We're hoping this column becomes your window into roleplaying design and development -- or at least the way we approach these things here at Wizards of the Coast. We'll handle a wide range of topics in weeks to come, from frank discussions about over- or underpowered material, to the design goals of a certain supplement, to what we think are the next big ideas for the Dungeons & Dragons game. All of this comes bundled with a healthy look at the people and events that are roleplaying R&D.
This week, Jesse Decker (along with Jonathan Tweet) examines the niches that monsters occupy.
Monsters consistently rank as one of my favorite things to work on as a developer. The modular nature of their design and development means that you get to see a lot of cool ideas in a relatively short amount of time; plus, I generate a lot of great ideas for encounters and adventures when working on monsters -- they’re probably the most directly usable material that a DM can receive. As Dave Noonan’s Monster Traction article highlighted, good monster design includes good mechanical execution, interesting flavor, and a very high concentration of ideas in general. On top of all that, they’re one of the most important parts of the game beyond the core rules system.
Why so much importance on monsters? Because they’re the most frequently occurring source of variety in D&D games. Every time the DM uses a new monster there’s big-time potential for that monster’s design to impact the fun you have at the table. Designing and developing a monster well is one of our best tools for helping DMs create interesting encounters, moving play along quickly, and introducing variety into your game.
Because of all that, the design and development teams go to quite a lot of effort to get good monsters on your table. We’ll talk about monsters a lot in this column, but one of the first things I ask when a monster comes my way is: what’s this monster’s role? What mechanical niche does the monster fill? The monster’s niche describes its role in a combat encounter, and once that niche is established, a lot of the later decisions about the monster become easier to answer.
Here are the monster niches that we look at in development:
Very few creatures at higher CRs make good mobsters. Most extant creatures beyond CR 7 typically have so many special abilities that it’s hard for the DM to track them (I’ll talk about this point in my next article on monsters). Limited-use special abilities and abilities with random durations are especially bad for mobsters because the DM has to track which monsters have used them. The 1d4 round delay for a dragon’s breath weapon might be pretty easy to keep track of when it’s one bad-ass dragon taking on a group of characters, but it becomes extremely difficult to track when there are a dozen tiny dragons flying around, most of whom have different breath weapon recharge times that need to be individually tracked. Creatures at high levels do need good mobility and perception, though, so that they can threaten invisible and flying characters; this is especially important for mobsters because they often fight PCs above their own level.
I was reminded firsthand of what makes a bad mobster when I recently used a half-dozen vrocks as mobsters in a playtest. Play ground to a halt because of all the abilities and durations that had to be tracked (ick… spores), and they proved little challenge to the adventurers. The encounter wasn’t fun, but it was a great reminder to me that we need to find a way to communicate a monster’s niche to the DM.
DR is a strange effect, because it can punish melee attackers in general but reward melee attackers who deal lots of damage. Displacement has a more pure effect, hurting attack rolls but leaving area-attacks and spells unaffected. (That’s one reason why the displacer beast shouldn’t have a save bonus against ranged spells.)
Classes and Strategies
Mastermind monsters also combine particularly well with other monsters. This usually means that they are spellcasters or have several powerful special abilities and benefit from having a few lower-CR melee-oriented monsters to use as meat-shields and stand between them and the party’s melee fighters.
This is an ever-evolving way to think about monsters, so I encourage you to chime in with your thoughts on the best niches, ideas for monster niches that I’ve overlooked, or even ideas on how we can best communicate a monster’s niche to those DMs who are trying to design an encounter for tomorrow night’s game. Just post your ideas to the message boards or email them my way -- I love talking about monsters.
You Craft the Creature: Vote 2
It's time to continue crafting our brand new creature! First, a look at the creature type results. The votes are in, and "aberration" wins!
What's next? We've determined creature type, now it's time to determine creature niche. Based on this week's descriptions, which niche should our new creature occupy?What niche should this creature occupy?
About the Authors
Design: David Noonan is a designer/developer for Wizards of the Coast. His credits include co-designing Dungeon Master's Guide II, Heroes of Battle, and numerous products for the Eberron campaign setting. He lives in Washington state with his wife, son, and daughter.
Development: Jesse Decker is the development manager for RPGs at Wizards of the Coast. His credits include a two-year stint as editor-in-chief of Dragon magazine; design work on Complete Adventurer, DMG II, and other RPG titles; and development work on numerous D&D products, most of which he can’t talk about yet.
Thoughts or suggestions for this article? Topics for future Design & Development articles you'd like to see covered? By all means, please feel free to write directly to the authors, at: firstname.lastname@example.org.
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