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Rule-of-Three: 11/21/2011
Rich Baker

You've got questions—we've got answers! Here's how it works—each week, our Community Manager will be scouring all available sources to find whatever questions you're asking. We'll pick three of them for R&D's Rich Baker to answer, whether about the about the making of the game, the technical workings of our DDI studio, or anything else you care to know about… with some caveats.

There are certain business and legal questions we can't answer (for business and legal reasons). And if you have a specific rules question, we'd rather point you to Customer Service, where representatives are ready and waiting to help guide you through the rules of the game. That said, our goal is provide you with as much information we can—in this and other venues.

1 When designing or approving monster design, what makes a good monster? What are the most important things for DMs and would-be designers to keep in mind when building their own monsters?

The D&D game has a ton of monsters already, so the first thing I look for is a sense of mythic resonance. Does that monster concept feel like it belongs in the game? When you consider the concept, are you a little surprised that the game doesn’t already have this monster or a monster that does what this new one does? If you can look at your monster concept and honestly say the game’s been missing your monster at least a little bit for the last thirty years, you’ve got something worth adding to the game. Every monster needs a schtick. That special hook—be it based in mechanics or story—shouldn’t be hard to figure out from observation, and it shouldn’t be based on some strange interaction of rules buried in game minutiae.

As far as the most important thing to keep in mind when building that monster, I’d say it’s choosing a small number of memorable and consistent abilities that properly implement its schtick. Give it exactly as many powers and traits as it needs, and not a single one more. I have seen a number of monster designs cross my desk with six or seven different attack powers, as well as half a dozen important traits. That might seem like the minimum needed to perfectly capture the options available to a powerful demon or an evil spellcaster, but how many of those powers will the monster really use in the small number of rounds that it’s in front of the characters? For most monsters, I strive for one interesting special attack power that you’ll see once or twice in the encounter, and one interesting non-attack trait or power that fits the monster well, helps to describe its place in the world, and provides a little twist or versatility. Monsters that feel like they deserve more complexity than that might get one or two additional abilities.

Don’t be afraid to make use of common traits or powers shared by other monsters; sometimes Double Attack, Change Shape, or Threatening Reach is close enough to the power you want. You shouldn’t invent something that’s similar but not quite identical. And one more thing: Avoid “gotcha” abilities. A “gotcha” ability is something a monster does without fair warning, especially if it punishes characters for doing something that makes sense in context. For example, an early draft of the minotaur warrior from the Monster Manual had a power that knocked people prone (still there) and a reaction that allowed it to attack anybody standing up within reach. That’s not fun; if your character gets knocked down, of course you’d try to stand up, and if you don’t have any cue or warning that you’re going to be punished for doing what your character would naturally want to do, it’s just not cricket. We want to reward players for immersing themselves in the world and thinking like their characters would think, but “gotcha” abilities tend to punish good play—or at the very least, fail to reward it.

2 Will there be more work done on monster themes?

Yes, as opportunity permits. There are a couple of new monster themes on the way in Book of Vile Darkness, and we expect to publish new monster themes in DDi articles when good ones come our way. We’ve been pretty cautious in publishing new monster themes simply because we want to make sure that they are distinct from each other, well balanced, and easy to use in play. Monster theme powers have the potential to interact strangely with the entire universe of unique monster abilities already in existence, so we need to make sure that a theme is really the best mechanic to use before we publish a new one.

3 4E D&D has fewer fluff options (junk items, craft skills, house-buying, etc.) than previous editions. Is this something future products aim to fix? Can you explain the reasoning behind that decision?

While 4th Edition certainly debuted with relatively few “fluff options” in place, we’ve been working on slowly re-introducing them in the game. Jeremy Crawford, our lead developer, reminded me that many of the improvisation entries from the skill descriptions in the Rules Compendium address specific item crafting. For example, the Religion skill addresses crafting holy symbols. Chapter 6 of Mordenkainen’s Magnificent Emporium includes buildings such as cottages and castles that certainly could be used as residences. When we see a good opportunity to provide more such options, we will.

As far as why the fluff options weren’t included right at the outset: For the most part, it was about not overfilling the core rulebooks and keeping them reasonably “clean.” As has been mentioned before, there was a pretty vigorous debate about the Craft skill during the design and development of 4th Edition. Some of us argued that it was a harmless skill to include, and it would make a subset of players happy to spend some character currency to be able to write down a background skill or non-adventuring profession on their character sheet. The design team pointed out that while PCs in 3rd Edition did indeed spend a few ranks on Craft every now and then as part of telling a character’s story, they never actually made skill checks against it—and if you didn’t ever need to make a check against it, then we didn’t need to call it a skill. You could just write “leatherworker,” or “blacksmith” on your character sheet, no rules attached, and achieve the same result. There was also some concern about giving players too many skills to choose from and mixing up adventure-useful skills with skills they’d never actually use. That point of view carried the debate, so we left Craft out of the Player’s Handbook.

How can I submit a question to the Rule-of-Three?

Instead of a single venue to submit questions, our Community Manager will be selecting questions from our message boards, Twitter feed, and Facebook account. You can also submit questions directly to So, if you’d like to have your question answered in the Rule-of-Three, just continue to participate in our online community—and we may select yours!

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