Yesterday I put Pathfinder Bestiary 2 in my shopping cart. I need to wait for a few Christmas bills to get paid before I order it, though. I also happened to meet with one of my players for coffee, and we got to talking about monster books. He is not a fan of them. Why? Waste of money, he says, because he only uses some of the monsters out of any given book. I, on the other hand, gobble up monster books. I love’em. More please.
All this got me to thinking about the new digital world we live in. My friend has a good point. I have only used a fraction of the monsters from Bestiary 1. I have actually used more community crafted monsters from the Pathfinder SRD. Monster books feel so limiting now.
What would my idea of a perfect monster manual in 2011 be, then?
To start, I don’t want just a book anymore, I want a GMing solution. I want a tool that inspires my games, helps me plan better and faster, and helps drip more flavour into my sessions.
Part 1: killer searching and selection
Pretend I am shopping, but instead of buying goods and services, I am selecting monsters and foes for the next game. Following are my wishlist items. As a boon to publishers and designers, these online tools would not only help existing customers, but find you new ones too if you made the tools public. The tools make your book more valuable without giving away its content.
The most basic thing monster publishers can do for me is offer more ways to search for monsters. Some books do offer this, which is great. However, likely due to print publishing limitations, I do not seem to get the full array of information I need.
For example, I will get a listing of monsters sorted by challenge rating along with page numbers. Great!
Then I will get a listing of monsters grouped by type – undead, humanoid, aquatic, and so on. This listing is valuable, but never offers page numbers. It is always faster to find a page referenced by number than it is by monster name. So I need a listing of monsters grouped by type and sub-type that also offers page numbers – too much for a printed book but easy to offer online.
Then there’s monsters sorted by sub-types, climate, playable as PCs, make great villains, can speak for roleplaying encounters, and so on – all good fodder for listings.
Publishers of any multi-monster book should offer this online by default. It does not give up their content for free (you still need the book for the monster entry) and allows GMs to find monsters sorted in the way they need at the moment.
A monster recommendation engine
This blog offers you related posts you might also like at the end of every article. So too should a monster manual. “If you found this screeching ball of acidic fury fun to play, then you might also like….”
This would use up valuable space too expensive in a print book, but is a perfect companion tool online to help customers out.
When I pick a monster for new encounter, give me a list of additional monsters that would work well together. Dragon Magazine ran this series when D&D 3.5 first came out. Lethal combos to provide greater challenge for buffed and optimized PCs. Interesting combos to challenge multiple types of PCs. Fun combos that work together like Kato and Green Hornet.
Similar to “You might also like,” you could name this online listing, “Works well with others.” It gives me the opportunity to spruce up solo monster encounters and change up combats involving repeat creatures. It offers the harried GM a small tactical advantage. For location design, you can use this tool to stock nearby regions with some additional logic and symmetry.
Lets go beyond a one dimensional list. Offer me tags I can click on to create a compound search to help me find the perfect monsters. For example, let me click on Swamp, Tough Critter and Intelligent to pull up a list of available monsters.
Part 2: modding and crowdsourcing
My ideal monster manual could be modified and could tap into the brilliance of all us gamers. Such a monster manual becomes more valuable after publication. How cool is that?
Let me make a copy of a monster’s stat block online, change a couple of things and call it something new. This classic GM advice works well to throw off meta-gaming and veteran players who have memorized your monster collection.
It also serves world builders and designers well by offering regional variants and other flavourful tweaks.
And it would allow GMs like me, who want to make players hate their foes with a passion, to run PCs repeatedly up against critters of the same type without making combat stale. Think draconians from Dragonlance here.
Further, allow fans to upload or save re-skins to your catalogue to expand its offering. The re-skinning process means any GM of any skill level or comfort zone can add new critters to your monster resource.
Publishers will want to do some moderating and curating, or offer their fans tools to do this themselves.
Suddenly, my $30 investment for 200 monsters (15 cents per critter) has become an investment in 1000+ monsters.
Clever publishers will offer incentives for the best re-skins to help motivate and surface quality designs over time.
Factor in my PCs’ abilities and weaknesses. I do not need a character generator, just a way to tell the engine what capabilities my group has so it can spit out suggestions of monsters that would offer challenging encounters.
Worried about building a smart AI to do this? Instead, offer the community a way to enter tactics and gameplay reports per monster entry. Whether you offer the monster behind a customer login, or offer a monster shell entry, like a wiki, while keeping the art and stats locked in the product, you can still offer a way for fans to help each other with tactical advice.
Use tags so tactical entries can be sorted and filtered. This allows the system to accommodate future rules expansions, such as new magic items or PC classes to contend with.
What is the best defense for this critter? What is it best opening move at range? What should it do if it detects the PCs two rounds before they detect it? What should a GM do if it gets surrounded?
Recommended treasure gets old with repeat encounters. Randomized treasure works well. Best is to let fans create cool treasure packages for other fans to peruse, along with flavour text.
This time the giant frog has a gem in its gut. Next time some coins in a dung pile. Third time a partially digested hand with a ring on it. Fourth time its skin has a rare and valuable pattern.
Lairs, hazards and traps
Offer me clever environmental combos to make encounters more interesting or difficult. Let fans submit lair designs or offer fun trap or battlemap hazard ideas.
Most of us are not good mappers. So let us take photos of our battlemats, tile layouts, and game tables and upload them so we can see how others have crafted their lairs and battle grounds.
Part 3: My monster report
I have been shopping around now for a few minutes. I have searched and filtered and found my perfect monster for next session – plus a few others (hey, what can I say, they were impulse buys). I have selected some good tactical advice, treasure and trap suggestions. I also liked some alternative flavour text somebody wrote and added that in.
I click Checkout. And I get my report.
It is a thing of beauty. A PDF or online record, it offers all the stats I need to run an encounter. The information has been arranged for smooth encounter play and optimized GMing reference, not efficient print page layout.
And all my related rules are there. Monster type rules, sub-type rules, feats, powers and all. It is a keyword extravaganza.
My monster manual is more than a static list of monster entries now. It is part advice, part customization engine and part community.
What would your perfect monster manual be?