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Monsters and Stories
Mike Mearls

T his week, I'd like to move away from game mechanics and talk a bit about the story of D&D—specifically, the material we're writing for monsters. I've touched on this before, but I think it's worth returning to this topic to give you a sense of where we're going.

D&D has been around for a long time. Over the years, the stories that frame the origins, habits, and goals of certain monsters have changed quite a bit. In addition, we've spilled a lot of ink talking about the biology of monsters as if they were real-world creatures. That stuff can be interesting, but it doesn't necessarily translate into something you use at the gaming table or while building a campaign.

When looking at monsters for D&D Next, we start by looking at how they've been portrayed in the game over the years. Is a critter devious and likely to set up ambushes, or is it a simple brute that loves to wade into melee? Is it a mastermind that gathers minions to command, or does it keep to itself and rely solely on its own abilities?

These questions are useful because they give us a sense of how most players and DMs have experienced the creature in the past. It's a starting point we can use for a monster's story that allows it to remain consistent with how the creature has behaved in previous editions of the game.

However, even as we keep the monster's fundamental role in the D&D cosmos unchanged, we can introduce new stories or flesh out details that have previously been left vague. This approach means we can introduce that new material without forcing you to think of the monster in an entirely new way. If we're doing our jobs right, we're instead making the monster more interesting as an NPC or a force in the world.

A couple of weeks ago, we tackled the backstory for the medusa. We've preserved the basics of the medusa as outlined in the Monster Manual of original and 2nd Edition AD&D. These creatures live alone or in small groups. They are hateful and dwell in dark caverns. A medusa's body is human, but its face is hideous and its hair is a nest of writhing vipers. Its gaze turns victims to stone.

On top of those basic facts, we've added some more depth to give a sense of what medusas are like in terms of background and personality. Medusas are created by a curse whereby a human trades a decade of great beauty and personal magnetism for an eternity of a visage so wretched that it turns onlookers to stone. Most medusas are ambitious, grasping, and self centered, willing to amplify their appearance and charms to work their way up the social ladder. Some use their temporary gifts to marry into wealth and power. Others build their own base of power.

Regardless of how a medusa uses its newfound gifts, after a decade, it must pay the price of its bargain. The transformation is sudden and hideous. Some medusas plan for their change and retire to a distant villa or keep, shielding themselves from the outside world while still enjoying the wealth and power they have accumulated. Others forget about their bargain, attempt to reverse it, or remain ignorant of its true price. These poor wretches are killed or driven into hiding.

The important element for storytelling lies in giving a DM the sense of a medusa's personality and potential. One medusa might be a vicious, hateful creature that kills out of spite, specifically targeting the most handsome or beautiful adventurers that invade its lair. Another might be a secluded noble desperate to conceal her true nature, and who becomes a party's mysterious benefactor. And of course, a medusa might just be a fearsome monster in your dungeon—a creature whose background and origin story never come up. But the story we created remains there to serve as a good read in the Monster Manual or to inspire your own ideas.

By keeping the frontward-facing parts of the medusa intact—the elements that have been most prominent throughout the game's history—we can ensure that existing adventures and campaigns don't need to be altered to fit into D&D Next. By the same token, the new mythology of the medusa can hopefully inspire adventure ideas, NPCs, and campaign settings of your own.

Mike Mearls
Mike Mearls is the senior manager for the D&D research and design team. He led the design for 5th Edition D&D. His other credits include the Castle Ravenloft board game, Monster Manual 3 for 4th Edition, and Player’s Handbook 2 for 3rd Edition.
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I love this approach to monster design. When I read a Monster Manual, I want to be inspired by new ideas that I can incorporate into my game. When I read any Dungeons and Dragons supplement, for that matter, I am always looking for nuggets of inspiration. If I simply want to learn the rules and statistics, I can usually get that information without plunking down a chunk of change on a book!
Posted By: Leugren (10/30/2013 3:17:24 PM)


Discovery Networks' Clash of the Gods came up with a better backstory for Medusa. I don't want you guys to be unemployed more than anyone, but please don't try to justify your jobs by changing the mythology of the game to give us things we don't need.

I have advocated redundancy in the Players Handbook to reduce the need to cross-reference material, as the concepts there are sparse enough to justify bulking it up. The material of a Monster Manual, however, is diverse. If you are to provide enough subject matter to empower the game, you must exercise discretion in what to provide within the monster entries themselves. The alternative is to limit the number of entries based on some subjective criterion, and I, for one, don't want to wait for a Monster Manual II to introduce the Pegasus, or the Banshee.

The Gorgon is an amusing anachronism, and I hope it can be kept much the same. With twenty-first century technology, we don't have to fill in the blanks of Bullf... (see all)
Posted By: RadperT (10/28/2013 10:47:15 PM)


There are a lot of concerned comments about new lore (or fluff if you will) becoming game law. Maybe having a section in each monster entry titled "optional implementation" separate from "physical description" would be adequate to drive home the point that MM info is not written in stone for those rules lawyer types out there. Personally, I like the info because it sparks ideas and a different way of looking at a creature, even if I choose to disregard the idea after some consideration. I do agree with the folks who suggest that the lore info not be too extensive or specific, because it can indeed make for a lot of re-writing work for a DM trying to adapt an adventure module or sourcebook to his/her own setting.

As a DM, I rarely have issues with players telling me how a creature should behave because they often don't know what they are up against until after an encounter, and sometimes not even then. This is because I don't say "you see a medusa!&... (see all)
Posted By: BeardBard (10/26/2013 12:44:48 PM)


Mr. Mearls, there's already a lot of discussions about creature origins on Wandering Monsters column, why insisting to rewrite the monster lore even if your visions don't fit well in coherence in many cases?
Curse for this monster, curse for that monster, curse for another monster... how boring.
Giving the players hint, ideas, variations for the monster lore and organizzation... THIS is good.
Posted By: Eilistraecomeback (10/24/2013 6:38:54 PM)


@Mike: I'd prefer if you'd keep talking about mechanics since James W. already covers the monster storys in great detail already (and even includes the opinion of the audience with polls).

We still didn't hear about your ideas of tactical grid play for example...


(and Warlord needs to be a base class!)
Posted By: Cypher2009 (10/22/2013 5:03:08 AM)


I hope that monster entries will include info about the morale of the creatures. Which ones usually fight to the death, which try to flee at the first setback, which might easily be bribed or distracted. Encounters should be more than every fight to the death.
Posted By: thalmin (10/21/2013 10:22:57 PM)


I totally agree with a morale system, of sorts. That's something I added into 4e. I kept it simple. A creature either:
Fights to the death; most undead, constructs, enraged enemies, etc.
Might run/parlay when bloodied (simple save like a coin flip); Any intelligent creature.
Will run when bloodied (no save); most animals, vermin, etc.

And organized creatures might run if they lose 1/2 their numbers.

I don't think we need a complex morale 'score' or anything.
Posted By: seti (10/22/2013 12:44:35 AM)


This all sounds cool. Please also remember to include listing climates that monsters are likely to be found in to help when creating random encounter lists for adventures. Also, please list what should be rolled on for random treasure, unless this is taken care of adequately enough in the DMG. Finally, for appropriate monsters, list their motivations, goals, dislikes, etc, for use with the interaction rules, even if such descriptions are just examples and not written in stone. For example, a lich's motivation is to increase knowledge and power, and likes solitude, and hates anything related to life or growth. A red dragon is motivated by treasure, and will work to increase its hoard. Describe what a typical monster's attitude will be towards those it runs into. (Red dragon is hostile to intruders in his cave, while a nymph might be neutral (or friendly if high charisma character) is around, or hostile if the party has shown disrespect for the Forrest.

In other words, combat... (see all)
Posted By: moes1980 (10/21/2013 4:55:20 PM)


I'd also like to see a rarity stat for monsters. Basically how rare it is to come across these creatures. Is there only one monster X per country or are there thousands? This would help shape the world and offer a DM another option in their campaign. For example, the MM might state goblins are abundant, what would happen to he world if that changed to only a handful overnight? How would other goblinoids react. On the flip side, what if creatures with only a few families worldwide suddenly had a birthing boom, creating tens of thousands? This simple change can affect the world immensely and could be the focus of countless adventures.
Posted By: Rartemass (10/21/2013 5:07:02 PM)


Yeah, I'd like to see entries for number appearing, environment, and rarity as well, as these are handy metrics when choosing monster for the setting and adventure.
Posted By: Azzy1974 (10/22/2013 12:55:31 AM)


I like the fluff, it helps trigger my imagination and helps to build stories. Yes it's true we all have our own ideas but it still helps to have some fluff provided, I will change it if I choose but I still like some provided no matter how simple the creature might seem.
Posted By: tirwin (10/21/2013 3:33:44 PM)


I like lore! As a DM one of my primary methods for adventure/campaign ideas is to just flip through the monster manuals. I identify interesting creatures and start thinking about how I can use them (foes, NPCs, etc.). I like to draw connections between different types of creatures. What creatures live in similar environments, and who is the leader, etc. Lore that is included with the monster descriptions is one of my favorite things to read.

One thing I would like to see in the DandD Next products as a whole is a default campaign setting (my vote is for Greyhawk, btw). That way you can start the whole MM with a page that reads, "These monsters are presented as they are found in the default campaign setting. We encourage the DM to modify the associated lore to fit with his/her campaign as he/she sees fit." And then you don't have to use the wishy washy language all the time (just the times when the lore in the default setting really is a mystery).

Also, ... (see all)
Posted By: earthwizard (10/21/2013 3:17:24 PM)


I agree totally!
Posted By: tirwin (10/21/2013 3:34:47 PM)


I agree. Honestly, having default presentations for the default setting, while letting open to changes from different settings and having setting that do it different could work very well. At least my favorite setting should be supported (it’s Nerath). It does not have to be the default but I would like support.
Posted By: cassi_brazuca (10/21/2013 3:49:16 PM)


Yeah, I wish there was a full guide to Nerath, it is a cool setting and I have tied to grab up everything on it that I can. I like to think that the Nintiet vale boarders the valley of obelisks from the "shattered gates of slaughter guard" and the Elsiar vale from the "Red Hand of Doom." Then, I figure to the south is a great desolate waste land left over from the war between the dragonborn and tieflings, and in which sits Vor Rukoth. A setting book for Nerath would be my vote for a new setting. Either that, or use Mystara for the new dnd.
Posted By: moes1980 (10/21/2013 4:44:41 PM)


I too agree. I love fluff! And I love having setting material. I'm ok with setting material being baked into the fluff as long as it is made clear that the fluff is subject to change in different settings. If I could have my wish, some of that fluff would be included as well. The best way to show something is optional is to include other options. Lastly, while I think this fluff is ok, you have to be careful. Much of this fluff makes it so killing a Medusa would be an evil act. You don't want to do this with too many monsters. There needs to be some black and white in DandD. Not every combat needs to be a negotiation to determine if the enemy is actually a bad guy. Sometimes it's nice when you just know that anyone turning people to stone is safe to put to the sword.
Posted By: mbeacom (10/21/2013 4:32:27 PM)


Totally agree as well! I love it when a monster manual has enough fluff and background that I can just read it for fun and let my imagination take ideas from that fluff and run wild.
Posted By: moes1980 (10/21/2013 4:45:59 PM)


I think most posters are grossly overselling the notion that "players think fluff is law." That might have been an issue in the 1970's, but today there is a good chance that all the players and potential players have been exposed to medusas, vampires, zombies, elves, and what not. For beholders and drow, go ahead and put in weasly "some people think" language, for vampires and elves, don't bother. Neither you or the DM's are going to change anyone's preferred fluff.
Posted By: Mechagamera (10/21/2013 2:01:16 PM)


I agree. As a DM, I like the direction of more backstory for monsters. I can use them or discard them as I wish. If the players ideas of how things work disagrees with mine, that is simply their character's misunderstanding.
Posted By: SunTzu000 (10/21/2013 2:19:44 PM)


It's a good story and I like the return to more fluff on monsters in general but the specificity rankles a little bit. It does the most important thing for a monster backstory: it inspires DMs.

I guess I agree with those arguing for couching such info in myth and legend, if nothing else that would make the monsters seem more magical and tied to standard mythology. Less like interchangeable characters in a videogame that need an elaborate backstory because the player would have no knowledge of them or care about them without it. I certainly hope kids these days have heard of a Medusa before they played dnd but I guess I might be wrong.
Posted By: jonzes (10/21/2013 1:48:53 PM)


I like the story idea for the Medusa. Seems like a good good start for an adventure. :) Perhaps some different stories on how the Medusa comes to be in different campaign worlds, and if it is a curse, I would suggest somewhere (can be the DMs guide or some other source) make some type of template where a player can be cursed and turned into a Medusa themselves as well as some ideas on how to remove the curse.

Bottom line, I love the idea that these stories are meant to inspire adventures and if that is the goal for these stories in the MM, then I will certainly be looking at it when it comes out.
Posted By: thanson02 (10/21/2013 1:33:03 PM)


Honestly not a bad article. I do think however that specific campaign settings should be allowed to heavily change or completely modify monsters’ mythology and such. It is ok to present default, but it is also ok to present versions very different from the norm. Give to settings the power to change the world, and we end up with a lot of different and cool worlds, instead of “hey there is an another medieval-esque setting just like Greyhawk/Forgotten Realms/Tolkien”.
Posted By: cassi_brazuca (10/21/2013 11:45:05 AM)


When there is a specific mythology associated with a creature that has a background that is hard to explain, there really should be more options for possible back stories.

I find this most recent description of the "curse" as way too simple and generic. I would never use this as the sole option for the story of creation of a medusa. This could be one of many ways they are created. In this background there is also no explanation of gorgons as a race (where are the males)?

I also do not find it logical for them to live in groups. If a medusa's own reflection can turn her to stone, then surely if she associates with others of her kind she cannot look at them either.

I think this seriously needs some rethinking.
Posted By: LostLegolas (10/21/2013 10:42:44 AM)


Yeah, I think they need to cover multiple bases with the fluff. Not all medusae (?) should be the result of a curse. There should also be the option for medusae as a species (especially consider the male version, the maedar existed in previous editions.

Adding new fluff options are cool... as long as they don't completely override previous fluff. Giving different options is fine, because then you can choose to go with the previous fluff or choose to dump it in favor of something else. That would be the best way, IMO, to handle things like tieflings and such that had a certain fluff in 2e and 3e and completely rewritten fluff in 4e. There's no need to invalidate either fluff when you can choose multiple choices.
Posted By: Azzy1974 (10/22/2013 1:07:43 AM)


What happens when a player character-- a bard or sorceror, say--wants the "decade of beauty and power" deal?
Posted By: Dausuul (10/21/2013 10:17:34 AM)


Exactly my question. Anyhow, I like this idea as one possible origin, but I'd also like...well, if this is the "mortal" medusa, a Norn or hag-like origin for "immortal" ones.
Posted By: mordicai (10/21/2013 10:47:39 AM)


As always, when there is a question of complex or multiple origins I suggest the approach in their description of "Most folk believe the (monster)'s origins are (this), while a steadfast few believe they are from (that)." Offer a 'common knowledge' origin accepted by most people on the street, but keep open the option for a DM to include whatever is 'true' in their world.
Posted By: SirCorin (10/21/2013 10:09:05 AM)


But, this explanation makes PCs who kill a medusa sociopathic murderers of the afflicted! An evil race spawned by the original Medusa or evil, cursed individuals are one thing, but making medusas of women who "remain ignorant of its true price" will make every adventure with them about removing their curse... or outright murder. Yes, I realize 'removing their curse' is a storyline this backstory has spawned in my mind (as you intended), but is just to one side of where the Medusa should reside. If the enchantment is used by the "ambitious" and "self-centered" who "work their way up the social ladder", the PCs would really be making a foe out of someone who shares their same qualities. (Greedy accumulation of power and wealth are really the only concrete rewards within the game worlds.)

The lone medusa living in wealth or reviled solitude does paint a pretty picture that fits in with the background of the game, though. Curse the evil-do... (see all)
Posted By: SirCorin (10/21/2013 10:02:50 AM)


I wholly applaud this entire direction with regards to how the design is progressing. It provides a rich flavor and wealth of detail available to draw on. I'll never forget years back when some of my most long-time players looked up at me in a game and asked; "are kobolds nocturnal?" At the time nothing had been said and you might argue that such a characteristic wouldn't matter. But we inferred from their subterranean native environment that they would prefer to be active at night. Because of this when the players strategical attacked a location they were able to take out kobold guards and catch a encampment with a good bulk of its number asleep. It was a memorable story and some very creative thinking at the time. And since then I've valued every piece of info about where a creature comes from or what its like. This is a welcome and rewarding direction that I for one am grateful for.
Posted By: Daedaleus (10/21/2013 9:25:55 AM)


As long as there is enough info so that I can create a believable habitat for the monsters I use in my story. I hated the 4th edition monster manual because it had very little info about any monster besides how they fought. Give me a favored region, description, picture, most common alignment and basic rundown on what they do with their time and I will be happy. I don't need a short story for every monster. I guess what I'm saying is don't use the monster entries to give out information on some campaign world that I may not use. Basic origins like "The medusa is a cursed woman because she said was more beautiful than Sune" would be just fine.
Posted By: ZaranBlack (10/21/2013 8:58:23 AM)


I'm all for expanded lore in the monster manual. I think more people will take it as "this is how it is" now than you would think, especially when it comes to RPGA. I also think the origins have to be more generic. I wasn't liking the Medusa story at all. A decade for an eternity of ugliness. That's one hell of a way to become immortal. It just sounded cheesy and not well thought out. A lot of care needs to be put into this if this is the route you are going. Also, please don't deviate too much from the older edition lore.
Posted By: zagora_01 (10/21/2013 8:31:24 AM)


I have to say, my feelings about adding these kinds of new details to monsters depend a whole lot on how they're framed. Taking that new medusa backstory as an example, I think it's a cool idea. It's an interesting possibility, and something I might consider using in my game. If it's presented as something like, "Here's one way that medusas can come into being," or, "Here's some sage's theory about where medusas come from," or even "This is how medusas work in new campaign setting X," I like that. I like possibilities. But if it's presented as, "This is how medusas work now," or (even worse), "This is how medusas have always been," (retconning the new story into older campaign setting or modules, etc.), I *hate* that, with a passion.

I understand that it's always the DM's prerogative to change whatever fluff they don't like, but the more stuff I have to change, the more work that adds to my job. When fluff like that is presen... (see all)
Posted By: goldengod (10/21/2013 6:43:20 AM)


(metal bull = khalkotauros, fire-breathing Bronze Bulls of Hephaestus)

Just keep stories as open yet evocative as you can. I'd despecify the exact nature of how the wish spoils: could be the god is just jealous of a mortal's charisma or popularity, it could be a just curse for a selfish wish or hubris, or it could be, as above, a "devil's exchange". I'd err on the side of vagary, 'cause you can have only so many people entering bad bargains to increase their charisma in a campaign, but when the nature of the victim is more flexible...
Posted By: Dreamstryder (10/21/2013 6:32:12 AM)


What about "Tophet"?
Posted By: mordicai (10/21/2013 10:48:56 AM)


I've always thought of Medusa as a unique person rather than a type of creature. There are other monsters that fill the role of petrifying monster better. In my view Medusa is better kept as a unique woman cursed by jealous and vindictive gods.
Posted By: mightybrain (10/21/2013 3:56:50 AM)


I love DnD monster lore as much as I love mythology. Even if I don't get into 5e, I'll probably still buy the Monster Manuals. I read RPG MM's for fun, lol.

That's also a nice addition to the 'Medusa' lore. (I still want to call them Gorgons...But then what would I call the metal bulls?) But, why a human? (And not other races?) and Who or What do they make this deal with? I'd say some wicked Fey. And, don't limit it by saying 'Human' in the final MM text. An elf, for example, could make an excellent Medusa as well.

Remember, many DnD players take what you Devs write as THE LAW in their games. Always think about how you word things. You might want to consider bending over backwards to point out that all fluff is an option, or a suggestion. And that it's really a DM's job to make the game HIS or HERS; not your job. Your job is cool bits of lore,fluff, setting info, and, more importantly, a rule set that is coherent and beautifully rendered.
Posted By: seti (10/21/2013 1:22:22 AM)


I agree with the bit about players taking what's written in the books as law. Obviously, not everyone does that, but it seems like there's always at least one player who has read every splatbook ever written and wants every single detail of it to be canon. The fewer details are set in stone, the less those players have to work with, and the easier the DM's job becomes.
Posted By: goldengod (10/21/2013 6:48:16 AM)


Seconded (thirded?). If Next is supposed to be modular and customizable, a goal I wholeheartedly support, I'd expect that to extend to the fluff. A lot of these Wandering Monsters columns have been presenting really cool stories for familiar monsters, and they're always a great read. But I dislike how they're almost always presented as the indisputable facts about medusas (or sphinxes or goblins or redcaps...).

I would like this new fluff so much more if it spent a few words putting it in-universe; "according to an ancient legend, Medusas trade a decade of beauty and power for an eternity of awesome gaze attacks..." The other advantage is that you can put in multiple backstories, or add new material in the magazines or the subsequent monster manuals, without worrying about contradicting your existing "canon."

Incidentally, this makes for a tidy solution to the orc problem. Being told, in official game content, that orcs (or goblins or whatever... (see all)
Posted By: LawfulNifty (10/21/2013 8:35:32 AM)


I want to expand on players reading the Monster Manuals. As a DM, I always homebrew my settings. I create new mythologies about nearly every creature in the game. Goblinoids are spawned from murky pools. Orcs are neutral nomads. Dragons are not hatched from eggs. Myths tell of giants that may or may not actually exist, as the only ones any living people have seen are ogres and trolls. Many creatures are mysterious or even unknown. The common person knows nothing of their origins, and not even legends are told of from where they came.

Anyone who peers into the Monster Manual is going to assume what is written there is truth unless my house rules specify otherwise. I don't want to have to tell players the origin stories of all of my creatures, so I have to make what is written in the Monster Manuals the assumed truth by the PCs and NPCs. Then when I subtly reveal of part of the origin of a creature, there's the risk that where the PC should be thinking, "I never knew that... (see all)
Posted By: Shroom-Mage (10/22/2013 9:22:37 PM)


Some fluff should be 'law' and others mutable; iconic elements of a creature for example. But I do like the option of "according to rumour/ancient legend/Council of Mages/Storyteller Bob" being in there. That allows them to change based on what the DM wants but is a good place to start. Its like asking the Joker how he got those scars.
Posted By: Rartemass (10/21/2013 5:14:01 PM)


Very well put. I'm increasingly disturbed by the trend toward "We're going to rewrite all the lore!" that I'm seeing in Wyatt's monster columns, and now Mearls seems to be echoing it.
Posted By: Dausuul (10/21/2013 11:15:13 AM)


I gotta say I agree with everything you all have written here.
Posted By: SirCorin (10/21/2013 10:14:27 AM)


I think one of the take-aways of the edition war is that fluff has to be treated as rules, or at least match up to the rules 1:1. It was one of the things h4ters hated about 4e: that the fluff was segregated, mutable and didn't carry the force of RAW.
Posted By: Tony_Vargas (10/21/2013 2:59:43 PM)



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