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I had a discussion during Winter Vantasy: The Return with Erik with respect to Wizards of the Coast’s (“WotC”) new stat block format. The new stat block has some rearranging of material, but that wasn’t the subject matter of the conversation. We were discussing the removal of spells and spell-like abilities from the new WotC stat block. Erik doesn’t like it and referenced my concerns about the complexity within the current stat block format. Erik referred to my position as “ridiculous,” but WotC’s switch proves that Erik’s view is the minority one. I didn’t have a large enough internet footprint to prove it on my own. More importantly, however, Erik understandably mischaracterized my position. I wasn’t saying that the Monster Manual got it wrong. In fact, quite the opposite. I’ve mentioned before that I think it’s the best RPG bestiary I’ve ever read. My concern is that WotC didn’t supplement it properly, then attempted to shut me down when I did.
Important Note: I’m not 100% certain that WotC’s stat blocks have been changed in the way we’re all assuming they were. I’ve seen a sample of the new format (below), but it was for a low level creature whose stat block would be simple anyway. Thus, this discussion comes from a place of partial ignorance, and I may get some things wrong. Take this all with a grain of salt.
When you look at a complex stat block (e.g., Mummy Lord), unless you have a truly eidetic or nearly eidetic memory, there’s no way you can effectively run that stat block as written, especially if the encounter is a combat encounter. There’s too much going on, and what we’ve all seen (and I actually got Erik to admit to an extent!) is that every DM just gives up and resorts to using the common spells they all know: Magic Missile, Hold Person, Fireball, Counterspell, etc., even for higher spell slots. Why? Well, first you must figure out which sourcebook contains the spell in order to look it up. If it isn’t a Player’s Handbook spell, you may not know, so you wind up searching through a couple of books before finding the correct one. Second, you must read the spell, which could take a while if it’s not one like Fly. If it were a spell like Fly, you may not have to look it up at all, which is why Fly is one of the spells to which DMs eventually resort. Something like Control Weather has far too much going on for most people to memorize. Erik is sometimes willing to do that, but there are very few players whose eyes don’t glaze over with boredom during that long process. Moreover, if you’re playing with a real-world time limit (e.g., convention play), that’s certainly not time you have to waste. At the table, the spell’s details should be right in front of your face. I don’t understand why anyone would disagree, and those with eidetic memories shouldn’t care one way or the other.
That said, in theory these stat blocks provide a framework for the culture of that creature. (In my second stat block/copyright post, I mathematically proved that WotC fails to do so, but that’s not relevant here.) So, the Monster Manual itself shouldn’t eliminate that complexity (I know; WotC can’t win with me), but rather use it as a framework for creating specific monsters within that cultural framework but suited to the encounter at hand. That last sentence is a tough read, so here’s an example. (I’m going from my memory, which is not eidetic.) The Couatl has both offensive and divination spells. If your encounter involved the Couatl using Detect Thoughts to aid in an interrogation, then you wouldn’t need the Couatl to have Shield. On the other hand, that position would be reversed if the Couatl were to engage in combat against the PCs (i.e., it would need Shield but I don’t think, from memory, Detect Thoughts would have value). The Monster Manual stat block provides you the spells a Couatl needs for all situations, but not every Couatl will appear in all situations. In fact, I doubt any will unless the Couatl is a PC, but a Couatl PC is clearly not what I’m talking about. For NPCs at the table, you need only the spells that that specific NPC will need in that specific encounter. Everything else muddies the water. However, it’s good that all situations are covered by the general stat block in the Monster Manual, because that’s what you use to build such table-based stat blocks.
So, in my ideal world, this is how WotC (or any game designer with sufficient resources) should approach their stat blocks. Make them as complex as WotC did in the Monster Manual, using only spell names as shorthand to make the stat block printable, but modify their online tools with check boxes allowing DMs to pick which spells and spell-like abilities appear on a final stat block at the table (whether in hard or soft copy). For that final stat block at the table, make sure that the spell descriptions are presented fully so that there’s no need to resort to multiple hardcopy resources to know details that are relevant to the combat, but at the same time make sure that the stat block isn’t cluttered with irrelevant details. If there are no online tools, provide one-stop stat blocks for all NPCs (as I did) as a PDF. They could also provide PDFs containing generic spell entries with coded placeholders such as, “Magic Missile, Atk: [L]+3+IntMod, . . . .” (or whatever it is), so that DMs could copy and paste them into their own stat blocks as needed. All my project did was the one part of that process that I could, which is something WotC didn’t do.
I fully appreciate that some (most?) game designers can’t do this. Online tools are a huge investment of time and resources they may not have, but some in the gaming community do. Game designers simply need to stay out of the way and allow the community to do that heavy lifting for them. On the other hand, WotC has both the time and resources to create this ideal that appeals to the most people, but they’re still getting it wrong, probably because there’s more profit in selling a new hardcopy (which I suspect will be very good nonetheless).
So yeah, WotC can’t win with me, but only because they’re choosing to lose. We’ll see how the final product shakes out.
Dungeons & Dragons is a trademark of Wizards of the Coast, LLC, who neither contributed to nor endorsed the contents of this post. (Okay, jackasses?)