I must create a system, or be enslaved by another man's. I will not reason and compare: my business is to create.

- William Blake

Tuesday, May 04, 2021

Monster statblocks - how good is AD&D?

In my latest post about this subject, we've analyzed some OSR statblocks. Now let's look at AD&D.

As I've said before, I'm not the greatest fan of playing AD&D, but I have a deep respect for it, and I'm often amazed at the number of things AD&D (and OD&D, etc.) did first and got right, despite any flaws.

Monster statblocks might be one of those things - we shall see.

I bought a few AD&D monster manuals from DTRPG, through print-on-demand. The original Monster Manual* and the Fiend Folio*, for example, look fantastic. My favorite, however, is the 2e Monstrous Manual*; it is an amazing book, both in looks (full color, with lots of amazing art by Tony Diterlizzi and others) and content, being more comprehensive (more than 600 monsters!) and detailed than the others. The print qaulity in these books is great.

If you want to get the best D&D monster book you can find, the Monstrous Manual is very hard to beat. It might be nostalgia, who knows - but this is still my favorite monster manual ever (despite having few demons and devils, using instead names such as Tanar’ri and Baatezu).

The only downside is that these books are only available with soft cover (except for the 1e MM). I'll recommend all of them regardless, and I'll probably buy a new Monstrous Manual if hardcover is available someday.

Anyway, let's see some statblocks.

This is from the original MM: 

And this is from the monstrous manual:

Let's break this down. 

AC, attacks, damage, HD, movement, size, etc., are combat stats and they are present in every edition of D&D (for the most part). Nothing special here (although you could certainly reduce the size without losing information). Notice we do not get an attack description in the stat-block. I assume claw/claw/bite, but it would be useful to have.

Special attacks, special defenses, magic resistance and psionic ability are useful IF they exist... which is often not the case, as you can see. So, just a big waste of time and space in most cases, but essential in others. There is a simple way to solve this, as we will see...

Treasure type is important in AD&D, since you get most of your XP though treasure... but otherwise I don't think this is specially important, except as a social aspect (see below).

Then we have the "ecology/society" part: frequency, number appearing, % in lair, intelligence (described in words, not numbers - but numbers would suffice) and alignment. This is the part which tells us how the monster fits in the world; are they scattered tribes, unique individuals, or huge civilizations? Are they friendly or aggressive, do they wander around, are they smart, brave, etc.?

The monstrous manual adds A LOT of  ecology/society to the stat-block: climate, organization, activity cycle and diet. This is good, but it might be too much - I'd rather separate habits and diet by monster type, like I did in Teratogenicon, although this is limited - you have animals, giants and dragons in all types of terrains, after all. But it works well enough for demons, celestials, elementals, undead, etc.

This ecology/society aspect is extremely important - if somewhat setting specific. Why did it dwindle in modern D&D? My best guess is that the original MM is meant as a tool for the GMs to create their own adventures - but modern D&D assumes you'll run a published modules, so you'll know exactly how many goblins you'll find and what treasure they have.

Now, in Candlekeep Mysteries, the latest 5e book, even alignment disappears. We could argue about alignment forever, and I'll agree it is a very limited tool, but a tool nonetheless. And now we have almost nothing in the stats about how a monster relates to other creatures (except for languages) and the enviroment. You have to make it up or rely on published adventures. 

If you find alignment too restrictive, we could go the opposite way - adopt one or multiple "mien" from Troika* (e.g., Hungry, Confused,  Protective), one or multiple goals from Teratogenicon, or let behavior be described by any appropriate expression (chaotic, lawful, greedy, hungry, indifferent, territorial, aggressive, shy, etc.). Of course, each individual creature might be different - but having some way to start the process is useful.

I digress. We were talking about AD&D. And my answer to "how good is AD&D" is "very good", but can use some improvement". So here is a proposed format for AD&D-like monster blocks; simpler, smaller, and maybe easier to use.

GRIFFON 
(uncommon large monstrosity)
Ecology: neutral (feral), semi-intelligent, pride of 2d6, 25% in lair (temperate hills/mountains), treasure C/S.
Move: 12 (fly 30)
Attack (13): claw (1d4x2) and bite (2d8).
Defenses: AC 3, 7 HD, ML 11.

GROANING SPIRIT 
(very rare medium undead)
Ecology: Chaotic evil, exceptional Int., solitary, 70% in lair (any), treasure D.
Move: 15.
Attack (13): 1d8 chill touch, wail (3”, save versus magic or die).
Defenses: AC13, 7 HD, +1 or better weapon to hit, 50% MR.

This... is not a HUGE improvement, I guess, but it is something. It does separate attacks and defense (and you can add special attacks, special defenses, psionics and magic resistance there).

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