Monday, August 11, 2008

Muddled and Confused

My dislike for the art direction and marketing of AD&D Second Edition is well established, but the truth of the matter is that I played and indeed enjoyed 2e without too much complaint in the early years of its existence. By and large, the rules of 2e are not so far removed from those of 1e that they've wandered too far off the campus of the old school. The presentation, content, and marketing of 2e are another matter entirely, as its "Monster Manual" reveals:

The first thing you'll notice is that the 2e version of this "book" carries a different name, the Monstrous Compendium. I put "book" in scare quotes, because the MC was not in fact a book at all, but rather a D-Ring binder decorated with Jeff Easley art and TSR promotional text. The pages of the MC were loose-leaf sheets with three holes along on side to be place in the binder. The theory was that the DM could simply remove the sheets he needed for play and leave the rest of the binder elsewhere, without the need for flipping through a large book. In addition, as future volumes of the MC were released -- see that "Volume One" on the cover? -- you could just interpolate the new sheet with those of other other as you wish, in the process creating a custom volume that included only those monsters the DM used in his adventures or campaign.

Unfortunately, very few monsters occupied more than one side of a sheet, which made a mockery of any attempt to alphabetize a large collection of them. The same problem occurred when you attempted to weed out monsters you didn't like or didn't need to use, as there was a good chance that at least some of them had useful information on monsters you did use on their reverse. TSR attempted to correct this flaw primarily by padding out the entries for many monsters, adding levels of detail that were frankly unnecessary and weakened the game's tool kit credentials by establishing all sorts of "facts" about orcs or dragons we'd never heard of before.

The cover art of the binder itself isn't terrible, at least in general concept. I'm not happy with the execution, which is much more cartoony than the covers of the other two 2e volumes. The piece also does not depict a scene, but is it a "strike a pose" illustration, with three monsters standing together for no good reason and without any context. TSR seems to have realized that iconic D&D monsters -- in this case the beholder, umber hulk, and displacer beast -- are iconic for a reason. I have mixed feelings about this. On the one hand, I am glad they're paying homage to certain distinctive elements of the game. On the other hand, it's pretty clear that TSR sees these distinctive elements as trademarkable images they can use to promote the D&D "brand." Unsurprisingly, that makes me a little unhappy.

Equally unsurprisingly, TSR learned from its mistakes and four years later released the Monstrous Manual (again, note the name change) that collected together many creatures from the Monstrous Compendium volumes in a single hardcover, complete with full-color illustrations. Interestingly, the Monstrous Manual entries were all confined to a single page in most cases, just as if they'd be sheets in the abandoned MC.

The cover to this book is again by Jeff Easley and follows a similar style to that of the Monstrous Compendium's first volume. However, the monsters are (mostly) different. The beholder is still there, which is not surprisingly given how 2e era TSR treated the monster as the quasi-mascot of the game. We also see a red dragon, which I think is appropriate. Joining them are a lich, a minotaur, and a thri-kreen. The thri-kreen is an interesting choice and I suspect it was there in order to make a connection to the Dark Sun campaign setting, although it may just be that the race was a popular one. All in all, it's not a terribly strong piece, but it's not wretched. My main beef with it is that it simply makes no sense as anything other than a cover. It looks like a movie poster or promotional shot from a TV series rather than an illustration with any coherence of its own.

And that, right there, is my biggest problem with both these covers and with 2e generally: incoherence. The rules of 2e are still (mostly) the same Gygaxian chassis but 2e adds a new body, paint job, and tail fins that suggest the people in charge of marketing and promoting D&D either didn't understand its foundations or hoped to move away from them. I suspect it's a little bit of both. 2e is part of a major push by TSR to ride the mass media success of fantasy, which is why we got so many divergent settings for D&D; this was the first edition that was influenced by its popular culture brainchildren rather than being an engine of influence in its own right. If, as I have argued, Dragonlance is where D&D first made the acquaintance of Mephistopheles, 2e is where the game signed on the dotted line in its own blood.


  1. The Monstrous Compedium was the product that drove me away from D&D until 3rd edition - I was 14 and resented the idea that I'd have to buy updated versions of all the hard-won sourcebooks (saving my allowance being especially challenging back in those days).

    I have the same feeling about 4e, except the Amazon deal on the boxed set was too good to pass up (and I have more money now).

  2. You know, I don’t think the “movie poster” idiom is so bad for a monster manual. Especially if you think the cover art should relate specifically to the book and not just to the game in general. The Monster Manual is quite a different beast [pun unintended but I like it] than the PHB and DMG.

    Stepping back to 1e for a moment: I think the 1e Fiend Folio cover fits in this discussion as a step between the original MM cover and the second 1e MM cover. The original MM was both the first of all AD&D books and rushed. The FF cover, perhaps, gives us some insight into what the MM cover might have been if it weren’t first or rushed.

  3. Wow. This might be the first time I have heard about all the info in the MC being a BAD THING.

    To me its the gold standard of monster collections. They stop being just things to kill for phat lewts and become real, a part of the world they belong in. Every entry is an adventure if not an entire campaign to itself.

    The monster entries in Basic, O, D20, and AD 1 are pretty much just "Things to kill".

    MC brought them to LIFE.

  4. a part of the world they belong in

    What world is that? For me, that's the crucial line that the 2e era crosses and that is a betrayal of the game's roots. It's the same reason why I never liked the "Ecology of X" series in Dragon: it establishes expectations about how monster X or creature Y ought to behave that not every referee will wish to accept. Once it's stated that "Orcs do X, Y, and Z," then players will expect them to do so and if their referee doesn't use orcs according to his players' expectations, it creates problems.

    Note that I don't think the monsters prior to 2e were treated just like loot bags with no lives of their own. Many of these creatures have non-combat abilities that are extremely suggestive of how they may lead their lives. I like that and see it as a good thing. What I don't like is how 2e started cataloging behaviors and detailing societies/cultures in depth. That crosses a line, one which, to be fair, I think some of the humanoid entries in the 1e MM do as well.

  5. Every entry is an adventure if not an entire campaign to itself.

    Have you read the 1e MM recently? Some of those entries go into some depth and pretty much outline adventures as well. Not to the extent that the MC does, of course, but there’s some very inspiring stuff in there. (FF too.)

    In general, though, this hits upon the same thing I’ve said about adventures. I’m a “big picture” person. While the MC may be the gold standard for a “details” person, some of the entries are information overload for me.

  6. It's the same reason why I never liked the ‘Ecology of X’ series in Dragon: it establishes expectations about how monster X or creature Y ought to behave that not every referee will wish to accept.

    Though, only the most foolish player will build expectations off a Dragon article. Putting this sort of ecology is the MC elevates it more.

    Of course, I try to set expectations up-front that things like the MM should be seen like in-world books. i.e. Likely containing as many false conclusions as true facts.

    I think this is one area where you and I tend to disagree, James. I think it’s OK for a game to go farther in detailing things (especially in supplements but also in the core book(s)) because the GM is always free to deviate and the players are fools to expect the GM to hew exactingly to the printed words.

    We shouldn’t design defensively against those few players who turn this into a problem.

  7. Aww dude! No love for the Ecology articles?
    Those things were the best! Maybe its because it was my first Dragon Magazine, but the issue with the Aboleth was a giant springboard of radness.

    I keep being disappointed that the bigger Aboleths have pretty much been ignored ever since. (So glad I have the archive CDROMs then. One of the first things I did was print that article out!)

    I've always been a "fluff" gamer. Gimme the information overload (yet keep the rules simple, streamlined, and elegant!) on the setting, the peoples, the world.

    Then I can gleefully use it or twist it into whatever horrible pretzel shape I choose.

    Cool players won't mind. I've thrown Innsmouth pretty much as written (outside of automobiles anyhow) into Dragonlance and the big DL fan didn't complain a bit.

    My players gave me a statement of truth: You are the GM.

    Obviously you have to make it logically fit, but any good GM can use or change anything he wants to fit his campaign world.

    I guess I am wierd when it comes to D&D. I consider Mentzer Basic THE book any new RPGer should pick up. (The only game that could be better is D6 Star Wars, which might be one of the best RPGs ever made, even if it gets wonky at high power levels. Call of Cthulhu is in the best ever running too, but its NOT a novices game at all.)

    Even though I am not very fond of the old school D&D mechanics in general, I absolutely adore the "feel and charm" of AD&D1, and the worlds and fluff of AD&D2.

    OD&D I own all but the Gods book, but I don't see the point in a toolkit. Mainly because I end up with something like Castles & Crusades anyhow.

    Even if my next campaign will probably be AD&D2 with Basic stat advances and almost every race and class from both AD&D editions. A little from Skills & Powers Combat, a little from Battlesystem 2, a little from Rules Cyclopedia...

    Now if only the Troll Lords would do a big book of races and classes so I could just start converting classic and neo classic modules over.

    Oh, MC yeah. I also like the Holloway art that was heavily used in the line. It was neat, even if his work was best suited for Paranoia.

    But I bet for a generation of gamers, the 1st ed monsters are beloved, and not because they were in that rather important tome. But because they were pretty much transferred directly over to the SSI Gold Box games. In some cases even with a little animation to boot!

    I still think Kobolds are supposed to be furry because of Pool of Radiance. Can't help myself!

  8. We shouldn’t design defensively against those few players who turn this into a problem.

    In an ideal world perhaps (though I'm not certain of that), but the way the hobby has evolved suggests to me that many gamers have the expectation that "if it's in the book, it's true." 4e is certainly built around that principle and the re-organization of the RPGA Living campaign is in part a reaction to the perceived "problem" under 3e that not everything in the rulebooks was valid in tournament play. This suggests to me that the presentation of the rulebooks does create expectations in gamers and that we need to guard against creating such expectations when at all possible.

  9. My players gave me a statement of truth: You are the GM.

    Obviously you have to make it logically fit, but any good GM can use or change anything he wants to fit his campaign world.

    I certainly don't disagree and it's great you have players who realize this. However, the reality is that RPGs are increasingly produced in a way that the referee not as a sovereign authority unto himself but purely as a conveyor of the rules and setting material as written. It's why my liking for detailed gaming settings is increasingly small and why I favor simple, intuitive rules overall complex ones. It's a taste thing, certainly, but I don't think there's any denying that 2e marks a period when detail came to rule the day to the detriment of the do-it-yourself ethos of the early game.

  10. Don’t surrender! Don’t follow Wizards’ lead if you don’t like where they are leading! In your works, repeatedly encourage GMs to deviate from your words, and discourage players from forming such expectations. Help move us towards the ideal world!

  11. I think its more gamers than the books who sort of enforce this behavior, though I cannot disagree that the later era RPGs tend to push this sort of thing subtly.

    Its funny how the same audience who insist on writing fanfic and fanart, much of which is rather... deviant shall we say have trouble with any level of freedom or change.

    I've even seen people in fan circles insist THEIR totally unsubstantiated and totally against canon source interpetations to be the correct one and then they proceed to verbally berate and harass anyone who dissents.

    A lesser example I saw myself when I joined into a White Wolf game once. My character had a silver weapon, as he was from a campaign where Werewolves and Vampires were fighting together against really bad world destroying stuff. (I can't help it. I like people uniting against the great darkness. Its my comics and anime influences showing through..) Well I took my NPC into this game. When he was revealed to have said weapon the Wolf players in this game FREAKED OUT as if I had broken some great taboo. By their interpretation its mere proximity to their PCs would cause negative effects.

    Yet by the rulesbooks it DID NOT. Here we have the other PCs pooing bricks and the GM is looking up to confirm. Once it was found I told the GM I would be happy with whichever way he wanted to run it as it was his game. I was the only one who seemed to be more interested in how the GM wanted to run things than the book or the group concensus.


    Gaming is supposed to be about fun. Its not a peenwaving contest. Its not a competition. Its sure as hell not a good way to pick up girls.

    If we just want to level up and not affect or change anything and follow someone else's lame-o story there are plenty of console RPGs available out there.

    Why try to deal with scheduling and people conflicts and the time and expense to read all these blasted overpriced rulesbooks otherwise?

  12. I liked the three ring binder approach to be honest, and I liked building my own monster manuals using the pages. Hell, my GM notebook at the time, had a section where I kept the monsters that were local to the campaign there with my world notes. It made it easier and helped limit the number of books I had to carry.

    I liked the format, hated the content and really disliked 2E.

  13. I'll defend the RC conceptually. I think the idea of monsters in a three ring binder, one per sheet is a grand idea.

    However, as you noted, it failed on execution.

    They didn't make sure they were one page each. The back could have had "Campaign Specific Notes" at the top to encourage you to take it out. Or had a monster roster and encouraged you to photocopy them for the game.

    New monsters in Dragon and Dungeon could have been printed on "MC pages" at the center designed to be cut out and put in the MC.

    The MC was full of opportunity to be a high utility items for old or new school gaming.

    That it failed to achieve such simple but powerful things tells me a lot about TSR back then.

  14. What's interesting is now we can fix the problems with the MC. With the ultra cheap scanner/printer/copier machines available massive MCs organized just how we want them can be done right.

    And for the PDF owning crowd, the books with new MC entries need not be crushed to copy. Just print out the pages clean from the PDF!

    I've thought about doing this since I have two of the MC binders and lots of sets, but its not all that much of an emergency.

    If I need portable monsters I take 1st ed AD&D MM/FFs with me. Or they are in the module I am using. Or I am playing Moldvay/Cook/Mentzer/RC and have the same basic stats anyhow.

    But for the elite monster organizer its a cheap and easy solution to an 18 year old problem.

    Oh god. I feel so old. And I was a freshman in high school when the first binder came out.

  15. Help move us towards the ideal world!

    I don't really believe in ideal worlds. However, I do think that my RPG preferences are being ill served by most game companies today, chief among them WotC. I think there's a lot of space for smaller publishers and fans to provide material that's, in my opinion, closer to what I want and have enjoyed in gaming for nearly 30 years.

    You'll certainly be seeing a few examples of these kinds of products from my pen in the months to come.

  16. If there is one thing that D20 proved, it is that "by and large", the RPG audience [i]loves[/i] conformity, and also enjoys attacking anything that fails to conform (including rules that 'don't make sense' without significant interpretation).

    Ideal worlds rely on ideal conformity and complete mutual agreement as to what is ideal. Whether the books encourage conformity or not, the root of the problem is the expectations of the audience.

  17. Whether the books encourage conformity or not, the root of the problem is the expectations of the audience.

    It's one of those self-reinforcing things. The only way to break the cycle is for a publisher to decide to stop the trend and try a different tack to see if anyone bites. As the success of several old school ventures have proved, there is a market for such stuff; it's a question of how big or a market and whether it's big enough for a publisher to cater to it exclusively (or largely).

  18. I don’t really believe in ideal worlds.” —James

    Sure you do. You’re the one who said “in an ideal world”. You believe in it—as an ideal. ^_^

    As do I, which is why I said “move us towards” rather than “help create”. We may never get there, but that shouldn’t stop us from trying.

    If there is one thing that D20 proved, it is that ‘by and large’, the RPG audience loves conformity, and also enjoys attacking anything that fails to conform (including rules that ‘don’t make sense’ without significant interpretation).” —Matthew

    o_O Can you expand on how d20 has proven that?’s a question of how big or a market and whether it’s big enough for a publisher to cater to it exclusively (or largely).” —James

    I tend to think that no publisher can survive on RPGs alone, let alone a niche within it. At least without being very careful about how you structure you business. Not even Wizards tries that.

    I also think that—as long as you’re willing to diversify—nigh no market is too small to make some profit off of.