2019/10/11

OSR: The Monster Overhaul - Planning

I'm thinking of writing a Monster Manual. This post is about sharpening the axe.

Multiple Ways To Organize Information

How does the AD&D Monster Manual organize entries?
  • Alphabetical table of contents at the front. No page #s or randomization methods, just a list of creatures.
  • Statblocks presented in alphabetical order, with subgroups (Demons, Dinosaurs, Dragons, Giants, etc.)
  • Index at the back of the book. Entries are listed alphabetically with subgroups, with page #s, in the order that they appear in the text.
How does the 5th Edition Monster Manual organize entries?
  • Alphabetical table of contents at the front of the book with page #s.
  • Statblocks presented in alphabetical order, with subgroups (Dragons, etc.)
  • Appendix at the end of the book of "Miscellaneous Creatures", which appear in a condensed format without art. They aren't listed individually in the table of contents at the front of the book.
  • Index at the back of the book. Entries are listed alphabetically with subgroups, with page #s. Entries from the main text are mixed in with entries from the "Miscellaneous Creatures" section.
So while the AD&D MM might not be the pinnacle of design, 5th Edition appears to have taken a step backwards! Information is repeated needlessly. An index is great, but if it's a copy of the table of contents then it's not an index.

How Are Readers Accessing Information?

This is a crucial question for book design. What are the entry points into a book? Why is someone using it?

For Monster Manuals, the main reasons are:

  • Looking up a monster by name (at the table). E.g. A module calls for stats for a skeleton.
  • Reading to generate ideas (not at the table). E.g. You're working on a module or encounter table of your own.
And that's pretty much it... because that's all current Monster Manuals are designed to do.

But what if there were more entry points?

It's handy to have all the monsters in alphabetical order if you need to look one up, but it's not necessary. By breaking from that design, we can introduce a whole host of new tools.

The Monster Overhaul Layout

Here's the draft plan. 20 sections with 20 entries. Each number in the image above will have 20 creatures. Some will be classic monsters, some will be entirely new entries. All will have variants and useful tools.

Splitting the monsters into 20 sections means GMs can pick and choose their monsters. Want to run a gothic horror game? Mix 1, 6, and 10. Want to run Gygaxian wilderness? Mix 1, 8, 9, 10, 13, etc. Etc, etc.

It also means I can focus on the 20 "best" monsters for each section and weed out mistakes or flawed designs.


Dodging Exoticism

I'm trying to make sections of the book as generic as possible, for use in as many settings and games as possible. Unfortunately, early drafts of 1. People with zero cultural markers ended up... very bland. Unusably bland, in fact. So I've had to give the core of the chart a medieval-ish feel and work from there. There's no reason you need to use it as the core though; a game where the PCs are monsters raiding civilization would probably use 15. Dungeon as the core.

And if I want to include "classic" monsters like the Couatl or the Djinn, where should I put them? Having separate Fantasy Arabia, Fantasy South America, etc. sections based on lumping and splitting folklore seemed like the worst possible idea. Instead, I'm using terrain types. 6. Hostile Forests includes Forest Spirits, pixies, etc. 7. Hot Plains covers elephants, rhinos, Djinn, etc. and 8. Mysterious Mountains covers (very broadly) Su-Monster, Yeti, Lammasu, Ice Titans, etc. 

Is this an ideal solution? No. I'll probably revise it. But it's a step in the right direction. It won't be as good as a setting-specific bestiary and encounter table, but a Monster Manual never is.

12. Strange Water
is a placeholder for microfauna made big.
13. Sci-Fi
includes malfunctioning robots, alien visitors, etc. The usual Barrier Peaks stuff.
16. Outsider
might be better renamed "A Wizard Did It".
Sections may change as work progresses.

Encounter Tables

The AD&D DMG and the Fiend Folio both have Monster Level tables. These are d100 encounter tables with probability curves. The monster's HD, number encountered, AC, movement, etc. are given in the table... but not a page reference back to the main statblock. "Monster Level" is also somewhat arbitrary.

Similarly, the A&D DMG and Fiend Folio have terrain encounter tables.

While these are handy and condensed, they're also... flat. You get a [rolls] Ice Troll. FIGHT. You see a giant ram. FIGHT.

OSR design moved away from a one-line number-name encounter tables a long time ago. Bryce (rightly) complains about it all the time


So the Monster Overhaul will include encounter tables. Really good encounter tables.

Magical Industrial Revolution uses 2 different formats: a d100 table with d20 subgroups and a "condensed" format based off City State of the Invincible Overlord. The main table has more info, while the condensed format allows for quick rolls and more unusual situations.


I'm also fan of the Omen + Encounter format used in my other products. Players get Omens if they move cautiously and pay attention.
I'm not a fan of linked tables. They were really big in the '90s. Roll on the Humanoid Type table. If you get a Dwarf, roll on the Dwarf subtable. If you get a Dwarf Warrior, roll on the Dwarf Warrior weapon subtable, etc. Just pages and pages of nested tables, often with obscure naming schemes, and with no real sense of flow or information hierarchy.

Central Casting - Dungeons. '93.

Goals

  • Every entry should be self-contained. If information is needed, it should be on the same page or close by. Minimal flipping back and forth or referencing tables.
  • Encounters should be evocative without requiring endless subtables.
  • Monsters should have variants. 
  • Tools should be provided. What's a minotaur without a labyrinth?
  • Generic stats.
  • Assume the reader can figure stuff out. If there's a skeleton variant that says "Centaur Skeleton: as fast as a horse", I don't need to provide stats. The GM can figure out if the Centaur Skeleton can climb a ladder or run down a fleeing PC.
  • Tools, not rules. 
  • Randomize everything. d20 sections with d20 entries. Pick 4 sections, roll 1d4 for section, then 1d20 for encounters.
  • Include other ways to use the book. The text will contain Monster Menu-All entries and a section on the HD(NA) of the Monster Manual. Will I include a page splitting monsters into Prokopetz's 12 categories or the ones from the Celestial Emporium of Benevolent Knowledge? You bet I will.

Conclusions

You can read the first entry (Peasant) here. It'll be useful for all sorts of medieval-ish games.

If you want monster-by-monster updates and the ability to give immediate feedback, check out my Patreon. The first 4 entries (Peasant, Townsfolk, Pilgrim, and Knight) are already drafted. 1% done! The more support I have on Patreon, the more time I can devote to the book and the quicker it'll be finished.

14 comments:

  1. This is very helpful. I’m thinking about monster arrangement too.

    Maybe I’ll do my own post like this over at the HQ.

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  2. Lots of good ideas. But if you organize by setting/terrain, do you risk making monsters and groups of monsters more predictable? I guess that could be a good thing ("realistic" feeling) or a bad thing (less variety).

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  3. Other possible entry points to consider:

    - difficulty of monster (level, CR, etc.); also useful for Monster Summoning, gate, etc. spells
    - value of monster (treasure type, as well as XP value; or its fur, eggs, young, etc.---monster as ingredients)
    - planar origin (perhaps tied to alignment of monster?)
    - size of encounter, in terms of number appearing (generally wilderness > dungeon); could also speak to retinue, leaders/guards, etc.
    - scarcity of monster (3e did away with Frequency, but it's quite useful as part of game/campaign balance, and tweaking Frequency is a great tool for a DM when customizing a campaign/setting/plane/etc.)
    - helpfulness of monster (perhaps also tied to alignment, and a reaction roll/racial preferences matrix): not all encounters need be FIGHT, even if the monster is diametrically opposed alignment to the players
    - knowledge of monster (not just its Intelligence score, but what useful stuff is this monster likely to know)
    - habits/behaviors of monster: nocturnal/herbivore gatherer vs. diurnal/omnivore hunter; organized tribal aggressor vs. insidious individual symbiote; etc.

    Allan.

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    1. Two others popped into my head last night/this morning:

      - allied/servitor creatures: this allows you to cross-reference creatures often encountered together, like hyenas with gnolls, cave bears with stone giants, et al
      - languages: this would allow you to group creatures that can speak each others' tongues

      Allan.

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  4. 20*20 sounds crazy ambitious...

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    1. Eh, the original AD&D MM is 340ish if you count variants, so it's not too crazy.

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  5. Yeah, but then there was also the mention of no flawed designs...

    Anyway, have you looked at the monster codex for Symbaroum? I'm probably biased, but I think they do a very good job with it.

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    1. I haven't read their Monster Codex, but I remember the monsters from the core book had a fairly compact and useful layout.
      Both Symbaroum and Hackmaster have the same "problem" as generic monster manuals; their entries convey setting-specific lore as well as stats.

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  6. I forget exactly how they lay it out off hand, but Numenera does a good job of something like this. Even though the entries are still alphabetical, they have an easily navigable list of monsters by terrain, where it would be easy to pick a handful / random roll for a given terrain to create a unique encounter, and find the entries by their page number. Would still be better to do it ahead of time rather than on the spot, but can be done reasonably efficiently on the spot.

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    1. Also I think a lot of this would be at least somewhat alleviated if designers didn't limit themselves to print-style formats, and instead fully leveraged the advantages of digital formats. If you can have hyperlinked indices in a wiki or webpage-style format, built in search tools, multiple index configurations based on various categories, etc., things get a lot easier. Back when I used to play games like Pathfinder, I would not even consider playing them without the SRD, it's just an order of magnitude better than flipping through a book or print-style digital file like a pdf.

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    2. I'll take another look at Numenera. I don't remember any specifics about how they laid out their monsters.
      And yes, working in a digital format (wiki-style) would be great, but there are challenges there too. Charging for time and effort is tricky. It can also lead to bloat; why bother cutting or condensing when you can sprawl? Nobody's monitor is running out of ink.

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  7. I can’t remember monster stat block specifics from later (A)DnD, but an indication of aggressiveness, likelihood of attacking vs being wary vs fleeing / avoiding could be useful. IE preferred behaviour (perhaps associated with animal/monster niche of predator or prey or whatever). Which may be modified by alignment and intelligence: a smart lawful good predator might not attack a party that behaves (or pretends) suitably.

    I got this idea from the way Classic Traveller generated its animal encounters: a roll to see if the creature avoided or stalked/attacked the characters. I used it long ago a couple of times to good effect, but not all players at the time appreciated encountering monsters that weren’t played as written per the MM, or even in the MM at all.

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  8. Really like the extra tables that bring the entries some variety.

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