Dispatch III: “Onion Statblocks for Monsters”

A short one – dispatches are just short meandering posts that are pretty informal.

Recently, I’ve been working on monsters for my own game, The Odd & the Wild, and my own setting, The Dawn State.

Astute readers will recognize some of the sourcebooks used to generate this, haha.

But I wanted to talk a bit about what I call “Onion Statblocks” – it’s a borrowed idea from lumpleygames, so if you want to check that out, you should. But Vincent Baker applies it to Powered by the Apocalypse system design, whereas I apply it to monster stat blocks, so we’ve got some differences.

If you don’t want to check out PbtA principles, the long and short of it is this: I make the stat-block with an eye on simplicity that collapses inward, complexity that expands outward. If you want to use a stat block, the amount of space your eye has to travel increases as you become willing to run more complex versions of the same monster.

Allow me to provide some examples.

So, these are some of the stat blocks. You’ll see that they’re syncretic – and I can even break down, somewhat, which ideas come from which systems. The lumping of the most important stats in a single line is taken from Unity by Zensara Studios, as well as CaelReader’s recent work on 5E monsters on the Discord of Many Things. The inclusion of both ascending and descending AC is taken from Monstrosities by Frog God Games and Old School Essentials by Necrotic Gnome. I have Shadow of the Demon Lord-style (modern, recognizable) attack presentation, but I also borrow from ACKS in how the attack effects are presented.

Smells and sounds are inspired by Veins of the Earth by Patrick Stuart, but were further refined by an acquaintance of mine from the 5e Homebrewing community, thewickling. Organization is taken from the Monstrous Manual for AD&D 2e, and Instincts and Desires were taken from Dungeon World by Adam Koebel and Sage LaTorra.

There are a lot of giants whose shoulders I stand upon for these humble monster stat blocks…and perhaps the most subtle giant is that of Vincent Baker and his post on Concentric Design, or on thinking of design like layers of an onion. Here’s how it works.

Let us say you’re a new GM who is still trying to get the grip of like, how an encounter even works. Well, keep your eyes to the top of the block then. Box 1 can be all that your eyes reference, and you’ll be just fine. Yes, your gargoyles will miss out on the ambush tactics. Yes, other monsters you run will be “simple” without their special abilities. But your players will still enjoy your running, and you will be able to keep a relatively low cognitive load. Heck, even if you’re experienced, you might “collapse” your monsters down, mentally, to Box 1 on a day when you’re just a bit down, or exhausted, or just to deal with running, say, 10 different monster types all at once.

Say you’re comfortable with Box 1 and want to make monsters more interesting. Okay, expand outward to Box 2. Now your monsters have special abilities. A whole new layer of tactics and strategy is opened up to you, and your eyes are still roaming the same top-half of the stat block. There are no bits of information you have to skip over in doing so.

Now, we want to add some texture in. The bottom stuff about Behavior influences our broader understanding of strategy, motivations, and the like…but maybe that’s too large a jump for your particular dungeon, adventure, or whatever. You just want texture. Well, the Onion Statblock has you covered – expand outward to Box 3, and now you’ve got smells and sounds – presumably you can come up with how the gargoyle looks on your own. In an official monster manual (a.k.a. if I had the money to commission tons of art) you’d also have artwork to help with this. Do you notice that your players don’t really care for the more detailed explanations, or that you’re starting to slow down a lot as a GM because you have more to keep track of? Collapse inward to Box 2.

And finally, of course, if you’re using this to seed a hex-crawl, to prepare monster lairs, and if you want to understand what motivates monsters (at least a sampling of what motivates them at least), you can expand outward to Box 4.

I’ve been laying all these out in a very formal manner, but in actual practice…it’s very fluid. You’re not mentally going, “oh, I better draw a colored box for each monster in my head for Box 3” or whatever – you’re just letting your eyes wander further downward the more detail you want to include, or keeping your eyes closer to the top if you judge that to be unnecessary. It really helps when the information design of the monster allows you to do this. And I’d argue that all monsters in all systems would benefit from this sort of concentric, “onion-like” design.

Even if you don’t do layout work, and just want to jot down some monster notes…try thinking about what parts of a monster you use first, what parts your use often, and what parts you use least, or sparingly…and reorganize the monster stat block in that way. Do it for a few monsters, and you’ll immediately notice that all of your campaigns are just easier to run. That’s the power of information design in an analog hobby like ours. We don’t have computers running it all…just our eyes. So make your eyes’ job easier, yeah?

That’s all from me. I’ll see y’all next time. Toodles.

One thought on “Dispatch III: “Onion Statblocks for Monsters”

  1. This is the type of stuff I expect when running a 5e game. I have largely stopped because the statblocks are cumbersome. This is an _excellent_ solution? redesign? that I’d like see applied with a republished MM.


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