Monday, July 1, 2019

Carrion Crawler Coaching

The Facebook AD&D group had an interesting question posed the other day: "Okay DMs, what was the biggest mistake you ever made trying to homebrew something?" Here's one response that caught my eye:


I kind of really love the honesty here. The major reason I love this is as a case-study that even the biggest-name D&D principals didn't always get things right the first time. First, it serves as a great counterexample to the camp of fundamentalist players who argue that everything in a given edition of D&D is perfect, beyond critique or improvement, and intentional in all ways by the original author (although, am I unwise to spend any time responding to that camp?). Second, it serves to highlight that gauging the danger level of a given monster is not something that even the most experienced DMs can do correctly by sight or instinct. Rather; it needs serious large-scale playtesting -- that I would argue needs some component of computer simulation to get to the right scale.

Consider the Arena/Monster Metrics program (and related blog posts here you can search for) that we've developed to assess Equivalent Hit Dice (EHD) measurements for monsters -- results available in the OED Monster Database. Consider that carrion crawlers and other zero-damage monsters were highlighted as particularly broken in Turnbull's MonsterMarks and related a-la-carte point-buy systems. Recall that the stated "monster level" for carrion crawlers jumped around radically in early versions of D&D -- just 2nd level (of 6; say, 33%) in their first appearance in Sup-I (p. 64); then up to 6th level (of 10; so, 60%) by the time of the AD&D  DMG (p. 178). I think that's the single biggest adjustment for any individual monster between those editions.

Regarding Mentzer's comment above, I asked a follow-up question: "I've seen some people play that a crawler can only attack one PC at a time (w/all 8 atks), others they can attack 8 PCs at once. How'd you play that?" His reply:


So that's clearly "more than one", normally around 3-4 from how I read that. Interestingly, if the designers had a systematic model like our Arena program available, then the danger of carrion crawlers would have been immediately evident. If I run the Monster Metrics assessment with the crawler allowed 8 attacks against different opponents, it estimates an EHD value of 12 (i.e., roughly 50% likely to win a fight against 4 3rd-level fighters, or 3 4th-level fighters), putting it in league with the top 6th-level bracket in OD&D (comparable to a chimera, gorgon, balrog, etc.). That's why in my own game for some time I've actually house-ruled them to halve their attacks, i.e., a total of 4 attacks -- basically the same as what Mentzer suggests for targetable opponents here. At this level carrion crawlers are estimated to be EHD 9, or about 5th level in OD&D terms.

Anyway, big props to Mr. Mentzer for this important peek behind the screen, and the not-too-surprising lesson that we can always continue to make improvements to our game art.


Don't forget about our July 4th game with WanderingDMs on YouTube and Twitch: broadcasting live play all weekend, four days straight! (Starts Thursday night.)


14 comments:

  1. What mid-level party is still fighting carrion crawlers within melee range of those tentacles?

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    1. I'll be a little sympathetic that the first time a player runs into it, they won't know how it works (e.g., my current players would be in this category). Also if it springs by surprise out of a hole (as Mentzer suggests).

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  2. For a while I had ruled it that the Carrion Crawler could use all 8, but each only once, and then it was spent for the day. Could still take out a small party foolish enough tot crowd around the head, but it less a TPK.
    And yeah, it goes to show that maybe we don't need to be "strict constructionists" of 0DD, these were folks basically home-brewing too.
    Looking forward to catching some of the stream this weekend too.

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    1. Interesting, first time I've heard that interpretation! Paul was running it that all 8 tentacles could only attack one target per round, which was also news to me when I saw that. Lot of interesting takes for that.

      Thanks for thinking about tuning in this weekend, hope it's a good show and we're not dead yet! :-D

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  3. This is pretty rich coming from the guy who put a carrion crawler as the first encounter in the sample dungeon of the Basic Set - making it possible the first monster that a group of players might ever encounter.

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    1. I'm looking at Mentzer's Basic Set Players Manual (1983), with its "Solo Adventure" (p. 13-22): I see rats, goblins, skeletons, and a rust monster -- but no carrion crawler. Are you thinking of something else?

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    2. The adventure in the DM's book has a carrion crawler hiding outside the castle gates. Encounter 1 for Level 1 characters!

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    3. Holy crap, you're right! (That book is not one I'm most familiar with.) That's pretty nuts.

      With the painstaking detail in that encounter, I notice he dictates that initially the crawler focuses all 8 attacks on just one PC. Thereafter, if more get in melee, it divides attacks between 2 PCs (not exactly what he said above). But the adventure seems to expect maybe only 4 PCs -- so it seems like he really expects them to use a _sleep_ spell against it.

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    4. I *think* I've read somewhere that he put it in to teach players that there are encounters that they should run away from. Not 100% sure about that though.

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    5. From the text: "DM: Encourage the players to send someone forward to examine the door [hiding the crawler]... The party should be able to kill the carrion crawler fairly easily."

      Of course, we know those guys tend to say all kinds of stuff after the fact to justify themselves.

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    6. Even though I'm a B/X (and formerly AD&D) guy, I've had the chance to run the starter adventure from Mentzer Basic multiple times...at least three to five. The first encounter (with the carrion crawler) has ALWAYS ended in a TPK. Always.

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    7. JB, thanks for that data!

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  4. I love old school carrion crawlers *because* they're so deadly. It only takes one encounter with a Carrion Crawler to realize the right way to fight them is to run.

    Generally they're placed in out of the way locations, in spots where they can ambush characters going way off the beaten track. This is the way to do it, IMO. If GM'd right, they're more like a hazard or dungeon complication than anything.

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    1. I like that. Makes me think of the crawler caverns at the furthest end of module G1. It's just good to be able cue DMs for just how risky the things are.

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