21 May 2013

Better Monsters, Part One

This is related to my post about Six Health Classes and Hit Point Creep, because it's something that's been bothering me for a long time: it's poor monster design.

In early editions, monsters required careful planning because of the relative fragility of both monsters and players. When you have three hit points and a sword does from 1-6 (and it hits roughly half the time), you are not taking any chances with swords or arrows. Combats tended to revolve around surprise, traps, and ambushes. You snuck up on them and got your bonus round, or else you made sure there was more of you then of them. In this, fighting looked a lot like real life- as damned unfair as either side could get it.

Monster design was necessarily pretty brief, because you weren't really fighting them for long. You could describe them in a single line, because the only part of the game the rules really touched was the fighting, and the fighting didn't last too long. Or occur too often. You bashed in a skull or two, licked your wounds, and tried not to encounter too many wandering monsters, because, again, any given encounter could spell death. (This was the earliest, and probably most effective, deterrent of the famous "fifteen minute adventuring day", by the way.)
Pictured: a daring ambush by two skilled adventurers

But as the editions progressed, as this chart handily shows, it quickly becomes less necessary to skulk and hide and fight. You're a hero, suddenly, and you're able to single-handedly beat the crap out of seven goblins. And you notice that, at nearly exactly the same time, killing monsters becomes the focus of how you gain experience. Since players are going to be gravitating towards the things that give them the most reward (and wouldn't you?) suddenly you have a game that revolves around killing monsters, with their stuff being the reward for killing them, instead of being the main goal.

(Quick Note: 4th edition in this chart has been skewed by using goblin "minions", which are properly understood to be one-fourth of a "real" monster, and doing the math shows us that a 4th edition fighter is therefore capable of slaying 5 "real" monsters, which is back near BD&D/1e levels. Which is one of the things 4th edition got very right, I feel. But I digress.)

And then you get designers who played that system, and that's what games are to them- they consist of a combat minigame that takes the attention of a disproportionate amount of character creation, which itself takes up the majority of the rules of the game, combined with essentially, rules to get players directly back into combat. And that combat, overwhelmingly, is the "walk up to your enemies and punch them," because those are the only rules given. You roll initiative, and then you take your choice from these sets of actions, conveniently listed, until everybody is dead. *

Pictured: a Slam attack with built-in grab, 20 AC, standing on rough terrain.

And so this sort of design becomes the standard for monster design. You can see it at every level; because you get stats for monsters, and they're given in the exact same ways as humans, because that's nice and linear design. It makes designers feel warm and fuzzy when they can go "Oh, and it even uses the same system! See? Isn't that neat?" And, overwhelmingly, the way monsters are fighting you is by walking up and punching you. Ogres don't grab you and gobble you, they bonk you with their club repeatedly until you die. Trolls are the same, for the most part. There's no dodging and weaving, no ducking and moving anywhere in the rules. If you are fighting somebody with a weapon, the most efficient way is for you to stand there and spend your turn making repeated attacks.

You're supposed to beat the shit out of the Terrasque, for example. How do you fight him? Using the only combat example you have; you plunk your minis down, take your five foot steps, and full-attack him on part of his body. Which part? Who knows, because they're all equally vulnerable. Or non-vulnerable. So you grab your axe and you chop him, or else you play Guess What The DM Is Thinking for a little bit, while you fumble around trying to make sure that you don't have to go through the two-hour process of making a character again.

And that's what really bugs me. What if I want to climb on a dragon and stab it in the eyeball? Nothing. No support. I have no idea what I should be doing in that situation. I can either make something up on the spot or else I can let them hack at the dragon's kneecaps and pretend to myself that they're doing something cooler than standing there and flailing at the dude's toes for a little while. And, seriously, they need something because the damn thing has 500 hit points and if I want to wait for them to smack it down, turn by turn, it seriously is going to be fifty turns. Should I treat separate body parts like different creatures? Or should I do something new?

I think it's for something new.

I'll post it here tomorrow.

*"But you can just make stuff up, Mr. DM," somebody might say, "that is your purpose!"

I hope nobody says that, because that means you have to reread the above paragraphs and then try again. When discussing a ruleset, houserules are completely meaningless. Nobody says "But Monopoly is a great game; you just have to add rule X and rule Y," and that might be true, but you are no longer talking about Monopoly-as-it-exists. You are talking about My Monopoly, which is not the game I paid money for, although it looks very similar and with a little work I can turn Store Monopoly into Your Monopoly. Catch my drift?

1 comment:

  1. In 4e/3e you are somewhat constrained, because character powers grant character expectations. So if you do change something, you leave people wondering why the spent the slots/points on their powers/feats/skills.

    This is one of the huge appeals of the OSR.

    It isn't an admonishment to just 'make stuff up'. There were general procedures and guidelines hidden within the rules.

    But those things (jump on the dragon's back, etc.) weren't covered, because the sheer spectrum of possibility of adventure could not be covered by the rules. So instead of participating in the 'rules as physics' folly, the idea was, you are a human in a room with your friends. Do what seems fun.

    And if you can't figure it out? Ideas abound.

    For your specific problem, have you seen this? It's brilliant. Brilliant.