The perils of re-flavoring monsters

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I have been noticing a lot of reflavored monsters in adventures lately. Bugbears and bullywugs masquerading as humans, etc. Perhaps more concerning, there appears to be an attitude spreading among LFR authors that doing such is the best way to achieve their desired difficulty level for fights. In the Drag-1-7 comments thread on the LFR adventures sub-board, Lord_Kavos wrote:

Unfortunately, I ended up being a bit pressed for time when it came to meeting the deadline - a miscommunication with my writing director resulted in me writing the bulk of the adventure in 8 or 9 days to get it submitted in time.  As a result I was a bit pressed, and the combats could have been more challenging if I had more time available to tailor the combatants involved (i.e. using other creature stat blocks & renaming them).



While in this case, Lord_Kavos may well be correct and he might well have improved the particular mod in question by reflavoring, in general this is a concerning development in LFR writing for several reasons.

1. Diversity of play experience. As those who played the 1-1 adventures can testify, a goblin hexer, crossbow turret, guard drake, or clay scout by another name is still a goblin hexer/crossbow turret/guard drake/clay scout. It still does the same things in combat. It still fights the same way. While we may well have had our fill of human guards for a while, replacing them with the monster du-jour and calling it a "human guard" will not make our play experiences any less repetitive. Rather, if reflavorings are being done for difficulty rather than for flavor, we are likely to see a new batch of bugbear stranglers and needlefang drake swarms (well, maybe not needlefang drake swarms now that they are errata'ed) impersonating everything under the sun. If authors consistently use the more difficult monsters in the level bands to impersonate the average or underpowered monsters, we are likely to end up with even more repetitive battles than we had in the 1-1 series of adventures.

2. Loss of flavor. Sometimes reflavoring is done well and the creature feels like its new flavor. (I saw this once with Shadar-Kai reflavored to drow). Sometimes it is done poorly and the mechanics make no sense for either the creature or the context. (Bullywugs reflavored to humans fits in this category). But, there is usually some loss. The problem is that flavor is not just contained in the description of the monsters. Flavor is also mechanical. Elves get their re-rolls and have been generally designed as mobile, agile opponents. Goblins are shifty. Gnolls swarm over you and beat your party down one at a time (otherwise, they don't get good use out of their pack attack ability). All this is supposed to go together and make fighting orcs a different experience from fighting goblins which is different from fighting wolves, gnolls, or shadowhunter bats. And, to a large degree, the 4th edition designers succeeded in this goal--battles against different kinds of opponents really do feel different. But if we consistently reflavor for difficulty, this will be lost. Humans aren't tough enough? Use bugbears instead. But now, it won't feel any different when you fight bugbears rather than humans.

3. Reflavoring for difficulty is more problematic than generic reflavoring in both of these regards. If you are trying to make a combat more difficult by reflavoring monsters, it implies that there are monsters that fit the story already--the author simply does not like them for some reason. (Probably because they are underpowered when the author wants average difficulty or average powered when the author is searching for the super-hard broken "but the rules let me do it" difficulty). This is the time when reflavoring is most likely to fall into the two pitfalls. It is likely to fall into the first pitfall of repetitive monsters and a loss of diversity because by reflavoring for difficulty the author is deliberately avoiding appropriate monsters in order to choose from a smaller list of unusually difficult monsters. It is likely to fall into the second trap as well because the author is deliberately avoiding appropriately flavored (and named) monsters in search of something more difficult. Whatever the author ends up with, it is less likely to be appropriately flavored than if he simply used the initial monsters, and it is also less likely to be appropriately flavored than if the author were simply looking for a monster with appropriately flavored abilities. If it is being reflavored for difficulty, flavor is necessarily a secondary (or perhaps even tertiary or non-existant) concern.

Part of the design philosophy of 4e was to embed the flavor of monsters in their combat stats. If reflavoring monsters for difficulty is a standard component of adventure design, we risk losing that.

a comparison of 3e and 3.5 writing and monster construction

Some of us who wrote for Living Greyhawk, or other 3.0 or 3.5 campaigns in the past, may remember how the older system for giving monsters mechanical flavor worked--it was pretty much all up to the author. If all you wanted was a challenging encounter, you could dress your orcs up with fighter, barbarian, hexblade, and blackguard levels, toss them in a suit of fullplate and have them feel like "generic bad guy with good saves and a +4 strength bonus." If you wanted to have your orcs feel like the bigger, badder cousins of the orc warriors PCs fought when they were level 1 and 2, you needed to be a lot more careful. Barbarian levels and falchions (or greataxes for that 3.0 feel) helped. You could write them up however you wanted, but if you did not pick abilities that made your orcs fight like orc barbarians, then they would just be generic NPC bad guys with a +4 strength bonus.

Fourth edition monster construction and advancement is formally a bit less flexible, but it is even more flexible when you start reflavoring and the same maxims apply: if you want your bad guys to be orc barbarians, they need to have abilities that scream, "I'm an orc barbarian." Willy nilly reflavoring risks turning the proverbial orc into a generic monster with a +4 strength bonus. In fact, the fourth edition practice of tying abilities to race more explicitly makes this risk even greater than it was in 3.x. In 3.x, when it came down to it, orcs with falchions did not fight much differently than humans with falchions would--if the humans had +4 strength. In fourth edition, that is no longer true. Orcs have uniquely orcish abilities. Therefore, there is the expectation of a stronger mechanical flavor and a greater probability of mechanics conveying a different flavor than non-mechanical story elements convey.

This theoretical problem has not bothered me at all, FWIW. Reflavors happen. I've seen a lot of Powerful Strikes lately, but as a DM I'm OK with maintaining the flavor via RP.


Also FWIW -- more use of monster themes would be pretty keen. I don't know if they're allowed for LFR writers or not, but they're an excellent way to make sure the flavor is appropriate.

Reflavoring is done to have some variety of monsters for encounters. There are a lot of monsters, but they are spread over various races or creature types. If you need humans, it sometimes pays to use another creature and reflavor it, so not every human you meet is a human bandit.

Gomez

Also FWIW -- more use of monster themes would be pretty keen. I don't know if they're allowed for LFR writers or not, but they're an excellent way to make sure the flavor is appropriate.



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Reflavoring is done to have some variety of monsters for encounters. There are a lot of monsters, but they are spread over various races or creature types. If you need humans, it sometimes pays to use another creature and reflavor it, so not every human you meet is a human bandit.

Gomez



That's understandable, but that is reflavoring for variety rather than reflavoring to increase the difficulty. And it still runs the same risks to a lesser degree.

It should also be less necessary as more and more resources are available to writers. My one update behind copy of Monster Builder lists 47 monsters of level 1-4 with the human keyword. A number of them are duplicates (human bandit and human ruffian, for instance are identical level 2 skirmishers except that the ruffian's basic attack is three points higher). On the other hand, it also excludes a number of human monsters that don't include (human) among their keywords. (All of the Zhents from Spec 1-1, for instance are probably meant to be human but lack the human keyword). So, it's not as though we should be condemned to an endless stream of human ruffians if authors pulled back on reflavoring. Even now, there is quite a bit of variety.

Still, it is a shame that NPCs created using the DMG's NPC creation rules appear to be treated as unique monsters subject to the WotC approval process. Those rules are really nice for creating unique and interesting monsters that have capabilities that players rarely if ever see deployed against them.
Still, it is a shame that NPCs created using the DMG's NPC creation rules appear to be treated as unique monsters subject to the WotC approval process. Those rules are really nice for creating unique and interesting monsters that have capabilities that players rarely if ever see deployed against them.

Since this also means that 1st level PCs rarely have to deal with creatures casting Dazzling Ray at them for 6d6+6 damage, I think I can live with the restrictions.

While 4e gives a lot of options to DMs, they all come with a "Use at your own risk; you're the one responsible for ensuring that your tweaks and combinations are still fun and balanced" warning.  I'm not sure that all LFR writers have quite moved beyond the "Hey, if the rules let me create it, it must be balanced" mindset of 3e, so I'm happy with some added checks and balances.
Still, it is a shame that NPCs created using the DMG's NPC creation rules appear to be treated as unique monsters subject to the WotC approval process. Those rules are really nice for creating unique and interesting monsters that have capabilities that players rarely if ever see deployed against them.

Since this also means that 1st level PCs rarely have to deal with creatures casting Dazzling Ray at them for 6d6+6 damage, I think I can live with the restrictions.

While 4e gives a lot of options to DMs, they all come with a "Use at your own risk; you're the one responsible for ensuring that your tweaks and combinations are still fun and balanced" warning.  I'm not sure that all LFR writers have quite moved beyond the "Hey, if the rules let me create it, it must be balanced" mindset of 3e, so I'm happy with some added checks and balances.



Now that you mention it, I'm pretty happy not to see level 1-4 monsters with 6d6+6 brutal 1 lasting threats or 8d6 reliable blood of the mightys' too.

On the other hand, I don't think "the rules allow it, therefore it is balanced" actually worked that well in the previous edition either. There were lots of things the rules let you create that weren't balanced and more than a few the designers created that weren't balanced either. (Arrow demons, for instance). While restricting the use of NPC creation rules, may mitigate some of that, it hardly eliminates it (as the errata to crossbow turrets, needlefang drake swarms, etc demonstrates). Nor does restricting the use of NPC creation rules seem to have prevented 1st level characters from facing 6d6+6 dazzling rays. Since that particular NPC with his dazzling ray intact is now on the list of monsters that can be used without going through WotC R&D, I don't think the restriction on the NPC creation rules serves that purpose any longer.
Since this also means that 1st level PCs rarely have to deal with creatures casting Dazzling Ray at them for 6d6+6 damage, I think I can live with the restrictions.



PC class templates have always been legal for authors to use in LFR. A monster could easily be given a sorcerer class template and have Dazzling Ray as a daily power. I think that PC class templates should be used carefully at lower tiers, however.
Dave Kay LFR Writing Director Retiree dkay807 [at] yahoo [dot] com
Since this also means that 1st level PCs rarely have to deal with creatures casting Dazzling Ray at them for 6d6+6 damage, I think I can live with the restrictions.



PC class templates have always been legal for authors to use in LFR. A monster could easily be given a sorcerer class template and have Dazzling Ray as a daily power. I think that PC class templates should be used carefully at lower tiers, however.



He and I were talking about the NPC creation rules for creating standard monster NPCs rather than the class templates for giving an existing monster some PC class abilities.
To be honest, no one should ever use any of those rules. Just design an appropriate monster and give it appropriate abilities. Using PC abilities on NPCs or monsters doesn't fit into some silly 'get X of this, Y of this' box.

I'm glad we can't have 'standard' NPCs in LFR. Less 6d6 strikes at 1st level the better, thanks.
Keith Richmond Living Forgotten Realms Epic Writing Director
To be honest, no one should ever use any of those rules. Just design an appropriate monster and give it appropriate abilities. Using PC abilities on NPCs or monsters doesn't fit into some silly 'get X of this, Y of this' box.

I'm glad we can't have 'standard' NPCs in LFR. Less 6d6 strikes at 1st level the better, thanks.



Standard NPCs aren't about 6d6 strikes at first level any more than 4e monsters are about having multiple easily recharging 3d6+condition bursts at 3rd level.

Writers obviously can and have made mistakes with both standard NPCs and monsters. But it would be foolish to write off the standard NPC creation rules (and class template rules) just because some mediocre PC powers can be broken when given to monsters. Writers and editors have to exercise (un)common sense no matter what rules they use to create the monsters.
Except you don't need them at all. The default option is 'Do whatever you want' and the class creation option is 'pick some stuff from this list'. If you have the same 'Be careful how you do it' restriction regardless of which method you do, you'll always be better off customizing the creature to do exactly what you want instead of searching for appropriate powers, worrying about weapon damage dice, etc.

It's a limitation, not an option, and one that invites people to relax their guard and accidentally create broken things. I'd much rather the blinders were off and people really considered the implications of their monster creation. It's just convenient that we have multiple 'from full hp to dead' powers at 1st level to cite as good reasons not to do it
Keith Richmond Living Forgotten Realms Epic Writing Director
Except you don't need them at all. The default option is 'Do whatever you want' and the class creation option is 'pick some stuff from this list'. If you have the same 'Be careful how you do it' restriction regardless of which method you do, you'll always be better off customizing the creature to do exactly what you want instead of searching for appropriate powers, worrying about weapon damage dice, etc.

It's a limitation, not an option, and one that invites people to relax their guard and accidentally create broken things. I'd much rather the blinders were off and people really considered the implications of their monster creation. It's just convenient that we have multiple 'from full hp to dead' powers at 1st level to cite as good reasons not to do it



Maybe so. Still, I think that giving monsters who are similar to PCs abilities that are similar to PCs makes the game more immersive. (For my part, I like it when I see NPCs with greataxes and they are 1d12 with high crit--I like for the visual information about monsters to be meaningful rather than meaningless fluff). And, if used sensibly, the NPC creation rules can quickly create interesting monsters in roles that did not exist before. For example, in one MYRE I wrote, I wanted to have a non-magic using goblin warchief. I wanted him to have abilities that keyed off of his allies and showed him as a leader rather than simply the biggest brute so Irontooth and his ilk were out. And the goblin underboss has got to be the most boring monster ever written for any edition (seriously--hundreds of hit points and an at-will attack for 1d6+3 or so (that lets an ally attack if he misses)with no other special powers), so he was out. But grab the goblin racial stats from the MM and the NPC creation rules and I've got an interesting goblin warlord in 5 minutes. And I also get one whose deviations from the standard monster stats by role and level match up with his visual appearance. Is he speed 5? Of course, he's wearing chain mail. Is his base damage 1d6? He's wielding a shortsword. Etc.
The main reason I rather not use the template rules is that they add 6+ options to a monster, making it rather complex. You can (and we do) drop options, but it isn't very ideal. Reflavoring and using themes often give a better result.

Gomez
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