Monday, July 28, 2008

Monsters again

I just finished the Design & Development article from last week, and I'm here to be a broken record...

The article is broken up into different sections on the design and planning of monster creation. It's no secret what I think of it, so it was interesting to see the thoughts that the developers had regarding this.

Starting Points

Heinsoo mentions the "somewhat ad hoc approach to monster design" of 2nd edition, and explains that 3rd edition decided to take the rules and mechanics for player characters and applied them to monsters. So why does it feel that they've gone backwards with 4th edition?

He claims that they felt they went "slightly too far", mentions the formulae that were used (the part that I liked), and how in the end, "the PCs deserve more attention than monsters." I don't disagree with this statement, but it feels that DMs have been put to the very bottom of the heap, if we don't have a mechanism to make monsters. And what of the players that want to play monstrous roles? Savage Species was a terrific book, and now, we're back to "no, you can only play what the Player's Handbook says you can play." Why should we have to wait for Wizards to release another book... oh, now I get it.

Schaefer pipes up and says that dropping the formulae is a "dream come true", because it was "too much work" to "check and double-check" the monster. Exceuse me, but aren't you developing an online presence? Aren't we having character sheets that automatically calculate themselves? Why not monster sheets? If it's because 3.5 had so many exceptions, then change THAT, but don't change the fact that things are actually calculated.

Streamlining While Expanding Favor

I can agree with part of this. Some of the larger, advanced, complex creatures in 3.5 had lists of abilities and spells that never got used. As has been mentioned, the typical lifespan of a monster once a party encounters it is quite short, and you only need to provide the abilities it has a reasonable chance of using in that time. And the Tactics sections in the new monster blocks are really good for helping the DM to know what the monster will do when, in what order, and with what strategy.

But what if this monster, or rather, NPC, becomes part of the party? Yes, we could roll up a character and treat it as an NPC, but what about the Ogre that I've convinced to help fight its brethren? Shouldn't he have a few more interesting things to do, if he's actually a party member for a while and thus might live longer than one encounter? What about the polymorphed silver dragon NPC? How do I roll that up? What if my campaign's nemesis is prone to escaping and fighting another day -- do I want it to just have a small set of abilities so even when the party catches up to him again, they still know what few tricks he has up his sleeve?

The fact that the monsters come from Miniatures is painfully obvious. Even the format of the statblock looks like a miniature card. And while I strongly agree with their comments about each race having their defining trait -- shiftiness for kobolds, bloodied orcs, etc. -- I don't really feel that this gives the individual enemy any sense of worth. Sure, the kobolds as a whole are a shifty race, but these five that just hopped out from behind that boulder might as well don some red shirts and be done with it.

Another comment caught my eye, where Schaefer points out that 'you won't see a stat block that includes "bugbear traits" that forces you to look elsewhere.' This is a good thing, as I found that to cause quite a bit of page-flipping. But I'd still rather have all of a bugbear's traits placed into a stat block, even if it makes it bigger. The later statblock format was a huge improvement over the earlier ones, and made for easy tracking of pertinent data - senses and such were up here, attacks were down here, skills way down here. Sort the attacks in order of likelihood, or use the little circled icons to indicate a favored attack, but to just reduce the number?

Monsters Now Appear In Context

I don't think I have any complaints about this section. The larger enemy groups work out really well, doing exactly what they say -- preventing a single target from getting locked down and the battle just turning into a bunch of die rolls. Instead, characters and enemies alike are shifting about, jockeying for position, and it feels like a much more involved combat.

And yes, I swear part of this article was written to me specifically: "only readers who appreciated strict adherence to known monster-creation formulas got any satisfaction out of a perfectly done stat block." And while I enjoyed be able to KNOW that some of the stat blocks in 3.5 were wrong, I didn't necessarily enjoy finding the problem -- I think I'd rather have correct ones, thank you.

Monster Stories

I like where they're going with the monster groups here -- that some monsters will usually accompany others because of a master/slave relationship, or what have you, but it's the "[w]hen you're making up new monsters" comment that gets me. True, I haven't blogged about the DM's Toolbox chapter in the Dungeon Master's Guide yet, but what tools do we have, really, for making up our own creatures and knowing that they make sense? We're not all professional game creators, and thus don't have an inherent feel for what is balanced and what is not.

Recharge Mechanics

I do like this change, moving a dragon's breath from a record-keeping chore to a every-round check. I had all sorts of little columns and pencil ticks on my combat sheets to keep track of breath recharges, poison effects, acid arrows and the like, and the move to remove those is something I've admitted to liking in 4e before.

I'm amused where Schaefer corrects Heinsoo in this section, regarding the conversion from "useable again in 1d4 rounds" to "Recharge 56", saying "I'm picking nits, but getting the math right is my job." Is that right? Then why won't you get the math right for monster creation BY USING SOME?

The best example of this recharge being a good mechanic took place this last weekend, where a leader type in an ambush surprised the whole party when he barked out a command and suddenly half of the characters were flanked. Not only that, but the commander did it AGAIN, and the players were all trying to figure out how he could have such a powerful power -- it was because he rolled nicely on his recharge. Having that kind of surprise from the players (and the characters, no doubt) is what is shaping up the 4e encounters to be better than 3.5 ones.

I'm still not happy with the monster creation, but their use in encounters so far has been positive. Can we find a happy compromise?

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