Design & Development09/09/2005

Monsters with Traction

We're hoping this column becomes your window into roleplaying design and development -- or at least the way we approach these things here at Wizards of the Coast. We'll handle a wide range of topics in weeks to come, from frank discussions about over- or underpowered material, to the design goals of a certain supplement, to what we think are the next big ideas for the Dungeons & Dragons game. All of this comes bundled with a healthy look at the people and events that are roleplaying R&D.

This week, we look at the design side of things.

What makes a memorable monster? The hard truth is that we don't really know.

When the designers are sitting around brainstorming ideas for monsters, we often talk about "traction." Traction is our shorthand for the idea that you'll design a monster... and then someone will feature that monster prominently in an adventure... someone else comes up with a template version of the monster, a halfbreed version, a version suitable as a PC race... DMs all over the world start using the monster in their ongoing games -- and voila! The monster has traction. It has a grip on the D&D collective and it won't slip into obscurity.

That's the idea. But then, we don't really know why some monsters get traction and others don't.

It's easy to see traction in hindsight. The poster child for the traction concept is the githyanki. It's one of D&D's coolest monsters, but there are lots of monsters designed in that "magic-using powerful humanoid" niche that the githyanki occupies. Somehow the githyanki has survived, thriving in dozens of products and eventually earning a place in the current Monster Manual.

Why did the githyanki gain traction? Some possible reasons:

  • It had an interesting history and a connection to an existing D&D monster, the mind flayer.

  • It eventually developed a connection to a subset of the rules, psionics, that some D&D fans just love.

  • It's depicted in full color on the cover of the original Fiend Folio--in an era where most monster illustration were black and white line drawings in little boxes about the size of a Magic: the Gathering card.

In the case of the githyanki, it might have achieved traction simply because it made the Fiend Folio cover (plus the fact that it's awesome). A little historical perspective: The 1981 Fiend Folio was, for most D&D players at the time, a huge event. It was the first time we had a major influx of new monsters beyond the Monster Manual, so DMs went crazy putting Fiend Folio monsters everywhere they could. It's not surprising that many of them gravitated toward the monster on the cover.

The "put 'em on the cover" trick doesn't guarantee traction every time. Look at the 1983 Monster Manual II. When was the last time you used a firbog in your game? (Or then again, is that the world's most charismatic fomorian giant? On that note, the D&D art process is a whole 'nother topic!)

The ability to gain traction seems unrelated to either the monster's basic concept or its specific design elements. The owlbear clearly has traction, for instance, but we'd be hard pressed to figure out why. Conceptually it's a pretty basic stitching together of two real-world animals, and that's a trick D&D designers have tried hundreds of times over the past thirty years. But why did the owlbear gain traction when the peryton (owl/elk) didn't? We don't have the answer.

Traction Today

If anything, it's harder for a monster to gain traction today than it was for the githyanki back in 1981. For starters, it's a much more crowded field. We D&D designers introduce 200 to 300 monsters to the environment every year -- almost a monster a day. With templates, classes and Hit Die advancement, a DM can customize existing monsters to get a "new monster" feel on an "old monster" chassis. Taken collectively, third-party publishers crank out monsters even faster than Wizards does.

So if I design the greatest monster ever, it's competing for traction with monsters from:

  • Monster Manuals I, II, and III, and the 2003 Fiend Folio.
  • Dozens of D&D sourcebooks.
  • Dozens of third-party d20 system books.
  • The DM's imagination -- and those DMs are now armed with solid monster-creation rules and dozens of customization options (templates, classes, etc.).
Tangent Alert!: There's a pretty obvious business reason why we don't have a product line that's mostly adventures anymore -- you're selling them to only one of the five people at the gaming table, the DM. And let's be clear: we like making money. But it's not just a business decision. It's bad for the health of the hobby if the DM gets a bunch of new toys to play with, but the players rarely do. So we can't give a monster traction just by putting it into an adventure we know everyone is going to be playing for the next three months.

That's a daunting field to compete against.

There's another advantage that quality monsters from the 1980s had: A D&D product line short on sourcebooks but long on adventures. The drow don't appear in the original Monster Manual; instead, a series of 32-page adventures exposed D&D players to everyone's favorite dark elves. Because those adventures essentially defined the shared play experience that D&D fans had, the drow gained instant traction.

That trick's a lot harder to pull off nowadays. Instead of one sourcebook a year and lots of adventures, we have lots of sourcebooks each year and only a handful of adventures.

So Is Traction Even Possible?

I can't believe every great monster concept has already been done, and I can't believe that there's no room in the environment for the next drow or the next githyanki. As designers, we just accept that traction is really, really difficult to achieve. You can hope for traction, but you can settle for filling a niche well or creating a centerpiece for a solid encounter. An obscure monster has a virtue, too -- the virtue of surprise. Every DM loves to hear players say, "What the heck is that?" Dark-skinned elves with knockout poison and spell resistance are a surprise to precisely zero players.

Assume for a moment that I've just created the greatest D&D monster ever. I can't guarantee traction, but how can I improve my monster's chances?

  • Put 'em on the cover. It worked for the githyanki, after all. Everyone will at least see the monster, and if they're intrigued enough by the art to buy the book then they're probably intrigued enough to take the monster out for a spin.

  • Get the monster into a D&D Miniatures set. In a lot of ways, this is the 21st century version of "write them into an adventure." A lot more people are fighting gauths nowadays simply because there's a miniature available for them. You are literally putting that monster in the hands of D&D players all over the world.
A True-type R&D Confession: Never once did an owlbear appear in my games before the Harbinger set of minis released. Only after the mini arrived did this long-time favorite find traction with me -- Jesse Decker.
  • Somehow connect the monster to an existing and beloved D&D monster. The DM is going to have an easier time integrating your monster if there's some existing context to work with. That's another trick that worked for the githyanki (former slaves of the mind flayers) and the drow (elves driven underground after a great schism).

  • Make it PC friendly. Players appreciate a cool monster. But they drool over a cool monster that they could also use as their next PC. Again, this is a trick that worked for both the drow and the githyanki. And they're proof that the evil alignment of the monster isn't much of an impediment for neutral or good-aligned PCs. Everyone likes to play the rebel, after all.
    Tangent Alert!: There's a natural tension built into the notion of a monster that you can fight at low, middle, and high levels. On the one hand, scalability adds a sense of continuity. But if every monster is perfectly scalable, players don't get the sense of dread from knowing they're facing a particularly tough monster. Most D&D players shudder the first time a beholder comes floating down the corridor. But if they've been fighting 1 Hit Die beholders from their very first session, the 11 HD version is just another monster.

  • Tie the monster to a specific part of the rules set or campaign setting. DMs and players that want to use the relevant rules or setting will gravitate to the monster. Githyanki are obviously right at home in a psionics game, and everyone who goes underground in Eberron is going to face the daelkyr eventually.

  • Make it scalable. If players fight the monster once and never see it again, then we've created a memorable encounter but probably haven't achieved traction. It's better if the monster can be an ongoing nemesis, and thus needs a way of keeping pace with rapidly advancing PCs.

We can do this in a lot of different ways. A monster can have different versions or castes, like the mindshredders in Monster Manual III. We can make a low-level base chassis (or even a template) for the monster, then pile on class levels. That's what the githyanki and the drow did. You can give them a life cycle that advances them, like dragons have. You can build a society of thematically similar monsters at different Challenge Ratings -- which is what demons and devils essentially are.

Developing Traction

Development: So that's how design thinks about traction, now what about the guys that mess around with their stuff once they're done? ('Round here, we call those guys 'development'.) A developer's job is to make sure that the game mechanics work well with all of the other tools we're using to give the monster traction; for monsters, this means that the critter must be balanced to its CR, its abilities must be clear, and the whole package must be mechanically interesting.

Tangent Alert!: What does "mechanically interesting" mean? Well, we could fill volumes on that one (and we will -- soon!), but for monsters, it mostly means that the monster's abilities affect the encounter visibly -- that is, that the monster's abilities lead the characters to interesting choices within the encounter. These things don't have to be complex or intricate either. Something as simple as a very high AC for a monster's CR could be mechanically interesting because it encourages players to flank and use the aid another option if they want to melee it, or to have the melee combatants fight defensively and take the monster down with spells that do not require the caster to make an attack roll.

Development's first job, in other words, is to make sure that the mechanics don't get in the way of a monster's ability to achieve traction with you. This means that the monster must be pretty easy to run and still feel like it's a new kind of threat. But that's just the first step. The hard part is where development gets tested -- where the science of development gives way to the art (see last week's article). The developer has to evaluate which of those tools that Dave outlined above are working for this monster, which aren't, and whether or not any need to change. On any given monster, we might face questions like:

  • Do this monster's mechanics hold up over a wide range of levels (allowing us to include multiple versions of the monsters)?

  • Does this monster really connect to a campaign setting?

  • Are the ties this monster has to other monsters adding to all of the connected monsters effectively? Do the mechanics correctly echo the themes that these connected monsters evoke and the reasons that they are connected?

  • Is it really OK that this monster be in the hands of a player? (An awakened dolphin might have the coolest game mechanics in the world [hint: it doesn't], but even so, with no thumbs and bound to the sea, it's not OK as a PC.)

You get the idea: each monster presents a unique set of challenges and must be evaluated very carefully in relation to how it will perform in an encounter and how it relates to the other monsters that we've produced. And traction is just one of the things that we evaluate about each monster!

Traction in Your Own Game

When we sit around brainstorming monsters, we talk about traction in terms of the collective D&D experience. But the concept of traction -- and the clues we have for attaining it -- is, if anything, more important at your gaming table than it is for the hobby as a whole. At its core, D&D is about creating a memorable shared experience among friends. So the more characters, monsters, and places at your own game that gain traction, the more memorable your game will become.

Your PCs will accumulate traction, of course. But if you showed up with a different PC each week, it'd be hard for any of them to gain traction. And some PCs are more memorable than others. Figure out why that is, and you've got a recipe for a better D&D experience.

You can try to engineer traction just like we do, creating villains, organizations and adventure sites that stick in the minds of your fellow players and become a memorable part of your ongoing campaign. But more than that, you can do something that no game designer can: You can take advantage of the traction opportunities that arise naturally as the game progresses. If the players have bad luck with the dice in a battle against bugbears, then run afoul of a tougher band of bugbears later in that adventure, they're probably building up animosity toward bugbears. You can play up the "oh, how we hate the crafty bugbears!" angle and bingo! You've got a monster with traction, not just two unrelated encounters with bugbears. When you see something gaining traction, help it out. Reintroduce it later, or give it a more important spot in the ongoing narrative.

Give Your Favorite Monster Traction

Is there a monster from recent books (since 2000, say) that you think deserves traction? A monster that gained traction in your ongoing game and would probably be the "next githyanki" if everyone gave it a chance? Let us know. We've designed some monsters with the explicit intent of giving them traction, and we suspect that others are on the cusp of "traction-hood." No hints on which ones; we're curious whether you pick the same monsters.

So write in to:, and tell us what monster has traction at your gaming table, and why. We'll talk more about monsters in upcoming weeks, and we'll share your thoughts. (Of course, once you've written to us, we've also set up a message board thread to discuss your answers.)

The Development Test

Last week, we invited you to try your hand at the developer applicant test given here at Wizards of the Coast. In the weeks ahead, we'll publish both Mike Mearls' answers and Jesse Decker's take on those answers. In the meantime, we wanted to follow up your discussion in the message boards with the following polls on the first two questions:

What do you feel is the most powerful class in the Player's Handbook?
None: they are all equal

What do you feel is the least powerful race in the Player's Handbook?
None: they are all equal

About the Authors

Design: David Noonan is a designer/developer for Wizards of the Coast. His credits include co-designing Dungeon Master's Guide II, Heroes of Battle, and numerous products for the Eberron campaign setting. He lives in Washington state with his wife, son, and daughter.

Development: Jesse Decker (male human, CR 1/8): I first picked up a d20 somewhere in the early eighties, and I often tell the story of my intro to D&D. I was in elementary school, and a friend received the now famous "red box" set as a gift from his parents. I was instantly hooked, and soon became a regular haunt of the one hobby bookshop here in Renton, WA. Fast forward through some-teen years of gaming (with occasional interruptions for things like school), and just out of college I land a job as editorial assistant for Dragon Magazine. The eight years since that entrance to the gaming industry have included a two-year stint as editor-in-chief of Dragon, freelance design credits such as Hammer & Helm, and Unearthed Arcana.

In the middle of 2003, I left the helm of Dragon for a chance to do full-time design in Wizards' R&D group, and was lucky enough to work on books like Complete Adventurer and the DMG II. I clearly liked to talk too much to remain on the design team, so I moved over to manage the relatively new development team for RPGs and D&D Minis.

It's easily the best job in the whole world, but even so, I swear that as soon as I level up I'm taking the Talk Less in Class feat.


Thoughts or suggestions for this article? Topics for future Design & Development articles you'd like to see covered? By all means, please feel free to write directly to the authors, at:

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