Monday, July 18, 2011

Designing monster books

One of the reasons I was asking about the article "How Dungeons & Dragons Changed my Life" yesterday was because I wanted to find this quote from Tavis Allison: "The art in the oldest books is weird and crude and like a medieval manuscript; even when it was new it reeked of some strange past..."

...and the reason I was looking for Tavis's quote is because I'm starting to work on a revised Monster Book for Swords & Wizardry with a lot of new monsters and illustrations. This project is barely on the drawing board, so we're talking serious vaporware at this point in time; this blog post isn't an announcement to drum up interest, it's about some of the first principles involved in writing a monster book.

It's that "reeked of some strange past" which I wanted to think about. There are two ways in which a monster book is read. On one hand, it's a tool for the DM to use in constructing adventures and campaigns. But on the other hand, it has to inspire the DM to do so. These two functions have different, and somewhat contradictory, forms, if we're going to stick with the principle that "form follows function."

For a monster book to be best usable by the DM, it should be flexible in terms of how it says the monsters are used. After all, if a DM wants to have ghouls that are transformed humans rather than actual undead, that's creative stuff, and the monster books shouldn't get in the way of that. A monster book written purely with the goal of being a flexible tool for the DM might offer lots of different alternative descriptions for the monsters, or perhaps alternate stats. Alternatives, alternatives, alternatives.

But there's a problem with alternatives. At a certain point, a raft of alternative options causes the book to become boring to actually read. At every turn, the DM-reader is being reminded that he's reading a game "manual." At no point does he really get that sense that he's got a "medieval manuscript reeking of a strange past" before him. Presenting a monster purely as a manipulable tool for use in a game loses the descriptive magic which makes you want to play the game, or use the monster, in the first place.

This raises two questions in my mind. First is the question of just how "authoritative" to be in the description of a monster. Should one say things like "Super-ghouls are never, ever found except in dungeons?" "Super-ghouls are almost never found except in dungeons?" "Super-ghouls are never found in dungeons unless the DM decides otherwise?" "You, as the DM, may decide where super-ghouls might be found in your campaign?" Obviously these are some very different approaches.

The second question is about theme. Monsters can "feel" like they come from several different genres of literature, and lumping some together doesn't work particularly well if you are aiming for that "strange past" feeling. A "Lasagna Monster" fits well in a sort of gonzo-original-D&D book like Chaosium's "All the World's Monsters," but doesn't particularly evoke a strange past. The TSR books, although they contained some weird monsters, stuck to their guns and avoided letting the books reflect the humor of the actual gaming table too much. It could also mean making some decisions between alternative genre-versions of some monsters. As one example, the OD&D shadow was not clearly described as an undead monster (as I recall). It could have been a Lovecraftian dimension thing just as easily, from the description. On the other hand, AD&D decided to remove it from that ambiguous state, drop the Lovecraft feel, and make the shadow an undead critter. No corresponding monster replaced the lost half of that ambiguity.

I haven't started to make any judgment calls based on these thoughts; but I wanted to assemble the thoughts so I know the shape of the challenge. When you compare a book like "All the World's Monsters" to the "Monster Manual," you see two very different types of books.


  1. There might be a way to reach a happy medium, if you are willing to do a bit more work and be willing to have some duplication. What if the book was divided into sections written from the perspective of different authors/explorers/adventurers? This way, you definitely have the medieval tome feel. You also have the freedom to give one or more different takes on the same monster. One authority insists that ghouls are undead, one transformed humans and another that they cannot be found outside of dungeons. You don't need to do it with every monster. Even a small sprinkling will give permission to potential DMs to go their own way with the rest.

  2. My opinion:

    1. The book doesn’t need to be flexible. GMs can and will change what they want to. Just make it clear in the introduction that GMs should change anything and everything however they want.

    Throw any cool alternatives you think of in there, just don’t go overboard with it or out of your way to do it. Err on the side of more specific rather than more generic.

    2. The real world is often stranger than fiction. Having monsters that don’t seemed designed to fit together is exactly the kind of thing I’d expect from a real medieval bestiary. It’s like a world with a single pantheon. (Or clean divisions between “neighboring” pantheons.) Nothing says “fantasy world” rather than “history” like that.

  3. As regards the first question, personally, I'd go with vague, but evocative phrases.

    Using the Super-Ghouls example above:

    "Super-Ghouls are found in the dark, cold places of the world, away from the light and warmth of the sun."

    The implications and possible interpretations should feed a DM's imagination, rather than restrain it, for example: Are they hampered when exposed to sunglight? Can they be found in the icy northern wastes of perpetual winter and gloom? Do they only come out at night in otherwise sunny lands (retiring to unused tombs and mausoleums)? Would you find them in a narrow mountain chasm of perpetual shade? And so on...

    Well, that's my two coppers anyway...

  4. Maybe the description bit could be just eyewitness account and common rumours - so it feels less like a 'manual'. Contradictions and unreliable narrators allowed.

  5. I'd second Sean Wills' suggestion of the including all sorts of rumors and speculations. Perhaps the writer of the 'monster manual' could be a near contemporary of the player characters --- so some medieval monk type who is literate, but has access to very few sources and pumps the few travelers he meets for info (and they might be tempted to embellish their tales to please their host). Allow the user to figure what is objectively true and what is just fireside bullshitting... perhaps even in the course of the campaign.

  6. I will third that. One or two brief speculative sentences: "Oobexah the Uncaring, sorcerer of legend, is rumored to have enticed one of these beasts into her service by feeding it the fruit of the giant tuber-cactii that grow in the Howling Wastes." Although my example is poor, this is the sort of thing I would love in a monster book. But it would need to be very brief. Just a thought or two my brain could run with.

  7. In addition to Sean's and Aplus' fantastic ideas, I'd add in the simplest set of brain-food to the monsters within: Number Appearing (Lair), Morale and Treasure Type.

    Now, I know S&W doesn't use them, but hear me out - each of the three are fantastic for pushing the imagination and in combination even more so. And since they're just numbers, they leave the explaining up to the DM and players.

    Number Appearing tells you lots and lots about their breeding habits (lairs have lots? or few?), their intelligence (do they patrol in numbers or not?), their personalities (are they loners? Maybe they have problems w/ authority?)

    Morale tells you even more about the monster's personality: are they brave or scardey-cats? Do they take direction well? Maybe they just have strong self-preservation instincts!

    Treasure Type tells you about what they value. 'None' is my favorite entry by far, I can stick anything I want in a 'none' category. But the other types emphasize coins, or jewels or magic, and this tells you a little bit about their society if they have one (see Number appearing (lair), for that) that you didn't know from No.App. or Morale. Feel free to add a list of treasure types at the back of the book, just like MM-I did.

    And again, all the explaining is left up to the DM, these are just numbers, but they represent things that you now no longer feel compelled to address in the text. That's pretty wonderfully efficient in my book.

    Just some food for thought. I really hope you add these - it would make a lot of people, not just me, very happy.

  8. I'm a fan of authoritative, yet descriptive monster guides. They should describe each monster as the people of the world would understand them. If the only time the people have encountered these monsters is in area B then say that. Let the DM decide whether that's because that's the only place those monsters are found, or if it's because the people that encounter them in area A never live to tell the tale. Just provide a good guide for modifying monsters and how that affects the CL/XP and make note of the fact that this guide can suffer from unreliable narrator. It is possible to serve the purpose of both game tool and inspiration. Let the stat blocks and a guide to modifying those blocks be the tool, and let all the fluff parts be the inspiration.

    As an example, in your stat block for the super ghoul, you might put that their habitat is dark stone places or whatever general habitat seems to be appropriate for this monster, while in the description you can say they've only been reported in crypts.