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.
Last time we looked at the initial outlining process of Monster Manual V—the process that essentially decides which monsters make it into the book. Now let’s look at the process of making the monsters themselves.
A Designer’s Critique of Every D&D Monster Ever Created
(Note: I like writing subheads I can’t possibly live up to…)
D&D monsters, especially high-level monsters, tend to pack a lot of complexity into a very small space (whether you measure that space in terms of column-inches on a page, or time at your table).
For Monster Manual V, we wanted to create really focused monsters. We told our designers: “Make us monsters that deliver on the promise of one really memorable encounter.” Then we handed the developers some pruning shears, and said: “Trim anything that doesn’t deliver a really memorable encounter.”
Our underlying reason was pretty simple: We wanted our presentation of monsters to reflect how they’re actually used in D&D gameplay. A typical monster has a lifespan of five rounds. That means it basically does five things, ever, period, the end. (Forgive me if that seems like a totally obvious insight.)
Too often, we designers want to give our intelligent, high-level monsters a bunch of spell-like abilities—if not a bunch of actual spellcaster levels. Giving a monster detect thoughts or telekinesis, for example, makes us feel like those monsters are magically in the minds of their minions and are making objects float across the room all the time. But they aren’t! Until the moment they interact with the PCs, they’re in a state of stasis. And five rounds later, they’re done.
Spells and spell-like abilities might be the worst offenders, but that sort of ability overload runs throughout the system. Loading a whole bunch of abilities onto a monster isn’t just useless—those abilities act as weeds that camouflage the few interesting, relevant abilities a monster has. If a DM can’t quickly find and easily adjudicate the five interesting things that monster is going to do, then the whole at-the-table experience suffers.
Tangent: Since 2000, the design directive for monsters has shifted more toward “one memorable encounter.” When all we had was the Monster Manual, every monster had to carry a lot of weight. Especially if the monster was intelligent and social, there was a lot of pressure for that monster to have the details you’d need to build an extensive adventure site around. But after seven years of monster books, the DM of today has plenty of monsters to choose from. It’s OK to design a monster to be used once, memorably. Not every monster has to shoulder the weight of being an important, repeatable antagonist.
A similar principle applies to the world-building details attached to monsters. It’s tempting to come up with detailed ecologies, coherent cultures, and fascinating details of biology—to deeply root every single monster in the game world. Most game designers love to engage in this sort of design. It’s interesting, speculative, and a good chance to really show off some creativity.
But here comes the cold water: It’s often useless at the game table. Unless the shaedling queen is sitting on a pile of eggs, it doesn’t matter how the shaedlings reproduce. The players will never ask, and the characters will never need to know. Taken too far, that sort of world-building detail can actually be counterproductive. If I say that these oozes are spawns of Juiblex, then many DMs who use a cosmology without Juiblex feel like they’d somehow be playing “wrong” or “out of canon” if they put one in their next game session. I find this attitude both ridiculous and infuriating, but I can’t deny its existence. If you need my permission, you have it: Use Monster Manual V monsters however the heck you want. You aren’t doing it “wrong” if you change stuff.
Are there exceptions to the “limit your world-building” principle? Of course. It’s easy to conceive of a whole adventure that revolves around the world-creation myth of the hadrimoi. But the play experience at the table is enhanced if the monster entry provides a few cogent details of culture to get the DM pointed in the right direction, then steps back and lets the table run off wherever it likes.
The “limit your world-building” principle nicely parallels the “don’t over-design” principle for monster abilities. The designer’s technique is completely different, but the overall directive is the same: Design a few really great bits, then for heaven’s sake, stop.
The Prime Directive: Don’t Make the DM’s Head Explode
The designers and developers got a warning against over-designing the total number of abilities a monster possesses. Then they got a second warning: Make sure those abilities are easy and fun to manage at the table.
We approached simplicity of ability design in a couple of ways.
Powers unique to the new monster are often better than spell-like abilities. At first glance, this principle seems counterintuitive. Isn’t it easier and more elegant to give a monster a tried-and-true power from the Player’s Handbook? On the surface, sure. But watch how it works at the table. The DM sees the spell-like entry, grabs a Player’s Handbook, flips through it to find the relevant spell, reads the relevant spell, decides whether to use it, then resumes the action. See where I’m going with this? That’s a far more cumbersome process than reading a specific monster ability that’s already in the stat block. Heck, the physical placement of one more open rulebook is a hassle for a lot of DMs.
Tangent: Someday my dream will come true and we’ll put page references in our stat blocks. At least then we can make one of the above steps a lot shorter.
Be mindful of bookkeeping, especially ongoing bookkeeping. The ushemoi in Monster Manual V are a group of monsters whose statistics gradually change as the fight goes on—they have a magic sort of adrenaline, you might say. They all share a mechanic that says something like: “Each time an ushemoi takes damage, the ushemoi gains a +1 bonus on attack and to AC. These bonuses stack to a maximum of +5.” But you need to set a duration. If you’re the designer imagining these adrenaline-fueled creatures in the game world, you’d probably imagine them gradually ramping up in potency, then coming down as they lose whatever stimulus got them fired up in the first place. So, you’d say something like “Each +1 bonus lasts for 1 minute after the ushemoi receives damage.”
But that’s a hassle for the DM to keep track of, especially in the likely event that more than one ushemoi is part of the encounter. The DM has to write down what round each +1 was acquired in, then check that list at the start of every turn. Worse, all that writing down probably won’t matter, because the fight will be over before 10 rounds are up. But the DM can’t count on a fight lasting less than 10 rounds, so the DM can’t just blow off the bookkeeping.
So we punted. The rule for the ushemoi is that the bonuses, big or small, disappear 1 minute after the ushemoi takes damage the first time. We sacrifice a little simulation value—but that’s pretty tenuous, given that we’re simulating a fictional creature. We gain a lot in terms of DM bookkeeping ease.
Use tracking techniques that the DM is using already. We had some effects—and we’ll talk about them more in a bit—that kick in partway through a fight. We could have established a “you can’t use this until the fifth round” rule, or came up with some sort of energy-gathering mechanic where the monster would accumulate points every round, then spend those points once a threshold has reached. But it’s a lot simpler to use a timer (of sorts) that you know the DM is already keeping track of: hit points. If you say, “A monster does x when it reaches y hit points,” then the DM need only remember the rule. No extra tracking required. And as the designer, you get the result you were looking for: a power that emerges midway through the battle.
Specific Toys We Designers Played With
Here are some more peeks into the instructions I gave the freelance designers. It’s not too hard to see the principles we've been talking about reflected in the directives you’ll read below.
There are three game mechanics that a lot of the monsters in MM5 will use. Here are brief definitions:
Threshold: The idea here is pretty simple—at some point in the middle of the encounter, the monster reaches a threshold and changes. It might get stronger, it might grow tentacles, it might explode with the fury of a thousand suns, whatever. What you’re going for here is a twist on pacing: The PCs “figure out” how to fight the monster, then boom! It changes and they have to employ different strategies to earn the win.
The obvious threshold is hit point total—and it’s a pretty good one because you know the DM is acutely aware of it. But there are lots of other potential triggers for a threshold ability.
One other factor bears mentioning: complexity. By definition, the threshold is reached in the middle of a fight, and the DM is usually a pretty busy person right then. Go easy. It’s a huge drag for everyone at the table if the DM is saying, “OK, Strength +8…that means +4 to the primary attack and damage… oh, but it’s the sole attack, so…” You get the idea.
Creatures in Monster Manual V that use threshold include the burrow root, ember guard, as well as some dragons of the great game. One of the things that intrigued me when I saw first drafts from the designers was how some monsters got weaker at the threshold point (skull lord), some got better at the threshold point (Dalmosh), and some got better in some ways but worse in others (spirrax and the magmacore golem).
Minions: We want our mooks to group well. Three good ways to do that? Mooks that group well with other mooks (like goatfolk and kenku in MM3). Mooks that grant extra mojo to a leader (like skeery skeletons that can sacrifice themselves to give their necromancer creator +1 spell level). And leaders that give bennies to their mooks (like the commander effects from the D&D Minis game).
We talked about mooks in the last installment, of course. Perhaps my favorite monster to “group well with other mooks” is the shardsoul slayer; each one that dies makes a buddy stronger as its final act. Monster Manual V is replete with other examples, including the carnage demon, and the blackwing which also gains a fear effect when encountered in multiples.
The stitched devil is a good example of a monster that gives a benefit (in this case, extra damage from a pain aura) to other allied monsters, whether they’re also stitched devils or not.
And mooks that grant extra mojo to a leader? Well, one designer approached this idea from the opposite side, giving the gulthir devil the ability to ingest evil. If the gulthir swallows an evil outsider whole, it gains a potent saving throw bonus and a dump truck full of temporary hit points. In other words, it eats its devil minions like Halloween candy.
Terrain: We want monsters that cunningly use the many interesting terrains throughout the D&D game. And we want monsters that make their own terrain—whether through magic, through the slime trails they leave behind, or whatever weird ways you can think of.
The designers used a lot of terrain effects in conjunction with plant monsters, which makes a certain amount of sense. The demonthorn mandrake and the verdant reaver both grow roots around themselves—roots the PCs will learn to loathe. Other examples include the Thoon madcrafter (which launches an acid-covered minion at a far-off square) and the sanguineous drinker (which spews slippery blood all over the place).
And that’s just a few examples of the mechanics we sprinkled throughout the book. The best way to find them, of course, is to try them at the table. After all, it worked for us!
We’ll talk more trying stuff at the table in the next installment, taking a peek into the Monster Manual V playtesting process. Plus, a look at some of the monsters you created, based on Dreamblade Minis.
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.