Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Monster Descriptions of Yore

I’ve decided -- against my better judgment or business sense -- to move forward on developing the Basic Fantasy Heroes roleplaying game; it uses the original Oracle System for combat and task resolution to offer some retro-clone-style medieval fantasy action with a suitability for new players. Adequately developed drafts for character creation, combat, and some short adventures have already made the rounds with playtesters. The obligatory bestiary section remains among the few chapters yet unwritten, so I’m diving into it with a few monster descriptions and stats each day to maintain my enthusiasm for the project, explore possibilities within the game engine, and develop useful text for a final product.

Working on my own bestiary I’ve found myself referencing monsters in both the Advanced Dungeons & Dragons Monster Manual and the Basic Dungeons & Dragons rulebook not so much to replicate material but to make sure I can put a more original spin on the classic monsters I’m developing and avoid using proprietary D&D creations (much as I have an inexplicable nostalgic fondness for the owlbear…). While I’m finding some inspiration and direction, I’m also realizing the text of both those tomes remains a product of their time. Both rules assume readers have a familiarity with mythological and literary fantasy monsters, leaving the more thorough descriptions to the sometimes-gonzo original D&D monsters like the mimic, lurker above, beholder, rust monster, stirge, and owlbear. (I’ll freely admit in this instance the Basic D&D bestiary has more description than its advanced cousin, but not much more).

Many monster entries, particularly those for humanoids, focus less on describing a creature’s physical qualities, behavior, and preferred habitat and concentrate instead on rules: explaining special combat abilities, noting aversions to light and ability to see in darkness, percentage chance to wield various weapons, and outlining the percentages of group and lair composition. Paragraphs like this one seemed ubiquitous in humanoid descriptions:

For every 40 kobolds encountered there will be a leader and two guards who are equal to goblins, each having 4 hit points, armor class 6, and doing 1-6 points of damage. If 200 or more kobolds are encountered in their lair there will be the following additional creatures there: 5-20 guards (as bodyguards above), females equal to 50% of the total number, young equal to 10% of the total number, and 30-300 eggs. There will always be a chief and his bodyguard in the kobold lair. It is also probable (65%) that there will be from 2-5 wild boars (70%) or 1-4 giant weasels (30%) in a kobold lair; the animals will serve as guards.

This level of statistical detail seems offered in the same spirit as the random dungeon instructions included in the Dungeon Masters Guide appendices, which enable gamemasters to generate random dungeon layouts and populate them with the proper level of monsters, traps, treasure. This more rules-oriented text leaves little room for descriptive “flavor” text to provide a context for adventuring. The actual “description” portion of monster entries delves into sometimes tedious extreme visual detail, such as the one the Monster Manual offered for goblins:

Description: Goblins range from yellow through dull orange to brick red in skin color. Their eyes are reddish to lemon yellow. They dress in dark leather gear, and their garments tend toward dull, soiled-looking colors (brown drab, dirty gray, stained maroon). Goblins reach the age of 50 years or so.

I realize AD&D emerged from a wargaming tradition and thus attribute the attention paid to color details to that heritage where painting miniatures the correct uniform color remained a point of pride to many.

I suppose the lack of colorful description at this time (the “Golden Age of Roleplaying,” or the early 1980s) seems normal, with brief descriptions focusing more on a creature’s role in terms of game rules than in what some might call “flavor text” or “lore.” The lack of non-game-mechanic detail enabled a host of magazine authors to expound on their own vision of particular creatures in the numerous, popular “Ecology of…” articles in Dragon Magazine.

I’m often amazed re-reading old game books and finding my expectations of contented nostalgia fall short in the face of what, by today’s game publication standards, is somewhat less-than-polished quality. Perhaps designers and gamers became wrapped up in the exciting novelty of the new hobby and paid less attention to sketchy rules, inconsistent grammar, passive voice, and a near-ubiquitous use of the future tense in rulebooks and adventure modules describing any potential situation (something that still creeps into today’s game writing by “professionals” and “amateurs” alike). Such elements help define games of that era and serve as a milestone by which we can compare the nuances and quality that characterize today’s roleplaying entertainments. What the first AD&D and D&D products create is nothing less than what publishers produce today, just something of a different flavor and play style.

Perhaps my observations about original D&D’s monster descriptions in a way reflect my own personal preference and strength for narrative and setting over rules. In my own brief monster descriptions I focus on physical description, environment, and motivations, all broad guidelines for use in the game, while the actual monster statistics serve to describe it in the context of the game rules. I’m seeking to provide the briefest of descriptions to put the creature in a familiar context within the game, then give the relatively simple stats and specialties so they work within the rules framework. I hope to give players the basic setting context and rules framework for monsters to let them use them as they see fit in their own games; in its own way original D&D does this by presenting monsters with a different set of tools.

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