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Monster Design, Part 2
Legends and Lore
Mike Mearls

L ast week I talked about how we're approaching monster design in D&D Next. I also gave you a few bullet points covering some basic design concepts. This week's article takes a bigger picture view of monsters and how you can expect them to work in the game. More importantly, it sheds some light into how design in one area affects another. For instance, there are a number of ways in which our monster design interacts with the tactical rules module we're working on.

Strength in Numbers

First of all, the flattened math progression means that monsters never really go out of style. This progression means that as you gain levels, you can fight increasing numbers of weaker monsters. We settled on this approach for a few reasons.

  • It makes a DM's job easier, since you don't need to constantly level up or find higher-level versions of critters to throw at the party.
  • It works well with D&D's history, especially AD&D, since printed adventures often featured large bands of evil humanoids.
  • It provides a better fit with world building. The orc warband that can threaten an 8th-level party is still too few in number to sack a town. A great wyrm can attack the town and destroy it, but it still risks death if the town guard can turn catapults, ballistae, and massed crossbow fire against it. We can avoid a world where a mundane army simply has no chance of even harming, let alone defeating, powerful monsters.
  • Most importantly, we can keep those horde monsters fairly simple. Since you fight a lot of them, they might have few or even no special abilities.

Shepherding Complexity

That last point has doubtlessly raised some eyebrows. One of my favorite pieces of 4th Edition was its approach to the humanoid monsters. They felt distinct not only in terms of story and place in the world, but also in how they played during combat. Goblins skittered away from the characters, gnolls swarmed in hungry packs, and so forth.

Rather than make special abilities a feature of every creature, we're instead moving those abilities to chieftains, shamans, and other leaders. A group of gnolls without a leader fights using rudimentary tactics. With a shaman chanting blasphemous prayers to Yeenoghu, the gnolls attack with a demonic ferocity. They swarm like a rabid pack of beasts, working together to bring down the characters with fang and claw. Take a look at our reasons for deciding on this approach.

  • It allows complexity to scale smoothly, starting at a low level and going as high as the DM wants based on monsters chosen for a battle.
  • It scales well with character level, since we can create more powerful humanoid leaders and champions.
  • It sets a clear tactical pattern for players and DMs. DMs know to protect their humanoid leaders, and the players can see that they want to go after leader types first.
  • It also does a good job of modeling most of our evil humanoid races. In most cases, they are at their most threatening when a powerful figure forges them into a deadly force.
  • When a creature's story and background demand it, we will also allow exceptions to how we assign special abilities. Even the weakest drow has an array of magical abilities. We won't remove abilities for the sake of hitting this goal.

We had some ideas about following this path for humanoids, and the playtest feedback supports doing so. The speed of combat came out as one of the most popular things about the D&D Next rules, and we want to make sure we preserve that as we go forward.

This approach does mean a few interesting things for our core rules. First of all, we're likely to add in a simple rule for breaking away from melee. Doing so makes it easier for a mob of orcs or goblins to protect their leaders. Secondly, the tactical rules module will include rules for pike hedges, shield walls, and other tactics that a mob of humanoids might use. You'll likely see a little more emphasis on using groups of monsters as small units. Working with small units also speeds up play (a DM just decides that six hobgoblins form a pike hedge at a doorway, rather than resolving each one's action) and makes things more tactically interesting.

Nonhumanoid Monsters

In contrast to orcs and goblins, you can expect things such as carrion crawlers to be more complicated. In particular, creatures that generally operate alone will have more abilities and special attacks to make them viable as opponents.

In most cases, we'll stick to the creature's traditional abilities. The hook horror from last week is a good example. The basic stat block represents its core special abilities. On top of that, one of our goals is to create a general set of stunts that monsters can attempt, usually drawing on their high ability scores, size, and so on.

For example, abilities such as stomp, fling, and bull rush might exist as maneuvers that any monster can attempt in the tactical combat module. Rather than hard code a fling ability into the hook horror, a DM can either plan on using it based on encounter design or improvise it during a battle. The goal is that a group playing without miniatures or a grid can run a fight that captures the core of a monster. A group that loves tactical combat and detail can add that, with the DM now having more freedom and flexibility to throw unexpected tactics at the party.

Presentation

As a final note, the format we used for the hook horror last week was by no means our final format. The same applies to the stat blocks in the playtest. I'd like to see a format that captures the best parts of the 4th Edition approach to monsters, which gives DMs something easy to read and navigate at the table. Personally, I'd like to see a menu of actions, so I can easily zero in on what a creature can do and pick one of its unique abilities.

In addition, we did some polling a while back that showed that the Monstrous Compendium format is still a popular way to present monsters. We'd like to get back to including more story and information about creatures, especially their special abilities outside of a fight, to showcase their place in the world and the interesting story potential they offer.

Mike Mearls
Mike Mearls is the senior manager for the D&D research and design team. He has worked on the Ravenloft board game along with a number of supplements for the D&D RPG.
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