In D&D, monster entries give DMs pre-built enemies to throw at characters. They also define what certain categories of monsters look like in the D&D world. Goblins, for example, behave quite differently in D&D than they do in Magic: The Gathering or in the Harry Potter universe. When new DMs read the “Goblin” entry in the Monster Manual for the first time, they begin to form a picture of the D&D world in their minds. This helps D&D games feel similar across different tables. The tone and the types of stories that different groups tell can vary wildly, but the Monster Manual builds a vocabulary of common elements that players can use to tell all those different stories.
When we design and develop monsters, we try to include the minimum number of unique mechanical effects that still gets across the fundamental nature of the monster. This can lead to significant variation in the size of the actual stat blocks. We can express the fundamental nature of kobolds by giving them very few hit points, making them easy to hit, and having them not deal much damage without adding any idiosyncratic abilities. It takes us much more text to get across the fundamental nature of a gelatinous cube, since we need to include mechanics describing how the cube engulfs and dissolves other creatures. Either way, once we have completed expressing the monster’s fundamental nature, we need to stop adding mechanics so that we don’t unnecessarily tax the DM’s mental resources.
These same issues arise when we consider the flavor text. The more setting-specific information a creature requires, the longer we need to make the flavor text. For example, the 3rd Edition Monster Manual spends one 44-word paragraph and one stat block that takes up about a ninth of a page on the brown bear. This feels about right, since there isn’t anything new for us to learn about the brown bear’s place in the D&D world. On the other hand, it spends sixteen pages on dragons, which are so important that they have a place in the game’s title. This feels appropriate to me, since we want DMs to have the knowledge they need to represent D&D’s unique menagerie of dragons consistently.
Of course, we also want DMs to have the freedom to build their own versions of monsters. For example, we might give a nod to 3rd Edition’s ability to add a class to a monster. A kobold with six levels of fighter will fight and behave differently from the basic kobold. However, the basic kobold remains very similar at most D&D tables.
The most challenging part comes when it’s time to write information that is somewhere in between pure mechanics and pure flavor. For an example of this, I went to the “Vampire Weaknesses” section of the 3rd Edition’s Monster Manual “Vampire” template entry on page 222. The second paragraph of that section states that vampires cannot cross running water under their own volition and cannot enter private property unless invited inside by someone with the proper authority. These aren’t combat mechanics, but they are important parts of how monsters interact with the world, and in this case they are written clearly enough that I am confident about how to run them.
Another example of this comes in the very next subsection, which is about how to slay a vampire. The outcome of an entire campaign could hinge on whether or not a party successfully slays a vampire, so when I read this section I am looking for clear guidance. As before, I get it—sunlight destroys the vampire after two rounds, as does immersing it in running water for three rounds. Staking the vampire’s heart and then destroying the body also works.
On the other hand, the very first paragraph about “Repelling a Vampire” doesn’t quite give me enough information. From it, I learn that vampires will not enter an area laced with the odor of garlic, recoil from mirrors, and recoil from “strongly presented” holy symbols, although none of these three things actually harm the vampire. How close can a vampire come to a mirror or a holy symbol? How much garlic do my PCs need to buy to keep a vampire enemy out of the king’s daughter’s room? How do I know if my PC cleric’s holy symbol was presented strongly? In this last case, I would likely call for a Charisma check from the cleric and compare that to a Constitution check from my vampire, but I wouldn’t feel great about having done so. In this paragraph, the text would benefit from additional clarity.
As we look ahead, we are striving for clarity in both flavor and mechanics. Our monsters should be as mechanically simple as possible while remaining true to their natures. Also, we want to include enough flavor information for a monster so that players can recognize that creature from one table to the next. When quasi-mechanical information finds its way into flavor text, we need to make sure it remains clear enough to be useful in play. Players are notoriously good at surprising DMs, and we need to make sure that our monster entries equip our DMs with all the tools they need to handle those surprises.
Is there anything I said here that surprises you? If so, I'd like to know what it is. Please leave your responses in the comments.