Traditional mythology provides the foundation for many of Dungeons and Dragons’ best known races and monsters: from elves, dwarves and trolls to centaurs, harpies and manticores. But, when creating your own monsters, think about letting other historical sources inspire you.
Medieval and renaissance maps, for example, often featured fantastical creatures. Some were mythical. But others were imagined or came from the belief that every land animal had an equivalent in the sea. Those creatures, which are the subject of the #mapmonstermonday hashtag and two recent books, could easily make an appearance in your campaigns or adventures. Old natural history encyclopedias, such as The History of Four–Footed Beasts and Serpents or Hortus sanitatis, can also be inspiring. You can find some examples of their weirder entries here, with texts like Liber Monstrorum, The Marvels of the East and Monstrorum Historia being filled with even stranger creatures. Even old newspaper stories about cryptids (“an animal whose existence or survival is disputed or unsubstantiated”) are worth perusing.
For example, when I searched NewspaperArchive.com for the term “sea monster,” I learned that, in 1817, the Annapolis Maryland Republican And Political Agricultural Museum reported the master of the ship Leonidas saw “within 20 feet of the ship a strange fish: Its lower part formed like a fish, and white; the top of the back brown, with short hair on the head and back – about 5 feet long. The breast, shoulder, head and face had the appearance of a human being. It was calm, and the fish was seen playing around the ship the whole afternoon.” A Google search for the word “cryptids” can be helpful.
Here’s how I’ve used that technique: in an adventure I’m writing, I needed a low to mid-level sea monster that might be found in a stretch of cold ocean the characters will be crossing. To my thinking, none of the underwater creatures published by Wizards of the Coast seemed particularly at home among the icebergs. My search for inspiration led me to the Margate monster, which was given the nickname Trunko. Sighted in 1922 fighting two orcas, it reportedly looked like a “polar bear of mammoth proportions” with a trunk at one end and a lobster tail at the other.
That description resulted in the creation of the great furred sea serpent. Measuring 20’ long, it has the head of giant wolf, the tail of an equally large lobster tail and is covered with white fur – the result of magical and scientific experimentation gone awry. Its stat block uses a modified version of the one for the plesiosaurus. And I hope it’s going to disturb at least some of my players when they encounter it.