I’ve never really liked writing monsters. (Worldbreakers, of course, are an exception.) Even during the height of my 4E game when I was pitting my group up against almost exclusively custom monsters, I didn’t really enjoy the process. Sure, it’s WAY better than writing statblocks for 3/3.5 and the balance isn’t as tricky as with editions prior to 3E. I even tried writing monsters for Dungeon World and that didn’t catch my fancy much either.
Then 13th Age showed up and suddenly, I understood how writing monsters could be fun. In fact I’ve spent many a lunch break at work concepting and writing out monsters for my 13th Age game. Why the sudden change? What is it about 13th Age monster design that so grabs my attention? Come, my friend, let us walk… metaphorically speaking.
Here’s a statblock from the first playtest document:
Blackamber Skeletal Legionnaire
3rd level troop Initiative: +8
Undead: Vulnerable holy
M: Shortsword +10 vs. AC, 3d6 damage
Natural 16+: Target loses 1d3 Initiative.
R: Javelin Targets nearby enemy, +8 vs. AC, 2d6 damage
Press Advantage: Deal +1d6 damage to enemies with lower Initiative rolls.
Resist Weapons 6+: Roll 6+ on a d20 when you damage the skeleton with weapons or deal only half damage.
For the moment, ignore the formatting. We haven’t seen the final layout yet. What I’m concerned with here is the content.
First off, it’s short. There’s almost nothing to this monster mechanically. It’s got a couple attacks, a few defenses some HP and a couple of special quirks. If you know what you’re doing, you can write up a good, engaging monster in 10 minutes tops. I ran a con game at the Escapist Expo this year where even without access to rulebooks, I created viable monsters in less than 60 seconds each. Awesome.
That’s not the best part, though. You see those two lines that say “16+” and “6+”? THERE!! That’s the magic! That’s what makes me want to weep with joy when I read these statblocks. That little mechanic – we call it a “proc” around here having borrowed the word from video gaming terminology – does two HUGE important things for me.
1) Roll Information Density – I love really information-dense die rolls. Standard D&D is not information-dense. You roll a d20, add a number and you either succeed or fail. One dimension of measure with little detail. Apocalypse World is slightly more dense in that there are three outcomes. If you get into One Roll Engine, now you’ve got some real density. The number you roll is important (the height), the total replicates of that number you roll in the pool is important (the width) and sometimes by how much your height and width beat the target height and width is important. One roll provides a great amount of interpretation fodder. Good, Fast, Cheap is similar – in one roll you know two degrees each of either success or failure across three measures of effectiveness. The only game I know of that’s more dense than either of these is Psi*Run.
Point being, 13th Age uses information density to bypass DM bookeeping. Rather than tracking if and how many times monster X has used power/ability Y in a fight, we simply interpret a second quality of the die to learn if that power or ability is immediately available. Assuming four to five rounds per fight, a d20 will (on average) roll in the 16+ range once per monster per combat. This means we’ve taken the 3d6 + initiative damage “encounter power” and rolled it neatly back into the basic attack. The resist weapons effect is similar. You’re not usually going to hit on a 6, so let the natural missed attacks mechanically account for some of the weapon resistance. The resistance really only matters when a character’s combat skill severely outclasses that of the skeleton anyway. Rather than subtract 5 from each damage roll or whatever, just let the d20 determine it. Hot.
2) DM Surprise – The most annoying thing about being a DM is knowing things. I like surprise in my games. (Mind you, this is completely contrary to how I feel about the rest of my life) If I come to the table knowing how all the monsters work and precisely how to run them, it’s less fun. I feel cheated out of the ‘exploration’ experience that everyone else gets being players in my world. PCs don’t want to fight the same goblin over and over again and I sure as heck don’t want to run the same goblin over and over again. I want more variance – more uncertainty – without a ton of prep. I might be expecting that initiative damage on that Legionnaire to trigger and never get it. I might also roll it three or four times in one fight. Who knows? Encounter powers were good and the recharge mechanic helped, but this is better. It’s more streamlined and retains ease of theoretical balance while not turning the endeavor into so much card-counting.
To close out, let me tell you where I think this is going. The 13th Age folks need to not be constrained by the idea of “attacks” and move into monsters with mechanical strategies. Here’s a short one I wrote myself for a kobold warlord:
M: or R: Spear +8 vs. AC, 1d8 damage
7-: Warning Shot – the next kobold to attack this target before the start of the warlord’s next turn gets a +2 to hit.
Fives (5, 10, 15, 20) - Emboldening Howl – one nearby kobold regains 5 HP
I’m playing outside the boxes of what the designers use for triggers a little, but look at this! It’s the entire round of this monster’s tactical decisions resolved with one roll. Sometimes (about 35% of the time), it’s not actually trying to hit you. It’s trying to set you up for one of its buddies. It’s also continually trying to encourage its compatriots and succeeds about 25% of the time. It’s no longer just an attack – it’s a very small “program” that I get to just point at my players and then gleefully watch the various interactions. There’s certainly a limit one would want to put on the trigger mechanics (my idea for a monster that has effects off of primes, Fibonacci numbers and factors of 108 is outside this limit), but I don’t think having a DM check one high/low and one simple divisibility (2 or 5, mostly) is asking too much. Adding all the dice together for damage is certainly a larger mathematical endeavor.
This is also a pretty defensive strategy, to be honest. Maybe I’d make a second offensive one with different triggers so I could decide what kind of “mood” the kobold is in without having to figure out all the little tactical details. It’s robust and effortless in play. I love it. Love it, love it, love it!!!
I haven’t worked out yet how to apply this to skill checks but by Jove I will and it will be glorious. In the meantime, I shall content myself with my monstrosities.