Posted by : David Guyll April 23, 2014

I agree that simpler rules make for easier preparation and improvisation, which is why I love monster design in 4th Edition: it is incredibly easy to make monsters/NPCs of any level and scope (even on the fly), all the formulas can fit on a card, and unlike 3rd Edition it is actually reliable. This also extends to building encounters: I feel much more confident that I can quickly and easily design an encounter, while still making it precisely as difficult as I want.

So why is it that—besides, you know, 3rd Edition did it—they see the need to provide a second method that allows you to stat up NPCs as if they were player characters? It is nice and all that they do not "have" to have an assumed amount of treasure, but given that more mechanics do not make for a more realistic or engaging character, I do not see what the actual benefit of this method is. Mike provides no actual rationale for this, but if I were to bet money on it I would say it gets a pass for exactly the same "reasons" that pseudo-Vancian magic and Hit Dice do.

He claims that the "core magic system makes running high-level spellcasters easier", using his own games as an example, where spellcasters "usually only have two or three scaling spells prepared". He reasons that this way you can just note their effects and use them multiple times, which is all well and good...except that you could have done the exact same thing in 3rd Edition, too.

In my experience the problem with 3rd Edition spellcasters had more to do with prefabbed monsters/NPCs that had spells and/or spell-like abilities, as they would usually have a hefty list of options—many that were often useless—to pore through, and if you did not know what a spell did you had to pause the fight to look it up in another book. If it did what you wanted, good, if it did not, then you went to another spell, and the process started all over again (maybe even in yet another book).

It got so bad that when I was running Age of Worms I started making blocks of bonuses that a NPC spellcaster would get if it was aware that the characters were showing up, as well as how long each would last (if it had a duration of over a few minutes I would just say "entire fight"). Otherwise I would just start from the top of the list and slam the characters with the highest level spell on tap, because it usually made the most sense.

The "method" Mike describes is how I generally approached it when I would design a spellcasting NPC: rather than go through the trouble of listing every single spell she had, I would just pick what was needed (ie, attack spells and self-buffs) and say that she prepped a bunch of them. There was still the problem of going through all of the available spells, since most supplements made sure to add heaps of (often situational) spells. The only exception was if said NPC was a wizard (or other class that had a spellbook); then I had to go through the trouble of filling out a spellbook because the characters might snag it when the dust settled.

Then 4th Edition came along and changed everything. Rather than mull through a Player's Handbook, Arcane Splatbook X, or Dragon magazine for spells (which would have been much, much easier with something like DDI), I can just make up whatever the hell I think the NPC should be doing, and thanks to the aforementioned easy and reliable monster math I can crank out an evocative, competent spellcaster in a fraction of the time, and I do not even have to ignore all of the excessive details.

So, wait, why are they also including the option of taking a long time to make a NPC, again? I am legitimately curious as Mike does not back up this "design" decision, he is just states that it exists, as if being able to take longer to do the same thing is some kind of feature.

My knee-jerk reaction to any mention of Challenge Rating is "Whyohgodwhy?!" If you are fortunate enough to be familiar with how 4th Edition handles creating monsters and were never exposed to 3rd Edition's Challenge Rating "system", allow me to elaborate on the omitted flaws.

Imagine if 4th Edition's monster math often did not work (and truth be told it often did not in the beginning), and in the rare instance it did it was mostly due to luck as opposed to anything approaching actual design. Imagine that you go through the motions of creating a monster, but there were a lot more steps since they were essentially full-blown characters in their own right. Then, when you finally got it done rather than get an accurate bead of what sort of party you should throw it against, you ultimately end up having to "eyeball" it, by which I mean find the closest monster possible and probably have to tweak the stats or Hit Dice, or come up with bullshit "racial bonuses" to whatever in order to make it "officially" work.

As you might expect, this led to monsters that were much stronger or weaker than their Challenge Rating would suggest. Sometimes this meant saving throw DC's that were almost impossible to overcome/almost impossible to fail, or monsters would take a long time to kill/die with little effort. It makes me think of the infamous ghoul TPK incident from the designer's own playtest, the one time we fought a tendriculos in 3rd Edition and got our butts handed to us despite being a party of six and a couple levels higher than its Challenge Rating, as well as one of my 5th Edition playtest sessions in which the characters had to beat on zombies forever in order to take them down.

Fortunately they are also going to (kind of?) include 4th Edition's method, which has you pick a Challenge Rating and use the "boilerplate" stats it provides as a mathematical foundation. Granted he provides no actual examples or mechanics for us to look at, and while I doubt it will be as elegant and reliable as 4th Edition I cannot imagine that it would be worse than 3rd Edition (especially if they stick to that whole flat-math thing). But, as with NPCs-as-characters, this begs the question why? Why include both methods when they are intended to achieve the same result, but only one actually works (and works faster)?

Also, why call it Challenge Rating instead of just using levels? I have heard of people playing at level 0 in 4th Edition and previous editions; are we to believe that level 0 is okay, but fractions are somehow bad? The only "problem" with fractional levels is that level would become a cohesive indicator of power.

Frankly this just sounds like more traditionalist-pandering: yeah, they are going to include 4th Edition's methods, but do not worry, you will also be able to spend more time building NPCs and maybe get a monster that performs as envisioned. This is not design, this is just lazily chucking in rules from previous editions to try and appeal to fans of those editions. The thing is that if all 5th Edition does is let me kind-of-sort-of emulate an existing good game, then I do not need it: I already have that game.

Why not look at both methods, figure out what works, discard what does not, and actually, you know, design some rules? Really the only part of the article that I am tentatively interested are the various dungeon tables, but given the lack of design, direction, and innovation we have seen in everything else, I am not expecting anything particularly amazing, or really even noteworthy.

{ 10 comments... read them below or Comment }

  1. Some DMs prefer making npcs along the same rules as PCs while others prefer the 4e method. Nothing wrong with a system offering both methods.

    1. My argument is not that it is wrong to include both ways, just that I see not point to this aside from traditionalist-pandering. Both methods get the same results, just one works better and faster. Mike offers up no actual design reason for doing this, but since it was a 3rd Edition thing it gets the go ahead?

      Mind you I am not saying that 4th Edition's method is the best there could ever be, it just did it way better than past editions: there could be a whole new way of doing it that is even better, but rather than try to cook anything up they are just throwing both in and calling it good.

      That is just lazy and unnecessary since, again, 4th Edition does it better. It would be interesting to see Mike actually try to justify this decision from anything other than a marketing standpoint.

    2. I think people liked making a Minotaur and giving it barbarian levels for example ... which in 4e you couldnt do that exactly, but you could give it powers that the barbarian had which is in essence the same thing but no one seemed to get that. I also think people liked that monsters and characters worked under the same "rules" which I personally didnt like (and glad to see removed in 4e)

    3. @Anon: Maybe it just HAD to "officially" be a minotaur/bararian x? As you said you can get the exact same effect by attaching barbarian powers to it, though with the monster formulas you could effective emulate basically any power on the fly.

      What made it even better is that you did not have to invent feats or juggle numbers to make an effective, say, ogre druid: everything just went by the level's numbers and worked so, so seamlessly.

    4. I think the difference is "officially" the players had more power in 3e because the rules defined everything ... I had many a player say that monster cant have that template cause of x or how did it cast that spell it is only caster level y? In 4e ithe player lost control of being able to check the DM. This type of player I feel also likes to play spell casters in 3e and were the ones that didn't like 4e wizards. Meh. I think DMs that liked the 3e way also liked to work within the rules to make really tough monsters that used the box given to them, worked within the rules and was optimized for a CR range. These are the same players who love 3e multiclassing and CharOptimziers. just my 2cp

    5. Sounds like they A) have a lot of free time, and B) are happier just trying to build stuff with the "official" pieces for...some reason.

      Personally I like making things to use and flex my imagination. 4th Edition put in the only guidelines needed: hit points, defenses, attack bonuses, damage, etc.

  2. As a Pathfinder GM, one of the few things that could get me to pick up 5e is really outstanding monster/NPC design. That certainly failed to materialize during the playtest.

    I'm glad they're exposing their monster math, but given both Pathfinder and 4e already did that, it's sort of the bare minimum.

    Which leaves us with the ability to build NPCs using the PC rules, as we've been doing since the White Box. I'd actually be pretty impressed if they managed to stop us from doing this.

    Maybe the details of the system or the design of the finished monsters will represent a leap forward. I really hope they will, but I share your skepticism, especially after the playtest packets.


  3. As a fellow 4E enthusiast -- as you are well aware -- I definitely have to mirror your sentiment on this particular issue. Creating your own monsters in 3E was so unwieldy and unnecessarily complicated that it was almost always a better decision to change your adventure to incorporate stuff from the Monster Manual. But with 4E there's so much more freedom to create whatever concept you want and just build it from the ground up with components from here and there.

    In the Ravenloft campaign I've got going, I had the party fight something I dubbed the Nightmare Eater. Most of it's abilities weren't based on stats -- it was more about creating hazards in a dream world, or transforming the world around the player -- but it had a hefty number of actual attacks that it would use if cornered. This sort of thing did not exist in any of the printed material so I had to create it myself, and I just substituted different powers from different monsters to make it work thematically and practically. Tweak the numbers a bit to make it doable and you're good to go! (He showed up in Act Two, the synopsis of which should be going online right away!)

    That sort of thing was basically impossible in 3E so it's disappointing to hear that they are reverting to that sort of model for monster/NPC creation in the future. Though maybe there is a demand for it? I recently met someone who was a staunch defender of Pathfinder, and the roots of 3E by extension, and he absolutely despised 4E for how soft it seemed. He seemed shocked when I told him my 4E game ran with a lot of roleplaying and a smaller amount of combat, and was intrigued as to how that could work with 4E. Maybe there are more people like him than we give credit?

    Not that the 3E system is better, mind you. But... nostalgia, I guess? Haha!

  4. Its just me or Mearls finally goes Full Retard Mode? WTF.

  5. @Kinak: Yeah, monsters largely went back to being "bags of hit points and XP", which was pretty disappointing after 4th Edition paved the way to make them so much more interesting. I wonder if there is some advantage to a monster/NPC being written up as a full-blown character; I cannot see it, so I wish Mike would justify this decision.

    @Nick: I think you could have created that monster in 3rd Edition, it just would have taken much, MUCH longer, and probably required you to whip up some homebrew feats and/or spell-like abilities to go along with it. Personally I would rather just create exactly what I need instead of having to pore through a bunch of books, but maybe taking an unnecessarily long time is a "benefit" to some portion of the player base?

    @Darcy: You never go full retard.



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