Monster Design in D&D Next
Continuing to play catch-up, we’re on to one of my favorite topics in Legends & Lore: Monsters.
The most interesting bit to me in reading Mike’s post is tracing the lines of influence that lead to a monster. It speaks to the diverse goals of D&D Next and why the stat blocks seem so scattered.
The first thread is the fiction. This is maybe the easiest to understand as well, it’s the part of the monster that defines the fictional thing that we all imagine when dealing with one (and the artist imagines while drawing it, etc.). The fiction accounts for all the points in the first step of Mike’s post, one point and bits of others in the second step, and about 5 words in the stat block.
Then there’s the mechanics. This is the stuff that you’d use to program a monster into a videogame, basically, and is the least easy to understand without the scaffolding of a whole mechanical system. The mechanics don’t show up until the second step, but form the majority of the text in step two and the stat block.
Those two are the most obvious threads (and are for some reason always seen as opposed—more on that later), but there are more. Mike’s also drawing on history and procedures.
The history that’s Mike’s drawing on are the assumptions of past editions. I feel like this is one of the least productive strains, as it leads to assumptions like “The Monstrous Compendium pegs its Intelligence as between 5 and 7. I’ll split the difference at 6.” Since this is a different system, with different meanings for stats and different uses for them, trying to match numbers from another edition is kind of meaningless. It’s reverse engineering via telephone. Instead of saying something like “The stats in the Monstrous Compendium indicate that it’s below average human intelligence but still in the normal human range, we’ll give it a 6″ the logic goes straight to the numbers that are supposed to represent the fiction and keep the numbers without referencing the fiction.
Finally Mike’s drawing on procedures, particularly in the way that he provides information on how the monster should be used. The XP value (and the discussion further below about building encounters) relies on the idea that how you play D&D is to make encounters with exact knowledge of how tough they are. There are entire sections of the monster’s description that exist only because of assumptions about the high-level procedures and goals of play.
All of these threads of thinking leave us with a monster that seems like it’s destined to be chopped up into a number of games.
Str 18 (+4)
Dex 12 (+1)
Con 15 (+2)
Int 6 (–2)
Wis 12 (+1)
Cha 9 (–1)
Space/Reach 5 feet/10 feet
Speed 30 feet, climb 30 feet
Melee Attack Two hooks +5 (1d10 + 4 piercing, and impale); the hook horror cannot use a hook to attack if a victim is impaled on it
Special Actions twist and bite
Special Traits echolocation
Impale An impaled target can escape by using its action to succeed at a DC 12 Strength check.
Twist and Bite Any creature currently impaled by the hook horror takes 1d10 + 4 piercing damage. In addition, the hook horror can automatically bite an impaled creature for 2d6 + 4 extra damage.
Echolocation A hook horror ignores anything that obscures vision within 120 feet. A creature can attempt to hide only if a physical object completely obscures it from view. It can remain hidden as long as it remains behind such an object or ends its turn behind one.
The stat block seems like it’s presenting the monster for several different games all at once. In one game we’re trying to model some strange beast as if in a computer. In another we’re creating an interesting combatant for fighting. In yet another we’re describing the creature as another fictional character might see it.
Since the stat block is trying to cover all that ground it ends up muddying the rest of it. If I’m looking for a fictional description of a Hook Horror this helps me very little: I know it’s got echolocation and that it’s hooks can impale things, but that’s about it. If I’m trying to create a complex tactical encounter there’s not much here for me to build on. If I’m going for drama there’s nothing here to create drama. All of those seem like goals encompassed by the goals of D&D Next, but this stat block doesn’t do much to serve any one of them.
To me at least the bullet points under step one actually say a lot more about what this creature is and how to use it:
- Hook horrors make a clicking noise that functions similarly to a bat’s sense of echolocation.
- They embed their hooks in prey, allowing them to tear a foe apart with their follow-up bite attack and then rend with their hooks.
- They are excellent climbers.
- They have a rudimentary language and simple, tribal social structure.
For the type of D&D I’m craving at the moment that’s exactly what I need to know. Pair that with a system that’s easy enough to improvise with and I’m set: I don’t need to know exact ranges and effects of echolocation, the game can leverage my human knowledge and judgement to represent that fiction instead of spending text (and my reading time) describing the range and effect of such a thing.
Of course that wouldn’t help with a Castle Ravenloft-style boardgame, but that’s kind of my point: this stat block tries to cover everything you’d need for a simple human-judgment driven system based on portraying the fiction and a carefully balanced mechanical boardgame of challenging combat and some other games, all at once. That diversity ends up costing the game my interest: I don’t want to sit through a short paragraph describing what echolocation is just because it might contain information important to one style of play.
Of course that isn’t to say that this is a disaster. The fictional stuff that Mike mentions, which apparently would be included elsewhere, sounds like just what I need to run the monster. It’s just hard to tell when the monster covers so much ground for so many games.