Okay, here’s the introduction/caveat. I was writing a thing based on a simple question: can you abbreviate a 5E stat block enough to make it possible to include monster stats inline in the adventure text. The answer is yes. And I did that at the end. You can skip ahead to it. Because something bigger came out of this. I’ve always promised that I wouldn’t ask people to read a rant about a problem without offering a potential solution. But, the other side of that is that I won’t just throw up an idea or a solution without thinking through that idea. And that’s why this article got so big and so complicated. And that’s also why, ultimately, I put the minotaur on it. Because this article is mostly just Random Bulls$&%. It’s me looking at a specific design problem and nitpicking the hell out of it. And then looking at the historical way it’s been handled. But I think there’s a big problem underlying my analysis. Hence my conclusion at the end, after I rant and rage and nitpick and after I say “okay, here’s a quick and dirty way to abbreviate a stat block.” I was going to chop out huge portions of this and leave the ideas unsaid and unanalyzed, but I can’t bring myself to do it. I mean, I did edit it down. I always edit my stuff down. I cut out a lot of crap. But I couldn’t leave the main analysis out: the idea of user interface design in RPGs.
So, if you want the tl;dr version: skip down to a quick and dirty bit about how to abbreviate a monster stat block. And then maybe check the conclusion that follows to see whether it’s worth reading the rest of the post. And if you find this ranting, rambling, boring, and pointless? Don’t worry, next week is the next thing about building adventures. I wouldn’t have even bothered with this if there wasn’t an extra Wednesday in September.
By the way, you should conider that Minotaur/Random Bulls$&% designation a warning label in the future.
I want to talk about video games, players, GMs, and Wizards of the Coast. No, I’m not talking about Sword Coast Legends. I have zero f$&%s to give about yet another generic computer action RPG, even if it does claim to give me the power to run games for my friends. I can already run games for my friends. Without the limits imposed by a computer program. It’s called motherf$&%ing D&D. Especially after I take a look at the preorder page and see things like map packs and specific monsters for DM use being sold separately. At least with my D&D books, I can just draw my own maps and make my own monsters. And I never have to worry about server maintenance, lag, connection problems, and live in fear of the day the game is no longer profitable enough so they just shut down the f$&%ing servers altogether.
By the way, that last paragraph is specifically for those who have asked me if I have checked out Sword Coast Legends. I didn’t include it specifically to s$&% on SCL. If you’re into that bulls$&%, fine and dandy. I don’t care. Stop asking ME about it. I run role-playing games, okay? I never wanted to be a World of Warcraft admin.
But let’s talk about some other fun video games. For example, let’s talk about Mass Effect. The first one. Great game, right? Good story. It tricked you into thinking your decisions mattered. It had well-written characters and a very well-developed universe. But the game itself was kind of hard to get into. I mean, I actually gave up on it because of the gameplay. And a lot of people who loved it flat-out admitted they loved it in spite of the gameplay. And one of the biggest problems with the gameplay was the UI.
UI. User Interface. If you’re not well-versed in video game terms – and don’t worry, I’m bringing it back to RPGs shortly, so just try to hold out – UI refers to all of the various elements on the screen that allow you to understand what’s going on in the game and to take actions in the game. All of those menus and minimaps and hit-point bars and quest lists? Those are all UI. So are the little icons that appear over an enemy to tell you what’s going to happen when you hit a specific button. Or the exclamation point that appears to tell you when to block. Or that little box that has an icon that tells you which item you have in your hand. All of that stuff allows the user (the person playing the game) to get information from the game and also to do things within the game. Without a UI, players are running blind. And, moreover, you’re limited to however many functions you can connect to the controller that people can memorize.
Don’t get me wrong, you can do a lot with just a controller. Even a simple controller like the old Super Nintendo game pad. For example, it had four different primary buttons (not counting the digital pad used for movement) and two shoulder buttons or triggers. That gives you six functions right off the bat. But, if you also allow someone to press two buttons at a time, you can add fourteen more functions, for a total of 20. Of course, that requires the player to learn and memorize all 20 functions and button combinations. And some players do. But that’s a lot to ask of a player and any player unwilling or unable to learn all of those functions will be unable to play your game, right?
But back to Mass Effect. What was wrong with it? Well, one of the biggest problems I had with it was that the icons for all the special abilities you had were small and they made no sense. I tried to play as an engineer. So I had this holographic wrist… thing. And it could disrupt enemy shields and overload weapons and do all sorts of really neat stuff. But I couldn’t keep track of what it could do and the UI did a really bad job of giving me simple icons I could understand at a glance.
Now, that’s just one example. I could do an entire article analyzing the poor interface design in Mass Effect, but it’s a seven year old game and many other people have already written that article and I don’t write about video games. So, let’s talk about a different video game.
Let’s talk about Borderlands. Borderlands is a fun first-person shooter semi-sort-of-role-playing-game mainly about shooting midgets and space dogs with acid shotguns. I s$&% you not. And I loved the game. And the second one had great writing and fun characters, though there was something oddly off about the game play in the second way and I still can’t quite figure out why it didn’t feel as good as the first one. Doesn’t matter. In addition to the awesome gunplay that included submachine guns that shot bullets that set people on fire, there was also a lot of “gather the pants” style of play. You know what I mean. That Diablo thing where, after you finish killing all the things, you spend forever gathering up random loot from everything in the environment and comparing it to every bit of loot you’re already wearing to determine whether it is slightly better. Except that Borderlands’ inventory management and menu system was absolutely atrocious. I’m not even complaining about the aggressively limited amount of inventory space, here. I’m talking about the menu system that let you compare, sell, organize, and switch items. It was horrible.
What’s my point? Mass Effect is a good game. Borderlands is a good game. Right? People liked them. I liked them. Well, I liked Borderlands. But I don’t hold Mass Effect against anyone. It wasn’t a bad game. It wasn’t for me is all. My point is, as the smuggest of the perpetually offended crowd on the Internet are always quick to point out ad nauseum, it is possible to like a thing and yet recognize it’s more problematic elements. These games were good IN SPITE of their crappy user interfaces. You were willing to ignore the obstacles presented by the UI to keep playing the game.
And that brings us to Dungeons & Dragons. Dungeons & Dragons is a great game that offers an absolutely horrible user interface. And that user interface sucks because it seems like no one is thinking about how the end user actually interacts with the product. And I want to complain about it.
Actually, what I really want to do is reformat the way published modules present monsters (and maybe eventually other things). But I’m going to start with a rant about the user interface because, you know, bitching about the parts of game design most people take for granted or just outright ignore is kind of my thing.
What User Interface?
We don’t think of role-playing games as having a user interface. Mainly because the whole f$&%ing game is in our imagination and it plays out primarily in the form of spoken word. But when we are forced to grudgingly admit that there really is a user interface, we tend to think immediately of miniatures and battlegrids and dice. And yeah, these are interface elements. But we tend to blame those things on the GM. After all, D&D doesn’t care if we play with a battlemat or a preprinted map or with nothing but vague verbal descriptions. It doesn’t care if we use miniatures or pennies. I mean, it DOES. But no one wants to hear me say that again because nothing offends people like insisting that there is no such thing as gridless D&D 5E. There’s only D&D with an invisible grid you have to keep in your head.
But, let’s say I insist that those aren’t the interface elements I’m talking about. What’s next? Well, the character sheet is a user interface, right? It’s there to present useful information to the players so they can interact with the game. And yes, the character sheet is a perfect example of a user interface. The players – the users – rely on the character to present the information they need to play the game. But I’m also not here to critique the D&D character sheet. I mean, it’s no worse than the Pathfinder character sheet or any other RPG character sheet and it certainly isn’t any better.
Actually, you know what? Let’s talk about it for a second. Let’s talk about why the D&D character sheet is kind of a sucky design. First of all, let’s assume the goal of the character sheet is to compile all of the information necessary to play the game such that you never need to refer to the rule book. We can argue about whether that’s a fair goal or not some other time (hint: it’s not an unfair goal at all). Is there any information that doesn’t appear on the character sheet that you absolutely need to play the game? I don’t mean corner case s$&%. I mean on a regular basis.
Here’s an easy one: weapon damage type. You never know whether that is going to be needed, right? At higher levels, lots of creatures and spells have specific resistances. Hell, I can list off the top of my head five creatures that you’ll encounter before fifth level where the damage type changes how you hurt the creature. I’ll bet most GMs can. Now, in your attacks, there’s a blank for damage where you can fill in a damage code like 2d6+2. But do you have enough room to write in “bludgeoning” after that? It doesn’t quite fit in the PDF text field if you’re typing it.
And I know what you’re thinking: you abbreviate. 2d6+2B is no big deal. But my question is WHY do you have to abbreviate? And if you’re new to the game and making your first character, do you even know you should probably make a note of your damage type if you can’t remember. No. And that’s part of why you call it out on the character sheet. Because that communicates to players that the information IS important. Just by having a blank on there you tell them something about what information is important to pay attention to.
What about weapon keywords? Sure, some of them don’t matter that much, right? After all, if it’s a Finesse weapon, you just need to use the right ability score to calculate the attack and damage stats. That you do during character generation. But what about Versatile? That’s a more important one, isn’t it? If you’re using a longsword, you can switch between using it one-handed and using it two-handed to switch between 1d8 and 1d10 damage. And, if you’re reasonably tactical, you do. It’s a valuable trait. If it weren’t a valuable trait, it wouldn’t exist. D&D believes it is a valuable trait. But how do you record that on the character sheet? You kind of have to force it in there.
What about ranges for ranged weapons? And whether the weapon requires loading? Where does that s$&% go? I mean, you could argue that a player should know this stuff for the weapons they choose, but you can also argue that a video game player should be able to memorize 20 button combinations. If you make that a barrier to play, you’re excluding people unwilling and unable to devote the brain space.
But that attack/weapon thing was just a warmup. Just a minor demonstration of how the D&D character sheet wasn’t really designed for the game that actually exists. Because I am certain very little time went into designing that character sheet. In fact, I recall that there was a contest held to design to D&D character sheet. That’s how little WotC gave a s$&% about the character sheet design in the end. Let me give you the Ur example: spells.
What’s the range on a fireball? Does confusion require a material component? Is that component consumed? Is charm person a concentration spell? Is sleep a concentration spell? That’s important because it means casting one will disrupt the other. How much damage does a firebolt do? What’s the effect of passing a saving throw against a disintegration spell? Where is any of that information on the character sheet.
It isn’t there, is it? Of course it isn’t there. Because spell-based RPGs gave up on including spell record sheets. The attitude of D&D and games like it toward all the spell data is “you’re on your f$&%ing own.” Players will work it out, right? They will make notes. Or lists. Or they will just keep the PHB handy so that every f$&%ing time someone casts a spell, you have to wait for them to look it up in the book. Whatever.
Now, I’ve raised this point before and the counterarguments tend to run this. If someone wants to play a spellcaster, they should learn their spells. The spells are in the PHB, you don’t need a record sheet. Or, worst of all, the spells are too complicated for a record sheet.
Now, that first argument is the same as the “too many button combos” argument. It’s a load of horses$&%. But let’s look at those other two arguments.
It’s Too Complicated for Record Sheets
Most spells are too complex and detailed for mere record sheets, right? They can only exist as blocks of text. First of all, this is horses$&%. The vast VAST majority of spells have one or two lines of useful text and a few important stats. There is no reason at all I can’t abbreviate most spells.
Beacon of Hope Abj, 1 Act, 30’, VS, Conc 1 Min, chosen targets in range get Adv on Wis and Death saves, die rolls for healing maxed
Most spells are pretty straightforward. Straightforward enough that, with some guidance from a character sheet, I can fill in what I need. But, honestly, that’s a lot of work. Most players won’t do that s$&%. They’ll just default to looking the s$&% up in the book.
But there’s no reason why spell sheets can’t exist with all of that information abbreviated. You could get two or three levels of spells for a given class on ONE sheet with the right format. You don’t even have to sell or publish them. Make them downloadable. And give them out with pregens. Or you can sell them. Or they could exist as a tearout section in the back of the Player’s Handbook.
But, there are some spells that would require a bit more to abbreviate. I admit that. And that’s sort of where I call out the whole design as bulls$&%. Here’s the thing: if a spell is so complicated that it can’t be used at the table without stopping the game to look it up in the book, you have several choices. You can decide that it’s worth it and leave the spell in the game. Or you can decide it isn’t worth it and pull the spell out of the game. Or you can edit the spell to make it simpler. But those are design choices. It’s not an accident that a spell ends up in the game that is too complicated to easily reference or remember. A designer CHOSE to include that spell and decided that the obstacle it presents to play was worth having the spell.
But what’s really interesting is that a solid interface design makes those choices easier. If you’ve given some thought to how the information will be USED in the game and how it will be PRESENTED during the game, that will guide you to write content that fits within that design framework. Or to redesign the framework if it ends up limiting too many things. That’s how the design should work. The interface, the way people use and play your game, should be as much a part of the design as any other aspect of the game.
And THAT is where I take issue with D&D. I don’t get the feeling that any thought at all went into how the information was going to be used at the table. Or away from the table for that matter. After all, playing the game is only one quarter of the game. Running the game is another quarter. Designing adventures and other content is another quarter. And building characters is another quarter of the game. And the books for the game have to be useful for ALL FOUR modes of engagement.
Which brings me around to the other argument.
You Don’t Need a Sheet if You Have the Rulebook
Now, every player and GM already knows that statement is a load of complete bulls$&%. No GM likes sitting around waiting for someone to find an answer in a rulebook. No player likes sitting around waiting for another player to look up their spells even though every player conveniently forgets how much the others hate it when THEY have to look up a spell. And no GM I’ve ever met enjoys having to have three different hardback books in front of them to run a game and to flip pages back and forth looking for stats in the middle of a combat. Not one. No one – player or GM – will argue that playing the game should require referencing the rulebooks.
And yet, despite the fact that WE all know that – the users of D&D – why the f$&% don’t the designers seem to know it? Or the designers of Pathfinder? Or many, MANY other RPGs. Just because a game is crunchy and mechanically heavy doesn’t mean it can’t be designed to maximize the user experience. Want a perfect example? Hackmaster by Kenzer and Co., the new one, the one that isn’t just a joke. It’s an intricate, complicated game with many different subsystems. But, I’ll tell you it does a really good job of presenting a solid user experience. The character sheets are really well designed. I mean, it isn’t perfect. It still falls apart with spellcasting, just like every other f$&%ing RPG, but it’s much closer to a good experience than a bad one.
But the D&D designers decided either consciously or by not thinking about it that it’s okay for any spellcasting class to have to go digging through the rulebook every time they cast a spell. They decided that was part of the experience of D&D. They decided complicated spells were worth it. And they decided not to give any thought to how the spells could be presented.
But the problem could have been mitigated. See, the thing is, if the PHB made it really easy to find things, it wouldn’t be so bad. But every time I have to look something up in the PHB or the DMG or the MM, I end up flipping a lot of paper. Why? Because the page numbers are small. Because they are missing from some pages. Because there are no signifiers on the pages telling me what chapter I’m in. Because the book isn’t broken down into sections that are visually distinct in any way. For comparison, look at the D&D 3.5 core rulebook. That wasn’t perfect, but notice that on every page the page number is big and obvious at a glance. And every page has a big callout that says “Chapter 11: Spells.” Open any page of that book and you know where you are in that book. There is also both a glossary and a solid, well-organized index.
The Monster Manual is similarly a pain in the a$&. Sure, it’s alphabetical, except for the weird collection of beasts that are in their own section at the back which seems to be “normal animals” except that it also includes giant animals and a few made up things like quippers. I can’t quite spot the pattern. All I know is that giant lizard is neither under G nor L, it’s in the appendix. Why? Who the f$&% knows. Also, it’s only alphabetical most of the time.
For example, pit fiend is D. Why? Because it’s a type of devil. Or demon. Whatever. Doesn’t matter. That’s fine and dandy, but if I open the book randomly, and I end up on one of those weird creatures that doesn’t fit in the alphabetical order, it takes me an extra second to figure out what letter I’m in and whether I need to go forward or backward. Most people, when they are looking for something in a book, open to the middle. It’s called a binary search. It’s a force of habit. We open to the middle, see where we’re at, move forward or backward, and then look again.
If the book’s sections, in this case, the letters of the alphabet, were visually distinct, it’d be easier. Especially because different pages have slightly different layouts. The art is in different spots, sometimes there are no page numbers, so pages are completely devoid of stat blocks and are just blocks of text describing a monster that comes on the next page or the page before. Which means you don’t even a giant monster name staring at you to tell you you’re in the “dragons.”
The Dungeon Master’s Guide is a complete and utter mess. Not only are the sections of the book not visually distinct at all, they also don’t appear to be arranged in any logical order. Worldbuilding comes first. Then adventure building and encounter design. Then there’s magic items. And then we wander back to content design. Monster design. More world building stuff. More adventure building stuff. And there are two or three different chapters filled with advice about how to run the game. And the magic item section is arranged alphabetically. Completely alphabetically. There are no subsections, no headers, no distinctions, no logical groupings. If you don’t already know the exact name of the item you’re looking for, you’re not going to find it without reading every page. And the name is the only way to look. You can’t go looking for magical weapons or magical armor or magical potions or whatever. It’s all just lumped together in one list.
I write A LOT of my own content. F$&%, I pretty much don’t run published adventures at all. So I reference the DMG a lot. I need the encounter building charts and the magic item lists and all that other crap. I spend a lot of time in that book. And I spend half of that time flipping around trying to remember where in the book the thing I’m looking for actually is. And the index is s$&%.
What’s my point? Is this just a rant? Yeah, it is. I’m pissed off. Because like Borderlands and Mass Effect, I find myself fighting a bad interface just to enjoy a game I like. And it fatigues the s$&% out of me. But what can we do?
Modding and Patching
Let’s take another lesson from video games right now, apart from the one where user interface matters but we don’t realize how much it matters until we have to deal with a bad one. Let’s take one aspect of the s$&% design and write a mod. Or a patch. Let’s look at a different way of organizing information. That’s the thing that keeps this from being just a rant, by the way. We’re actually going to analyze a design and try to make it a cleaner experience.
Let’s look at monster stat blocks. And, in so doing, let’s rethink the way monster stat blocks are done in D&D altogether. Because this is a problem that we once had actually solved. But now we’ve lost the solution.
First of all, let’s look at a monster stat block direct from the most recently published adventure, Out of the Abyss. In the first chapter, the PCs are prisoners of the drow and have to fight their way through drow and quaggoths to escape. Here’s the stat block for one of the encounter areas.
At any time, there is a 25 percent chance that 1d4 drow are in the main hall eating or entertaining themselves with dice or card games. If any drow are present, 1d4 quaggoths are also on hand, serving and cleaning.
Those are the stats you are given to run the encounter with. Now, you might notice that the information is a bit limited. For example, how many hit points does a quaggoth have? What is a drow’s armor class? How much damage does a quaggoth’s claw attack do? What modifier does a drow use for a Charisma saving throw? Do you see any of that information?
No. Because there are no statistics. Even though you absolutely WILL need this information if the PCs break in here (because the drow and the quaggoths are hostile toward escaping prisoners and the PCs will have to deal with them somehow), none of this vital information is presented. Instead, by the same logic that requires PC wizards to have a PHB on hand at all times, you, the GM have to go to the Monster Manual.
But the drow and the quaggoths have about 150 pages between them in the Monster Manual. So, unless you’re tearing pages out, you cannot have both available at a glance. And you can’t photocopy them. Permission hasn’t been given to reproduce those pages by WotC and they aren’t included in the D&D Basic Rules. There is literally no legal way to have both stat blocks in front of you at a glance while you run the adventure.
And this again shows that WotC either hasn’t given any thought to how their products are getting used at the table (the user experience) or they can’t be bothered to care. They put the information in the books, what more do you want from them?
Now, WotC has actually written about this problem before. Specifically, they wrote about this during the late 3E days when they decided to discard the “tactical encounter format.” What is that? Well, the tactical encounter format was something that WotC invented under 3rd Edition. It was a way of organizing all of the information needed to run a combat encounter on one or two pages: maps, text, stat blocks, and so on. In other words, it was a thing they did by considering the user experience and designing around providing a good one.
So why did they drop it? They dropped it because they noted that it mean every combat encounter had to take up exactly one page, exactly two pages, or exactly four pages. And that put some pretty hefty demands on page count. If you want to publish an adventure with ten encounters, that adventure was going to be ten or twenty pages just for the combats. You couldn’t run shorter adventures. And if you were just going to have the possibility of combats, you still needed a full tactical writeup. In addition, the tactical format was actually a layout. It wasn’t just a bit of running text in a document. To make it work, you couldn’t just use a general page layout. Each encounter needed its own layout design to account for stat blocks, maps, sidebars, and so on. That was a lot more work than just laying out a pile of text.
And you know what? Those are good reasons. It’s true. A product like Out of the Abyss would be hugely expensive and have a massive page count if you tried to do the tactical encounter format. I can’t fault them for it. Because people want adventure content. And I’ll tell you honestly, from ten pages of Out of the Abyss, I’ve gotten three sessions of play. Whereas, if they had used the tactical layout, I’d have gotten five encounters (because some of the page count would be eaten up by background information and other necessary text that wasn’t part of any encounter). That maybe would have filled one session.
So did WotC make a good decision? Absolutely not. They had good REASONS, but they never turned around and looked at different ways to solve the problem. It’s sort of like, they walked out and discovered their car had a flat tire. And then they said “but what can you do,” and drove to work anyway. And now, their modules are these walls of disorganized text that are really hard to run at the table.
Now, I can’t rewrite the entire f$&%ing module and I can’t force WotC to organize this s$&% better. And WotC won’t anyway. Because the game is a pretty good game and buried under the morass, their modules aren’t bad. I mean, they have some weird moments and some dull stretches, but all modules have those. On balance, the modules are more good than bad. Yeah, I said it. And that’s why I started this whole thing by discussing Borderlands and Mass Effect and not a game that was utterly ruined by it’s bad UI. D&D is a good game. It’s fun. But the UI is s$&%.
And, sadly, I get the distinct impression the bigger RPG designers are just so entrenched in copying the same old formula, they aren’t even thinking about their games in terms of interface design.
So let’s see if we can take what WotC has done with D&D and see if we can’t find a way to make it okay to cram stat blocks into the text of the adventure.
Going Back to the Roots
Let’s take a look back at AD&D 2E for a second. Because it did something really interesting. 1E did it too, but 2E really polished it up nice. If you look at an entry from the 2E Monstrous Compendium or Monster Manual, this is what you see:
Actually, that’s just a picture of the top of the page. There’s a bunch of text below that. But just look at the stats. By the way, that is actually from the Advanced Dungeons & Dragons Monstrous Manual from 1993, not the original AD&D 2E Monstrous Compendium, but it’s similar enough for our purposes.
Now, let’s look at the kobold in an actual adventure. Here’s some kobolds from Dragon Mountain, a really cool super dungeon module from 1993.
Notice anything? Yeah, there’s a LOT LESS information in the adventure. Why? Because a good deal of the information about kobolds in the Monstrous Manual didn’t need to be included in the adventure. For example, all the stuff about climate, rarity, diet, treasure, and so on? That was all crap the GM used for BUILDING adventures. This adventure was already built. No reason to include that s$&% in the module. But every reason to stick it in a Monster Manual. That’s because the Monster Manual was intended for DMs to BUILD adventures from. It was a toolbox. It wasn’t meant to be referenced at the table. So it included a lot more information and it was organized with that purpose.
The stat block in the adventure was an abbreviation. It was meant just to give the GM the very basic information needed to run an encounter with that creature. Notice that it has combat stats, alignment, intelligence, and morale. Those are all the things you need to know to run an encounter with the damned things. How smart are they? How brave are they? How do they interact morally with the world? And how much of a fight can they put up?
On top of that, I’d also like to call attention to one other thing that the stat block does. It doesn’t call out default information. For example a Kobold’s AC in AD&D 2E was 7 (10). That 10 is the basic Armor Class of a naked kobold. Which is also the same basic Armor Class as any naked humanoid. So, in the stat block, it gets dropped. First of all because it’s unlikely the kobolds will end up naked. And second of all because the default AC is basic information.
3rd Edition actually started with the same basic approach. In fact, if you check your 3.5 Dungeon Master’s Guide (pp. 84 – 85), you’ll see it actually explains abbreviated stat blocks. And early 3.5 adventures used those stat blocks. So, where did they go?
Well, the thing is, 3.5 was a more complicated creature. And one of the basic tenets of 3.5 was universal rules. Every living thing – PC or monster or NPC – had the same types of stats and followed all the same stats. That meant that the minimum amount of complexity per monster was set pretty high. Notice even the examples that the book gives on page 84 (some spiders) take up 25 lines of text. Here, take a look:
Now, notice a few things. First of all, that stat block is hard the eyes. Quick, glance at it and find the AC. Tough, huh? Yeah, it’s a big ole wall of ugly abbreviations and numbers. It’s a complete mess. Second of all, notice that the bulk of space taken up by the stat block is a complete explanation of the rules for each of the monster’s special abilities. Now, you need that s$&%. I won’t deny it. If I’m going to run spiders at the table, I need to know how their webs work. Then and there. Why? Because webs only come up once in a very rare while. It’s not something I keep in my head. Webs literally only come up when spiders are around. The spider has to bring its web rules along, unlike the kobold bringing along it’s naked 10 AC.
And so many monsters in 3E had special abilities and the rules were so detailed, that even weak, simple monsters had them. So, while 3E’s heart was in the right place when it came to user interface, it ultimately failed. And that’s why they adopted the tactical encounter format. Which, again, was a great format except for the page count and layout issues. The biggest obstacle to a good user interface in 3E was the complexity of the game itself. The monsters were designed without regard for how they would be presented. Otherwise, the special abilities would have been simpler. There would have been fewer of them. And thought would be given to formatting them as anything other than paragraphs of raw rules.
While we’re doing this tour, what about 4E? Well, 4E was a very different creature. In 4E, monsters had only the stats they needed to run at the table. The format of attacks and stats was designed around a solid user interface. Seriously. They clearly spent a lot of time thinking about how to present monsters. And, moreover, they built monsters to suit their interface. And more moreover, they also cut out extraneous words. Every power, attack, and trait was carefully culled down to the minimum number of words needed to make it functional. It should have been perfect. And honestly, 4E had a GREAT interface. For GMs. Running adventures. Except…
Except the stats blocks took up a lot of room. And the encounter design was based around having multiple creatures in one encounter and having a variety of creatures in each encounter to fill different roles. Remember that? An encounter should have about as many monsters as PCs and at least two or three roles should be filled. Check your 4E DMG. Which meant that every encounter was going to be filled with two or three bulky stat blocks.
As a side note, though, notice that there was only one interface for monsters. Unlike AD&D 2E and 3.5, 4E did not differentiate between monster stats in the monster manual – where they were meant to be used to build encounters – and stat blocks in the adventure – where the focus was just on running the creature at the table. So, many folks complained that the Monster Manual was bland. It was soulless. It was JUST stat blocks. And it was. Moreover, the language was so built around abbreviation and shorthand that there wasn’t much room for nuance or creativity. The monster abilities were exacting, precise, and limited. 4E’s monster design, while ultimately a lot of fun, is actually a great example of what happens when you go too far in the other direction of letting the UI dictate the design.
Okay, let’s bring this back to 5E now because, ultimately, we want to do something useful. We want to present stat blocks in the text of adventures. And to do that, they need to be manageable.
5E was built to ignore the idea of a user interface. It just didn’t care. Because it was a product of 3E and 4E. From 4E, it took the idea that the stat block should mostly contain only information needed to make the monster playable. From 3E, it took the idea that monsters and PCs should play by the same rules – ability checks, proficiency bonuses, spell slots, etc. And that could have been fine because somewhere between 3E and 4E, there is a really good approach to monster user interface. But 5E didn’t bother. Notice that, when a stat block DOES appear in a 5E product, it’s identical to the stat block in the Monster Manual. There’s actually no accepted system for abbreviating. Because the stat block doesn’t contain information that isn’t needed to run the monster to begin with. But even those blocks of text that explain the special rules are full chunks of rules. They are, mercifully, pretty short and few of them are as complex as most of the abilities from 3E.
But 5E can afford to get away with big stat blocks because 5E is built in the aftermath of the death of the tactical encounter format. Once WotC stopped with the tactical encounter format, they trained us to accept references to the Monster Manual in lieu of stat blocks. A late 3E or 4E adventure could get away with just saying “there’s 3 kobolds in the room” with a page reference and maybe a hit point total. And we accepted it because we understood the argument that the tactical encounter format was cheating us out of content and making adventures prohibitively expensive to produce in print format. And even if we argue that print format was unnecessary, there was still the issue of complex layout design for every encounter.
So the designers at WotC had already solved the problem. They had trained us to accept page references and just understand we can’t run modules without a Monster Manual open next to us. And we would work out the page flipping issue. Except that isn’t actually a solution. Unless you consider “got mine, f$&% you” a solution. WotC simply passed the problem on to us. They COULD have solved it. They were designing a new edition. They could have done anything. But they didn’t. Either they chose not to or they just didn’t think about it.
Can We Abbreviate a 5E Stat Block
So, here’s the million dollar question. Can we abbreviate a 5E stat block? Can we shrink it enough to fit it inline with the text. Or at least, for our personal use, can we shrink it enough to make it quick work to type up and jam ten of them on a page so we can have all of our monsters handy on one or two sheets?
Let’s start with a simple monster and see what we can do. Let’s start with the kobold stat block.
And the first thing I’m going to do is cross out all the information I rarely need when I’m running the monster at the table. Here we go.
Alignment? I don’t need it. Some people might want it. I can understand that. But alignment is now such a minimal part of the game that I feel safe ignoring it. Actually, that’s not quite true. We’re going to come back to it. But for now, we’re giving it the axe.
The dice code for HP? Needless. I just need the actual HP. Ability scores? No. I just need the modifiers because those are used for dice checks. Passive perception? The thing is, unless the creature has a weird bonus, passive perception is always 10 plus the Wisdom modifier. And I already have the Wisdom modifier. Languages? Language is a pain in the a$& in RPGs anyway. But most creatures that have language speak common and their own racial language. It rarely matters beyond that, so I feel like I can get rid of that. What about the Challenge s$&%? Well, I can cut that out. That’s for encounter building. I need the XP total though because I use that to give out XP at the game.
Now, let’s skip the traits for a second and look down at the attacks. Because here’s where the power of the default shines through. Most melee weapon attacks have a reach of 5 feet. And most attacks hit one target. Frankly, as a GM, the only time I pay attention to range and number of targets is when it isn’t “one adjacent target.” It’s such a powerful assumption that melee attacks require you to be adjacent and attacks hit one creature that you only NEED to call them out when things are different. In theory, most attacks should fit on one line, especially if we use clever abbreviation.
And that brings us around to the traits. Now, as I noted, the traits are already pretty economical in terms of word count. But let’s remember that a stat block at the table only needs to remind a GM of the rules, it doesn’t need to spell out every single word. If there’s a rare argument, the GM can make a judgment call or choose to look up the full text. We don’t want to prevent the GM from ever having to refer to a book. Wisdom (Peception) is a handy callout, but that’s also covered with the character sheet. We can just refer directly to Perception, for example. Or Stealth. Advantage and disadvantage are such ubiquitous mechanics that we can abbreviate even those words. And if we’re willing to trust a GM to understand the spirit of a thing, we can cut out some of the more niggling conditionals and corner cases. Yes, I agree that an ally that’s incapacitated shouldn’t grant advantage due to pack tactics, but we can trust most GMs to work that out and if an argument erupts, they can refer to the book. We can cut out that little bit.
In the end, we can get 21 lines of kobold stat block down to 8. At least, I can. And that’s 8 lines in a single column on a 2 column page. I can shading and bold text to call out important bits and draw the eye. Now, I realize it’s not great. I’m not a graphic designer. But I can certainly run a kobold from this:
And hell, if the kobolds have a giant lizard friend, that’s only 13 lines of text:
I can certainly shove that inline with the text for my encounter areas without a problem. I could probably cram four encounters on a single page assuming I give each encounter several paragraphs of text. No complex layout design needed and it doesn’t take up huge chunks of page real estate. Take a look at some other conversions.
More complicated creatures require more space. And I’ll show off a few other creatures I’ve done just so you can see my pattern. Notice, by the way, that I do call out the alignment of creatures that HAVE alignments. But beasts and unaligned creatures? No reason to call it out.
And, if all you want to do is create a reference sheet for an adventure that you can keep handy, well, have a gander at this simply document that manages to cram ten runnable monsters on one page. That’s EASY to keep at hand on the table, isn’t it? And hell, I probably could have crammed another two beasts on that page.
I realize this is a long, LONG article. And I covered a lot of ground just to get to the point of saying “what if we abbreviate stat blocks?” But the truth is, I think it’s about more than that. I love D&D, but I’m very upset about the poor user experience with 5th Edition. And I think there’s an important lesson in all of this. And that lesson is: there’s more to making an RPG than designing mechanics.
We tend to focus on the game system, by which I mean both the fluff and the crunch. And we have gotten away with that for a long time because we approach everything from the perspective of someone who’s already a gamer. A while ago I ranted that the omission of an encounter building index from the 5E Monster Manual was inexcusable, that it showed a poor understanding of the way people would use the product (sound familiar). The response I got from fans was “you can do it yourself” or “someone already made one you can download” or “shut the f$&% up, who cares?” The response from WotC was actually “we didn’t think it was a big deal, we stuck it in the DMG, but fine, have one you can download.” Honestly, it’s the fan response that bothers me.
I’ve written numerous things about how we can grow the community and why the pace of growth of the RPG community is limited by the size of the RPG community. And I think part of the problem is that these games are fundamentally unapproachable unless you have someone who is already a gamer to teach you. And those fan responses show that we’re okay with that, as a community. We’re okay with barriers to entry. Well, I’m not. And I want more people NOT to be. Because 5E is a good game, but we’re settling for a bad experience and doing more work than we have to. And that’s only going to make it easier for WotC to continue to ignore the play experience.