Tuesday, April 22, 2014

On Monster Manuals as Catalogs

Well, hello there. Took a bit longer of a break than I'd intended after two straight months of daily updates, but I'm back. So what have I been up to?

Well, in part I've been thinking about monster manuals.

I finally got around to designing proper random encounter tables for my AD&D 2e campaign. Prior to this, I'd been using various third-party resources, but there's really no substitute for making your own. Particularly with 2e, which has the marvelous Very Rare/Rare/Uncommon/Common 1d8+1d12 table system. And then noisms went and posted a fantastic variation on that table that simultaneously generates circumstances of the encounter and, well, I pretty much had to get off my ass and make my own tables.

One of the things that's cool about making your own random encounter tables is that you're effectively designing the local ecology as you do. You're saying, "Okay, this region's forests have elves living in them in enough of a population that you're more likely to run into them than goblins. And there's at least one green dragon in this forest, too." Stuff like that.

But in the course of making the tables, I had a small epiphany. Now, I haven't run a ton of D&D since my callow youth, so you'll have to forgive me if you're a regular DM who figured this out years ago, but...it occurred to me that just because a monster is in the Monstrous Manual (or whatever) doesn't mean it has to exist somewhere in my game world. In fact, until I've placed that monster in a random encounter table or scenario design, it doesn't exist in my world.

The fact that I just assumed otherwise (in the way we often carry a strange, unexamined assumption from our youth around in our heads until we shine a light back on it) is probably due to the aforementioned Monstrous Manual. Don't get me wrong; I love that book, with its wonderfully overwritten monster descriptions. But the "Ecology" section in each description definitely conveys the idea that these are monsters that already exist in a given game world, and it's simply up to you, the DM, to place them geographically on your particular map.

And you see this sort of approach in published D&D adventures quite a bit, this idea that you've got to interweave all the different monsters somehow and give them presence in the world. "The jermlaines, in concert with the wolfweres, are working to summon a guardian naga." Personally, that sort of D&D monster mash gets really tired for me really fast, either as DM or player. I'm a big fan of less-is-more world-building, where most allies and opponents are human and the monsters are truly monstrous. So the idea that I'm starting essentially from zero and building out was quite pleasing to me.

In effect, it changed the process of building random encounter tables from building a local ecology to an act of world-building in its own right.
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