Monday 25 July 2016

So many monsters, so little time

I have been reading (well, skimming) a lot of D&D monster books over the last few months. Like, a lot. 

As a result, I have now seen what feels like approximately one million extremely minor variations on each of these monsters:

  1. A plant which comes to life and beats you to death / strangles you with vines / shoots thorns at you. 
  2. A statue which comes to life and beats you to death.
  3. A skeleton, ghost, or zombie with a stupid gimmick and far too many hit dice. 
  4. A mashup of two or more real-world predators.
  5. A race of big dumb humanoid brutes who love violence.
  6. A race of giant, hungry, alpha-predator monsters who love eating people.
  7. Innumerable pointless giant, golem, and dragon subraces. ('Marsh giants and bone golems are completely different from bog giants and skull golems!')
  8. Some random creature with snake parts, spider parts, and/or tentacles glued onto it for no fucking reason.
  9. A zillion different demon types which all boil down to 'it looks ugly and it wants to hurt you'.
  10. A variant on a classic monster but BIGGER and with MORE SPIKES.
  11. A variant on a classic monster but made of fire / ice / poison gas / thorns / knives / whatever.
  12. A mindless blob monster that dissolves people with acid.
  13. A giant heap of animated corpses all stuck together. 
  14. A sneaky thing that jumps out of a shadow and stabs you to death.
  15. A robot with a sword.
It brings home to me just how much of the conceptual territory for D&D monsters was soaked up by the original Monster Manual (and, to a lesser extent, the Fiend Folio and Monster Manual II): people setting out to write new monsters now are like settlers looking for new homes in territory where all the best land was taken forty years ago. The original Monster Manual was able to take every concept and present it in its purest form: footsoldiers of evil? Orcs. Big dumb thugs? Ogres. Terrifying boss monsters? Dragons. Everyone since has had to find narrower and narrower niches between the spaces which have already been taken. 'It's like a minotaur, but with six arms! It's like an ogre, but made of poisonous metal! It's like a troll, but with the head of a wolf!'

At the heart of this problem (like most others) is a basic tension between supply and demand. There's no limit to the number of monsters the game-as-written can contain: you can fill your shelves (or, more likely, your computer) with as many monster-books as you can be bothered to read. There is, however, a pretty sharp limit on the number of monsters the game-as-played can contain: regardless of how many monster ideas you have, you only need one session's worth of monsters per session. If every monster was equally useful, you'd expect the result to be increased variety; if the GM has a thousand monsters in his books, and only needs, say, five per session, then you could play weekly for almost four years without ever meeting the same monster twice. In practise, though, a glance at published modules, actual play reports, and everyone's real-life gaming experience confirms that this isn't what happens.

A handful of highly-popular monsters, almost all of them from the original Monster Manual or Fiend Folio, get used endlessly: goblins, orcs, ogres, skeletons, zombies, ghouls, elementals, lizard men, and so on. A second group of monsters, mostly just as old or very slightly newer, get used when GMs want something a bit more colourful: Githyanki, mind flayers, beholders, modrons, etc. And then all the rest - which, at this point, means something like 95% of all the monsters which have ever been published for D&D and its derivatives - is left fighting over the tiny 'novelty monster' slot that remains. Goblins and zombies have probably been used by every person who's ever run D&D for more than a few sessions. How many have ever used, say, the Bearhound? (It's an intelligent talking 10 HD bear with the teeth and tail of a wolf, which has the magical ability to make friends with other animals.) Two? Three? It's not even that bad a monster, as these things go; I can see one fitting very easily into a fae-themed adventure. It's just not good enough for most people to have any reason to use it instead of a dozen other things in actual play.

By the time they got to Monster Manual Five, they were really scraping the barrel.

On reflection, I think that modern monsters are most likely to be useful (and to be used) if they bring a whole scene or scenario with them, rather than being modular plug-ins that can be slotted into almost any game with a minimum of fuss. This may seem counter-intuitive, but let me explain with an example: in the course of my monster-manual-reading binge, one line I got absolutely sick of reading in monster descriptions was 'these undead creatures are often found guarding ancient tombs'. In theory, this means the monsters are easy to use: just drop them in as a guardian of whatever graves, mausoleums, sarcophagi, or whatever you have lying around your dungeon. In practise, though, it virtually guarantees that they never will be used, because there are already several hundred undead monsters which could do the same job, and honestly 90% of the time people will just use a wight or a wraith or a mummy instead. Whereas a monster which carries something more specific with it - a scene, a story, a cultural context, a narrative or an environment or an adventure which its existence generates or implies or requires - can be used as a kind of mini-module, something that someone might read and think: 'huh, I'd like to run that at some point', and which thus has a much greater chance of it making its way into actual play than it would if it was just Minor Lizard-Man Variant #432.

Take, say, the Moon Apes from Fire on the Velvet Horizon. They're cool and weird-looking - big red-black frog-ape-monsters with vertical mouths whose bite induces confusion and forgetfulness, making people deny the very wounds that they have just sustained - but if that's all they were, they probably wouldn't see play, because D&D has about a thousand weird-looking ape-monsters with special attacks in it already. But there's more to them than that: they're parasites who live in the bodies of dead cloud-titans, who swing down to the surface on loops of cloud to bite people and steal valuables and children, and then vanish back up to their lairs with their loot, leaving their victims so befuddled from the effects of their bites that they have no idea what's just happened to them. There's a whole implied adventure, here. Scene one, PCs come across a devastated and looted community full of people with weird bite wounds, none of whom is able to give a coherent account of what has attacked them. Scene two, PCs try to work out what the hell is going on. Scene three, PCs find a way up to the cloud-lair of the moon-apes to kill them and take back what they've stolen. Now, maybe you don't like the sound of that adventure, and that's fine; but if you do like it, and if you want to run it, then the moon apes will be an essential part of it, and as a result there is a decent chance that they will get used. Whereas without that context they'd just have been one more entry on a long, long, long list of monsters that might leap out from behind the next bush and try to kill your PCs, with no more chance of actually making it into play than any other. 

In nature, every organism is engaged in a Darwinian struggle for survival. The same is true of D&D monsters, except that what they're competing for isn't food and territory, it's use in actual play. A monster which brings something to the game, whether in the form of a vivid scene or an interesting tactical challenge, will get used more than one that doesn't; being used will grant it more exposure, which will lead to it being used by other people, and so on. The main ecological spaces are already taken: nothing is going to replace the goblin or the zombie any time soon, and just writing yet another 'big thug monster' and expecting people to start using them instead of trolls and ogres is usually going to be something of an exercise in futility. But there's no reason that new monsters shouldn't thrive within their own niche ecosystems if they're given the chance!


  1. Mutant Epoch does a great job - basic creature types all put together like bear or apes then with mutation tables to create variants - describes possibly hundreds of monsters in a few pages. Also should be more unique and one off monsters which dnd steered away from while Stormbringer encouraged mutating and hybridizing animals.

    1. Wow, I remember Stormbringer! That game blew my mind when I was a kid!

      I think the idea that every D&D monster has to be a *species*, rather than a one-off individual or population, has probably done more harm than good, because it leads to them getting decoupled from their contexts. Like, Mongrelmen always struck me as weird and pointless... until I finally read Dwellers of the Forbidden City, and suddenly they made sense. Members of a bunch of different races, enslaved by a vanished empire and left stranded deep in the jungle after the empire fell, interbreeding in isolation for century after century until all that's left is a bunch of weird hybrids who don't really resemble any of their original progenitors... *that's* good material. But I'd never have got it from their entries in the monster manuals!

    2. I was reading a lot of tenfoopole reviews of D&D adventures recently and one thing that Bryce repeatedly criticises are "dragon with a ring of invisibility" or "werebat with a wand of magic missile". There really is no good reason not to simply say "this is a dragon with the special ability to turn itself invisible" or "this is a werebat with the special ability to cast magic missiles". Writing up a new monster just to give one new ability to an existing one is just as unnecessary. I think 3rd edition has something called Blackscale lizardman which is exactly the same as a standard lizardman but with one additional HD. But of course much earlier we already had the flind that is a gnoll with more HD, or the triton that is a merfolk cleric. It's wasted space and also a distraction from actually new monsters.

    3. I haven't read the review or the adventure, but isn't the critical difference between a dragon with a ring of invisibility and one that can turn invisible that you can steal the ring from the former? Looting your fallen foes is a part of the classic D&D game contract that's arguably more honoured in the breach than the observance, but if you're putting in an encounter two pages later where having a ring of invisibility might make a massive difference, it might make sense to specify one.

  2. I'd probably add the following:
    A humanoid form of a standard animal.
    A vampire variant.
    Animated object.
    Fey version of an animal or creature.
    Abomination of science/magic.

  3. IMO, any given game world should have a set of standard races, or even just one standard race (usually human) that gets most use. Everything else is a weird, one-off thing lurking in some forgotten city or cavern or whatnot.

    No, I don't want to add kamadans to my standard wandering monster table...there's only a small pack of them in the whole world, and they only live on the island where the castle of the one death knight in the world stands.

    1. Yeah, that's the Lamentations of the Flame Princess solution, and I think there's a lot to be said for it. It's certainly truer to most of the source material!

  4. Completely in agreement here. The reason AD&D 2nd edition monster books are my favorites is that the format givea each creature a bit of description of what role it takes in the environment and how it interacts with it. Usually it's boring stuff, but I still applaud the attempt.

    I am currently working on a monster book for my own setting, which right now contains about 80 entries (almost all of them my own creation, not a single one original) and the specific purpose of them is to be creatures that are an interesting part of this one particular world. A good monster is not the stats or appearance, but what it actually does in the game.

    I noticed the same thing with the geography section of most setting books. Telling me about a ruin in the mountains that has a mystery really isn't of any help for me without information how it could be the site of an interesting adventure that couldnt take place anywhere else.

    1. Hey, Yora! I worked out what was happening to those comments of yours that kept disappearing! Blogger was putting them into the spam folder!

      (I'll leave them there for now, because I think you reposted all the comments that were affected, but if it happens to any others in future then I'll rescue them...)

      Yeah, I liked that about the AD&D2 Monster Manual, too. And I agree that specificity is crucial to usefulness: the trick is to communicate the specifics which will make something useful without drowning the reader in details! The best OSR stuff is very good at this - official material, usually not so much...

  5. Adding to your and Kuseru Satsujin's points, there are also a number of derivative "Like race X only they're Y instead of Z!"; for example, see the Ordonti, Spriggans, Evil Treants, Black Unicorns, etc.

    As someone who's gone through a crapload of monster splats, I feel your pain. Of the hundreds of first-party Pathfinder monsters I've only found about 14 that actually interested me at all (and two of those, Cliff Giants and Shadow Giants, only make the cut because of their aesthetic).

    I've found that some of the best monsters tend to be those made for specific settings. Lahkmar's Newhon Ghouls, Al-Qadim's Living Idols, Dark Sun's Meorties. They're certainly not as "drag-and-drop" as Orcs and Goblins but their concepts are so rich that they can be the central element of a good encounter or adventure.

    1. Yeah, anything that gives the monster more of a hook is good. As you note, though, the tendency is normally to make the monsters as generic as possible, which theoretically enhances their usefulness but actually diminishes it. Why would I need yet *another* huge, aggressive predator?

      I had to look the Living Idol up, but it's a great example of a monster which implies a whole scenario: forgotten idol out in the jungles, telepathic contact with passing traveller, regular sacrifices demanded in exchange for power, a new cult rises, enter the PCs. Much better than yet another stone golem knock-off!

  6. Did you cover the aquatic variant?

    I've also wonder if all the creatures in the MMI, MM2 and FF have been at least used once in a game at some time in history of the game. As the hit dice go up the niche also decreases.

    1. 'Too powerful to use' is a real problem, and one I've written about before. It's especially a problem with the PF bestiaries, which have a commitment to providing monsters capable of challenging characters of every level, and thus have a very nasty habit of taking perfectly decent monster ideas and then giving them 10+ HD for no reason. I love the rokurokubi as much as the next guy, but why does one need to be able to take on a level 15 party in a straight fight?

    2. Because something has to be able to fight a level 15 group. When you reach higher levels you want to fight more powerful creatures. Not just orcs and frost giants with a lot of class levels.

      I don't quite know why, but apparently every edition of D&D has always starting getting wonkey around 10th level. The basic game seems to be a solid 10 level game, but it quickly became established as a 20 level game. Which just doesn't seem to work. Even the Pathfinde adventure paths only go to 15th level. Instead of stretching the monsters over 25 levels it really is much more sensible to reduce the range for PCs to 10 or 15 levels.

    3. But it seems so *arbitrary*. Sure, something has to be able to fight a level 15 group, but why should it be a Japanese witch with a stretchy neck? That doesn't exactly scream 'epic-level threat'...

      I agree that D&D always falls apart at high levels - and after reading 1000+ module, Bryce has even questioned whether good high-level D&D adventures actually exist. B/X stopped at level 14. Perhaps it would have been better if later editions had followed its example!

    4. Even 10 to 15 sounds like an awful lot. My experiences of 3.5 left me feeling that the linear warrior/quadratic wizard problem was causing problems as high as level 2 and as low as 6 or 7, and IIRC earlier editions were even worse (not sure about 4 or 5).

    5. 3rd edition was generally agreed to work best between levels 3 and 6: the E6 variant, where after level 6 you gain feats but no levels, is built on this observation. AD&D 2nd edition was more resilient; wizards had more drawbacks when compared to fighters, which meant it worked all the way up to level 9-10 or thereabouts. Once the party wizard can cast Wish then all bets are off, but AD&D's much slower advancement rules meant that very few people ever got that far!

  7. I've never really seen the point as publishing statlines for a system as simple as D&D. What I'd ideally like from a monster manual is a combination of two things: a general guide to statting (something that gives some idea of what the stats for "a moderately challenging fight with a bunch of mooks and one big thing for 4 6th level PCs" should look like, possibly just in the form of a bunch of templates), and - entirely unconnectedly - a list of "skins" for monsters, giving a description, ideas for use, and where appropriate "signature mechanics" (a ghoul's paralysing touch, say) that could be scaled as needed. The GM can then graft the skins onto the bodies to tune for their own particular needs.

    1. TSR D&D is so simple that whether mechanics are included or not is largely irrelevant: once you've got the hang of the system, assigning stats only takes a few seconds. Reskinning remains perfectly viable in all versions of D&D; but later editions, if played by-the-book, have so many moving parts that it's much harder to just build everything off the cuff from scratch!

  8. Haha I actually quite like Monster Manual V. They do try to present some "encounter as scenario" stuff with the Mindflayers of Thule(?), the village of infested bug-people, the Ruin Chanter and a few other perpetually-pissed fay-ghost things. The real nadir to me was IV, where they tried to pass off statblocks for leveled enemies (Drow, Orcs etc) with generic lair maps as worthwhile content--fortunately they didn't repeat that mistake after the response to IV. The absolute best pound for pound remains III however. It packs in a cavalcade of new Elite Mook monsters like the Lumi Crusaders, Boneclaw and Thorn which have become mainstays in my campaigns; some hilarious bizarre one-offs like the Noose Golem and Black Hole Golem; and yes the Bearhound which I have used and was suitably impressive as a Princess Mononoke style "God of the Forest" noncombative encounter (he essentially just gave the party some dungeon directions but it was verrry dramatic).

    1. Yeah, that's fair: they clearly were trying to come up with new ideas in MM5. I remember the Mindflayers of Thoon as being underwhelming, in a 'how is this better than a regular illithid?' sort of way, but my memory of them is too vague to say exactly why...

      Glad to hear you found a place for the Bearhound in your campaign!