Monday, January 16, 2012

Original Monster Elegance

One of the many striking things that occurred to me when I got my Original D&D set (see very first blog post here) was the lovely and informative elegance of the monster roster. For those of you with OD&D, this will be old hat, but for those who've never seen it, I simply must share. As you open D&D Vol-2, Monsters and Treasure, the first thing you encounter after the Index is the "Monster Reference Table, Hostile & Benign Creatures", as follows (tables reproduced for the purpose of commentary, criticism, and scholarship).

First, page 3. Without anywhere explicitly saying so, this page is predominantly all the "Hostile" stuff, i.e., Chaotic monsters that you're expected to fight:



Now flip over to page 4. This page is mostly all "Benign" entities; all of the fey woodland-type creatures, mounts (ground and aerial), creatures you might summon with magic, etc.... and also the "clean up crew" mindless oozes that got squeezed in here, too.



Now, a couple things you won't see, of course: stats for Attacks and Damage. As you probably know, by default everything originally did 1d6 damage, with exceptions called out in the text paragraphs that follow (like giants and elementals for 2d6, black pudding for 3d6, etc.) This was perhaps a big oversight; with the first supplement (Sup-I, Greyhawk), rosters of different damage stats for all the monsters were provided, but then you needed to flip between two books to synch them up, and this required the later Monster Manual before it was fixed. Personally, in my copy of Vol-2 here I jot down an Attack & Damage stat in the margin for each type (in whole-number of dice, following the OD&D precedent).

But look a little bit more closely. For my purposes, I think it's a huge benefit that different monsters of the same type have all been listed and described together, in order of increasing hit dice, so that at a glance I can get a sense for the overall monster world ecology and interrelationships. For example, here are the "giant class" humanoids at the start, and you can see at a glance that across the category, numbers appearing are always going down, while armor, movement, and hit dice are always improving (in math we'd say "monotonically increasing"):



Even better is the list of undead. So simple: There's just one undead type created for each hit die number from 1 to 7! (And also skeletons starting at one-half.) Recall that in later Advanced D&D all of these undead got their hit dice bumped up by one place (with the odd exception of ghouls), whereas in the Basic D&D line they just bumped up skeletons & zombies, leaving the rest unchanged (i.e., with ghouls being the switchover point):



After that you get a block of chimerical and serpent-like monstrosities, culminating with dragons, purple worms, and (on the flip) sea monsters. Actually, in the extra Reference Sheets that come with the original game, they managed to fit Sea Monsters and Minotaurs on the first page, so that's even better. Another thing you don't see: Look very closely and you might notice sort of an extra-sized gap right under Dragons. That's where Balrogs were listed in the first printing -- taken out later, and the gap sort-of closed but not perfectly -- and there's a full-sized gap in the Reference Sheets so it's easier to spot there.

So: A great piece of work, and these two pages alone have given me a better, more immediate and visual sense of the core monster ecology of D&D than anything I had in the prior 25 years or so of gaming. In this particular case it really was better the first time.

3 comments:

  1. Yes. Yes.

    I wish I had something more cogent to say, but my inflamed sinuses are making me stupid.

    I totally love the "this is the bare minimum data you need for monsters" approach, and their subdivisions. That's where I went for the Monster Generator that landed me a second place in the RPG table competition. More cogent thoughts about it here: One Page Monster Generator

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  2. I've often wondered why games like 4E and Pathfinder need to spend an entire page to describe a goblin or orc. Why waste so much print on something that's going to be dead in a few minutes anyways? Well, part of it is rules bloat I suppose, and maybe another part of it is selling big thick rules books to people. But I prefer elegant stat blocks that fit on a single line.

    Nicely done.

    -Ed Green

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  3. Bloat/sprawl is a funny thing. If I had my druthers, there'd be a prime directive that anytime you add something to a game's core rules, you at least spend some time hunting for something you can simultaneously take out. (Example: When D&D ability combat modifiers come in, delete the ability XP modifiers.)

    I might be more sensitive to this than most, because in my teaching I find that the overriding goal is to cut-cut-cut material to fit into the limited, fixed time. Or if I'm programming and there's a day when I can yank out a few hundred lines of unneeded code (making it easier to maintain, less bug-prone, and more robust), then that's the most victorious day of all.

    But maybe there's not much incentive for that if bigger page-count is seen as a selling point. (Likewise, there's some famous CS icon who got in trouble with his corporate structure because of the above.)

    Tsojcanth, love the list of monster-creation powers!

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