Especially Nasty – Trollflesh Golem

Flesh golems are stitched together from the bodies of many different creatures. They are disturbing in their own right, but what if it wasn’t made up of just any old dead creatures? What if the parts weren’t dead at all?

Trollflesh Golem

Huge 4th level wrecker

Initiative: +7

Sweeping claws +9 vs AC (2 attacks) – 21 damage

Patchwork regeneration 15: While a trollflesh golem is damaged, it heals 15 hit points at the start of the golem’s turn.

When the golem is hit by an attack that deals fire or acid damage, or suffers a critical hit, its regeneration is permanently reduced by 5 as stitches come undone and a large chunk of its body falls off. It grows rapidly if haphazardly, becoming a spasming trollflesh – roll initiative as it joins the fight.

Dropping a trollflesh golem to 0 hp doesn’t kill it.

Ignore this ability once the trollflesh golem’s patchwork regeneration is reduced to 0.

Stitched together: a trollflesh golem is vulnerable to weapon attacks.

Energy magnet: Whenever a spell that causes cold, fire, force, lightning, or negative energy damage targets one of the flesh golem’s nearby allies, the trollflesh golem has a 50% chance of becoming the main target instead. Therefore, spells that affect groups would spread out from the trollflesh golem.

Weakness of the flesh: Unlike other golems, troll flesh golems are not immune to effects and can be affected by the fears and madness of mortals.

AC 18

PD 17      HP 150

MD 13

Nastier specials:

Something had to keep the trolls from regenerating all this time. You’re about to find out what it was.

Exposed necrotic core: Whenever a creature engaged with a trollflesh golem makes a natural odd hit or miss against it, the attacker suffers necrotic damage equal to 15 minus the golem’s regeneration.

Spasming Trollflesh

It’s a jumble of claws and muscle trying desperately to regrow, but it’s forgotten what it used to be. It doesn’t even have a head. Unfortunately, attacking everything around it seems to be in muscle memory.

4th level wrecker

Initiative: +8

Frantic Spasms +9 vs AC – 7 damage.

Natural even hit or miss: The spasming trollflesh pops free, moves to a random nearby creature and repeats the attack against it.

Maddened regeneration: spasming trollflesh heals to full health at the start of its turn. Reducing it to 0 hp kills it. When the trollflesh is hit by an attack that deals fire or acid damage, it can’t regenerate during its next turn.

AC 18

PD 17       HP 28

MD 13

Especially Nasty – Wereowlbear

Wereowlbear

Were. Owl. Bear.

Large level 6 troop [BEAST]

Initiative +10

Rip and Peck (hybrid form only) + 11 vs AC, 22 damage, and the target is hampered while engaged with the wereowlbear.

    Vicious hybrid: If the escalation die is even, make another rip and peck attack.

Owldropbear (one enemy below the wereowlbear) (owl form only). +11 vs PD, 33 damage and the target is grabbed and hampered while engaged with the werowlbear. The wereowlbear transforms into its hybrid form as it plummets from up high, pinning its unfortunate victim down. It’s very hard to intercept a plummeting wereowlbear.

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, likely in its owl form. The torn-up enemy is stunned until the end of its next turn. Does a wereowlbear have cubs? Are they werecubs? Does it just feed a den of bears in a misguided maternal instinct? We may never know.

Bestial fury (hybrid form only): Wereowlbears gain a bonus to damage equal to double the escalation die.

Resilient shifting (all three forms): As described in 13 True Ways, a werebeast can shift forms once per round as a quick action. When a werebeast shifts, it can roll a save against one save ends effect.

Silent hunter: Owlbears are nearly silent until they strike. Checks to hear them approaching take a -5 penalty. The penalty increases to -10 if it is in the owl form.

Nastier specials:

Moon bloodlust: Expand the wereowlbear’s critical range by the escalation die if it is fighting under the moonlight. E.g. if the escalation die is at 4, the wereowlbear crits on 16+. Note: very likely to result in loss of limb and life. Run.

Cursed bite (hybrid or bear form only): Unlike other werebeasts, wereowlbears do not spread their curse to humanoids, as they never were one to begin with. It’s not even clear if it’s a curse at all, or the true origin of owlbears, or the next stage in the evolution of the ferocious hybrid.

However, they may be able to infect other animals they bite, such as ranger’s animal companion or a pack mule. Unless blessed, purged, or otherwise cured, the bitten creature will turn into a werebeast on the night of the next full moon.

If the beast was land-based, it becomes a wereowl. If it was aerial, it becomes a werebear. What that actually means is left up the GM and/or ranger.

AC 21

PD 20          HP 140

MD 15

Bear, Owl, and Hybrid forms

The wereowlbear is not likely to fight in the bear or owl form. It’s quite happy to start the fight in the owl form, though, and it’ll transform into an owl to reposition and perform the owldropbear attack whenever no one’s engaged with it. In the rare instance when PCs somehow manage to attack it in the owl form, decrease its AC and PD by 2 and call it a day.

Boss Decay

We’ve all been there. You unleash an awesome boss monster on the party, expecting it to last good solid 5-6 rounds, only for it to suffer from premature evisceration. So what do you when your dracolich drops on round 3? You can leave the players unsatisfied, or cheat and pump up its hp, or use this one weird trick.

This idea only applies to D&D and D&D-like games. And it doesn’t mess with any of the math of the system, either!

Double the hit points of your boss. Decide how many rounds you want it to last, the aforementioned 5 or 6 is fairly standard. Divide the original hp by this number to find the boss’ decay, then round it to something easy to use. Finally, give the boss a trait: the first time it is hit in a round, it takes extra damage equal to the decay number. That’s it. 

So if you have, say, a Tarrasque with 1200 hp that you want to last at least 6 rounds (a setup with nice, round numbers), give it 2400 hp instead, with decay of 200. If the party is doing as well as you expect them to do, on round six all the extra hit points will be gone, and they will be facing the original 1200 hp Tarrasque, hopefully about to defeat it. If they have unleashed crazy synergies or maybe simply 5 crits in 3 rounds, they’ll kill it on round 5 or maybe 4 instead, the undecayed bonus hp acting as padding. Importantly, good tactics or plain luck will still have mattered.

Once the decay is done and all the bonus hp are gone, you’ll probably want to “switch off” the decay trait – everything is back to normal. Or maybe the boss turned out to be tougher than you thought, and the party actually needs the help decay provides to finish it off.

A possible tweak involves dividing the decay number by 2 or 3, and having the decay trait trigger corresponding number of times per round, but only once per player. This removes the emphasis from landing one attack each round, instead bringing it back to fighting the boss, though I don’t expect this to be an actual issue in play.

This idea is, in a way, a reverse of 13th Age’s escalation die. Whereas the ED guarantees the battle will eventually swing in PC’s favor, boss decay guarantees the swing will not be too abrupt.

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?

Psychodrama on the battlemat

Reviewing DramaSystem and analyzing how it handles inner character conflict got me thinking of how I’ve handled this in my 4e campaign. The fact of the matter is, 4e and D&D in general offer little to no support for creating drama. They provide rules for actions, but how character motivations inform those actions, and how in turn completion of those actions affects motivations is left entirely to the players. So, given an abundance of action rules, in particular combat rules, is there a way to express motivations and dramatic conflict through them? Of course there is. This is in many ways a corollary to the post I wrote on providing encounters with purpose: once you decide you want to use a combat encounter to highlight some dramatic moment, you can use these techniques. Continue reading

Dragon Tipping

This idea was brought on by recent discussions of save-or-die, as well as omnipresent lamentation of the way solo monsters get brought down by status effects in 4e, and finally something I have touched upon in a past post: intuitively, it should be harder to trip a dragon than it is to trip a goblin. But how, and why?

Because a dragon is a solo monster. This suggests that it should be tougher, not to mention more dignified than to spend half the battle on its back. A spell that would stop a goblin’s heart should merely give it hiccups. See the common thread? Status effects inflicted upon solo monsters should be inherently weaker. This is what the +5 bonus to saves tried to achieve, but we all know how that fared. This is tangentially related to the thought that power is different from level, and that solo/elite/standard/minion actually describe the difference in tiers between a monster and the PCs. Now, what can we do?

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Patient Two

In the previous part, after months of preparation the party had delivered their oldest enemy, the lord of madness called Patient One, to the one place where it could be destroyed. They ventured down into its prison, dragged it out of hiding and watched it burn. Just as it looked like it was about to unleash some new hell on them it exploded, showering them in aberrant flesh. They have won. Or so it seemed.

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Patient One

In the interest of keeping up with semi-weekly posts as well as running my weekly D&D game, I’ve decided to post some of my notes for said game when there’s no other topic I’d like to discuss. They’ll probably range from separate monsters to encounters to adventures to house rules and system hacks. I’ll also provide commentary on the intent of each design, as well as whether or not it worked and reasons for it. The usual approach. So while I doubt you’d find much you can lift straight out (and you’re welcome to), hopefully the thinking behind these mechanics will allow you to adapt them to your game, if you so choose. Lets kick things off with one of the main bosses of the campaign, a Lord of Madness, the Patient One. Continue reading

Collision of Perfect Spheres

This is the third part of the two-part series on interactions between characters and encounter elements. Having discussed in some length how DMs can design compelling terrain powers and how players can be encouraged to interact with terrain, I now move on to the other significant element of encounters – monsters. Unlike the aforementioned posts, this one won’t be about (what I feel to be) a deficiency in design, but rather about an opportunity that is not being utilised. The whole of 4e is, essentially, about characters interacting with monsters. Yet these interactions are remarkably one-sided, going both ways. Characters do their thing to the monsters while monsters do their thing to the characters until one side, preferably monsters, runs out of hit points.

When it comes to being chopped to bits, the process is fairly homogeneous. Monsters may have certain defences that are lower than others, they may have vulnerabilities or resistances, and that’s about it. Every now and then a monster has special vulnerabilities, like undead whose aura turns off when hit with radiant damage or golems who behave erratically when hit with particular energy type. Those are good, and they are the focus of this post. Most of the time though the monsters don’t get an individual approach as they get thrown into a blender that is adventurers.

A power that works on a goblin will work just as well on a dragon. This leads to a disconnect where characters easily trip and daze dragons, the source of many how-to-make-your-solos-not-suck fixes, and this is something worth thinking about – in a future post, maybe. But this stems from the exact same issue mentioned in the first post, the perfect spherical nature of characters. They have to fight goblins and dragons and stranger things, so they can’t have powers specifically for fighting dragons and powers specifically for fighting goblins. They can’t, but monsters can.

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Unwieldy Contraption

What happens, when you put a crazed dwarf in a neogi-designed battle suit? This guy:

Very fiddly for an elite, but so much fun with underlings he can inadvertently step on.

Not very happy with the wording, and Plow Through is somewhat mangled – couldn’t find a better way to make it in the monster builder. But overall I’ve thoroughly enjoyed making him up, and may even do more unwieldy contraptions – “monsters” that can’t just hit adventurers over the head repeatedly. Unless I forget about this blog for another couple of months.