Friday, September 28, 2012

Useful Accessories: The Monster Card

When I started designing my own monsters for Dungeons & Dragons, I would write them up in the standard monster block format. The Fourth Edition monster block is one of the best presentations of monster "crunch" I had seen in my history of playing Dungeons & Dragons. It gave the Dungeon Master everything mechanically necessary to run the monster in and out of combat. With the introduction of the revised stat block in Monster Manual 3, which arranged abilities by action type, it became an even easier experience.

Despite the 4E monster block being the best presentation I had seen for monster information, I still found it less than optimal. I would often "lose" powers as a Dungeon Master, forgetting that certain creatures did certain things. Granted, some of that would be alleviated if only I prepared better, but I felt that the monster block becomes less useful the more complicated the monster is. Since layout and design has become one of my things, I thought I would take a stab at it.
Because who doesn't love a bugbear! I think
I shall refer to them as hugbears!
Designing the Card

When I started, I compared the information in the monster block and compared it to what was on the character card. Some of the information was not necessary to retain, such as the extensive skill list, healing surges, or anything that is player specific. This freed up space on the front of the card. Of course, for some monsters, I began to realize that it freed up too much space. Monsters without any special quirks or traits end up with quite a bit of empty space. In contrast, monsters with lots of traits have to fit them into a tight space.
I realize that an Ogre does not have a lot going on,
but this presentation just feels vacant.
After some consideration, I realized that it would be a good idea to shrink the card from 8.5x5.5 to something more manageable. I originally hoped to go with 3x5 size because a lot of good D&D work is done on 3x5 cards. Unfortunately, it was just too small for what I wanted to do. I went to the next natural card size, 4x6, and tried to see if it worked. As it ends up, the power blocks I use on character cards are 2.5 inches wide which meant that they fit pretty well on a 6 inch card without a lot of extra fuss.
Simple layout, easy to read. So simple that
even an orc could use it!
Of course, monsters with only a few powers fit just fine. In some cases, I found myself making up new powers just to fill space on the card. For example, the Bugbear Thug seemed a bit bare as written so I threw in an encounter power that allowed him to get combat advantage against an isolated foe. Generally, monsters have two or three powers so it leaves a lot of space to marvel at whatever art I have selected.
Solo monsters have a lot going on.
Organizing the powers posed a question. This probably only came up because the first card I did was for the Iaijutsu Master. I had initially considered organizing powers by when they could be used (Katana sheathed or Katana drawn). However, after experimenting around, I decided to keep the organization akin to the monster block format. Powers were separated by what type of action they required (Standard, Move, Minor) or if they were a triggered action.

Recharge powers work well in this format. Just ask Duulgrin!
In the end, the layout proved to be pretty simple and not all that different than the layout of the typical D&D monster stat block. The one feature I really liked was the presence of check blocks for encounter powers and recharge powers. As a Dungeon Master, I often forger to properly track that. Truthfully, this is another one of those cases where I just do something badly and I have created a fancy way to compensate for it but, either way, it works out better.

Field Testing the Monster Card

My first use of the newly created monster cards was on a weekend in which I had both my Neverwinter campaign and my Waterdeep campaign, back-to-back. I created Duulgrin the Warchief and chose a few simple monsters to back him up as part of his gang. I had monster cards for each of the enemies the Neverwinter party would face. One warchief, one bugbear thug, and three orc raiders fought the player characters and I tracked it all using three laminated 4x6 cards.

From my perspective, the card was easier to reference than printed monster blocks or referencing a digital device, the methods I had used previously. I feel that as I have more, different types of monsters in battle, the monster card becomes more useful as they are easily identifiable from one another, unlike a monster block. Flipping through two or three sheets of paper can be a bit confusing at times so having it laid out in a fancy 4x6 format was nice. That being said, I would not say that the advantage of using the monster card surpassed the time, effort, and resources required in creating the card for a single battle.
Monstrous gangers ready for action!
Of course, my opinion changed the next day when the Waterdeep adventuring group ran into a group of monstrous thugs employed by the Xanathar. Using the same three monster cards, I was able to quickly throw together an encounter and I had cards at the ready. Granted, re-using material is not a new concept. What I liked was the idea of having a larger set of cards and being able to pull out particular monsters as necessary. I can imagine having a deck of some 50 to 100 cards and choosing monsters much more "on the fly" then would be possible in the current format.

Honestly, the whole deck of monsters reminds me a bit of some old DM'ing tricks I remember reading about back in the 1980s. Keeping a set of 3x5 cards with NPCs, pre-set encounters, and so forth was a tip I remember getting out of some Dungeon Masters guide or another. Some companies, like Paizo, have even tried that sort of thing with various decks of cards and things.

Monster Cards for the Future

As somebody who runs multiple Dungeons & Dragons games, I like the idea of slowly building up a deck of monster cards. Being able to quickly throw together a battle with monster tracking tools that I can continue to use and re-use is convenient. As a DM who has re-used monsters two or three times, having these kind of accessories around just makes sense.

The biggest problem I see with doing this is the inevitable problem of Fourth Edition scaling. After a few levels, a 4th or 5th level monster will not be particularly useful anymore. I suppose, in that regard, I have to complain about Fourth Edition power scaling. There are ways around it but it really is too bad that it's something that needs to be dealt with at all.


  1. These seem pretty neat... though from a usability perspective, it seems like if you had a large stack/box of them they'd be easier to flip through if you pushed the monster name to the top of the card. (Or reprinted the name/level/role in smaller text in a block in the corner on both sides, or something.)

    1. That's an interesting point. I suppose I had not thought of that.

      Of course, I suppose I would maintain an index of all of the cards I have and would use that to find the right critter. Or something.

  2. I gathered a lot of my minis collection in the 3.5e era, when all the minis came with a stat card. The card had skirmish info on one side, and RPG stats on the other. It was actually pretty awesome.

    A card/token presentation for a Monster Manual (I think the Vaults actually almost do this) would be practically perfect. You get a booklet with fluff, a deck of cards with crunch and page number for fluff reference, and a tub of tokens. Hrm... listening, WotC/Paizo?

    1. I am mostly certain that WotC/Paizo does not read my blog. :-)

      I actually prefer stand up tokens, like the ones Paizo does, to the flat tokens that WotC does. It's easy to lose track of the flat tokens, in my opinion.

      As I put together more of them, I find certain aspects of the monster card quite appealing. It's not perfect, but it has been doing me well so far.