Design & Development01/06/2006

Monsters with Traction, Part 2

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, Dave Noonan returns with a look at the design side of things.

Let’s look at why you like the monsters you like.

A few months ago, we talked about monsters with traction, the ability to stick in the collective consciousness of D&D players worldwide. You can read what we were talking about right here. We asked you what monsters had achieved traction in your own games. Once we crossed off the obvious choices (we know dragons have traction, for example—the game is named after them), we wound up with an interesting list. Let’s look at the results and see how closely they match the principles of traction we outlined in that original column.

If you’re looking for a monster for your next D&D adventure, you might try one of these listed below. Your fellow D&D players are having fun with them at the table, and you might, too.

The Winner: The Yuan-Ti

The most frequently mentioned traction monster is the snakelike yuan-ti. You can find the basic yuan-ti in the Monster Manual, the yuan-ti anathema in Fiend Folio, the tainted ones in Monsters of Faerun and Savage Species, and the holy guardians and mageslayers in Serpent Kingdoms. There are also the yuan-ti creations: ti-khaana in Fiend Folio, ssvaklor in Monster Manual III, and extaminaars in Champions of Ruin. (Oh, and psionic versions of the yuan-ti in Expanded Psionics Handbook.) That’s a pretty good set of snake-men in your arsenal.

The yuan-ti’s path to the traction it enjoys today has been, well, serpentine. They first appeared in a pretty obscure place: An adventure called Dwellers of the Forbidden City, which was the tournament module at the Origins game convention in 1980 and later released as module I1, the first in TSR’s “intermediate” series.

Tangent Alert!: Other monsters that first saw the light of day in Dwellers of the Forbidden City included the aboleth, the bullywug, and the mongrelfolk. (Plus the tasloi, the yellow musk creeper, and the pan lung, but I digress.) Not bad for 32 pages of adventure.

That year (1981) also saw the publication of Lost Caverns of Tsojcanth (S4), which had more than 30 monsters, including such staples as the behir, the bodak, formorian giant, the dao, the marid, and the derro. It was a very good year for monsters—in a time when modules were one of the few ways a DM could get monsters beyond those presented in the original Monster Manual. (The original Fiend Folio wouldn’t be out for another year.)

In 1989, the 2nd edition of Advanced Dungeons & Dragons released, and the yuan-ti made the cut—but they were buried on the back side of the “yeti” entry in the original Monstrous Compendium. They were hard to find and hard to use—you had to change the Hit Dice on the fly depending on whether you wanted a halfblood, pureblood, or abomination. And thus you don’t see many yuan-ti in adventures throughout the 1990s until the Forgotten Realms campaign setting started using them as antagonists. They became popular enough to make the cut for 2000’s Monster Manual, and now your fellow readers think they’ve found traction.

So let’s look at the factors we identified as making a monster traction-worthy, to see how the yuan-ti stacks up.

Good Art: Sort of. The original art for the yuan-ti was about average for products of that era. The yuan-ti didn’t make the cover of Dwellers of the Forbidden City, and they got buried in 2nd edition. But the visual concept of the monster—part snake, part man—is simple, versatile, and reasonably strong. The art potential for yuan-ti is immense, even if the original implementations weren’t so great.

Interesting History: Yes. The yuan-ti employ a pretty common fantasy trope—what pulp writer didn’t use a race of degenerate snake-people—but a simple turn of phrase like “descendants of humans whose blood has been fouled” will get a DM’s imagination racing.

Tie to a Rules Subset: Sort of. Along the way, the yuan-ti developed stronger connections to the psionics rules—a connection that persists to this day.

Tie to a Campaign Setting: Yes. The yuan-ti have an important part in the history of the Forgotten Realms. Important enough that we published Serpent Kingdoms, which should tell you something.

Available Miniature: Yes. The pureblood appeared in the Archfiends set, and the abomination and halfblood are in Aberrations.

Tie to an Existing Cool Monster: Not really. The yuan-ti have actually done the reverse—monsters like the ti-khaana and ssvaklor are tied to them, not the other way around.

Scalable: (Insert obvious pun here.) You’ve got three species to play with from the Monster Manual alone (good), they advance by character class (good), and they’re tool-users that you can equip a bunch of different ways (good). They live in complex societies that interact with the baseline community (good) and create servitor races (outstanding). They get an A+ in this category.

Tangent Alert!: Both drow PCs and yuan-ti PCs have a habit of conveniently “forgetting” that they need to lower their spell resistance when they receive beneficial spells from their buddies (cure spells being the obvious one). That’s a standard action every single round you want it down. Ouch. And it’s worse even than that, because a lot of times you’ll get wounded during the monster’s turn and thus be unable to act before the cleric has to come over and heal you.

PC Friendly: Yes, but not at first. Only wacky D&D campaigns would have allowed yuan-ti PCs back in the old days. (Make no mistake, though: There were still a lot of wacky campaigns back then.) Now the pureblood is sitting at a +2 level adjustment, and it’s a lot easier to disguise your yuan-ti buddy for that trip into town than it is to disguise your “I have light blindness” drow buddy. If the yuan-ti are easier to accomodate than the drow, I guess we’ve got to give them credit.

When I’m the DM, I’m a stickler about this, but few other DMs are. If I had a shred of fairness or decency, I’d admit that drow and yuan-ti PCs have suffered enough with a +2 level adjustment. You can probably let your players skate on this minor rules point, and it won’t mess up your game.

Overall, good marks for the yuan-ti in terms of traction. The few categories where it didn’t do well (Art, Tie to Existing Monsters, PC Friendly) might explain why it languished for years before achieving traction.

But there are two better proofs that the yuan-ti have achieved decent traction. First, you told us you’re using them at your table. Second, I can promise you’ll see yuan-ti in upcoming D&D products. You’re using them, and we’re making more. That pretty much defines traction.

Traction and the Shadar-Kai

Number two on our hit parade of monsters with traction is the shadar-kai, found in the Fiend Folio. They’re fey from the Plane of Shadow… stealthy wielders of spiked chains… what’s not to like?

A True-type R&D Confession: When we were thinking up monster concepts for Fiend Folio, we put in some monsters that we thought had a shot at becoming “the next githyanki.” The shadar-kai are in that group, along with the kaorti, the maugs, and the ethergaunts. Among your responses were a bunch of shadar-kai and nerra, a scattering of kaorti, but no maugs or ethergaunts. In retrospect, I think the ethergaunts have Challenge Ratings too high for many campaigns. Thus no traction-hood for them. I still have high hopes for the kaorti and the maugs.

Good Art: Yes. Especially for fey, the shadar-kai look cool, and their favorite weapon is the visually arresting spiked chain.

Interesting History: Yes. These guys have “emo monster” written all over them. Victims of a dark pact gone awry, they’re all cursed to remain in the shadows or they’ll literally lose their souls.

Tie to a Rules Subset: Not really. The illumination rules figure prominently in shadar-kai encounters, but that doesn’t exactly excite a D&D table the way psionics do, for example.

Tie to a Campaign Setting: No. They’ve got a tie to the Plane of Shadow, but that’s it. If you define who the “dark power” is that the shadar-kai bargained with, you’d be on your way to some interesting flavor—at the cost of some portability into a variety of campaign worlds.

Available Miniature: No. You can use the drow miniatures for shadar-kai, though, which is useful.

Tie to an Existing Cool Monster: No. These guys don’t generally play nice with other monsters.

Scalable: Enthusiastic yes. They advance as characters, and you can equip them however you like. And the basic chassis of a shadar-kai is a 3 HD fey, so it’s straightforward to stack all sorts of things on top of it.

PC Friendly: No, and I worry a little that they look more attractive as a PC race than they actually are. Level adjustment of only +1 gets the race-browsing player’s attention, but those three fey Hit Dice are too harsh for a spellcaster. The Hide in Plain Sight class feature puts pressure on the shadar-kai PC to tell his compatriots to douse their lights, setting up an annoying conflict within some parties. And the shadow curse kicks in more than you might think. The most punishing aspect of the shadow curse? You don’t earn experience. And the gal-ralan bracer takes up one of the better body slots but doesn’t give you complete protection against the shadow curse.

Taking the factors together, I worry that the shadar-kai’s unfriendliness as a PC race might keep them from achieving great traction. The other factors (ties to other parts of the play environment) are the sort of things you’d expect an adventure or sourcebook to take care of.

What about the Nerra?

Our number three monster with traction is the nerra, which also appeared in the Fiend Folio. Since a number of you have found that these enigmatic mirror-people have traction in your games, let’s see how they meet our criteria.

Good Art: Yes. They’re instantly recognizable, and the chromed-out mirror effect is one that’ll look good in a lot of illustrations.

Interesting History: No. The nerra infiltrate groups and abduct important people to the Plane of Mirrors, but we haven’t really said why. They might have really flavorful reasons for doing so, but we haven’t defined them yet.

Tie to a Rules Subset: No. An adventure that features the nerra will probably involve disguise magic and their reflective spell resistance, which is just nifty. But fundamentally, they’re just outsiders with strong resistances and a few spell-like abilities.

Tie to a Campaign Setting: No. They’re connected to the Plane of Mirrors, which is an easy thing to tack onto an existing cosmology, however.

Available Miniature: No. The medium astral construct from Giants of Legend set would make a reasonable substitute, though.

Tie to an Existing Cool Monster: No, although it’s easy to use the infiltration backstory to justify the nerra’s presence almost everywhere.

Scalable: Yes. You’ve got 1 HD, 3 HD, and 7 HD versions, all of which advance as characters and have variable equipment.

PC Friendly: Sort of. The varoot have no racial Hit Dice (generally an advantage) and a level adjustment of +3. If you’re starting a high-level game, that might not be too bad. Reflective spell resistance is lots of fun in the hands of a PC, although the group’s clerics might wind up healing themselves by mistake from time to time.

The nerra have most of the tools required for traction, but they’re so mysterious that they’re hard to drop into a D&D adventure. Essentially, you’ve got to supply the motivation yourself—and they’re neutral, so you have to work at it a little harder than you’d have to if these were “evil denizens of the mirror dimension.”

Traction as a Zero-Sum Game

Tangent Alert!: As I look at our traction monsters, I’m struck by some small threads they have in common. I don’t think any of these factors lead to traction, but I can’t ignore that they’re present among our traction monsters (drow, githyanki, yuan-ti, shadar-kai, and nerra). First, they’re all irregular plurals. Second, all but the yuan-ti have some sort of special weapon or gear. Third, they’ve all got a strong getaway move, often darkness or a teleport. Weird, huh?

During the brainstorming sessions for Fiend Folio, I was a strong proponent of the “let’s make the new githyanki” effort. I love D&D’s rich history, but I’m always suspicious of mining it too deeply. I figure part of my job is to make completely new stuff that people will get nostalgic about someday, not to enable happy nostalgic feelings in D&D gamers right now.

But the results of the “new githyanki” effort adhere too closely to the original. The shadar-kai, nerra, kaorti, and ethergaunts are all sinister denizens of other planes. They’re generally up to no good, but you can easily imagine a renegade making a good PC. In other words, they feel a lot like the githyanki. I think only the maugs avoid the close comparison to the githyanki. That’s not to say that the shadar-kai and company are bad monsters—I use the kaorti all the time in one of my weekly games—but the apples might not have fallen far enough from the tree.

In retrospect, I wonder whether trying to build traction into a monster is necessarily a worthwhile goal. Here’s why: What happens if you succeed? If the shadar-kai become the new githyanki, that just means fewer D&D tables use the gith. The shadar-kai gain traction only because the githyanki lose it. And you’re playing a zero-sum game.

Once we’ve created a robust monster environment, there’s only so much traction to go around. It’s great when one monster or another captures the imagination of D&D players, but fundamentally you can only fight so many monsters in each game session. We don’t look at traction because we want to give every monster as much traction as we possibly can. That’s folly. We look at traction because it gives us clues about good monster design in general.

After all, look at our criteria for traction. Aren’t many of those criteria good for niche monsters, too?

Take Away a Monster’s Traction

Assume for a moment that monster traction is a zero-sum game. Here’s your chance to take traction away from a beloved D&D monster. Tell us—and by extension your fellow players—which monsters don’t deserve their place in the “Hall of Terrific D&D monsters.” Email us with a monster that doesn’t deserve the traction it has, and for heaven’s sake tell us why. In a future column, we’ll share the results. And remember, it’s unfair to pick on the twig blight. You’re focusing on monsters that have decent traction in the game right now.

You Craft the Creature

Last time, we asked you what enemies our Aberrant Mastermind [AMM] most despises. The votes are in, with elves narrowly winning out over druids:

Elves: 25.4%
Druids: 24.2%
Fey: 15.2%
Dragons: 14.3%
Lycanthropes: 11.0%
Plants: 6.5%
Animals: 3.3%

Folks, we're getting close to wrapping up You Craft the Creature, with members of R&D planning to assemble this information into creature concepts for you to vote on. Until then, we wanted to ask a question or two more to help flesh out this creature (assuming, of course, that it has flesh).

We've asked before about special abilities. This time we wanted to ask about the creature's defenses. Keeping in mind that these will be scaled appropriate to its Challenge Rating, what defense is the [AMM] most likely to rely on?

What defense does the [AMM] rely on?
High hit points
High AC
Incorporeality, invisibility, or other miss chance
Special power (repulsion field, flame aura, etc.)

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. He plans to flood his own mailbox with complaints about the ogre mage.

Development: Jesse Decker is the development manager for RPGs at Wizards of the Coast. His credits include a two-year stint as editor-in-chief of Dragon magazine; design work on Complete Adventurer, DMG II, and other RPG titles; and development work on numerous D&D products, most of which he can’t talk about yet.


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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