Going Alone – Monsters

May 18, 2020


Whether split up into three separate books (as in most editions) or included as part of a single volume of rules (as in the Basic line and most OSR derivatives), monsters familiar and fantastical alike have always been a part of D&D.  While I support an increased focus on roleplay, politics, and intellectual challenges (to be discussed in the upcoming post on encounter design) in DM+1 play, fighting monsters is undeniably a core piece of D&D, and the game wouldn’t be the same without them.

Side note: I’ll use “monster” throughout this post for simplicity, but what I have to say can apply just as readily to humans/people with similar characteristics.

I’ve written previously about
considering what monsters represent in your game, so I won’t rehash that topic here.  Instead, let’s assume there’s a need to have a particular monster in the game and think about how its deployment in the game affected by having just one player.  In particular, I’ll look at handling abilities that can end a fight instantly, insurmountable defenses, and “trap” monsters.

The most obvious impact is that there’s no attrition among the players for monster abilities resulting in instant defeat (there may be attrition within the party if PC has picked up NPC followers/allies, but I’ll save discussing that for the encounter design post).  Aside from clear save-or-die abilities, this would also include things like paralysis, unconsciousness/sleep, etc.  Regardless of the GM’s opinions on how to handle attacks on a defenseless and undefended target, I think it’s safe to say being affected by such a condition ends a fight, and having that happen from a single roll of the dice can be unsatisfying, to put it lightly.

This doesn’t mean that I’d advocate removing such abilities or even toning them down.  Far from it, there are plenty of stories that are exciting precisely because of the monster presenting such an overwhelming threat to the hero (Herakles’s labor to slay the Lernaean Hydra and Perseus’s obligation to kill Medusa come to mind immediately).  The problem arises not from the threat of the monster but from the mechanics to handle it.  Where matters hinge on a single pass/fail roll, which is often exacerbated by coming up more than once, I’ve used two techniques to make it less of a crapshoot: add an element of attrition or treat the monster as a puzzle.

Attrition can come in many forms, but I tend to favor either reducing stats or adding intermediate stages of failure, depending on the circumstances.

With poison attacks, I usually pick a stat to which the poison deals 3d6 damage on a failed save as a baseline (relevant side note: typically, I have players roll 3d6 for their stats).  That damage is then adjusted based on relative size differences (by modifying the dice size, since poisons tend to become less effective as the victim’s mass increases) and potency (by modifying the number of dice, usually based on the saving throw adjustments).  To give some concrete examples, for a
book-standard 2nd edition AD&D giant centipede, which is a 1-foot long creature with “weak” poison (+4 bonus to saving throw), I’d step the dice size down for being much smaller than humans and also drop a die due to the weak potency, resulting in 2d4 Strength damage.  For a giant spider, which is 8-12 feet in diameter and has standard instant death poison, I’d maintain the baseline damage, resulting in 3d6 Constitution damage.  For a purple worm, which is 25-foot long and has standard instant death poison, I’d increase the dice size, resulting in 3d8 Constitution damage.  While any of these may still result in instant defeat (depending on the PC’s stats), it gives a chance that the player will have an opportunity to react after a failed saving throw.

For some situations, though, I don’t want to leave the rate of attrition up to chance and choose to break up a single pass/fail saving throw into multiple steps.  The place where I’ve seen this used most often (including in the official designs of later D&D editions) is splitting petrification gaze attacks into two steps: an immobilizing/slowing/restraining effect on the first failed save and then complete petrification on a second failed saving throw.  Of course, there’s no reason why this couldn’t be broken into further steps (e.g. perhaps a weaker basilisk’s gaze takes three or four failed saving throws to petrify) or applied to other effects (e.g. perhaps a deadly curse causes debilitating pain at first and requires more failed saving throws to cause death).  I don’t have any systematic background to this approach aside from thinking about the fastest acceptable path to defeat, but in practice, it allows for a lot more flexibility in implementation and confidence that a single failed saving throw won’t be the end of things.

Having said all of that, I don’t always add elements of attrition.  In a DM+1 game I’m running at the moment, the player wants to explore a dungeon that contains a powerful monster with an instant death ability, and toning that down would go against the flavor of how powerful the monster is supposed to be.  If the PC encounters that monster and fails a saving throw against its (repeatable) special ability, they will die.  To offset this, I’ve provided the player with opportunities to learn about the monster in advance and prepare defenses that will prevent the monster from bringing that ability to bear for a limited time.  To shift over to an analogy (just in case that player reads this blog and can see through my obfuscation), consider the case of Perseus and Medusa.  Greek myths didn’t allow for saving throws, so Perseus would’ve been dead if he’d just charged in to fight it normally.  Instead, he found out how Medusa’s petrification works and took steps to avoid that entirely, at the cost of handicapping himself.  Other ways of implementing this might be an effigy or token that deflects instant death magic (I like special shamrocks that can ward off 1d4 banshee wails, as a bit of meta humor), a potion that can grant immunity to a dragon’s fear aura, or a holy relic renders its bearer invisible to undead.  The key to all of these is to have information about the monster be available within the setting and to work with the player if they want to find ways around the monster’s abilities.

On which note, it’s not always just offensive abilities that can cause complications.  From all the way back in
OD&D, monsters have had special defenses like regeneration, immunity to non-magical weapons, requiring special measures to kill them permanently (vampires had all three!), or immunity to certain types of damage.  I think handling these in a DM+1 setting is simple: don’t change them.  It’s only problematic for a monster to be unkillable if killing it is required, and since I don’t run games in a way where killing something is the only course of action, it’s easy enough for me to not worry about it.  All monsters have their vulnerabilities, and I trust that a sufficiently-motivated player can find ways of targeting and exploiting them that I never would’ve imagined.

There are certain monsters (such as slimes, molds, rot grubs, mimics, etc.) that appear as some piece of the environment before launching a sudden attack, as well as certain monsters (such as doppelgangers, ropers, invisible stalkers, etc.) that are supremely-camouflaged ambushers; I refer to these collectively as “trap” monsters.  These fill a sensible ecological niche similar to real-world ambush predators, but employing them in a DM+1 game can be tricky because a successful ambush can end up playing out much like an instant defeat ability, with the PC being denied a chance to react.

One option is to avoid using such monsters, but while that’s simple, I wouldn’t recommend it.  Not only is it boring to rule out an entire threat category, it’d also mean giving up great moments like recreating the iconic tentacle drag hallways of
Dead Space (which I’ll talk about more in the next post) and possibly even things like assassination attempts, if taken to a logical extreme.

Another option is to do as I’d said for both offensive and defensive abilities and leave it up to the player to solve their disadvantage, based on lore/magic/etc. within the setting.  However, while I do support that, that’s more of a problem here since it’s usually harder to learn about “trap” monsters in advance in a sensible way.  If the monster is effective at what it’s doing, there should be few, if any, people who’ve encountered it and survived.  This might be less of an issue with environmental “trap” monsters if adventurers are common within the setting, but then that tends to lead to either boringly tedious dungeoncrawling or a strategic-level
Hand Wave to negate the threat.  Neither of those add fun content to play.

A third option, which is the one I prefer, is a two-pronged approach of being selective about the inclusion of “trap” monsters while being mindful of their effects on their surroundings.

For the first part, it follows from general principles of varying content and rewards.  Much like a dungeon with an encounter in every room is usually less interesting than a dungeon with about half its rooms as simple scene dressing, a dungeon where every dead body is infested with rot grubs is less interesting than one where that doesn’t come up until after a few harmless corpses; what’ll the PC do the next time they find a corpse wearing valuable items that’d be destroyed if they set it on fire first?  The vast majority of the good dungeon adventures I’ve run or seen had less than 1-in-10 of their encounters as “trap” monsters, and I doubt any of the rest went higher than 1-in-5 with one exception (and seeing as the exception was the shrine to Juiblex in
Night Below, it’s reasonable there).

For the second part, I’ll get into this more when I talk about encounter design in general, but it’s always important to consider the interaction between a monster and its surroundings.  Areas with oozes should be lacking in stray organic matter (and any other materials the ooze could consume).  A roper should have enough clear space around it to utilize its tendrils effectively.  A mimic should have enough mass to consume its prey without attracting attention.  A doppelganger should have gaps in its performance from having to think through its actions instead of possessing the actual instinctive thoughts of whoever it’s imitating.  In short, think about how the “trap” monster’s presence could be detected, and then reward the player accordingly if they take appropriate actions.

There is more to be said about using monsters in a DM+1 game, but this post was about highlighting potential points of trouble independent of how the monster is actually used in a specific game.  Next time, I’ll say more about how to use them (along with traps and puzzles) in the context of presenting obstacles to the player in actual play.


Encounter Design


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