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Monsters as Player Characters
Wandering Monsters
By James Wyatt

H ere's sort of a digression. I want to talk this week about the whole concept of using monsters, not as opponents, but as heroes. How important is it that the monsters in the Monster Manual are available as character races as well?

A Brief History of the Concept

D&D players have wanted to play monsters pretty much since the beginning of the game. The original Dungeon Master's Guide has a section on the topic that amounts to strong discouragement—and there's no point in prohibiting something that no one wants to do anyway. But the reincarnation spell left the door wide open for player character bugbears, centaurs, and lizardfolk. (In fact, a lizard man player character appeared in the 1st Edition Rogue's Gallery, as part of a collection of PCs played by TSR staff at the time.)

The Dungeon Master's Guide for 2nd Edition took a similarly stern position, but did include some guidelines for letting players take on humanoid characters of nonstandard races. Then The Complete Book of Humanoids covered this subject, and I remember suddenly facing goblin and pixie PCs. The Council of Wyrms setting in 2nd Edition also allowed dragon PCs, with an interesting twist—a dragon PC would have a humanoid companion who could take on adventures that would be difficult for the dragon to undertake.

The 3rd Edition Dungeon Master's Guide and Monster Manual basically gave you all the rules you needed to play a variety of monstrous player characters, presenting that as a variant rule. Using the concept of "level equivalent" (which became "level adjustment," which you added with your class levels to determine your "effective character level" soon thereafter), you could take the gnoll from the Monster Manual and make it a PC lagging only 2 levels behind its standard-race counterparts. The 3.5 Monster Manual expanded the information it presented for monsters that advanced as characters, so it was easier to know exactly what a monstrous race provided to a character. Then Savage Species came along and took everything a step further.

When Savage Species was released, I ran a short-lived game where the player characters consisted of a ghaele eladrin, a gold dragon, a water naga, a green slaad, and a hill giant. Even if you can get past the absurdity of the party (and granted, we embraced that when we set up the game), they were a bunch of 16th-level characters with 10 Hit Dice, and they proved no match for a balor. The levels they had to give up to account for their various special abilities were a high price to pay.

Then the 4th Edition Monster Manual provided descriptions for certain monsters as if they were PC races, and although the original intent was that this information would be used by the DM to create NPCs, the information appeared in the D&D Insider Character Builder, and they might as well have been character races in a Player's Handbook. At one point, data from the Character Builder showed us that races drawn from various Monster Manuals accounted for about 3.5 percent of all the characters created with the builder, with the shadar-kai leading the pack at about 0.7 percent.

Nuanced Idea

So D&D has at least shown some openness to the idea of players taking on monstrous characters through most of its history, but to varying degrees. I think it's important to distinguish the way the game treats different kinds of monsters.

Dirt-Simple Humanoids. Orcs, goblins, gnolls, bugbears, hobgoblins, drow, aasimar, tieflings, duergar, svirfneblin—these are pretty straightforward monsters. Many of them are traditionally 1-Hit Die monsters with few or no special abilities—really no different from the standard PC races except culturally. The tougher ones are only a little tougher than the standard races, and they still lack a significant number of special abilities. Their extra strength can be handled pretty simply by using something like 3rd Edition's level adjustment, or it can be hand-waved away as it was in 4th Edition, making the monsters work just like regular races. A level adjustment system can handle even creatures as powerful as minotaurs or ogres, since they're still not much more complicated than a fighter. A minotaur is basically just a multiclassed minotaur/fighter. The 4th Edition system had less room to accommodate really powerful creatures, since all monstrous races were supposed to be balanced against the standard races. So we had a Medium minotaur and no ogre PCs, because Large creatures are harder to balance against those races.

The Complete Book of Humanoids, the 3rd Edition Monster Manual and Dungeon Master's Guide, and the 4th Edition Monster Manuals all supported the play of dirt-simple humanoids with relatively simple mechanics. That seems like something we should continue to do in the game, even if the player demand is not overwhelming.

It's worth noting that the Eberron setting assumes the possibility of orc and goblinoid characters. These races have civilizations of their own, and there's no good reason to disallow them while allowing elves and dwarves. On top of that, the nation of Droaam is full of monsters—a great excuse for a character of any monstrous race.

More Complicated Humanoids. This category covers everything from ogres—which are dirt-simple except for their size and strength—to pixies, which combine a difficult size with a number of innate magical abilities, including invisibility and flight. A level adjustment mechanic is trickier for these races. If you give a pixie the +4 level adjustment suggested by the 3rd Edition Dungeon Master's Guide, then you end up with a 5th-level character with 10 hit points. Maybe that's OK if you're invisible, but your saving throws, attack bonus, spellcasting levels, and so on are all way out of sync with your companions' numbers in these areas.

The Rest of the Monster Manual. And then there are all the other monsters that are intelligent enough to be player characters, but look like no other character in the game. Want to play a blink dog? A unicorn? A green slaad? You can slap a level adjustment on these creatures, but that doesn't even begin to cover the challenges faced by such a creature when it tries to adventure alongside player characters who are one of the base PC races. How does the unicorn do on stairs? How does the slaad deal with people screaming and running when he enters town?

Savage Species went the furthest the game has ever gone in terms of presenting monsters you could play as characters, as my crazy party demonstrates. It also introduced the idea of treating monsters like classes, so that you could play a minotaur (or a ghaele eladrin) at 1st level—you just had a tiny subset of the powers the ghaele in the Monster Manual had. But is it satisfying to play a 1st-level mind flayer? Is it fun? Is this an experience we should try to facilitate in the future?

What Do You Think?

Previous Poll Results

1) Does D&D need dinosaurs (meaning all forms of Paleozoic and Mesozoic reptiles)?
Yes, they’re essential to the game. 549 26%
Yes, they’re pretty important, not least because of the Eberron setting, but not essential. 785 37%
No, they’re really optional. 683 32%
No, they don’t belong in the game. 97 5%

2) What do you think about naming and categorizing dinosaurs?
I like the Eberron setting approach of using common names for them instead of scientific genuses, and I like grouping them by type. 835 39%
I like grouping them by type, but those types should be scientific names (theriopods, sauropods, and so on) rather than common, in-world names. Likewise, just call a triceratops a triceratops, not a threehorn. 342 16%
Group them all as dinosaurs, but I like the more flavorful names. 523 25%
Group them all as dinosaurs, and use their real-world names. 405 19%

3) How does this description of giant eagles and giant owls match your sense of the iconic D&D creatures?
1—Terrible, like talons digging into your arm. 23 1%
2—Pretty bad, like an owl pellet. 48 2%
3—So-so—I can sort of see where they should be from here. 409 19%
4—Pretty good, like seeing an eagle soaring in the sky. 1038 49%
5—Awesome, like talking to Gwaihir in the peaks of the Misty Mountains! 561 26%

4) Would you like to see giant eagles and giant owls more closely linked to high elves and wood elves?
No, I think that makes birds and elves alike worse. 268 13%
No, I think that makes elves less cool. 43 2%
No, I think that makes the birds less cool. 321 15%
Yes, I think that makes the birds more interesting. 526 25%
Yes, I think that makes the elves more interesting. 262 12%
Yes, I think that helps birds and elves alike. 653 31%

5) Dire rat or giant rat?
Giant rat 1079 51%
Dire rat 768 36%
Sumatran rat 46 2%
Mountain giant Sunda rat 25 1%
Horrid rat 74 3%
Other 109 5%

6) Dire ape or carnivorous ape?
Carnivorous ape 1094 52%
Dire ape 609 29%
Gray ape 273 13%
Horrid ape 49 2%
Other 74 3%

7) How smart are these apes?
Pure instinct: Intelligence 1 or 2 104 5%
Really dumb: Intelligence 3–5 469 22%
Dim: Intelligence 6–8 1238 58%
Average: Intelligence 9–12 236 11%
Smart: Intelligence above 12 50 2%

8) Dire bear or cave bear?
Cave bear 1225 58%
Dire bear 780 37%
Horrid bear 23 1%
Other 67 3%

9) How much interest do you have in these other Pleistocene animals? (Average Rank listed below.)
Saber-toothed tiger 2113 3.10
Mammoth and mastodon 2113 3.57
Spotted lion 2113 4.86
Hyaenadon 2113 4.97
Wooly rhinoceros 2113 5.16
Irish deer 2113 5.38
Entelodon 2113 5.61
Megatherium (giant ground sloth) 2113 5.94
Baluchitherium (giant hornless rhino) 2113 6.41

James Wyatt
James Wyatt is the Creative Manager for Dungeons & Dragons R&D at Wizards of the Coast. He was one of the lead designers for 4th Edition Dungeons & Dragons and the primary author of the 4th Edition Dungeon Master’s Guide. He also contributed to the Eberron Campaign Setting, and is the author of several Dungeons & Dragons novels set in the world of Eberron.
Hello, Its good to see that this part of the game is finally being delved into.

I for one have always wanted to play as a Pit Fiend and have met a bunch other fellow players fond of playing with monsters as PCs mostly in other forums. Its funny to see that many DMs come up with ideas or complete progression tables on how to accomplish this, however material released so far does not provide reliable insight on making the progression for creatures such as devils, demons, devas, elementals or even dragons. The notion of CR and ECL for a monster is something that could never be tuned up accordingly, the same applies to level by level progression tables. In forums you would bump into the question of what was the ECL for this or that creature which often times ended up creating a whole thread of discussion( by the way it was suggested the ECL for a Pit Fiend was 23 ).

Finally it would be neat if Wizards came up with a complete manual on how to progress any monsters, su... (see all)
Posted By: kyumaru (12/18/2013 12:16:27 AM)