Rumblings from the Word Mines – a peek into the process
Jun 23, 2021

Welcome to Rumblings from the Word Mines

An article from our Executive Lead Designer, Shawn Merwin

 

This is a planned series of articles talking about RPG design and taking some behind-the-scenes looks at projects here at Ghostfire Gaming. In this first article, I want to introduce myself, offer a peek at the ongoing work we’re doing on Grim Hollow: The Monster Grimoire, and then dig deeper into some monster-design concepts.

I started in my role as Executive Lead Designer at Ghostfire Gaming in January of this year, but I’ve spent the last 20 years working as a freelance designer, editor, and producer in the RPG industry. Before any industry work, I was (and continue to be) an avid player, game master, and fan of tabletop RPGs. Since my first encounter with RPGs as a 1st Edition D&D player, I’ve been enamored with RPGs of all varieties.

While I could spend my entire word count for this article talking about my experiences with and love for RPGs, I’ll sum it up this way. Counting all the RPG projects I’ve been involved with, in a variety of roles, I’ve helped produce more than 5 million words of RPG content. Thanks to my participation in conventions, game days, and other public RPG events, I’ve run games for thousands of people around the world. Those experiences have taught me a lot of things, but the most important lesson is how much I have left to learn, and how much more I want to do!

Grim Hollow: The Monster Grimoire is the first Ghostfire Gaming product that I’m the Lead Designer for. That doesn’t mean I’m working on it alone, of course. Far from it! In addition to the amazing team at Ghostfire Gaming, dozens of designers, artists, developers, editors, playtesters, and other contributors have worked—and continue to work—to bring this product to its final form and into the hands of excited players and game masters everywhere.

Illustration by Mikhail Palamarchuk

This is by far the most extensive project that I’ve led, and I want to touch on some of the design expertise and labor that goes on to make the magic (and the horror) happen. The design team is extensive and varied. My initial team included a group of people with unique interests and from different backgrounds. These are people who I’ve either worked with in the past, or who I very much looked forward to working with for the first time. These designers were Kat Kruger, Sharang Biswas, Bianca Bickford, Stephen Radney-MacFarland, Anne Gregersen, and Daniel Helmick. This group includes industry veterans, newer designers in the RPG realms, some 5e experts, some proficient in a variety of games, etc.

In addition to that core design team, we enlisted the Ghostfire Gaming veteran freelancers Benjamin Huffman and Elliott Randall to work on monsters that were more closely tied to some of the special mechanics from previous Grim Hollow products.

Alan Patrick was a perfect designer to take on the challenge of a special chapter solely devoted to vampires, an important aspect of horror gaming in general and Grim Hollow dark fantasy in particular. If you have an affinity for vampire in your games, you’ll be pleased with Alan’s contributions to Grim Hollow: The Monster Grimoire. Additionally, David “DMDavid” Hartlage contributed to the stretch-goal chapter on running intelligent monsters, and his thoughts permeate the book as well.

Many others contributed not only to the design, but to the production, of the entire project, and I’ll talk more about them in future installments of these articles!

That brings me to the “design discussion” portion of this article

A tabletop RPG is a complicated thing, so I want to start by trying to break everything down into an easily digestible explanation. One of the most important revelations of my game-design education is when I started trying to teach others, to look as games not just as games, but as a set of processes akin to a machine. Machines are meant to perform processes, and those processes can be very simple or extraordinarily complex.

A game is a machine in that sense. A game of Rock, Paper, Scissors is a relatively simple machine, taking limited inputs (one of three choices) and comparing them to each other to provide an outcome (a winner). A game of D&D is much more complicated, with many different processes and sub-processes and rules and inputs, but in the end it’s still meant to provide an outcome. That outcome is both a mechanical one (did someone succeed at the task they were trying to accomplish, and how well did they succeed?) and a narrative one (did the party decide to go to the castle to confront the princess, or did they go to the caves to rescue the ogre?).

All the rules of the game become parts of those game-machine’s processes. Character-creation rules, backgrounds, races, feats, spells, etc. all come together to act as pieces of the machine, variables to be input into the machine, or both. Monsters are no different: they are an integral part of that machine.

Indeed, monsters are a valuable piece of the game-machine in more ways than one might first imagine. Our first instinct as players is to see the monsters merely as the enemies we must overcome in combat to “win” an encounter, gain resources like experience points or treasure, and leave behind the wreckage in our wake. But when you think about it, monsters are so much more. And because they carry a lot of functional responsibility in an RPG game, their proper design is crucial.

So what is that “functional responsibility?”

Well, they are definitely pieces in the game-machine used as the dramatic hurdles the characters must overcome in combat. As such, monsters must be created so that they serve that purpose: interesting mechanical foes that provide dramatic tension in combat without being too easy or too difficult to defeat. However, they are also the tools through which game masters get to interact with the rules. If monsters are not fun for game masters to use, they are not doing their full jobs as pieces of our game-machine.

Equally important to their role in the mechanics of combat in RPGs, monsters need to make sense in the story that becomes the output of the game-machine. The monsters need to fit well into the story being told in an individual encounter, as well as in the story told by the overall adventure or campaign. They even need to be that multipurpose tool that helps the characters tell their own individual stories: acting as foils or allies or traitors or other narrative constructs.

Another way to say this? A vampire and a giant could be the same challenge rating, and therefore be similar in terms of their mechanical consequences in the game-machine, but the stories that come out of encounters or adventures that highlight those two different monsters should be quite distinct. This means we, as game designers, should be paying attention to the story ramifications as well as the mechanical and game-play ramifications. Monsters that perform all these tasks well are preferable to those that do only one of them well.

Let’s look at a monster being worked on for inclusion in Grim Hollow: The Monster Grimoire

The Lenchtahg is a creature created when a Seraph is killed by an Arch Daemon and then, through a complex ritual, reconstituted as a fiend. The designer of this monster was Sharang Biswas, an incredibly creative and diabolical creator. In most cases, the art for a monster is created after the monster’s initial design, but in this case, the art was created first by the masterful Brent Hollowell.

In addition to making sure the mechanical statistics of the Lenchtahg reflected the smoke and fire portrayed in the art, Sharang brought a great story to the monster. The volatile atmosphere that surrounds the Lenchtahg is emblematic of the internal struggle of the creature: its former divine nature wars constantly with the fiendish power that infuses it now. This is a specifically Grim Hollow story, tying into the state of celestial and fiendish creatures in Etharis. It can, however, be easily massaged to work in any setting.

With that backstory in place and the art leading the design, let’s look at some of the mechanical aspects of the Lenchtahg that reinforce the story. Early in the process, the challenge rating (CR) for a monster must be determined to gauge the scope and form of a creature’s abilities. For the Lenchtahg, a CR of 5 works well for many reasons. Making the creature more powerful makes it less useful in stories that a game master might want to tell while the characters are still in the lower levels. Making the creature too weak takes away some of the narrative and mechanical power: why would an Arch Daemon go through the trouble of creating such a creature when it’s not powerful enough to carry out some diabolical deeds?

Lenchtahg – Illustration by Brent Hollowell

A CR of 5 makes the Lenchtahg a great villain for characters as they approach the end of Tier 1 (levels 1-4), acting as the introduction to a greater threat from an Arch Daemon and its allies plaguing a particular area that the characters are defending. Then, when the characters get into higher-level play, Lenchtahg can be used in larger groups as minions of an even larger threat, as well as a plot device for a story involving the characters trying to stop the fiends from being able to create these creatures in the first place!

Once the CR is established, many of the other elements of monster design fall into place. While there are formulas and charts that are useful in designing monster math, in the end monster creation is as much an art as a science. And we’re very fortunate to have Chris Sims as our monster development “artist,” working his magic. Chris worked as a developer on countless Wizards of the Coast products, including the Monster Manual.

So what abilities does the Lenchtahg have? The fire that burns inside a Lenchtahg is born from a radiant well that was once a Seraph’s soul. This means it does fire damage in addition to the slashing damage done by its claws. And its radiant essence gives it not just immunity to radiant damage, but radiant energy heals the creature. Its very soul bursts with a radiant energy that can threaten its enemies, even at a distance.

As a designer, you also want to reflect a creature’s nature in its mechanics (and vice versa). The internal, eternal shame and conflict between the celestial and fiendish powers raging within the Lenchtahg converge in a trait that might see the Lenchtahg lose control of its own actions, forcing its fiendish masters to reestablish control over the creature.

Monsters are also fun when they have some other special traits that can allow creative players to give themselves an advantage, and the Lenchtahg has this as well. But I’m not going to spoil this one: You’ll need to succeed on a DC 20 Intelligence (Arcana) check to learn those secrets!

Finally, the salvage for the Lenchtahg is a key element of its design. I’ll talk more about salvage in a future article, but like other aspects of the game-machine, salvage should have both mechanical and narrative implications. The ritual that creates a Lenchtahg gives the head of a Lenchtahg unique value, and there might be special insight provided with the head’s removal and study that could help characters fight dark powers with their own weapon.

In future installments of Rumblings from the Word Mines, I’ll talk more about The Monster Grimoire project and our process for creating it. I’ll also give sneak peeks of even more monsters and the art that our superb art director Suzanne Helmigh is gathering.

Until next time, keep to the light!

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Grim Hollow: The Monster Grimoire offers over 400 new monsters, tailor-made for a dark fantasy campaign.