Wednesday, September 8, 2010

The Uniqueness of Things

One pronounced philosophical trend I have seen in OSR circles is a general attitude in favor of what I would call the uniqueness of things. By this I mean the idea of downplaying (even radically so) the standard list of monsters and magic items, in favor of making each of them unique. For instance, in Lamentations of the Flame Princess, James Raggi purposefully omitted the standard catalog of monsters. And Jeff Rients has put out a call (which I contributed to) for unique artifacts and oddments to replace many of the "standard" magic items. But it's had me thinking.

Personally I will admit to feeling cramped by the number and variety of monsters usually available in Dungeons & Dragons. I've always been a fan of new monster collections, and of products like Raggi's Random Esoteric Creature Generator, which help to spice things up beyond the very plain set of creatures you normally see. I also agree with the sentiment that monsters should be monstrous, and not familiar.

But...certain things seem iconic to me, too much so to let go. To say it's D&D with no orcs, and no swords + 1, may be true but it's a somehow diminished D&D. It's like running without clerics or something - you can do it, and it may be great for flavor, but it's a difference. At the same time, there is shock value in the new, but I think it can wear out more easily than people have given it credit for. If things are always unique, then uniqueness itself isn't as special - it becomes the new normal.

So I see merit in both keeping our traditional approaches, and to varying it up. Which, to be honest, 3rd edition had by the bucket-load. DMs complained through the 3.x era that single encounters took longer to stat out than they did to run - and these didn't exactly fly by. I think that we have to learn from that, the lesson that making every monster totally variable simply takes too long to actually make it a practical solution to the problem of monsters being one-note. Templates, statistics, feats and so on are simply an overload for something that is at best a single usage.

All of these factors suggest, almost naturally, a solution. Unlike 3.x, which reveled in adding layer after layer to monsters, the old school does things straightforwardly. Most creatures don't have ability scores of any kind, or rankings beyond HD, AC, and their methods of attacks. A solution that I think really embraces this is to make monsters different in one dimension. This can be radically varied; a tribe of orcs may take half damage from fire, or an ogre may have a plague of rats at its command, or the giant rats might have wings, or a lizardman may have acidic blood that corrodes or destroys weapons that hit it. The thing to take away is one variation per monster, for most of the standard creatures that will be encountered. Big ones could use the "Random Esoteric Creature Generator" or similar; smaller foes can be traditional but with a twist.

Of course, this pretty much sets up how the book with the trap charts is going to develop - into a whole big book of stuff for your old school Dungeons & Dragons game. We'll see how it goes. Any thoughts on directions to go with this would be greatly appreciated.


  1. I'm not for eliminating the standards. I still use goblins and +1 swords and gold pieces. What I'm for is 1) Better, wiser use of the ol' standby stuff and 2) more good options.

  2. I didn't think you were for eliminating the standards, Jeff - I think this was aimed more at the general attitude that your post and project on relics was a partial reflection of. This has more to do with LotFP, and on consideration Carcosa, than with what you've written about.

  3. To say it's D&D with no orcs, and no swords + 1, may be true but it's a somehow diminished D&D.

    I absolutely agree.

    This is an excellent topic. I may have to post my own thoughts on this at some point.

  4. This is a topic near and dear to my heart, Wayne. CARCOSA does indeed eliminate most of the "standard" D&D monsters and magic items. My current project eliminates them all. Of course, not everyone will like that. Here are just a couple of my observations regarding the topic:

    1. By keeping monsters and magic items unique, the DM helps keep the game feeling like it felt when we were new to it. Remember when all the "standard" monsters and magic items were mysterious and unpredictable? But with time, they became the "same ol', same ol'". Encountering a brand-new monster (much moreso than encountering your 48th troll) feels like encountering your first troll.

    2. For my tastes, the best place for "standard" D&D monsters and magic items is in an explicitly Gygaxian D&D game. I have cheapo copies of the 1974 D&D rules and of Supplement I: GREYHAWK standing by for whenever we get the desire to play Gygaxian style. I thus think of "standard" D&D monsters and magic items as "Gygaxian".

  5. This is one area where I actually love the OSR. The 3.x era had lots of options, and options, on the surface, look like a vast improvement. "Monsters have ability scores? Great! And levels? Cool! Now score/level drains will work on them! Now the DM can vary each individual goblin we fight!" It works great on paper.

    In practice, it's like you said--statting an encounter took longer than the encounter itself. A bit of off-the-cuff work might be better. "These orcs are larger than normal orcs so they get a +1 to hit/damage. These goblins use poisoned weapons. Those ogres turn to stone when they die." You don't need a feat for that, it's just DM fiat. Maybe up the XP by a few points just to balance it out. You don't need to be exact.

    As for magic items, I thought Dark Sun had a good idea with fruit that acted as potions (i.e. fruit of invisibility, fruit of healing, etc.).

  6. I'm a big fan of custom monsters, re-skins, and so on. In a true "horror fantasy" or "weird fantasy" or S&S campaign, using nothing but "unique monsters" is probably a good way of genre modeling. But I'm pretty much only modeling the "D&D adventure gaming" genre these days with some light flavor from the above genres. So I use a lot of the old standbys, albeit with my own flavor text and relation to the rest of the setting.

    My reasons:

    #1, standard monsters provide players with some metric for gauging challenges. Yes, it's metagaming, but in a version of the game without CRs and the like, or a setting without assumed scaling, it helps to give players some information with which to make intelligent decisions about potential encounters.

    #2, if every creature is the Uniquest of the Boogens, it seems like the uniqueness would blend together after a while - "Oh no, it's Some Crap the DM Made Up, iteration #347" and so on. The Referee's Specials stand out more in my mind if they're, well, Specials.

    #3, standard monsters have saturated the gaming community to the point that they're shorthand for certain concepts, and the Ref can either use them in that capacity or subvert the preconceptions for his own diabolical ends rather than every single encounter being a fascinating journey of discovery and/or exposition.


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