Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Presenting a Monster

If you've followed this blog for any length of time, you'll have noticed that I've never been very consistent in the way I present monsters. That's because I'm constantly experimenting with different formats and I haven't yet managed to find a perfect one -- "perfect" being that combination of exhaustive yet succinct that quickly gives me everything I need to know when using a monster in a game.

When I was a kid, I was very fond of the AD&D Monster Manual presentation, but, as I get older, I find I like it less. I feel it gives too much information to be useful in play. As a reference, it has value, particularly if you're of the Gygaxian naturalist persuasion. I myself have definite sympathies for that approach, but there is, I think, a danger in the way that the extensive Monster Manual descriptions, especially those of the 2e era, set details in stone and implicitly establish an "official" interpretation of a creature. The "Ecology of ..." series is the natural evolution of this style of presentation and not one I much admire these days. For my money, the Moldvay/Cook presentation of monsters comes closest to perfect, although it has a few flaws. The biggest is that it doesn't include "% in Lair," which is essential in a sandbox campaign or indeed in dealing with randomly-rolled wilderness encounters. I also think the inclusion of the XP value of each monster would make these entries more immediately useful.

Of course, in the end, the form of the monster listings themselves is less important than the short form used in modules. Nowadays, the term for this is a "stat block" and, if I had to point to a single thing that drove me screaming away from 3e, it was the ridiculous lengths of its stat blocks. In the old days, most modules used a very abbreviated listing for monster statistics, with the inclusion of individual hit points being the only constant. I think that's probably too little information unless you're running a LBB-only OD&D game, which is why, again, I prefer the Moldvay/Cook short form for most of my purposes. It's very usable, sacrificing neither speed nor clarity, and, most importantly, it doesn't take up half a page even when describing extremely powerful creatures -- a huge improvement over the WotC editions.

I'm going to be posting some sword-and-planet monsters over the next few days and I'll likely be using my latest ideas about the "perfect" presentation of monsters for old school D&D. Like everything here, I'm always open to suggestions on how to refine my raw ideas. As much as the monsters themselves, I'll be looking for thoughts on their presentation, since I'd like to come up with a consistent way to present them that I can use from now on.

36 comments:

  1. I dont' know, I've always preferred the method of presentation in 2nd edition monstrous compendiums. Yes, they were overly wordy and they did set in stone sometimes things you'd rather do without, but for me they were always suggestions and often gave me ideas for alternate concepts.

    When it comes to modules, though, I agree with you. Short and to the point, but with enough info there so that you don't have to run to the monster manual every time it comes up. Otherwise, what's the point?

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  2. "...there is, I think, a danger in the way that the extensive Monster Manual descriptions, especially those of the 2e era, set details in stone and implicitly establish an "official" interpretation of a creature."

    Then you must note approvingly that the 4th edition manuals have a much more bare bones approach to monster descriptions than the 3rd and 2nd edition ones. It is once again implicit that the DM should provide many of the details as they see fit.

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  3. 3rd ed gave me panic attacks with it's stat blocks. Running orcs is one thing, but running a fight against a group of demi-planar dragonling sorcerer/barbarians is another, especially when you're trying to keep a handle on everyone's powers, feats and spells and using them to the best atvantage. You either kill off the party or it's an easy kill for the players.

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  4. My sole complaint with the Ad&d monster manuals was the lack of set xp values. I personally didn't have time to do all the calculations needed for every monster fought.
    When I was younger, a really enjoyed the ecology aspect to the 2ed Monster stats, it made them seem like more the just cut-outs created for combat, and it did give some adventure a role-playing ideas for the various creatures. I understand that some may feel it shoehorns (is that a phrase?) them into one set idea on how a monster can be run, but I think that it at least showed that creatures could be more that just something that has to be thrown at the characters for combat, plus they also provided ideas on how to use the creatures a little more strategically.
    Agreed though in a module -- just the facts please m'am

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  5. Then you must note approvingly that the 4th edition manuals have a much more bare bones approach to monster descriptions than the 3rd and 2nd edition ones.

    The descriptions, yes, are a step in the right direction. The stat block, though, is still lengthier than there's any need for.

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  6. I, too, have been annoyed by the lack of "% in Lair" on the stat block in the Moldvay/Cook version of the rules.

    After kvetching about it for years, and considering going to OD&D or AD&D to import numbers from those versions, I just went with a set 50% for all monsters. I've been happy with that ever since.

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  7. As a request for a future post, I'd love to see an explanation of how "% in Lair" can be used when running in a sandbox environment. That stat is one I never figured out how to make use of.

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  8. I personally love the wordy exposition. I agree with Hamlet on being able to use the ideas as 'options'. Many times it's easier to have something to react to or consider rather than pure origination. I've never been afraid to break material down and start from scratch anyway, so I guess part of it relies on the comfort level of the DM. The one danger I think is that obviously everyone has access to that 'set in stone' description and their expectations may ride along. To which I would just rename the damn thing or give it a twist so it wasn't a straight on interpretation.

    /goes for more than just monsters.

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  9. Rafial,

    Whenever the characters are out in the wilderness and have a random encounter with a monster, use the % in Lair to determine if the monster is in its lair or not. If it is, then it's more likely to have treasure, allies, etc. If it's not, that means the lair is probably somewhere nearby, which gives the referee some ideas about what the PCs might encounter if they continue on into the wilderness.

    % in Lair is just another little random element that provides some data the referee and players can use in determining how to proceed in a campaign setting whose details aren't all determined in advance.

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  10. A OWLBEAR, A OLWBEAR!!!!!. THIS IS A FAVRITE ONE OF MINE...........

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  11. I personally love the wordy exposition.

    This goes for me as well. My sweet spot is about 4 or 5 paragraphs of background material per critter. If I don't like it, I just ignore it.

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  12. Yeah, I dig the wordy exposition. No crazy 3E stats though. To me the 4E approach falls a bit flat.

    It almost sounds like you are saying "Less matter, less art" James.

    I think 1E AD&D MM was the pinnacle.

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  13. Hmm. I don't particularly mind the expanded statistical detail for creatures in the game; in fact, if there's any place where I'd like expanded detail it's on the points of the game where the PCs have direct, meaningful, and near constant interaction:

    • Monsters
    • NPCs
    • Environment
    • Gear, especially the costs of services, and magical gear

    That doesn't mean I need exhaustive lists, but I need the detail I need during play.

    I find it useful to have listed, for monsters, their abilities and ability bonuses, their fundamental combat stats (i.e. what happens if the monster tries to hit James without its weapon) as well as specific ones (i.e. what happens if monster tries to hit James with his special polearm), and their skills and special abilities.

    While I might somewhat like the effect of feats in play, I find overall that administration of them is a real headache, especially when opponents or monsters have feats. To me, the 4e approach of "everything is a power" for monsters is a really solid improvement over the 3.x system.

    I've been running a Pathfinder adventure path campaign for over a year now, and I've been reasonably pleased with the presentation of monsters. Where I've needed answers to questions, I've been able to find it in the text where I've needed it reasonably quickly (except where creatures are "standard monsters" that one can find in the MM, and then they're good enough to provide a page reference).

    It could well be, though, that I've saved myself a sizeable headache by specifically not using the XP system, and levelling up the PCs at narratively appropriate spots in the campaign. While players were willing to play this way to date, I've recently had feedback that they'd like to get XP handed to them incrementally. I may try to push this off: not handling XP calculations makes a big difference in prep burden to my mind. If pushed, I may try and use a hybrid scheme that still hands it out narratively, but on a more incremental basis (i.e. not 550 XP for those four orcs you just demolished, but rather, handing out 1/4 of the XP needed for the next level at the end of "this scene").

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  14. James: "The descriptions, yes, are a step in the right direction. The stat block, though, is still lengthier than there's any need for."

    Yes, which is why I've taken to simplifying them. Most of my 4th ed monsters now consist of a single basic "roll to hit" style attack, one strategically interesting single-use or rechargeable ability, and whatever signature ability WotC gave the monster's race. It works out just fine in play; players are too focused on how awesome their own characters are to notice that the monsters have a few less "moving parts."

    Frankly, a lot of monster abilities listed in the 4th ed manuals are kind of redundant, just finding new complicated ways of doing the same few basic things. However, there are also a lot of specific innovations in there that are very elegant in a way old schoolers could appreciate, creating major tactical differences between monsters with only a few words that wouldn't be out of place in the Swords and Wizardry monster chapter. I would suggest OSR proponents should hold their noses and give the 4th ed Monster Manual 2 a look for ideas worth plundering.

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  15. In designing my own RPG , aside from the (fairly short) "stat block", I have what I call the ABC's of the monster: Appearance, Behavior, and Combat.

    Appearance - what does it look like, and where will it normally be found, and with what (weapons, treasure, etc.).

    Behavior - how it reacts when encountered; it is aggressive, defensive, does it have its own agenda or is it typically a henchman-type monster, etc..

    Combat - how does it fight, will it fight to the death or strike and flee, and does it use any special combat abilities/maneuvers/defenses.

    Depending on how these things fall, I usually have one longish or two short paragraphs for each. Might be "too much" for some people, but my RPG is also steering away from typical RPG monsters or adding new twists to them, so a bit of explanation is, I think, a good idea. Also, some of the entries come from a specific inspiration, and if the reader hasn't encountered that source material before, they might need the background info.

    I think it's a matter of giving what's reasonable and needed, and always caveating that the GM can do with it what they will.

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  16. On the narrow issue of XP, another of the joys of white-box OD&D is giving XP as HD x 100. No additional stat, no calculations, no lookups (esp. since the bulk is from treasure anyway) -- the way elegant games should be.

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  17. 3E made it easy, spreadsheet like. Has everything listed off, and with 3.5 they started giving combat examples:

    1st round: Demon casts MegaSpell
    2nd round: Demon summons LilDemon

    If you know how to read it, everything made perfectly logical sense. Yes BBEG took allot to read through but a good DM has a cliffnotes version in their mind. If you are going to throw something at the players you'll know ahead of time what their abilities are or a rough guestimate of combat parameters.

    It boils down to prepwork, you either do it and your life is easy or you wing it and hope for the best.

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  18. I agree that B/X gets it just about right.

    However, there is something appealing with an OD&D/ S&W:WB statblock of AC, HD and special abilities.

    I also usually print off a sheet with randomly generated numbers from 1-8 to use for hit points so I don't need or like having hit points in a module.

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  19. @Aqua: Agreed. With the exception of elite and solo monsters, I do something pretty similar when I play 4th. Most players seem to only really notice two powers: the normal attack and the nastiest one. Anything beyond that just makes the encounter a PitA to run for not much added benefit, and makes the thing harder to reskin for future use.

    My general stat block for any pre-4e D&D is basically: HP, AC, Attacks (with to-hit bonus, if the system uses them, or effective level, if it doesn't), and Saving Throws. Spells, special abilities, and unusual gear follow, as concisely as possible.

    I like Badelaire's ABC approach a lot. File all the random ecology stuff under Behavior and that covers just about everything I want to know about a beastie.

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  20. @Jimmy Swill, yeah, the 4E approach is a little spartan for my tastes as well. I wouldn't be opposed to seeing something on the order of a wildlife summary for creatures. One of the reasons I loved the Classic Monsters Revisited from Paizo is that they did such a bang up job on re-imagining ecologies. That said, doing that for an entire beastiary would be overwhelming. So even bullet points of some juicy kernels for ideas would be sufficient.

    Essentially, for me, it comes down the quality of the writing. And 4E feels much excised compared to earlier editions or Paizo's recent offerings.

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  21. I always hated the "Damage/Attack" line in the AD&D stat-blocks. Look at that Owlbear: 1-6/1-6/2-12
    Is that supposed to mean 1d6/1d6/2d6? If so, why didn't they just come out and say that? Perhaps 2-12 is supposed to be 1d4+1d8 instead of 2d6? There's some monsters in that book with really crazy damage ranges. I'm thinking of 5-25. I remember writing notes in the side margins of some monsters to keep track of what dice to roll.

    Third edition stat blocks were too long for my liking. A few of the Dungeon adventures from that era included stat blocks that were well in excess of one page - far too much material to be useful at the table. Even trying to write a stat-block for normal monsters past 5th or 6th level was a big chore. And that was before you started messing with templates and adding class levels to the monster!

    Personally, I'm a big fan of the 4e statblocks. I'd like to see a bit more description of the monsters provided either before or after the statblock, especially for monsters that are new to the game. For combat use, I think the blocks provided are just the right size. The design concept seems to be that 4e puts the onus for monster descripion on the DM, which is something I really approve of.

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  22. Sorry, for double posts, but I forgot one point I wanted to mention. The great part about knowing an animal is what you don't know.

    For instance, you might know that if you make loud noises and flail your arms you could scare off a preying mountain lion. But would that work for a charging rhino? Those bits of flavor help flesh out creatures that are, to paraphrase from Rob's post, a two-attack stat block to most players.

    Mythical creatures are interesting because by-in-large no one really knows what they'd be like--their behavior is strange and predictions are based on best guesses or old folklore from 'survivors'.

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  23. It almost sounds like you are saying "Less matter, less art" James.

    What I'm actually saying is that I much prefer a minimalist approach to both mechanics and, especially, descriptive text when it comes to "generic" monsters. I'm perfectly fine with more detail -- but not too much -- when someone's describing, say, what an "orc" is in their world. That's why I loved Paizo's Classic Monsters Revisited, but I would most emphatically not like to see that approach taken for the monsters in a basic/core rulebook.

    Does that make sense?

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  24. Dcollins,

    The LBB approach definitely has a lot going for it in terms of simplicity/elegance. My main beef with it is that it gives too much XP at the low end and not enough at the high for my tastes, which is why I use the Supplement I system.

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  25. It boils down to prepwork, you either do it and your life is easy or you wing it and hope for the best.

    Agreed. I'm just not much interested in having to do paperwork to run monsters anymore. It's a matter of taste, I'll grant, but I prefer things to be much simpler than the way 3e handled them.

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  26. James,
    I look forward to seeing your swords-and-planet monsters and I like the B/X/LL format myself. I started my blog with just a OD&D/Swords & Wizardry format, but I found (and received feedback) that a bit more information helps to flesh out a monster without giving too much information away. I agree that a lot of detail becomes confining at some point.

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  27. @James Re: Does that make sense?

    Yes, I think so. Thanks.

    @Asmodean66: 5-25 is hilarious. I too remember scratching my head at some of those distributions. I swear there was a 1-11 one that stumped me for far too long.

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  28. 5-25 is simply 4d6+1. Is that really so hard? Aren't we supposed to be a bunch of nerds around here? :)

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  29. "5-25 is simply 4d6+1. Is that really so hard? Aren't we supposed to be a bunch of nerds around here? :)"

    No, some of us are Geeks. Nerds are better at math.

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  30. Well,I think its a matter of liking it or not. I think that the 3.5 monster entries are very good,yes,they "might" look a bit...overwhelming. But once you get used to them,they´re awesome tools,be it for combat statistics,or for the description of the creature itself. Its just a matter of understanding them and training the eye to make a full use of them.
    I do agree with the fact that its kind of a lot of work when I make my own monsters and stuff,but hey,I always feel great when I finish and I see the stat block there,with all the info I need to use it in my sessions. It feels considerably rewarding.

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  31. I agree that monster presentation, even in the AD&D 1e Monster Manual, is way overdone. I've always been annoyed with monster stat blocks. But then again, I'm not sure you'd agree with my radical preference. I think monster entries can be compressed a lot.

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  32. …I much prefer a minimalist approach to both mechanics and, especially, descriptive text when it comes to "generic" monsters. I'm perfectly fine with more detail -- but not too much -- when someone's describing, say, what an "orc" is in their world.

    Wholehearted agreement. I think detailed biological, social, and ecological description is fine for a given campaign world, but I like the generic monsters to be wide open for interpretation. I like the LBB monster presentation for this reason.

    I'm a little surprised that we're in complete agreement on this point, though. I'd think that Gygaxian naturalism would assume a certain amount of expanded description (i.e. the 1e MM vs. LBB Vol. II).

    The LBB approach definitely has a lot going for it in terms of simplicity/elegance. My main beef with it is that it gives too much XP at the low end and not enough at the high for my tastes, which is why I use the Supplement I system.

    In my Cromlech Tor game, I'm currently taking the somewhat radical approach of eliminating monster XP entirely and bumping treasure up slightly to compensate. My players don't seem entirely comfortable with the idea, but in practice, I'm finding it a lot easier to deal with, and I don't see any side effects, to far.

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  33. I'm a little surprised that we're in complete agreement on this point, though. I'd think that Gygaxian naturalism would assume a certain amount of expanded description (i.e. the 1e MM vs. LBB Vol. II).

    While I run my games in a fairly Gygaxian naturalistic way, I don't think that's the only way D&D can be run and I think it's unfortunate that AD&D made it the "official" way to present monsters rather than an element of, say, the Greyhawk campaign setting.

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  34. @Philotomy:In my Cromlech Tor game, I'm currently taking the somewhat radical approach of eliminating monster XP entirely and bumping treasure up slightly to compensate.

    I've considered drastically lowering monster xp, too. Maybe reserve the 100xp/HD for creatures with several magical abilities, knock the others down to 10xp/HD (or double for slightly special creatures.) Haven't rooked anyone to playing it that way yet, though...

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  35. In my Cromlech Tor game, I'm currently taking the somewhat radical approach of eliminating monster XP entirely and bumping treasure up slightly to compensate. My players don't seem entirely comfortable with the idea, but in practice, I'm finding it a lot easier to deal with, and I don't see any side effects, to far.

    I tend to think of XP (even a fairly small amount) for defeating monsters as part of the primal appeal of D&D.

    To quote one of my players "It's not called Dungeons and run from Dragons!"

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  36. I tend to think of XP (even a fairly small amount) for defeating monsters as part of the primal appeal of D&D.

    To quote one of my players "It's not called Dungeons and run from Dragons!"


    I know where you're coming from. However, the XP from monsters just isn't that significant compared to the XP from treasure. It's very easy to add the small percentage of XP that would come from monsters into extra treasure. The PCs aren't "losing out" on XP.

    Also, in play, I don't see this making a difference in how the players are reacting. They're still killing most monsters, capturing some, and avoiding others.

    The objections seem to be purely psychological. It goes against decades of tradition and doesn't *seem* right, and the gut reaction is to say WHAT!?!

    The real question is whether that reaction holds up after the initial shock of "no xp for monsters?" and if it causes problems in play or just in player attitudes.

    I'm not heavily invested in this, it's just an experiment. I do like how it makes XP so easy to manage. So far, it seems to be working fine.

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