Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Quantity versus Quality

[warning: probable "nerd rage" on the horizon]

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, this one's going to be about D&D.

Back in 1981 or '82 when I started playing D&D, my introduction to the 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."

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'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.


  1. At this point, I’m still reserving judgement on 5e basic, but I do get the feeling that they aren’t going to hit the RC measure.

    And we’re starting to see the results of this “please everybody” angle. It means a lot of stuff that we have to ignore because it is meant for a different segment of the audience. And I think it also begins to show that it also means less space for things that we would want to be there but that get filed under “not really important” when taking this “all editions” point-of-view.

    1. @ Robert:

      I want to meet the segment of the audience that is all about the goat-fighting. What game have they been playing up till now?

    2. I actually keep goats. What kind of goats are these? Nubian? Boer? LaMancha? Best not to ask, I suppose. We might end up with three more entries. Oh, and you don't ever want to anger a goat. Believe me, I know what I am talking about...

    3. Hey JB, I can think of three different encounters I've written that featured goats, just off the top of my head. But no, they were never up there with, say, the orc.

    4. @ IG:

      Funny enough, I was just thinking of trying to write a simple "5E" adventure using only the material found in the PDF...and goats would feature prominently.

      "Temple of the Goat" is what I was thinking...but knowing YOU, you've probably already got something like that.
      ; )

    5. Well, if I’m asked to rationalize it, I’d point at that there’s an audience that wants complete stats for everything. Not necessarily just things they expect to fight.

      I might say it is a shout out to all the Goat Simulator fans.

      But really, I’m out on a limb. Better to crawl back to the trunk now. ^_^

    6. Wait, wasn't Zak S a consultant for 5e? I think I know who they put the goats in for

    7. I also had a chuckle at the goat entry and the other boring-ass animals. I mean, a freaky goat-man-beast stat block I could understand ... but a plain old Scotsman-in-a-kilt-fearing goat? C'mon. Zzzzz.

  2. Ah... the terror of the Awakened Shrub, riding a Giant Goat... in company of 1D6 Frogs. Makes the blood run cold it does.

    To me the rules read like a shopping list of ersatz bits from current popular systems... borrow from Fate here, Savage Worlds there... a shaker of Barbarians of Lemuria... use some glue made from Giant Goats to paste it all onto the gutted carcass of 4e.
    Viola!!! A Franken-game for all ages, predilections and gendersexes.
    Sure, I'd rather play this than 3.5/4e... but that's not much of a compliment.

  3. When the playtest rules were released and they were light and thin and the whole game was only about eighty pages long I was pleased.

    Then they announced that the new game would be released as three books and I thought they'd have to get a lot of padding in to fill 600 pages.

    It looks like my fears of bloat are realised.

    1. @ Kelvin:

      And then some.
      ; )

      Hey...are you still in art business?

  4. Where's the Fire Beetle? I see the Giant Fire Beetle but no Fire Beetle...what's up with that? ;-)

    I'm a little glad they are using the giant-isms as the "dire" and monstrous entries of the past were annoying.

    Mr. Frog does look pretty pathetic, maybe it's meant to be an example of what you don't want to be ploymorphed into. It does seem a bit silly to list it's STR score, oh look it's -5 to force open doors...

    1. @ JD:

      No polymorph in the Basic rules. Sorry.

    2. More of that high quality going for them again as the "Locate Creature" spell description explicitly mentions the polymorph spell but there isn't one in the basic rules.

  5. I also cannot believe they left out Fire Beetle, it has always been one of those iconic DnD low level monsters.

    As far as the tiny mundane animals, I believe those were included mostly for the purposes of familiars and Druid wild shape targets. At least that is what the Players Handbook states (which also includes the stat blocks for these mundane small animals). So, they are not necessarily there as combat encounters.

    But I still cannot believe something like a house cat even being able to do 1 hp of damage, unless of course it is a trip attack while walking down the stairs (a situation I have been fortunate enough to always save against thus far in my life).

    1. @ Harv:

      Ahhh...but the Basic game doesn't have druids, so why does the "Basic DM's Rules" need such creatures. The Basic rules don't even include a "polymorph" spell, so there's absolutely no reason to include such creatures...unless you're a sadistic bastard of a DM who wants to kill PCs in as ignoble a manner as possible (e.g. with a mob of tiny crabs).

      They have the GIANT fire beetle by the way. The cat does slashing damage.

    2. I wonder what templates have to be applied to turn a Cat into a Giant Cat... wouldn't want to get that wrong and unbalance a campaign.

    3. Then I must have a ton of HP, I have cat scratch marks all over! Good point about the lack of Druids in the Basic set.

      In regards to converting the cat into a giant cat, I only skimmed over it so far, but the start of the downloadable Basic DM guide looks like it might have had statistics based on Size that could be used.

    4. "But I still cannot believe something like a house cat even being able to do 1 hp of damage" Oh, I can believe it... having once tried to break up a cat fight with my bare hands. Medium-sized bastard tore into my hand... multiple puncture wounds including one straight through my thumbnail.
      Sometimes I wonder if we should feel safe sleeping with them roaming the house free... our necks exposed to the whim of fang and claw.

  6. Hey mister fighter? You wanna get to second level? Go kill me 30 frogs.

    1. 30 cats, those frogs are downright worthless according to the pdf.

  7. Is a frog really worth 10 XP? The same PDF mentions that a CR 0 creature that has no effective attacks is worth zero XP. The frog should fall into that category (unlike, say, the commoner, who can at least hurt you a little bit).

  8. @ Deadstop:

    Good catch! I've edited my image to reflect a CR 0 monster that's still worth XP (specifically the tiny, soft-shell crab).
    ; )

  9. Harvicus has it right - those stats are mainly there for when players in case players change/are changed into one (not always a voluntary thing) or acquire one and do something that pulls it into combat.

    It probably is overkill but it's been happening since 3rd Edition.

    I also wouldn't assume that polymorph etc will always be absent from the basic doc. It's very much a work in progress right now.

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  11. The "Basic" rules are kind of a mess. The organization of the creatures in the core books is much more logical. The mundane animals are put in the back of the PHB, and in the MM they're lumped at the end under Miscellaneous. The MM also organizes the entries by groups such as "Giants", unlike the laughably strict alphabetical of the "Basic" document. Here's hoping that the Basic will get some TLC and a nice overhaul :)

    1. Agreed. It looks like the current modus operandi for Basic is to cut and paste additional bits that are being released in other products (like some of the monsters are only there because they were in the PHB or one of the modules) or bits that might be necessary for Adventure League play. And not spend a lot of time on it. So what is included looks haphazard without the “inside Wizards” context, and they aren’t taking the time to clean-up or organize it.