Well, it would appear my self-imposed hiatus is winding down, as things have gotten more organized around this neck o the woods. We'll see...I'm not promising to come back in "full force" but I've definitely started poking my nose back into the blog-o-sphere. And I've got one hell of a shnoz.
This post was originally going to be called "Monsters, Monsters Everywhere" but I've already got a blog post by that title (waaaaaay back a few years ago) and I try not to duplicate; however, for folks who were hoping for an NFL/Blood Bowl entry...no, this one's going to be about D&D.
Back in 1981 or '82 when I started playing D&D, my introduction to the game...my first rule set...was the Basic book edited by Tom Moldvay. Much of my love and appreciation for this particular game has been documented on this blog, but allow me a quick summary: the book gave me everything I needed to play D&D, and in doing so it changed my life. I can say this honestly with the hindsight of 30+ years to look back on.
I'm not going to pretend I follow what WotC does with the D&D brand all that closely. I don't. I'm just not interested in most of their revenue streams and I don't read or frequent their forums. I have a curiosity about 5th Edition, both as a person familiar with the play of most editions of D&D and as an active game designer interested in other folks' work. And it's because of this curiosity/interest that I've bothered to download and read the (free) PDFs of WotC's D&D Basic Rules. I grew up playing something called "Basic" D&D, and I still find it an elegant piece of craftsmanship. I'm interested in seeing how WotC handles the same task given to Moldvay and Holmes and Mentzer...namely, making a simplified game that "was designed to be easily read and used by individuals who have never before played a role playing game."
[that's from the Foreword of Moldvay's Basic book]
My first impression of the new Basic rules was not a good one. As an obvious work-in-progress, an incomplete game, I wondered at why WotC would even bother to release such a thing. As I wrote at the time:
"There's no information on running the game, no information on creating adventures, no information on running NPCs ("monsters"), no information on treasure, and (perhaps most basic of all) no information on how XP is earned/awarded. In other words, no information on what the objective of the characters are, or what they're supposed to do."
There are other things that were left out of the 110 page (now 115 page) rule book that Mike Mearls said was "the equivalent of the old D&D Rules Cyclopedia," like how a DM was supposed to award inspiration (a new mechanic that I have not seen in prior editions)...but then the new rules were only in their "version 0.1" (now "0.2") stage and a little digging in past press releases found that the rules needed for adventure creation, running the game, etc. would all be released in time.
Welp, last night I stayed up to read the new, 61 page document that is the "Dungeon Master's Basic Rules Version 0.1." Most of it (59 pages) is content. It is divided into the following four sections:
Monsters (51 pages)
Non-Player Characters (3 pages)
Building Combat Encounters (3 pages)
Magic Items (2 pages)
The Non-Player Character title is a little misleading: there's no information on creating or using NPCs, simply additional stat blocks (with light description) the equivalent of the monster entries. In other words, it's three pages of additional "monsters" that can be used to further describe (or add abilities to) humanoid NPCs encountered.
The last two sections each have highlighted sidebars noting they are Works in Progress! and that additional material will be released as the new DMG gets written. Which is probably a good thing because some folks might be prone to panic (or scoffing) when they see the hot mess that is Building Combat Encounters (not, um, "designing adventures" or something) or the small handful of items (18 total) that comprise the Magic Items section. No, there are no randomized tables in the latter section.
You know, it's fascinating: Moldvay gave us 50+ magic items in 4 pages (including the random tables). Is it possible (I'm not being sarcastic or rhetorical here) that the new "Basic" is over-thinking itself?
ANYWAY...monsters. That's the bulk of the new Basic "DM's Guide." Stat blocks for monsters and information on how they fight and information on how to set-up combat encounters because, you know, while Mearls talks about three broad categories of activity (exploration, social interaction, and combat...see page 5 of the Basic Rules), really people only give a shit about fighting.
Back in March of last year, I wrote a piece on cosmology (and paying attention to it in design) that no one seemed to give a rat's ass about, probably because it was attached to a series exploring clerics and their inclusion in fantasy adventure games and "been there done that." But I was writing about more than just clerics...I was talking about putting a little forethought into the whole creation process, especially with regard to monsters. But yeah...murderhobo doesn't care.
For me, I put a lot of thought into what "monsters" I include in the (B/X-style) games I design. Mine is not a "kitchen sink" approach...I make lists, I consider what fits and what doesn't and then I write it up. It's one of the tougher parts of the game creation process...I have more than one work-in-progress currently on-hold due to the "NPC" section. And it's not like I write paragraphs and paragraphs of text for each entry! The entries for monsters in my B/X Companion are positively "wordy" compared to the entries in Five Ancient Kingdoms. For comparison purposes:
B/X Companion: 16 pages, 67 entries (roughly 4/page)
Five Ancient Kingdoms: 17 pages, 86 entries (but on half-sized pages!)
The new Basic has a total of 159 entries in 51 pages (or 169 in 54 pages if you count the NPC section...which I do). Regardless of the number per page (WotC can make their books as big as they want...this is their precursor to a new Monster Manual, after all!)...regardless of the amount of space they take up, 169 entries is a LOT of monsters. More than both my published works combined (and for the record, there's only nine or so shared entries between the two, so the total count is still over 140 in 20-30 pages). Maybe you're licking your chops at the prospect of all the combat encounters you can build with such quantity...but maybe we should look at what that quantity consists of?
Mearls and Jeremy Crawford (who are listed as the "lead designers"), have statted out each individual monster as its own entry, regardless of similarity to monsters of its own ilk. For example, in my B/X Companion, I count Animals of Legend as one entry, even though it lists four different creature profiles (and gives notes for creating others). I count Ruinous Powers as one entry even though there are five unique creatures. My entry for Giant includes both Half-Giants and Mutant Giants, but I count it as one entry.
It's a space saving device to group monsters together...something I learned from Moldvay's Basic book (see Cat, Great for panthers, mountain lions, lions, tigers, and smilodons; see Bear for black, grizzly, polar, and cave). I use the same tact in 5AK (Vermin, Giant all fall under one category regardless of bat, rat, whatever. Same with giant insects, donkey/mules, etc.)...I don't need or want to "pad" my word count...I'm trying to cut down on the pages I'm sending to the printer to reduce my costs and that of the consumer.
Mearls and Crawford don't seem to buy this idea. We have separate entries for brown bear, black bear, and polar bear. There are separate entries for draft horse, riding horse, and warhorse. There are separate entries for fire elemental, earth elemental, air elemental, and water elemental. And the thing is organized in strict, alphabetical order so it's not like the horses or elementals are even grouped together (air elemental with the "A" monsters, water elementals with the "W" monsters). You want to find the stats for an adult red dragon? It's not under "D" (for dragon) or even "R" (for red) but under "A" (for adult). Looking for a "Frog, Giant" to put in your swampy temple? You'll be searching in the "G" section of the document under "Giant Frog," right between "Giant Fire Beetle" and "Giant Goat."
Yes, a classic monster...surely you've encountered many in your D&D games over the years. In 5E, it's worth 100 XP and has a "Sure-Footed" feat that gives it advantage on STR and DEX saving throws that would knock it prone. It has a Challenge Rating of 1/2, you will have to include 3 to 6 when building an encounter for your party of 1st level adventurers. But if you're worried that a small herd of giant goats with their damage range of 5-11 will be too tough, you can always use non-giant goats.
Yes, the goat...it's a medium beast, unaligned and it's CHA is only 5, but with that STR of 12 it has +3 to its Ram attack roll (only 2-5 damage). And that's a LOT more than the damage done by a normal frog.
Yes...a tiny beast, the frog only has a STR of 1 (WIS of 8 however!). It has 1-3 hit points and the following special abilities:
Amphibious: the frog can breathe air and water.
Standing Leap: the frog's jump is up to 10 feet and its high jump is up to 5 feet, with or without a running start.
The description states:
"A frog has no effective attacks. It feeds on small insects and typically dwells near water, in trees, or underground."
Wow...thanks for that! Now I know how to use that frog entry when building my combat encounters.
|These are worth 10 XP a pop! Eat all three for 30!|
There's a lot of bullshit filler like this in the book. Some of the entries you might find less than useful for Building Combat Encounters include the Badger, Bat, Cat, Crab (blue shell, I think), Deer, Elk (really? do we really need a separate entry between deer and elk? Where's the reindeer and the moose?), Hyena, Jackal, Lizard, Mule, Owl, Pony, Rat, Raven, Spider (not giant spider...just a spider), Vulture, Weasel. You might get more mileage out of the giant versions.
Oh, here's a good one: the Awakened Shrub. It's a small plant, animated by magic. With its 3D6 hit points, it's a lot tougher than it's friend, the evil Twig Blight, which looks like a dead shrub but has 2-5 hit points and is (for some reason) of a higher challenge rating than the Awakened Shrub (25 XP instead of 10 XP).
There's a lot of weirdness with the stat blocks. Since when does a Medusa have 17 hit dice? Same Challenge Rating as a Mammoth (6), though the latter, huge beast, has only 11 hit dice (the medusa is a medium monstrosity). I mean, not that it matters terribly...I'm just curious.
Okay, this is getting long and I'm already late to pick up my boy. Maybe I'll write more later. Maybe.