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.

Anathema

In the game I’m running, the 21st level party is currently on a bit of a side-quest, invading the yuan-ti secret City of Gold.  Having fought their way into the main temple and to its depths, they find the chamber of the anathema where it was being kept captive… until the priests set it free and fed all their prisoners and themselves to it in the hopes of it defeating the seemingly unstoppable heroes. Upon meeting it, the party has decided to implement “their oldest strategy”. To my surprise, it wasn’t “feed the dwarf to it”, but rather “run away screaming like little girls”.

As a note, I much prefer the 3rd edition version of the anathema to the 4th edition version. Snake elemental just seems silly. That, plus the 4e stats for it aren’t as terror-inspiring as I would have liked them to be, even after upgrading the damage to the MM3 standards. Overall, this seemed like a perfect opportunity to try my hand at creating epic solos and to test Gamefiend’s worldbreaker mechanic. Yes, I know, it’s a second link to the At-Will blog in as many posts. Good stuff there, what can I say.

As the basis for my anathema I took the Venom-Maw Hydra from the Monster Vault, and as the model for the worldbreaker, its latest iteration. It ended up not being as major a part of the monster as it probably should have been, but I was running out of time. Here’s what I got.

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