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Rethinking RPG Book Design: Monster Manuals Part II

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This is the second part of a two-part article. If you haven’t read the first part yet, you’ll find it here.

In the last post we took a (not so) brief walk through the history of D&D monster manuals. Now that we’ve got all that research under our belts, let’s talk about it a bit.

I don’t know how you use monster manuals personally. For me, I have a couple of different means of using them. The first is the most obvious: when I’m building an encounter and I know exactly what monster I’m looking for, I either look up its page number in the index (or the table of contents) or flip through the book until I find it (because thankfully alphabetical order has been the standard in these books for about 30 years now). I have a very strong suspicion that this is the main way of using these books for most people.

I also like to simply read these things. I flip through them looking for a name or a piece of art that catches my eye, and then I just read. When I’m building encounters, like in the first example, I’ll usually look at the stat block first. When I’m reading for fun, I’ll go straight to the fluff. I discovered in the last post that the 4th edition Monster Manual isn’t something I’d ever read purely for enjoyment, since it’s so low on fluff.

I imagine that these are the two most common ways of consuming these books for most people, and for the most part they’re already perfectly functional for these purposes. But there’s a third use case that isn’t really catered for.

Sometimes I’m prepping a session and I simply have no idea what kind of monsters I want to use. I’ll always know what CR I’m aiming for, and I’ll usually know what kind of terrain the adventure is going to take place in. Unfortunately, in most editions of the game this information doesn’t actually help us find a new monster. Some books contain a list of monsters by CR, but identifying whether they’ll be appropriate to you adventure (when you aren’t already familiar with the monster) means turning to that page and hunting among either the text or the stat block to figure out what kind of terrain the monster is usually found in. (What I neglected to mention last time is that in 5e, the stat blocks no longer list the monster’s preferred terrain.)

This makes finding a suitable monster fairly time consuming, involving a lot of flipping back and forth between the index and the monsters themselves. I know there’s a better way to handle this.

The other thing all these books had in common was that they were formatted for print, in a portrait orientation. I’ve already made my feelings on this clear. Especially for small publishers like myself who are working in a purely digital medium, I see now reason why portrait should be the default.

So, what can we do about this? If you read this site regularly then you’ve already seen the beginnings of my attempts to rethink this. In my Bestiary of the Blasted Lands the monsters were all formatted for screens:

This was my first attempt. I’m not under any illusions that this (or even my later attempts) are close to being perfect. I think it’s a good start, though, because it solves two problems. Firstly, it’s landscape; it fits a screen. Secondly, it’s got a quick visual reference for the challenge rating of the monster up in the right hand corner. I could easily put together a whole document of these sorted alphabetically, and you’d be able to scroll through quickly and stop at entries for monsters of an appropriate challenge.

There are some obvious issues, though. The first is that the red banner takes up way too much space. There’s a lot of waste real estate above the text where text could go, but when I put it there currently the whole page looks really unbalanced. This isn’t helped by the size of the circle containing the challenge rating (especially in conjunction with the positioning of the stat block, which would not look good if I forced it to wrap around the CR circle. I also don’t like the fact that my stat block is broken into two discrete sections, but that the text inside it breaks halfway through the description of one of the monster’s Actions.

As far as the non-stat-block text goes, you’ll see that I’ve tried to combine 5th edition’s presentation of fluff with the Tactics section from older editions. I quite like this, to be honest. I really like the format for fluff that 5e has established – broad detail and more specific subsections – and I’ll always believe that a Tactics section is useful. The way the text is forced to wrap underneath the stat block makes it all feel very cramped, though, and we’re also in wall of text territory. It’s a start, but it could be much clearer.

Unfortunately I didn’t think ahead while I was working on this, and I didn’t realise that I was going to be writing this post. So I can’t show you any of the iterations of this design, because I didn’t take in-progress screenshots. That’s probably a good thing, though, since the first half of this post was massive and this one could easily become massive too if I started showing you everything. So instead I’ll just show you the design as it currently stands, talk you through some of the decisions I made, and look at where I think I need to go in the future.

This is what that same monster looked like as I began working on these posts:

It’s a little better than the first attempt, I think. The header is much smaller and takes up a lot less real estate. The same is true of the CR circle. I’ve also added an icon to display the kind of terrain this creature is found in (drawn by my own personal illustrator-in-my-pocket, @p00kp00k). There’s still a bit of wasted space at the top, but I think the addition of an interesting background with some minor graphic elements – the ubiquitous 5e watercolor swirl, perhaps – would make that less of an issue.

I prefer the stat block like this (as much as my inner hatred of asymmetry is desperate to surface); the break just before the Actions section works better, splitting it into two discrete chunks of information. Dropping the stat block to the bottom of the page instead of the top allowed the non-stat-block text to flow better, too. That said, I know there’s still work to be done here.

Really what I’m most happy with here is the ability to quickly and easily find a monster by both CR and Terrain without needing to flip back and forth between the index and the page. That’s something I definitely want to keep hold of, and I’d like to add further icons to show the type of creature we’re looking at, too.

When I showed this to my patrons, some of them pointed out that it’s still a bit of a wall of text. In particular it was mentioned that I might want to try and highlight that Tactics header a bit more, to break up the text. I’m still not at that point yet. In fact, all I’ve really done since I made this is obtain some icons from game-icons.net that I’m using as placeholders for Creature Type while I get custom ones drawn.

So, nothing special. But I’m going to keep working on this, and keep listening to feedback about my attempts to make navigating monster manuals a bit more straightforward.

One thing I’m already about 90% certain some of you are thinking is that this is all fine and dandy for screens, but what about print? Well, there are two options really.

The first is simple; create a version of this that works vertically. It will probably require two columns, as is tradition, but those simple corner illustrations don’t take up much room at all. They could easily be inserted into a traditionally formatted book and massively increase the ease of finding new monsters. So that’s a good thing.

The other is less simple, and involves changing the way we think about monster manuals a little. I think it’s fairly safe to assume that most GMs running fantasy RPGs love monsters, and love the art that goes with monsters. I know I personally read monster manuals for fun, and often do nothing but look at the art, and I’m fairly sure that I can’t be the only person who treats them like that. So the question then becomes, why can’t a monster manual be both functional and beautiful?

You don’t see many physical books printed in a landscape rather than portrait orientation. When you do, though, they tend to be big, expensive coffee-table style books. Often these are art or photography books.

I don’t see any reason – besides obvious financial considerations – why a monster manual couldn’t be presented as both a functional game manual and a big impressive art book that you can show off. Obviously it wouldn’t be for everyone – this would be a premium product, an upgrade from a more traditional manual – but for those like me who want it, I think something like this could do quite well:

[The illustrations were taken from Adobe Stock.]

I’d really like to bring something like this to the market, in all honesty. I’m under no illusions that it would be a huge, expensive undertaking, and that there’s probably only a small market for it (inside the already relatively niche RPG market as a whole). Even if you only provided 100 monsters – for reference, the Tome of Beasts contains more than 400 enemies – the art costs alone would be staggering. Then there’s the cost of printing the thing, and shipping it. I’m perfectly capable of creating the monsters and designing the layout, I think, but there’s still a huge barrier to putting something like this together that I’m unsure I’ll ever surmount alone.

That doesn’t change the fact that I want it, though. If somebody else beats me to it, I’ll sign up in a heartbeat. I want a book that presents the monsters clearly, with plenty of lore and fluff, and mechanisms in place so I can easily browse alphabetically, by type, by challenge, and by terrain. I want a ton of art I can look at and drool over, something I can put on a table and use as a conversation piece as well as utilise functionally in a game. And hell, with this thing on my table, maybe I’ll be able to interest a few friends in playing D&D who wouldn’t otherwise have considered it.

So, that’s all I have to say about monster manuals for the time being. These experiments are still very much a work in progress, and I’m unsure where they’ll end up. I’d be interested to hear your thoughts on all this, whatever they may be.

5 thoughts on “Rethinking RPG Book Design: Monster Manuals Part II

  1. Man, I need to take some art classes so I can be part of such a project. I think that would be really cool.

    I do like what 5e has done with monster manuals, but I want to emphasize one book in particular: Volo’s Guide to Monsters. Sure, 5e monsters have a dollop of lore, but VGM has like 13 pages each dedicated to the lore of a handful of specific iconic monsters. Every page of it makes me want to run a story, from a beholder having night terrors, to a complicated dealings with kobold intrigue.

    I think, out of all the additional MMs for the various editions, Volo’s is the only one with a big enough difference in presentation to mention it

    1. I was going to cover Volo’s, but in the end I decided that these two posts were getting too long and that it doesn’t really do anything notably different in the actual presentation of the monsters to the MM. Having a ton more lore is fantastic – I’ve mentioned before how much I used to love the “Ecology of…” articles in Dragon, so having what is essentially a whole book of that was exactly the kind of thing I wanted to see!

      Presentation-wise, though, it’s still organised alphabetically with no real tools to aid discovery of new monsters that you aren’t already familiar with beyond looking for unfamiliar names in the Index and going to their entry. It’s a fantastic book to sit and read – especially the first section that deals almost exclusively with fluff rather than crunch – but I still think there are improvements to be made with regard to functionality.

      And yeah, I wish I had the art chops to pull off a project like the one I mentioned. That would make life much easier (and cheaper) for me!

  2. Loving the ideas in here Chris.

    I love the idea of a premium coffee table monster manual. I do actually own several coffee table books of fantasy art with a lot of monster illustrations in. You are right it would be a niche market but I definitely think there IS a market for that kind of product.

    Your idea of icons to quickly and obviously identify environment and CR are brilliant. Simple ideas, but so brilliantly helpful I don’t know why everyone doesn’t do it like that.

    Some really good innovative ideas here for genuinely improving the quality of RPG products.

    BTW your new plan of less frequent but more in depth articles really seems to be working for you. Loving the content so far this year.

    1. Thanks Luke, I really appreciate that! Glad to know you think this is a good idea, too. I’m currently putting plans together to get this thing to Kickstarter later in the year (or to figure out how to do it without having to rely on crowdfunding), so we’ll see what happens! Glad to hear that the new schedule is working for you, too!

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