Monday, January 28, 2013

Monster Monday: Do It Yourself in DCC

So, folks, I've spent the last few months inventing or re-inventing monsters for my various DCC games and it's been very educational. Maybe you've seen some of my Monster Monday posts (there aren't many) or my older Fiends From the Folio series of conversions; there's lots of other stuff that I've not released here, but will at some point (probably). In all that time, I've learned a few tricks that I'd like to share with you, particularly for using these monsters effectively in encounters to provide a reasonable challenge for your players that (a) won't be a pushover and (b) gives the players a reasonable chance of success (our opinions of reasonable chances may vary).

Off Da Railz, Yo
I realized first and foremost that some of the monsters I was designing were either hitting too hard or hitting too soft, depending on what they were hitting. Similarly, it felt like many of my monsters were made out of paper, taking few hits to knock them out. Low hp in monsters is fine when all of the PCs are 0-level mooks, but when you throw in even one level 1 PC per player with that same group of mooks, you've got some serious hitting power. It felt as if few of my monsters were able to accomplish what they were intended to do and instead were glass cannons that might get a hit in and kill a PC here or there, but combat would rarely last more than two rounds. But if all I did was beef up the hp totals of my existing monsters, then the murder train would go out of control -- off da rails, as +Rad DeLong would say -- and I'd be neck-deep in a new crop of 0s in no time.

And so, instead of just beefing up one thing and nerfing another, I realized that a targeted approach was needed, the basis of which would be the intended niche for each creature in the encounters that I'm planning. Here's what I've got so far:

  • The Mook: I use the term "mook" a lot, and I almost always mean the same thing. A low defenses, low damage, low hp enemy often used as filler in encounters where they're not the real threat, but another creature is. Your basic orc or goblin typically fills this role, but so many others can as well. To make a monster a mook, give your average PC a 50/50 or better shot of hitting the thing (AC 10 or 11 at 0th level, 11 or 12 at 1st, stuff like that), a lower hit die (I'd usually use a d6 for these guys) and keep their damage low (d4s for most damage expressions). 
  • The Beast: In some ways the opposite of the mook and in some ways his cousin, the beast is designed to dish out punishment and take a lot of hits while allowing the PCs to feel like they're making progress on taking it down. For the beast, keep damage similar to the mook, but give him an extra action die to make him a threat to more people. Similarly, you'll keep defenses low so that more PCs can get a hit in on him; here's the trick, though, give him a lot of hp. A lot. Make taking down this one guy a serious task that your players cannot ignore. Consider increasing the die type to a d10 or even d12 for bigger, smashier challenges. 
  • The Turtle: I couldn't come up with a better name than "the turtle" without dipping into MMO or 4e terms, so I decided that turtle it would be. The turtle is a frustrating enemy because its high AC makes most of the PCs' attacks pretty useless. Use the turtle when the enemies should be well-organized and -prepared, particularly as a line of defense for other, less durable enemies. The turtle's hp should be average and his attacks should do a normal amount of damage (d6s or d8s) or less. 
  • The Monster: The monster is what happens when you cross the beast with the turtle; high AC, high hp and enough attacks to seriously threaten a good number of PCs. Use monsters sparingly and most if not all of them should be unique. I tend to use them as the key note encounter (the "boss fight," if you will) of my adventures. Dragons, big demons and avatars of evil gods make great monsters.
  • The Sneak: The sneak is a turtle that is capable of sudden, very accurate, high-damage attacks under certain circumstances. Usually very mobile and capable of some degree of stealth, the sneak's high damage output is usually contingent on this mobility or stealth; otherwise, the damage output will be on the low side. Give the sneak a high AC, a low hp, and low damage but a single (or few) attack at a greater than average accuracy and high damage; consider also adding a unique movement mode such as flight or teleportation to make the conditional damage a real threat. Use the sneak when you want to strike at the PCs' flank and catch them unawares.
  • The Warlock: Wizards, sorcerers, warlocks, witches, diabolists and mind mages of all sorts can fill the role of the warlock. The warlock hangs back in combat, often due to his low AC and hp, often protected only by his magics and bodyguards. The primary function of the warlock is to rain down death and destruction on the PCs, just like the party wizard does to the monsters. Throw in some controlling effects to shape the battlefield to the DM's whim (walls of fire, clouds of acid, things like that) and you've got a grade-A warlock. Use the warlock carefully: you'll want to carefully plan warlock encounters and make each one memorable, often as key points in your adventure. After all, the dark powers don't bend to everyone's will.
  • The Enigma: Often encountered alone, the enigma is exactly that: a creature so strange that the players don't know what to do with it. Often, the enigma will have a single or very few forms of attack that rarely damage opponents but usually confound them or kill them outright. Usually, fighting the enigma is more about player ingenuity than out and out combat and thus its combat stats usually matter only as the DM wishes to see them matter. Often, the enigma will have a primary defense form tied to its most devastating attack, sometimes in a two-pronged attack (like the Blue Siren's hypnotic plumage and the females' stealth attack) and sometimes in an all-or-nothing combination (such as the petrification gaze of a medusa). Good examples of the enigma include the medusa, the catoblepas, the rust monster and even the disenchanter. Use the enigma to demonstrate to the PCs that they need to always be on their toes. 
Using the preceding archetypes, you can stock a dungeon with a single race of monsters, but with a great enough variety of challenges that you shouldn't get bored. That having been said, mix up your damn monster types. The "all orc dungeon" sucks and is repetitious. You could use these archetypes as a checklist as you go through stocking your dungeon, looking to make sure each type is represented to some degree. There is one type of enemy, though, that I absolutely hate sending against my players and avoid at all costs:
  • The Medic: This guy (usually a druid, a shaman or a cleric of some dark power) heals the other enemies but is in all other regards about the same as a turtle. Want to make the players feel ineffectual? Erase all that damage they just did to the big bad by healing it up. Want to give yourself a headache in bookkeeping? Add in a medic so that you have to keep track of twice as many numbers. Want to have a fun game? Limit your use of medics to an absolute minimum. 
So, there you have it. When I'm designing or redesigning a monster, I think about these thingss now. What's my goal here? Usually, it's not just to throw some random monsters at my PCs. I try to make each encounter count, and so I've developed some tools that help me make my monsters memorable. Here's hoping it works for you as well as it works for me.