Monday, November 12, 2007

Monsters (D&D 4)

This was lifted from Enworld, which lifted it from Rich Baker's blog about designing the new 4th edition Monster Manual:

A brief update in Rich Baker's blog: he's working on the Monster Manual, specifically writing what he calls "mission statements" for various monsters. That includes guidelines to "help the DM with target designation" for monsters (like attacking the nearest enemy, or attacking whomever damaged it the most). Baker is also working on morale notes for monsters -- which "are likely to run away when they're hurt, and which are fanatical or bloodthirsty enough to fight to the death."

One of my pet peeves of D&D is the complexity of high level play. High challenge rating (CR) monsters can have several pages of description that the DM has to manage. Players often win because the DM forgot the dragon was immune to cold iron or spells starting with the letter "M." It's often player success through management failure. There's just too much information to manage.

Worse, most players desire high level play, while most DM's loathe it. Because of this, we have a constant battle of players against DM, where the player is striving for the higher levels and more experience and the DM prolongs the low-level manageability of the game. Third edition had a mid-level "sweet spot," while fourth edition designers have vowed to make every level sweet.

A mission statement for monsters not only gives the DM guidance on how the monster fights, but it makes it more logical that the monster is there at all. Tactics are critical as well. The example given at Enworld was the beholder. It's a monster that has three main attacks: bite (lame), anti-magic (powerful), and various ray attacks (extremely powerful). How do you know when to use each? DM's are confused. Players usually just run away, mostly because the thing is too dangerous and unpredictable (no defined tactics). It's a swirling ball of doom.

There is the argument that these defined tactics and purposes takes some of the choice out of the game. We get back to the complaint that D&D 4 sounds like a video game. If being like a video game means 4.0 is logical and systematic, I'm all for it. Not only does it help existing players, but it will inevitably bring new ones to the hobby.

Role-playing is such a subjective hodge-podge, that it turns a lot of people off, including other gamers. There are many miniature gamers and board gamers who look askance at RPG's because they seem illogical, subjective, soft, as if we make the rules up as we go along. If we can at least make the combat more systematic, I think the game will attract more players, maybe even the millions of World of Warcraft players, whose only gaming experience has been their predictable online world.

A more systematic game will also reduce prep time for beleaguered DM's. My observation is this: DM's are very bright. Being a DM takes management skills and resources to purchase the majority of gaming material. Such a person is capable, and capable people end up with things like good jobs, families, and community responsibilities. They are the exact people likely to quit gaming and bring down their group with them. Make their job easier, and you preserve the game by preserving gaming groups. As a DM, before I had a family, I used to put in 1 hour of prep time for every 2 hours of play, or if I was bored, maybe 1:1. Now it's something like 1:4. Make the DM's job easier to prepare for the game and we'll have more games.


  1. monster manual needs entry for Windows Vista... challenge rating effing insane... it would be only monster i'd break out on my players... well that and a swarm of animated paperclips...

  2. Making it easier for GMs: good
    Making it more like CRPGs: bad

    I've said it before and I'll say it again, if I want to play a CRPG I've got a computer and several consoles and hand-helds that will always do it better than any pen & paper RPG, because perfectly structured systems are what they are designed for.

    A good P&P RPG's strength is that we make it up as we go along. We deal with the limitations of any system when met with the human imagination and we wing it.

    That said, I'm not taking issue with what they are doing with 4.0. It sounds good to me, I'm just taking issue with the way you're defending it ;-)

    The great thing about a P&P game is that as GM I can always choose to ignore what's written in the book and surprise the players.

  3. I'm all for having the option to wing it or make it up, I just want to make sure it's not assumed you're doing the heavy lifting.

    Someone without a profit motive should ask the important questions: Do we need simpler games? Is D&D too complicated? Do people have less time nowadays, or do the players who now play it simply fall into a different category based on their new demographic? Is this the kind of game only a 13-year old has time to play, or can the average 30-year old find the time too? How do you legitimize the hobby to make spending time on it worthwhile? Nobody questions when an attorney leaves early on Friday for a weekend of skiing, but a game convention?

  4. I was just thinking "why is 3.5 complicated?" AD&D was never that complicated, yet it was supposedly a less logical system. We ran it a lot in college and never had any problems. Then I realized what it was: level advancement. In AD&D it would usually take months and months of regular playing to make it past 5th level. In fact, our campaigns tended to end somewhere around there, or maybe a little higher.

    People who actually played the game into the higher levels had generally been playing for years and knew the system inside and out.

    Then along game 3.0 and a much faster level progression. Suddenly you could get up in levels quickly and without necessarily really learning the system.

    Not having played a lot of 3.0-3.5 I can only guess that this might be part of the problem, but I suspect it's at least a contributing factor.

  5. This meta-conflict is precisely why so much of the Indie RPG world is getting good interest right now. The common theme that many have includes cooperative story creation integrated right into the rules, so both GM and players are actually working together to tell an excellent tale. Players' actions contribute directly to the dynamism of the story arc and it's even within their responsibilities to dictate the results of actions succeeded or failed. The Indie GM has to be on his toes in order to react to what the players prompt, but it's no longer about a conflict between the two roles, thank goodness.

  6. This is true, and my gaming group is having a great time with Spirit of the Century. Yet we're still missing D&D and can't wait to get back to it. It's the crunch and power gaming along with role-playing that we're missing. Indy RPG's are like chocolate without peanut butter or the opposite, or some other candy metaphor I can't put my finger on. Something seems missing.

  7. If all you're playing is SotC, then it may just be that you're missing the sense of real risk from combat and other confrontations. There are indie games that have that, but SotC isn't really one of them.

    On the other hand, if you're missing the min-maxing and table top tactical elements of D&D then you probably need to get a D&D fix, or play a few games of Mechaton (gives you a good excuse to buy Legos "for the kid").