Monday, October 10, 2011

Why the Monster Manual is Important

Picking up from yesterday's post on D&D's competitive advantages, to wit:  players have a clear mission (finding treasure), and simple accessible archetypes for character classes.  The level progression encourages campaign play.  The classic adventure structures push decision making on the players; the class roles encourage group tactics and cohesion.

Just an aside:  Through the years, I've seen folks here and there run story-heavy D&D games, where the players go off performing quests and dealing with villains.  Note how the first thing that gets overhauled and house-ruled in such a regime is the XP system, because the objectives of that quest-oriented story-game are no longer the same as Dungeons & Dragons as written.

Learning to love it again...
Aesthetically, I like the idea of unique monsters or re-envisioning D&D without the use of a published bestiary, but it misses an important point:  the Monster Manuals are part of the secret sauce.  There are two sides to using the hierarchical creatures, with their bundles of hit dice and special abilities loosely translating into a "challenge level":  first the manuals give the DM ready-made creatures for populating dungeons and wilderness, according the right level of danger the DM wants for that locale; secondarily, they give the players enough information to calculate their relative risk and reward due to meta game knowledge.

If you've been with me a few weeks, you know I've been posting here and there about a campaign idea (the Library of de la Torre) where the players inherit an occult library with field notes; the previous owner's journal is full of adventure hooks and the players have a number of adventure choices right from day one.  It's a way of front loading a lot of plot hooks (like a rumor table) and super-charging the player driven game.  Note the difference between the following two sets of facts and how they offer different opportunities for a group just starting out:

First Version
After reading the journal, the group learns that the mine outside the old town was haunted by tommy knockers, also called kobolds; there's a lot of silver left in the mine if it could be made safe.  The peasants near the old wood are afraid of losing livestock to goblin fairies that creep out of the woods at night.  Further north, it's said travelers between two towns often disappear along a stretch of road passing through the marshland, because an ogre lives somewhere across the swamps.  And just last week a giant was seen striding back towards Snake Head mountain after stealing a cow.

Second Version
After reading the journal, the group learns that the mine outside the old town was haunted by a foul demon from beyond; there's a lot of silver left in the mine if it could be made safe.  The peasants near the old wood are afraid of losing livestock to a witch that creeps out of the woods at night, stealing animals for unknown purposes.  Further north, it's said travelers between two towns often disappear along a stretch of road passing through the marshland, because a necromancer lives somewhere across the swamps.  And just last week a "dead thing" was seen striding back towards Snake Head mountain after slaughtering a cow.

My idea behind the Library of de la Torre is for a "weird horror" style campaign in the 17th century, so a set of facts similar to the second version is more in line with what I'm thinking.  But surely you see a flaw?  If you want the agenda to be determined by the players, the rumors need to be embellished with enough information to allow a meaningful analysis of danger.  On a larger scale, this is a critique of the whole line of thinking "monsters should always be unique and unknowable".

DM's with a strong hand on the steering wheel will ensure the adventure opportunities for the low-level group are appropriate for low-level characters; the danger scales with the capabilities of the group.  That's not the approach I want to take with the wide area sandbox - I'm still recovering from my time with 4E and the dictates of balance, thank you very much.

My platonic ideal these days is with sandbox play, and a lot of my recent posts have focused on pushing the boundaries of the sandbox to test the limits - whether it's been concerns with illusionism and moving content (the Shell game post that instigated the whole 'Quantum Ogre' discussion), the use of plot hooks as "leading the players", or now looking at how we can break out of the micro-setting and build a larger wide area sandbox without hex-by-hex minutiae.

I'll return with thoughts on whether D&D sans bestiary and the sandbox are reconcilable; the key takeaway for me was the revelation that published bestiaries are as important to players in the player driven game as they are to DMs, as they provide a means for gauging challenges.


  1. Actually, I don't see a flaw. All that's happened is that the player group has to do a little more research before committing to dealing with any particular threat. Sure, they don't know right off, from previous play experience, what the "dead thing" is, but a little asking around town will give them enough info to plan for a first scouting of the area.

    Thing is, the Weird Fantasy setting is antithetical to the Known Hierarchy of Monsters. It's not knowing what the hell that thing is that helps provide the feeling of the unknown involved with the weird. You're trading off one of the advantages of classic D&D play for one of the advantages of Weird Fantasy play.

  2. I'm still working through different ways players could differentiate risks in the 'weird setting' when given a bevy of choices up front; that's why it struck me that a traditional bestiary has this unforeseen property of transparency.

    You've certainly hit on one approach, which is either embellish the plot hooks with sufficient detail that they can be categorized according to threat levels, or allow some research. I'm thinking through a few more other approaches as well.

    In a D&D micro-setting, geography plays a large role; the lower the dungeon level, the greater the danger, or the further away from the home base, the greater the danger.

    I don't know as that simplistic approach helps in the wide area sandbox, where one adventure could be the coast France, the next a Greek isle, the next in Alpine Italy. Researching far flung opportunities is more trouble as well.

  3. I don't think this is an either/or. In fact, I think "weird" creatures are actually made more so by contrast with the standard bestiary, as long as that bestiary is not overused.

  4. Great, great post and the last one as well.

  5. Very inspiring! I've also often been of the mindset to avoid standard creatures, and to create nameless & unidentifiable things for the players to face.

    I think perhaps a nice middle way is to kind of "re-skin" standard monsters, while keeping the stats and the name the same. That way the players can estimate the danger level of something that the local villagers call a gnoll, even if it looks like a black hairy demon rather than a humanoid hyena.

  6. Seems to me that the question here goes back to meaningful, informed player choice, yeah? And whether or not removing the meta-game tool of "everybody's familiar with the monster manual" impairs that choice?

    In which case, it's just a question of how you go about cluing the players in on the relative power of a monster.

    One thing that occurs to me is to rely on the old stand by "ass kicking equals authority" idea, that says prominent NPCs have levels. So if we know that the weird monster broke into the mead-hall and killed the local baron and his retainers, you know we're dealing with something that can take out a 9th level fighter and his war-band. 2nd level noobs, move along.

  7. Yep, that's it exactly - a sandbox requires informed player choice or decisions are arbitrary. People decry the meta game knowledge inherent in bestiaries that have been published for a long time ("No fair, my players know that trolls hate fire!") but as I consider players evaluating information in the a sandbox setting, I've noticed there's a real benefit to being able to gauge challenge levels, as well.

  8. Here's the solution: Lead with NPCs. See how fast they get killed off. Instant guage of challenge level.

    Red tunics optional.

  9. Interesting post. You are definitely right on at least one count from where I sit: when we started going for what we considered more realistic story-telling in our AD&D1e games (when we went off to college), the first thing we dumped was XP. Advancement was slowed, and happened according to when it seemed right. I'm still not certain, however, that D&DAW is that narrow of a beast.