How Monstrous: Mothman

Introducing a new feature, wherein I create monsters for 5th edition Dungeons & Dragons, which will be based on both creatures of folklore and my own twisted imaginings. Now, without further ado:

A Creature Of Myth And Legend

Most know little about the mysterious Mothman, and the vast majority of those who do consider it to be a myth. Still, these strange creatures appear in many stories, usually in the prelude to a great disaster with terrible loss of life. A bridge collapse on a busy market day, a fire in night in a small town, or the cave in of a mine shaft could all come in the wake of this strange observer.

A Non-Human Watcher

Standing over six feet tall, a Mothman is proportioned not unlike a normal human albeit one with a massive set of moth like wings protruding from its back. Its entire body is covered in moderately iridescent light-grey fur, although its most prominent feature is a pair of glowing red multifaceted eyes. It is said that anyone who meets it’s gaze is filled with dark premonitions of their impending doom. None can remember what they’ve seen when the gaze turns away, but the chills remain.

An Inscrutable Plan

A Mothman has no discernible agenda, and it is unknown even whether their presence at the site of an impending disaster is meant to be warning, although popular theory is that they cause the disasters themselves. They are normally solitary and non-aggressive, and if attacked they will usually attempt to flee before engaging in combat. Occasionally, they are found in the company of the impressively cruel, who use the Mothman’s reputation and gaze to cow their enemies. Alternatively, some more cowardly individuals chase Mothman sightings hoping for the opportunities brought on by the tragedies of others.

Mothman

Medium Humanoid, unaligned

Armor Class: 13
Hit Points: 85 (11d8)
Speed: 30 ft., fly 60 ft.

STR       DEX       CON      INT      WIS      CHA
10 (+0)  16 (+3)  11 (+0)  5 (-3)  15 (+2)  10 (+0)

Skills: Stealth + 5, Perception + 4
Senses: Darkvision 90 ft., passive Perception 14
Languages: –
Challenge: 3 (700 XP)

Portentous Gaze. When a creature that can see the Mothman’s eyes starts its turn within 60 feet of the Mothman, the Mothman can force it to make a DC 15 Wisdom saving throw or be frightened for 1 minute. A frightened target can repeat the saving throw at the end of each of its turns, with disadvantage if the Mothman is within line of sight, ending the effect on itself on a success. If a target’s saving throw is successful or the effect ends for it, the target is immune to the banshee’s Portentous Gaze for the next 24 hours
Unless surprised, a creature can avert its eyes to avoid the saving throw at the start of its turn. If the creature does so, it can’t see the Mothman until the start of its next turn, when it can avert its eyes again. If the creature looks at the Mothman in the meantime, it must immediately make the save.

Actions

Claws Melee Weapon Attack: + 2 to hit, reach 5 ft., one target.
Hit: 9 (2d8) slashing damage.

 

Strength And Dexterity

Today I want to talk about statistically influenced mechanics.

In a game of any kind, mechanics control the methods by which you as a player interact with the game world. This is as true in a color matching block game as it is in Football Manager, but I have a very specific topic I wish to discuss today.

Specifically, I am going to talk about the different ways in which accuracy and power are presented in games, especially role-playing games, and what they mean for the players. We’re going to be using Dungeons & Dragons as the ur example, but this is applicable in what should be a fairly obvious array of cases.

In Dungeons & Dragons, a character possesses six statistics, including the eponymous Strength and Dexterity. Strength purports to be a gauge of your character’s aptitude at at tasks requiring physical power, while Dexterity measures your character’s natural talent in challenges that require speed and coordination. You may not be surprised to learn, then, that Strength is the traditional purvey of a melee focused character, while Dexterity more greatly benefits a ranged combatant, as in both cases the single statistic does a fine job of seeing that character through their allotted tasks.

So, this clearly works perfectly well. But why does it do so, and how might it work differently?

Well, traditionally, most games with a more complex set of data for the player to consume benefit from streamlining when they can, as long as it is not at the expense of the experience. Accessibility is a wonderful thing, and any veteran of gaming knows that any game with any RPG elements at all benefits greatly from the ability to say “This is my strong guy, I put all his points in strength, now on to the next fellow”. It also makes things easier on new players, as a character who possesses a great deal of information but relies on a central attribute is one that can be explored at the player’s leisure, absorbing information in their own time.

So, why change it? For a different, more thoughtful, more balanced sort of game, of course. Imagine, if you will, a game of Dungeons & Dragons where all bonuses to strike the enemy were derived from Dexterity, and all bonuses for damage were derived from Strength. Ignoring the more recent invention of Finesse weapons (which can be disregarded if you haven’t heard of them), think of what this does to the landscape. The Ogre, a tremendously strong brute with a previously unerring club, is suddenly a lumbering thug whose strikes spell death for those it hits, if only it lands one. Suddenly, the man mountain in armor and the nimble rapier duelist are on an equal footing, one dodging war-hammer blows by a hairsbreadth and the other trusting armor and luck to save him from death by a thousand cuts. It brings a certain air of Robert E. Howard fantasy to the concept, and is at least a departure from the norm. It also encourages a broader array of abilities than previous, as a warrior with moderate speed and strength will likely prevail over one solely focused on either.

White Wolf actually makes use of this concept in some of their World of Darkness games, in fact. A character needs a solid combination of Strength and Dexterity to stand a chance in combat in Scion, for example, where a strength focused hero will find they cannot land a blow. However, White Wolf also often makes use of an interesting mechanic wherein a well aimed strike gains additional chances to do damage, providing further incentive for improving your character’s Dexterity to prepare for combat situations.

In conclusion, the most important thing to keep in mind is what you want the effects of your mechanics to be on your game. Decide what you want the player to be able to do, and what you want the game to feel like, and then work backwards to create mechanics that support that feeling.

Edition Wars? Huh! What are they good for?

Alright, I’m going to talk Fifth Edition D&D. Hold on to your hats, it’s going to get old school in here.

First question, just to get it out of the way, is 5E a good system?

Yes.

Second question, will you like 5E?

Yes, again.

Third question, should you switch over to 5E from your current system?

And there, mysterious hypothetical questioner, you have hit the nail on the head. 5E brings a lot of really good, really fun stuff to the table, but whether or not it’s for you and your group remains to be seen. I can break it down for two groups who are going to absolutely love it, but otherwise it’s going to be a case by case decision. First off, if you’ve never played D&D before, or your group is going to have a lot of people who are new to tabletop, this is absolutely the game for you. Second, if you’re in a D&D group, or you have friends who enjoy D&D, but you cannot decide on an edition to play, pick this one.

Fifth Edition plays smoother than absolutely any other version of D&D or similar RPG while still retaining the freedom that makes pen and paper such a marvelous method of mutual entertainment. Streamlining efforts have been pushed to the brink, tying almost every action directly into a stat roll, one way or another. Stats pour directly into attacks, skills, and saves, without any intervening stage such as Reflex Saves or Pathfinder’s Combat Maneuver Bonus, making number crunching far simpler. Most bonus and penalty stacking has been replaced with an intuitive advantage/disadvantage system that translates to rolling twice and picking the higher or lower dice depending upon whether the circumstances are favorable. In fact, there are fewer steps all around between the player declaring an action and the results being known. There’s also a straightforward system for replenishing abilities, as resting for a day tends to put everything back to normal. I was initially skeptical of this, but upon experimentation, players burn hp at an alarming rate, and playing well enough to survive to rest is worth the benefits of resting.

That’s just mechanics, and while mechanics are important, they aren’t why we play these games. So let’s talk about narrative. 5E bakes narrative right into character creation, with every character picking a AD&D-style background that grants both a non-numerical mechanical ability (such as contacts in the underworld for a criminal) and forces the player to think about who their character is and was. This also benefits the canny game master who can use their player’s actually existent backgrounds as a source of plot hooks and immersion as characters interact with friends and family from their pre-adventuring days. The Monster Manual includes at least a full page of background and setting detail on every monster, the Dungeon Master’s guide is as bountiful in role playing advice, alternate rules, and magic items as it’s AD&D 2E grandfather, and, this is the kicker for me, the DM screen has a random name and random “Something happened” table on it.

If you’ve got a favorite previous edition, you’ll recognize the bits in 5E, like a much saner version of 3.5’s feats or spell casters keeping one or two tiny spells they can cast forever, a la 4E, and if you’re new, this will come easier to you than any of the other options.

In conclusion, this isn’t my new favorite system, but it might be yours. I’m glad I picked up the books either way.

On a Role

I’m going to talk about the division of player roles in games, and how they affect game play.

Let’s start this at the most basic possible level, which everyone is probably familiar. Almost every game that includes either multiple players or players controlling multiple characters generally divides the character into a couple of different roles. Most generally these roles fall under the triad of offense, defense, and support. Most of the time, if you’re playing a game that requires these roles, and you don’t have one, you’re going to be handicapped in one way or another.

Let’s define a role, before we go any further. A role is a specific set of actions a character preforms to benefit the party has a whole. A healer heals, a tank defends, a face talks to people, and so on. A character can have multiple roles, and a NPC is perfectly capable of filling a role, although it’s probably best if they do so off camera. Roles can be almost infinitely specific (i.e. backstabs orcs who look crosswise at the party wizard) and can be combined together up to the point where one character can do everything. A good role has a specific mechanic associated with it, although it doesn’t have to be incredibly different and unique. The rogue can roll the same dice to open a door that the fighter rolls to stab an orc, but the rules have to be there for both of those things.

So, first off, you have to figure out what roles are relevant and important to your game. Let’s use D&D as a test case, because it provides a great deal of diversity in both game structure and player options. The standard D&D dungeoneering group is four players characters, the warrior, thief, mage, and healer. Any party that tries to go into a dungeon without one of those  is going to be in a lot of trouble, whether the squishy members get slaughtered because they don’t have a warrior, the group gets overwhelmed without a mage, they get killed by devious traps with no thief, or they have to rest in every room because they don’t have a healer.

But maybe you don’t want any healers, or thieves, or warriors, so you change the game. A D&D game without healers is a game where healing comes from some other source. Maybe the game is set in a city with easy access to clerics, maybe the heal skill can be used to restore actual hp, or maybe the adventurers are tough as nails and recover quickly naturally, so they only need a few minutes of rest before they can fight again, no matter how bad they’re hurt. Without thieves, the game also needs to do away with traps and treachery almost entirely, and focus more on straightforward combat and adventure. It’s important to make sure that your players aren’t punished for playing the game the way they want to.

So remember, make sure you have a game that suits the characters in it. Next, I’m going to talk about getting the players into their roles.

Fifth Edition Impressions

So I forget how much of this I’m legally allowed to say, because I didn’t actually read my playtest agreement.

Ok, I’ve been running a D&D next campaign off and on for over a year now, mostly at my FLGS, and occasionally as part of or an alternative to encounters, and I have to say, so far I like it.

At it’s core, it’s still D&D, you still roll a twenty sided dice to try and make monsters dead, but like every edition that starts with a new number, there are some big jumps. If I had to give a blanket statement, I’d say it’s 3.0 mixed with second ed with the cream of fourth edition and pathfinder mixed in. But let’s get down to business.

What’s different? Well, when I told you you were rolling a twenty sider, I wasn’t just whistling Dixie. The base mechanics of the game have taken on an interesting new form, with the central mechanic focusing on “checks” and “saves”. Bare with me here. Every action now ties directly into an ability score based roll. I know that was already true, but there’s no extra steps here. Want to stab a bloke in the face? That’s a strength check to which you might get to add a melee base attack bonus. Don’t want to catch on fire? Make me a dex save buddy. Want to avoid surprise? Make a wisdom check and add your skill dice for spot.

Oh yeah, skill dice. Instead of skill training or skill ranks, your character gets a couple of skills he’s trained in, and anything that comes up involving those skills he gets to roll a small extra dice (d4 at low levels) and add that to the d20 roll. Skills aren’t tied to a specific stat anymore, either, so while climbing might usually coincide with a strength check, you might get to add your climb dice to a constitution save to avoid falling from a wall while being shot with arrows.

The name of the game is now tightness. We all remember playing that one 3.5 character who could literally end the world at level five, and that is very specifically not what NEXT is about. It harkens back to 2nd ed, where advances in character effectiveness were a privilege, not a right, and tempers it with a healthy dose of the 3.0 philosophy of expanded utility rather than compounded effectiveness. What that means is your character isn’t going to skyrocket to godhood, but when they get better at something, you’re both going to feel it and appreciate it.

So what makes a D&D next character? Classes and races are still here, but characters are rounded out with backgrounds and specialties, which determine skills and feats respectively. The backgrounds act like skill packages with flavor and a special rule attached, while a specialty is basically just a pre-planned feat progression, and while both of these come with numerous examples and options, players and DMs are also encouraged to make their own. It’s worth noting that the skills and feat are in no way class dependent, although some feats still require certain prerequisites, so it’s entirely possible to make a rogue who spent his formative years in the clergy or a barbarian who is a noted scholar of hidden lore. And that’s awesome.

The first edition races have all made themselves known so far, each with a couple neat variations. Races provide an ability bonus, a base speed, and a special ability or two. Many races also have racial weapons, which do more damage in their hands, making slings a viable weapon for the first time in recorded history. The core classes are pretty polished, and barbarians, monks, rangers, paladins, and druids are all here as well.  No word on bard’s yet, but we all know they’re coming. Character classes are basically a toolbox of special abilities, as your skills and feats are irrespective of your class. Classes also provide you with an ability bonus, chosen from a few relevant abilities.

A big thing for spell casters, and one of my personal favorite additions in NEXT, is the decision to make all cantrip spells infinite in uses. That’s right, one of the few improvements 4th managed to bring to the table survives in the newest edition. Veteran players, no longer will your wizard need to carry a crossbow for the first three levels because you blow your entire spell wad in the first two rooms of the dungeon! Rejoice! The cantrips are also better now, but modified so their ability to be used constantly cannot be abused.

Anyways, go to your FLGS and play, this game is shaping up!

Getting your hooks in

This week, we’re talking about making the player care about story conflict.

It’s always tough to make a player emotionally invested in a fantasy world, but that’s a enough material for a whole series of posts, so today the focus is on making threats the players will care about. A villain is no good if the goal of their dastardly plan is to destroy something the player doesn’t even like in the first place, or overthrow a far away kingdom, or raise the price of space beets. The logical solution to this is to threaten something the player likes, but this is not as easy as it seems.

First, you have to actually figure out what the player likes, and is willing to sacrifice for in your game world. A helpful NPC, a kindly old lady, the town the player grew up in, or a relative selected at random are always good choices, but they are also the obvious choices. Players will fight tooth and nail to keep their favorite bar in business, to protect their alma mater from being overrun by demons, or to stop the murder of a government official they actually care about. Make a clear threat on one of these and you’ll have the players up in arms in no time.

Second, you can’t overdo it. Sooner or later, players will stop caring about something if it turns into a constant source of grief. A relative who is always in trouble tends to get ignored rather quickly, kindly old ladies are only worth so much trouble, and that school never washed it’s toilets properly anyways. And then there are the things you can only do once. Only once can you threaten the place the players feel safe, or the NPC the players are truly attached to. This may seem like a hamstringing rule, as what could the players care about more than what is most important to them, but if the players secret stronghold is ransacked twice, or the sweet little girl they take turns babysitting turns out to be a demon and a werewolf, they will never let their guard down again. Which might be what you want, but otherwise is to be avoided.

Remember, threaten the things players care about, but don’t go overboard.

The one you love to hate

This week we’re talking about sympathetic villains.

Making the players emotionally invested in the villain is a tough task. It’s easy to say “Hey, this is the lord God-King of Chaos-Death, and he is nasty and you should hate him”, but nobody wants to punch cardboard cutouts with dastardly mustaches all day, so it’s essential your villains have some depth. One fairly standard trick is to make your villain’s motives and past something the players can relate to.

This is, admittedly, a fairly standard ploy, but at the same time it can be a remarkably effective one. The Necromancer who overthrew a corrupt governor through the only means at his disposal because they were trying to take his daughter away to work in the coal mines is significantly harder to axe than the Necromancer who thought he could make an all skeleton (and one human head) production of Hamlet if he just had a few more helpless villager shaped bodies.

The trick, however, is not to overdo the sob story attached to the bad guy. Preferably, the villain will have been someone whose position your players could see themselves in, and was pushed to the edge and had to make a choice. The absolute best uses of this are the genuinely good villains who were simple men or women caught up in a bad situation, such as the above necromancer. The plot of basically any action movie revolving around someone out for revenge works well for this.

The problem with sympathetic villains is that they are a gun pointed at your player’s psyche, and you need to figure out what you want them to do before you commit one to your campaign. Are they secretly the hero and you want the player to side with them against the evil king? Are they double secretly actually just a villain tugging at the hero’s heartstrings? Are both sides good people but someone is still going to die and it’s up to the PCs to decide who? That’s all up to you, but you better pick one before you throw something like this into a game.

Remember, sympathetic villains are dangerous, but effective. Handle with care and make sure you know why they’re there.