Tuesday, 10 February 2009

Lessons Learned from Out of the Pit

In case you're not familiar, Out of the Pit is the Monster Manual equivalent for Fighting Fantasy. The series was mostly known as choose-your-own-adventure-style gamebooks such as The Warlock of Firetop Mountain and Deathtrap Dungeon, but there was a short series of books branching out into a basic RPG system. I'm yet to get my hands on the other books in that series, but my lust for them is a separate topic.

Out of the Pit was probably the first thing resembling an RPG book I owned. I borrowed it from a friend shortly after getting into Warhammer Fantasy Battles and long before I delved into D&D. Back then, like so many of us at that age, I was mostly interested in reading about monsters and looking at pictures of them. Back then I didn't really give much thought to things like mechanics, random encounter tables or designing locations.

Years of RPG delving later what can this still greatly enjoyable book teach me about gaming?

Limitation Breeds Creativity - Part 1

I love this little mantra and can't recommend it enough. In this case I'm talking about how monsters are largely represented by just two stats, their Skill and Stamina, the majority falling between 5-9 in these scores. Monsters to 2 Damage as standard and those that do 1 or 3 instead will have it noted in their text. There's no talk of movement speeds, specific skills or perception abilities here (although Intelligence does get a mention). Mechanically it doesn't even seem to matter if the orc is carrying an axe, sword or spear. My initial childhood response to all this was bafflement, as surely there must be monsters that are pretty much mechanically identical. So what's the point of making them different?

But they were different. Every monster had at least two paragraphs talking about their behaviour, how they'd fight and often detailing a special rule. This is where a good GM will make the monsters shine. Slykks and Wild Hill men, for example, were almost identical in mechanics, only differing in Intelligence and the Wild Men having a missile attack. The real difference was that the Slykks were described as being unable to unite themselves because of their different colourings (gee, subtle commentary) and always fighting civil wars, as well as being ravaged by local predators such as giant leeches.

Wild Hill Men also had to deal with predators but instead of fighting each other they banded together for protection. Characters could easily find ways to get troublesome Slykks to work against each other or even earn the trust of one colour by presenting heads from another. Their proud leaders are also described as wearing luxuries stolen from humans. Seems like this is an enemy you could really cut a deal with and then get rid of later. Wild Hill Men don't seem like they'd be too easy to sway in this way and are described as being much less open to outsiders.

Look at the mechanically and thematically similar Neanderthal and the text says that they are easily amazed by real magic, something that wouldn't do much to impress Slykks or Wild Hill Men. When we have all these useful nugget do we really need to know the Slykk's Charisma score or their specific skills?

Limitation Breeds Creativity - Part 2

Now for a different point of view. I may have sounded as if I love monsters being mechanically identical, but I don't. I prefer it, in many ways, to D&D 3e style half-page stat blocks and lists of spell-like abilities. What I genuinely like is the concept behind 4e monsters. I'm talking about striving to make fighting Orcs feel very different to fighting Gnolls or Hobgoblins rather than making one of them hit more often, one of them hit harder and one of them take more hits to kill. This is something I can really get behind and is something I feel works really well with my previous point.

Indeed, in my latest design project I've strived to have monsters be limited to the very few stats and skills that they need and then have every one of them possess a special ability that gives them a unique feel. To me this is where the sweet-spot lies in a combat heavy game where you're going to fight lots of different types of opponent. Give me a few important numbers, a special ability and flavour text that tells me where this monster is found, why I'd want to fight it, who the monster will work with and how they behave.

And this very nicely foreshadows an upcoming post about my Fighting Fantasy inspired game. The game I never thought I'd write. Stay tuned.


  1. I agree that less is often more. I'd even argue that every creature having a special ability is a step too far...for one thing it sets up too easy a pattern where players start wondering "What's this creature's special ability?" I think that most of the time it's enough that the creature has a preferred set of tactics, locale, weapon, or even attitude. If Goblins always run unless they have overwhelming numbers or are attacking from ambush, and Gnolls always fight to the last creature never asking or giving quarter, that's more than sufficient even if they're stat-wise identical. It's probably more memorable than something like Goblins get an additional gang-up bonus of X if at least 4 are attacking a target, while Gnolls never suffer Wound penalties.

  2. You make a good point! As with everything moderation is key. I know I wouldn't want character facing off against four different types of monster in one go all with their own special abilities active at once.
    Something I'm continuing to give thought as I write monsters for my latest project.

  3. I knew i had a good reason for leaving the extra stats out of my notecards when copying encounters..

    I love those old books. I must have had most of them. Those were the days... *floats off to dreamland*