Saturday, September 20, 2014

How we review monsters - an example by Jacob W Michaels

Mike, Jacob and I have read all the 40 monster entries, and we are now in the final stages of deciding which five monsters advance. While everyone is waiting for the results, here's an example of how one of the judges, Jacob, reviewed the monsters.

Unlike the actual contest entries, the monster isn't from the bestiary wish list thread. It's actually based on a rejected pitch. A number of the monsters I pitched earlier this year made it into a product that will be released in 2015, this one didn't. Admittedly, in hindsight, the monster concept wasn't very original or exciting, but I decided to stat it up anyway after I had finished the assignment. Let's see what Jacob thinks about it. ;-)


A molten substance roils beneath the dark glass feathers of this shrieking, bird-like creature.

Obsidiapteryx        CR 4
XP 1,200
N Medium magical beast
Init +7; Senses darkvision 60 ft., low-light vision; Perception +10

AC 17, touch 13, flat-footed 14 (+3 Dex, +4 natural)
hp 37 (5d10+10)
Fort +6, Ref +7, Will +2
Resist fire 20

Speed 20 ft., fly 60 ft. (good)
Melee 2 wings +8 (1d6+2/18–20), bite +7 (1d6+2)
Ranged magma bomb +8 (3d6+2 fire)
Special Attacks death throes (5d6, DC 14), magma bomb 7/day (3d6+2 fire, DC 14)

Str 15, Dex 16, Con 14, Int 5, Wis 13, Cha 12
Base Atk +5; CMB +7; CMD 20
Feats Flyby Attack, Improved Initiative, Weapon Focus (wing)
Skills Fly +13, Perception +10; Racial Modifiers +4 Fly, +4 Perception

Environment warm mountains
Organization solitary, pair, roost (3–6)
Treasure none

Special Abilities
Death Throes (Ex) When killed, an obsidiapteryx detonates in 10-foot-radius burst of fire and glass that deals 1d6 points of damage per Hit Die (Reflex half). Half the damage is fire damage, and half is piercing damage. The save DC is Constitution-based.
Magma Bomb (Ex) As a standard action, an obsidiapteryx can regurgitate a pellet of magma that explodes upon impact. This ability functions as the alchemist’s bomb ability, except that the target must be directly beneath the obsidiapteryx. An obsidiapteryx substitutes its Hit Dice for alchemist class level and its Constitution modifier for its Intelligence modifier for the purpose of determining the damage, number of daily uses and save DC of its bombs.
Razor Feathers (Ex) The wings of an obsidiapteryx are honed to razor-sharp edges, and attacks with them deal slashing damage and threaten a critical hit on a roll of 18–20.

An obsidiapteryx looks like a sleek hawk with glossy feathers of volcanic glass and eyes like rubies. An adult obsidiapteryx stands five feet tall, has a 10-foot wingspan, and weighs about 80 pounds.

Obsidiapteryxes are voracious lithotrophs–they consume nearly half their body weight in minerals each day. Unable to crush rock with their beaks but highly resistant to heat, they acquire minerals and energy straight from molten rock. The body of an obsidiapteryx is much like an alchemical engine, supporting the flight of the otherwise too heavy bird with discharged heat.

The exotic anatomy of these creatures has long fascinated scholars and alchemists. Some alchemists have succeeded at breeding different varieties of obsidiapteryxes, using alchemical discoveries to alter the magma bombs of these creatures. However, changing the energy type of an obsidiapteryx severely hampers its ability to fly and feed, and often results in the death of the creature.

Because of their unique diet, obsidiapteryxes are generally only encountered near volcanoes, where they live in simple nests built from carefully regurgitated magma. However, during volcanic eruptions, their behavior becomes more erratic and aggressive, and they may fly far away from their homes.

Obsidiapteryxes can communicate surprisingly complex ideas with their shrill shrieks that resemble the sound of glass being scratched. While these gregarious creatures usually live in small groups, during the mating season the females become solitary and seek out other volcanoes to find males to court. They also become more solitary towards the end of the livespan, which averages 15 years.

Mated females produce a single egg each. Their eggs are dark and smooth much like their feathers, and they glow with a soft red light as bright as a candle. Because of their decorative value and uses in alchemists’ experiments, intact eggs sell for up to 500 gp apiece.

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Well, it came in days after the deadline and is by one of the very few people ineligible for the contest, so I'm going to DQ it right off the bat. Despite that, I'll take a deeper look (and also talk about HOW I looked at and judged these monsters).
I tend to start with the description. Let me know a little bit about what type of creature I'm getting, but also the author's talent. Do they know not to assume action and location? Do they use interesting/exciting words? Does the sentence flow well?
Description's OK. "Roils" is a great word and I get a good picture ... to a point. I feel like I don't really know if I'm looking at something like a bird of prey or a sparrow or what kind of bird-like creature.
After that, I switch to the write-up, sometimes not even looking at the stat block at all. I started doing that after reading one entry where the power kind of baffled me until I read the write-up, at which point it became clear. You can argue that speaks to a weakness of that writer's design, but I started really appreciating reading the write-up first. It should give me a good idea of how to use the monster in an adventure, and if done well, excite me about the options I've got with that monster. I should also want to see if the stat block lives up to the promise of the write-up. (I'm going into a little more detail in the obsidiapteryx's write-up than I did in my judging typically, but these were the type of things I was looking at.)
Ah, the write-up answers those questions immediately. Write-up switches from singular (an obsidiapteryx) to plural in the second paragraph (Obsidiapteryxes). Not sure what a lithotroph is, though I'm assuming based on the rest of the sentence it's something that eats minerals. Always risky to use the 10-cent words. On one hand, there's a great tradition of it in gaming (I credit role-playing for my high verbal score on the standardized tests American high-schoolers take), but it can be risky. I remember looking up the alkhene amulet in last year's Superstar, since I had no idea what alkhene was, and wondering whether everyone would take that time. Cool idea having it be akin to an alchemical engine -- gets me thinking of some neat story possibilities with these guys.

The variants isn't a horrible idea, but I think it comes up way too high. That should IMO generally be one of the last things in the write-up, as I'm still learning about this monster and you're already telling me about other versions of it.

I like the use of sound in the description. Typo: Livespan instead of lifespan.

I'd call it a solid write-up, though not the best I've read. I've got some idea how to use them, but they seem like they'd mostly be a wandering monster type encounter, or occasionally the subject of an egg hunt or MAYBE something involving an alchemical engine.
That done, I move on to the stats. I tend to start by checking to make sure they numbers are correct, more or less, for their CR. It's not an exact science, so I usually give some allowance here, really only noting it if something is way high or low (for example, a CR 4 creature should have 40 hp, so IMO the obsidiapteryx's 37 is close enough to be an =). I took the format, at the top, from Jeff "Shadowborn" Lee, so definitely credit to him for that part of my judging. 
Basic stats look good. I have to admit, I didn't really get into breaking down whether the skill points and number of feats are correct (I did some spot checks on the feats, but mostly in this case I trusted the designers; it's like the pricing of a Wondrous Item -- as long as it's not off by too much, it's not what the judging will come down to). There were just too many monsters for me to crunch the numbers that hard. I give Neil Spicer and other Superstar judge who've done so a lot of credit, since that's a lot of number crunching with a lot of monsters.
That done, my last step was generally to give the whole stat block a look, taking in any uses of the universal monster rules and finally giving the special abilities some consideration. That last part ended up being really important. I'd say the generally writing ended up accounting for half my judging, while abilities made up much of the rest. I wanted something interesting. If a monster just used choices from the universal monster rules, it may have been perfectly fine, but it didn't cut it in terms of being a top contender for me. To rise to the top, a monster needed to have a good write-up and then some new special abilities that worked well. 
And in the end, I think that would've been my biggest hit against the obsidiapteryx. The write-up was good enough that I would've considered it for advancement, but the abilities just didn't wow me enough. We've seen death throes before (actually, I have to admit I was surprised they weren't in the UMR, so perhaps I'm not giving Mikko enough credit for adding them in), as well as the use of an alchemist's bombs. Something like razor feathers also isn't that exciting -- it may have mechanical reasons and make sense, but it's sort of thrown in there, much like the wing trick in my guttersnipe in the 2014 Superstar contest, as opposed to being an essential exciting option for the GM.

All in all, I'd probably find myself on the fence with this one. It's perfectly competent and I think it could be used somewhere, but just isn't exciting enough for me to make it a keep.

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