The Peculiar Case of the Owlbear in 13th Age

The owlbear is an iconic D&D monster. As such, it is present in 13th Age, and it doesn’t disappoint. It’s sneaky, brutal, and can even tear limbs off:

Feed the cubs: An owlbear that scores a critical hit against a hampered* enemy tears a piece of the creature off (GM chooses a limb) and will subsequently attempt to retreat with the prize to feed its cubs. The torn-up enemy is stunned until the end of its next turn.

*Its attacks hamper enemies until the end of its next turn, and it does 2 attacks whenever the escalation die is even.

A mechanically simple yet thematic ability, something 13th Age excels at. Without it, the owlbear is a decent if a bit bland monster. With it, though, the owlbear deserves an entire post. Here, then, is a detailed look at all things owlbear.

Gamechanger

The owlbear has its own victory condition, distilled into a single ability and distinct from dealing damage. It even departs as soon as this condition is achieved, leaving the maimed PC behind. The fight really is over at that point, the purpose of the encounter fulfilled, and it’s a lucky coincidence that the mangled PC couldn’t have put up much of a fight anymore. It doesn’t make sense from the in-game point of view, to leave the perfectly edible and weakened prey behind, but it plays out much better this way. The party now has to deal with their bleeding comrade – unless they decide they need the limb to ease reattachment, in which case the fight becomes a chase, a different scene with different goals.

Furthermore, should the owlbear achieve its victory condition, it will have a significant impact on the story. Importantly, you are not in control of this: you can’t choose to have it win by scoring a critical hit. This means you shouldn’t introduce an owlbear into the game unless you’re ready to face either outcome. Which says a lot about our expectations and the nature of D&D, when regular deathly conflict is not expected to change the course of the game.

There is a cop-out, though. The ability text is ambiguous, and it doesn’t have to mean the whole limb was lost. It could be just a flesh wound, a chunk torn off from an otherwise functioning extremity. Just a stun on a crit. How boring that suddenly seems.

Not a monster, a predator

The owlbear changes the typical dynamic between PCs and monsters. Facing an owlbear has consequences. It is not a foe to be thwarted, it is a fellow predator, dangerous beyond the abstractness of hit point loss. Hit points have always had a tenuous relation with actual bodily harm. It is easy to shrug them off. Sudden loss of an arm makes a PC vulnerable in a way having only 5 hp left (or even being killed!) can’t. As such, it can also be uncomfortable and disruptive to the fantasy that is D&D. While many groups wouldn’t care, it is still something to consider before you introduce the creature.

Sometimes the owlbear gets you

Crippling PCs is somewhat mean, one might argue. Fortunately, the dice provide the GM with plausible deniability, absolution through not just rules, but randomness as well. It’s not the GM’s fault the owlbear is so nasty, and it’s really not the GM’s fault it rolled a 20. This is, of course, a lie, but a very convenient lie.

There’s precious little PCs can do to avoid getting maimed, either. Limb loss coincides with damage being dealt, but the two are not directly connected. While PCs spend the whole game interacting with damage and can have various abilities to negate or overcome it, the owlbear really doesn’t care. They can try and disengage any time they get hit, as it’s only the repeat attack that has a chance to tear a limb off. This may even be appropriate, a wolf pack tactics of distraction and flanking. Yet it seems like it won’t necessarily be doable in a given situation, and it certainly won’t be reliable.

No, the only way to assuredly not get your limbs torn off is not to engage the owlbear at all. Therefore, if worst does come to worst, it wasn’t your fault, and it wasn’t the GM’s fault. It really was the owlbear that got you.

Perceived threat

After all of this talk of limbs torn being torn off, a question naturally arises: does this mean that an owlbear that failed to execute its signature move has failed as a monster, not a predator but a sad bag of hit points, a Chekov’s Gun that never fired? After all, the owlbear is not likely to actually tear a limb off. It needs to score a critical hit against a target it’s hit on the previous turn: even when fighting a couple of owlbears, that’s nowhere near a given. At a glance, this looks like a typical misapplication of goblin dice: a swingy roll with high impact on the game. Multiple rolls throughout the fight improve the situation, making it less of a freak accident if it does happen, but the crucial fact remains: the PCs are the “goblins” whose fate is being decided here.

It is fortunate, then, that the owlbear’s primary contribution to the game is not the loss of limbs. It’s the fear. The “holy shit” moment when the players learn of what the owlbear can do. The tension of every roll. This is what makes it an exceptional monster. The threat is more important than its unlikely fulfillment. The players will pay attention when you put the beast before them.

A mismatched hybrid

The owlbear is a ruse, a contradiction, a beak sewn onto a bear. It’s more akin to a Medusa than, Orcus help you, a random encounter. It is an awkward fit for a game about slaughtering monsters without thought or consequence. But just like its strength as a monster to be fought is not in what it does, but what it could do, its strength as a monster to be dissected is not in what it is, but what it represents. Namely, a meaningful, dramatic scene with multiple clear consequences – an owlbear of a scene, if you will.

It doesn’t really live up to its potential. It creates a new victory condition, but doesn’t allow players to affect it. It creates consequences, even if they’re not fitting for the game. And still. Even though all we found was just a bunch of feathers covered in glue, there had been something there, a pair of huge yellow eyes that blinked once and disappeared into the darkness, making us wonder why we’d fight anything else. Isn’t roleplaying, in a way, just chasing owlbears?

2 thoughts on “The Peculiar Case of the Owlbear in 13th Age

    • I’ve been considering writing a “Building a Better Owlbear” post. In short, I’d make limb loss explicitly optional, something the GM can enable. Further, I’d make it trigger off the owlbear attacking an unconscious target. Same story, but much more controllable. And ideally, there’d be a couple of such options for prominent monsters, which GM can choose based on the current story and where they want it to go next.

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