Monsters

I think if you play roleplaying games of any sort, you love monsters. They provide challenges, story hooks, and many of them are just downright weird. As a youngling, I was on a constant quest for new monsters. As an adult, I’ve written countless new monsters and have redesigned or redeveloped even more. 

As an aside, if you play Dungeons & Dragons 5e, and you are looking for a new host of monsters, check out the Grim Hollow Monster Grimoire Kickstarter. I, and other very talented folks, designed a host of monsters for that tome, and I think you’ll like the results. Also, if if you play Pathfinder 2nd Edition, check out Eyes of Empty Death (part 3 of the Abomination Vault adventure path) and Bestiary 3. I wrote the former and contributed to the latter, and both have a bunch of new monsters to throw at your players. 

Of course, Delve will need a host of monsters right out the bat, which has led me to design a host of them for the upcoming Delve Proto: Complete (more on what that means this Friday). As part of the Delve Patreon project, I’ve been releasing monsters from Chapter 9: Bestiary for the game section by section. I thought I would take some time this Monday to show you some of the highlights and illuminate some of my thought process behind the monsters in Delve.

But before we look at monsters in Delve, let’s take a look at one of the early pages of the original Monster Manual

This comes from my copy of the book’s second printing, page 7. I picked this page for a couple of reasons. First, it’s a fun page, and second, all of the monsters that appear on this page also appear in the Bestiary chapter of the Delve Proto: Complete, though I use the term terror bird instead of axe beak.

There has been much talk in recent years about how compact and straightforward the old statblocks were. And there is a point to that. Compared to modern statblocks, these blocks seem rather tight. There are four monsters on this page alone, with three pieces of art. One could quickly look at this page and think there is no cruft to be found. But I would find some disagreement with that. 

Each statblock has 16 entries. Ten, maybe 11, of these entries were tied in some way to combat, while the remaining entries were more to give the monster scope. The first problem is that there is no clear, logical underpinning to these entries. We start with two entries that are useful only in monster design (Frequency and No. Appearing), move on to a block that has used during an encounter (Armor Class, Move, Hit Dice), then back to encounter design (% in Lair, Treasure Type), again to combat (No. of Attacks, Damage/Attack, Special Attack, Special Defenses, Magic Resistance), back to some general traits of the monster (Intelligence, Alignment, Size) that might be used in both, and then back to an improbable form of combat (Psionic Ability). Furthermore, instead of skipping entries that did not apply to the monster, you would have an entry of Nil. Given this is all presented in 8 or 7 point type (it could be either one depending on the typeface), the block seems a lot cleaner than it actually is. 

While I’m sure there were rationales for this format in the heady days of the 70s, this sure wouldn’t pass muster today. Modern stat blocks are often carefully designed to present important information logically and avoid listing what is not needed. Real estate on a page is at its prime, and the goal is usually to fit as many monsters as possible on a page in a way that is easy for the GM to use during the game. And suppose you can get those blocks in a format that is compact enough to fit on an index card (or at least usually fit on a card about that size). In that case, you can release products like the Pathfinder Second Edition Bestiary Battle Cards and their ilk, which are helpful because they free up space on the game table. 

The struggle to create a good statblock isn’t just about space in a book or the possibility of freeing space on the table. There is the aspect of mental state. Regardless of my criticism of the AD&D statblock, it’s consistently formatted. Its concept was so novel at the time of publication many years beyond that once mastered, it created a psychic momentum that would only receive slight modification until 3rd Edition. At which point, to the chagrin of some, Dungeons & Dragons let go of its pseudo-naturalist approach (called Gygaxian Naturalism by some) to adventure design, realizing that creating challenging, but still dangerous, encounters was more valuable than using bogus statistics to describe the reality of a fantasy world. From that point on, much of what makes a good statblock focuses on how well does it help the game master create and run great encounters. 

This is easier said than done. If you have witnessed the start of any edition (and I mean any edition), one of the first comments that always pops up is how much the character sheet sucks. Professional and amateur graphic designers alike almost immediately go to work creating a better mousetrap. Folks have their own ideas (and level of cognitive “normalcy”) when organizing things. Nits will be picked, posts hoisted onto social media, but in the end, it’s essential to think about the organization and presentation of your statblock. They must do work. 

For Delve, I went with a variation that I championed during both 4e Dungeons & Dragons and Pathfinder Second Edition, to varying degrees of success. It centers on three main premises. 1) Start with the information that is important no matter what kind of encounter you are running. 2) Follow that up with clear and concise methods for running encounters, especially those of a more combative nature. 3) Leave the encounter building information at the edges.

Let’s take a look at the first monster entry of the Bestiary: Animates. Like the original Monster Manual, the entry has multiple statblocks with a good size piece of art. Unlike it, the section share no real estate with other monsters. A page or a two-page spread (or in some cases a series of such spreads) provides a group of similar monsters. It starts with the lowest level creature and proceeds to the highest of the section. After the title and the level, it provides a standard grouping of information to give you a sense of the creature no matter how you are running it. After a little bit of flavor text, you have entries for Communication and Senses, answering the two main questions—can I talk with it, and can it see me? From there, it moves on to the general attributes of the creature, followed by its defenses, including any resistances or immunities. From there, it moves on to the creature’s Hits, its Essence, and its Speed (or Speeds). If the creature has any gear, a list of those items follows the gear. I call this grouping the base of the creature. It’s everything the game master needs to know to run the creature, whether during exploration, encounter, or even social conflict play. In the cases where a creature does not possess one or more of these things, the entry is missing. For instance, most creatures of “animal” intelligence don’t feature the “communication” entry for communication. That’s not to say that animals and the such don’t communicate (anyone with a pet knows that they do), but rather that communication is vague and uncertain unless they are within a group of their own kind or among other intimates. The same is true for senses, meaning if a creature doesn’t have a sense entry, it can see, hear, taste, and feel like you and I (which the baseline in the game). And so on for the various entries of the statblock. 

Animates from the Bestiary chapter of the upcoming Delve Proto: Complete with art by Rick Hershey

After that, there are at least one, and sometimes two other, sub-entries. The first is the Strikes entry. These are the main ways that the creature attacks using that particular talent. Other talents available to the creature are provided in the Talents entry, giving all the information needed to run those talents. Lastly, spellcasting creatures will have a Spells entry. Under that entry, it provides a list of spells by mastery that the creature can cast, using the spellcasting talents and standard rules for spellcasting. Each spells listed supplied with a page number (and hyperlink) for easy access. 

Lastly, the block has a list of elements. Except for the size element, which decides a creature’s control area and the basics for their Strike’s reach, and the existential element (either Immortal, Construct, Immortal, Mortal, and Undead), which deal with death and dying, the remaining elements have to deal with either creature creation, or their default talents for being a creature of that element.

Since the guidelines for encounter creation (especially combat encounter creation) are contingent on the creature’s level, the encounter creation line already appeared in the header for the entry. 

Information about the creature or creatures place in the Multiverse is written in the lore section, which is where it belongs. This information is subject to tastes and has importance in the story and encounter creation as the person creating the game wishes. It also provides information general enough to get a sense of the creature while attempting to spur the game master toward creating their own unique and exciting stories with the creature. More importantly, it can be ignored easily, allowing your own thoughts on the critter to take shape. 

If you are interested in more examples of the Delve monster format, over at the Delve RPG Patreon, Mondays are Monster Monday. On most Mondays, I share a section of the expanding Delve Bestiary chapter. And the best part of about Monster Monday? You can join at the Lurker level ($1 a month) and see all the Monster Monday offerings. Of course, if you want to get the Friday Sneak Peeks, which provide access to Monster Mondays and the more expansive Sneak Peeks, like last week’s Proto Rogue Class, you could join at the Delver level ($5 a month.

This week’s entry is the chimera, and next week I unleash the cockatrice.