Monster Philosophy

Monster Philosophy

thingWe’ve been very pleased with the positive reaction to the Tome of Beasts previews, even—maybe even especially—when readers point out places where we’ve added numbers incorrectly or overlooked a modifier. In a few cases, however, readers have called out features as errors that we don’t consider errors at all. Instead, they’re cases where our philosophy about monster design differs a bit from the principles that run through the Monster Manual. This article looks at the reasons behind some of those differences.

Challenge Ratings

Fifth edition certainly has standards where monster design is concerned (I’m examining some of those standards in detail in my current Howling Tower series), but they’re looser standards than we’ve grown accustomed to in the previous two editions. Fourth edition in particular was especially rigid where monster numbers were concerned. Fifth edition doesn’t step all the way back to the ultra-relaxed monster design of the first and second editions, but it does put the focus back on a monster’s overall impact in the game instead of on micromanaging every facet of the stat block. We welcome that change with open arms.

A good analogy is a bank of volume faders on a sound mixing board. Each fader controls the volume of a narrow frequency band. By adjusting faders up and down, a sound technician can alter the sound drastically, but it still has an overall volume determined by all the faders working together. The overall volume is analogous to the monster’s challenge rating, while the settings on individual faders equate to the monster’s hit points, Armor Class, number of attacks, damage per attack, special abilities, and other traits. As with volume faders, increasing one number means either that the monster’s CR must increase, or something else must decrease to maintain the balance.

If we can stretch this analogy a bit further, the mixing board produces the most pleasing sound when the faders are set in a smooth arc. Extreme differences in the settings produce a harsh or jarring sound. Likewise, a monster whose numbers stay within a few notches of the same challenge rating is smooth and predictable in play. A monster with widely varying numbers—extremely high offense but low defense, for example, or very high AC but low hit points—is unpredictable. Lucky PCs might bring it down with just a few blows and suffer little or no injury in return, while unlucky characters could suffer terrific damage in an otherwise identical encounter.

All of that should be obvious to anyone who’s played much D&D. What might not be obvious is that some monsters are unpredictable on purpose. A monster with an offensive CR of 12 and a defensive CR of 4 isn’t necessarily a mistake or bad design. It could be an ambusher intended to gain surprise and land one or two devastating blows before characters cut it to pieces, or it could be a creature that characters are meant to approach cautiously or to expend long-range resources against after spotting it from a distance.

In cases like these, a creature with the numbers mentioned above (offensive CR 12, defensive CR 4) might not be assigned the expected overall CR of 8. Standard CRs are based on the creature participating in 3 rounds of combat. A creature that’s expected to last only 1 or 2 rounds is less dangerous, while a creature that lasts 5 or 6 rounds is more dangerous (assuming it hits as often and as hard as it should). Their CRs need to be tweaked accordingly.

Saving Throws

Another area that causes some concern among readers is durations of monster powers that allow a saving throw. In the Monster Manual, some effects have a hard time limit (1 minute, for example) and some don’t, but most allow a character who falls victim to an ongoing effect to repeat the saving throw every round and end the effect with a successful save. In the Tome of Beasts, we’ve shied away from that approach in favor of random durations, such as 1d8 rounds, without repeated saving throws.

Why would Kobold Press do that? It has to do with a difference in opinion about certain aspects of game design and a difference in philosophy over the role of probability.

The DCs for most monster saving throws are in the low- to mid-teens. Most characters have a bonus of some kind on their saving throws, and bonuses of +6 or more on the most important saves (Dexterity and Wisdom) aren’t uncommon. Consider a character with a +5 bonus trying to make repeated DC 14 saving throws against an ongoing effect (not a one-time, half-damage save) such as psychic incapacitation. The odds that the character suffers X rounds of incapacitation are summarized below.

0 rounds = 55%

1 round = 25%

2 rounds = 11%

3 rounds = 5%

4 rounds = 2%

5 rounds = 1%

6 or more rounds = 1%

In only 1 out of 5 cases is this character affected for more than 1 round. In other words, the character is effectively immune to the attack. Since the effects we’re talking about tend to be monsters’ big guns—attacks limited to 1/day or to a 1-in-6 or 1-in-3 recharge roll—giving characters repeated saving throws knocks the legs out from under those monsters and contributes enormously to the sense that certain monsters are pushovers in combat despite having high CRs. Those high CRs are based on attacks that look devastating but wind up having little impact in play.

Philosophically, we prefer to treat a saving throw as a one-time chance. A character either resists, or he doesn’t. Once a saving throw fails, the full effect of failure kicks in. Second, third, and fourth chances are for the weak.

In most cases, anyway. Some monster powers in Tome of Beasts do allow repeated saving throws to end the effect, because sometimes that’s more appropriate than a random duration. We like the flexibility of having both approaches on the table. GMs who dislike random durations are encouraged to replace them with repeated saves, as long as they understand they’re weakening the monsters by doing so.

What’s Left

A few other items fall under this catch-all category.

Ranges. The Monster Manual uses just a few standard ranges for things like darkvision and telepathy. We’ve deviated from those in a few cases, not because we think the MM’s approach is wrong but—well, sometimes just because. If a monster having 100 ft. of darkvision instead of 120 ft. bothers you, then by all means change it. We’re just contrary enough that a monster not having 100 ft. of darkvision bothers us.

Social Skills. Some monsters in Tome of Beasts are conversions from earlier editions of the game, and some of those earlier versions include skills that disappear from their updated stat blocks. This is especially true of skills that affect characters’ reactions. It seems more in line with fifth edition’s approach to let players choose whether their characters are intimidated or persuaded, based on circumstances and roleplaying, rather than allowing a die roll to control their attitudes. Deception appears occasionally—some monsters are built around it, and its use is easier to justify than Intimidation and Persuasion.

Creating monsters for tabletop RPGs involves a mix of art and science. Recent editions have veered strongly toward science, but fifth edition swings the needle back toward the central balance point, where we’re happy to see it. We look forward to reading your comments on this article and on the Tome of Beasts previews.

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12 thoughts on “Monster Philosophy”

  1. The main problem I have with this philosophy is encapsulated in this statement: “We’ve deviated from those in a few cases, not because we think the MM’s approach is wrong but—well, sometimes just because.” Really!? . Why deviate from the standard when you are not doing anything exceptionally creative that enhances the game? I believe this attitude is one reason why WOTC hasn’t released a license. The last thing they wanted was this kind of willy-nilly hackneyed design to dominate the perception of 5e.

    On the saving throws, we are just going to have to agree to disagree. There are two of the six saves that any character should succeed the majority of the time for the appropriate pre-determined difficulty. The effect was never meant to last multiple rounds for a character who is proficient in the save for that particular effect. There are plenty of instances of single save effects in MM but none that can effect a character for multiple rounds without the chance to end the effect especially if that effect can either incapacitate or cause disadvantage vs. just causing hit point loss. Another reason is playability; tracking multiple effects for different characters at random durations creates undue burden without any meaningful upside.

    I don’t disagree that this save option can be tool in the DM toolkit under certain circumstances with appropriate player buy-in. However, since WoTC designed the game they set the standard. Kobold Press has an obligation to follow that standard as closely as possible for compatible published product while recognizing the individual DM can decide to deviate for their own personal game. I have a nearly identical complaint with Fifth Edition Foes. At the very least, a disclaimer side-bar should be added to the introduction to alert the consumer that 5e design deviation can occur to increase the challenge. In no case, should it happen just because a designer wanted to be contrary. A DM with his players can be contrary not a designer of published product with a logo that is trying to indicate compatiblity.

    All can say is that I am supporting this KS for the digital version with its cool art and battle maps and then I can going to use Adobe Acrobat to change it. You are going to sell a lot of these due to the art and excellent backgrounds but you are not going to get any prizes for these types of design decisions.

    1. I get criticism, but you’re just trying to be vitriolic.

      I wouldn’t criticize Kobold Press for trying to be innovative, which is essentially what they’re saying when they indicate that they’ve deviated “just because”. For what it’s worth, everything stated in this article makes me more excited for the end product, something I happily contributed to.

      1. …and not to mention the fact that Kobold Press was licensed to write “Tyranny of Dragons”, so it would seem that WOTC has faith enough in Kobold Press to write official content for them, but hey, this is the internet, say outlandish things, so Shadow Demon, if that is you’re real name, is much justified in his vitriol in that regard. -Nerdarchist Ryan

    2. Shadow Demon, here’s where we really differ. You state “The effect was never meant to last multiple rounds for a character who is proficient in the save.” I counter that “never” is a four-letter word in this context. The effect was SELDOM meant to last multiple rounds, but on those rare cases where the character with a high ability bonus, proficiency, and a magic item rolls a 1, BANG! He got nailed, and today only, there’s a price to pay.

      I admit that it can appear presumptuous to take that kind of liberty with 5E’s design, but it’s also sort of the point. One of the advantages of being a third-party publisher is that you can have an identifiable design philosophy different from the official line. It gives your products character and increases their appeal among the segment of fans who want something a little different. Obviously, we’re not making a secret of it; we’re trying to be as up-front as possible, in the hope that we’ll draw in people who like our approach.

  2. I personally think that is a little harsh Shadow Demon. You aren’t taking to just any developer here. This is a guy who’s design philosophies have shaped the industry. I can’t tell you how many people cite Kobold Press when talking about their own design styles. But that’s anecdotal to be fair.

    I have seen no issue with this in my game I ran an encounter last night with two Lich Hounds and my own monster that had a another effect. The howl they gave off frightened about half the party allowing the lich hounds to down the half that wasn’t frightened and then 5 rounds later attack the rest of the party. I could have probably killed several pcs and the cleric had to save an npc from dying outright. But if you think that when a character isn’t combat effective the creature moves on cause the threat level of those characters have changed. This allowed for a dynamic encounter with even some Roleplaying due to the nature of what was going on. We had someone air lifting people with rope and health potions trying to save people from dying. It was fun!

    I think the best argument for Kobold is that 5e really feels looser and move forgiving than 3.4 or even 4e cause it encourages roleplaying and narrative play. Roleplaying is pretend with rules and 5e is art with a framework. It’s a beauteous system in my opinion cause it’s so free. So i say bravo Kobolds, bravo!

    1. I agree that perhaps I was too harsh. The players always have the option to make changes to a ruleset. For a publisher the above “monster philosophy” is a slippery slope. At the moment, It is minor quibble from an extremely picky 5e purist that could later turn into a much larger problem.

      The 5e math foundation is the best there has ever been in a D&D edition. I still like a lot of elements from 1e/2e but I will never go back to their math. Maybe for the wraith I will add back in energy drain, choose an appropriate DC because I am past allowing effects that don’t allow a save, and then require greater restoration spell to restore the level. From 3e, maybe I want to add ghoul fever to the bite. I would encourage anyone using older edition material to do any of the above. However, I never want to see anything like that from a 5e compatible publisher. The publisher whose products align and merge with the 5e foundation are in the long run going to used and accepted by a larger number of the fanbase. I believe customers want to see original creative elements not a rehash of the Pathfinder elements that players can add themselves.

      As for Steve Winter, I loved his work on 2e. Along with David “Zeb” Cook, they brought order to a convoluted 1e system. I was happy to have them both sign my 2e reprints. However, that still doesn’t change that this is a bad path for 5e that can lead to unintended consequences.

      1. On the one hand: I’m happy to see “save or suck” go- it leaves players at your table out of the game, unable to contribute, on the other hand: a saving throw every round as the article’s math points-out, are unlikey to hinder the PCs much at all, more like an inconvenience. The DCs are so low in this edition that success is nearly a foregone conclusion as long as it’s not a save your character’s abysmal at. I can’t say I’d have a variable duration effect have a chance of lasting more than d4 rounds as A) combat encounters tend to average 3 rounds and B) as a DM, I don’t want my player sitting around that long, unable to participate.

        The other thought is if you try to hedge against your player’s likelihood of succeeding a saving throw by sheer numbers to make the encounter more threatening, presuppose the WHOLE party fails the save and the effect is debilitating- paralysis or something. Now you’ve got to story your way out of the encounter (maybe the foes take your players captive) or be perfectly fine with potentially TPKing your party. My preference would be for the former unless your players have especially annoyed you. -Nerdarchist Ryan

  3. So cool. In continued Kobold fashion, writers, players, and DMs get a chance to learn from the design philosophies of industry veterans. These kinds of posts are why you guys are so respected. Look at the passion this post inspired!

  4. I’m glad to see some variations in design philosophy, after all we have a whole book of monsters from the “in house” approach. It’s also really good to hear some of the intentions behind the design. Especially those saving throws. I recently gave my players encounters with a ghast and ghouls and it struck me that, because of the save DCs and durations, these iconic creatures are no longer likely to do the thing that they’re known for. Sure my sample size is small, but I felt kind of sad that ghouls aren’t actually likely to paralyze anyone in a given combat.
    I’m glad for some alternate approaches.

  5. I have run a few games with 5E now, and I found that a lot of creatures from the MM are functionally the same when you get them on the board. At higher levels of the game, there are less options, but at least those options are a more varied. Well, except the dragons…

    I feel the Tome of Beasts will bring little more variation and interest to the encounters that can be built in 5th Edition. While I missed out on the Kickstarter, I look forward to when it is made available in store.

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