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, Dave Noonan returns with a look at the design side of things.
Let’s look at why you like the monsters you like.
A few months ago, we talked about monsters with traction, the ability to stick in the collective consciousness of D&D players worldwide. You can read what we were talking about right here. We asked you what monsters had achieved traction in your own games. Once we crossed off the obvious choices (we know dragons have traction, for example—the game is named after them), we wound up with an interesting list. Let’s look at the results and see how closely they match the principles of traction we outlined in that original column.
If you’re looking for a monster for your next D&D adventure, you might try one of these listed below. Your fellow D&D players are having fun with them at the table, and you might, too.
The Winner: The Yuan-Ti
The most frequently mentioned traction monster is the snakelike yuan-ti. You can find the basic yuan-ti in the Monster Manual, the yuan-ti anathema in Fiend Folio, the tainted ones in Monsters of Faerun and Savage Species, and the holy guardians and mageslayers in Serpent Kingdoms. There are also the yuan-ti creations: ti-khaana in Fiend Folio, ssvaklor in Monster Manual III, and extaminaars in Champions of Ruin. (Oh, and psionic versions of the yuan-ti in Expanded Psionics Handbook.) That’s a pretty good set of snake-men in your arsenal.
The yuan-ti’s path to the traction it enjoys today has been, well, serpentine. They first appeared in a pretty obscure place: An adventure called Dwellers of the Forbidden City, which was the tournament module at the Origins game convention in 1980 and later released as module I1, the first in TSR’s “intermediate” series.
That year (1981) also saw the publication of Lost Caverns of Tsojcanth (S4), which had more than 30 monsters, including such staples as the behir, the bodak, formorian giant, the dao, the marid, and the derro. It was a very good year for monsters—in a time when modules were one of the few ways a DM could get monsters beyond those presented in the original Monster Manual. (The original Fiend Folio wouldn’t be out for another year.)
In 1989, the 2nd edition of Advanced Dungeons & Dragons released, and the yuan-ti made the cut—but they were buried on the back side of the “yeti” entry in the original Monstrous Compendium. They were hard to find and hard to use—you had to change the Hit Dice on the fly depending on whether you wanted a halfblood, pureblood, or abomination. And thus you don’t see many yuan-ti in adventures throughout the 1990s until the Forgotten Realms campaign setting started using them as antagonists. They became popular enough to make the cut for 2000’s Monster Manual, and now your fellow readers think they’ve found traction.
So let’s look at the factors we identified as making a monster traction-worthy, to see how the yuan-ti stacks up.
Overall, good marks for the yuan-ti in terms of traction. The few categories where it didn’t do well (Art, Tie to Existing Monsters, PC Friendly) might explain why it languished for years before achieving traction.
But there are two better proofs that the yuan-ti have achieved decent traction. First, you told us you’re using them at your table. Second, I can promise you’ll see yuan-ti in upcoming D&D products. You’re using them, and we’re making more. That pretty much defines traction.
Traction and the Shadar-Kai
Number two on our hit parade of monsters with traction is the shadar-kai, found in the Fiend Folio. They’re fey from the Plane of Shadow… stealthy wielders of spiked chains… what’s not to like?
Taking the factors together, I worry that the shadar-kai’s unfriendliness as a PC race might keep them from achieving great traction. The other factors (ties to other parts of the play environment) are the sort of things you’d expect an adventure or sourcebook to take care of.
What about the Nerra?
Our number three monster with traction is the nerra, which also appeared in the Fiend Folio. Since a number of you have found that these enigmatic mirror-people have traction in your games, let’s see how they meet our criteria.
The nerra have most of the tools required for traction, but they’re so mysterious that they’re hard to drop into a D&D adventure. Essentially, you’ve got to supply the motivation yourself—and they’re neutral, so you have to work at it a little harder than you’d have to if these were “evil denizens of the mirror dimension.”
Traction as a Zero-Sum Game
During the brainstorming sessions for Fiend Folio, I was a strong proponent of the “let’s make the new githyanki” effort. I love D&D’s rich history, but I’m always suspicious of mining it too deeply. I figure part of my job is to make completely new stuff that people will get nostalgic about someday, not to enable happy nostalgic feelings in D&D gamers right now.
But the results of the “new githyanki” effort adhere too closely to the original. The shadar-kai, nerra, kaorti, and ethergaunts are all sinister denizens of other planes. They’re generally up to no good, but you can easily imagine a renegade making a good PC. In other words, they feel a lot like the githyanki. I think only the maugs avoid the close comparison to the githyanki. That’s not to say that the shadar-kai and company are bad monsters—I use the kaorti all the time in one of my weekly games—but the apples might not have fallen far enough from the tree.
In retrospect, I wonder whether trying to build traction into a monster is necessarily a worthwhile goal. Here’s why: What happens if you succeed? If the shadar-kai become the new githyanki, that just means fewer D&D tables use the gith. The shadar-kai gain traction only because the githyanki lose it. And you’re playing a zero-sum game.
Once we’ve created a robust monster environment, there’s only so much traction to go around. It’s great when one monster or another captures the imagination of D&D players, but fundamentally you can only fight so many monsters in each game session. We don’t look at traction because we want to give every monster as much traction as we possibly can. That’s folly. We look at traction because it gives us clues about good monster design in general.
After all, look at our criteria for traction. Aren’t many of those criteria good for niche monsters, too?
Take Away a Monster’s Traction
Assume for a moment that monster traction is a zero-sum game. Here’s your chance to take traction away from a beloved D&D monster. Tell us—and by extension your fellow players—which monsters don’t deserve their place in the “Hall of Terrific D&D monsters.” Email us with a monster that doesn’t deserve the traction it has, and for heaven’s sake tell us why. In a future column, we’ll share the results. And remember, it’s unfair to pick on the twig blight. You’re focusing on monsters that have decent traction in the game right now.
You Craft the Creature
Last time, we asked you what enemies our Aberrant Mastermind [AMM] most despises. The votes are in, with elves narrowly winning out over druids:
Folks, we're getting close to wrapping up You Craft the Creature, with members of R&D planning to assemble this information into creature concepts for you to vote on. Until then, we wanted to ask a question or two more to help flesh out this creature (assuming, of course, that it has flesh).
We've asked before about special abilities. This time we wanted to ask about the creature's defenses. Keeping in mind that these will be scaled appropriate to its Challenge Rating, what defense is the [AMM] most likely to rely on?What defense does the [AMM] rely on?
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. He plans to flood his own mailbox with complaints about the ogre mage.
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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