2016-10-21 In Defense of the Monster Manual

I’ve slowly been working on a small monster manual to go along with my Referee Style Guide. If you follow the links you’ll see that the monster manual is pretty traditional and that the art is simply whatever I can get done in two or three attempts.

Some people don’t like this kind of monster manual because they think it’s boring, and it is. Or it can be. My kind of monster manual is not a monster manual you read and marvel at the prose or the pictures. But compared to all the fancy monster manuals I have, all the blog posts about Velvet Horizon by Patrick Stuart, all of the Goblin Punch Bestiary by Arnold K, I just keep going back to the simplest monster entries in the Labyrinth Lord rule book. Why did I give away my Random Esoteric Creature Generator for Classic Fantasy Role-Playing Games and their Modern Simulacra by James Edward Raggi IV?

It’s a lot to read. It’s a lot to figure out. It’s a lot to prepare. And I don’t have time for that. Or should I say: that’s not the kind of preparation for the game that I enjoy.

Perhaps it would work in a game like Lamentations of the Flame Princess which labels itself as “fantasyadventurehorror”. If you do encounter the monster at the end of a grueling descent into the nether world, it better not be an orc I understand that.

But what can I say. In my sandbox game, there’s not too much of that. There’s an island of giant apes. There are mind flayers (”tentacle men”). There are hill giants (”giant shepherds on hills”) and stone giants (”giant servants of earth magic”), elves (”grey elves that settled the astral sea”), dwarves (”makers of golem armor”), and they have problems and places and it’s a bit of Planescape, Spelljammer, vanilla fantasy—what the Germans call EDO Fantasy: “Elves, Dwarves, Orcs”. My games are mostly wilderness exploration, travel, factions, also some fighting, finding treasure and getting XP, building a stronghold, expanding the domain, but not really about horror, most dungeons are small, whenever I place megadungeons in the campaign world my players explore a level or two and then they proceed to do other stuff.

That’s why the game world is full of standard monsters and their societies. But why do I need stats for these monsters? Why do I need to write up anything for these monsters?

  1. I like stats because having these things written down prevents referee fiat. I’m not boosting stats to make fights more exciting. I remain consistent over years of play. Player knowledge can be valuable. That’s what I like.
  2. Most of the descriptions I have read in existing monster manuals are either too long, or too boring, or too complicated, or not helpful (”casts spells like a 10th level cleric” – not making this any faster), or they don’t quickly suggest a reason for including the monster in my game. But that’s what I want.

Having these things written down is a bit like rolling for treasure instead of assigning it at will. I need the suspension of disbelief. I want to believe that an actual, imagined, shared, pre-existing world is out there, waiting for me. Having tables to generate treasure, having procedures to generate random encounters, having prepared locations, all of these things help. Having stats to describe monsters helps.

That’s why I’m writing a simple monster manual.

Perhaps this should be a two step process. First, you read great books and look at great pictures, then you write your monster manual for the campaign, and then you run your game, and then you just keep doing that.

But still, I can’t help but feel that the really interesting and innovative thing to do – the thing that would really set DMs free, expand their minds, empower them, and “inspire new stories at the table” – would be a Monster Manual without the stats, the banal descriptions, the leaden prose, the amusing pseudo-narratives, the prescriptions, the stats. It would have nothing in fact but art. 196 pages of pictures of monsters. Just pictures. No words, except for a short introduction: “Do what you want with this.” – noisms (2016)

Forgetting the faux-anger and hyperbole for a moment... these things really do piss on every other bestiary I’ve ever read, from great height, to the point that all these other books are goddamn useless. You’d better be a goddamn fresh-off-the-turnip-truck-never-actually-played-before GM to ever have the idea of a monster in your head already and need to look up the stats in a book. Because if in your mind you already know you want there to be a Protein Polymorph in Room 4b in the dungeon you’re making or running RIGHT NOW, you already know why you want it there and what it was supposed to be accomplishing so you don’t need the official digits at all because that’s always the least-important part of any monster. – James Edward Raggi IV (2015)

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