different type of NPC. Instead of a big hulking gladiator, we might describe it as an agile and slender monk trained in the dark monastary of the Black Lotus.
The Monster Manual is the best tool to help you reskin. A lot of energy went into designing those monsters and we can use any those hundreds of stat blocks to build the monster we want. 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 by giving the Monster Manual a good thorough read-through.
Some GMs avoid using the technique of reskinning. Some feel it's cheating or that their players will see through their clever ruse. 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 spending a lot of time designing your own monsters, it might be worth asking whether you and your players are getting all of the enjoyment out of the time you're spending. It can take hours to fully design a good monster and it might only last a few minutes in a battle. Consider spending that time on other activities like reviewing the backgrounds of the characters, building some fantastic locations, or thinking through the eyes of your villains, or engaging in a number of other creative mind exercises instead of coming up with new stat blocks for them. With the technique of reskinning, you might find yourself able to spend that time previously spent designing monsters on other more valuable areas.
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.