Wednesday, April 13, 2011

A Survey of Monster Blocks Part 2 - Devil in the Details

On Monday I mused about what I like in a good monster stat block by taking a look at two of my favorite games to GM - Mouse Guard and Dragon Age. As I explained then, a lot of what makes these two games to great to run can be attributed to the fact that they NPC stats are easy to read making a large variety of NPC's easy to run right in the middle of a game. It frees up the GM to be more open to players going off the tracks and toward unexpected horizons.

I don't think I fully explored that aspect of the stat block. Of course it's easier to run a game when the NPC's you've planned and prepared for your players are the only characters they encounter, but I think we all know that the best games are those that go in unplanned directions. I do my best to give my players a lot of agency in how the story unfolds, but often I feel hampered by not being able to just pick up and run an NPC when I need a crabby diplomat or a sleepy guard. This only really comes up in games that are more crunchy. When I run Dread, the fact that the players don't have stats means that the NPC's and monsters don't either, so maybe that's why I tend to lean towards running those kinds of games when given the chance.

Anyway, as a companion piece, I'm going to take a look at three additional games and how they depict their NPC's. First I'll look at how the Hellboy RPG (a lite version of the GURPS 3rd ed. rules) depict a named NPC antagonist. Next I'll examine how Savage Worlds, a game known for its pulp action, stats out a fantasy mainstay. Finally I'll be looking at a Star Wars Saga Edition faceless NPC character. On with the show!

Hellboy/GURPS Jenny Greenskin

I need to be up front and admit that I don't really understand how to run (or maybe even play) GURPS whether it's 3rd edition or 4th. I picked up the Hellboy RPG on the cheap from Noble Knight because I flippin' love Hellboy. Go ahead, search Hellboy on the blog and take a look at just how much I talk about the big red guy.

I may not fully grok me some GURPS, but reading this guidebook to the Hellboy universe was a blast. One of the reasons I haven't taken to GURPS is because of how complex character creation is. Maybe complex isn't the right word - I should probably describe it as detailed. There's literally a skill for everything in the book and you get tons of points to put into the various skills. I was overwhelmed very quickly as I like lite systems versus heavy crunch. Then I started to look at the NPC stat blocks and was very impressed.

I like this entry for the Jenny Greenteeth character. It shows off how a system can take complex characters and boil them down to their core to get the mechanics across in a very manageable way. I also am a sucker for little bits of character included right next to the stat block in a way that gives both motivation and common tactics of the character. It's very usable.

Savage Worlds Orc

Savage Worlds prides itself on being a very fast game to run. It's true that combats can be over very quickly, and as a side effect, I like to over-prepare when I run sessions in the system. It's actually not hard to do given the fact that the character sheets for PC's in SW are simple and the NPC's tend to be taken directly from that model. What I always enjoyed about Savage Worlds NPC's was how straight forward their special abilities are.

Granted, for more powerful NPC's they can get a little over-whelming with the abilities lists, but because the system works on a very basic level, the abilities tend to just make sense and not involve a lot of brain power in interpreting. Granted, the orc presented to the right here is a very generic version of the big green guys. Because the core book of Savage Worlds is a universal system that offers more of a toolkit for role-playing rather than a full-blown rule set, complexity can vary greatly from setting to setting. However, giving the GM ultimate control over complexity is a good thing in my book.

Star Wars Saga Edition Rebel Trooper

My only experience with running or playing D&D 3.0 or 3.5 was with Saga Edition. It was also the first game we ever played that had actual stat blocks, and it was quite the shock to our young fragile tabletopper minds to go from Dread, where 10 to 15 answers on a questionnaire and anything you came up with in the game were the sum total of your character.

I had fun running the game as our first real RPG campaign as a group, but looking back, and in fact looking at this red-shirted mook to the right here, I really can't stand how Saga Edition laid out their NPC's.

There's just so much information here, and I appreciate some of it. However, there are some places I wish there was more information and some places I wish there was less. I really like how the different types of attacks are spelled out very clearly. It makes running a combat much easier given that the designers put it up themselves. Where it all really falls apart is the long list of feats. I didn't want to spend countless hours memorizing feats as a GM, and I didn't want to type them all out for each character. They're an inelegant way to make a character unique and stand out, and it's only confounded by things like armor and weapon proficiencies, but that may be a problem I have with d20 in general. Either way, it resulted in a big block of numbers and one- or two-word descriptions of powers and abilities I felt compelled to look up before I could feel comfortable running the NPC.

Well, there you have it: five different monster block and five different sets of strengths and weaknesses. It's helped me a bit to examine these and see what I like when comparing them back to back, and I hope you've gotten something out of it as well. Again, please let me know if you have a favorite monster or NPC block by leaving a comment below!


1 comment:

  1. I was looking for Savage Worlds Explorers Edition and got it from you, million thanks, made my day!
    Questionnaire design


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