Vote for the creature stat block you would like to see!
In my last substantive blog article, I spoke about designing a good monster stat block. In this article, I would like to compare the stat blocks through the ages. For this purpose, I chose a single creature that has appeared in each edition through the years: the djinni. I chose this creature because it is somewhat iconic, and it is a creature that is difficult to reduce to a stat block because it has spell-like abilities that can be used out of combat. All of these scans are from my own books, except for the 4e djinn, which I screen-captured from the Compendium. You can click on any of the stat blocks to see a larger version.
Please note that I am only discussing the mechanical stat block. As we will see, many editions to D&D would mix mechanics and narration within the text beneath the stat block. I will discuss the extent to which this is successful, but I will mostly concentrate on the block at the top of the monster entry.
Also note that this article is speaking only of the stat blocks as they appear in the various monster books. Another form of stat block I have discussed is the paragraph format that is sometimes used in published adventures. That will be the subject of a future article.
The djinni's first appearance in D&D that I could find was in the First Edition Monster Manual circa 1979 for Advanced Dungeons & Dragons.1 As you can see, the mechanical aspect of the stat block is sparse and arcane. Much of the information relates to a monster's place in the campaign world (No. Appearing, Frequency, % in Lair, and Treasure Type.) Most of the combat-related information requires the DM to consult a separate chart. For example, the attack bonus of the djinni's physical attack requires the DM to look up the attack matrix for monsters with seven hit dice. The djinni's magical attacks are not described or even named in the stat block. Only by reading the text below does one learn the djinni has a whirlwind form, and that mechanical information is often buried in the middle of campaign information, like the djinnis' social organization and behavior.
The organization of the stats has very little reason to it. The combat information is filtered throughout the block interspersed with the campaign-related information. What's more, it seems obviously incomplete. The only Ability described is Intelligence, and even that is described in generic terms, obviously to be used for campaign flavor more than mechanical adjudication.
The djinni next appears in the Expert Rulebook for the Basic D&D game two years later.2 Again, this is a sparse stat block. However, I feel it is an improvement over the 1st edition block. First, the presentation is cleaner, with the use of two columns for easier reference. Second, all the combat information that is presented is gathered in the left column (except for saving throws). The campaign-specific information is in the right column. The stat block still requires you to reference the text to determine what a "whirlwind" is (other than inflicting 2-16 hp damage) or what the "special" is. You also need to consult separate charts to determine what it means to "Save as: Fighter: 14". However, the text beneath the stat block (not shown) is concise and easy to read.
The djinni doesn't get a makeover for almost a decade, when Second Edition releases. The stat block here is from the 1996 Monstrous Manual, though it appears almost the same in the original Monstrous Manual from 1987. Notice that the djinni is now grouped with other elemental wish-granters under the category "Genie". This stat block returns to the one-column format, which works well with Second Edition grouping similar creatures together. The stat block also separates combat and noncombat information, with the campaign information on top and the combat information below. There is less need to consult a separate table as THAC0 replaces the attack matrices of First Edition. However, you still need to consult a separate table for saving throws. Special Attacks and Special Defenses are still not identified or named in the stat block, requiring you to read the text below. On the plus side, the textual mechanical information is separated into a special section called "Combat". This is a big organizational leap forward.
In 2000, the djinni is given another makeover in Third Edition's Monster Manual.4 Most of the campaign information (No. Appearing, organization) is gone. What remains is placed at the end of the stat block, rather than the beginning. Most of the combat information is now included in the block, including, for the first time, attack bonuses and saving throws. However, also included is all the game math. The reason for this is that 3e used a transparent, but at times complicated system for generating monsters, requiring you to know such arcane things such as the monster's natural armor bonus, as well as three different types of armor class. For the first time, the djinni receive all six Abilities, rather than a vague description of the creature's Intelligence.
However, even still, some information is located in the text and not the block. Still, the djinni's signature whirlwind ability remains in the text. Third edition maintains Second Edition's use of the "Combat" section to separate mechanical and non-mechanical information about the creature. A perusal of this section shows you why the whirlwind could not be included in the stat block: whirlwind occupies an entire column of text. This is not unusual in 3e, which had so many rules that interacted with one another in unusual ways, that many unusual powers had to contain lots of explanation as to how it would react to other powers.
The djinni (now renamed "djinn") is not included in the most recent edition of the game until 2009, with the release of the second Monster Manual for the game.5 This stat block looks more like the stat block for the Expert Game on steroids (and, like the Expert D&D djinni, the 4e djinn is not chaotic good). There is no campaign information (except perhaps alignment). All of the mechanical information on the creature is located in the comprehensive stat block.
The information is presented very rationally, with generic combat information on top, and more specific powers below. The block uses colors, icons, numbers, and text to describe all the information needed.
Here, we would finally be able to see all the mechanics for the signature whirlwind… except that none of the eight 4th edition djinn stat blocks actually contains a power called "whirlwind". Although many of them have powers that are vaguely like a whirlwind, none of them come close to replicating the whirlwind powers of the djinn of prior editions.
This is the Pathfinder stat block, which is base donthe revised Third Edition stat blocks found at the tail end of Third Edition's run.6 It does a good job of using bars at the top of the frame. I'm not sure what the point of the first section is, being a mish-mash of combat stats like size, XP, Initiative, and senses and interaction stats like alignment, types and subtypes. The stat block is divided into "defense" and offense". But the "offense" stat block liberally mixes combat (whirlwind) and noncombat abilities (create wine). (I'm also not sure why "Speed" or "Space" are offensive. Also, the abilities stack doesn't offer the ability modifiers, which are pretty important. The format for the section bars (defense, offense, statistics, and special abilities) end up taking up a lot of space by using lines instead of a shaded bar.
In the end, the Pathfinder style is a decent improvement from 3e, even borrowing 4e's bar-style headers. Most of the problems with the stat block is caused by the Pathfinder/3e's mechanics which really require inordinately sized power descriptions over-reliance on hyperlinks, and an entire "Statistics" section dedicated, essentially, to explaining the math behind the game.
That said, my hybrid block isn't all that different from what a Pathfinder block would look like converted for Next, except with a better font and a better use of white space.
The playtest packet did not contain a stat block for the djinni. So, based on the other stat blocks in the packet, I devised my own. The playtest stat blocks continue the trend of placing mechanical combat information on top, and include all defenses and abilities. However, the playtest returns to the pre-4e custom of reserving vital mechanical information to be buried in descriptive text. Unlike 2e and 3e, the playtest does not even segregate this text into a separate "Combat" section.
Needless to say, I'm not satisfied with the current state of the creature stat blocks in the playtest packet. Overall, it is a good start, but I don't think it capitalizes fully on the design goals set forth in the materials written by the designers about what they hope to accomplish in this new edition.
Both of these stat blocks take up a half-page in width in letter format. Both make use of title bars, which I have stretch across the page to the illustration, but which could end at the column margin if there is no illustration. The title bars give the stat block ome popo and it's one of the things I appreciated most of the 4e stat block. The bars give the stat block needed definition and clearly separate relevant sections of the stat blocks.
Proposal 1: 4e-Style
I've taken the 4e stat block and I've modified it for the priorities of the new edition. Like the playtest packet, I have moved the Abilities to the top. Like the 4e stat block, movement, senses, vulnerabilities, invulnerabilities, and the basic stats – AC, hp, and initiative – are included in the top section. Below that I have divided the djinni's powers by action type. For the djinni there are actions and "interactions". If the djinni had an aura, that would be included is a section called "traits". If the djinni had any reactions, those would have its own category.
The "interaction" section is new. It is named after one of the three "pillars" of D&D, and it contains the powers of the creature that are not likely to be used on combat. Because they are not combat-related powers, they don't have to be delineated in detail. Rather, they can refer back to a Player's Handbook (or other sourcebook) for the DM to reference. But it should be included in the stat block so the DM is aware of these abilities when selecting the creature.
At the bottom of the stat block I enclose the stats that relate to interaction – alignment, languages, and possessions. Then I close the stat block with a bat containing the XP for the creature, the bottom bar serving to delineate the end of the stat block.
Proposal 2: 4e/AD&D Hybrid
My second proposal combines, in my mind, the best of the AD&D and 4e stat blocks. While I keep the bars and move the abilities to the top, I use tabs to allow me to divide the stat block into successive layers of detail. First, I divide the stat block into three sections. In the top section, are the "numbers", including the abilities, XP, hp, initiative, and AC, along with the (in)vulnerabilities, senses, and resistances. Second is a section for "combat" which includes the movement, and the actions. The actions are first listed for easy reference and then detailed immediately below. Third, is the interaction section. Each interaction (this djinni only has the one) is listed as "talents". And in this section are the same interaction-related stats – alignment, languages, and possessions. Given the successive indents, there is no need for a final bar at the end, which also gives it more of a retro AD&D feel.
Now it's your turn. Here is a poll for you to tell me which of these stat blocks you prefer. Don't vote based on the stats or your preferred edition. Unfortunately, I did not think to add the PAthfinder stat block to the article until after the pll eas established. Vote based on which stat block you find easier to read, easier to manage information, and more aesthetically pleasing. Let's let the desigers know what we like.
You can leave comments below or at the related discussion thread!
1 Monster Manual, by Gary Gygax (4th Ed. August 1979), p. 28.
2 Dungeons & Dragons Fantasy Adventure Game Expert Rulebook, edited by David Cook with Steve Marsh (Jan. 1981), p. X30.
3 Monstrous Manual, edited by Doug Stewart (April 1996), p. 126
4 Monster Manual, edited by Jennifer Clarke Wilkes and Jon Pickens (July 2003), p. 114
5 Monster Manual 2, by Rob Heinsoo (May 2009), p. 72.