D&D General The Evolution of the Monster Stat Block

GMMichael

Guide of Modos
2e was the best: the statistics were short, sweet, and practical, and monster descriptions went well beyond the creature appearance.

I don't understand the trend, beginning in 4e, to turn a basic attack into its own paragraph. This says to me that anything the creature does is going to require a few moments of reading on the DM's part, without memorizing the entry or having prepared notes for that specific battle 😢
 

log in or register to remove this ad

Charlaquin

Goblin Queen (She/Her/Hers)
Here are my thoughts on each style:

OD&D
Having one chart with all the monster stats seems convenient if there are few enough monster types for that to actually be practical, but in retrospect we can safely say that was never a sustainable approach. And even with a pretty small list, that table is hard to read without column and row lines, or at least alternating row shading! Having the stats and the lore in different places also seems like a pain. I’m sure it’s nostalgic for some, but I think this is pretty clearly the least efficient “stat block” design - unsurprisingly, since it was the first attempt.

AD&D and B/X
Much more user-friendly, and while the visual design doesn’t speak to me personally, it is certainly distinctive, which makes for some high-mileage nostalgia fuel. The game-statistical information is easily accessible, there’s a solid amount of lore while still leaving room for the DM’s imagination to flesh it out further, and there’s accompanying artwork that while not always what I would call beautiful, has undeniable charm. I do wish the monsters themselves had more unique mechanical features to make them feel distinct in play, but that’s a feature of the rule system, not the stat block itself. My only critiques of the actual stat blocks are that I think the font is too small, and I wish the stat line descriptors were bold instead of (or in addition to being) all-caps.

2e
Design-wise, very similar to the AD&D style (for understandable reasons). The statistics are more user-friendly with more efficient use of the page space and the addition of row shading and lines to make them more readable, all of which I really like. But personally, this loses a lot of the charm for me, without being enough of a usability upgrade to be worth that trade. The artwork still isn’t as pretty to me as it would be in later editions, but it’s also not as janky as in 1e, so for me it ends up falling into a rather uninspiriring middle-ground. And while there’s a lot more lore, it’s kinda too much lore in my opinion, and without EGG’s extremely distinctive writing style, it too falls into the unfortunate space between the lovable jank of its predecessor and the polish of its successors. I can certainly see why this would be someone’s favorite, but for me it falls in second-to-last place, just above OD&D.

3.Xe
As stated in my previous post, this stat-block is the hands-down winner for me in terms of pure aesthetics. The font choices strike the perfect balance between readability and charm for me, and the little design touches like the background lines and the text being shaped around the art (which is also in color now!) really does it for me. I’m sure there’s a lot of nostalgia bias coming in here, but looking at this stat block just makes me viscerally feel like I’m sitting down for some good old-fashioned pen-and-paper tabletop gaming, while still being very visyally clean and polished. With all that glowing praise out of the way though… I actually kinda hate this as an actual game tool. The use of page space is criminally ineffecticient, which is made all the more disappointing after that having been 2e’s biggest selling point. I don’t know if this was intentional 1e nostalgia bait or what, but come on, can we please get some coluns back in here? And the lore info is somehow both less in-depth and more space-hungry than 2e’s. I will say, I appreciate the inclusion of a paragraph on how the creature typically behaves in combat, but otherwise, this stat block sacrifices all utility as a gameplay aid for the sake of making it nicer to read. Which just kinda encapsulates my feelings about 3e as a whole. Overall, I’d rank this one above the previous three, but the nostalgia goggles are definitely a major handicap here.

4e
In an absolute 180 from 3e, this stat block is purely utilitarian, at the cost of being pretty visually unappealing. Now, personally I value gameplay utility higher, so I do like this stat block more than 3e’s. But good golly is there ever room for improvement. Despite having the most efficient layout by far, it’s ironically pretty hard to tell what the heck this monster does at a glance, in part because the text is miniscule and in part because it does so dang much. Those things are obviously related of course, and while I do appreciate that 4e’s monsters have a lot of interesting things they can do, giving them all very distinctive gameplay feel, some monsters definitely take it too far. I think 4e’s stat block is at its best on relatively simple monsters, with only one or two special actions. Which is really unfortunate, because 4e’s actual monsters are at their best when they have a lot of special actions. If we could just combine the aesthetic appeal of 3e with the design excellence and gameplay utility of 4e, we’d be in the money.

5e
Well, an attempt was clearly made to do exactly that. But for me personally, it falls short of the mark. I can see what the 5e designers were going for, and to their credit this is easily the most readable stat block to date, which I truly do appreciate. It’s usable, but the monsters aren’t all that interesting to use (although I will say I think they’ve made great strides towards making them more interesting in play lately!) And where 3e was obviously trying to fake being hand-drawn and 4e was made for a VTT and it showed, 5e looks like it was trying to fake being made for a VTT. I must begrudgingly concede that I do think it’s the best overall stat block yet, I just wish it wasn’t so sterile. Is it too much to ask for a stat block that keeps 5e’s usability but brings back the lo-fi charm of pre-4e D&D?
 
Last edited:

dave2008

Legend
@darjr other thread about the Gamehole announcement got me thinking. They mentioned how they will modify the monster stat blocks slightly. So a thought exercise. Let's look at how the monster stat blocks evolved over time. Did they get better? Worse (new Coke)?

OD&D
The stat blocks weren't really stat blocks. There was one chart with all monster stats, and then a sentence or two describing text. The most minimal monster entry of all editions.
View attachment 315845View attachment 315846

AD&D and B/X
I'm putting both in the same category because both were published concurrently, and let's be honest, not that much difference. More robust stat blocks for the first time, and a little more fleshed out lore. Still pretty basic.

View attachment 315847 View attachment 315848

2e
2e is famous for shifting from the short adventure module to the larger campaign and campaign settings. So it's no wonder why the lore section of the monster entry is much more robust. If you are a fan of monster lore, then this edition really started paying attention to you. Also no surprise how the stat block is nearly identical. After all, 2e was meant to be backwards compatible.

View attachment 315849

3e
Oh boy, the monster entries really went through a radical change, just like nearly everything else in 3e. Not much more lore than in 2e (in fact, in many cases, less lore), but 3e focused on the monster stats. Like 3e in general, it was all about the mechanics and stats. And boy, were there a lot of them. It's also the first edition to change the presentation. Gone are the plain white backgrounds. Now a bunch of artistic and design elements appear.

View attachment 315850

4e
Another radical change. And again, one due to the major change in the game rules themselves. A ton of information in the stat block, and designed to fit certain roles. Even "basic" monsters were given multiple stat blocks depending on the role they were meant to fill. Monsters were also given abilities or powers they didn't have before beyond plain damage attacks like in previous editions.

View attachment 315851

5e
Another radical change, but one that is more Classic Coke in function and form. The statblocks seem more streamlined down in content compared to 3e and 4e. Much of this is due to bounded accuracy and a single bonus to most rolls (prof bonus). If something has a +5 bonus in 5e to an attack, it's going to have a +5 bonus on most every attack. Not +14/+13 type differences in 3e and 4e. Emphasis on lore again like in 2e days.
View attachment 315852


Summary
Each edition has its good and bad points IMO. We've heard many of them here. Streamlined 1e, different roles of 4e, ease of use in 5e, etc. Which are your favorites, and why?
Love the idea of comparing statblocks, thank you! However, the presentation would be more effective if you used the same monster for each edition. So what did an Ankeg statblock look like in each edition? That might explain the evolution a bit better if we are comparing apples to apples.

Also, I would disagree a bit about 4e adding powers to monsters. It was, perhaps, the first version that put those special powers in the statblock itself instead of the supporting text. Previously the statblock often simple said "special" and then you had to dig through the text of the monster entry to figure out what that meant
 

aco175

Legend
I seemed to have 'evolved' with the editions and like the 5e one best with 4e next and going back in order. I remember using them all and finding 2e/3e clunky where I needed to role a lot and prep each monster with spells or HP and such. 4e was fine in that I could use the ones they had and easily boost them is needed. 5e works maybe since I have been using it for the last 10 years. I do find that I have some 4e design creep into my monsters though.
 

billd91

Not your screen monkey (he/him)
3e makes the big sea change in what the stat blocks are capable of doing. For the first time, they're the first real systematic stat block in that they have pretty much everything needed for the underlying system to function without cracking open many more books. Hit the monster with a stat debuff? You've got all the features out there that are based on it. You can see where everything comes from and modify it on the fly if you need to. It's a powerful shift.
But it comes with a cost - LOTS of information and how to organize it. 3.0's organization was pretty bad, though more compact than what followed. My favorite 3e-family stat block was the Pathfinder one because it kept the chunks organized. Initial encounter values, defense, offense, etc. But it could run long for powerful creatures with a lot of abilities.
4e tried to whittle those down under the assumption that a monster gets to deploy just a handful in an encounter before they're defeated and succeeded at making them shorter at the cost of putting everything through a pretty myopic lens.
5e steps that back a little and I've been finding them pretty functional.
 

the Jester

Legend
I feel compelled to point out that both 3e and 4e revised their stat block formats later in their respective editions, and they were improvements in both cases- significant ones.

With those in play, I would say that the late-3e and late-4e stat blocks were the most usable. 5e is close, but leaving proficiency bonus out is the one thing that puts it behind those two. The late 3e version gets bonus points for putting defensive information together first, then offensive info. The only thing that weighs against it is the sheer complexity of 3e itself.
 

Sacrosanct

Legend
I gotta say, while I have my share of issues with 3e, I’ll be dipped if it isn’t aesthetically incredible. That stat block has way too much going on, but my stars, the slightly-faded lines making it look like it’s written on an old sheet of notebook paper? chef’s kiss!

Everything about 3e’s visual design is downright foundational to my concept of D&D. Of course, I’m sure everyone probably feels the same way about whatever edition they cut their teeth on. But I think 3e was the first time D&D explicitly set out to take advantage of that phenomenon as an intentional marketing tactic. And it worked like a dang charm on me.
Nostalgia and preferences are a funny thing, because everything you mentioned about what you like about 3e is what turned me off lol. Just...too much going on visually for me.
 

Charlaquin

Goblin Queen (She/Her/Hers)
Nostalgia and preferences are a funny thing, because everything you mentioned about what you like about 3e is what turned me off lol. Just...too much going on visually for me.
Understandable. 3e’s visual design is very distinctive, which tends to engender strong opinions one way or the other. For me, that visual clutter is deeply associated with D&D, because that was how D&D looked when I first started playing it. It reminds me of sleepover gaming sessions in high school.
 

Sacrosanct

Legend
Understandable. 3e’s visual design is very distinctive, which tends to engender strong opinions one way or the other. For me, that visual clutter is deeply associated with D&D, because that was how D&D looked when I first started playing it. It reminds me of sleepover gaming sessions in high school.
Oh, for sure! I mean, Trampier is objectively a great artist and it still holds up, but a lot of that early D&D art I love isn't the best and/or give love/hate relationships. Like Otis. Or even some of the Sutherland art. But I know a lot of that has to do with how that was the art when I was exposed to the game. I wouldn't expect a player who started with 3e or beyond to have that same feeling, and in fact I know a lot of people think that old art is...not good.
 

Quickleaf

Legend
@Sacrosanct Love the comparison! One thing I've done a bit of is writing up one edition's monsters in the format of another edition and seeing what I can glean from that. Here's an example of what I mean - taking some 5e monsters and putting them into the OD&D quick reference chart format...

Screen Shot 2023-10-26 at 8.24.33 AM.png


What I learned from this was that you can – with very important exceptions (spells & special abilities) – pare down a 5e monster to its most essential info that can be gleaned at a glance. Worrying about differences between checks/saves is probably more trouble for monsters than its worth. Most of the time common sense dictates the damage type a monster is doing.

For a more tactical map+minis approach, speed could be squeezed into this table.
For a more OSR approach, No. Appearing and Treasure could be squeezed in.

For example, taking the Oni, I could run an oni in theater-of-the-mind using just this table and vague recollection that onis can fly (I should have noted that in table), and cast Cone of Cold and Invisibility IIRC. I don't really need the full description to vaguely recall how Regeneration & Change Shape work. It wouldn't be 100% accurate and perfect to the actual stat block, but I could get it to feel like an Oni encounter.

This OD&D fast-and-loose approach to stat blocks supports a play style where the GM has a sort of "word bank" of monsters but doesn't necessarily know when the players will face any given monster from that word bank – wandering monster tables, dungeons with many monster types, fast play styles where players choose from which direction/hex they're exploring, etc.

EDIT: Another example that I think would be worthwhile – when I have time I can try to do this over the weekend – is taking a monster (e.g. Ankheg or Goblin), reworking the AD&D lore text with some editing, 5e style bold headings, and removing the plain text combat, then taking the 4e block for the Ankheg or Goblin, and translating all that into a merged OSR / 5e statblock – so there'd also be No. Appearing, Morale, Treasure, and so forth alongside the combat stats. That might make for a very interesting approach.
 
Last edited:

Remove ads

AD6_gamerati_skyscraper

Remove ads

Upcoming Releases

Top