Star Wars Wednesday - Dealing with Stat Blocks

A few hours ago, I finished recording/co-hosting an episode of the Order 66 podcast. I'm writing this on Sunday, because I'm traveling this week. If all goes well, this will auto-post at the right day and time. If you never listen to the Order 66 podcast, it is dedicated to the Saga Edition of the RPG, and you can find it at d20 Radio.

In the episode, we talk about creating modules for public use/publication and how that is different from creating an adventure for a home game. Hopefully, some of my more rambling comments still provide some help. It occurred to me, however, that one aspect we didn't address was stat blocks, so I wanted to touch on that a bit this week. I'll be addressing Saga Edition specifically, but most of the following applies to any system.

There are big differences between creating a stat block for a home campaign, and one for a published work. They mainly come down to accuracy and formatting. For the purposes of this discussion, I'll assume the GM/writer/designer has selected the appropriate level for the encounter.

Formatting is easy to deal with. In your home game, it is perfectly fine to create enemy characters or creatures using your favorite character sheet or own shorthand system. In a published work, though, you should stick with the standard stat block presented in the books. Sure, there are other ways to present the same information - even Saga developer Rodney Thompson experimented with D&D 4e style stat block modifications in his own game - but doing so runs the risk of confusing gamemasters. If you're doing a one-off public release, it's not worth the potential confusion. If you're producing a series, there might be more validity in giving it a try. However, make sure you include a detailed description of your new stat block layout, and don't assume people always know what you mean. After all, you might have a brand new GM trying out the adventure.

Accuracy is a trickier issue.

As all of you know, 100% of all published stat blocks are 100% perfect.

OK, we all know that's not true, no matter how much we would like it to be. Like all written works, stat blocks are created by humans in a long process where errors may be introduced at numerous points along the way. Sometimes, these issues are corrected in the errata, other times, the fans take it upon themselves to provide corrections for each other to use. 

Some systems, like Saga Edition, are more complex than others, like d6. With a multitude of feats, talents, special abilities and the class/level system in the game, there are simply more variables to track in Saga Edition. The d6 system had less a less rigid character creation system and issued character points as a reward system, to be spent to improve skills or on the spur of the moment in-game to improve a die roll. This made it less likely that a small error in a skill or ability score would be detected, or be significant to game play. Complicating stat block creation is the fact that the GMs usually must advance a character in levels, and follow through the math for each change.

So, how to minimize errors? Be aware of the most common ways they are introduced:

  • Math error - sometimes, it is that simple.
  • Typo - you hit, say, the 1 key instead of the 2 key, and don't notice.
  • Copy error - in stat blocks where information is listed twice (say, Initiative or Perception), the wrong value is listed.
  • Copy/paste error - when duplicating a stat block for one "with just a few changes" and then not carrying the changes all the way through.
  • Missing skill, feat or talent - before creating the character, figure out the number of feats and skills they should have and note the number to check against later.
  • Wrong skill or feat, talent at a given level - this is error is often very hard to spot without deconstructing the character, given the different ways a character may gain these abilities (bonus feats, for example). When creating the character, note which feats and talents are gained at a specific level.
  • Missing prerequisites - it's easy to overlook a prerequisite when picking from a list instead of looking at the actual entry.  
  • Bonuses from feats or talents - Again, make sure to double check the feat descriptions for flat, non-situational bonuses.
  • Species bonus - double check species bonuses for feats and skills.
  • Character modification - revising a completed stat block is a prime way to introduce a number of errors, usually by overlooking the extent of a given change. 
  • Ability score modification - you revise one of the base ability scores (say, to meet a prerequisite) and then overlook revising the related skills, attacks, etc.
  • Special weapons or equipment - adding a last minute item from a list without double checking the description is a good way to overlook an unexpected or lesser used bonus to attacks or skills. Personally built lightsabers or weapons enhanced by talents are easy to forget about.
  • Design change  - this likely won't happen to most of you, but in published works, a new feat or talent is dropped from the product, but accidentally left in the stat block.
  • One-handed or two-handed damage - typically assume the character uses the most advantageous way to use a weapon, meaning two-handed damage should be listed most of the time.
  • Misinterpreted rule - it can happen.
  • Overlooked Errata - double check the errata for the products you're using.  
  • Editorial correction - sometimes the corrections introduce new errors.
  • Layout error - Something gets dropped or accidentally modified in the book/page formatting process.

Try using these methods for error checking (in addition to those noted above):

  • Create a worksheet for your stat block creation - include areas to list things like the number of skills, a place to list which feat or talent was gained at which level, and show the math for each attack, defense and skill. This makes error tracking and discovery much easier for you and your editor.
  • Give yourself a few days between creating and double checking stat blocks - this works wonders to find the easy to spot errors.
  • If you find a particular type of error in one stat block, look for it in the rest - this is especially true for similar characters, and if you find you misinterpreted a rule.
  • Double check the number of Force powers, talents, feats and skills - it generally doesn't take much time to count them up.
  • Don't edit yourself - you can't do it. Really. You've seen it, you're tired of it, you know what it is supposed to say (or think you do and you're wrong). Find someone to edit it, and give them your "show your math" worksheet as well as the finished stat block.
  • Use the Find or search function to find repeated errors or items to delete - but don't use Find and Replace or your Damage might become Dawizard**.
  • Playtest it - nothing like sitting at the table and realizing you forgot to give the bounty hunter some armor, or the right skill. Always good for finding gameplay issues.
  • Let someone else playtest it - this is good to find the things you aren't taking into consideration.

If you do enough stat blocks, errors will slip through. The higher the level of character required, the more complex it is and the more items there are to track. Be prepared to provide a corrected document, or at least an errata list, some time after they are reported to you.

Hopefully, these tips help avoid some of the more common problems.

**This actually occured in a 2nd Edition D&D product, where find and replace was used to automatically change mage to wizard, but also changed damage to dawizard.