Saturday, 2 June 2012

D&D Next's Analog Writing

Strangely, the one thing that I like most about the D&D Next playtest materials was not the mechanics, the nods to Old School play values, or the Caves of Chaos. It's the style of the monster write-ups, the way they fit so well with my liking for analog detail.

D&D monster writeups started minimal in Original, and ramped up fast to the bloated style seen in 2nd edition, with every fact of ecology, tactics and social structure spelled out across two back-to-back pages of small print looseleaf. The AD&D Monster Manual got it just about right, with enough tidbits and hooks to make monsters interesting, but not enough to leave no room for invention or mystery. Strangely, the Field Folio had the right average of detail but the wrong spread, with some monsters underdone, and others developed to the point where playing against them would be a little railroaded module all to itself.

Still no "weird hooting" though.
It's not just nostalgia for the nods to AD&D - the tribe names, the green-gray skin of the gnolls and the red-rimmed eyes of the owlbear. Really, the descriptive text of the D&D Next monsters comes in at just the right level of detail. If there's information about the creature's diet, organization, treasure "drops" (like the owlbear's eggs), or natural history, it doesn't feel like it's been forced into an encyclopedia entry. Rather, the haphazard information reads more like an almanac or bestiary, the kind of knowledge a well-informed adventurer would be likely to pick up from late tavern nights on the borderlands. The one constant is good physical description and a short paragraph of likely actions when confronted.

The digital stuff - boss feats, six stats for everyone - is easily enough ignored, simplified or fudged in play, as the notes recommend. It did inspire me to come up with a very simple way to determine monster ability scores and saves, which I'll share next time.

There's less of a wealth of analog detail in the Caves of Chaos adventure, though the format is nice: a short establishing paragraph, and specific notes on lights, smells and sounds that might reach the players before they enter the area. That's OK, though; while the writing style in this example sets the tone for adventures under these rules, it's something that can be easily changed by individual writers.

As I figure out which of the distasteful parts can be dropped or modified, I'm coming to like the Next approach more and more.


  1. Yeah I liked that too. It was also about the only thing I liked in the playtest rules :)

  2. That smell and lighting thing didn't work for me... I read through a few descriptions from original and from the playtest, and, well... it was easier for me to imagine the surroundings with the describing text from Gygax.
    And treasure! These poor, poor D&D Next pcs...

    But yes, the monster entries are quite well made.