Monday, November 14, 2011

Systematization of Monsters

Development on the Black City is back on the front burner, and one of the first topics to think about is the concept of the bestiary.  I had been doing a mix of creating new monsters, lifting from Lovecraft and pulp horror, and retrofitting the standard monsters.  I'm creating a lot of new and alternate monsters, and have the chance to revisit the problems incurred by non-standard bestiaries.

The area beneath the Black City is a megadungeon, and one of my agendas is to enable a player-driven exploration process.  This means the players can gather enough information about the environment, through rumors, scouting, role playing, and player knowledge, to plan their own expeditions.  The threat level is part of that information landscape.  I'm intrigued by this approach since it contrasts with the ways I've traditionally ran level-based games, which is to ensure the plot hooks for upcoming games mostly lead to worthy challenges.

For that reason, there's a cogent argument behind using a standard bestiary in mega dungeons and hex crawls.  Bestiaries like the Monster Manual banalize monsters to a degree (to quote Noisms), but in a mega dungeon, the player knowledge about the relative toughness of upcoming monsters enables planning.  Zak had a recent post that mused on a similar value in the published works - bottom of this post - pointing out the value of goal-setting through access to a Monster Manual; players can flip open the book and say, "Someday, we're going to kill Demogorgon."

I'm a proponent of running D&D with a weird horror approach, but recognize that the weird horror campaign has a different design goal; it's concerned with genre emulation and sacrifices transparency for mystery.  LOTFP leads the way in taking D&D to the weird horror space.  Consider the monster advice in The Grindhouse edition:  use fewer monsters, make them the centerpieces of the adventure, make them unique, unnatural and terrifying, and follow a "less is more" approach; those are all good choices for achieving a specific tone invoking the unknown and keeping players off balance.  One of the things I struggled with when I took time off from the project was the dissonance between the needs of a mega dungeon versus the Weird Horror aesthetic; more often than not, choices that made a mega dungeon sustainable for a campaign were shifting the tone towards gonzo.

<There's still a pure weird horror setting in my writing queue, it's just not going to be the Black City.  The Library of de la Torre idea solves many of these problems by making the adventure sites distinct, remote, and unknown, aligning itself closer to the weird horror literary genre.>

Bypassing the bestiary for a moment, consider that there's another dungeon conceit that can support a transparent, player-driven game and achieve the same result.  It's the idea that Dungeon Level = Party Level = Monster Level.  A similar thing can be done with the wilderness hex system - the deeper into a wilderness area, the more dangerous become the encounters.  Even if the monsters are mostly new or adapted, players can still expect dungeon level 3 to be more dangerous than level 2, and so on.  The DM should mix the threat levels a bit, so there are easier encounters and much more difficult encounters (bosses).  Unique monsters will still keep the players on their toes, but the overall scheme gives them some foundation for planning excursions.  Of course, I come back to this thought:  Any kind of systemization of the ecosystem creates sufficient predictability that violates the Weird aesthetic.  Just saying.

In case you missed it, Roger over at Roles, Rules and Rolls had put together an entertaining chart to give new players the chance to gauge a monster's threat level in the absence of a standard bestiary; you can see it here (Old One-Armed Man's Monster Guide).  A chart like that, with a crusty Viking as the speaker instead, would be totally awesome as a future Black City handout.