Design & Development07/27/2007

How to Make a Monster Manual, Part 1
A Designer Remembers MMV

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.

In April of 2006, I started outlining and concepting for Monster Manual V. If you’ve ever wondered how a monster book gets made—well, pull up a chair.

Lessons Learned from Monster Manual IV

Based on feedback we’d received, we heard loud and clear that the maps and detailed lairs in Monster Manual IV didn’t resonate with most fans. Nor did the classed monsters, although there was a significant subset of DMs (mostly the DMs pressed for preparation time) who appreciated them. And the centerpiece monster grouping—the spawn of Tiamat—was putting too many eggs in one basket. At 36 pages, that’s a lot of space for one grouping.

Tackling those concerns in reverse order, I knew I wanted the big gang entry in MMV to be smaller and more focused than the spawn of Tiamat. In my original outline, I pegged it at 10 monsters spread over 16 pages. (The big monster entry, the mind flayers of Thoon, wound up running 22 pages, partially because the art came in bigger and better, and partially because I couldn’t help myself once I got started.)

I decided on fewer “gang entries” with classed versions of previously published monsters, but I didn’t want to flush the whole idea. I knew that the people who hated the classed monsters really haaaaaaated the classed monsters. But drilling more deeply into the criticisms, what I saw was a lot of complaints that the class add-ons were too straightforward—“I could do this myself easily enough”—and that the base monsters were among the most prosaic monsters in the game. So I picked monsters that were a notch more complicated than the drow, orcs, and ogres in Monster Manual IV: kuo-toa, vampires, ghosts, and xills. I also selected one basic humanoid monster, the hobgoblin, because I wanted to see what a designer could do with the “militaristic evil mercenary” conceptual space for hobgoblins.

(And I’ll save you a flip through the book. The ghosts morphed into a new set of monsters—the haunts—during design, and the classed xills were a late cut from the book.)

The other mandate I gave the designers of the classed monsters was this: “Don’t be straightforward.” We wanted variants that went beyond just a level or two of fighter or rogue. In other words, add class levels but don’t just add class levels. As for the lairs, I assigned only a couple of maps and decided that they’d be first on the chopping block if layout demanded it.

Tangent: Laying out a monster manual is trickier than most other books, once you accept the restriction that monsters don’t break out of page spreads.

If you want a monster manual where you don’t have to flip pages during your time at the table, then you have to accept some significant limitations on how much you can write and how big your illustrations can be. And the nature of a monster entry—a lot of tightly formatted text—doesn’t exactly help matters.

Because the artists are working more or less at the same time as the designers and developers, a lot of the text-fitting problems don’t emerge until we’re laying the book out and the “get this book off to the printer” stopwatch is ticking.

Enter the Bull’s-Eye

I saved the big gang entry for myself, and I knew what I wanted for the classed monster gang entries. I love demon and devil gang entries, so you better believe they were going in the book. But that still leaves a lot of space.

My next step was to deconstruct recent monster manuals (mostly Monster Manual III and Monster Manual IV) to see how they mixed up their monsters. I broke them down by Challenge Rating first of all—that’s a pretty obvious benchmark. And as I was making little hash marks on note paper, I kept an eye on creature type and subtype. And I noticed something: most of the obvious creature type and CR niches had been filled.

I’d been in brainstorming meetings for previous monster manuals, and filling those niches was a major concern: “We should really do more high-level plants… or fey...” You get the idea. But looking at the total monster population—and an established player preference for demons over fey, for example—those gaps had largely been filled by six years of monster creation.

But that just meant I needed a new way of looking at the overall monster ecology—a new way of slicing up the pie, if you will.

It’s a Roleplaying Game, So Let’s Give ‘em Roles

So I started dividing up monsters by their role in an encounter. Here’s how I explained it in my instructions to the freelance designers:

Here are some functional roles that monsters fall into:

Mastermind: These are monsters that are capable of being the “big bad” in an adventure—the guys behind the scenes pulling the strings of all the other monsters. They often have mental powers, spellcasting, and more complexity, but there’s no reason they can’t be absolute terrors in melee. They’re usually smart and social. This is a rewarding category of monster to spend some complexity on, but beware! DMs will often use masterminds in conjunction with brutes and mooks, so there might be a lot on the DM’s plate already.

Brute: These are the classic D&D monsters: scary, straightforward melee combatant. Despite our nickname for them, “brute,” they aren’t necessarily dumb or unsophisticated. They can be intelligent and cultured; if they rely on wading into melee and carving up PCs, then they’re brutes. The design challenge here is to create a monster that’s interesting (not just “another ogre”) but is respectful of the DM’s limited processing power.

Mook: These are low-level monsters that function well in groups—and their “groupability” is what separates them from the brutes. We want every mook to have a game-mechanic benefit for grouping up (see the minion section below). This can either be an existing mechanic (sneak attack is a good example of something that works better when you’re grouped) or something new you make up.

Lurker: A pretty obvious category. These guys use camouflage, stealth, guile, or magical means to ambush the PCs. Making that “Aha! Gotcha!” moment as compelling as possible at the table is the key to making a good lurker.

Decathlete: These are the monsters that can do it all—strong melee attack, strong ranged attack, and often battlefield maneuverability that the PCs of that level can’t easily match. Dragons are the classic example.

Artillery: These monsters have better ranged attacks than melee attacks—think beholder. At higher levels, they often exert some sort of terrain control or use other means to keep PCs at a distance. At low levels, they’re just archers or what have you.

Special: What’s a category system without a catch-all? For our purposes, specials are monsters that have a primary purpose other than “the next room in the dungeon.” New familiars, steeds, helpful monsters, and monsters playable as PC races all fall into this category.

There’s nothing magic about these role definitions—you could certainly divide the pie differently. And I intentionally used modern-sounding labels on some of the roles because I didn’t want the roles to creep into game text. Only the designers and I would ever know what the monster’s role is. (Well, OK, now you know too. So I guess the secret is out.) After the previous monster manuals, I knew what roles we needed more of.

Getting the Right Look—And a Cool Codename

I also had the (possibly irrational) fear that if we weren’t using creature type as an organizational tool, I was going to get a whole bunch of designers who independently decided that flaming-skull monsters were cool. So armed with hash marks from my note pad, I gave each monster a suggested look—something akin to the “skin” that a computer game would put on them. Again, there’s nothing magic about these categories, but they gave both the designer and the artist a useful starting point: liquid/cloud, plated, skin, rocky, plantey, fur/feathery, bony, corpsey, swarmey, armorey, clothed, insectey, scaly, chimeric, and weird/other. (And yes, I’m well aware that some of those aren’t actual words.)

One last thing I did: With the exception of the gang entries, I didn’t want to give the other designers a preconceived notion of what a specific monster entry should be. So rather than saying, “design something called the spirrax,” I gave each monster a code name. My outline, for example, refers to the spirrax as “Singletary.” Because I didn’t want the code names bleeding through to actual design, I named all the monsters after Chicago sports figures. And believe it or not, a little bleed-through happened anyway. I doubt it’s a coincidence that codename “Piccolo” (named after Bears fullback Brian Piccolo) became the banshrae, a monster that plays a flute.

Tangent: If you don’t want to cry like a baby in front of other people, make sure you watch the original version of Brian’s Song by yourself. Or so I’ve heard.

To keep track of everything and visualize the whole book, I got a big sheet of paper and drew a series of concentric circles—a bull’s-eye, in other words. The rings represented different Challenge Rating bands: 0–5 in the center, then 6–10, then 11–15, then 16+ on the periphery. I drew a ray outward from the center for each monster role, then started attaching little bubbles—one for each monster—to the rays. Then I wrote the “look” descriptor for each monster and the codename into each bubble. Finally, the fun part: I got a red pen and started making connections between bubbles for a gang entries. “Ooh, ‘Larussa’ would make a good match for ‘Spalding’ and ‘Urlacher,’” I’d think as I connected the bubbles. “Maybe they can they be the gang entry for demons.” (And in fact, they eventually became the adaru, gadacro, and draudnu, respectively.)

At this point, other designers would walk up to my cubicle, look at the bull’s-eye, and walk away muttering something about “Noonan” and “too much coffee” (Producer's Note: or my own favorite, "A Beautiful Mind"). But it worked like a charm! Armed with my roles, looks and Challenge Ratings, the connections naturally suggested themselves.

Ladies and Gentlemen, the MMV Bull’s-eye

Best of all, I saved the bull’s-eye. Here it is (and click on the image for an even larger view):

Next week: More on Monster Manual V, where we answer the question: “How do you keep a DM’s head from exploding?”

About the Author

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.

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