Of course, I’m not referring to the myriad ways you can obtain a lion’s pelt, but I have always wondered how many peer reviewed and endorsed methods there actually are for skinning a cat. I’ve been led to believe there are at least two such methods out there.
But this isn’t about that. This is about re-skinning monsters, which is just another way of saying that we’re going to use the stats for a monster but we’re going to change that monsters physical description. This can be a huge time saver when you’re designing adventures, giving you a quick and dirty way to add variety to your encounters without adding a lot of prep time. Before you start designing brand new monsters, or variations of monsters, take a moment to thumb through the monster manual and see if there isn’t already something in there that does more or less what you want the new monster to do. Then, just change that monster’s physical description to whatever you need it to be and use the stat block for the existing monster instead of creating a new one. And that’s it! For the rest of this article I’m going to be talking about specific examples from the 5th Edition Dungeons & Dragons Monster Manual, but the idea can be universally applied to any roleplaying game.
Humanoids are the easiest place to start re-skinning, and they probably provide the most versatile and numerous examples, so we’ll start there.
First, let’s look at the Acolyte, Druid, and Priest from Appendix B: Nonplayer Characters. These guys can be inserted into your orc, goblin, gnoll, kobold, etcetera rosters as shamans and witch doctors with almost no effort. Just pick a suitable challenge rating and tweak the spells and weapons a bit and your done! You can even look beyond Appendix B and re-skin things like the lizardfolk shaman and the sahuagin priestess as spellcasters of the aforementioned races. In the case of the sahuagin priestess, re-skin her shark telepathy and give her the ability to command a more racially appropriate creature, like worgs or hyenas.
Going beyond spellcasters, there are several other good stat-blocks to plunder in Appendix B. The Scout makes a good addition to any humanoid band encountered in the wilderness or as a lookout guarding a lair, while the spy can add an unexpected twist to any encounter. Thugs make great bodyguard for sergeants or chieftains, or work really well as “tough” kobolds. Veterans, Bandit Captains, and Berserkers can be inserted into any humanoid roster as well to make a suitably “tough” version of that creature (perhaps the aforementioned chieftain or sergeant).
This can work the other way around too. For instance, orcs, gnolls, and minotaurs can make for excellent human tribal warriors or barbarians. Or you can use a handful of goblins as brigands if you need some a little tougher than the Bandit but not quite as tough as a Thug. At the end of the day, all of these stat blocks describe humanoid creatures with some combination of armor, weapon attacks, and special abilities, as well as a challenge rating. The only things that make one a goblin and the other a human thug are completely cosmetic.
But let’s take thing a little further than just swapping the heads and skin tones of humanoid monsters. Here are a few other re-skinning ideas I had while I was flipping through the Monster Manual earlier:
Lions could easily be used as Ape-Men, of the sort Conan might find himself fighting fortnightly. They are strong and quick with a pounce attack and pack tactics. Or as anything else you can imagine leaping at things and gaining an advantage for having their buddies nearby. Bullywug commandos maybe?
Trolls could be lesser demons or devils. Just don’t call them trolls. Call them Bloodletters, and have a pack of them serving your Pit Fiend.
Skeletons or Minotaur Skeletons could make for excellent animated statues. You know, something less imposing than a stone golem or even a gargoyle, but also a statue and not a skeleton.
A Grimlock could be used as a giant bat, and a Killer Whale could be used as a GIANT bat.
A Scarecrow would make a perfect animated marionette.
And finally, what about the haunted moors, which locals say are inhabited by vampiric mists? Sounds like a Quipper Swarm to me!
These are just the examples I thought of without too much trouble. There are dozens more. And hey, if you really want to make a new monster then make a new monster – but if you just want to add some variety without adding a lot of prep time to your game then you can probably find a monster that will work for what you need with only a minor wardrobe change.