Saturday, January 10, 2015
Nuking the Monster Manual
The Monster Manual contains many of the classic creatures that are iconic to D&D. James Maliszewski talked at length about the curious sense of naturalism in the book. It seems unfair to beat up on this book, but I think some of the choices made by Gygax had a limiting effect on the evolution of D&D and fantasy gaming in general.
By sticking with hierarchical lists of various types of creatures (demons, devils, dragons, and humanoids), Gygax wound up creating not examples of how to implement a concept, but canonical creatures. D&D's various monster types became a huge part of its current intellectual property, and many have leaked into fantasy more generally. If I could insert my own Monster Manual into history in place of Gygax's, I would have replaced particularly demons, dragons and the humanoid types with baseline examples and tables to create variations from there. For instance, orcs would be just one implementation of humanoids, but many others could be generated. Dragons would no longer be color-coded, and demons would be many and varied.
At the same time, I think the human types are somewhat limited. I like the concept that OD&D's "Evil High Priest" has Finger of Death and other reverse-cleric powers; rather than relying on the spell list I would have preferred a monster book that has human types like Evil Priest, Witch and so on that have more unique powers. Even the leveled NPCs could have made really interesting human encounters.
In OD&D, Balrogs were "boss" monsters. Despite the named demon and devil lords, I don't think AD&D managed to reproduce the feat. They are too remote, too distant, to take that role. You'd never put Orcus on a random encounter list, but the OD&D list had balrogs on it. Re-creating this would have been another goal in changing the Monster Manual.
But the real shame was that the Monster Manual unceremoniously dumped all the science fantasy elements that had been in OD&D. The various Martian creatures are more understandable given the Burroughs estate's tendency to sue over various slights, but the lack of the androids and robots described in Monsters & Treasure is not. By leaving them out, I think the Monster Manual ultimately situated AD&D in "high fantasy" whereas OD&D had been a bit more ambiguous; this not only hurt D&D as a game, but stopped it from becoming a force against that genre of fantasy's rise in the late '70s and through the '80s.
I do wonder if there may be something to an alternate bestiary that is an alternative Monster Manual, as outlined above. I would have to think it would start with the OD&D monsters but rethink the humanoids, and add several categories of creatures that are based on adding elements to a template – dragons, demons, robots, and so on. I think this might be a good compromise between "standard" and "unique" monsters that has been a tension in the OSR.
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That's the most useful and astute short-length analysis of the Monster Manual that I've ever seen. As is usual in these sorts of cases, much of what you say I have agreed with for some time (and in my own "monster manual" I tried to, so to speak, redress some of that damage). But as is also usual in these cases, you make a number of points that while stunningly obvious to me now, I had never considered before, such as your point about demons and devils sort of "drowning out" the Balrog. I think you could also say that in sort of the same way, the long and detailed catalog of dinosaurs paradoxically had the effect of segregating them out of practical existence.ReplyDelete
While science fiction elements were certainly sidelined, Expedition to the Barrier Peaks was released in 1980, so it certainly wasn't banished completely.ReplyDelete
Regarding your note about Orcus, all the demon princes and hell dukes are actually on the random encounter table for dungeon level 10 in the Monster Manual 2.
That said, I agree that the trend toward official and canonical creatures had a largely negative effect, at least from my perspective, by rewarding system mastery and draining the mystery out of many folkloric monsters. Guidance for creation, along with tables, would be more useful (as long as there are some example monsters ready for use also).
Your criticizing the manual is comical. It's like a kid with a comic book critiquing the Mona Lisa. Dude, the MM is classic of the classic. Your old school credibility is gone. There's more inspiration in a few pages of that book and in its art than you'll produce in your life.ReplyDelete
"Your old school credibility is gone."Delete
Saying that to a guy whose last two games were OD&D and Metamorphosis Alpha is just funny.
A serious reader will notice I am critiquing Gygax's basic approach, not the implementation on what he did. Except the dozens of "Special Attacks: Nil" type entries that clutter its pages.
As though playing an old school game gives you credibility. The salient point is that you are wannabe who is being condescending to a master. You think too highly of yourself.Delete
People like you are a big part of why I've focused on OD&D and Holmes rather than AD&D. The people on the RPG scene in the '70s did some really good things, but they are far from perfect and idolizing their efforts as some kind of holy grail we "wannabes" could never approach is setting yourself up for a life of mediocrity in gaming. I hope you enjoy yours.Delete
Respecting the masters doesn't result in mediocrity. Your condescending tone shows arrogance not excellence. I repeat, Gygax had more inspiration, and gives more inspiration, in a few pages of his books than you'll ever produce in your whole life. That's old school.Delete
Well, you're free to your opinions, and I'll have mine.Delete
Dragons would no longer be color-coded, and demons would be many and varied.ReplyDelete
Randomly generated dragons appear in Arneson's Adventure's in Fantasy. As for demons, I must check, but , isn't it a chapter in the Dungeon Master Guide for creating unique démons?
You're correct, credit where it's due. It's presented as Appendix D.Delete
Talysman had some nice posts on his own blog about "di it yourself" demons & devils , but apparently the concerned posts are not to be found ... :-(Delete
You raise some interesting points. The me of today would have approved of a more toolbox approach to the MM, but the 'me' of my youth, growing up with 1st edition, probably would have hated it. The toolbox approach is more in the spirit of OD&D, but by the time 1E was released, D&D was already headed in a more dogmatic direction.ReplyDelete
I don't usually plug my blog in comments, but the idea of presenting monsters as a template rather than as specific canonical type is what I've done with my "remixes" check out: www.builtbygodslongforgotten.blogspot.comReplyDelete
As far as the default genre of D&D becoming high fantasy to the exclusion of sci-fi/fantasy or others, I guess I see that as more of an opportunity for us now as opposed to a lack in MM. It does seem peculiar that none of the TSR game worlds were in the science/fantasy vein.
There was a science/fantasy game produced by TSR that included androids: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gamma_WorldDelete
and of course, don't forget Star Frontiers! :)Delete
Just remember that the AD&D game was in its infancy. As of 1977, the PH and the DMG hadn't even been written. Change what you want in those wonderful books, but unless you were there working with the folks at TSR and dealing with the market pressures they were dealing with, I gotta take your critique of the MM with a grain of salt.ReplyDelete
Take as many grains of salt as you like. I do think the Monster Manual is worthy of critique, even on its own merits and in its time. The decision to cut robots and androids, for instance, was a definite decision and I think a harmful one. As was the decision, for instance, to provide intense detail on the various humanoid types rather than tools to create new variants.Delete
I realize this seems like "hindsight is 20/20," but even given the stuff that was going on (look at All the World's Monsters or Arduin for some of it) was wild and kind of awesome, even if hit or miss, while what TSR was doing deliberately chose a much more prosaic type of fantasy. Gygax did a hell of a job with what he did - you'll note that, aside from wasting space, I don't actually critique the monster design. It's the philosophy that I disagree with.
I could possibly agree with you if the original intent was to create a universal game. However, the title "Dungeons and Dragons" is consistent with a fantasy genre that doesn't include androids. It was also a game that was derived from a fantasy supplement to the rules of "Chainmail". So cutting robots and androids was not harmful in my opinion. I do recall that Gamma World conversion tables were authorized by Gygax in the DMG. So if a DM wanted to add sci fi elements to the game, he or she had the resources available. Once again, these early games are naturally going to look awkward in their mechanics and presentation. Hell, the book was created in an age without the internet and NO computers. They had to type everything up on paper for crying out loud. Their options were limited. Perhaps Gygax's philosophy would not be the same if he were starting out as a game designer in today's world. Perhaps your philosophy would be different in 1977. Thanks for the discussion, R.Delete
The original MM was a seminal work but that does not mean it cannot be improved upon, particularly with the benefit of hindsight. Great post!ReplyDelete
Sure, everything can be improved upon, I'm not arguing against that. But to allege that the MM put limits on the evolution of fantasy gaming is speculative and unprovable.Delete