Saturday, October 22, 2016

Monster Manual Cage Fight!

Alex Schroeder has weighed in with his thoughts on what makes a good monster book. I have to admit, there’s a lot there that clicks with me. As much as I love my weird and artsy, Noism’s book-of-pics-with-no-stats doesn’t sound as useful to me as, well, a traditional MM.

This has led to some introspection on which monsters I use. As I mentioned to Alex before, a lot of what makes a monster click with me is awesome art. It was di Terlizzi who really made hobgoblins work for me, both as monsters and as a PC race. Trampier made both the rakshasa and the pseudodragon must-use races for me in the original MM. So I, for one, will never denigrate the importance of good, inspiring illustration to make a monster not just come alive, but sell it to me as a DM.

That said, no stats? Sure, I could come up with the stats myself, but, as Alex points out, that starts to degrade the verisimilitude of the setting. I could also make up what spells do on the spur of the moment, but soon I’m wondering why I bought a game at all. Spending the hours working out the details for that sort of thing and communicating them to my players is part of what I’m paying the publisher for.

Don’t I want my players to be surprised by the monsters? Sometimes, but not most of the time. Most of the time I’m painting in broad strokes across the canvas of my setting when I put monsters down. I want my choice of monsters to communicate things to the players. They should see (or even just hear about) the monsters and be able to think, “Oh, if Brian’s using them, that means…”

And that’s why I tend to use well-known monsters that come with their own implications for the players. Orcs are tribal warriors, vicious but proud and fecund. Hobgoblins are militaristic conquerors. Gnolls are bestial and savage, destroyers and ruiners. Gryphons are proud and majestic predators. Dragons are powerful hoarders who spread fear and devastation far and wide. Sometimes, all I need to say is the monster’s name and players drop all sorts of assumptions down on the table. That’s great! It allows me to create the illusion of depth with minimalist strokes.

So on the one hand, it would seem I would embrace a book like Volo’s Guide to Monsters with open arms. And I would, if I didn’t put my own individual spin on monsters. Orcs are noble savages (with the emphasis on “savage”) from Sir Frazier’s Golden Bough. Hobgoblins are Romans minus the humanity. Gnolls, like hyenas, are matriarchal. It’s gryphons, not griffons, and they are sentient. Dragons are extremely feline in their mannerisms and sadisms. A book like Volo’s Guide to Monsters means instead of adding on to what the players already know about these races, now I have to walk them back from the official line.

It gets even worse with monsters that have a strong presence in mythology. Trolls, for instance, are guardians of places of transition: bridges, mountain passes, magical gates, etc. This fits with how they’re described in mythology. It doesn’t jive at all with what’s in the MMs.

So what do I want from an MM? 2e’s Monstrous Manual came closest to perfection for me: broad strokes with a few telling details to build verisimilitude. Give the players just enough info that they can understand why I’m using the monsters I’m using, but leave me the latitude to make them fit into my setting.


Ed Ortiz said...

I found it interesting to see that Volo's MM has caused a stir in the community. Recently, some of my Payday 2 crew have started DMing for the first time. Some have played RPGs before, but many are new. Their reaction to Volo has been one that is positive, especially for the background information and fluff that the book provides. My buddy, who is DMing his first game, doesn't quite feel completely confident in his abilities at world building. He is happy to read the fluff and use that, plus build off of it for his own game. Some of my other friends that are budding DMs feel the same way.

And I think that's something to remember. These products are made with the new GM and busy GM in mind. While this fluff may be useless to those of us that have been doing this for years, for the newbie, it gives them some interesting background into how they would like to run a monster. What's even better is that many new GMs become empowered to create their own fluff for creatures, using this background information as a jumping point. Which is the opposite of what some people have complained about the MM.

I think we need to remember that not everyone that are buying these books are experienced in GMing. And these books help to ease an otherwise unconfident GM into the reigns of running a campaign. I think that's a good value for the product.

Yora said...

I really like the idea of using monsters to use as clues for what's going on in the adventure.

Incidentially, the monster comes from Latin for "showing/indicating".

trollsmyth said...

Ed Ortiz: eh, maybe.

On the one hand, sure, offering guidance for new DMs is a good thing, but you can also overwhelm. You already can't run nearly all the monsters in D&D without looking at the stat block (which almost always means flipping through the MM). Is the DM now going to have to flip through Volo's as well? How many books are you expecting the DM to juggle at a time? I already avoid opening the DMG at the table because I've got to keep flipping through the PHB and the MM when running encounters, and most of my pre-game prep involves filling both books with sticky-notes. If I'm just using the new monsters in Volo's, that's fine; I can close the MM and set it aside. But if you're expecting me to have all three books open at the table at once? That's a bit more juggling than I, an experienced DM, really want to bother with.

If WotC did this right, that means that most of the background will be used in adventure prep and not need referencing at the table. What I hope we'll get are random tables to help DMs construct orc tribes, maps of illithid hives, and just solid advice explaining how to make the most of using each monster in an adventure. What I suspect we'll get is a lot of flowery writing containing some well-worn lore that's already widely know. (Take this page for instance: The tadpoles are new to 5e, but the elder brains, the hive-mind colonies, and the rogues are all things mentioned in the MM. What does Volo's add about the elder brain and the colony that didn't already exist in MM? Not much, and they took most of a page to say it.) What I fear we'll get is long, dry, boring chapters that ramble on without really giving anything to DMs willing to put in the effort to read it.

I applaud WotC for trying something new, but I doubt they've gone far enough. They're still in "selling books" mode and not in "how is this going to be used at the table" mode. Volo and Elminster sparring might make for an entertaining read, but what does it give us that we can use at the table? What examples and guidance are new DMs being given? Or are they being saddled with details only useful to pedants?

trollsmyth said...

Yora: Thanks! If you do something cool with that idea, please let us know.

Luka Rejec said...

@trollsmyth looking at the screenshot, the first thing that hits me is "block of text" the second is "I can't use this." At the table I absolutely won't have time for this and in my free time ... I'll do other things, like work, read novels, go for walks.

I'm with you on the analysis. This is trying to be a novel, not a game tool.