Saturday, June 20, 2015

Making a Beast - Making Large Monsters More Effective

One of the things I’ve noticed in running and playing classic tabletop games for some time is how ineffective large dangerous ‘monsters’ are.  Fantastical beasts such as Owlbears and even Dragons are often less dangerous to adventurers under the older dungeons and Dragons rules then a pack of humanoids or bandits. 

HMS Apollyon Diabolic Abomination - A "Starfish" - Beast Candidate
I remember worrying one time about a ‘brown bear’ encounter being the first encounter by a new party in ASE.  There were four adventurers against a bear with 4 HD or so and a couple of dangerous attacks.  I figured it’d be a fairly tough fight.  It took two rounds before 20 odd HP of bear was being skinned and the choice cuts buried to take back to town. The party was smart, they peppered the innocent beast with arrows and bolts while it was standing near its lair and growling – displaying deadly claws (just as the ‘mildly hostile’ roll on the reaction die suggested it might), and then the adventurers charged in to surround the poor injured thing and cut it down before it could attack.  This sort of tactics and results might make sense for big mundane animals like a bear, it’s pretty much how are ancestors hunted the things after all (also with dogs, but that’s a murder hobo staple as well), but it seems awfully anti-climactic for mythical beasts of legend to go down in a couple of rounds, mobbed under by a pack of bec de corbin wielding hoodlums.

The ravening power of an enraged mythological beast should be a near unstoppable torrent of violence and ferocity, and even with group tactics the creature should be dangerous, faster, stronger and more tenacious then any normal creature and especially the sentients that have invaded its territory.  It don’t want the giant dangerous creatures my players face to feel like stacks of HP to be whittled down, I want them to be frightening and worthy of respect, requiring cunning to overcome commensurate with the wealth in magical hides, teeth bones and meat that they provide.

Since a beast is something that is not especially intelligent, I would like to make out thinking these monsters the real trick.  Luring them into enclosed spaces and traps for example rather than simply slugging it out with them.  Slugging it out should be very dangerous.

Solitary mythical beasts don’t feel especially dangerous, at best they represent a danger to one or two characters, but even then they aren’t likely to last more than a couple of rounds. I believe the following factors are the major reasons for this weakness.

      1) Monsters that are a single large target can be easily surrounded and hacked to pieces in melee.  With a shield and plate armored front line of fighters in direct melee and several other characters with spears or polearms behind it rarely takes long to bring down even dangerous lone monsters.

2) Beast type monsters generally have no way of defending themselves at range. This means that a party of 4-10 members will likely get at least one round of missile attacks, and likely remove a fair chunk of the creature’s HP before it can even attack.  This doesn’t even account for spells – though since spell resources are limited I am less concerned if the party wants to burn their scrolls and memorize attack spells when faced with such a creature.

3) Large Monsters frequently lack a significant number of attacks, and while there attacks are more likely to hit, even a creature like the B/X Saber Toothed Tiger, which has a decent chance of killing a white dragon in combat, has only three attacks per round and only one attack that is significantly damaging for an eight hit dice monster (1-8/1-8/2-16).

4) Beast type monsters (bears, big cats, giant animals and the beloved owlbear) are rarely heavily armored.  In a game where a well-equipped first level fighter has an Armor class as low/high as 2/18 the mighty owlbear has armor equivalent to chain mail (AC 5/15).  Only giant lizards (lets admit these are basically smaller dinosaurs) have Armor only a little better, except for the chameleon.  Clearly bestial monsters are meant to soak up injury rather than avoid it.

All this leads to scenarios like the one above where a lone monster can be surrounded and dispatched by cautious or well-equipped adventurers with relative ease, and again I think this is a bit of a shame. I is perhaps sensible for mundane creatures (which people have hunted forever), but for mythical and magical beasts, several hunters with spears and crossbows just shouldn’t have an easy time.

One common solution to this feeling, and one that is neither novel nor interesting, is to add increased HP or special abilities to monsters.  Generally in early D&D special abilities were almost synonymous with special attacks, though some creatures like the displacer beast had primarily defensive abilities.   Offensive abilities don’t help much when the creature will be dead in one or two rounds, and while defensive abilities may prolong the creature’s survival or eliminate a particular tactic, the existing ones I can find aren’t especially good at doing much more than prolonging the combat.

The other classic solution is to simply increase the number of creatures encountered, but this feels somewhat lame, I want there to be huge hulking monsters in my game that individually provide a serious threat to the party, not because they might use one devastating attack, but because they are hard to kill, persistent and when engaged in melee can more than hold their own.

1) Damage Reduction – It’s not possible to kill several tons of magically enhanced muscle, feather, fur and teeth with dagger cuts and the odd arrow.  A giant beast should not only have a fair number of HP (Though with damage reduction fewer are needed), but also the ability to shrug off minor would in the form of a flat reduction to damage it receives.  In an OD&D game with flat 1D6 damage this is an incredibly powerful ability, and three points of damage reduction will render the majority of attacks harmless.  In B/X or other systems (as with everything related to damage) it becomes harder to determine what damage reduction is reasonable – but most earlier iterations of the game use a D8 as a HD, making damage both higher and ‘swingier’.  For B/X I would give the same creature with its -3 a -5 damage reduction.

Rule Purpose: The purpose of this damage reduction is to make using standard attacks against the creature, especially missile attacks (and on some creatures perhaps simple missile immunity or missile only damage reduction might be more appropriate), less effective.  While this is somewhat akin to increasing a creature’s hit point totals it has the slight advantage of making ‘bigger’ attacks more effective.  In a variable damage system where there are plenty of damage bonuses and such it is really a way of degrading the effectiveness of ‘non-heroic’ attacks – that is henchmen without damage bonuses and missile weapons.  Spells, two-handed weapons, and attacks by those with damage bonuses will do more damage to the creature while it shrugs off the poking spears of a hundred churls.  In flatter damage systems, like the modified OD&D I prefer flat damage reduction is very powerful as few attacks do more than 1D6 damage.  In this case I would be more likely to use the Staged Damage Reduction described below.

2) Flurry Attacks – Rather than a specific number of attacks allow the creature an attack at each enemy that comes into melee with it, the terrifying ferocity of the beast making it capable at lashing out at anyone nearby.  This can work in two ways, first simply give the creature an attack for each attacker it faces in melee.  This is simple but might get in the way of special attacks such as the Owlbear’s deadly hug, but this isn’t so much of an issue, in that we simply give the owl bear a base of claw/claw/bite with the hug attack remaining.  Any additional attackers beyond a certain number – let’s say two for the owlbear receive flurry attacks – that is the owlbear gets to make an additional attack against them representing it’s sweeping claw slashes and dangerous shifting of muscled bulk.

The damage for a flurry attack need not be as dangerous as the creatures main attacks, they exist to make it less safe for low HP characters and henchmen to surround and prick the creature to death.  I think for the Owlbear in B/X we would note Flurry as follows:

Attacks: 3+Flurry(2) Claw*/Claw*/Bite + Flurry(2) Damage: 1D8/1D8/1D8 Flurry 1D6
*If both claw attacks hit the same human-sized target in one round the owlbear will hug for and additional 2D4 damage that round.  Flurry cannot be used on the same round as a successful hug attack.

Here we’ve made tactics of surrounding an owlbear and attacking from multiple angles far more dangerous without removing the iconic attacks of the creature.  Another way of dealing with flurry attacks would be to make them less damaging, but include other effects, most typically this would be a “buffet” attack that causes low damage (say 1D6/3 in ODD&D and 1D4 in B/X), but requires a Save vs. Paralysis or Dex check to avoid being knocked down and unable to attack the next round. This sort of attack mimics the ability of huge creatures to overbear and knock about smaller foes.
Rule Purpose: This rule is designed to emphasize the danger of melee combat with a giant beast, and to do so in a way that makes swarm tactics less effective. 

1) Staged Damage Reduction – Rather than a simple damage reduction against every attack which generally discourages combat with normal attacks that don’t have additional damage components, staging damage reduction based on the number of attackers encourages a different set of tactics. The idea is that the beast can shrug off one or two attacks per round far easier than a whole bunch, and for each attacker distracting it other attackers will be able to hit the beast somewhere vital. 
Like standard damage reduction pooled damage reduction is a means of encouraging certain tactics and discouraging others, Staged damage reduction encourages multiple melee attackers, and allows damage in flat damage systems. It would be my preferred way of dealing with beast in an OD&D system, but it also would work well in a game (like AD&D) where fighters rapidly develop near impossible to hit armor classes, and limits these type from “tanking” monsters while the rest of the party attacks from afar. 

2) Damage Pool – Similar to damage reduction, perhaps a slightly simpler mechanic then staged damage reduction with a similar intent.  Each round an amount of damage (10 HP perhaps) is simply absorbed without effect on the creature.  This mechanic protects the creature from some damage, but in general doesn’t have a great mechanical effect, and doesn’t discourage mob tactics or solve any of the problems that face individual monstrous opponents.

3) Damage Cap – A mechanic with the opposite intent of damage reduction, the idea is to limit the damage taken by the creature from each attack to some number (10 HP for example) that prevents large attacks from killing the creature quickly meaning that it must be whittled down by numerous injuries as opposed to catastrophic damage.  This mechanic doesn’t seem like it would be appropriate for many creatures, perhaps only the truly enormous or some kind of swarm like entity like a rat king made of endless swarming vermin.

4) Damage Threshold – Much like a damage pool, and a common mechanic in games with multiple combat scales, such as ones involving giant robots.  The idea is that damage is granular and comes in two or more scales.  Any attack doing less than ten points of damage is harmless to creatures that operate on the larger scale, and whose attacks are generally in this same greater scale (called ‘mega damage’ or ‘structural damage’ games like Palladium’s RIFTS or the anime robot brawler Mekton).  The problem with this system for beasts is that it mechanically complex, and tends to be somewhat silly unless regular attacks only rarely reach the damage threshold (for example in B/X an 18 STR fighter with a two-handed sword can easily do over ten points of damage, especially with a magic weapon, making a 10 point threshold somewhat ridiculous).   Mechanically the damage threshold system is complex, and seems excessive (as well as somewhat unsuited) for mere monstrous creatures.  

5) Attack Pool – instead of simply giving a creature more attacks the more enemies it faces one could model a truly devastating monster by giving it an attack pool.  That is the mighty kraken would attack with 12D6 per round.  This could be concentrated into a single attack against one foe or split as the GM sees fit amongst multiple attacks.  Likely the Kraken, being a dumb beast, would divide its attacks equally among enemies in range until it was making up to 12 1D6 attacks.  This has a couple advantages over simply giving the Kraken twelve attacks, but is similar.  It certainly can save time though, and it provides a greater risk and reward for a heroic individual engaging the Kraken alone – in that if the monster misses it completely fails to harm the hero and if it hits the damage is catastrophic.

6) Berserking – Creatures that simply refuse to die.  Also a good aspect of any berserker subclass or NPC, something that allows several rounds of action after the creature reaches zero HP (likely 1D6 rounds) where additional damage does nothing to stop the bloody ravening and technically dead creature from continuing to attack.  This is more of a standard trick monster ability and not something that should be limited to large “beasts”.  The dangerous nature of this ability (especially on a large creature with multiple high damage attacks) is lessened by the fact that it’s a clear intuitive mechanic and easy to counter simply by running away until the creature finally collapses.


  1. Replies
    1. Oh! What if a Dragons head and its left front claw and right front claw can each do a different kind of magic, and if it has all free then it can do high-level magic. So depending on what it is doing with its body that effects what magic stuff it might do.

    2. I'm not so much thinking about dragons and other really titanic monsters here. Splitting a monster into multiple zones or enemies (As suggested in the Necropraxis post this post inspired) is certainly a neat idea but very much a complex set encounter sort of thing in my mind, while I am looking for something intermediate that allows larger bestial monsters to fell both dangerous and fierce without adding too much complexity.

  2. Here's another idea, a take on the "can only be hurt in one spot" notion: only one or two people can attack it there. This is my take on how to implement the various AC's that some monsters have in the AD&D monster manual.

    This could be combined with damage reduction. One guy can position himself to stab it in the eye but everyone else has to hack through an inch of chitin.

  3. Very cool! I've also used in the past monsters that get harder to hit/damage as they take damage (in this case a blood slime that literally scabbed over, and 'died' when it got to scabbed over to move). This could be ported over to any monstrous beast that gets more ferocious as you fight it, like an owlbear mom protecting her (pups?) or like the Indominus Rex from Jurassic World. If it is tied to the number of attacks, it discourages needling. If it is tied to damage, it works as a pre-mortem sort of berserking.

    I'm definitely going to keep these tricks in my toolbag.

  4. Another possibility is damage resistance, either of the sort where you take only half damage (or some other fraction) from some or most forms of attack, or of the sort where the top one or two possible results on each die get re-rolled. The latter is likely to be somewhat of a shock to players, but memorable.

    Damage resistance might also be combined with damage reduction in interesting ways.

  5. There are plenty of mechanisms to make creatures more resilient and dangerous, and there's something to be said for mechanical plenitude, but they key for me is to determine what mechanic does to and if troubles it solves are worth the added complexity of any new mechanic.

  6. It seems like immunity to non magic attacks was gygax's attempt to deal with this same issue. Discourages ranges and hireling attacks.

    1. I use weapon immunity as well, especially for outsider and undead creatures, but in this case I want something for enemies that are still fundamentally mundane.

  7. Check out Alexis's solution to this at Tao of D&D. Basically, just being near a large creature gives you a significant chance of taking damage proportional to the creative's size, in addition to its attacks.

  8. Tactic can do a lot to help as well. Chances are a huge hulk with even a low intelligence would want to use every advantage it has- sneaking, collapsing obstacles, knocking people into those pesky archers, or just stepping on a melee fighter on their way to eat the wizard.

  9. Another solution: "this isn't even my final form"

    After you "kill" an owlbear, replace it with an Enraged Owlbear. It has half HP compared to a normal owlbear and does double damage on its attacks. (This is similar to simply expanding the HP pool of a monster, but gives some differentiation to different stages of the fight.)

    Another monster, when killed, splits into a skeleton, a boneless zombie, a blood ooze, and a ghost.

    Another sand golem, when killed, turns into a tiny, dancing diamond mephit that can only be killed if hit with a natural 20, and has the ability to restore the sand golem if a turn elapses without anyone hitting it (with any attack, not just a natural 20).

    1. I think that's a fine mechanic - but the question becomes does it encourage a specific type of play? Also and something I should add to the post above - how transparent and easy to figure out the mechanic is it?

      The Enraged Owlbear seems only to be either a mechanism for increasing HP or better phrased to create a changing multistage boss fight. If anything becoming more dangerous after XP loss just makes the goal of peppering the thing to death or mobbing it to have henchmen absorb its limited number of attacks more reasonable. These are both potential tactical solutions, not bad in themselves - but the very solutions I'm trying to discourage.

      The monster that splits into other (maybe weaker) monsters is also a neat mechanic, but it doesn't really address the problem I'm trying to get at. there are a huge number of monster tricks and puzzles one can include, but for me the questions for designing a trick monster are:

      1) What 'feel' do I want the monster to have. Is it an unstoppable juggernaut, a nimble adversary that leaps about almost impossible to hit, a defensive bulwark that protects other creatures?

      2) What mechanic provides this feel?

      3) Is the mechanic simple? Really couldn't it be simpler?

      4) Are there dumb exploits for the mechanic that I can think of? Do I want there to be? I.E.One hunts high damage reduction creatures with siege weapons or poison.

  10. Also consider making more attacks aoe. A tiger claw should probably only hit a single target, but an owlbear could hit two or three, and a dragon claw attack could easily flatten a dozen men.

    1. The weird thing about "AOE" attacks in D&D is that they don't feel AOE. Yes one could use a saving throw system, but otherwise it's simply either an individual attack roll against everyone in the target area, or an individual attack checked against all potential target's AC. I prefer the 'flurry' attack as described above (which is a similar thing). The real issue for me with 'beast' monsters isn't their attack ability, it's their survivability.

  11. Having large monsters being able to knock-about, grab, and trample man-sized foes makes large critters more impressive. If its got wings there is no reason it should not grab a wee human fly out of range of missile weapons and either drop or swallow their little helpless foe.
    Weapons should break a bunch too both from being put under intense stress and from being slapped by large monsters (save vs crushing blow).

    1. The weapons needing to make saving throws is a cool idea. I'm thinking a save on a miss, and save on a hit being penalized based on the damage dealt or something.

  12. What about a sort of hybrid damage reduction/frenzy where the beast absorbs a certain number of blows/amount of damage and returns some portion of that as a damage/attack bonus on the following round. That makes it both dangerous to engage a beast and allows some planning around attacking as a group then baiting its rage for a round or two. This doesn't seem to dissimilar from ancient hunting tactics, if that's an encounter feel you'd want to promote.

    1. Sounds complex, I think for an enraged by damage mechanic, one would be better off just using a flat bonus to hit and damage after an attack. I think of this thing as a sort of 'video game' mechanic like when bosses started to flash red and do more damage in old beat 'em ups. With these mechanics I get extra paranoid about the complexity and workability of the mechanic.

      The weakspot mechanic is an example. Now in an action CRPG or even a MMORPG target selection is easy and a key gameplay element. In something like D&D it's not - I suppose you could have called shots or something, but with a straight AC system it seems silly to say that the creature's AC is 22, except on it's eyes which are AC 12. Without a called shot mechanic (if you're being transparent with your players or even hinting at the creature's vulnerability) that creature is AC 12. With a called shot mechanic this only makes sense if the target area is easier to hit by a greater amount then any called shot penalty or if certain kinds of characters are the only kinds that can make called shots.

      With an enrage mechanic I think it could work mechanically, but again I'd keep it simple like "The enraged owlbear's attacks always do maximum damage and are at a +4 to hit." I'd also make sure that there was some way to really know the owlbear was enraged and more dangerous.

  13. Here is the link Charles Taylor mentioned to Alexis writing about monsters:
    I support Alex point of view - my players have learned that the "orcs" I use are not the orcs they thought they knew all about, same goes for vampires and werewolfes - especially when your yourself become such a monster. You find out firsthand if all the bad tales are true or only tales...

    Great ideas you ave put together here. Thanks to you all,

  14. Gus, have you tried these mechanics in play, specifically the DR one? I was thinking of implementing it for large sized and up creatures, along with some sort of trample save. I already allow multiple attacks against adjacent creatures, and that works ok, but this DR idea seems like it could really give some heft to em.

    1. I used the damage reduction last session, it helped, but with scaled damage reduction the Cray dog Matriarch went down fairly fast as it got surrounded. There were also a suspicious number of natural 20's rolled. Unfortunately (and despite an attack bonus of 6 and treating all AC as max 5/15) the Matriarch also didn't hit very much. Only managed to kill one leveled henchman, but did that most gruesomely.

      I think in the future I would set the DR at a higher number and also provide that extra combatants only reduce it by 1 each.

  15. Gus, I know I'm a bit late to this topic, but what about the advantage / disadvantage mechanic in D&D 5E? I see two options:

    1. Give a subset of weapons (e.g. small, or missile, or other) a disadvantage to hit means that only big, monster chopping weapons make sense for attacks (effectively giving the monster two AC stats - one for the attacks that hurt it, another for those that need to be precise).

    2. Give small / weak / or ALL weapons disadvantage on damage. This means that swingier weapons (big weapons, d8 bows, etc.) become much weaker, while armor piercing small weapons remain consistent but weak.

    Those could even be combined, if needed. E.g., a horrible hair monster with thick fur that basically stops arrows and blubber that reduces their impact giving disadvantage on piercing attacks and damage.

  16. Luka,

    The Damage Reduction is basically option No. 2. An advantage disadvantage mechanism would work - especially if you gave disadvantage to say the first three attackers on the beast. The only issue I'd have with it is A) It's 5E PCs don't miss B) I like player being able to hit giant monsters, not simply to give them good ACs, hit scratch and feel like the thing is shrugging off wounds.