Wednesday, October 23, 2013

DnD Next: Ruminations on Monsters and Stories

This week’s Legends and Lore column by Mike Mearls is a really great glimpse into the mindset of the Wizards of the Coast team as they attempt to create the narrative feel for the new edition of Dungeons and Dragons. In Monsters and Stories Mike begins by talking about the narrative of the Dungeons and Dragons game over the last forty or so years:
“. . . [Dungeons and Dragons] has been around for a long time. Over the years, the stories that frame the origins, habits, and goals of certain monsters have changed quite a bit. In addition, we've spilled a lot of ink talking about the biology of monsters as if they were real-world creatures. That stuff can be interesting, but it doesn't necessarily translate into something you use at the gaming table or while building a campaign . . .” (Monsters and Stories)
I find it interesting that there appears to be a move away from the ecology style monsters, or a realistic take on the monsters, and a move more towards set piece monsters. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing as some people like to have monsters that simply exist to be killed and not to have a sort of narratively rich creature that requires more work on the part of the Dungeon Master to use it in their campaign.

Not my cup of tea, but then I tend to make the game what I want rather than leaving it as I found it.
“. . . When looking at monsters for D&D Next, we start by looking at how they've been portrayed in the game over the years. Is a critter devious and likely to set up ambushes, or is it a simple brute that loves to wade into melee? Is it a mastermind that gathers minions to command, or does it keep to itself and rely solely on its own abilities?

These questions are useful because they give us a sense of how most players and DMs have experienced the creature in the past. It's a starting point we can use for a monster's story that allows it to remain consistent with how the creature has behaved in previous editions of the game . . .” (Monsters and Stories)
I’ll never get used to terms that define a character or non-player character’s role in the game. It was one of the big turn offs for me when it came to Fourth Edition Dungeons and Dragons. Intellectually I realize that these terms are essentially meaningless because I can make my character what I want it to be; however, it is one of those little annoyances that scratches at the back of my mind worrying away at my enjoyment of the game.

Like I said, it’s my problem and not necessarily a problem that the folks at Wizards of the Coast should be worrying with or attempting to fix.  

Anyway, I do think that it is a useful exercise for someone designing a game to take the time to understand the way that a creature has been used in the game. Now this can result in a situation where you alienate some players – as is slowly happening with the way that Goblins and Kobolds are being weakened – and create a situation where classic monsters are pushed to the wayside because the current generation of player has a lesser appreciation of the creature, or even an outright dislike of the little beastie.
“. . . However, even as we keep the monster's fundamental role in the D&D cosmos unchanged, we can introduce new stories or flesh out details that have previously been left vague. This approach means we can introduce that new material without forcing you to think of the monster in an entirely new way. If we're doing our jobs right, we're instead making the monster more interesting as an NPC or a force in the world . . .” (Monsters and Stories)
The expansion of a monster’s narrative was perhaps best done with Advanced Dungeons and Dragons Second Edition. That version of the game was, and still is, one that I bought expressly for the narratives attached to the monsters and the game worlds. The creature descriptions were brilliantly detailed and it seemed as though there were thousands of books out there creating an overall narrative for the edition that still shadows the game three editions later. So the idea that we could be seeing a new narrative being molded for the creatures in the game is good, especially if it builds on the past.

Now I’d like to point out that we saw shades of this with the very first public playtest packet that came out and I was a tremendous fan of that approach. I was in the minority at the time as the Feedback Forum was overwhelmingly negative on that front and Wizards moved away from that initial format and continues to be set against it in the final playtest packet.

I sensed at the time that the biggest reason for negativity on the narrative descriptions of the monsters came from Fourth Edition Dungeons and Dragons players who rightly saw this return to the narrative as a slap against their preferred system. I’m hopeful that these latest moves will help heal that wound but I suspect that the rift may be too deep.
“. . . A couple of weeks ago (I was unable to determine what article he’s referring to here - Charlie) , we tackled the backstory for the medusa. We've preserved the basics of the medusa as outlined in the Monster Manual of original and 2nd Edition AD&D. These creatures live alone or in small groups. They are hateful and dwell in dark caverns. A medusa's body is human, but its face is hideous and its hair is a nest of writhing vipers. Its gaze turns victims to stone.

On top of those basic facts, we've added some more depth to give a sense of what medusas are like in terms of background and personality. Medusas are created by a curse whereby a human trades a decade of great beauty and personal magnetism for an eternity of a visage so wretched that it turns onlookers to stone. Most medusas are ambitious, grasping, and self centered, willing to amplify their appearance and charms to work their way up the social ladder. Some use their temporary gifts to marry into wealth and power. Others build their own base of power.

Regardless of how a medusa uses its newfound gifts, after a decade, it must pay the price of its bargain. The transformation is sudden and hideous. Some medusas plan for their change and retire to a distant villa or keep, shielding themselves from the outside world while still enjoying the wealth and power they have accumulated. Others forget about their bargain, attempt to reverse it, or remain ignorant of its true price. These poor wretches are killed or driven into hiding . . .” (Monsters and Stories)
This begs the question, who’s going to take that bullshit deal? Ten years for an eternity of ugly. No thank you.

While I like the fact that they’re trying to add a new wrinkle to the Medusa the situation they’ve proposed is one that will never work with players who are old enough to care when things don’t make logical sense. No, the Medusa works better as a tragic figure cursed by the gods as was the case in Greek mythology (you can read more at Old Greek Stories by James Baldwin published by Project Gutenberg).
“. . . The important element for storytelling lies in giving a DM the sense of a medusa's personality and potential. One medusa might be a vicious, hateful creature that kills out of spite, specifically targeting the most handsome or beautiful adventurers that invade its lair. Another might be a secluded noble desperate to conceal her true nature, and who becomes a party's mysterious benefactor. And of course, a medusa might just be a fearsome monster in your dungeon—a creature whose background and origin story never come up. But the story we created remains there to serve as a good read in the Monster Manual or to inspire your own ideas.

By keeping the frontward-facing parts of the medusa intact—the elements that have been most prominent throughout the game's history—we can ensure that existing adventures and campaigns don't need to be altered to fit into D&D Next. By the same token, the new mythology of the medusa can hopefully inspire adventure ideas, NPCs, and campaign settings of your own . . .” (Monsters and Stories)
The fact that they’re working the Monster Manual as a point of inspiration rather than as a defined catalog of creature statistics, ecological documentation, combat strategies is really a good thing. I don’t know how successful they can be in the effort, but I’m hoping that they succeed.

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