Design & Development07/07/2006


Stat Blocks
Format and Function



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Why better stat blocks can help increase your balors' survival rate.


I’m James Wyatt, your special guest star for this week (returning after last week's Next Generation article), here to talk to you about statistics blocks. That’s what we call them in our books, but around the office we always shorten that to “stat blocks.” As one of the people responsible for the new stat block format, introduced in Dungeon Master’s Guide II and appearing in July’s Monster Manual IV, I seemed like a pretty logical person to give you a behind-the-scenes, under-the-hood look at why we’re doing them the way we are.

I want to eat up a fair bit of your screen real estate to start things off, by presenting a couple of stat blocks. They’re all for the same creature: a balor. But I’m going to show it to you in three different formats.

First is the format used in the D&D v.3.5 Monster Manual:

Demon, Balor
Large Outsider (Chaotic, Extraplanar, Evil, Tanar’ri)
Hit Dice: 20d8+200 (290 hp)
Initiative: +11
Speed: 40 ft. (8 squares), fly 90 ft. (good)
Armor Class: 35 (–1 size, +7 Dex, +19 natural), touch 16, flat-footed 28
Base Attack/Grapple: +20/+36
Attack:+1 vorpal longsword +33 melee (2d6+8/19–20)
Full Attack:+1 vorpal longsword +31/+26/+21/+16 melee (2d6+8/19–20) and +1 flaming whip +30/+25 melee (1d4+4 plus 1d6 fire plus entangle); or 2 slams +31 melee (1d10+7)
Space/Reach: 10 ft./10 ft. (20 ft. with +1 flaming whip)
Special Attacks: Death throes, entangle, spell-like abilities, summon tanar'ri, vorpal sword Special Qualities: Damage reduction 15/cold iron and good, darkvision 60 ft., flaming body, immunity to electricity, fire, and poison, resistance to acid 10 and cold 10, spell resistance 28, telepathy 100 ft., true seeing
Saves: Fort +22, Ref +19, Will +19
Abilities: Str 35, Dex 25, Con 31, Int 24, Wis 24, Cha 26
Skills: Bluff +31, Concentration +33, Diplomacy +35, Disguise +8 (+10 acting), Hide +26, Intimidate +33, Knowledge (any two) +30, Listen +38, Move Silently +30, Search +30, Sense Motive +30, Spellcraft +30 (+32 scrolls), Spot +38, Survival +7 (+9 following tracks), Use Magic Device +31 (+33 scrolls)
Feats: Cleave, Improved Initiative, Improved Two-Weapon Fighting, Power Attack, Quicken Spell-Like Ability (telekinesis), Two-Weapon Fighting, Weapon Focus (longsword)
Environment: Infinite Layers of the Abyss
Organization: Solitary or troupe (1 balor, 1 marilith, and 2–5 hezrous)
Challenge Rating: 20
Treasure: Standard coins; double goods; standard items, plus +1 vorpal greatsword and +1 flaming whip
Alignment: Always chaotic evil
Advancement: 21–30 HD (Large); 31–50 HD (Huge)
Level Adjustment:

First thing I’ll point out is how much we improved this entry over its 3.0 equivalent. We added a base attack/grapple line, to spare the DM from calculating those figures on the fly. We split attack and full attack, so it was always clear what the balor would do after it moved or in other situations where it could only attack once, and we folded damage right in with the attacks. And, perhaps most importantly, we made sure that crucial things like immunities and resistances were listed. The Special Qualities line for this guy in the 3.0 Monster Manual looked like this:

Special Qualities: Damage reduction 30/+3, SR 28, tanar’ri qualities, death throes

If you didn’t know off the top of your head that tanar’ri qualities included immunities and resistances to various forms of energy (and really, who did?), that was easy to forget.

Ooh, but speaking of easy to forget... That Special Attacks entry has a very nasty phrase in it: “spell-like abilities.” Those include some of the balor’s most important powers, but if you want to know what they are, you need to look over on the next page, where you’ll see this paragraph:

Spell-Like Abilities: At will—blasphemy (DC 25), dominate monster (DC 27), greater dispel magic, greater teleport (self plus 50 pounds of objects only), insanity (DC 25), power word stun, telekinesis (DC 23), unholy aura (DC 26); 1/day—fire storm (DC 26), implosion (DC 27). Caster level 20th. The save DCs are Charisma-based.

The Adventure Stat Block

Now here’s another way of presenting this information that we’ve used in the past:

Balor: CR 20; Large outsider (chaotic, extraplanar, evil, tanar’ri); HD 20d8+200; hp 290; Init +11; Spd 40 ft., fly 90 ft. (good); AC 35, touch 16, flat-footed 28; Atk +31/+26/+21/+16 melee (2d6+8/19–20, +1 vorpal longsword) and +30/+25 melee (1d4+4 plus 1d6 fire plus entangle, +1 flaming whip); or +31/+31 melee (1d10+7, 2 slams); SA death throes, entangle, spell-like abilities, summon tanar’ri, vorpal sword; SQ DR 15/cold iron and good, darkvision 60 ft., flaming body, immunity to electricity, fire, and poison, resistance to acid 10 and cold 10, telepathy 100 ft., true seeing; SR 28; AL CE; SV Fort +22, Ref +19, Will +19; Str 35, Dex 25, Con 31, Int 24, Wis 24, Cha 26.
Skills and Feats: Bluff +31, Concentration +33, Diplomacy +35, Hide +26, Intimidate +33, Knowledge (any two) +30, Listen +38, Move Silently +30, Search +30, Sense Motive +30, Spellcraft +30, Spot +38, Use Magic Device +31; Cleave, Improved Initiative, Improved Two-Weapon Fighting, Power Attack, Quicken Spell-Like Ability (telekinesis), Two-Weapon Fighting, Weapon Focus (longsword).
Death Throes (Ex): When killed, a balor explodes in a blinding flash of light that deals 100 points of damage to anything within 100 feet (Reflex DC 30 half). This explosion automatically destroys any weapons the balor is holding.
Entangle (Ex): A balor’s +1 flaming whip entangles foes much like an attack with a net. The whip has 20 hit points. The whip needs no folding. If it hits, the target and the balor immediately make opposed Strength checks; if the balor wins, it drags the target against its flaming body (see below). The target remains anchored against the balor’s body until its escapes the whip.
Spell-Like Abilities: At will—blasphemy (DC 25), dominate monster (DC 27), greater dispel magic, greater teleport (self plus 50 pounds of objects only), insanity (DC 25), power word stun, telekinesis (DC 23), unholy aura (DC 26); 1/day—fire storm (DC 26), implosion (DC 27). Caster level 20th. The save DCs are Charisma-based.
Vorpal Sword (Su): Every balor carries a +1 vorpal longsword that looks like a flame or a bolt of lightning.
Summon Tanar’ri (Sp): Once per day a balor can automatically summon 4d10 dretches, 1d4 hezrous, or one nalfeshness, glabrezu, marilith, or balor. This ability is the equivalent of a 9th-level spell.
Flaming Body (Su): The body of a balor is wreathed in flame. Anyone grappling a balor takes 6d6 points of fire damage each round.
Telepathy (Su): A balor can communicate telepathically with any creature within 100 feet that has a language.
True Seeing (Su): Balors have a continuous true seeing ability, as the spell (caster level 20th).

It will probably come as no surprise when I point out that this format, like the Monster Manual format, owes a lot to the previous editions of the game. It has long been standard practice to take all the statistics from a monster entry and string them together with semicolons, abbreviating the headers, and then explaining special abilities below. This is the format that we have traditionally used when presenting monsters in the context of an adventure, rather than in a monster book. It’s more compact than a full monster listing, and it achieves that by abbreviating headers, replacing line breaks with semicolons, and omitting some information you don’t really need (like Environment and Treasure); after all, by the time you encounter a creature in an adventure, you pretty much figure its environment is “here.”

I hate this format. I’m not sure I can begin to explain just how much I hate this format. When I want to know the balor’s AC, my eye roams all over that stat block before the letters “AC” finally jump out at me. This is not a useful stat block—although it is probably the origin of the term “stat block,” because it takes all those stats and puts them in a block. When I ran adventures using it, I would take a minute before combat started to circle or underline or highlight the important information—like AC, energy resistances, SR, that sort of thing. I’d write the hit points in the margin next to it, so I had room to track them as the PCs damaged the creature.

I am not alone in my loathing of this format. In fact, it was David Noonan, one of the regular authors of this column, who really started pushing for a new format—one that would actually be usable at the gaming table. He developed the first versions of what would become our new stat block format. Eventually, it was a team consisting of myself, Chris Perkins (Design Manager), Jesse Decker (Development Manager), and Kim Mohan (Managing Editor) who put it together.

The New Stat Block

You’ve seen the stat block format in use by now, but here’s the balor one more time:

BALOR CR 20
CE Large outsider (chaotic, extraplanar, evil, tanar’ri)
Init +11; Senses darkvision 60 ft., true seeing; Listen +38, Spot +38
Aura flaming body
Languages Abyssal, Celestial, Draconic; telepathy 100 ft.

AC 35, touch 16, flat-footed 28
hp 290 (20 HD); DR 15/cold iron and good
Immune electricity, fire, poison
Resist acid 10, cold 10; SR 28
Fort +22, Ref +19, Will +19

Speed 40 ft. (8 squares), fly 90 ft. (good)
Melee+1 vorpal longsword +31/+26/+21/+16 (2d6+8/19–20 and sever head) and
+1 flaming whip +30/+25 (1d4+4 plus 1d6 fire plus entangle); or
Melee 2 slams +31 (1d10+7)
Space 10 ft.; Reach 10 ft.
Base Atk +20; Grp +36
Atk Options entangle, Cleave, Power Attack
Special Actionssummon tanar’ri
Spell-Like Abilities (CL 20th):
At will—blasphemy (DC 25), dominate monster (DC 27), greater dispel magic, greater teleport (self plus 50 pounds of objects only), insanity (DC 25), power word stun, telekinesis (DC 23), unholy aura (DC 26);
1/day—fire storm (DC 26), implosion (DC 27).

Abilities Str 35, Dex 25, Con 31, Int 24, Wis 24, Cha 26
SQ death throes
Feats Cleave, Improved Initiative, Improved Two-Weapon Fighting, Power Attack, Quicken Spell-Like Ability (telekinesis), Two-Weapon Fighting, Weapon Focus (longsword)
Skills Bluff +31, Concentration +33, Diplomacy +35, Hide +26, Intimidate +33, Knowledge (any two) +30, Listen +38, Move Silently +30, Search +30, Sense Motive +30, Spellcraft +30, Spot +38, Use Magic Device +31
Possessions+1 vorpal longsword, +1 flaming whip

True Seeing (Su): Balors have a continuous true seeing ability, as the spell (caster level 20th).
Flaming Body (Su): The body of a balor is wreathed in flame. Anyone grappling a balor takes 6d6 points of fire damage each round.
Entangle (Ex): A balor’s +1 flaming whip entangles foes much like an attack with a net. The whip has 20 hit points. The whip needs no folding. If it hits, the target and the balor immediately make opposed Strength checks; if the balor wins, it drags the target against its flaming body (see below). The target remains anchored against the balor’s body until its escapes the whip.
Summon Tanar’ri (Sp): Once per day a balor can automatically summon 4d10 dretches, 1d4 hezrous, or one nalfeshness, glabrezu, marilith, or balor. This ability is the equivalent of a 9th-level spell.
Death Throes (Ex): When killed, a balor explodes in a blinding flash of light that deals 100 points of damage to anything within 100 feet (Reflex DC 30 half). This explosion automatically destroys any weapons the balor is holding.

There’s a lot to say about this, though a lot of it appears in the DMGII and other places where we make extensive use of this new format. First and foremost, it’s not strictly a “block” of text any more—the stat block is broken back out into separate lines of text. So when you want to know the balor’s AC, you’re just looking down the start of the lines. All the headers are in bold type, just like in a monster entry, so it’s easier for that “AC” to catch your eye.

Quite possibly the most important aspect of this new format is the way we reordered the information and grouped related information together. You’ll notice the use of a horizontal rule—we separate information into five distinct sections. The first section tells you what the monster is and helps you start an encounter with it. Does it detect the PCs (senses)? If they try to talk to it, does it speak their language? When it’s time to start combat, what’s its initiative?

The next section tells you most everything you need to know about the monster when it’s the PCs’ turn. When they’re attacking it, you need to know its AC, its hit points, its saves, and the ways it has to resist those attacks. Damage reduction is right next to hit points, so you remember to reduce the damage it takes while you’re marking the damage off its hit points.

The third section tells you what you need to know when it’s the monsters turn. Here are all the things it can do, from its basic attacks to its spell-like abilities. The “Atk Options” line tells you weird things it can do with its attacks, while “Special Actions” tells you things it can do instead of attacks. And look! All its spell-like abilities are listed right there with all the other things it can do on its turn—for the first time in the balor’s 30-plus-year history!

The fourth section is stuff that’s usually not important in combat, or at least less important. It doesn’t matter that the balor has Weapon Focus (longsword), because it’s already calculated into its attack bonus. Who cares, once combat starts, that it has Diplomacy +35? You’ll look here once in a while, but less often than you’ll be looking in the second and third sections.

The last section is explanatory text. What does that “entangle” in the whip’s damage mean? You’ll find it down at the bottom.

Why It Matters

What Feats Go Where?

Speed: Spring Attack, Ride-By Attack, Shot on the Run, Run
AC: Dodge, Mobility, Deflect Arrows, Two-Weapon Defense
Ranged Attack: Manyshot, Rapid Shot
Atk Options: Blind-Fight, Cleave, Combat Reflexes, Far Shot, Great Cleave, Improved Bull Rush, Improved Disarm, Improved Feint, Improved Overrun, Improved Precise Shot, Improved Sunder, Improved Trip, Mounted Combat, Point Blank Shot, Power Attack, Powerful Charge, Precise Shot, Quick Draw, Rapid Reload, Spirited Charge, Stunning Fist, Trample, Whirlwind Attack; metamagic feats (if the creature casts spontaneously)
Special Actions: Snatch Arrows
Spells Prepared/Spells Known: Spell Penetration

Maybe none of you are like me. It’s possible that I am the world’s worst DM. But I kind of figure, if I have trouble remembering relevant information about a monster while I’m running it, I’m probably not the only one who has that problem. In fact, I chose the balor as the example for this article partly because of my experience running it during playtesting of City of the Spider Queen. (For another tale of balors in the city (of the Spider Queen) take a look at Stephen Schubert's Tactics & Tips.) The PCs polished off a balor pretty easily, and I went home that night kicking myself over all the things I’d forgotten.

The thing is, information gets buried pretty easily in long lists. The old adventure stat block format is one long list, so everything is buried in there. But even the monster entry in the 3.5 Monster Manual includes a couple of long lists where things get buried—particularly the Special Attacks, Special Qualities, and Feats entries. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve forgotten that a monster has Dodge, or Power Attack, or fire resistance, or SR.

With this new format, grouping information by its use in the game has become more important than grouping it by other categories. Yes, all the balor’s feats are listed together, down in that catch-all fourth section. But Cleave and Power Attack are also listed under Attack Options, because they’re relevant to the decisions it makes when it’s attacking. If it had Dodge, you’d see that on its AC line—and it’s possible I might never again forget to use it. (No promises, though.) Likewise, its Listen and Spot modifiers appear right up top with its darkvision and true seeing—where you need them at the start of an encounter. Information is less likely to get buried in long lists, because we’ve broken up most of the long lists to put the information where it belongs.

The other way information gets lost is if you have to look in radically different places to find what you need. Even if “damage reduction 10/magic” is the only thing in a monster’s Special Qualities entry, it’s easy to forget it’s there when you’re looking up above, at the monster’s Armor Class and hit points. Again, we group that information together now so that your eye doesn’t have to wander all over the page to find all the information you need.

The Future of the Stat Block

With the release of Monster Manual IV in July, you’ll see a slightly modified version of this format used for monster entries. This is a significant change, but one that makes a lot of sense. We designed this new format for maximum use at the table. We want our monster books to be resources that you can use at the table. We think that it’s easier to play a balor from a stat block in this format than it is to play it out of the 3.5 Monster Manual, so we’re making the new format the standard monster format.

That said, we realize that a monster entry in a monster book needs to include more information than the statistics block gives you. So you’ll see some changes to the format when we use it in a monster book, and in particular you’ll see a lot of text below the stat block that tells you more about how to use the monster in your game. From strategy and tactics to ecology and society, you’ll see all the information you’re used to seeing in a full monster entry—and more.

Stat Blocks in Action

For a look at the new stat block, just take a look at the following previews and excerpts from July's Monster Manual IV:

Feedback

We hope this helps illuminate some of the reason and rationale behind the new stat block format. As always, we're eager to hear your opinion on the subject -- so send your thoughts to dndcolumn@wizards.com!

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