Baking in the Flavor - Campaign or Rules?

 Don't depend on the system to do the heavy lifting, use the system as scaffolding. Your game system should provide you with tools - you get to use your imagination and trial/error to see what works.

In other words, rulings not rules. Yea, we're back there again.

I see some wonderful blogging prompts as I follow more and more folks on Mastodon who are "tooting" (hehe) about RPGs. Today's prompt came from a Wayne Loche:

Any GM wroth their salt has just re-skinned a stat block to save prep time for a session. It's the old adage of Just Use a Bear ( 

But I also wish the flavor of a creature was baked into the system more. A stat block of a guard vs a bear should feel like you're fighting those things in particular. I get that would be a design nightmare. But it also enforces that monsters are just sacks of health. #DND #ttrpg

Now he follows up with a recommendation for a book called _The Monsters Know What They're Doing_ by Keith Ammann, which looks to be somewhat in vein with what I'm about to say, but geared towards 5e tactics.

My viewpoint is that the system SHOULDN'T bake in a flavor. Your orcs are not my orcs. Your dragons are not my dragons, etc. Now, admittedly, if one uses OD&D Supp2 and AD&D monsters as written, you're in effect implementing an instance of Gygax's Greyhawk campaign. So to a certain extent, a great many of us have already been using the flavor that's baked in.

I think it's the campaign that is responsible for baking in the flavor. Rules should be there as scaffolding. The systems to determine what happens. Not to tell me that a bear will grapple to knock you on your ass, then bite your damn face off, as versus a guard fighting a defensive battle while calling for reinforcements, then going all medieval on your sorry butt. What if my bears are stealthy stalkers in my campaign? What if my town guards are mystically enchanted so that they take only 1hp of damage and deal 3d6 of damage? (I'm looking at you, Richard Garriott of Ultima 1, 2 and 3 town guards programmer...).

I want the rules to stay out of my way of my imagination.

Stat blocks do not equal the sum total of the monster, and they shouldn't. Stat blocks are there as mechanical assists so I don't have to thumb through the g.d. Monster Manual for the umpty-umph time because I can't remember if a wight is AC4 or AC5. Stat blocks aren't going to tell me about my fearsome mountain ogres who are 3x size of normal ogres and eat those bears for snacks. It's going to tell me enough that I can adjudicate the battle.

I think that is something I see a lot in the later D&D'ers. That everything should be in the book and if it's not in the book, it doesn't exist or shouldn't be played. I could speculate the why and where of these habits, but it kinda doesn't matter. For me, anyway, when I look at all those pages of the supplements, I see someone else's campaign houserules, stuff that I may use, but most likely will not. 

That's why rules-lawyers hate my games. I am always clear that I fold, spindle and mutilate the RAW when it makes my game better -- and I'm 99.999% sure that's the way Gygax, started out. We'll not go into how commercialization killed that golden goose, blah blah blah... but it is true that Gygax wrote in the very first edition of D&D this golden rule:

"... the best way is to decide how you would like it to be, and then make it just that way!"

Amen, Brothers Arneson and Gygax. That's a rule that I can live with as written.

What do you think?


  1. That comment about Richard Garriott made me laugh out loud. Oh, those guards!

    In my games the monsters might or might not be exactly like the Monster Manual, because I'm too lazy to prep by writing big stat blocks beforehand...

    1. I end up going a lot on memory or what I think the monster s/b doing at the moment.

      Yea, those damn town guards. It was always a fun ride in U3 when I would go after that secret area in British's castle and the Town Guards would just stack up and wait...

  2. Amen indeed! When you run your monsters your own way, they come alive for all.

  3. I've been reading "The Monsters Know What They're Doing", Amman cleverly writes about what tactics he thinks the monsters would use based on their stats and abilities. A GM could use those to help inform what a monster would do in non-combat situations too, and I think all that is helpful to think about, but in the end a lot of it comes down to, like you say, the flavor is up to the GM and their campaign. Who knows what has happened in this particular campaign world that has made the minotaurs act the way they do?

    I've been toying with the idea of running 2 games in the coming year - both in the same game world, but in different parts of that world. And each of the different geographic areas of that world "live" under a different system! So I could run a 5e game for folks that enjoy that, and also an old-school rules game for the OSR'ers out there. So when I see something like this, it makes me think: How much would the game system affect the flavor of people/monsters living in that world? How different would the two areas be?

  4. I've been reading through Amman's "The Monsters Know What They're Doing" that you mentioned. It basically details the tactics he thinks the monsters would use based on their stats, abilities etc. It's interesting to think about, I think you could use that method for ideas on ways humanoids or monsters would act in out-of-combat situations, as well. (Those Town Guards don't take any gruff; they don't have to!)

    1. That's why y'all hate fighting my orcs and goblins... they've adapted their tactics to their natural strengths and weaknesses. The goblins love to mass fire arrows and do hit/run - the orcs just attack relentlessly, because there's usually more and more and more behind them, with the way they breed...

  5. You may enjoy this quote of Gygax from the July 1975 Alarums and Excursions (while he was still Gammer Gary):

    Dave and I disagree on how to handle any number of things, and both of our campaigns differ from the "rules" found in D&D. If the time ever comes when all aspects of fantasy are covered and the vast majority of its players agree on how the game should be played, D&D will have become staid and boring indeed. Sorry, but I don't believe that there is anything desirable in having various campaigns playing similarly to one another. D&D is supposed to offer a challenge to the imagination and to do so in many ways. Perhaps the most important is in regard to what the probabilities of a given situation are. If players know what all of the monster parameters are, what can be expected in a given situation, exactly what will happen to them if they perform thus and so, most of the charm of the game is gone. Frankly, the reason I enjoy playing in Dave Arneson's campaign is that I do not know his treatments of monsters and suchlike, so I must keep thinking and reasoning in order to "survive". Now, for example, if I made a proclamation from on high which suited Mr. Johnstone, it would certainly be quite unacceptable to hundreds or even thousands of other players. My answer is, and has always been, if you don't like the way I do it, change the bloody rules to suit yourself and your players. D&D enthusiasts are far too individualistic and imaginative a bunch to be in agreement, and I certainly refuse to play god for them -- except as a referee in my own campaign where they jolly well better toe the mark.

    1. You know, on a day like today, when we're finding out that there's the possibility of WotC/Hasbro trying to eliminate the OGL1.0a that a lot of the OSR stuff has hung its hat for awhile... this all seems very sad.

      At one time, it was about the having fun, being fantastic, but then David Kaye died, D&D got big and Gary, went corporate.


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