So something that I’ve discovered over the years is that there is a relatively staid penchant for using lumbering brutes as opponents. They come in many flavors: hill giants, minotaurs, ogres, stone golems, trolls, ad nauseum.
Sadly, not many of them really stand out. Hill giants and ogres are really the worst offenders, but it’s hard to continually convince your players that a big guy that hits hard is an interesting opponent. So you start to get creative.
Don’t get me wrong, I like the concept of a big guy that hits hard. Comic books are rife with them, and they don’t even all have to be big and dumb, although many are. But let’s talk about differentiation for a moment.
A troll is different from an ogre in that it uses its claws and regenerates. It’s unique and interesting, and even iconic. But what do you do when your creature is merely a big club swinging thug?
How about a quick (no stats due to word limit) write up for a variant brute? You start with some large creature, and figure out what type you might want to make it be. Let’s say a construct, since those are so much fun. Then you make a fancy backstory about how fey can take bargained souls to power special nature-centric golems that they use for hard labor and guard duty.
Now you give it a bit of a spin and say that its construction requires the head of a large sized creature, and you get some creepy constructs that can look different every time. Want a wooden construct with a moose head? Done! Want a rock construct with a troll head? Done! You can change the flavor and even abilities based on the combinations, and creep out your players. Don’t forget to mention how the soul within occasionally calls out for help for maximum creepage, make the soul collectable (and restorable) and you have a monster that is more memorable than a hill giant.
This is the approach I take to monster design; I may want to dip my toe in the waters of convention, but every encounter should be unique. If your players can’t distinguish one encounter from another, then there was really no reason to have had it. Even if you have your group attacked by goblins, the mere fact that the goblins were riding wolves, attacked by dive bombing from giant bats, or assaulted the group’s ship would be enough to make a difference.
But why bother dressing up monsters to look and act differently when there are entire catalogues of new monsters ready to fight? Sometimes as a GM you WANT your monsters to swing a big club and land big damage, just as much as a wizard wants to lob fireballs or a fighter wants to charge the big bad guy. These tactics should be interesting and cool, but ultimately we are putting new coats of paint on standard maneuvers and monsters*.
*Racing stripes too!