Improving the 5e Stat Block
Requested by @trollsmyth
So the Dungeons & Dragons 5e statblock is a thing of design beauty, in that it fully encapsulates everything that 5e design seems to value:
- Extensive coverage of situational details (alignment, damage types, monster classification, etc).
- Full, non-abbreviated information (Hit Points, not HP).
- Callbacks to other books as opposed to listed concrete rules (Spell names are given, but not what those spells do).
The most telling piece of 5e monster design is how monsters/adversaries are listed in the text of adventures themselves: only as bolded text.
Unlike prior editions of the game, monster stat blocks are never included in the main text of the adventure. Instead, they’re referenced, and the DM must look to their entry in either the Dungeon Master’s Guide or an appendix in the back of the adventure book.
Now, I think this stat block is pretty good. It includes all the needed info in a way that’s pretty intuitive to new players. As an extension of D&D 5e’s design, it gets the job done.
HOWEVER…for my own uses, I do have problems with it.
- No stats in the adventure text. I actually don’t like this design choice much. I get why it’s done from a production standpoint (saves on word count for the adventure document, simplifies layout, requires the purchase of a Monster Manual), but as someone who uses these books a lot, not having immediate access to a monster’s stats in the section I’m already using is a pain.
- Stat block is too long. For simple monsters and NPCs like goblins, commoners, and so on, the 5e stat block is perfectly fine. For more complicated enemies it’s too much to read through and use on the fly. It’s difficult to improvise with a monster’s attacks or powers when their stat block takes up an ENTIRE PAGE!
- Too much negative space. D&D 5e’s design puts an emphasis on text. Attacks and stats are written out in full sentences. Not only does this lead to a lot of text, but the formatting often means there’s a bunch of empty space in the right side of the stat block. Empty space that could be used to better effect, decreasing the size of the block.
- Spells are Impossible! For those less familiar with the game, using spellcaster stats is a nightmare! I can’t tell you how many times I’ve screwed up a combat encounter with a mage enemy because I had to shuffle between THREE BOOKS to get their spells right. Read the MM entry to get their spells, flip to the PHB spell list to get the description of how the spell works, flip back, then back again, then back to the adventure text to incorporate other details. It sucks!
Being an old school and LotFP person, I offer to you my two go-to uses of simplifying or improving on the 5e stat block, using the Kamadan monster example above:
The first example is visual. It weaves the stats around the art of the monster. It puts certain important details where they might logically apply with the monster’s body. It keeps things simple, and it uses the monster art to greater effect.
The second example is functional. It’s just the 5e stat block stripped of everything extraneous: alignment, type, size, ability scores, etc. In the heat of combat, these details don’t matter much. If they’re brought up, a DM making a ruling about them takes less time that sifting through books to get the details.
A big change is the simplification of saving throws/ability modifiers. Instead of listing every ability score, just give a flat bonus and a flat penalty, applied situationally based on the monster. D&D 5e’s math isn’s so rigid that the game will break if you average out six ability modifiers.
Another change is the simplification of the text. While I appreciate 5e’s commitment to using full sentences and avoiding abbreviations (Prior edition stat blocks look like gibberish because of their abbreviations), it does increase the size of the stat block, and in turn how much information one needs to process to use the monster. I say keep things short.
Anyway, that’s how I write and format 5e stat blocks for my own games, and how I’d prefer to format them in a published book. What 5e has right now is good, but I think it could be better.