Monday 26 July 2021

Non-Mechanical Templates

3rd Edition was the first version of D&D that I actually had the core books for, back in 2000. In fact, beyond my old copy of WHFRP it was the first RPG that I actually owned in print. While the system is far from my tastes, I think I'll always have some affection for the books themselves. 

A strange thing to look back on is the way that the three core books were each released a month apart. I picked up the Player's Handbook in August, the Dungeon Master's Guide in September, and the Monster Manual in October. While this staggered release seems like a strange decision now, it did give me an opportunity to explore every corner of that month's new arrival. Without a regular (or irregular) group at the time, I jumped at any opportunity to engage with the game in a creative way. That "lonely fun" that I keep hearing about nowadays. 

There was lots of character creation. Not so much the infinite-loop monstrosities of character optimisation forums, but usually level 1-3 characters that I hoped would make it to the table some day. Of course there were dungeons, sticking rigorously to the challenge rating system included in the DMG. But one of the parts that really grabbed me was the idea of Templates.

These were little packages of modifiers that you could apply on top of an existing monster, like Vampire, Fiendish, or Half-Dragon. I loved the wide open feeling of RPGs, compared to videogames and miniature games, and this was like adding another layer on top of that. Not only could I draw on this giant book of hundreds of monsters, but I could modify each of them into countless combinations. You could give monsters classes in a similar sort of way, but somehow it didn't feel the same. Sure, making an Otyugh Rogue is bonkers, but a Vampire Otyugh is bonkers and somehow feels completely right. 

I'm obviously a fan of jamming two ideas together to make a new thing. You can see this sort of thing all over D&D in various editions. Chaotic Good. Dwarf Ranger. There's power in these combos.

But, of course, it was all tied up in 3E's mechanical clockwork hell. Looking back now, they aren't quite the fiddly mess that I remembered, but there's definitely too much focus on giving a +4 here and a -2 there, rather than the core concept of "what happens when we make this Roper into a Fiendish Roper?"

Can we do better than fire resistance and darkvision?

As with so many things, we can be a bit more creative if we shift the focus away from mechanics, keeping an eye firmly on what's going to make for a memorable encounter at the table. Naturally this tends to call for a little more creative input when creating the monster, but I don't think that's too much to ask. At their best, I feel like they're just another opportunity to tie your encounters into your greater worldbuilding, and vice versa. 

Born or warped by Hell.
  • Speaks Fiendish, and can make binding verbal contracts sanctioned by Hell's enforcers.
  • Has a true name that can be used to summon them to the material plane, or banish them back to Hell.
  • Has a specific vice and virtue that they are fascinated and repulsed by respectively.

Modified with inorganic parts.
  • Significantly improved raw strength and resilience. 
  • Unable to process emotion until it overflows in an outburst.
  • Always in need of some sort of repair or new upgrade. 

Changed by a lifetime in the darkness.
  • Can see and hear through any amount of darkness, including around corners.
  • Hungers endlessly, never full, can eat anything mostly-soft. 
  • Hates light, warmth, and anybody that brings them into their world.


  1. Vampirism is the obvious easy choice. You live forever and can do XYZ, but burn in sunlight. I wouldn't call these necessarily non-mechanical exactly, but... neutral modifiers?

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  3. Excellent idea. Flavour templates win out over mechanical ones in my mind and I can see these finding use as PC "classes" or origins too.

  4. I very much do this kind of thing. I pretty much always slap together my own monsters (it's quite easy in 5e and even easier in some other RPG's) and just look at what they are to determine what they should do. A cyborg troglodyte? They stink and clink and are smarter/hardier/faster than a normal troglodyte. A ghostly wolf? Well... it's a ghost.
    Mechanics then flow from the flavor. Increase speed and AC for the troglodyte. Add all the things that go with ghosts to the wolf (normal weapons don't work great, etc.)

  5. Have you seen the 5E hack that A Thousand Thousand Islands is working on?

    It cleaves a bit closer to D&D than you seem to be going with this Primordial game, but I feel like there's a shared sensibility.