Monday, June 22, 2009

Challenge Ratings

I like the simple number of the challenge rating to let me know how powerful a monster in Swords & Wizardry is. I even like the fact that the low power creatures are indicated by letter, because it sets them off quite nicely as a different sort of creature.

And, if you've been reading, you know I have been trying to create those lower powered monsters in my Deadly Distractions. Well, what I started noticing, and finally became a sort of roadblock with the Glass Golem, was how challenge rating is based on physical confrontation.

Should the glass golem be challenge rating A? It has a razor sharp weapon that does 1d8 and if you try to fight the thing any success will bring down a poison cloud on yourself. That seems dangerous . . . if you fight it. The whole point of the glass golem is figuring out how not to fight it. Heck, it's designed to avoid conflict-- a mage wouldn't want this expensive creation to charge off at the first provocation, abandoning its post.

Now I realize the fun of successfully defeating foes in combat, I even lamented the fact that I've never fought a beholder, but I think this is an inclination that requires caution. It reminds me of a Knights of the Dinner Table strip where the DM is away and the guys go through the monster manual alphabetically, fighting everything. It also reminds me of the notion that humanoids are cookie-cutter foes that climb in power level with the PCs; kobold>goblin>orc>hobgoblin>bugbear>ogre>troll>giant, or whatever.

I was brought face to face with this when I first read Jeff Rient's table for what Goblins are up to when you encounter them. Now some of these strike me as silly, but the best of them strike me in the sort of: haha . . .that's . . . creepy, way. It reminded me of the Gremlins movies. It makes me think a little of the god Pan and how chaos and revelry can be frightening. And that makes me think of Bacchus and the bakkheia. This all fits into the conception of the dungeon as a mythic underworld.

Ideally, I would want even a powerful, name level, character to feel unnerved when encountering kobolds. I would want them to be reminded that they are not in their own element, to be uncertain of what may be around the next corner, to say to their hirelings: "These shouldn't be a problem . . . but be wary." If they are instead thinking: "these things are less than 1HD, I can take them all in 2 rounds," we've lost something cool from the game.

So, what of challenge ratings? I still like them, if only as a rule of thumb to let me know PCs are kooky to confront this head on, but I will be on the lookout for falling into that way of thinking-- that monsters are for physical confrontation-- in my own mind. And I think I'll rent Gremlins and watch that again.


  1. I really like the way you take the time to think about this sort of thing, pull them apart, and put them back together in a way that challenges our preconceptions.