Wednesday, August 30, 2017

A Rant Unfair to Readers

I feel I'm doing a disservice to my readers, working on monsters as I have done the last couple of weeks ~ and not new monsters, but very old monsters.  I don't suppose there's much interesting that is left in these old beasts.

Was passed a monster chart the other day that had a lot of monsters that, I will admit, were utterly unfamiliar to me: drakainias, vemeraks, thulgants, bzastras and so on ... no doubt these are all terribly familiar to the reader.  Yes, well.  I never investigated the Monster Manual II, or the Monster Compendiums 1, 2 and 3, nor any of those monster books that were associated with realms or splatbooks, nor anything published having to do with monsters dating from the rise of 3e. I just didn't care.  I remember flipping through such books a the game store with a vague interest, seeing quickly that these new monsters didn't seem to have much "new" about them.  Just a shifting around and reconfiguring of the same old abilities, with new pictures and new unfamiliar names.  I might have looked at a myconid or a decapus at some point, but I wouldn't remember now.

I'm an old man, I guess.  When I went through the monster manual back in '79, I had at least heard of a chimera or a hydra.  I knew imps and minotaurs from stories.  Yes, there were some odd names, but they grew familiar over a lot of time.  Some I just never used.  I have never thrown a morkoth at a party or a thought eater (and I don't use psionics, at any rate).  I can count the number of times I've used a remorhaz, a groaning spirit or a mind flayer on one finger.  Most monsters, I have always thought, were a bit of a waste.

I went through the Fiend Folio when it came out, still a young feller, but I ditched more than half the monsters almost at once.  We played with flail snails but what a joke, along with flumphs, cifals and tweens.  Revenants were clearly set up to fuck with parties and I did not include them in my campaign.  The few monsters in the Deities & Demigods were better, particularly those from Melnibone and Cthulhu, the two parts of the book that were ripped out after the initial release (of which my original copy was stolen, so that I lost those pages until the internet happened).

But more monsters?  I had enough by then.  I was constantly having to adjust them, too, to make them more tougher or less silly or whatever ~ and that got to be a job that was too big to manage, as it still is.  Back in the mid-80s, I plowed through a description of every monster I used on my Commodore 64, 650 printed pages ... and kept the binder full of those pages on hand until about '91.  By then I was thinking that I should put it into Mac Word.  I would start, but it bored me.  I lost the binder in '97 to a nutjob roommate who destroyed a bunch of my things while I was out of town, so I had to start again from scratch in 98 when I got my Pentium.  Again, did not get far.

The wiki is just the end of a lot of tries to sort out the exact details of the monsters, to explain how the Beholder's eyes actually work or build proper rules for dozens of little details.  How does trample actually work?  When are people actually trampled?  The book makes it sound like characters thoughtfully lay down in front of cattle whenever.  I've always tried to clear that sort of thing up.

More monsters just means more misunderstandings, more work.  For what?  A different monster that also drains blood?  Yet another dragon or demon?  Yet another small creature that exists as a annoyance to play tricks and steal the parties things?  How is the game made better than there are fourteen different creatures that all serve the same purpose?

Humanoid races have always been useful.  We need lots of enemies to fight one another.  But if it is another humanoid race, what is the good of it being just another elf or another dwarf?  How many different kinds of goblin do we need?  Can't we just use goblins?

BUT . . . I know.  The tide is here and I'm underwater.  I'm carping about a world that is never going to change.  And I'm working on a monster list that can barely get a 'meh' out of the reader.  I apologize for that.

Still, the list I'm creating is very good for my game and my world.  These insights into old monsters, how they should have worked and how they can work, are worth a thousand ill-considered add-ons that seem to have been created more to give bored game designers something to do.  When drawing lines to make megadungeons go sour, let's throw five old ideas together into a blender and make a monster.

My daughter feels that I should write a book called the "Blender Monster Handbook," featuring monsters made by random dice and other poor decision-making processes.  She says it will sell.  I think it would be boring as hell to write.

I am sorry.  I am.  None of you readers have asked for this very boring rant.  You don't deserve it. This is just an excuse for me not to start working on making the centaur monster relevant.


Ozymandias said...

"Blender Monster Handbook" sounds like something out of Hackmaster...

Maliloki said...

I quite like the solidifying of the ideas/place in the world/abilities of the classic "boring" monsters more than new ones. I've got limited brain-space for all that so I'd rather have limited selection that is well thought out and implemented interestingly than an endless selection that end up being just thin skins over numbers.

Tim said...

I agree with Maliloki, and as someone helping to write these monster descriptions, I'm finding it an interesting process in terms of looking to figure out what makes a monster interesting. You've got a really big world so it's possible to spread the monsters out enough that they each have a chance to influence a campaign in their own ways.

I disagree with your feelings that the monsters are "too old" or "too boring" as well. Reskinning or superficially rewriting the elements of D&D edition after edition is what demanded more books with more monsters, because (as you commented on Whose Podcast Is It Anyway?) the DM will just play every monster like an orc. By taking the angle of "how will this monster interact the players?" you are actually doing the work and making for interesting games. That's extraordinarily valuable.

Drain said...

You had me until the last paragraph. What have you got against Centaurs? (Or is a "centaur monster" a figure of speech?)

New monsters are a capitalist fiction. Your average DnD lifetime ought to be well sated with a couple of rough hundreds of entries (and even that more to account for the tiered level structure of the game).

The gold standard's mostly on monsters with interesting player interaction possibilities and monsters with a good representational imprint on the players' collective psyche (hence the viability of mostly established literary and mythical types).

After you've covered these essentials, you're left with mish-mash types and gimmick delivery devices, which can be fun in a "gotcha!" kind of way but are nothing but paper-fodder in the long run.

Behold said...

This sort of project is EXACTLY why I and probably many follow your blog.
Your "Meat" is another post summarizes the same idea in a more typically Tao unapologetic style. Like so many other of your projects the monster is invaluable thoughtful explorations of D&D. You're digging to new depths rather than skimming the same surface like the industry as a whole.

Ozymandias said...

Alexis, what's your take on using levels and classes for monsters? Is that something that'd make it onto the Wiki at any point? For example, the monster database I use will (eventually and hopefully soon) have tables that let me assign a class and an age to a monster, and will provide an output showing increased skill and combat ability.

Alexis Smolensk said...


When I say making centaurs relevant, I mean making them "not just another monster." I mean, figuring out how they fit into the world in terms of their own motivations, rather than just as target practice. You can see my take on centaurs, written this morning, here:

Page still needs a chart.

I get tired of everything being another society for treasure grabbing. I want centaurs to act differently, so as to give them a way of fitting into an adventure at some future point. Please note I've created another generator for their make-up, partly answering Ozymandias' question. I've just realized I've made an error with the bugbear generator (didn't account for con bonuses for added hit points).

Alexis Smolensk said...

Thank you Behold.

I'm trying to control my unapologetic style these days.

Alexis Smolensk said...


Part of the reason I invented the concept of levels adding hit points that had nothing to do with a character's mass was specifically so I could get rid of the various monster leader classes found all over the original monster manual and replace them with classes.

Here's a quote from the goblin, p. 47:

"For every 40 goblins there will be a leader and 4 assistants who are equal to orcs, each having 7 hit points and attacking as monsters with a full hit die. If 200 or more goblins are encountered there will be the following additional figures: a sub-chief and 2-8 guards, each fighting as hobgoblins and having 8 hit points, armor class 5, and doing 1-8 hit points damage ... In their lair there will be the following additional figures: a goblin chief and 2-8 bodyguards (9-14 hit points, armor class 4, fight as gnolls doing 2-8 points of damage) ..."

I played with this crap for years. The real issue is that so many goblins and the leaders are so comparatively weak, that if the party is high enough level to fight 200 goblins they're also high enough that the difference between the goblin having 8 hit points and 13 hit points isn't meaningful.

But, if I say that goblins can go to 9th level, now we have a goblin chief that has 1d6 hit points for mass and 9d10 hit points, plus possible strength bonus and all class skills, which is a real threat. And overall, far, far easier to manage than trying to remember the difference between assistants, leaders, sub-chiefs, chiefs and bodyguards.

Part of your question, however, is this: would a Rakshasa, for example, possess a level? I think a Rakshasa would have to. They're able to cast up to 3rd level mage spells, so that means they must be a 5th level magic user; so add the Rakshasa's natural 7 hit dice to 5d4 for being a minimum mage and you have your actual character (and don't forget to add another d8 for the Rakshasa being a 1st level cleric).

If you haven't yet, take a look at the Brownie I posted last week:

JB said...

I hear you, man.

Keltoi said...

I love content like this. I got into your blog for your rules, And your interpretations of monsters are another layer on that.