ver the last few weeks we've looked at character classes in D&D Next. This week, I want to take another look at monsters in the game and give you an update on how we're presenting them.
There's a natural tension in writing for Dungeons & Dragons that designers grapple with all the time. On the one hand, as a roleplaying game, D&D is all about enabling creativity and storytelling. The game doesn't come to life until players and DMs add their own personal touches to it.
On the other hand, the stories that we as writers and designers come up with do have a purpose. We want them to be inspirational, or to prove useful to a DM in a crunch, or to just be interesting to read. Furthermore, given the number of people playing D&D, a wide range of campaigns and play styles need a consistent story and background to draw on.
Resolving these two issues isn't hard, but it's not something we've done much of in the recent past. That's changing as we move forward. We want to add inspiring, interesting stories to our monsters. But at the same time, we want to make it so that you aren't forced to use the details we create unless they make sense for your game.
In working on monsters, we're adding a lot more specific story details to their descriptions than we have in the past. Taking a cue from the 4th Edition Monster Vault and the 2nd Edition Monstrous Compendium, we're providing more information on each monster's personality, ecology, goals, and place in the world. More importantly, we're drawing links between different monsters. For instance, we expanded on hags to make them monstrous fey with a whole network of other creatures that serve or ally with them. They create animated scarecrows, use a horrid curse to turn those who betray them into redcaps, and hire mercenary yugoloths when dealing with truly formidable enemies.
This approach makes creatures more cohesive and grounds them in a distinct identity. For some creatures, this involves taking different things that have been said about them in the past and compiling them into one cohesive entry. For other creatures, this process required more invention. Here's an example from a portion of the jackalwere entry:
Beguilers and Liars. The demon lord Graz'zt created the jackalweres to serve his devoted servants, the lamias. Reaching out from the Abyss, he bestowed jackals with the gift of speech and the ability to assume humanoid forms. A jackalwere is born to lie, and perceptive creatures might notice it wincing in pain when it speaks the truth. Though it can hold its own in combat, it prefers to fight alongside jackals and others of its kind. A pack led by a jackalwere will flee from tough opponents, only to circle back to attack from ambush or murder foes in their sleep.
As you can see from this entry, we've tied jackalweres to both Graz'zt and lamias. But we recognize that Graz'zt might not exist in your campaign, or that the connection to lamias might not be needed in a specific encounter. That's why when it comes to mechanical design, we don't allow those sorts of story details to influence a creature's special abilities and rules. If you want to convert an old AD&D adventure that uses jackalweres, their stats slip right into place without requiring you to completely reinvent the creature's role in the adventure.
The same goes for your own campaigns and adventures. Though we've changed the story behind the jackalwere, the creature's mechanical expression remains consistent with prior editions. Jackalweres have the same key special abilities (a gaze that can lull creatures to sleep, the ability to change shapes) to ensure consistency. We haven't tied those abilities to Graz'zt, lamias, or any other element of the story. They fit in thematically—the jackalweres' magical abilities make them ideal servants for lamias—but they can be separated without causing any dissonance at the table.
The new details we've added to monsters serve two purposes. First, they provide story hooks and ideas for how DMs can use the creature—things that have sometimes been missing from creature descriptions in the past. They also provide roleplaying hooks for portraying the creature in the game, giving DMs a sense of how a monster might act within the world and outside of battle.
At the same time, since the new story material complements rather than replaces existing special abilities and mechanics, the two aren't dependent on each other. You can easily create your own story for jackalweres in your campaign without the need to redesign their game stats.
In the end, our goal for monster design in D&D Next has been to provide a comfortable balance between inspiring DMs with interesting stories, and leaving room for wholesale invention and creation. The game should always have plenty of room for our stories and for yours.
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.