Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Five Rules of Monster Design, Iran, Riddle of the Sands

Howdy, folks! Sorry for the delay between posts; we were entertaining company this weekend, and it’s been a couple of days since I had a chance to pound out the next Atomic Dragon Battleship. My next one will probably be a couple of days late, too – I’m heading down to see the Mariners at spring training next week. Arizona is looking mighty good these days!

Gaming: For no particular reason, I think I’ll philosophize about D&D monster design for a bit today. Over the course of my career with TSR/Wizards of the Coast, I designed hundreds of monsters in various editions of the game. A few have become “classics” of the game, and people seem to think of them as critters that have always been around. Most have turned out to be fairly forgettable, serving as interesting page-filler in this sourcebook or that. I wish I could predict which monsters will “take” and which won’t, but it’s tougher than it looks. I’m the writer behind the eladrin, the rilmani, the canoloth, and the keeper. I’m also the guy behind the kaisharga, the magma golem, the storm devil, and the cobalt dragon. They all seemed like great ideas at the time.
Anyway, here’s some advice for would-be monster builders, five broad rules that should make your monster something worthy of confronting the boldest heroes:

1.      Monsters should create expectations and meet them. When you see a monster, you should be able to make good guesses about what it does. A player who’s thinking about the tail spikes or glowing eyes on your monster and wondering how your monster is going to use them is a player who is engaged with the game. He’s immersed, and thinking like his character would think. Monsters should carry visual cues or observable behaviors that tip off canny players about what’s coming next—real surprises or “gotchas!” should be unusual.

2.      Monsters should belong in the game. If you have an idea for a monster and you’re surprised that nothing like that is in the game already, you have a monster with good resonance. Sometimes it’s as simple as finding a scrap of real-world mythology no one else has done something with yet, or making a D&D monster out of an inspiration from film or fiction. Sometimes it’s based in game mechanics—you might notice a type of attack that isn’t used very much and think of a creature that would make use of it.

3.      Monsters shouldn’t be like other monsters. Most monster concepts are pretty small pieces of real estate; you shouldn’t try to build multiple houses on that one lot. For example, the game doesn’t need an ice giant when it’s already got a frost giant, or a temple mummy when it already has a mummy, or nosferatu when it already has a vampire. Many designers give in to the urge to design the “right” version of a monster that’s already in the game; I have done so myself even though I should know better. But your monster is probably not going to be particularly memorable if it’s just borrowing the look and reputation of something else.

4.      Monsters need offense, defense, and utility. One of my rules of thumb in monster design was to give a monster a mode of attack, a mode of defense, and a mode of movement or noncombat ability that works within the broad monster concept. Not all creatures need all three, of course; if you’re building a humanoid race you might not want them all to have a special magical attack. But maybe the race has a signature weapon, or uses a poison with a special effect, or possesses a racial immunity to some effect that makes sense for your concept. In any event, this is how I usually finish a monster: By looking over what I’ve got and asking myself, “Did I cover offense? Defense? And some sort of movement or utility?”

5.      Monsters need an Achilles heel. Every monster should have a specific weakness, preferably one that can be observed or intuited by clever players. A weakness can be as simple as a crummy AC, one terrible save category, or a lack of ability to deal with ranged attackers—it doesn’t have to be “slowed by cold damage” or “takes double damage from Bohemian ear-spoons.” Don’t try to patch all the holes; leave something for the players to discover and exploit.

So, there you go: Five broad guidelines for building monsters. There are many small details such as figuring particular numbers in various editions or choosing the right abilities, but the important thing is getting the concept right at the start. Everything after that is implementation.

Politics/Current Events: I’m something of an armchair strategist. And like armchair strategists everywhere I have been following the story of Iran’s development of nuclear weapons. In recent days various sources such as The Atlantic, Forbes, and Stratfor have reported that the odds of the US going to war with Iran in the next 6 months are now hovering around 50-50. Heck, Las Vegas gives the odds as 3 to 2 in favor. (Do people really bet on stuff like that?) I am pessimistic about the chances; I frankly don’t see how a war in the Middle East can be avoided. At this point, one of three things will happen:

1.      Israel will launch a military strike to disrupt the Iranian nuclear program.

2.      Israel and the United States together will launch a strike.

3.      No one will strike Iran, in which case Iran becomes a nuclear power.

There is no option 4. Economic sanctions or diplomatic pressure can’t convince the mullahs and Revolutionary Guard to change course, since at this point the easiest way for the Iranians to bring sanctions and pressure to an end is to finish their program. Cases in point: Pakistan, India, and to a lesser extent North Korea.

Here’s the depressing part: I don’t think there’s an option 3, either. Israel feels that it HAS to ensure that Iran does not develop nuclear weapons. That’s because the Israelis have no evidence that Iran would behave as a “rational actor” with their nuclear weapons. Remember, Iran has been actively supplying Israel’s enemies (Hezbollah and Syria for a start) with arms and financial support for decades, and its rulers have called for the destruction of Israel on many occasions. What if Iran cannot be deterred by the possibility of mutual destruction? The Israelis can’t take the chance that might be true. In addition, Israel’s history points toward acceptance of preemptive war. So Israel is going to hit Iran, because it is the least bad option for them.

All options are bad at this point, really, but sometimes an enemy puts you in that spot. Aiding Israel may turn out to the least bad option we have, as well. Watch the moonless nights this spring: If something starts, it’ll start around March 21st, or 4 weeks after that, or 4 weeks after that.

The Finer Things: I finally got around to reading a book that may be one of the most important fiction works of the 20th century: The Riddle of the Sands, by Erskine Childers. While The Riddle of the Sands is a very engaging espionage novel (one of the first of the genre, really) and has significant literary merit on that basis alone, the reason it’s important is that it was The Hunt for Red October of its time. The book was published in England in 1903, and it served as a dire warning about the potential for war with Germany. In its own way, Sands hardened English resolve to meet the mounting challenge of Germany’s naval building program. Childers looked at the North Sea and saw no English naval bases, no squadrons of warships, and no shore defenses against a surprise attack.  Within months of the book’s publication, the Admiralty announced plans to establish major bases at Rosyth and Scapa Flow, and the strategic relocation of the Home Fleet to the North Sea began to take shape. Anyway, The Riddle of the Sands is a darned good read as well as a fascinating piece of history. Check it out when you get the chance.


  1. I think you are probably right on Iran. I'm still hoping for them see sense, back down, take the nice deals on the table. But it certainly doesn't appear likely at this point.

    The questions I think about are:

    - What form will the conflict take? Is this a targeted strike to take out Iran's nuclear infrastructure? If so, how intensive, widespread and prolonged should the effort be?

    - And realistically what can be achieved: how long and by how much can we expect Iran to be set back?

    - And if it's a surgical strike, SHOULD the US get in, or just give Israel the wink and let them take the heat? What are the pros and cons?

    - Or does a strike just prolong things, and maybe not by too much? Is a full-bore regime change war (presumably *much* more destructive, costly and intense than Iraq) an option? I'm not sure anyone has the political will for it, even if it were the right thing. But if we set Iran's program back by, say, 2 years but also further radicalize and unify them against us, where are we then...?

  2. Iran has put themselves in a win-win scenario in their eyes. I believe Iran is intentionally baiting Israel. Iran WANTS a war. They believe if they can bait Israel into attacking them, the Middle East will explode and they feel they will have moral justification in the eyes of much of the international community to finally see their dream of wiping Israel off the map realized. On the other hand, if no one does anything to stop them, they achieve nuclear status showing how they boldly defied the west. Plus they have nukes that they can surreptitiously hand off to some radical group to act as their proxy and sneak them into Israel.

    I hope I'm wrong and that its just a crazy conspiracy theory.

  3. I saw a very cogent summary of the situation posted yesterday in an opinion piece. Here's a link:


    Scrivner: I think you're right. And I think Iran's best play is to NOT retaliate by mining the Straits of Hormuz or unleashing a hurricane of terrorism. I think they'll bait Israel into attacking, while suckering the US with promises of returning to negotiations. And if Israel strikes without us and Iran does NOT do anything to provoke the US, it will be very, very difficult for Obama (or any US president) to join in. In fact, I'll bet that we'll hear calls from our own media/pundits to STOP Israel's "aggression" in that scenario.

    Here's what really scares me about that scenario: I think the Israelis may have reason to believe they have a justified first use of nuclear weapons. If there's no other way to stop Iran's program, would they use nuclear weapons? If they can't do it with conventional arms and the US is sitting on the sideline, they just might. Israel views an Iranian bomb as an existential threat, and they're going to be damned by the international community anyway. What have they got to lose?

  4. another very relevant article that sounds similar themes


    scary stuff...

  5. Unknown: Wow. Your linked article covers EXACTLY what's in my mind on this topic. It seems Ron Rosenbaum and I are on the same page. Thanks for the link; I'm glad to see that I'm not the only one who's been thinking about the unthinkable.