Wizards Delivers a Killer Monster Makeover

by Ameron (Derek Myers) on March 4, 2010

Keep the design simple, make the layout easy to follow and eliminate guess work. This is good advice if you’re designing a website or improving the Monster Manual. Yes, the masterminds at Wizards of the Coast have improved the Monster Manual. We’re not just talking about the release of new monsters, we’re talking about redesigned monster stat blocks.

In Bill Slavicsek’s latest Ampersand article Beyond Essentials … (release online yesterday to DDI subscribers) from Dragon#385, he debuted the forthcoming changes to monster stat blocks in 4e D&D. “We’ve reorganized the information to make it easier to use and so that you can immediately find the details you need to run the monsters.

The changes may not seem that significant at first, but after a side-by-side comparison between the old format and the new, I’m completely sold on these improvements.

Before I get into my thoughts on why this improvement is so great, let’s look at an example of the new stat block side-by-side with the existing stat block. I give you the Kobold Dragonshield, first in it’s current layout and then as presented in Slavicsek’s article.

Here’s the current stat block as it appears in the Monster Manual (generated in Monster Builder).

Here’s the stat block presented in the new format. (Click on the stat block to enlarge.)

Here are my thoughts (good and bad) about the new layout.

  • Consistency

  • I spent a lot of time as a player in 4e D&D before I took my turn behind the DM’s screen. The new design presents the monster’s powers in much the same way the player’s powers are presented in the Players Handbook. This makes the transition from player to DM a lot easier. This is especially important for new DMs just discovering D&D.

  • Powers Grouped by Category

  • When I’m running monsters with a lot of powers I often overlook stuff because I didn’t realize it was an immediate interrupt or a minor action. By grouping powers into categories based on action type I can use the monster more effectively. The truly dangerous monsters live up to their full potential. I’m a lot less likely to miss something because it looked like every other power.

  • Space Hog

  • The new formatting does take up a little bit more real estate, which does trouble me a little bit. If the monster stat blocks are longer because of the new layout then something’s going to be sacrificed in future monster manuals (assuming they don’t increase the number of pages). It begs the question, what was left out? Do we get less art, skimpier flavour text or fewer monsters?

  • DDI Makes the Changes More Meaningful

  • With so much of the game shifting to online tools, this kind of design change doesn’t mean that we have to go out and purchase new books just because the monster stat blocks were changed. All of the monsters in Monster Manual and Monster Manual 2 (as well as every other official release) are available to DDI subscribers in the Monster Builder. I can only assume that Monster Builder will get a back-end fix and all the great material already available online will automatically be converted to the new layout. We’ll see these changes first hand in June with the release of Monster Manual 3. If the Monster Builder hasn’t been updated with the new format by then, I’d expect to see it applied in the next update in July. If it happens any later or if it doesn’t happen at all, Wizards has done its subscribers a huge disservice.

It’s interesting to note that none of the information or detail was changed. They’ve taken the existing content and rearranged it. There were no rule changes or new powers added. It’s simply an interface improvement. And sometimes it’s this kind of simple fix that has the greatest impact to the game. I for one can’t wait to use monsters presented in the new format against my PCs. I think they’ll find that many of the monsters they thought they knew suddenly seem a lot more powerful.

Be sure to visit Dungeon’s Master again later today when Suddry weighs in with his take on these changes. See Wizards Delivers a Monster Makeover (Part 2).

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1 deadorcs March 4, 2010 at 9:57 am

THANK YOU! I’ve been getting hints about this information for a couple of days now on Twitter, and the link I’ve seen are blocked here at the office. It’s a shame they didn’t have the fix in for Adventure Tools at the time of the announcement, so I hope they get that in soon.

Thanks again for the side-by-side comparison!
.-= deadorcs´s last blog ..And Now For Something Completely Different… =-.

2 yatesc March 4, 2010 at 10:57 am

Some things I like:
* Breaking down by action type is very helpful
* Using flush-right to isolate any ‘perception’ abilities uses the space a lot more effectively

Some things they could have done better:
* Use hierarchy a little better. Too much text is bold (At-Will, Small natural humanoid (reptile), etc.)
* I would’ve made the entire bottom block the darker color.
* It bugs me that the tab structure is a little wonky. Seems like Short Sword and the text below it should line up. Also, why don’t “HP” and “Alignment” line up?
* I would’ve kept all six stats on a single line of text.

Putting my copy of Photoshop where my mouth is:
(the newly colored areas got a little jacked up, sadly. you get the idea, though.)

3 Swordgleam March 4, 2010 at 11:06 am

That makes it a lot easier to pick up and run monsters at a glance, too. I’m used to reading over all potential monster stat blocks before hand, mostly to be sure I’m solid on traits. Having them right at the top will help a lot.

4 Ameron March 4, 2010 at 12:47 pm

Your welcome. I had no idea this change was on the horizon until I saw the article on Wizards yesterday. I just hope they come through with updates for the Monster Builder. If it still presents monsters in the old format after the release of MM3 then we’ll be back to using the books rather than just printing out the one or two monster we need ad hoc.

I like your version even more than Wizards’ version. Thanks for sharing.

As I mentioned I often overlook or forget about the traits. Whenever I forget to use these abilities the PCs walk all over the monsters. I think my PCs are going to be very surprised when I actually use all the powers all the time.

5 skallawag March 4, 2010 at 12:51 pm

I’d like to see a side-by-side comparison of a more complex monster. “Speed” looks a bit out of place and would seem to fit better where the initiative bonus is. I’d also like to see more monster description so that a DM can better describe a monster and add more of that Role Playing flavor.

6 btorgin March 4, 2010 at 3:32 pm

I think speed is good where it is. The left section are stats used actively in combat, all the time. The right side are items you need only at the beginning, or on occasion or for roleplay.

7 Mike Karkabe-Olson March 4, 2010 at 3:39 pm

I agree with these points from Yatesc:
* It bugs me that the tab structure is a little wonky. Seems like Short Sword and the text below it should line up. Also, why don’t “HP” and “Alignment” line up?
* I would’ve kept all six stats on a single line of text.

8 Ameron March 5, 2010 at 8:16 am

I’m with you 100% on the monster descriptions. Sometimes it’s nice to actually describe what the PCs are seeing rather than just saying “It’s an Umber Hulk.” Describing a monster instead of calling it by name prompts the PCs to make monster knowledge checks.

Good point about speed. I hadn’t thought about it that way, but it makes sense.

@Mike Karkabe-Olson
Keep in mind that this is “preview” content. I suppose it might still change a little bit before final publishing. We’ll just have to wait and see.

9 yatesc March 5, 2010 at 8:23 am

Ameron –
I would actually find a tactics description (on monsters with different forms of offense, or who work really well or really poorly with other types of monsters) to be more useful than a description. My use of the MM may be atypical, though, as I virtually never use the monsters as they are. MM Gricks are stone giants, MM Oni Night Haunters are human assassins, and so forth. Ideally we’d get both, especially in the online version (where space is not at a premium).

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