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3E/3.5 Andrew Finch’s Monsters by Level

One unsung hero of D&D game design is Andrew Finch. He had a lot of roles at Wizards over the years, and he was involved in D&D playtesting and design as early as I was. To my mind, his biggest single advance was his table of monster stats by level. The table went against our general design guidelines, and it was just what the game needed. It also helped us see the awkwardness that comes with a simulation-first approach to monster building.

Theatrix-cover.jpg


Andrew and I met at a convention in San Francisco, and he introduced me to the generic RPG Theatrix, on which he had been one of the designers. Theatrix focused strongly on the narrative, with an explicit “scene” structure and mechanical effects on the plot. It was ahead of its time and not much of a success. To my surprise, Wizards made the correct decision and hired Andrew, and over the years he filled many positions. At some point or another, he was involved with just about everything that anyone did at Wizards. Andrew contributed to 3rd Ed by working behind the scenes. He playtested, commented, discussed, and debated with us. He came up with the monster stat table after the scramble to release 3rd Ed was behind us and we were developing the game further.

One of the underlying tenets of 3rd Ed design was that in some way we were simulating a magical world, with the game system sort of “measuring” that world rather than defining it. That’s why prestige classes use skills or class features as prerequisites rather than class and level. In the same way, a monster’s Challenge Rating (CR) was assigned after the monster was designed. We would design monsters according to a template and then eyeball their CR based on the result. The CR is a rating that helps the Dungeon Master organize play, but it’s not something that a character in the game world could discern or measure.

A lot of my work on 3rd Ed was inspired by RuneQuest. In RuneQuest, monsters have stats like player characters, and their combat scores are derived in an orderly way from these stats. You can look at a griffin’s Strength, Constitution, and Size scores, for example, and from those numbers derive the monster’s hit points and damage bonuses. In AD&D, monsters didn’t have any such regularity. In original D&D, monsters did only 1d6 damage by default, so monsters invented earlier in the game’s history tended to deal less damage, or at least less damage per attack, as with the troll. Hit Dice were often whatever the original designer needed them to be for the supplement or adventure where the monster first appeared. So one of the things that we did with monsters in 3E was to make them more like RuneQuest monsters.

RuneQuest_deluxe_3rd_edition_boxed_set_1984.jpg


Monsters got Strength scores and all the other abilities. We invented monster “types” to mirror the classes that defined PCs. Outsiders, such as demons, had a different suite of skills, attack bonuses, hit points, and saving throws than vermin or humanoids of the same Hit Dice (level) and abilities.

After finishing 3rd Ed design, I worked on D&D miniatures of one sort or another. Here is where Andrew’s chart becomes especially useful. For skirmish battles, the alignments served as factions and they needed identities in terms of how their units operated in the game. Chaotic Evil, for example, had faster units, with lower Armor Class, higher hit points, and plenty of damage. Some of the monsters in the Miniatures Handbook were there to reinforce these alignment identities.

The problem we had was, what sort of Armor Class did a unit need to have in order to have a lower than average Armor Class? What counted as “more hit points”? Andrew’s chart answered that question.

The same way that I had played the heck out of RuneQuest and revered it as a model of good RPG design, Andrew loved Champions and the Hero System. In that system, everything is costed out and balanced so that any benefit you gain in one area of character ability comes with an implicit reduction in other abilities. He wanted to see the same thing in D&D, where advantages and disadvantages (“ads” and “disads”) would imply changes to the baseline stats. But what are the baseline stats? Andrew’s chart gave us baseline figures for things like hit points and damage, one line for each Challenge Rating.

Once we had Andrew’s chart, it became easier to see something wrong with the way we had done monsters in 3rd Ed. For a lot of regular monsters, it works OK. These monsters have high or low values on various combat stats, plus maybe some special traits. But for odd-ball monsters, it breaks down. How do you balance a save-or-die effect? You can’t, and that’s why Champions doesn’t have one. How threatening is a colossal scorpion? If your high-level party can fly over it, it’s not very threatening. If for some reason you have to go toe-to-toe with it, it’s quite threatening. So what CR should it get? The orc warrior was probably the worst offender based on how often it showed up in games and how much damage it did. I can remember a party in Living Greyhawk getting trashed by orc warriors. According to the physics of the game system, an orc warrior with 4 hit points can deal 9 or 10 damage on a swing with a two-handed ax, triple damage on a crit. What CR is that? It’s too unbalanced to give a proper rating to, and we defaulted to the standard 1/2.

While the orc warrior was hell on low-level parties, it was a useful addition to mid-level battles. At mid levels, the orc’s ability to deal real damage gave it some gravity that the other bottom-level warriors didn’t have. They were effective as mobs of bad guys, especially supporting bigger monsters. In 4E, this niche of low hit points and high damage was filled by mooks. The 1-hit-point mook is a good example of a monster that diverges from the baseline in an intentional way, providing a threat but not much of a challenge.

Fourth Edition got a lot of things right, and one of them was using a chart like Andrew’s. Evidently monsters had too many hit points, but that’s a separate issue. Rob Heinsoo and I also used a chart with 13th Age. How could you not? Rob and I have played around with variants, such as half-strength monsters, and again it’s invaluable to have a baseline to work from. Thanks, Andrew
 
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Jonathan Tweet

Comments



DMMike

Guide of Modos
Once we had Andrew’s chart, it became easier to see something wrong with the way we had done monsters in 3rd Ed.
Blasphemy!

How threatening is a colossal scorpion? If your high-level party can fly over it, it’s not very threatening. If for some reason you have to go toe-to-toe with it, it’s quite threatening. So what CR should it get? . . .
Challenge Rating is pretty easy to assign when you recognize its full name: Challenge in Solo Mortal Combat by Reduction of Hit Points to Zero or Save-or-Die Effect by a Party of One Fighter, One Wizard, One Rogue, and One Cleric with Level-Appropriate Magical Items Rating.

So, yeah. I wouldn't want to pronounce that. Reducing it to CR was probably a good call 🤓

Thanks, Andrew
Indeed. And thanks for the insight, Jonathan!
 

Alzrius

The EN World kitten
What I took away from this article is that "balance" - which is already a nebulous term, and often defined in terms of goals rather than processes - was always going to be difficult to achieve when designing combat encounters for D&D Third Edition.

That's not really surprising, of course. Simulationism has always leaned hard toward the "anything can be attempted" aspect of role-playing games, whereas gamism tends to be more comfortable with limiting options in the name of standardization. Both have their pros and cons: simulationism's greater freedom allows for a wider range of play, but makes fewer guarantees about the results, whereas gamism will either use a single (or small group) of mechanics to measure all such non-standard actions or simply disallow them altogether. It's combat as war vs. combat as sport, in other words.

D&D Third Edition, to my mind, tried to have its cake and eat it too...and to a surprisingly large degree, succeeded. Dungeons & Dragons has always had firm roots in simulationism, tracing back to its wargame heritage, and while it's always had rules and restrictions, Third Edition felt like the first time that gamism wasn't treated as a secondary concern. But neither was simulationism critically compromised for it (the way I and a lot of other gamers felt that it was in Fourth Edition).

Instead, an uneasy truce was struck, as standards were set even as the the methods for breaking them remained firmly within the game, easily found by those who went looking for them (and oftentimes stumbled onto accidentally). If someone wanted to break the game, they often didn't have much trouble doing it. But players who weren't interested in optimization or system mastery could still be effective and make a contribution without having to fight the rules to do so. It was, to my mind, probably the best compromise that could be made under a system that gave so many options and so much overall power to the PCs.

So in other words, good on you for that, Mr. Tweet. You and Mr. Finch both. :)
 


ruemere

Explorer
Let me commemorate this entry with 13th Age Orc Warrior (courtesy of 13th Age SRD):

Orc Warrior
Normal
1st level
Troop
Humanoid
Initiative: +3
Jagged sword +6 vs. AC—6 damage
Dangerous: The crit range of attacks by orcs expands by 3 unless they are staggered.
AC
PD
MD
HP
16
14
10
30

There are a lot of interesting adjustments here that make a lot of sense:
1. Damage potential is lower (25% hit chance against a defensively built frontliner, 6 damage with 20% hit chance for 2x crit unless the creature is at half HP or below).
2. PC warrior should hit it about half of the time in the first round (with the chance increasing by 5% each round). Should survive 5-6 normal hits from a PC warrior before going down.
3. Average encounter against 4-person party is 4 orc warriors. That's 120 HP to whittle down. It's a pretty big number, so PCs will probably use per battle abilities to do it faster.

Overall, an Orc Warrior party is quite a challenge (if boring due to lack of special abilities).

The typical orcish greataxe barbarian is level 2:

Orc Berserker
Normal
2nd level
Troop
Humanoid
Initiative: +5
Greataxe +7 vs. AC—8 damage
Dangerous: The crit range of attacks by orcs expands by 3 unless they are staggered.
Unstoppable: When an orc berserker drops to 0 hp, it does not immediately die. Ignore any damage in excess of 0 hp, roll 2d6, and give the berserker that many temporary hit points. No other healing can affect the berserker or give it more temporary hit points. When the temporary hp are gone, the berserker dies.
AC
PD
MD
HP
16
15
13
40

And the Uruk-Hai menace is probably something like this (note that this is a 10th level encounter material, though at mook type of a threat - five mooks equal 1 regular 10th level mob; a party of 20 - yes, this is twenty - 10th level mooks, are level appropriate encounter for 4-person 8th level party of PCs - yes, 13th Age heroes are badasses):

Great Fang Cadre
Normal
10th level
Mook
Humanoid
Initiative: +13
Double axe +15 vs. AC—25 damage
Natural 11+: The cadre can make a second double axe attack (no more) as a free action.
Dangerous mooks: The crit range of melee attacks by great fang cadre orcs expands by 3 until half the great fang cadre mob has been dropped.
R: Big, black, creaking bow +15 vs. AC—37 damage
Natural even hit or miss: The attack targets PD instead of AC.
Nastier Specials
On the spot mutation: Whenever an attack eliminates one or more members of the mob, there is a 50% chance that each survivor gains one of these abilities: extra melee attack, damage aura: 1d20 damage vs. any enemy that starts its turn engaged with the orc, or +4 bonus to AC.
AC
PD
MD
HP
27
25
21
50
 


Von Ether

Adventurer
Thanks!

I'm looking for 6E to have every monster scaleable from 1 to 100.
4e did that, but eventually that meant a big bag of hit points for high level play. so that would be a thing they have to look out for.

Not saying you can't have an occasional monster that's just a big bag of it points, just avoiding having every monster like that.
 

Von Ether

Adventurer
Instead, an uneasy truce was struck, as standards were set even as the the methods for breaking them remained firmly within the game, easily found by those who went looking for them (and oftentimes stumbled onto accidentally). If someone wanted to break the game, they often didn't have much trouble doing it. But players who weren't interested in optimization or system mastery could still be effective and make a contribution without having to fight the rules to do so. It was, to my mind, probably the best compromise that could be made under a system that gave so many options and so much overall power to the PCs.
I've say that many tables occasionally bounce between either side of the spectrum.

Or they are mainly as combat as sport until they find a "loophole" in an encounter that benefits them.

I'm not saying that every loophole or corner case is a sport vs war thing, but probably more than we know.

Which is probably why you can't make a rule for every corner case.
 

Stormonu

Legend
I'm guessing why this must be why there was a chart in "Designing Monsters" section of the 3E/3.5E Monster Manual. Very interesting.
 


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