- Jun 2005 -
19235 Posts

To Build a Better Stat Block

There has been a lot of buzz lately in the D&D-related blogosphere about stat blocks.  It began when Robert Schwalb queried in his blog whether 4e would have been more broadly accepted by fans of prior editions (specifically Third Edition) had the stat blocks not been so radically changed.  Schwalb relates the flak he got when he changed the formatting in the Warhammer Fantasy Roleplaying Game. 

The Alexandrian, Justin Alexander, answered Schwalb’s rhetorical question in his own blog with a resounding “No.”  His position is that 4e detractors don’t like the “disassociated mechanics” or other problems he perceives with the game.  He likes the new blocks.

The conversation continued on RPG.net and on the D&D forums here in the community.  Suffice to say, nothing was resolved, and this blog probably won’t build any consensus either.

I disagree with both Schwalb and Alexander.  I disagree with Schwalb that restoring formatting to what it was in 3e would have helped much t keep 3e fans.  Nothing, short of basing 4e on the OGL, was going to overcome the hurdle that Pathfinder was going to produce their own 3e-version that would necessarily be more attractive than a new system to those who don’t want to change.

I disagree with Alexander, however, that the power stat blocks were as well designed as they could have been.  In this blog, I will describe what I think makes a good stat block.  Before I do, however, I want to make clear that I am only discussing power stat blocks.  Monster stat blocks, in my opinion, are great.  There was some initial problems, but I really think the monster blocks capture the information that a DM needs to play a monster and organizes them in an intuitive manner.  My issue is only with the power blocks.

When constructing a stat block, I think it is important to remember that people interpret information differently.  Some people prefer the tabular format of 4e, in which every element of a power is broken into a separate line.  Some prefer a more narrative format, in which powers are described in paragraphs. Some prefer a chromatic format, in which colors and shading help organize the power.  Other prefer icons, which give a quick pictorial representation of essential traits of a power.

The 4e monster block does a good job of mixing these different styles.  Essential information is broken out into a tabular format at the top of the block.  Individual powers are broken into discrete categories delineated with shaded lines.  Power begin with a short icon to let you know if it is a aura, basic, melee, burst, blast, or ranged power.  There’s something for everyone, and yet it does not seem overly crowded.

In my opinion, as unpopular as it may be, the power stat blocks appeal to only two styles: tabular and chromatic. Everything is broken into short lines.  Almost no line requires more than one sentence.  The powers are color-coded into at-will (green), encounter (red), daily (black), and item (yellow).  I wondered whether it would be possible to accommodate those who prefer the narrative style or the iconographic style.  I should note that I prefer the narrative style.  Still the stat block I present below has less narration than I would like, though also less tabular formatting than those who prefer that style would like.

When devising my own power block I asked myself to what purposes are power blocks put?  My answer was threefold: 1) when the player chooses a new power; 2) when the player uses a in an encounter; and 3) when the DM needs to know how the power interacts with another mechanic.  Working backwards, I concluded that the information the DM needs is usually, or should be, reflected in the power’s keywords.  When a player chooses and invokes a power, he will generally need to know four things at a glance: range, action cost, attack roll, and requirements.  When the player initially chooses a power, he will need to know the class, level, frequency, and prerequisites. Everything else can be placed in narrative paragraphs and perused more leisurely.

In order to illustrate the new stat block I’ve devised, I asked the Character Optimization boards to point me towards the most obtuse and verbose powers.  Many people recommended epic tier augmentable psionic powers.   I chose Reality Meltdown, a psionic epic-tier augmentable at-will.  Here is how it appears in the Compendium (click on the image for a larger version):

And here’s my revised version.  Keep in mind that I am not a graphic designer.  I apologize that my icons seem like nothing more than fuzzy blurs (click on the image for a larger version):

Let’s review the salient differences for each of the means of processing information that I have described:

With respect to chromatic organization, I am keeping the green-red-black-yellow pattern for at-will/encounter/daily/item powers.  (I think item powers should get their own green/red/black blocks.)  I could not think of any other ways to incorporate a colorful organization without making the stat block garish, except that I think it might be useful to use a lighter shade of green, red, or grey/black for heroic powers, and a darker shade for epic powers. 

With respect to narrative organization, you’ll see that the overall size has been reduced a bit.  Instead of breaking out every attack into a separate power block, the orb’s attack power is described narratively in one paragraph, while the psion’s use of the orb is described in its own paragraph.  Augments are still broken out as separate entries, but everything else is described narratively.

With respect to tabular organization, I’ve organized the three categories of data differently.  On the left, under the power name, you will see the class, frequency, and level, which are needed to organize powers when selecting them during character building.  On the right are all of the keywords.  (I’ve removed augmentable as an unnecessary keyword, because it’s augmentability is obvious from the inclusion of “augment” entries.  Under the description are the power’s action, range, and attack (if any).  These are the entries one needs at a glance when selecting the power in combat.  Fans of the current stat block will no doubt be upset that fewer pieces of data are broken out, including “Hit”, “Secondary Attack” and the like.  Sadly, tabular and narrative organizations are on opposite sides of the spectrum.  I cannot accommodate narrative organization without sacrificing tabular (and vice versa).  I tried to find a middle ground.  Hopefully, tabular and narrative fans will be equally upset.

The biggest change is the icon bar at the bottom of the power.  This icon bar frames the bottom of the power, making it useful for power cards and more pleasing to the eye when placed in a book format.  The icons on the left represent the frequency (the “AW” means at-will), action (the concentric circles represent, from outside to inside, standard, move, minor, and free actions, with the power’s action in white and the others in grey; other actions, such as opportunity, interrupt, and reaction, will be designated with a circle around an “O”, “I”, and “R”, respectively), range (using the same icons used in monster blocks, with basic attacks circled), power source (that’s supposed to be a brain for psionic), and whether an implement (the wand) or weapon can be used with the power.  On the right corner are the remaining keywords: conjuration (that a bunny in a magician’s hat) and fire (the flame). With this icon bar, people who prefer iconographic representation can quickly peruse their power cards for fire powers, minor actions, conjurations, summonings, etc.  Every keyword and power source would have its own icon.

Not shown in this power are prerequisites (for choosing the power during character building) and requirements (for using the power during an encounter).  Prerequisites would appear in the color bar at the top of the power as its own entry line because the character-building information appears there.  Requirements would appear just above the narrative paragraphs as it does now.

I understand this exercise will not be received favorably for everyone.  At a minimum, though, I think it is a useful exercise to consider carefully the discrete usages for power blocks, and whether the powers are currently organized in the most helpful manner.

Edited to add (3/25/11): I was playing around with landscape and portrait layouts for the power cards, and it occurs to me that, given the amount of text in a power card, the power cards actually read better in a landscape layout.  The fewer line breaks, the less disconcerting the text.  This will also result in being able to squeeze more information on the card without having to shrink the font,and the powers will more closely resemble how they appear in the books, given that a landscape card results in a width close to that of a book's column.

Edited to add (3/30/11): I revised the stat block a little to correct some typos and to place any damage expressions and attack formulae into boldface.  Thanks for everyone's comments!

Constructive comments are always welcome!

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