Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Monster Modularity

Not appearing in this post

Moving back and forth among different versions of D&D as I have been doing lately got me to thinking about which parts of the various editions have been more or less fun and more or less work to run. One of the big factors is how monsters (and NPC's) are presented for use.

You know, I cannot find a picture of a Basic D&D Goblin - so here's the closest thing I could find

Basic (and the various clones): "Here's your monster" - you get a statblock and not much other detail. Is that AC 5 from chainmail? Is it from studded leather and a shield with a Dex bonus? What weapons do they use? Well, that's all pretty much up to the DM, though sometimes published adventures note this kind of information. The only notes on different variations or advancement are usually things like "the leader fights as a bugbear" or something similar. This does keep monster info short and sweet but it does ask a novice DM to add some details on the fly and monsters can get kind of routine after fighting them a few times. I suspect one of the reasons there are so many humanoid monster types in D&D is because that's where variety came form in the earlier editions - we didn't need 6 types of actual goblin because we moved on to xvarts and orcs and hobgoblins and norkers and gnolls and flinds and bugbears and the rest as we leveled up.

Basic Switches: Well you can adjust the weapons and armor but that really only applies to humanoid type creatures. Magic items work similarly. Some of them can use spells and that can provide some variety. That's really about it. One troll is pretty much like another.

AD&D: "Advanced here's your monster" - There's more detail in some places and there is typically more of a breakdown of weapons used for humanoid type monsters but special types are still pretty much limited to "chief fights as a bugbear with bodyguards who fight as hobgoblins" type notes. The DMG has some notes on shamans and witch doctors for the humanoid races (which allowed for MU and Cleric levels on them) but this is not included in the MM and they never seemed to show up a whole lot in published adventures. Other creatures, even ones like giants, have almost no information on weapons and armor, leaders, or class levels. (This is probably one reason the weapons vs. armor type modifiers saw so little use - when armor type is not a standard part of a monster description it's not really worth the extra hassle.)

PC races like elves and dwarves do have more detail in their entries, from weapons and armor breakdowns to class levels for leaders and other types. I know I never really needed them because my players didn't typically fight these types but it gave a good model for what kinds of options could be added.

1E Switches: weapons & armor, magic items, the occasional alignment switch, spell changes, and the occasional hit dice bump is about it. So basically gear, spells, and maybe level. Again, one troll is pretty much like another other than throwing the odd magic item on one here and there or bumping up his hit dice - "This is a really big troll so he has 9HD instead of 6+6."

A lot of 2E's art was cool - this is one of my least favorites. Compared to tramp's illo above this is a step back

AD&D 2E: "More info, same stats" - With 2E we see some significant improvements, at least form the perspective of someone actually trying to run a game. Creatures who wear armor have their "armored up" AC listed, followed by their natural AC in parentheses. There is a specific "combat" subsection below the statblock that describes the weapons, armor, and tactics of each creature. Special types are now listed as "leader with 2 HD, AC5 and fights with a battle axe". Some of these notes were already present for humanoid types but others like giants benefit greatly from all of these updates as a DM has more to work with both when prepping and when adjudicating on the fly.

2E Switches: Pretty much the same as 1E, and gear and spells really only apply to certain types of monsters. Even though the Non-Weapon Proficiency system was added to the game, it wasn't added to the monsters - they would have needed stats. Again, one troll is much like another, other than taking entirely different types of troll. There were a few more options like that.

Now all 3 versions above are pretty similar mechanics-wise and the same kinds of things tend to come up:
  • Players go to loot the bodies - what kind of gear do they have? DM gets to decide on the fly
  • Goblins in the caves of chaos work a certain way. Goblins in a different area may be completely different. Wandering encounter goblins may be different from both of those.
  • Special types and leaders are not super easy to run on the fly as they often refer to other monster entries and require spell selection and gear selection
  • Players get into some kind of contest of strength - how strong is a goblin? a hobgoblin? an orc? We did know the strength of an ogre and the various giant types, but what about a dragon?
These can all be overcome but there were definite "open items" that a lot of DM's would like to solve.

As far as looting I know I mostly used the "wing it" approach if I had not decided ahead of time. Monsters of the same type in different areas may have completely valid reasons for being different, but it's nice if you can reward the players for learning about the world and then trying to apply those lessons as the travel. If your goblin tribes all operate in completely different ways then you can't really reward the players for paying attention as there's no carryover. I know by the time I was running 2E I put a lot of monsters on index cards and kept a file handy for play. This let my room notes consist of things like "10 regular goblins, a leader and a shaman" when it came to the creatures, and all of their details were on cards. This gave me a little more variation among a monster type, say within a goblin lair, but it did tend to standardize each of those sub-types across multiple encounters, giving the player some idea of what to expect if they attacked a goblin lair.

The stat question didn't come up a lot but when it did it was a pain. At one point we got into a situation where a character on a horse was trying to drag down an orc chieftain (a 3HD monster in AD&D) and we got way too bogged down in the whole which is stronger question. Creative players will get you into situations like that and having a number to point to trims the argument time down quite a bit.
The larger picture with the monsters in these versions is that there aren't a lot of switches a DM can flip to modify them. On one level you can do anything you want to them but there aren't really many mechanics around it. Without some kind of mechanical hook a lot of DM's may not think of a fun way to modify them, and a lot of players may hesitate to try tactics based on mechanical assumptions because they have no way to figure ahead of time whether it has any chance of success (like lassoing the orc chief above). Mechanics don't just define a creature, they also define the way a creature can act and be acted upon by the players within the normal game system and it makes a difference. 

Forward progress at last

So now we get to 3rd edition "D&D meets the Hero system" - suddenly monsters are built in the same way as characters. It's a tremendous change in the mechanics and at first I could see no downside to it. Look at the elements you can adjust as a DM: ability scores, type, size, hit dice, skills, feats, class levels, templates (I loved templates) plus the familiar gear and spell options from before. Now there was no reason to just have a band of ogres - now one of them could be an advanced ogre zombie with 3 levels of barbarian, and another could have levels in sorcerer or cleric! It was all designed to work together, the numbers all matched, and (say what you will about challenge ratings) there was a serious attempt at making it easy to rank these things on a common scale.

Early on I was all over this. Going from having only a few tweak switches to having around 10 was a blast. Some of this was tricky to do in play so that was rarely done, but I used my same index card file system for running the game - do the math once, save it, print it to a card and you have that monster statblock forever. Plus now the players had many more ways to interact with a creature from the expanded combat actions (Bull Rush! Disarm! Sunder!) to skills to stat contests and I saw quite a bit of it, especially early on.

The downside came later - sure I had the feats and spells noted ahead of time on my monster cards but in the heat of battle I had to actually use them. What does that feat do again? What's the DC for this disarm attempt? What does this spell do? When would he cast this? Why did I give him this? It could get pretty bad. My monster cards became somewhat less standardized as I allowed room for notes on specific maneuvers and tactics for monster X. I printed out spell cards so I could keep them next to the monster cards in play, which helped as long as I could keep them all organized. Improvising actually became tougher as there was so much more to keep track of when one adjusted the monster away from the book stats. At a certain level of complexity, the system becomes an obstacle to improvisation, and on some level each monster was now as complex to run as a typical player character so running ten or more of them tends to slow down the game. I did love having the options though.

I know by the end of my time as a 3E DM I was enjoying it a lot less. Prep time was up as I needed to figure out how each monster worked in advance. Published adventures were even worse in this regard as at least if I built a monster I was familiar with what I intended it to do. With a published adventure I had no inside knowledge. There was a fair amount of rock/scissors/paper in them as one creature might be appallingly vulnerable to a particular kind of attack but if his buddy stood next to him or cast a particular spell on him then it was completely mitigated. It's tough to figure this stuff out in the middle of a battle so I felt like I needed to do my homework to give the players a good fight. The geography, personalities, and plot weren't an issue - it was mainly the fight mechanics. While there were a ton of options, it took a lot of preparation to get the most out of them. This started to turn it from fun into work, and that's a bad place to be. I don't totally blame the game here, as a certain amount of it is tied to the Way I Want The Game to Be, but the mechanics were definitely a factor.

3E Switches: ability scores, type, size, hit dice, skills, feats, class levels, templates, gear, and spell options. No two trolls need ever be alike! Feats, class levels, and templates were especially fun to apply.

Then we come to 4E: "Monsters on a card" - Monsters in 4E are built to overcome the problems I described above as apparently it wasn't just me that was having them. The single biggest change is that monsters are no longer built just like a player character, rejecting that concept from 3E and going back to the idea that monsters are their own thing much as Basic/1E/2E did. This approach gives a pretty good balance of usable options vs. complexity.

4E switches: level, role, size, type, powers, templates, themes (ability scores, skills, gear). Not only could you modify a troll, odds were there was a rockthrower troll, a berserker troll, a frostbrother troll - you had more options to begin with!

The introduction of a standard leveling process made bumping monsters up and -down- in power quite a bit easier. This expanded the range in which a monster could be used by quite a bit. Feats and spells are gone, built into powers as needed. Ability scores are present but don't matter as much except when players get creative. Gear is there mostly as a loot list as powers define the numbers and effects, the gear is mainly color.

Role is an overlooked innovation. Sure, it's easy to tell that the goblin with a bow should stay back and shoot, but what about something with levels of cleric? Depending on spell choice he could be a bruiser in melee or he could be intended to stand back and throw holds, heals, and flame strikes. If I see a monster labelled as "artillery" then I know right there what he's supposed to do. Same with 'leader", "brute" and the rest. Even if I have done no prep work at all, I can read the role and know where they need to go on the battlemat

The other big innovation was that everything needed to run the monster is in the statblock - no need to look up feats or spells or even weapons - it's all right there. That's a huge win when it comes time to prep and run a game. Some of it is presentation but a lot of it is also concept - monster powers don't need a full spell-type writeup - they just need the mechanical effects described and some descriptors applied and that's enough for something that has a lifespan of less than one minute of game time in most cases. It's going to be difficult to go to any system that is combat-heavy and does not have this kind of utility built in to the opposition system.

Next: The playtest version of D&D looks a lot like an AD&D monster with the lessons of 4E built in. Basic stats are included but "traits" are listed as discrete entries for things that look a lot like 4E powers and "actions" are listed for attacks and special moves which I think looks promising so far. There does seem to be an effort to keep the standard of not needing to reference outside material to run a monster in combat and that's an item I will be watching closely.

Switches: let's wait and see.

So what's the point of all this? Well, more options is usually better, but maybe not to an infinite degree. I still feel like the early editions were easy enough to manage but could have used some more options once the system evolved to support them. Right now I'd say we're seeing that with Next. We've maxed out on complexity with 3E and curved back around towards simplicity. What would I like to see?

  • Monster "level" is an easy way to fine tune a group of beasties. let's keep that.
  • Ability scores are fine as a "lesser" switch. The PC's won't notice them most of the time unless you really exaggerate it for effect, like a goblin with 18 strength. I like having them in the description to cover oddball actions even if I leave them unchanged
  • Templates - these are great and need to be in every edition of D&D
  • Feats/Spells/Powers - I'd rather these were just rolled into the monster description itself, part of their attack or trait or powers or whatever. One thing, not a bunch of different things. Don't make me look them up
  • Skills - I'm torn on these as they do allow for more individuality between monsters, but they are also a level of overhead I may not need. I can live without them
  • I'd like to see role included as an element of monster descriptions but I know a lot of people hate it as a 4E thing so I don't expect it to appear in Next. It does sort of depend on a standardized method of monster building and I'm not sure we will see that in next anyway.
In case you can't tell I'm fine with not building them the same way as PC's. The lifespan of a PC can be years, the lifespan of most monsters is a fraction of an evening - it makes a lot of sense to have different approaches for the two. 

The other big change is technology. For my Mutants and Masterminds games I don't even print out my opposition stats any more - I build them in HeroLab and then use its tactical console to run my combats. I have full access to their stats and can mark damage or conditions on them and track initiative all in the PC. It was my personal pilot program and it has worked very well. With basic thru 2E I don't really feel the need for PC assistance but with 3E/Pathfinder I think it removes a lot of those headaches I mentioned of looking up feats and spells and skill DC's by putting them a click away.

A dragon was challenging to run effectively in 3E as it had a lot of abilities and spells to track. See the blue text above with the spells and feats? Forget what "Shatter Defenses" does or worse yet, have a player arguing with you about what it does? -click-

Oh look, it's right there, the complete text, and it even lists the source so someone else can look it up if they have time. This is a huge win for actually running a game as complex as 3E/Pathfinder with all of the options in full effect. I've only used this one (Pathfinder Combat Manager) a little so far but I was blown away when I first saw it. With 4E I don't see the need as strongly as all of the details are right there in the statblock but if you run these other editions I would strongly recommend it

I suppose one final point might be this: A lot of us have been playing this game a long time. Every edition has some things you can do to customize your monsters, so do it! Don't be afraid to adjust the standards and surprise your players. Maybe this time the Steading is not a barbecue joint for oversized rednecks but maybe it's the home of a new spiritual movement among hill giant kind and they all have some monk or cleric abilities? Maybe they've joined a serpent cult and have some poison-related powers? The game is supposed to be about adventure and part of that is facing danger and exploring the unknown. If the players know everything already (even when playing 1st level characters) then take some steps to change that. Hopefully it will add some energy to the game and put them back enough to wake them back up. If you're starting a new game, well there's no better way to let them know this campaign is different from the last than by obviously and extensively changing up the opposition. 

I've done this constantly in my 4E Red Hand of Doom conversion. Since it was written for 3.5 the monster levels and types and numbers don't really match up that well for 4E so I change them. Very few of the creatures my party have faced are "stock". Almost all of them have their level adjusted, some have their gear tweaked, and many have some power adjustments. Quite a few of these changes are to keep the flavor similar to what it was for 3.5 but others are just things I like or things that seem to be a better fit. It's pretty liberating and it ensures I am familiar with what each beastie can do. Once I'm happy with it I print out the stats and keep them at hand for the game. With or without a computer, and regardless of edition, it's an option in every DM's toolkit, one I've come to like quite a bit.


Jeremy said...

I'm having a lot of fun surprising my players like that too. 4e is amazing for that. Oh, the module calls for a level 8 lurker and a level 10 brute? Let's look in the compendium at what all the options for those two things are.

Wow! I love that critter's abilities! Copy, Paste into Turn Tracker, change the name back to what the module had listed. Viola!

Don't like any of the options? Pop a higher or lower level critter into the monster manager, hit the plus or minus button and adjust to taste.

3e took days of work every night to prep for. 4e has a ton of flexibility without requiring a 10th of the work from me.

Blacksteel said...

In a weird way it makes conversions easier too. With RHoD I may not have the exact numbers/weapons/spells that were listed for 3E but if it said "3 ogres, a giant, and a green dragon" I can pretty much adjust things to have a reasonable mix of those same creature types to keep the flavor of the original without having to bend over backwards. That's a big win to me.