Monster Sets

Thinking about the usage of "monster sets" in Diablo 3, and how it might be applied to tabletop RPGs

I play Diablo 3 almost every night before going to bed because it puts me to sleep. The exploding corpses, demonic screams, and trash legendaries are apparently super cozy for me, and after about 15-20 minutes it take all my remaining energy to get from the couch to bed. Ultimately though, running rifts or bounties is really a very simple, thoughtless process that lets my mind wander, and simultaneously, the legendary drops provide just the right amount of lottery ticket style dopamine hit to keep me mildly interested.

But how does this relate to table top RPGs? There are a few things Diablo 3 does very very well that I think should be stolen by the tabletop world. Broadly, these are monster sets and monster introductions.

Making "sets" out of monsters is nothing new to tabletop or video games. There are monsters that commonly go together (goblins, hobgoblins, and bugbears), and the types of creatures/monsters found in the "starter forest" are typically different (even if simply recolored) than those found in the "mountains of doom". I bring this all up because recently I saw a few tables for wilderness encounters that took an "everything and the kitchen sink is a possible encounter" approach. I personally don't like it when the tables are too random. Random is definitely good. Incongruous results are definitely good because they challenge everyone's expectations and get the creative juices flowing. But if each roll yields vastly different things, as far as I'm concerned, it's much more difficult for the fantasy world to "gel" in a person's mind.

"Wait, we've been walking through a forest and first we came across tiny clay golems, then a sphinx, then slaadi? Is this place special? Is Limbo leaking? Is there a portal? Should we investigate thoroughly? No? This is just the forest we're supposed to pass through to get to the dungeon you designed? Huh...."
What the Diablo 3 designers did really well in this regard is that they seem to have picked/created a variety of monsters that work well with each other to put different and constant pressures on the player.

Usually, you'll get the following:
  • The "front lines" monster. Basic melee pressure. Middle of the road in terms of stats.
  • Ranged attackers. Go down fast, but hard to get to.
  • The Threat. This is something that can hit very hard but it tends to be big and slow. You know it's coming, and you know you'll have to prepare or you'll get dropped.
  • The "Attention" Problem, or perhaps a better name would be "The Immediacy". This can come in many forms and fashions, and it's the thing you need to deal with right now or it will make everything much worse. However, by putting your attention on it, you must expose yourself to the melee and range pressure, and allow The Threat to get closer (potentially too close).
The Melee, Range and Threat are probably pretty obvious. Here are some examples of attention problems.
  1. Monsters that put temporary shields of invulnerability on other monsters. Never itself. Usually applies the shield right as you're about to kill your target.
  2. Swarms of small monsters that do not deal much damage, but will overwhelm you if ignored.
  3. A drum that must be hit two times to be destroyed. If a monster reaches it, it will begin playing a song that enrages/buffs the other monsters in the area.
  4. A monster in the middle of a ritual. If it is completed things will get much worse.
  5. A monster who resurrects other monsters.
  6. A monster who spawns other monsters.
  7. A monster who generates some sort of invulnerable and devastating "zone control" such as a poison cloud or fire patch.
These monsters are usually easily identifiable. The green nests that spawn in bat-like monsters with stingers are obvious and don't change. Once you fail because you underestimated their ability to spawn in new monsters, that knowledge can be built upon and reused. It may seem kinda lame to use smaller sets of monsters due to repetition, but I think that's a pretty foundational requirement for enabling player skill to shine. If each new monster encounter is with a fresh, random chimeric aberration, then the player skill being tested is meta "real world" type knowledge. If the monsters repeat with decent regularity, then the player skill being tested is based on in world, in character experiences.

I'd say, when making a dungeon or a zone, keep the melee, ranged and threat types pretty consistent and repetitive. This is a crypt with skeletons. Some have swords, some have bows or shoot fire bolts, and some drag a giant axe that can cut you in half if they get close enough. Repeat these basic things, but then keep players on their toes and ratchet up the pressure with a few different attention consuming monsters, and limit your random encounter tables for the area to these things.

That's all for now!