Saturday, March 12, 2022

If it fights like a human bandit...

Bandits! Illustration taken
from Darkest Dungeon

I am in the process of designing the monster supplement for Barbaric!, Stellagama Publishing's lightweight sword & sorcery RPG ruleset. This got me thinking about, well, fantasy monsters, their presentation, and their use in a role-playing campaign. In short, monsters need a purpose and a unique "feel". Why? Because once you play traditional fantasy RPGs for many years, you eventually grow tired of creatures who only have hit points, a to-hit roll, saving throws, and damage; creatures who simply rush forward and hack and slash the player characters.

So, I posit the following design rule: if it fights like a human bandit, it should be a human bandit. Where "bandit" may be replaced by any level 0 (or level 1 fighter) human. Mind you, this is not a philosophical proposition about humans being the true monsters, or anything similar. Rather, it means that for a monster to be a monster, it should be differentiated from normal humans, including in mechanical terms.

Hobgoblins, and in some cases orcs and goblins as well, tend to suffer from this problem. Sure, they look different from human bandits, but mechanically they are like human bandits, and often in description as well - other than being green-skinned or hog-snouted. Take, for example, the Goblin from BFRPG: It has AC 14, 1-1 HD, attacks and damage by weapon, and saves as a level 1 fighter.

Sure, they use "ambushes and overwhelming odds" to gain an edge over their enemies. But so do wise bandits. They do sometimes ride dire wolves into combat, which does add a certain level of uniqueness. But still, they lack significant uniqueness, especially mechanically speaking. Interestingly, maybe ironically, D&D 5E makes an interesting step in the right direction:

Nimble Escape. The goblin can take the Disengage or Hide action as a bonus action on each of its turns.

Now, mechanically, they can do something a goblin cannot, i.e., avoid "parting shots" ("Attacks of Opportunity" in modern D&D parlance) and hide without expending their combat action. However, other D&D 5E monsters do not always have such design choice and have special abilities which simply add damage.

Potentially, I'd add a description of a change in tactics between goblins operating on their own and those bullied into better fighting shape by a stronger creature. Alone, I'd give them low Morale and hit and run tactics. When bullied, they will be less likely to scatter when encountering a tougher foe and may use their stealth abilities more thoroughly.

Also, imagine Froglings. Another 1-1 HD monster in my version of them. However, they do gain two additional abilities:

  • In a swampy terrain, they enjoy an increased chance for surprise, and, potentially, good concealment (like Elves in a forest).
  • They may leap. This means jumping up to 3m high and 6m far. Just imagine the challenge to players, when the Frogling ambushers simply jump over their well-crafted phalanx to attack them in the back...
So, make monsters unique and interesting. They are monsters for a reason - they have strange and, well, monstrous abilities.