This month's Design & Development column is brought to you by Senior Designer Rob Heinsoo and Associate Developer Peter Schaefer.
Rob Heinsoo: Before we even began 4th Edition, Andy, James, and I (and probably a big chunk of the rest of the department) knew that we wanted to handle monster design differently than we'd handled it in 3rd Edition.
In fact, one of 4th Edition's advances is to rethink half of 3rd Edition's biggest advances. Third Edition rationalized 2nd Edition's somewhat ad hoc approach to monster design by applying the same internally consistent rules and rubrics to monsters as were assigned to player characters.
To be clear, a bunch of roleplaying games out prior to 3rd Edition had beaten D&D to that punch. To some extent, 2nd Edition's mechanics had fallen behind the state of the art; 3rd Edition brought D&D back up to speed.
As a response to eight years of 3rd Edition gaming and DMing, we 4th Edition designers decided that 3rd Edition had gone slightly too far in designing monsters using the same rules as PCs. The 3rd Edition approach created a thicket of mathematical formulae that were technically supposed to be consulted whenever a DM wanted to do something interesting with a monster. (Or, for that matter, when we at Wizards of the Coast -- as well as third-party publishers -- wanted to create new monsters.) By using rules for monsters that were as detailed as the rules for PCs, we were implying that monsters deserved the same level of mechanical fiddling as PCs.
Fourth Edition's design started from the foundation that the PCs deserve more attention than monsters. Monsters generally appear on-stage for half or three-quarters of an encounter, whereas PCs have contracts for multiple levels. So we reversed direction compared to 3rd Edition and decided that everyone in D&D who is not a PC can be handled using simpler mechanics.
Peter Schaefer: To a developer, this is a dream come true. And not one of those wacky dreams where you dress up as a snail, but the one where you're about to bite into your favorite dinner ever. Developing 3rd Edition monsters was too much work for disproportionate reward: check and double-check the monster's HD against its base attack bonus, feats, and skill points, and check its type and subtype to make sure everything made sense, all to confirm the construction of a stat block most players would never see. Many of the people who would see it wouldn't notice an error if one were there. That's not something we wanted to spend hours on.
And it did take hours. Developing a monster got bogged down by the minutiae of a monster's numbers, making it difficult to focus on what made the monster useful in a game. The higher-level question of "Does this monster do what we want?" all too often took a backseat. Not anymore.
Rob says 3rd Edition played catch up with its monster design in some ways. In a similar fashion, so is 4th Edition. There were and are many games that accept that PCs and their enemies are not the same things and do not need the same levels of detail or methods of construction. As it happens, we agree.
Streamlining While Expanding Flavor
RH: I naturally had a somewhat different approach to D&D monsters thanks to my work on the D&D Miniatures game and my earlier involvement in numerous trading card game designs. D&D Minis design involved weighing a highly detailed 3rd Edition RPG monster or character, with somewhere between five and 25 noteworthy abilities or spells, and then cutting away the dross and elaborating upon the idea that seemed coolest or most useful in a miniatures battle.
PS: This sort of minimalist design -- besides being necessary for the miniature game -- can be a good exercise in other aspects of games. What is the shortest way to get this power across? If I can only have three abilities for this monster, which one makes it the most memorable? Which feel like a signature?
RH: It's no accident that we ended up taking a similar approach to monster design in 4th Edition. We knew that we didn't want our creatures to have laundry lists of abilities and powers that were included only for game background purposes, or because all other creatures of that type had all those abilities. We wanted to make the DM's job easier by focusing on the small number of abilities that really mattered for a monster. We wanted to make the play experience richer by maintaining focus on monster abilities that truly make a difference in play, instead of taking the completionist route we'd adopted while designing 3rd Edition.
PS: Readability is second only to usability. If a stat block is taking up an entire column of text, it had better be for a good reason. And it usually isn't.
RH: Fourth Edition's playable distinctions between basic monster races like goblins, kobolds, gnolls, and orcs are a good example of the new approach. In 3rd Edition, each of these races was represented as a monster that started with 1 HD. Weapons, armor, and size differentiated these creatures, but not much else. Fourth edition gives each race a cool ability that is unique to that race, something that creates different problems for the PCs. Kobolds shift as a minor action, meaning that you can't actually pin them down unless you've got a fighter in your party. Goblins shift if you miss them with a melee attack, meaning they're adept at getting away when you don't expect it. Gnolls gang up and kill in packs, and orcs have the resilience to regain some hit points while making an attack if they are bloodied, so if you bloody an orc, you want to finish the job quickly.
PS: And fantastically, these powers aren't inherent to the race. Each bugbear has predatory eye because it's in the monster's stat block, not because the monster is a bugbear. We set up patterns that players are supposed to recognize as the schticks of a breed of monster -- so in this case, players learn that giving any bugbear combat advantage hurts. But there's no rule that says we must include the power. For any reason, including narrative reasons (such as a creature trying to rise above its base instincts) and game reasons (such as the stat block being too full and predatory eye being the least interesting of all the powers), we can trim the power. Neither we nor DMs need to look up "bugbear" to find what traits all bugbears have that aren't listed; you won't see a stat block that includes "bugbear traits" that forces you to look elsewhere. This saves time, circumvents mistakes, and gives us the confidence that when we look at a monster stat block, we're seeing all there is to see. We don't need to worry that the monster is really too complicated when you take its inherent qualities into account, or that it's nonsensical once you combine the written-out powers with its hidden powers.
We couldn't get completely away from inherent traits. It's only in the MM glossary that we learn that angels do not breathe or that undead do not sleep, and that swarms have special movement rules. But boy, did we try!
Monsters Now Appear in Context
RH: Third edition's biggest design concern was to make each monster consistent with its type. Aberrations were supposed to have aberration HD. Devils carried a variety of formatting instructions derived from their status as Lawful Evil outsiders, as well as a raft of standard devil abilities. Unfortunately none of these standardizations actually helped DMs design better encounters.
We went to a lot of design and editing trouble to make monsters fit specific formats, but when that monster hit the table, our extra work hadn't really accomplished anything; only readers who appreciated strict adherence to known monster-creation formulas got any satisfaction out of a perfectly done stat block. And let's be honest: The satisfaction these people more often derived was in noticing that we'd miscalculated a formula somewhere.
Fourth Edition cares much less about matching specific monsters to a type-based formula. When we're designing a monster now, we care first and foremost how it affects play and how it accomplishes an interesting role in an encounter.
What we noticed is that encounters with multiple monsters attacking from different angles were usually more fun than encounters in which the PCs ganged up on a single foe. Third edition's encounter math was built around a single foe, and it took a lot of care to build fun encounters that were based on fighting multiple foes.
PS: It's much easier to lock down a single monster on the battle grid. Once you do that, a combat starts to feel more like a slog than it would if PCs and monsters were moving around. That's one reason we try to give solo monsters some mobility, helping them avoid getting trapped.
RH: By designing 4th Edition monsters around roles that give each monster something specific to do in combat, we're providing elements that DMs can fit together into encounters and adventures as they choose, while having a fairly good idea of what each monster is capable of and how it can combine in interesting ways with other monsters.
RH: The move toward encounters that use monster groups made up of monsters with different roles has an important implication for the game world's story. When you're making up new monsters, or setting up your campaign world's back story, you want to look for ways in which individual monsters link up with other monsters. Creating monsters that have nothing to do with any other monster is fine as an exception, but it won't lead to encounters that work best. As a rule, you want to look for ways that monsters can cooperate, at least briefly, with other monsters, rather than creating stories in which particular monster races practice genocide against everything that's not in their narrow genotype.
Having said that, I expect to break this rule later in my campaign. I'm going to introduce a new type of non-solo monster that is too nasty to team up with any other creature. I'll phrase this new creature as supernaturally corrupt and deadly to all other creatures in its area, so all the other creatures in the world feel as much loathing for the creature as the PCs.
RH: Here's an element of 3rd Edition that I loved: A dragon's breath weapon that could be used every few rounds. But I didn't like rolling and then tracking rounds. As a DM or a player, I didn't want to have to count out rounds. Jonathan Tweet pointed out rolling 1d4 for the number of rounds it took for a breath weapon to recharge meant that there was a 40% chance the breath weapon would recharge each round. I loved that approach, and started running 3rd Edition games in which I, like the PCs, had no idea whether a dragon would be able to breathe on its turn until I'd rolled for its breath weapon. (As fortune had it, the only PC I killed using that dragon breath method was Jonathan's kobold warmage, Akatrask.)
PS: Technically, there's a 25% chance it recharges the first round, a 33% chance the second round, a 50% chance the next round, and a 100% chance the last round. It averages out to a 40% chance each round, which isn't the same thing. I'm picking nits, but getting the math right is my job.
RH: I preserved this random-recharge approach while working on 4th Edition and on the associated revision of the minis game. Monsters have powers that may or may not be useable on their next turn. PCs won't know precisely when a monster is going to be able to use its big power again, so combats feel that much riskier. The pressure the PCs often feel is that they want to take the monster out before it can use its big power again, and that's exactly how adventurers would feel in a real fight.
PS: I like it because it fits our mechanical guideline of avoiding durations that force you to count down over multiple rounds. Once rolling recharge becomes part of your routine, it takes less DM processor power than incrementing up a counter each round.
RH: The variety of recharge mechanics also lets us model an ever expanding number of situations. There are going to be some methods of recharging powers that are standard and expected. Others will appear as one-of-a-kind exceptions on monsters that are different than all other monsters.
PS: And this is my favorite aspect of recharge. Rolling is well and good -- it gives you a rough idea of how frequently the monster can unleash its special attack. But a descriptive conditional recharge defines the monster or its tactics. The imp's tail sting recharges when the creature uses its vanish ability, making it clear that the monster hides, stings, and repeats. The pseudodragon's invisibility recharges when the creature is damaged, so after using it once the creature must fight in the open before it can hide again.
Another impressive use of conditional recharges is effect-limiting powers. The unicorn's fey beguiling recharges "when no creature is affected by the power," so if no one is beguiled, the unicorn can try to affect someone else -- and otherwise not. It's not something that's hard to write into a power text directly, but it's a pleasure to see it fit into an existing mechanic so easily.