When the Planescape Monster Manual supplement for 2E came out one of my favorite pictures was the Cat Lord. So for this discussion the Cat Lord is going to be my example. (It’s funny that I’ve looked at it for years and never noticed the shadow…)
Planescape is an interesting setting; it and Dark Sun have the two most distinct designs in all of the TSR/WotC settings for me. They are not the only settings with strong themes (there are many others with that distinction), but they are among the most uniquely designed settings in official DnD’s vast repertoire.
When I talk about design here I don’t mean from a mechanical perspective, rather I mean from the perspective of their presentation. Dark Sun is a bleak brutal world, while Planescape is whimsical, strange and menacing all at once. The people responsible for these products were very conscious of designing every thing about the books to reinforce these ideas, from the prose of the books to the little graphical elements to the larger art of the books.
So why all this talk about design?
Well right now in DnDNext there is minimal design, in fact the only place with any design is really the character sheets. This is an important thing, when we are reviewing the game and giving feedback we need to consider what it is we are looking for; is it the rules or the design?
I’m an avowed 4E fan, and as a person who mostly DMs one of the most important things about 4E for me was the way monsters worked. The monster stat block is an elegant piece of design. Note its a matter of design. The rules for 4E monsters can be presented in many different ways, but the design of the monster stat block is part of what makes them so appealing.
The 4E monster stat block is an “everything in 1 place” design. You read the monster and nearly every rule that relates to that monster is right there in its stat block. A few things like resistance rules or how saves or conditions work are needed knowledge but there is no need to look elsewhere to know how the monster works mostly.
This is a design philosophy that I would like to see continue into DnDNext, that “all in 1 spot” thing. Now the play test Bestiary actually manages to do this largely that I have observed so far. But it lacks design. The stat blocks are very simple raw data with just enough organisation to be useful. For those of us who like the very designed 4E monster block this is a big change, and can be one of the “problems” with the play test material. So we need to be careful; is it the monster or its presentation?
The Cat Lord
So as an experiment I organised the Fire Beetle from the DnDNext play test into a 4E stat block arrangement. It worked. Same simple easy to read layout with everything (including their glands as equipment) you needed to run them in 1 short stat block. Now the NDA prevents me from sharing that with you, it was the whole rules, so instead I went to the Cat Lord.
Dragging out my 2E materials was fun and in adapting the monster for DnDNext a few things quickly became apparent. DnDNext monsters are pretty much 2E monsters. They have a little more information than a 2E monster had; like stats for a start, but the attacks, hit points, movement and any special abilities they might have convert over pretty directly.
As you can see presented in 4E style the Cat Lord is a pretty large stat block, but then again it was a pretty complex creature in 2E terms. It changed shape, had different attacks according to the shape it had, it even had a different charisma score (which I left out) based on if you liked, were neutral to, or hated cats! In addition it had multiple spells as abilities including a summoning power.
This stat block includes all of this; and on an A4 page it takes up approximately half the page. However all the mechanics you need, as is normal for 4E, are presented in this single stat block. So its spells, the wounding property of its sword and so on are all here, no need to look in another place.
As with all 4E stat blocks in an encounter this is a pretty space intensive design element. However you will notice that I did something different from a standard 4E stat block I moved the stats up to the top of the stat block. What this means is that an abbreviated stat block could be produced one that truncates all the material below the equipment and abbreviate it so that only the core information is there.
This might read:
ESP, Cannot Be Charmed, Charm Person (only against cat lovers), Shapechange (into a panther or human), Plane Shift, Teleport, Anti Magic Shell (3 times a day), Summon Pride (3 times a day)
Human Form: Wounding Sword +16 1d8+6, Darts (25/50): +17 1d4+7
Cat Form: Bite: +15 1d10+3, Claw: +15/+15 1d4+5/1d4+5 if both hit Rake +15/+15 1d4+5/1d4+5
This doesn’t provide all the information, but it does provide the necessary information for a DM to be reminded on what to check out for the monster before starting the encounter. This idea of a shortened stat block inside encounters works very well with the current DnDNext monsters. All the most commonly needed information is presented, with a reminder of the other information relevant to the monster. Yes it is more space intensive than the single line entries we see in the adventure now, but it is also far more complete reducing the need to flip between books (though not eliminating it).
The true take home for this is that the rules are separate from the design, we can take 4E design principles and apply them to DnDNext monsters without any problems, however the purpose of a play test is not to critique the design of the game, but the rules and play experience of it. So we need to be careful about the feedback, make sure we are critiquing the rules and not our prefered presentation.