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 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
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
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!