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In Praise of Stat Blocks

Anyone who has played 3E D&D in any of its levels of complexity may have noticed that the stat blocks for this edition are gigantic, sprawling beasts. For those who haven't seen one, imagine text blocks of 500 to 1000 words of jargon. For the unitiated they have all the carefree, whimsical appeal of, oh, reading baseball stats. From 1890.

When I first started designing for 3E, stat blocks were a pain. I resented the number of variables, their interactions, and the sheer fiddliness of setting them up. The details were an annoyance. They took time and effort away from things I valued in 2E, such as hooks, plotting, locations, flavor, and character.

So far, this isn't really news to fellow gamers, but allow me to pull back the freelance curtain for a moment. Game designers do this numerical grind daily. So eventually, some bright designer or editor at WotC got sick of the number-crunching part of the job, also called "stat block hell". That clever person built an Excel spreadsheet to automate the process; I've seen at least three versions of this multi-tabbed spreadsheet designed by Hasbro. They specifically track monster and NPC variables during design to enforce design rules that may or may not be written down elsewhere. Yes, Hasbro makes and updates official spreadsheets to keep track of this stuff. In fact, editors commonly ask for a "show your work" file with freelance turnovers, to confirm the arithmetic. On the scale of story vs mechanics in the great RPG spectrum, the needle is pretty much pegged on the mechanics side right now.

Since I get paid for game design, I have no cause to complain about this. The new game is what it is, and in time I learned to love the stat blocks because they built in details that otherwise ate up descriptive text, and they standardized repeated elements with their shorthand. Working the mechanics takes up more design time in 3E, but there's still enough time for character, plot, and world work. If I get bored with pushing numbers, I can go write fiction for a while. Or, of course, I can find a tool that makes those Official Hasbro spreadsheets look weak. It turns out that (duh!) the fans might not want to devote too much effort to throwing together a couple of villains either. They can wing it all the time and ignore the finer points (synergy bonuses!). For some, slapping prestige classes and templates onto every Big Boss might be part of the fun of being DM. Those who don't care about the mechanics as deeply just ignore them. Gamers took the same approach to the encumbrance rules in 1E.

Now, there's a quick fix. Starting last year, David Jones and some volunteers have programed NPC Designer. Those of you who remember Jamie Buck's NPC Generator will be amazed at how much better this is. Not only does it offer far more power and flexibility, but Jones and team have been very responsive to suggestions for improvement. For instance, I asked them to add cleric domains to the Gold version, and 24 hours later, there they were. As a result, these days, I do love me the stat blocks. NPC Designer lets me fix a foundation to layer a prestige class on top of, it generates class level blocks that I can add on top of standard MM entries, and it even adds templates, specific feats, minimum skill ranks, and wearable magic items.

It includes classes, races, feats, and spells for Malhavoc Press's Arcana Evolved materials, and an Iron Heroes expansion is planned. All of the SRD material is included (non-OGL WotC products are not). It's saved me literally hundreds of hours of rote, mindless design. By freeing me up to tweak the NPC results the tool provides, I can again devote more time to other design questions.

For Windows users, NPC Designer offers a way out of stat block hell (Mac users, it's time to switch!). It is well worth the minimal $15 price. (There's also a demo and a reduced-function version. Trust me, you want the full version.) The hardest part about this software is the installation, which requires adding a registry key.

Whether you are a DM short on time or a freelancer on a deadline, I recommend NPC Designer highly.


( 3 sutras — Your wisdom )
Jan. 31st, 2006 06:27 pm (UTC)
Thanks for the heads up.

Does it generate stats in the most current WotC statblock format?

Does it in any way ease the task of compiling a show your work file?
Feb. 1st, 2006 04:51 am (UTC)
Yes, it generates stats in very close to the current WotC statblock format. Where it differs, it tends to be in additions, such as a "Personal Info" line that includes age, profession, weight, hair color, etc. It also does add in some spell DCs that are not WotC-standard.

You can choose from the following:
  • Official Standard Format
  • Detailed Standard Format
  • Unofficial Mini Format
  • Detailed and Mini Format
  • DM Genie Import Format
  • Fantasy Grounds Import Format
  • Combined Format

The standard format includes some "show your work" elements for skills (breaking down ranks, feats, racial, familiars, and ability score — not sure about synergy bonuses). It doesn't show work for saves, but for me, skills are much of the battle.

It generates treasures, but they're random and almost always get pitched or revised.

The ability to tweak feats, domains, skill ranks, ability scores, and so on for a particular look and feel is amazing. Unlike other NPC software, you can steer it toward what you really want, so you don't undo much of the work with heavy revisions. The deeper I go into menus and options, the more impressed I am.

Tell 'em I sent ya. :)
(Deleted comment)
Feb. 1st, 2006 04:52 am (UTC)
Yeah, the changed the rules for formatting at least twice in the last couple years, for both monster entries and general stat blocks.

But you'd pick it up again in a hurry.
( 3 sutras — Your wisdom )

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