Five Moons RPG: Simplifying Monsters and NPCs

I’ve written and developed about a zillion monsters for D&D and Pathfinder. Low CR, high CR, mythic, and many weird corner cases.

One of the reasons I wrote the Great Paizo Mythical Stat Block Spreadsheet was to handle all of the cumbersome math and formatting for creature stat blocks–calculating BAB, saves, skill ranks, numbers of feats, and so on–to speed up making stat blocks for the original Pathfinder RPG Bestiary. And it’s still not 100% accurate because there are so many exceptions in the game, and the game keeps adding new exceptions.

Creating monster stat blocks is a lot of work. It’s still a lot of work even if you have assistance from a program.

Creating monsters wasn’t always this annoying.

(Update September 23, 2014: If you like this post and where these ideas are going, please check out the kickstarter for my Five Moons RPG, which uses these ideas. Thanks!)

How NPCs and Monsters Work

One key design concept for 3E (and thus PF) is “NPCs work the same way as PCs do,” meaning “this enemy wizard functions like a PC wizard, you can’t just give them different abilities unless it’s presented in a way that the PCs can, too.”

For example, if PC wizards can’t learn cure wounds spells, an NPC wizard shouldn’t be able to learn cure wounds spells. If you give an NPC wizard that ability, it has to be something the PCs could achieve in a similar way–such as a magic ring that adds cure light wounds to the wearer’s arcane spell list, or an archetype or prestige class that allows the character to prepare cure light wounds in a 1st-level sorcerer/wizard spell slot.

Basically, if the players ask, “wait, that’s not allowed in the rules, how did he do that?,” the GM has to say, “well, there’s this item/archetype/prestige class/whatever… I guess you can learn how to do it, too.” It’s a “how come the GM gets cool toys that my character doesn’t get to play with?” rule.

Except, of course, that GMs are supposed to get all the cool toys, like dragons, and lost civilizations, and setting entire countries on fire, and which classes/gods/races/sourcebooks exist in the campaign. It’s okay for the GM to keep some toys just for themselves, otherwise the GM who wants a humanocentric campaign has to accommodate a group of PCs who are an elf, a fairie dragon, a half-fiend, and a tengu.

There’s a lot of “behind the scenes” stuff that GMs get to hand-wave (and PCs can’t hand-wave). It’s not like the GM has to run NPCs through adventures to get them enough XP to level up–the GM just creates NPCs at the level they’re needed so the campaign can continue. The evil overlord doesn’t have to take Leadership to gain a bunch of loyal followers–the overlord gets those followers because the GM says so. The goblin tribe doesn’t have to have someone who can cast charm monster to justify how they’re able to keep a giant lizard as a pet–the tribe has the pet because the GM says so. These things just happen because the GM needs tools to build a cool story.

(In other words, sometimes when the players ask, “how is that wizard able to do that?,” sometimes the best GM answer is “you don’t know.”)

The “NPCs work the same way as PCs do” concept eventually grew to become “monsters work the same way as PCs do.” For example, in Pathfinder, fey always have d6 Hit Dice, slow BAB, good Ref and Will saves, and 6 skill ranks per HD.

The idea behind this is that it gives a standard framework for building monsters.the designer knows an 8 HD fey has 8d6 Hit Dice, +4 BAB, +6 Ref and Will, and 48 skill ranks. That prevents the designer from accidentally creating an 8 HD fey whose saves are too low, has too few skill ranks, and so on. And it’s nice for the math to provide a guideline for the “skeleton” of a monster’s stats. But sometimes you deliberately want to break that mold, and the skeleton fights you every step of the way.

Example: I was assigned to design the erlking, a CR 18 fey described in the assignment as the “war-like king of all fairykind.” The Bestiary has expected stats for monsters at various CRs, and for CR 18 it says the expectations are: hp 300, AC 33, high attack +28, average damage 100. Unfortunately, fey have d6 HD, so to get the erlking close to that 300 hp target number, I had to give him 20 Hit Dice and Con 28 (and that only got him to 270 hp, but I gave him some DR and a constant blur to compensate for that shortfall). Fey have slow BAB (equalling 1/2 their HD), so those 20 Hit Dice got him +10; with a +3 sword, 20 Str, and Weapon Focus he’s up to +19, but still far short of the expected +28. He gets two weapon attacks per round from that BAB at 1d8+12 each, which puts his damage at 33 per round, which is well below the expected 100; by giving him a constant haste spell like ability that increases his attack bonus to +20 and gives him an extra attack bringing his damage up to 49, and I boosted that a little bit more by giving him a bleed attack… but the net result is a monster whose skeleton doesn’t allow it to fit the expected stats for its CR.

(Side note about the erlking: Those 20 HD and his smart-enough-to-be-king-of-the-fairies Int 19 means he has 200 skill ranks. Which meant that after maxing out the appropriate skills, I still had a lot of ranks left to spend, and had to pick some less-important ones, like ranks in Fly, Heal, Ride, and Swim, which for various reasons aren’t really useful skills for him. This is a common problem with high-ranks/high-HD monsters. Take a look at the D&D solar… he has so many spare ranks that he has five maxed-out Craft or Knowledge skills, Escape Artist, Hide, and Move Silently… and that’s after he maxed out his Concentration skill.)

In other words, sometimes we can get close (or sort-of close) to those stats, but doing so requires “faking it” (like the constant blur and haste). But the reason why we have to “fake it” is because the rules say “monsters work the same way as PCs do,” aka “all monsters of type X have stats like this.”

And faking it happens all the time, usually as a result of other rules restrictions hindering a monster’s ability to be effective at what it’s supposed to be doing. This is especially common with stat blocks for normal or dire animals, because their animal-level Int means they only get 1 skill rank per HD, and you have to make up for that with racial bonuses to skills. Likewise for vermin, as their mindlessness means they don’t actually get ranks, so you have to prop up their puny skill bonuses with racial modifiers to relevant skills.

4E Design Principle

For my last three years at Paizo, I shared an office with Stephen Radney-MacFarland, who was a designer at Wizards of the Coast for 4th edition D&D. We had many interesting game design discussions about the concepts behind 3E, 4E, and PF, and how they’re different. One topic that came up a lot was 4E’s design principle for monsters, which is “a monster should have the abilities it needs to suit its role in the campaign.”

That means you give the monster what it needs, not what the generic math says it should have. Designing the erlking for 4E would be as simple as saying “it’s a CR 17 warrior-king fey, he has 300 hit points and two attacks per round at +28 that do 6d6+24 points each.” That makes monster design a lot easier (not just for paid professionals, but also for GMs who want to create new stuff for their home campaign). Yes, there is the risk that the designer/GM could just pile on additional abilities until the creature became unwieldy, but you can write guidelines about that, too, which don’t have to be as restrictive as the must-follow-HD-math rules for D&D/PF.

This also means you could make an “I have fighter levels” version of a monster just by adjusting its stats and giving it some fighter abilities. Or an “I have wizard levels” version of a monster by adjusting its stats and giving it some CR-appropriate spellcasting. No more would you be fiddling with how to add X fighter levels to a monster, determine if they’re enough of a bump to merit a full +X to the CR, or just +X/2. (Note: Back in the old days, you used to have encounters that said, “this room has 4 fire giants and 1 fire giant priest who has the powers of a 5th-level cleric; simple, eh?)

(Let me say right now that I really appreciated having Stephen’s perspective on game design while I was at Paizo. We didn’t always agree on specifics, but he definitely made me think about why I wanted something to work a certain way, and that’s an important step in the design process. Thanks, Stephen!)

Ramifications

If monsters and NPCs don’t have to work like PCs, then doesn’t matter if a creature has Cleave but doesn’t have Power Attack; if I want a creature to have the ability to take a –2 penalty to its AC in the hopes of attacking a second target, it can have that ability… even if that creature doesn’t have the ability to trade melee attack bonus for additional damage.

There’s already tons of this in D&D and PF, but it’s mostly in spellcasting classes. If I want to learn delayed blast fireball, I don’t have to first learn fireball. If I want to successfully cast divination, it doesn’t matter that I’ve never prepared or cast augury. I don’t have to learn limited wish before I can learn wish.

And if NPCs don’t need to learn Power Attack before they learn Cleave, maybe PCs shouldn’t have to, either. Having to deal with feat chains is a common complaint about martial classes, and it’s a subject I touched on in an earlier blog about how spellcasters become more versatile and martial classes become more rigidly specialized. Removing feat prerequisites (and making each feat stand on its own as something valuable, not just a gate against later feats) helps martial characters and makes the game easier to learn.

Another ramification of the “creatures have what they need to suit its role” concept is the “much of this clutter doesn’t need to be in the stat block” concept. If a monster has the Improved Initiative feat, the stat block accounts for that in the Init line. If a monster has Weapon Focus (longsword), the stat block accounts for that in the Melee line. And so on with all of the boring feats that just give you +X to a number that’s already listed on the spreadsheet (Dodge, Iron Will, and so on).

We list all of those feats anyway just to show that we spent all of the monster’s math-required feats. But if we don’t use the math-required paradigm, we can just give the monster what it needs, and not waste space on stuff the GM doesn’t need to know in the middle of combat while scrambling to find important information on a stat block. We did this for the Beginner Box, and it was great–the only stuff in the stat block was stuff you actually needed to use in combat, like AC, saves, attacks, and ability modifiers. True, there are people who like to reverse-engineer stat blocks, but the purpose of a stat block is to summarize a creature’s abilities for use in-game.

You know what else is clutter? Low-level spells in a high-level spellcaster’s stat block. Take a look at this level 10 wizard’s stat block. This wizard can cast cloudkill, teleport, greater invisibility, empowered scorching ray, phantasmal killer, and about 12 other useful spells. Do we really need to know exactly what cantrips they have prepared? If the PCs are fighting an NPC wizard 10, is the fight really going to come down to whether or not he has mage hand prepared instead of open/close?* Get rid of that stuff, save a few lines on the stat block, and if the wizard10 needs a specific cantrip, then just let him cast it.

(It would be even better if the game at some point admitted, “yeah, at your level, it’s not important to track which of these you have prepared,” and had a game mechanic that instead lets you expend a generic limited resource to cast the low-level spell effects that you need. Because nothing says “fun” like “oops, we can’t progress past this magic door unless I can read the password written on it, but I didn’t prepare comprehend languages today…”)

To Sum Up…

Five Moons RPG doesn’t require monsters and NPCs to work like PCs. It doesn’t have feat chains. It lets you build monsters (and NPCs) with what they should have to make a fun encounter, not what a formula says they’re supposed to have. And it recognizes that eventually your lower-level abilities are trivial enough that you shouldn’t have to keep track of them in the same way you do your most powerful abilities.

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Five Moons RPG cover

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13 thoughts on “Five Moons RPG: Simplifying Monsters and NPCs

  1. I used to think that statting an NPC like a PC was rather elegant because your NPC creation rules are the same as your PC creation rules. However, I changed my mind on that. I recently spent more than two hours statting two NPCs and a unique monster only for the PCs to run away from the monster and use diplomacy/roleplaying to

    I think any game benefits greatly from having its content fairly easy for a GM to homebrew. This also goes for things like “unwritten rules” and making the balance and workings of certain game constructs obvious. I attribute one of the reasons many called the ACG arcanist class “overpowered” because the class’s somewhat complex spell slot and preparation mechanic obscured the trade offs the class makes compared to the wizard.

    • Oops, accidentally didn’t complete that first paragraph.

      I recently spent more than two hours statting two NPCs and a unique monster only for the PCs to run away from the monster and use diplomacy/roleplaying to avoid combat with the hostile NPCs. One of my GMs mentioned he spent 4 hours on a unique boss only for me to summon bees on his face and have him flail around for 3 rounds before dying. For this reason, I usually just file off the serial numbers of an existing monster/NPC rather than make my own.

      • {only for the PCs to run away from the monster and use diplomacy/roleplaying to avoid combat with the hostile NPCs.}

        Ouch! That’s a lot of stat block work that went for nothing. :p

        {I usually just file off the serial numbers of an existing monster/NPC rather than make my own.}

        I approve of this concept. ;)

        {I think any game benefits greatly from having its content fairly easy for a GM to homebrew.}

        I agree. From a business perspective, there’s a sweet spot between “this game is so easy to run that I don’t need to buy supplemental adventures, I love this game” and “this game requires so much prep that I’m discouraged about running in, I really need to buy supplements pre-prepped for me.” Obviously I lean more toward the first side of that see-saw. :)

      • ““this game is so easy to run that I don’t need to buy supplemental adventures, I love this game”
        Hell, that’s not even a bad thing necessarily, as they may still buy your adventures. Whether its because they’re new to DMing/RPG’s/this game and wanna get a “feel for the system”, Because they like the game they seek to support it by buying Adventures, or just because its easy, doesn’t mean they have the personal time to do so.

  2. For “DM Toys”, part of the problem is when the PC’s themselves aren’t getting that cool of toys themselves in comparison to the NPC’s. Especially when the NPC’s in question aren’t even that “magical” or out there, like how Kobolds in 4th edition statblocks had some cool stuff that PC’s couldn’t interact with after they dropped (despite the fact it was basically just unique equipment). People didn’t like how monsters seeming mundane in nature, had abilities that some PC’s should totally be able to do. So don’t make monsters have abilities infinitely far more cooler than what monsters can do in every way.

    “Yes, there is the risk that the designer/GM could just pile on additional abilities until the creature became unwieldy, but you can write guidelines about that, too, which don’t have to be as restrictive as the must-follow-HD-math rules for D&D/PF.”
    Preferably, I would want a Math Skeleton to give me expected numbers for basic such as attacks, defenses, saves, etc. As well that I would want hard fast rules for what are level appropriate abilities at X levels, “guidelines” don’t cut it for a product I’d pay for that balance, anyone can make up abilities (especially level inappropriate). Speaking of, 4th edition was nice for having expected Math numbers per level, just they had the problem of not doing the math right into upper & last third of their game, as well as giving no hard rules for what constituted as a “level appropriate” abilities for a given level/tier (They kinda gave some guidelines, like never use Stun/Daze, but didn’t go far enough, & not as helpful).

    I very very very very very (yes, Five), much want players & DM’s to be on the same page when it comes to understanding the math of the game, what bonuses they have means in reflection to the game, and their chances of succeeding on tasks of various DC’s (if got some simple/med/Hard/Impossible or whatever DC model going).

    “Removing feat prerequisites (and making each feat stand on its own as something valuable, not just a gate against later feats) helps martial characters and makes the game easier to learn.”
    Aw…..yeah, this sounds pretty sweet, pending what all Feats can do, will make me like this all the more (As I really like Martial characters).

  3. Although the current rules in Pathfinder are cumbersome at best, they do provide a certain consistency in monsters. It allows characters to make generalizations about what to expect from a creature based on seeing it.

    Rather than consider this a horrible constraint on the writer, it may be better to consider it a mechanical version of a plot/storyline bible. Something that gives consistency to the world and helps prevent stories from contradicting each other. It doesn’t have to be a straight-jacket, but you also don’t want to have to spend the first five sessions of the game explaining all the differences in your world from what the players have accepted as normal. Sorry, when I come to the table I want to game not listen to someone expounding on the uniqueness of their world.

    Please do simplify, but do it in a way that still maintains an internal consistency to the base creatures that is mostly in keeping with genre convention.

    • Here’s the thing, though: even if you dump all of the “undead have X Y Z, fey have A B C” mathematics from the game, the table of stats for monsters at various CRs *IS* an internal consistency for the base creatures. It’s much more important to say, “this CR 10 undead is at the same power level of any other CR 10 creature” than, “this undead has the same BAB/save/HD/skill progression as other undead.” The former is a (very important) encounter-building consistency, the latter is a (much less important) pre-set bias about what certain creature types “should” be good at.
      To put it another way, would you rather have all 90% of the monsters be accurate to their CR, or have 90% of the monsters be accurate to their creature type? If a dragon, fey, and undead are all CR 10, is it more important that they not be too high or low in offense/defense, or more important that the fey uses a d6 HD, the undead a d8, and the dragon a d12?
      Other than a very small number of effects that target creature type (like some undead-specific spells, the humanoid-specific spells, the bane weapon, and ranger favored enemy), the creature type usually doesn’t matter–to the PCs, it almost never matters that their opponent is type X instead of type Y… but it does matter if its AC is unhittable, its hp are puny, or its damage is too much.

      Table of stats for monsters at various CRs: http://paizo.com/pathfinderRPG/prd/monsters/monsterCreation.html

      • Will the players have a pre-set bias of what certain races should do?

        I don’t care if certain creature types can’t make it into the upper CRs. It is fine if there are no CR20 skeletons or zombies, those are supposed to be the bottom tier undead. It is also acceptable if there are no CR1 storm giants. Not all monsters need to cover the full range of CRs.

        Yes, it is important that the CR give a measure of the actual difficulty of defeating a monster. That shouldn’t mean making them all clones of each other with nearly identical attributes. I know you aren’t suggesting going that far, but many of your comments reflect differences in the current Pathfinder classes.

      • Bret! I missed replying to this followup question of yours.

        If by “what certain races should do,” you mean “what CR-vicinity certain races should be,” then yes. They’ll know that in general, orcs are tougher than goblins, bugbears are tougher than orcs, and giants are tougher than bugbears.

        And no, I don’t want all creatures of a particular CR to be near-clones with nearly-identical attributes. That would make monsters boring. :)

  4. Pingback: Five Moons RPG: Stone Giant stat block preview | Sean K Reynolds

  5. Pingback: Five Moons RPG: Stone Giant stat block preview | Sean K Reynolds

  6. I’ll admit, my own forays into system design are leading more to role-based stats- brutish monsters should just BE fighters, and choose abilities off of the list fighters have, and so on.

  7. Pingback: Five Moons RPG: Stone Giant stat block preview | Five Moons RPG

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