tl;dr Reorganize and redistribute monsters across levels of play. Fill in gaps with new monsters.


I’ve been mulling over this idea of, “Campaign Cornerstones.”

I haven’t written about it much because in all the time I’ve spent in design, I’ve put the most time into high-level (as in abstract) campaign stuff and low-level (concrete mechanics) Player Character stuff. Monsters fell by the wayside.

Well, kind of.

See, most of the design work I did on monsters was all top-level: creature types, origins, energies — weird, abstract concepts that explained what monsters were and where they came from. Stuff for spell adjudication, mostly.

In the process of working through campaign designs, I hit upon the eponymous concept: “Campaign Cornerstones.” The idea was that a single creature type ought to be developed so that it could serve as a campaign theme.

So you could have an “orc” campaign, or a “goblin” campaign, or a “dragon” or “giant” or “drow” campaign. It might seem straightforward but trying to put such a concept into action can be difficult. Why?

Most editions of D&D don’t offer multiple levels of every monster.

Some types of monsters are nigh-omnipresent. Dragons, for instance, appear at almost every level in one form or another (pseudodragons, wyrmlings, adults, elders, and so forth), but also demons. Others are more inconsistent.

Orcs, goblins, and gnolls rarely rate above the early game. Giants tend not to appear before mid-game. Undead tend to range from early- to mid-game but peter out in the late game (demiliches notwithstanding).

Monster books that came out later in 3e’s lifespan addressed this by expanding upon monster societies. Gnolls developed a tendency toward warlocks and half-demons. 4e addressed this by spreading monsters across tiers.

Of course, late-stage 3e monster and the lifeless approach to monsters in 4e failed kind of hard in cementing the idea of “campaign monsters.”

If you aren’t already excited about this idea, you might ask why it matters.

Let me answer you with one class feature: favored enemy. (3e/5e)

Why does a Ranger choose a favored enemy?

It’s one of those weird class features that kind of crosses the boundary between what makes a good mechanic (extra damage against a specific enemy type) and an interesting background (you trained hard to fight and kill goblins).

Okay, maybe you don’t buy into 3e/5e or you don’t like Rangers. Want a better example?

Turn undead. (every edition) Oh, right.

When and where should turn undead be effective? That is a very difficult question to answer. Since the game’s inception, turn undead has been one of those weird background/mechanical borders that can make or break encounters.

For the most part, turn undead is pretty effective against low-level undead like zombies and skeletons that might pose a threat to the party in large numbers, but becomes less useful with time. Why? It’s the priest’s iconic power.

There seems to be a critical flaw in the game’s overall design.

Somewhere.

There are so many monsters that occupy the “shared consciousness” of fantasy roleplayers, and I think they need to be distributed more evenly across the play experience, with gaps filled in by niche monsters.

Some monsters filled these niches very effectively in the past, becoming part of the consciousness in the process — as is the case with dark elves.

There are already some “blocks” of monsters that work very well:
Early game undead. Skeletons, zombies, ghouls, wights.
Early game goblinoids. Goblins, hobgoblins, bugbears, worgs, barghests.
Early-mid game spirits. Shadows, wraiths, wisps, specters, ghosts.
Mid-game giants. Ogres, trolls, ettins, hill giants, fire giants, etc.

I think the game could do with more, and that it could make the patterns more obvious. Sure sure, GMs can do whatever they want to houserule, blah blah, but give us more campaign development tools.