Monday, April 11, 2011

A Survey of Monster Blocks Part 1 - Less is More

Most of us who blog or read blogs about role-playing games either GM a lot or would like to GM more. I've had some time off recently from GM'ing Dragon Age while Keegan works on his next project which will be the center piece for the adventure, so it's given me a lot of time to think about GM'ing as a whole. Today I began thinking about some of my favorite games to run and other games in regard to the way they stat out their monster blocks.

A huge amount of my decision-making process when it comes to what games I'm willing to run comes from how easy it is to read the stats of NPC's. There are basically three ways to do NPC stats:

1. The NPC as PC - basically the stat block looks exactly like a player's character sheet and as a result NPC's take just as long to make as player characters.

2. The NPC is its own beast - in this case, the designer's point of view is that NPC's don't need to do all the different things the PC's must do, and each serve a unique, specific purpose which the stat block reflects exactly.

3. The NPC is a mini-PC - this would be a combination of the first two. The NPC could be fleshed out to a full player's character stat-wise without too much effort, but really just serves the purpose he or she (or it) was created for.

I tend to lean towards systems that take the third route. I like it when I can easily identify the stats of a monster and how they relate to the abilities of the PC's. Option 2 is something I'm open to if the NPC isn't too far removed from the way the PC's work. One big strength of Option 2 is that usually the system is designed for quick monster building and easy-to-read NPC stat blocks that are just as easy to use in the middle of a big fight. Option 1 would be my least favorite as it takes forever to build an NPC, and I feel it's far too restricted a system - in fantasy worlds the big bad doesn't have to follow the same rules as the heroes.

I grabbed some sample NPC stat blocks from various games I own. I haven't run all these games (nor do I entirely understand all of them - See GURPS 3rd Hellboy), but I think they all do something interesting regarding how we interpret our antagonists in different systems.

Mouse Guard Weasels

I really like Mouse Guard both in comic and RPG form. I haven't run much of it, but I have done character creation with two different groups, and I'll tell you that both groups had a great time with that aspect of the game alone. Mouse Guard is a dice pool system (hence the low stat numbers you'll see on the Weasels here). You can see that there are skills and traits, and it might be easy to equate these to d20 skills and feats, but that would be missing a lot about what makes Mouse Guard so easy to learn and run.

The game runs on an economy of invoking one's weaknesses and strengths to earn what is essentially plot points. Players sacrifice one attempt to hopefully do better on a future one. I really like the simplicity of the way NPC's are presented in the game. This was the only sample I took a picture of that easily fit two different NPC stat blocks in one photo. The other great aspect of NPC's is the way stock characters are listed in the book. Every possible profession a mouse could want is listed, and it's incredibly easy to customize the characters to be more unique through changing just a simple trait. That Cunning (1) Weasel Soldier is much different from a Bold (1) Weasel Soldier.

Dragon Age Bloodcrow

It's no secret that Dragon Age is one of my favorite games to run (probably my favorite at this point) is Dragon Age. The game is a mish-mash of throwback simplicity and modern mechanical originality. The game takes away a huge list of feats, talents, and powers, and works around a universal stunt table that gives players the same powers to work from. Each character then is able to manipulate the stunt table in different ways depending on their class and build.

It's a system I've been hugely inspired by, and probably the biggest part of that is due to how much I love Dragon Age's monster blocks. Take a look at the Bloodcrow - a particularly nasty variety of flocking animals used to make your player's characters fall off logs over impossibly-deep chasms.

The stats are low since you add the number to a roll of 3d6 for your outcome. The words in parenthesis after the attributes are specific areas where you get to add to your result - basically the system's skill equivalent. Then you have combat ratings which should be pretty obvious, attacks, which again are straight forward, and finally the best part, "Powers." All NPC's have "Favored Stunts" which are the default stunts the monster is going to pursue when they can, but some are given unique stunts which only they have access to use. This allows GM's to use ready-to-go stunts that everyone could and are easy to remember, or prepare more in advance and be ready to call upon the more unique stunts special to the monster. This is a great example of Option 3 above. The monster looks very similar to a PC, but aren't quite there. You don't have to search through the book to look up an odd talent here or there (which the PC's posses, but the monsters don't - they're a lot like feats), but they do have unique specializations for their attributes and do stunts just like the PC's.

Check back on Wednesday for part 2 where I look at three more game's monster stat blocks. Feel free to reply and let me know which games you feel do monsters right by the GM and why.

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