In this month's exclusive interview, the designers of the new D&D supplement Savage Species discuss monsters as PCs, monsters as NPCs, and monsters as prestige classes. Oh -- did we mention monsters?
Wizards of the Coast: How did this project originate? Has there been a demand for rules governing monsters as player characters or developing them more fully as nonplayer characters?
David Eckelberry: Roleplaying Games R&D requested that all of us come up with some good ideas for projects in 2003 -- sort of an open call. This [project suggestion] was Jennifer's, and, I think, the best. Better than my wacky submissions.
Jennifer Clarke Wilkes: I proposed the project in 2000, after a closing seminar at Gen Con in which a number of players suggested a supplement book about playing monsters as characters. The project was approved in early 2001, and we got started writing in the fall of 2001. The book began as a guide to playing monsters as PCs but morphed into a generally more useful book to assist DMs in creating interesting monster NPCs as well.
Wizards: Give us an overview of the book. How do monsters' levels, hit points, and other statistics vary when they go from being creatures out of the Monster Manual to being PCs and NPCs?
Rich Redman: Wow, you're asking us to repeat a serious chunk of the book here.
Dave: Basically, Savage Species allows players a few options when they step up to play a monster. They can take the monster straight from our Monster Manual, adapting it a little with the rules we present. Or they can use the monster's base ability scores as a sort of racial adjustment, and make up their own character based on that monster. Finally, I presented a more radical third option where you get to "level up" in a monster class until you become the full-power monster as it exists in the Monster Manual.
Rich: Monsters don't have levels, they have Hit Dice. They keep those and add levels onto them. They keep the same number of skill points, regardless of Intelligence. Monster hit points change in that they get the maximum number for their first Hit Die and then roll the rest of their dice.
Jennifer: Toward the end of the process, the revision to the D&D core books required us to take another look at monster skills and advancement in general. This added more time but ultimately made things simpler and more logical, I think.
Wizards: How do 1-Hit Die creatures work? Or creatures with breath weapons?
Rich: 1HD creatures can be copied out of the Monster Manual, or they can be rebuilt from the ground up, much like the standard races. I think you're asking about changes in monster abilities in general due to Hit Dice gained through levels. Class levels have no effect on monster abilities. Breath weapons are no different than any other monster ability: They cause the monster to gain level adjustments.
Dave: Just like elves and dwarves, 1HD monsters take up a class level instead of a monster Hit Die, though they preserve their monster "racial" abilities. Of course, some 1HD monsters (pixies, etc) may still require a level adjustment because of their power level compared to standard races..
Wizards: What difficulties did you encounter in designing the parameters for monsters as characters?
Dave: Obviously, we're playing with fire here. Savage Species is quite clearly an optional ruleset, and players should of course ask their Dungeon Master if it's cool that they're playing an ogre magi before showing up on game night. That said, our players expect and we are obligated to give a well-balanced system in which monsters are fun, cool to play, and at the same time, won't break existing campaigns into pieces. So, when working on monster rules, feats, and monster classes, it's always a balancing act to keep monsters playable and interesting, and not so dominant in the game that humans and half-orcs look pale in comparison. Part of that balancing act is in assigning level adjustments to determine ECLs for monsters.
Rich: Level adjustments were the toughest part. We spent hours and hours discussing and reviewing the level adjustments. The more abilities a monster has, the harder it is to evaluate.
Wizards: Which monsters were the toughest to translate?
Jennifer: We definitely had to decide early on whether to worry about creatures that would not normally be playable, due to no Intelligence, lack of grasping limbs, or the like. Should we bother giving advancement for animals, on the off chance that someone would want to make an awakened wildcat druid? Should we have spells that allow the awakening of inanimate objects? Is it possible to play an aware, intelligent skeleton? (And do we want to encourage that?)
Ultimately, it came down to several classes of creatures. The simplest can be played with little effort, simply adjusting the effective character level. More complicated creatures required detailed rules for advancing. The most outlandish come with lots of warnings!
Dave: The toughest monsters are those that allow players to really break the model for D&D adventuring. Incorporeal creatures are an example of this. Unless your dungeons are all coated with some ethereal protection (see the Stronghold Builder's Guide), incorporeal PCs will break the dungeon-delving model pretty quickly. Other undead can be equally troublesome, given their ability to drain levels and create monstrous spawn.
One way we deal with the problematic creatures is in costing. Some abilities aren't by definition the most powerful, but they shape or distort the adventuring model in ways we don't want. So those creatures receive a higher level adjustment than the easier-to-adapt trolls, giants, awakened animals, etc.
Wizards: What was the playtesting for this guide like? Were there hordes of wild and exotic PCs in every session?
Jennifer: I was not present for the playtesting sessions, to my sadness, but I did hear about a very amusing rat sorcerer/rogue riding on the back of its cat familiar. Oh -- and the buffalo.
Dave: The first [step] was lots and lots of comparison and eyeballing. I grabbed the opinion of lots of my fellow developers in the office and friends I play with at home. We compared one monster to another and to more typical characters, such as half-orc barbarians and elf wizards. At home, we played a lot of mock "arena" combats between would-be player characters. (No, I don't think that's the only way you can test character power levels, since most campaigns don't involve the heroes fighting one another; but among melee-type characters it provided good data for comparisons of round-by-round attacks, damage, and tactics.) I detoured my normal play group out of Temple of Elemental Evil in order to do some playtesting. In the end, my play group has become a bit weirder for it: We have a half-giant, a werewolf, a goblin, and a half-fiend.
Wizards: Which monsters didn't make the cut because they simply wouldn't work?
Rich: Monsters with no way to manipulate humanoid equipment, monsters lacking human senses, the undead.
Dave: Non-intelligent stuff. Constructs made the final cut, as we wanted to allow people to play Frankenstein's monster. We have some tricks, like the awaken spell, to let you do more with creatures that are less obvious. In addition, some monsters (e.g., the tarrasque) don't make the cut really because they fall outside the boundaries of the 1st- to 20th-level game. In epic games, perhaps you can play a solar or balor. But not when your friends are merely 20th level or less.
Wizards: What are some of the more interesting feats that monsters now have?
Jennifer: I wrote a number of feats for adjusting breath weapons and sonic attacks, as well as feats to overcome innate weaknesses. Others in the department made some interesting suggestions; the one that comes quickest to mind is Rich Baker's "Big Hairy Ass of Doom" feat, originally conceived for giants. Its name is more "PC" now, but the effect is still there: Throw yourself onto a space to crush smaller creatures within.
Dave: Ability Focus, Quicken Spell-like Ability, and the Cumbrous series of feats. What are those? Wait and see.
Wizards: There are quite a few intriguing new magic weapons, wondrous items, spells, and prestige classes available to the new monster classes. What are your favorites? (Something about the name "Illithid Savant" cracks me up, by the way.)
Jennifer: Why, thank yuh verry much. I designed the Illithid Savant, although it did require some adjusting by the talented developer. I am quite proud of the prestige class formerly known as "Lord of the Flies" (which I believe is now called the Swarmlord). I also created the Sybil, which turned out to be a real pain when I had to come up with examples of the various levels of riddle difficulty.
Dave: Don't mock the Illithid Savant. He will not just eat your brains, but cook them too. I didn't work much on the prestige classes, but the spells I'm proud of are the Resistance line of spells and Lion's Charge, to name a few.
Rich: I thought Dave's Survivor was a cool prestige class, because it really helped monsters cover some of their weaknesses.
Wizards: Can you outline the idea behind the new monster templates?
Rich: We looked at the monsters and said "Wouldn't it be cool if . . ." I built the winged, insectile, and reptilian templates because I thought they were cool additions to monsters.
Dave: What he said. Plus a lot more exotic stuff.
Jennifer: In my case, I was looking for ways to create the kinds of hybrids you'd expect to see in fantasy. The most obvious one is the anthropomorphic animal, for all the furry fans. I came up with a centauroid template too, for the half-human/half-beast things (my sample creature was an Ursula-type half-octopus), but as it turned out, the tauric template in Monster Manual II was being developed at the same time. Since they were practically identical, the tauric was published. The weirdest template (and the trickiest to come up with) is the symbiont, but I really wanted a way to combine pretty well anything. Plus I love the name "bugsucker."
Wizards: Given all these parameters and options, what's the wildest creature someone might consider developing as a PC?
Rich: You're kidding, right? Our players have incredible imaginations. I wouldn't put anything past them. vDave: An incarnated stone golem emancipated wight?
Jennifer: Oh, my. I don't think I can answer that. How about a gelatinous half-fiend hydra? No, I'm sure it could get much weirder.
Wizards: What long-term insights into gaming do you hope players and DMs will take from Savage Species?
Dave: Well, a few things. First, building monsters as characters should give players a better understanding of the some of the basic "building blocks" of how it all comes together in the system. Watching how we do our best to balance power concerns and assign level adjustments may give them a better sense of what it means to be a developer-as-DM, as they choose what new elements -- be they monster characters, NPCs, or whatever -- to incorporate into their own campaigns. Finally, they should get a good insight into how some of the developers at Wizards think of things in D&D, and hints at what's to come.
Jennifer: I hope that people will have fun experimenting with goofy new creatures, but that they will also realize the amount of work needed to make a viable, balanced monster character. This should also be a great tool for DMs to create unique and challenging beings for the characters to interact with.
Rich: I hope people come away with new insights into the differences between monsters and characters that will help them design both better characters and better monsters for their own games.