A few weeks ago, Tom shared some thoughts about D&D design and development concerns, and how the story and mechanics of a particular monster might best be delivered to the Dungeon Master. The upshot of Tom’s message was this: make a monster entry in the Monster Manual as simple as possible, but not simpler.
The discussions that followed ranged widely, but I’d like to write a super-quick blog that treats one aspect of that conversation: interesting and useful ways to allow for monster variation for a particular monster.
If you’re a publisher with game designers on the payroll, an easy way to create variation for a monster is to write up one or two alternative versions of that monster. For example, were I to write up a vampire entry, I’d start by creating the basic expression of the vampire: a vampire that fulfills the “vampire Platonic ideal” that most anyone might look at, and say, “Yup, that’s a vampire.”
Thanks to decades of novels, television shows, anime, comics, and games that feature vampires, however, we know many variations are possible. So, in writing my hypothetical vampire entry, after I designed the vampire noted above, I’d also create a couple of full-fledged vampire variations with full stats. One would probably be the more “fragile” vampire spawn, who enjoys only a subset of the vampire’s strengths, and for whom a stake in the heart does more than render them dead, but might turn them instantly to ash. On the other end of the scale, I’d write up the “vampire lord” that encompassed the idea of the far more powerful vampire elder who, thanks to a thousand (or several thousand) years of undeath, has achieved several orders more kick-ass-itude than the already powerful standard vampire.
The question is how do I create such variations? One way is to apply a few levels of a player character class. This has the advantage of handing a very robust toolbox to DMs and game designers—a toolbox that leverages the strengths of a detailed and multifaceted system already used by players to create different characters.
This system also has its drawbacks. Although using character creation rules for monsters provides a massive toolbox of options, it also invokes a time-intensive process for monster design where finished monsters can be judged objectively, thanks to the expectations created by our own rules, to be “right” or “wrong,” regardless of how fun and exciting that monster plays at the table. This precision for precision’s sake also creates a raft of anxiety on the part of conscientious Dungeon Masters and game designers who, of course, want to follow the rules of monster creation.
So, what then?
Many things, actually. In fact, the more tools we throw into the mix, the better, as long as we dispense with the idea that monsters can be “right” or “wrong.” Instead, judge monsters on how interesting, fun, and challenging they are to encounter in a game of D&D. Many monsters that are precisely “right” according to numerically absolute creation rules fail the “interesting, fun, and challenging” test.
Using the “is it fun and interesting?” criteria, we’ve got a ton of ways to alter monsters at our disposal. The first is writing hard-coded variations right into a monster entry. Another method we’re experimenting with is to include a mini-theme or two in some entries, where appropriate, that the DM could apply on the fly to a given monster. Such a theme wouldn’t be transformative enough for a monster to require a completely new stat block, but adding the indicated power to a subset of the monsters encountered would be enough to keep players on their toes. For instance, a mini-theme in the bugbear entry might be “bugbear strangler,” which provides a method for DMs to give some subset of bugbears an ability to garrote a foe. The same mini-theme would indicate such a bugbear might be worth 25 XP more than a regular bugbear. A mini-theme for an orc might give it a “vicious finale” attack that grants an orc a free last attack when it’s dropped. And so on.
Additionally, I could imagine a section for the Dungeon Master that would provide a whole slew of mini-themes, templates, setting-specific elements, and other information that can give robust and encompassing methods for varying any monster or building new ones. Hijacking a subset of character creation rules for monster inspiration (I’m looking at you themes and backgrounds) also remains a gold mine. For example, a vampire with the avenger theme . . . wow. The story that sparks in my brain makes me want to start working on my campaign this very insta