Monday, August 29, 2011

OD&D, AD&D, and ToH monster stats

Something interesting was brought to my attention today by Razberry Ranid on the Swords & Wizardry message boards about Tome of Horrors. From his perspective it was a negative, from my perspective it's roughly neutral, but it set me thinking about monster formats (or thinking about it again, really, because I gave a fair amount of thought to some of these issues when preparing the S&W Monster Book).

Here was the observation: several of the monsters that don't fit the normal combat mechanisms of the game have the "stat block" omitted in Tome of Horrors. For example, the "bookworm," which eats your scrolls but can be smooshed with a finger when you find them, does not have a columnar presentation of hit dice, armor class, etc. The non-standard way in which they are handled is contained in the text description.

This was clearly an editorial decision (I was not the editor, and I'm not sure I would have had the balls to use two formats like this, although I'm not against the decision) to stick with the way these monsters were formatted in 3e. In 3e, such monsters are considered "hazards" rather than true monsters, since they aren't killed by normal means. One that will be familiar to everyone is green slime, which is not in ToH because it was in the SRD already. But green slime is simply killed by fire. Hit points aren't the issue, armor class isn't the issue: green slime poses a risk and has a solution that lies outside the combat rules. You just set the f***ker on fire with a torch. I think it was a bit anal-retentive of 3e to subdivide monsters in this way, but it does make sense.

AD&D, of course, went ahead and provided a standardized stat block for such monsters, just putting "nil" or "not applicable," or "see below" for all of the entries.

What struck me was the question of whether 3e had actually returned, almost certainly for different reasons, but still returned, to an approach that is actually more typical of Original D&D than Advanced D&D. The Original D&D books, I have always thought, de-emphasized the statistics of a monster -- even keeping them separate from the text descriptions on a different page. The descriptions seemed to me to have a lot more power that way. You were reading the "reality" of this game world in evocative prose, and only later would you bother to look up stats.

In fact, this is the reason why in the S&W Monster Book I went for putting the monster stats into a linear stat block rather than a list of headings at the top. I wanted to emphasize that text description over the stats. The stats are there, of course, but they aren't the salient visual piece that they are in AD&D, they're secondary.

And then yet another thought struck me after I decided that the Tome of Horrors might actually be following the OD&D type of descriptive method. I have no idea if this was true, or if it was even really thought about by anyone at TSR, but ...

In a wargame, you might definitely see monster stats the way they are handled in the OD&D books: a table of stats for the monsters all together. With some details in the ... FOOTNOTES?

It would rock my world if that whole "the text was the important part, which is why it's separate and has no stats" assumption of mine is actually turned on its head. A wargamer looking at that book might very well perceive the chart of AC, HD, etc. to be the "real" part of the monster description, the specifics of how it interacts in combat. And the descriptions, which do indeed occur later, to be the footnotes with the additional data and "historical" information.

That would be a paradigm-shifter. It wouldn't change my preferences any, but it would sure be weird. And as any OD&D player can tell you, if you don't find SOMETHING weird in OD&D, you probably aren't doing it right ... :)


  1. Interesting observation, Matt. I think I might actually prefer the dissociation of monster description from stat blocks. Although counter-intuitive, having a table of monster stats in an appendix at the end (similar to the stat block tables in the AD&D DMG) would be useful for the game master. A monster section devoted entirely to description is an aesthetic that I find appealing as it implies that players should interpret the monster stats as they please and that those in the appendix are merely suggested stats, not canon.

    Similarly, the first time I read S&W Whitebox, I found it odd that the monster combat matrix was in the Monsters book and not in the Characters book with the other matrices...until I ran the game for the first time and really appreciated looking up a monster and not having to consult another book to find its THAC0. Sometimes breaking with convention yields some wonderful outcomes.

  2. On many levels the Tome of Horrors is a outstanding product. But I like the monster book more. Why? Because the stat black is the one line format. So I just do a ctrl-home, go down a page to the index, click on the monster and then copy the stat block and drop it into the module. Maybe some of the text if there is a complex ability.

    Unless I am missing something I can't do this with the Tome of Horrors. Instead there is the AD&D MM1 style stat block which I have to translate to the one line format.

    Which is why the Monster Book is still my top retro clone Monster Manual. As sparse as it looks, you picked the correct elements to make a outstanding monster manual. One that still stands above the Tome of Horror.

    Mind you I am glad I got the Tome of Horror. It has a lot of useful information in there regardless of what specific nitpicks I have about it.

  3. The monster book for The Arcanum, called unimaginatively The Bestiary (later included in Atlantis: The Lost World), gave descriptions and pictures, and put stat blocks in the back.