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Rethinking RPG Book Design: Monster Manuals Part I


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You may remember a post I wrote in June last year when I was working on Bulette Storm where I discussed my thoughts about the way RPG products are designed and laid out. It ended up being quite a contentious post for some people, and it sparked a lot of discussion (and some rather unwarranted aggressive emails, but whatever). I’ve also seen more people experimenting with the way they present their DMs Guild releases, which is great (particularly Troy Taylor, who has put out a few screen-formatted products since that post. I’m not so self-centered that I think his decisions have been at all influenced by me; it’s just nice to see somebody else playing with this stuff).

Since then I’ve continued to think about the layout of my products, and have done some minor experiments with screen layouts and the like (though nothing as ambitious as the interactive PDF for Bulette Storm). Recently I’ve been thinking a lot about the way monster manuals tend to be presented, and that’s what I want to talk about today.

This post got a lot longer than I anticipated, so I’m splitting it into two parts. I’m posting them both simultaneously, since they’re both written and I don’t want to start disrupting the post schedule by adding additional posts this week.

This first post covers a brief history of monster manuals over each major edition of D&D. We’ll look at the ways in which the presentation of monster entries has either changed or remained the same over the life of the game, and I’ll try to identify things that work and don’t work, and some potential improvements we might be able to make to make life easier for GMs.

In the second post we’ll take a look at some of my own experiments in presenting monsters, and try to identify any areas where what I’m doing either works or fails, with a view to continuing to experiment and refine the design in the future. You can read the second post here.

Monster Manuals

We all know what a D&D monster manual looks like, right? They’ve been broadly the same in every edition of the game. To demonstrate this, let’s take a quick look at the entries for one specific monster over each major edition of the game. This won’t be a comprehensive analysis of each book – rather, think of it as a montage of the development of monster manuals from the 1970s to now. I’ve decided to look at the purple worm, for the simple reason that a) I love it, and b) it’s appeared in the core rules of every edition of the game. I am showing some screenshots of published works here, but I’m hoping that this qualifies as fair usage. If these images have to disappear from this post at some point in the future, then so be it.

So, let’s begin.

OD&D

In the original D&D white box, the purple worm entry looked like this:

[© Copyright 1974 – Tactical Studies Rules]

The white box didn’t have what we’d know as a ‘monster manual’ today; instead, the second of three books in the box was called “Monsters & Treasure”, and spent about as much time talking about magic items and treasure as it did talking about monsters (the monster entries take up 18 pages; magic and treasure takes up 17 pages). What’s interesting to note is that this book didn’t contain an alphabetical listing of monsters, and the monsters included aren’t really presented in any kind of logical order (unless I’m missing something obvious).

There are also no real stat blocks at this early point in the game, because monsters didn’t really have stats at this point in the game. The monster entry itself isn’t easy to parse at a glance, but it does follow a format that we’ll come to recognise quite quickly; namely, the first half of the monster entry tells us about the creature from a descriptive point of view, and the second half tells us what this thing does mechanically in the game. We get fluff, followed by crunch. Interestingly, the main combat information for each monster is provided in a table at the very beginning of the book:

This is actually pretty useful as an at-a-glance, at-the-table reference, although it obviously wouldn’t really work now: there’s a lot more going on mechanically with each monster in combat, and there are many, many more monsters available. I do find it very interesting that Gygax chose to physically separate the combat stats from the fluff in the book.

AD&D

Now let’s move on to AD&D, and the first monster manual I ever owned (although I wasn’t actually alive when it was published). You know the one. It’s this one:

With this book, we get an alphabetical table of contents right in the front of the book – although it doesn’t actually provide any page numbers, oddly:

There is a more usable index in the rear of the book, though, this time with page references. The actual entry for the purple worm looks like this:

[© 1977, 1978 – TSR Games]

Where the purple worm in the OD&D white box was some stats on a table at the beginning of the book and a single paragraph of text later, we now have what is immediately recognisable as a monster manual entry. The stats and the fluff are together, and we have some explanatory text dealing with mechanical features outside of the stat block itself. We also get an illustration of the monster.

It’s still quite the wall of text, but it’s easier to see where the important information is on the page. The monsters are laid out alphabetically, and the traditional two-column layout that I wrote about so extensively in my last post on supplement design is in full force. It’s interesting to note that the columns break when the next section (the letter Q, and the entry for the Quasit) begins.

While the contents page isn’t at all useful for navigating the book (that lack of page numbers is a really weird decision), the book is laid out in the same way as a dictionary – that is, the top corners of each page tell you what monster comes first and last on that specific page. This makes flicking through the book looking for a specific monster quite straightforward.

AD&D 2nd Edition

Onward, now, to 2nd edition AD&D – which is the edition where I actually started playing. In this edition the purple worm first appeared in 1989’s Monstrous Compendium Volume 2. Before I show you the entry for the monster itself I want to talk a little about those 2e Monstrous Compendiums, because I think they’re very interesting (and they’re one of my favourite things about any edition of D&D).

The alphabetical list in this book is quite hard to understand at first glance, because it’s laid out like an index rather than a table of contents.

This actually isn’t all that useful. Firstly, it’s an index of both this and the first volume of the Monstrous Compendium. These books were designed so that you could remove the page, which were punched with holes so that you could put them into a ring binder. This allowed you to build your own manual from the contents of each individual volume; rather than lugging multiple books to the table for your session, you could just take the monsters you were going to need and carry them with you. You could also build multiple binders with different selections of monsters. I used to separate them by terrain, so that if the party moved into, say, the desert I had a binder containing just desert monsters to hand. When you bought a boxed-set AD&D adventure it often came with additional Monstrous Compendium entries on unbound sheets of paper, which you could then put into your binder.

This is probably my all-time favourite design decision in the history of D&D, and I really, really wish it had been carried on. I seriously love this, and I miss it every time I sit at a table surrounded by multiple books of monsters when I’m working or prepping a session. But I digress.

The second thing to note about this index is that it doesn’t actually give you page numbers. That’s understandable, though, since you were going to be combining these pages with entries from other Compendiums, at which point page numbers and a numbered index would become useless.

While I understand the rationale for presenting the index like this, it’s also a complete failure. Even though I knew the purple worm was in this volume of the compendium, it took me ages to find it. Here’s the bottom section of the index, showing where I thought I would find the purple worm (before I remembered that the index doesn’t give page numbers):

Take a look at this, then tell me where to find the purple worm. I’ll wait.

Got it? Thought not.

So, it isn’t under P. But Polar worm is there, and that tells us to look under the entry for Remorhaz in Volume 1 of the Compendium. But the purple worm doesn’t appear in that volume of the compendium, either on its own or under Remorhaz alongside the polar worm.

Over on the other side, under W, we see another entry for Worm, polar, but nothing purple. This is the same creature listed under P as Polar worm, and we won’t find the purple worm with it.

And that’s it. Those are the only entries for worms and worm-related creatures in the index. But I know that the purple worm is in this book. So I started flipping through pages until I found it, in the W section at the back of the book under “Worm”. Note that this entry is not listed in the index at all. Not very useful, and I don’t understand it.

So, what does the entry look like? I’ll show you:

[© 1989 TSR]

This time the worm gets a full page, and three variants – the purple worm, the tenebrous worm, and the tunnel worm. And this looks a lot like the way monsters were presented in 1st edition, simply because the two editions weren’t all that dissimilar and worked together without much of an issue. Once again we have stat blocks, though this time they are presented as a table with alternating shading rather than as little more than a paragraph of text with some words in all-caps for emphasis. They also span across the columns of the page, visually separating the main combat stats from the writeup and fluff of the creature.

Unfortunately he text on the page still deals with mechanics that aren’t included in the stat block itself, and it’s still a bit of a wall of text to sift through to understand everything about the monster.

Some of the index issues were solved in 1993’s Monstrous Manual with the addition of a functional index with page references in the back of the book (though still no table of contents). The actual entry for the worm is almost identical to the Monstrous Compendium entry, with the addition of some art and a couple of different types of worm (including the book worm, which is awesome). It’s not really worth showing it here, because for all intents and purposes the design of the Monstrous Manual wasn’t notable different from the design of the Compendiums.

3rd Edition

This brings us to the year 2000 and 3rd edition, where the graphic design of the core rulebooks took a massive step up in terms of quality (though presentation of information still wasn’t as clear as it could have been). The first useful difference that 3rd edition brought was opening the book with an alphabetical listing of the monsters, along with page references; a easy-to-parse table of contents at the front of the book, finally. And Purple worm has its own entry in that list, telling us to turn to page 152.

This is where we see something that didn’t happen very often in earlier editions: the monster entries are allowed to break across pages. (It did happen in older editions, but rarely as close to the beginning of the monster’s entry.) Here’s the purple worm in 3e:

[© 2000 Wizards of the Coast]

It’s initially a bit difficult to locate the monster itself on the page; that illustration draws your eye straight away, and the header text at the top left seems like it might be related to the illustration. But then you read “Pseudodragon”, and realise that these aren’t the stats for the purple worm. They’re in the bottom right of the page, being squeezed off by the illustration. We’re still in a two-column layout, but because the illustrations are no longer inline with the text it becomes more difficult to easily read the entries. We’ve also gone back to stat blocks inline with the text without any background shading, which makes it difficult to differentiate the crunch from the fluff.

Although I think this is a visually more appealing layout that in older editions – it’s colourful, the background lines aid in following the text, and the text itself doesn’t seem as dense – I think it’s potentially a bit of a step backward in terms of usability of the individual entries.

One improvement that does help is the addition of the “Combat” subheading, marking a distinct break between fluff and crunch in the non-stat-block text. That’s useful. I also like that we’ve stuck with the dictionary-like labels, although they’re much more decorative now in frames that form part of the page border. And, as I’ve already pointed out, the addition of a table of contents is a huge help.

I didn’t expect there to be much difference between 3rd edition and the 3.5 Monster Manual – I certainly don’t remember there being any huge difference between the layouts of the books in the two sub-editions – but when I went back and checked I found that I was wrong:

[© 2003 Wizards of the Coast]

It’s similar, but there are some changes. Firstly the monster no longer breaks across the page – though we can see from that Rakshasa heading that this is still happening (and I’ll stop mentioning it now, because it happens regularly in all editions from here on in). We’ve lost the lined background, but the text has been spaced further apart again, creating more clarity and reducing the feeling of it being a wall of text. We’ve retained the Combat heading, and the image placement is a bit more considerate of the text around it.

4th Edition

Now we move into less familiar territory for me. I never played 4th edition, and I never looked at the monster manuals for it. I’ve been told that there were some dramatic changes to the way stat blocks were designed, so I’m interested to see what 4e’s Monster Manual holds for us.

We’ve got a table of contents again, and again the purple worm has its own entry. The page design is immediately much more clear and easy to read that in either of the 3rd edition books – a plain white background, nice simple graphic elements, and plenty of spacing between the text.

Flicking through the book, I can also see that monsters always begin on a new page. If it’s a long entry then the monster itself might span several pages – that’s unavoidable – but we’ve done away with beginning a monster entry halfway down the page. This edition isn’t afraid of a little white space at the end of an entry. I like that a lot.

So what about the monster itself? Here it is:

[© 2008 Wizards of the Coast]

First, some things I like. We’ve got recognisable stat blocks here; if you’ve only ever played 5e, you’ll know immediately that those shaded sections with the green headers are stats. I have a feeling that isn’t really as obvious in older editions; the reason I’ve only mentioned it now is because I didn’t even consider that people might not know where to look for stats on the page until I saw this, and realised how big a change in presentation there was between 3rd edition and 4th. The stat blocks are also separated into sections marked by differing background shading, making it easier to find the information you need at a glance.

What surprises me most about this is how little information there is about the creature outside of its stats. There’s the tactics section, which is still useful, and I like the addition of the Lore section with requisite DCs. Players often ask how much they might know about a new enemy, and this makes like for the GM easier. I appreciate anything that does that. There’s also a guide for building bigger encounters with these creatures to challenge higher level parties, which is also useful.

But lore, and fluff, and the stuff that I personally love? It gets two sentences, plus the couple of sentences under the Lore heading. And looking at the other entries in the book, the lore for most things has been stripped way back. Even the iconic Mind Flayer gets only four brief paragraphs of lore for 4 different DCs, and two short paragraphs at the top of the entry before the stats. There’s barely any fluff here.

Having not played this edition, I can’t speak to why that decision was made. It certainly helps with reducing the amount of page real estate devoted to each monster, which makes it easier to keep monsters on individual pages. This feels much more like a book that’s designed to be used rather than read; I can’t imagine sitting flicking through this book, reading about monsters and their history and designing story arcs or even entire campaigns around the lore I found here. Instead I think I’d flick through until I found something that looked cool, and then put it into encounters.

That’s not necessarily a criticism. Monster manuals should be functional first and foremost, and the 4e Monster Manual seems like it would be really easy to use at the table. There’s no wasted words here, no walls of text that were so common in older editions. But it’s missing the fluff, the stuff that makes the monsters more than just a collection of numbers and abilities, and while some people might not care about that I really do.

So that’s something to keep in mind when I’m trying to find a way of presenting monsters that I like. If I want my monster entries to be highly functional and easy to use at the table, I might have to sacrifice some of the non-combat text unless I can find a clear way to present them both that doesn’t impact utility.

Fifth Edition

And with that, we move into the realm the majority of my readers are probably most familiar with – Fifth Edition. In 2014’s Monster Manual we have the now-standard alphabetical listing of monsters, and the purple worm has its own entry on page 255.

[© 2014 Wizards of the Coast]

Once again monsters always begin on their own page. Stat blocks have been redesigned so that they’re more visually appealing than a frame with a shaded background; there’s no doubt about where the crunch for this monster lives. And fluff is back, in a big way; now we get a paragraph providing a generic overview of the monster, along with some more in-depth headed sections that tell us about specific interesting features or bits of lore.

It’s also interesting to note that we’ve moved away from images that encroach on the text. There are a few examples of text wrapping around images in 5th edition, but not many – and there’s certainly nothing as egregious as the illustration in 3rd edition disrupting the monster’s stat block.

I quite like the 5th edition Monster Manual – there’s enough fluff for me to enjoy reading it, and the stat blocks stand out nicely for at-the-table use. I can’t help but feel that there have been a few steps backward here, though. I miss the Combat/Tactics sections that were in 3rd edition and that I’ve just learned were also in 4th edition, and I really like 4e’s Lore-by-DC sections. We’re also missing the dictionary-like page headers, though with each monster beginning on its own page that’s not much of an issue.

Appendices

So far we’ve looked solely at the index and table of contents in monster manuals, and at the monsters themselves, but what about other features? As well as alphabetical categorisation of monsters – which we’ve seen consistently in one form or another in every edition except OD&D – things can also be categorised by terrain or environment, by type, and by their difficulty (be that in terms of Hit Dice or Challenge Rating). There were also monster roles in 4e, but since these were only a feature of one edition I probably won’t mention them again. Interestingly, none of the editions really make use of these additional means of categorising monsters.

In 5e you can find lists official of monsters by CR and by Type online, complete with page references for the book. No official list exists that sorts monsters by terrain.

4th edition provides a list of Monsters by Level in the Appendices. 3e and 3.5e do this too, but they provide no page references – which would have been useful in an edition that has monsters beginning their entries halfway down the page in many cases.

2nd edition AD&D doesn’t even provide a functional index until the Monstrous Manual, due to TSR’s looseleaf experiment. 1st edition also contains the index at the back of the book, and OD&D we’ve already discussed.

It’s interesting to me that there has been very little attempt to make it easy for GMs to locate suitable monsters that they don’t already know the names of. That might seem like a weird thing to say, but I’m going to let it stand as-is for now. We’ll address it again in the next post.

Summing Up

While the actual information being provided in each edition has changed – because the mechanics of each edition have changed – and the design of things like stat blocks and visual elements on the page has evolved to present things more clearly, the basics are still almost always the same. Features that nearly all these monster manuals share include:

  • An alphabetical table of contents
  • Monsters arranged alphabetically in the book
  • Separation of fluff and crunch in the monster listings

By only looking at D&D I may well be missing something truly revolutionary that another publisher – or another game system – has done to present monsters. If that’s the case, I’d really appreciate it if you let me know about it in the comments. I will say that of the modern books of monsters I’m most familiar with – Kobold Press’ Tome of Beasts, Neoplastic Press’ Tetratic Tome, Pathfinder’s Bestiary, to name a few – only Pathfinder does more than present the monsters alphabetically and by CR (and the Tetratic Tome doesn’t even do the latter, as it mimics 1st edition’s presentation). The Pathfinder Bestiary contains appendices that list the monsters by CR, type, and terrain, which is really useful when looking through a book of unfamiliar monsters and trying to decide what to use.

What we can see from this is that, as with RPG layout in general, not a lot has really changed in the way things have been presented across the history of the game. Once the designers found a layout that mostly worked, they focused instead on tweaking and refining that layout rather than redesigning it from the ground up.

It’s true that part of this is due to the fact that most of these books are still being designed with print in mind. As I’ve previously discussed, I don’t think that should be the default assumption anymore. And I’m also thinking that, even if we’re aiming for print, there are some changes that could be made to really revitalise the presentation of monster manuals.

Still, that’s for the next post. In the next article I’ll be showing you some of my attempts at presenting monsters in a new way, and talking about some things I think I’d like to see publishers attempt in the future. And you don’t have to wait for it, either; if you want to read that post and see what I’ve been working on, go here.

Thanks for reading.

Read part 2 here.

6 thoughts on “Rethinking RPG Book Design: Monster Manuals Part I

  1. >In 5e you can find lists official of monsters by CR and by Type online, complete with page references for the book. No official list exists that sorts monsters by terrain.

    Actually, there is a list like that in the DMG. Stupid place for it, but we do have one.

    1. I had completely overlooked that! It’s not much better than having it available online really, though. Definitely a missed opportunity there and I really don’t understand the decisions that led to it at all.

      1. I don’t know why it wasn’t in MM, but I’m pretty sure it was put in the DMG after the complaints.

        Although, thinking about it, the DMG would have been at the printers when people were getting the MM.

        I have hear suspicion that it was to get DMs to buy all 3 books. Because, honestly, I advise new DMs to pass on the DMG for a bit until they know they want it. Its not super useful…

  2. In terms of presenting monster entries in different ways, DnD Beyond lays them out in the same way as the MM as far as I can tell, with the added benefit of having links to conditions and other useful info. Beyond may be something that you will talk about in the next post, but just thought it would be worth mentioning as I see it as an opportunity for WotC to do something really clever with monster stat blocks.

    1. Beyond is definitely a useful tool, and it’s very handy being able to sort things by CR/Terrain/Type at the click of a button. Digital tools aren’t really something I feel qualified to talk about to be honest, because I’ve got very little idea what goes into making them, but I’m very keen on taking inspiration from them for my print endeavours!

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