Especially Nasty – Intellect Devourer Delusion

This creature uses the curse rules as a foundation, taking them in a slightly different direction. There’s no moral lesson to this “curse”, just the unremitting terror of having your mind eroded, bite by bite. This is how intellect devourers are born.

In addition, there are a few elements which use the corruption rules. Simply ignore any mentions of corruption if you’re not using that subsystem.

Intellect Devourer Delusion

Transgression: You’ve really annoyed someone really unpleasant. Alternatively, this could be the side effect of severe corruption.

Associated Icons: Archmage, Lich King, Prince of Shadows, The Three, some horrorific fallen or rising icon.

When the curse strikes: All throughout the session, you feel like you’re being watched. As Germination (see below) rises, you’ll start hearing a voice, nonsensical at first, then issuing instructions or insults. At the beginning of combat during this session, you become aware of an intellect devourer hiding somewhere on the battlefield. It’ll keep reappearing this session until either Germination or Comprehension is increased.

Some Assembly Required

The nascent intellect devourer always matches the capabilities of its host. Find the “base stats for normal monsters” on page 254 of the core book and use them to replace all the ‘x’s in the write-up below. The intellect devourer’s level is equal to the level of the host, MD is its better defense, and Initiative is equal to its level +4. See below for the way the effective hp are calculated. If you’re feeling fancy, you may wish to further customize these numbers to better suit the infected PC. Take a look at the previous page for simple adjustments. For instance, if the host is a healer, you could make its intellect devourer a scrapper (+3 to attack, 70% of normal hp); or if the host is a “glass cannon”, the intellect devourer could be an oaf (-3 to attacks, +3 to AC).

Delusion Progress

There are two parameters that track the progress of the intellect devourer growing inside the poor host’s head: Comprehension and Germination, both starting at 1. Comprehension is a measure of success the host has in understanding and ultimately overcoming the intellect devourer. It goes up by 1 each time the character defeats the intellect devourer. Germination, on the other hand, measures how close the intellect devourer is to completely overtaking the host’s personality, growing legs, and attaining freedom. Germination goes up by 1 each time the intellect devourer knocks out the host with psychic damage at the end of the fight.

Comprehension affects the intellect devourer’s total hp: it has 50% of the hp it’s supposed to have according to the table when Comprehension is 1, 75% when Comprehension is 2, and 100% when Comprehension is 3. This may seem counterintuitive: the better the host understands the threat, the harder it is to vanquish. However, while their comprehension is 1 or 2, they cannot truly defeat it: it slinks away back into the recesses of their mind. Once Comprehension reaches 4, the intellect devourer is actually destroyed.

Germination makes it easier for the intellect devourer to use its abilities. In addition, whenever Germination goes up, have the player choose a background their character has. Now it belongs to the intellect devourer. But it’s fine, it’s willing to share. Every time the character uses the stolen background, they risk corruption, and the memories they draw upon are dissociated from their own point of view. Describe a mundance scene relating to the background, as observed by an alien intellect.

Due to the way the intellect devourer’s psychic damage is applied (see below), both Germination and Comprehension can go up simultaneously. Should both reach 4, the host is left in an unenviable position of being in total control of an intellect devourer that has hijacked their former body.

Nascent Intellect Devourer

“You are worthless. Just give up. Let me out. I’ll take care of everything.”

Initiative level +4

Host’s level spoiler [ABERRATION]

[Special trigger] C: Anxiety +x vs MD – the host rolls damage as if they’d hit themselves with the attack they used, dealing psychic damage.

Limited use: Use as an interrupt when the host attacks and an opportunity presents itself.

[Special trigger] C: Delusion + x vs MD – the condition against which the save was made is applied again, even if the save wasn’t successful, except any damage it deals is psychic. It’s not considered to be the same effect, though, e.g. if a creature gains a bonus to attacking those suffering ongoing fire damage, ongoing psychic damage of thinking you’re on fire won’t help it.

Limited use: Use as an interrupt when the host makes a save and an opportunity presents itself.

[Special trigger] C: Paranoia +x vs MD – the ally rolls damage as if they’d hit the host as well, dealing psychic damage.

Limited use: Use as an interrupt when the host’s ally attacks an enemy nearby the host, and an opportunity presents itself.

C: Your lying eyes (nearby host) + x vs MD – x psychic damage, and the intellect devourer teleports to a nearby location.

Limited use: Use only when the intellect devourer hadn’t used any interrupts abilities since the end of its previous turn.

Opportunist: Several of the intellect devourer’s abilities can be used “when an opportunity presents itself” while some specified action occurs. With Germination 1, the ability can be used when the action resulted in failure and the natural roll was odd. With Germination 2, the ability can be used when the natural roll was odd, no matter action’s success. Finally, with Germination 3 the ability can be used when the natural roll was odd and on any roll when the action resulted in failure. The host can risk corruption to deny the intellect devourer an opportunity.

Mind playing tricks: Only the character suffering from the delusion can see or in any way interact with the intellect devourer. It’s all in their head. Quite literally: they’re not being stalked by a montser, the monster is growing inside their brain.

Identity crisis: Keep track of the damage dealt by the intellect devourer separately – do not subtract it from your hit point total. You can’t heal it either. Instead, the damage applies all at once at the end of the fight.

Insidious

This is as horrific as a monster gets. A parasite stealing one’s mind, a memory at a time. A disembodied voice critizicing every decision they make. An alien thing they share their head with. It is an opportunity for the GM to pull out all the stops, especially in the sessions when the “curse” strikes. Don’t let the few ideas mentioned so far limit you. Get under your player’s skin, inside their skull, and wriggle those growing legs. At the same time…

A word of caution

As you can see, the intellect devourer delusion is not just a nasty critter, but a not-so-subtle metaphor for mental illness. For some players, it may simply be a challenge to overcome. For others, it could potentially be catarthic to squash the embodiment of the horrible voice inside their head. Others still could be using games to escape similar real-world troubles. Just… be mindful.

Depending on your players, it may be a good idea to reframe the intellect devourer’s influence as insidiously helpful instead of anxiety-inducing. In that case, it wants to be your friend, a better friend than any of the fake friends you have. Anxiety becomes Earnest concern: “Oh no,” it says, “Look how clumsy you are. That’s ok, let me help.”

Especially Nasty – Infested Water Elementals

There are plenty of scary things that dwell in seas, rivers, and lakes. Thankfully, all you have to do to avoid them is not go into the water. But what if water comes to you?

Piranha-infested Water Elemental

“Lay the plank over the pond, so they think they can safely cross it, as long as they don’t fall in,” the orc giggled. 

3rd level large spoiler

Initiative +3

C: Ebb and flow +8 vs PD (up to 2 attacks, each against a different nearby enemy) – 9 damage.

Natural even hit: The target pops free from other creatures and moves to engage the infested water elemental.

Piranha swarm +8 vs AC (all creatures engulfed by the infested water elemental) – 20 damage.

Miss: Half damage.

Limited use: 1/round as a quick action.

Rip current: Any creature that ends its turn engaged with the infested water elemental is engulfed (functions like a grab).

Nastier specials:

R: Projectile piranhas +8 vs AC (1d3 nearby enemies) – 7 damage.

Limited use: 1/round as a quick action, if there is no creature engulfed by the elemental.

AC 18

PD 16     HP 99

MD 13

Shark-infested Water Elemental

A shark-infested air elemental, colloquially known as “Sharknado”, if such a thing existed, is a one-way shark-delivery method. This elemental, however, acts as an adventurer-delivery method. Generally one-way, too. 

5th level huge spoiler

Initiative +5

C: Ebb and flow +10 vs PD (up to 3 attacks, each against a different nearby enemy) – 17 damage.

Natural even hit: The target pops free from other creatures and moves to engage the infested water elemental.

Rip current: Any creature that ends its turn engaged with the infested water elemental is engulfed (functions like a grab).

Infestation: The shark-infested water elemental starts with 3-4 sharks infesting it. Include them as separate monsters when building this battle, though note they are weaklings and so count as half a normal monster.

Nastier specials:

Shark arms +10 vs AC (one attack per shark infesting the elemental) – 12 damage.

Miss: 1d6 damage.

Limited use: 1/round as a quick action, if there is no creature engulfed by the elemental.

Infinite sharks: At the start of each round, roll a d6. If the result is greater than the number of sharks infesting the elemental, and less or equal than the escalation die, another shark appears inside the water elemental. Where does it come from? Is there a portal to a Shark Kingdom within the elemental’s heart? Could something else come through? Could you go through it instead?

AC 20

PD 18     HP 237

MD 15

Shark Infesting Water Elemental

It seems quite happy with its living situation. At the very least, it’s smiling. 

5th level weakling troop

Initiative +9

Massive jaws +10 vs AC – 12 damage.

Miss: 1d6 damage.

Shredder: When an engulfed enemy misses with a melee attack against a shark or an elemental it infests and rolls a natural 1–5, the attacker takes 2d6 damage. This happens only once, even if there are multiple sharks infesting the same elemental.

Blood in the water: The shark goes into a frenzy if there’s a staggered enemy engulfed by the elemental it is infesting, and deals extra d6 damage, hit or miss.

Symbiotic relationship: The shark gains +5 to all defenses against attacks made by enemies that are not engulfed by the elemental it infests. However, once the elemental dies the shark becomes semi-hazardous terrain at best.

AC 21

PD 19     HP 36

MD 15

Especially Nasty – Illiphant

Illithids are plotting, secretive, inscrutable, psychically potent yet physically frail creatures. They are also “product identity” of D&D, so no official version exists in 13th Age. Fortunately, an illiphant is none of these things. It owes its existence to a mural made by Alexis Diaz, though the artist can hardly be blamed for the name, or the ensuing silliness.

Illiphant

Whether an illithid experiment or the result of escaped illithid tadpoles latching on to a poor creature, this monstrosity is highly territorial, exceptionally intelligent, and holds a grudge. If bodies of massive creatures with enormous holes in their skulls littered throughout the area were not enough to deter you, you better hope you merely get trampled to death. Illiphants do so like the taste of terror mixed with despair. 

Level 7 Huge wrecker [ABERRANT]

Initiative +9

Trample +11 vs PD, 42 damage.

Natural even attack roll: the target may choose to pop free. If it does, the illiphant moves to a nearby enemy it hasn’t attacked this turn yet and repeats the attack. If the target chooses not to pop free, the illiphant repeats the attack against it instead.

Natural odd roll: the illiphant makes a tentacle grab attack against the same target as a free action.

Tentacle grab +11 vs PD, the target is grabbed. An illiphant can have up to four creatures grabbed. This is the ability it usually uses for oppoprtunity attacks.

Squeeze the brains out +13 vs PD (all creatures grabbed by the illiphant), 84 damage.

Nastier Specials:

Cacophanous trumpetting. The illiphant has fear aura (fear threshold 36hp). In addition, its tentacle grab attack can target either MD or PD, whichever is lower.

An illiphant is never forgotten. The creature that strikes the killing blow against an illiphant never truly escapes the encounter. Their wounds may heal, but fear lingers. The (hopefully) irrational fear of being followed by an illiphant bent on revenge. Of its massive bulk hiding in the shadows. Observing. Biding its time. Bringing about their inevitable downfall. A hulking gray eminence out to get them.

Clearly, the only way to rid yourself of this fear is to confront it. Hunt down and kill the illiphant hunting you. Or at least any illiphant you can find. Just be sure it’s you who lands the killing blow again, or the paranoia will spread.

AC 24

PD 21    HP 324

MD 19

Especially Nasty – Raggamummy

It shambles towards you, more pitiful than menacing. The stench of rotting flesh is barely contained by its dirty bandages. It is not a very impressive mummy. As you notice the bandages sway in the non-existent wind, you realise, way too late, it is not a mummy at all.

Raggamummy

Without a creature to wrap around, the raggamummy is just a pile of animated bandages. Everything changes when it finds a victim – the bandages snake over them, wrapping tighter and tighter.

Level 2 spoiler

Initiative +2

C Entangle (one nearby non-mummified creature) +7 vs PD, 7 damage and the target is hampered and mummified.

Mummification. The mummified creature suffers 5 ongoing damage for as long as it remains mummified, and starts making last gasp saves, except it retains its full set of actions – see below. Success allows the mummified creature to throw the raggamummy off. On the fourth failed save, the raggamummy reaches inside the creature’s head, pulling out its brain through its nose. Some of the bandages coil up inside the now empty head, and the raggamummy takes full control of the body. Treat it as permanently hampered pseudo-undead.

While the raggamummy has a creature mummified, it doesn’t act on its turn. Instead, it controls the mummified creature’s actions.

Natural even save: the mummified creature has control over its standard action this round.

Natural odd save: the mummified creature has control over its move action this round.

Only the regular last gasp saves can trigger these effects, saves granted by other creatures or abilities do not.

Close to the skin. While the raggamummy has a creature mummified, it takes only half damage from any source, with the mummified creature taking the other half. It takes full damage from fire instead (the mummified creature still takes half).

Nastier Specials

Death by a thousand papercuts. The more you struggle, the deeper the bandages cut. The mummified creature’s ongoing damage increases by 5 each time it makes a last gasp save. It can voluntarily fail last gasp saves without making a roll.

AC 18

PD 12      HP 30

MD 16

The raggamummy starts the encounter as a “mummy”, wrapped around a corpse – use zombie shuffler stats (level 1 mook, 13A p251). Whenever a creature hits this “mummy” with a melee attack, the raggamummy makes an entangle attack against it. If successful, it leaves the body which drops dead.

Especially Nasty – Rust Monster Eraser

Rust monsters are not that dangerous, really. Annoying, potentially very expensive to deal with, and often leaving you terminally unprepared for whatever comes next, sure. But not dangerous by themselves. Some eat metal. Others magic. Not this one, though. This one eats your destiny. You’ll survive the encounter, covered in the rusty flakes of your once-great future.

Fatum phages show up at the most unfortunate time. The closer a hero is to fulfilling their destiny, the brighter they shine in the multi-faceted eyes of these beasts. And if said hero’s One Unique Thing has something to do with prophecy or fate, fatum phages would stop at nothing to get them.

Fatum Phage

Level 8 spoiler [ABERRATION]

Initiative +8

Caustic bite +13 vs. MD (one creature with no unspent story-guide icon relationship rolls)—38 damage, and 10 ongoing acid damage

Natural 16+: the target makes a save or permanently loses one of its icon relationships.

Rusting antenna +13 vs. MD (one creature with an unspent story-guide icon relationship roll of 5 or 6)—22 damage, and the target makes a hard save or decrements one of its story-guide icon relationship dice from 6 to 5, or loses a 5 entirely.

Tasty Tasty Fate: A fatum phage can add the escalation die to its attacks whenever it targets a creature that added the escalation die to its attacks last turn.

Rust’s targets: Icon relationships of creatures with 180 hp or more are not affected by the fatum phage’s ability to weaken or destroy them (they still take damage).

Nastier specials:

Rusted Icons: Pull up the Couatl entry of the Bestiary. Each time a fatum phage affects a relationship roll result or the relationship itself with its rusting antenna or caustic bite attack, it gains a corresponding icon-centric ability as if it was an 8th-level couatl. The fatum phage can only have one such ability at a time, so a new ability overwrites the old one; but limits on ability use such as 1/battle are reset when a new ability is gained.

AC 24

PD 18       HP 144

MD 22

Recovering Icon Relationships

The Archmage probably knows a useful ritual. So may the Elf Queen. The Diabolist likely has a deal she can offer. The Prince of Shadows stole everything there was to steal, maybe he knows how to unsteal some things, too. Point is, many icons can help. But why would they waste their time on someone so clearly insignificant as you?

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