I was browsing through some forums tonight and ran across a post asking how to convert monsters from the first 4e Monster Manual in order to make them compatible with the changes made in 4e Monster Manual III.
First off, let me tell you about something I discovered in the process. One of the responses included the picture to the left. As you can see, it is a cheat sheet for creating 4e monsters on the fly, and has all the pertinent information contained within a business card. That’s a handy little way to put together all that info.
At the bottom of the card, it referred to blogofholding.com, presumable the creator of the card. Not having heard of them before, I went to check out the site. After a bit of searching, I discovered an article titled “Monster Manual 3 on a Business Card“. They are indeed the creator of the card and the related article was an interesting read.
Creating Monsters on the Fly
All DMs, regardless of the system they are using, should become proficient with creating monsters on the fly, and doing so easily and smoothly in order to give the impression the encounter was fully prepared well in advance. Using a cheat sheet (as shown above) is a handy method of doing that.
I’m a huge fan of having things make sense wherever possible. I think a logical world promotes the immersive feel of the fantasy environment. To that end, I feel that a certain amount of standardization is necessary in many things. Monsters are a great example. I hate it when monster stats seem to be pulled out of thin air. Monsters, like PCs, should have definite rules governing their creation.
In fact, my monster database is set up in such a way that I can create a new monster simply by entering a level, a role (brute, soldier, ranged, etc), and a size. With these three pieces of information I can generate basic stats that offer a standardized creature. As additional information is entered (such as checking: Leader, Solo, Elite, or Minion), that information is incorporated to individualize the monster. Standard abilities, defenses, skills, and other stats are automatically generated.
Monsters, again like PCs, should also be individuals. Standardization is important, but should be used as a baseline. All monsters of the same level should present a similar threat level. Standardization can offer that. However, I certainly don’t want every monster of the same level to have identical stats. Diverse encounters, and monsters with unusual abilities, are what keep combat interesting.
Going back to my database again as an example… Minimal information will generate a standardized creature. I don’t actually want a standard creature every time. I want each one to be unique. Therefore, I added additional fields that allow for adjustments to abilities, defenses, skills, etc.
This is the second step needed when creating monsters on the fly, and what turns a series of procedural steps into an art. The DM needs to have a feel for how much deviation can be made without overly affecting the threat level of the creature.
What Does All That Mean
I want every creature to be an individual. Their stats need to reflect that. However, it isn’t possible to always have every creature detailed in advance. When crazy things happen, the DM needs to improvise. Often, that means creating a monster or NPC on the spot. Having a cheat sheet, like the one above, is a very helpful resource for DMs when they need to do that.
But when I saw the post on the forums, warning bells started going off. That sort of thing, taken out of context as it was, is exactly the sort of thing new DMs latch onto and use inappropriately. If a cheat sheet is used to create standard monsters every time, then every monster becomes a clone of each other. That’s definitely not desirable, and certainly not what that sort of resource is intended for.