Dissection of Pathfinder’s Monster Entries

Drider from the Pathfinder Bestiary 1One of the frequent criticisms of Dungeons and Dragons 3.0 is that it made monsters too complicated. It’s a criticism which D&D 3.5 and Pathfinder both inherited, and its one that I’ve offered some defense against in the past. However, having created several monsters of my own by now, I find that my resolve in this matter is weakening. When I’m preparing for a game, and I need unique monsters, I don’t employ an elaborate series of rules for constructing the statblock. I take my concept, write down any information which I think will be relevant to play, and that’s that. The whole process takes 5 minutes. Maybe 15 if the monster is particularly complicated, or I’m being fiddly with the mechanics.

The only time I’ve ever actually followed the rules for creating monsters is when I was preparing that monster to be posted on Papers & Pencils. That’s a total of four times in my entire GMing career: The Corpse Sewn Hekatonkheires, the Bloody Avenger, the Draugr, and the three spiders I ganked from Telecanter. Every time it was a pain in the ass which lasted at least an hour, more often two. And what, precisely do I have to show for it? Do those monsters I created according to the official rules function more elegantly? Are they balanced better? Would players even notice a difference between a creature created in 15 minutes, and one created in two hours using the official rules?

No.

If the answer to any of the above questions was ‘yes,’ would it justify the extra time investment?

No.

Night Hag from the D&D 3.X Monster ManualFunctionally, there’s very little difference between a monster  I quickly jot down, and a monster I laboriously construct using the rules. Aside from the “statistics” block of information, all the same stuff is there. What else could you even conceivably remove? In combat you need to know a creature’s defenses and offenses. Ecology might not be strictly necessary, but it has a lot of value to GMs, and takes no real time to create. The reason the official monster creation method wastes so much time is not because of the volume of information it creates, it’s because of the ridiculously precise methodology it calls for. Every monster needs to have a certain amount of HD, and based on that can have a certain number of feats and skills.The monster’s statistics, HP, AC, saving throws, attack and damage rolls, all of it needs to be cross referenced with the desired CR of the creature, and anything that is raised requires something else to be lowered in response.

Ostensibly, the hope is that all of this will help GMs predict the how challenging a monster will be. Once the process is complete, you should theoretically be able to calculate a monster’s Challenge Rating, and know what level of adventurer it is appropriate for. Following the rules will ensure you don’t create a monster so overpowered that your players get murdered, and you won’t create a monster so underpowered that your players get bored.

Kyton from the Pathfinder BestiaryFor the moment, I’m going to set aside the question of whether or not a GM should even try to create “appropriate” challenges. For myself, I prefer that my players learn to run away now and again. If they never face a battle which is beyond them, then they’ll never be forced to look beyond combat for solutions. However, I can understand and appreciate the desire to have some kind of measuring stick for the level of challenge an encounter will present.

The problem is that after all the work this system puts us through to ‘calculate’ a monster’s challenge rating, it doesn’t even work. It doesn’t work because there’s no meaningful way to take a monster’s Special Abilities and Qualities into account when you’re trying to calculate CR. There’s not even a quarter of a page in the “Monster Creation” section of the bestiary devoted to the topic, and it’s the most important one. Pick up your bestiary, flip to any monster in the book. If that monster has a CR higher than 1, a guarantee you that the most important part of the statblock is the special abilities. Of course it is! If not for special abilities, then a monster is nothing more than a pile of calculations about how hard the monster hits, and how hard it is to kill. If monsters didn’t have special abilities, then there would hardly be any point to having a Bestiary at all.

I am not making the argument that Pathfinder needs a better system for determining how special abilities influence a monster’s CR. Special abilities often bend the rules, or create entirely new mechanics. They are far too varied for any system to properly take them into account, and any system which tried would be even more complicated than the one Pathfinder already uses. The argument I am making is that the official monster creation rules don’t even succeed at the one task they’re supposedly good for: accurately estimating a monster’s CR. And even if they were, it still wouldn’t be worth the time.

A Minotaur, Artist UnknownThen there’s the “statistics” block. Here you’ll find information on the monster’s six base abilities, it’s base attack bonus, it’s CMB and CMD, the feats it has, the skills it has along with any racial modifiers, and the languages it speaks. I confess that I find most of this to be at least marginally useful. Certainly it is essential to know the combat maneuver scores of anything the players might fight. And even if I don’t need to know the bonus that a Couatl has to its survival check, I can accept that others do. But what is gained by meticulously calculating how many skill points each of these creatures receives per hit die? Is it imperative that each monster can be reverse engineered, just so others can have the satisfaction of discovering that there was indeed an internal logic at play? I remember that after I had finished with the Corpse Sewn Hekatonkheires, I realized that I had forgotten to add feats. I then felt forced to search for ways to empower a monster which I knew was already powerful enough to suit my needs.

So what’s the solution? To be frank, I don’t have one right now. As I mentioned above, I see the value in challenge rating. It provides a measuring stick, and its never bad for a GM to have a fuller understanding of how something will impact their game. But I don’t think that measuring stick is worth the eternity required to achieve even the most uncertain result. For now, I’ll resign myself to making estimates about a creature’s abilities. Perhaps at some point in the future I’ll come up with and post a new system. But, for now, I think it’s simply important to acknowledge that the current system is bad. It is broken, and should not be used.

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2 thoughts on “Dissection of Pathfinder’s Monster Entries”

  1. Regarding CR, isn’t that already encoded in XP value? Prior to Mentzer Basic, XP values were not actually even included in the monster entries; you were given a formula to calculate XP based on the number of hit dice and number of special abilities. Here is the text from Moldvay Basic (there’s a table too, but the idea should be clear):

    1) Find the number equal to a monster’s hit dice to determine the base amount of XP to award for one monster Note that any ” + ” to the hit dice counts the same (3+1 gives the same XP as 3 + 2, and so forth)

    2) Add the special abilities bonus once for each asterisk after “hit dice” in the monster description (for example, a medusa with 4* * hit dice would be worth 175 XP 75 base + 50 special + 50 special)

    3) Multiply this total XP value by the number of monsters over come to find the grand total to be awarded for that en counter (if 3 medusae were overcome, 525 XP would be awarded 175 x 3)

    Myself, I have always found that the number of hit dice plus the amount of text dedicated to extra details is pretty much all that is needed to determine how fearsome a monster is.

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