Saturday, August 22, 2015

Gussying up monsters (the Ogre!) and crits

The Antagonizer lamented that running 5e monsters was a bit lackluster compared to 13th Age or Dungeon World. Like: he wanted an ogre to grab two PCs and smash them together, giving me a vague impression of that scene from the Avengers where Hulk whips Loki around like a rag doll. So obviously I challenged him to a contest of gussying up some of the basic monsters in D&D. I sorta said I'd work on the Ogre. This has definitely sprawled beyond the Ogre, but I think in a good way. Ultimately my thoughts have moved a lot more to critical hits and fumbles over fixing the Ogre, it seems.

But I said I'd do the Ogre, so here's some thoughts. Also we've now agreed that we should both write up our thoughts separately on this topic, so I'll come back to this after I read what the Antagonizer has written. tl;dr: There's stuff for ctitical hits and additions to the Ogre at the bottom.

First up, 5e Ogres are boring, but 13th Age ones aren't all the inspiring to me. Though I do like a few of the story implications of 13th Age ogres, the stats are still a bit lackluster even with the rock-solid—if not completely incredible—13th Age Bestiary.

Second up, I want to respect the rules lawyers out there. Being a bit of one myself, I totally understand wanting to know how I escape the ogre's grapple. So the restriction I've got here is one that keeps the basic combat rules intact, but adds a few options. So this can't be full-on Dungeon World style narration where anything goes.

Third up, gussying up combat might have some interactions with critical hits and weapon properties that I've toyed with before.

Fourth up, there is no fourth. All hail discordia. Or some nonsense like that.

Mechanical and Narrative Options
So gussying up the Ogre. What you really want is something that makes combat more interesting by adding complications in:

  • Dungeon World does this by giving mechanical and/or narrative penalties for failed rolls (you attack the Ogre but roll low, so it damages you or knocks you prone) and bonuses for high rolls (sweeping attack, you damage the ogre and knock it perilously close to the cliff's edge).
  • 13th Age (often, but somewhat irregularly) does this by using the technology of the d20. Low rolls against certain creatures open you up for attacks or effects, natural odd/even results can trigger secondary attacks or less common effects (essentially replacing generic: it hits you, save vs whatever to avoid some condition), and sometimes specific numbers (a generic high roll of 18+, natural 2, natural 5, 10, and 15) can also trigger effects. This makes 13th Age a bit more exciting for the GM because you don't know when a creature will unleash its bigger power, and makes combat a bit more random. Its a little unevenly applied in some monsters get this treatment and some don't, and some get a lot more of it than others.
  • 4th Edition did it by adding rider effects to just about all your powers. Damage wasn't the only thing you did, but you also moved creatures about and inflicted conditions. Now 13th Age does that a little bit as well, but 4e really made tactical combat shine. And, I suspect for some, changed the game a lot beyond just "I hit it with my axe." Before 4th edition (and the 3rd edition Book of Nine Swords, I'll wager) this sort of awesome combat was largely found in indie games. Now it's becoming necessary in the mainstream stuff.

So what we want is a way to add in some of these mechanical and flavorful benefits into 5e or even OSR combats. I think we see the lack of this in the 5e Critical Hit rules.

Critical Hits
In 5e, these simply do double damage dice on a nat 20. How unexciting is that? I think the 4e method was slightly better: max damage plus maybe an extra die. Thing is, people like rolling dice but double dice is statistically equivalent to max damage in terms of averages, but has lackluster low possibilities (2 damage on a crit?!?) and unbalancing highs (one attack is effectively two really powerful blows). I've mused before (though apparently not written about?) altering critical hits to include some of these tactical options. Like: a crit can either do max damage or you get to shove the enemy and do normal damage. I included this as an option in some weapon properties (disarming, sundering, tripping) to make combat more interesting.

One could make a table of these sorts of effects:

  1. Knock the opponent back
  2. Knock the opponent prone
  3. Disarm the opponent
  4. Sunder the opponents weapon
  5. Sunder the opponents shield
  6. Sunder the opponents helmet or +1d6 damage
  7. Grapple the opponent
  8. Inflict a level of exhaustion

Ultimately it might be satisfying if the ogre could grab or knock back an opponent (or some other weapon-appropriate option), but crits are pretty rare. And an extra table roll for a crit isn't a huge game stopper, but if we want this to be flavorful and more common than a natural 20 you don't want to always roll on the table.

Interestingly, you can make this happen twice as often simply by allowing the effects to happen when the opponent rolls a natural 1 as well. So now we're getting into a 10% chance that some of these effects are going off, even if the players are benefiting from them quite a bit as well as the enemies. No longer is that natural 1 just some random "You horribly miss" but "You leave an opening, the ogre uses its reaction to grab you."

Templates for creatures
One idea to apply a 13th age style mechanic to creatures is by adding templates. These were a third edition idea where you simply increase the power of a monster and likewise increase their challenge rating and XP value. So we could give our Grabby Ogre the ability to get a free grapple in on a successful even attack, and when an opponent is grappled the Grabby Ogre gets the ability to fling the opponent 10' feet (preferably into a wall or an ally). Given that this is random though, and that the ogre would need to survive for about 3 rounds to have a good chance of having this go off (and the PC probably gets one chance to escape the grab), I'm not sure it really necessitates modifying the XP values in this case, but if you add in something else it might. Like if this were instead a scourge-wielding priest of Ishishtu who is knocking players prone on a field of caltrops on natural even hits... You can see why this might be something to consider in encounter building if you're the type to actually count XP or even just want to inform PCs that "It is obvious that... you are outmatched in this fight."

But assuming we want to go the template route, I think it follows on those weapon properties to some extent. We can build a few templates that can be applied to give 13th Age style mechanics to these creatures. Like:

Grabby X.
Natural Even Hit - Target is grappled. (Limit the number of grapples by the creature's number of appendages probably).

If you have a grappled target, you can make the Dirty Hands attack.
Natural Even Hit - Squeeze the target for extra damage and inflict a level of exhaustion.
Natural Odd Hit - Fling the target at a nearby ally. If you hit, both take X damage.
Miss - Fling the target 10' away, can make a dex save to avoid X damage.

Scourge-weilding X
Natural even hit - Free grapple
Advantage when knocking grappled targets prone. Target takes normal damage from attempt.

Avoiding the Rules Lawyers (a.k.a. Nastier Specials)
I would apply these templates post hoc and liberally. First off, many humanoids will be equipped with weapons and should benefit from the same types of weapon properties the PCs get. So you can easily apply a Pokey X template to the three orcs with spears (meaning maybe they get to be 3 abreast in the 10' corridor because they're using spears rather than big axes). You might not describe the weapons of each combatant at first, so just deciding to give someone a Sundering Axe midway through combat isn't the worst. You can also just apply a template when a creature is enraged (or bloodied?), so the ogre could be grabby once it gets disarmed or gets hit by that annoying ranger. I'd just be careful to remember that I decided that this combat I've got a Grabby Ogre that uses odd numbers because that's when I decided to apply the template.

Its also important, I think, that these templates only change the rules for monsters. That is, they do get a chance to escape the grapple or maybe a dex save to avoid being tossed off the edge of a tower. Because you want to know what your character can be expected to do and you want to be able to possibly minimize some effects that you hate.

Some effects may be better off as the PC makes a save after each attack, such as poison. Dwarves get a bonus against poison, and if I played a dwarf I'd like to make use of that. So that's not as good of an option as knocking someone back, disarming them, or sundering gear. Extra rolls can slow things down, but in the case of poison and dwarves, its worth it to show off how awesome dwarves are. This might also apply in other cases, such as frosty enemies slowing you down or whatnot.

Types of effects to apply
So what types of effects can be readily used and reused?

Forced movement & prone. A staple of 4e, but I'd restrict it to shorter (5'-10'?) increments in theatre of the mind in general: some of those 4e effects could be ridiculous (beguiling strands pushing opponents 25-feet!?!). Falling rules can be applied in terms of giving additional damage as needed.

Grapple. There are already monsters in the book who auto-grapple on a hit. Gives PCs a chance to waste some actions to attempt an escape as well, and those with athletics or acrobatics type proficiency get a chance to show off. Obviously restrained is harsher, so I'd reserve that for actual criticals maybe?

Sundering and disarming. I like these, just because it teaches players to carry a back-up and also changes the nature of the combat a bit. Obviously sundering is a bit toucher compared to disarming, and would be possibly quite harsh with magic items. It might be worth saving sundering for real bad-asses and critical hits, or both of these for just natural 20 options. Then again that mending cantrip would easily fix a sundered weapon or shield, and who ever thinks mending would be a useful cantrip to have in combat? Given that this is a special action for PCs though, it seems a little less appropriate for villains unless they're wielding crazy special weapons (flindbars!!!) or are weapon masters. 

Exhaustion or wounds. I've considered using something like this with criticals in the past. Its a good way to remind PCs that combat is dangerous. These should be reserved for major bad asses though. Or possibly exhaustion for level-draining types of undead. Cause level drains are fucking nasty, but exhaustion at least is kinda similar. Aside: Obviously I think the exhaustion rules might be a good way to simulate some lingering injuries, but it may require a bit more thought.

Blinded, charmed, deafened, frightened, stunned. Sure, but it probably needs a end of the round or save ends thing. Also not at all sure what creatures would apply these effects, they're probably already built into the creatures.

Paralyzed, petrified. I feel like these effects are probably already integrated into the creatures in question by and large, more so than the others.

Poisoned. Again I really feel that, since dwarves get advantage on saves against poison it should require a save.

Difficult terrain. Don't overlook changing the battlefield. But I wouldn't let the monsters do this in ways that PCs can't (i.e. no free overturning bookcases generally) but maybe some that leave huge footprints or trails of slime...

Reduced movement. That ray of frost spell does it, so I don't see why some monsters couldn't reduce your movement. Though again... harder to imagine when to use this.

Looking at all these effects we can kinda categorize them into a two groups: normal and unusual. Forced movement, Prone, Grapple, Sunder/Disarm, and maybe exhaustion are pretty normal. You can imagine these happening a lot. They're good candidates for templates. But Heck, even a slime trail template could involve leaving oozy puddles for difficult terrain. The others though: particularly petrified and paralyzed, are poor choices for these templates. They require really specialized monsters (medusa, basilisk, etc.) and are already built into the design for those creatures.

So a lot of this kinda comes down to a few normal-ish monsters doing many of the same normal-ish things.

The end game
I'm looking at a two-way solution here which involves critical hits and fumbles, but also possibly 13th Age style templates. I'm eager to see if the Antagonizer came up with some similar thoughts as I did, but I expect to revise some ideas after we bounce things around more.

First: On a critical hit or fumble, mirroring the weapon properties I advocated for earlier (whether they're whole-heartedly adopted or just ad-hoc adapted) I like the option of doing max damage or normal damage with the appropriate condition. These would be a free grapple, shove, disarm, shove aside, mark, tumble, or whatever attacks. Your weapon should take that into account, and canny players should ask things like "Can I do normal damage and also topple the bookcase over onto them?" I think you'd also make a ruling about whether things auto succeed or not based on how likely they are or if they do lots of effects. Like: knocking someone down with a whip or large staff seems like it'd happen no problem. Knocking someone down with a longsword or axe might require the roll. Knocking the bookcase over to block an escape or create rough terrain seems fine, knocking it onto the guy to possibly trap him or do extra damage might allow a save. The reverse should be allowed on a fumble: the knight fumbles his attack against the scourge-wielding priest and the priest gets to trip the knight. This may warrant a little revision of my weapon properties, like the sundering property activates on a 19 or 20, rather than just a 20. I can live with that probably.

In terms of fumbles, I like these less. So I'd generally advocate for something where the fumble involves a die roll (i.e. shooting into melee might force you to attack an ally) rather than simple bad things happening (your bow breaks). Also you may give the player an element of choice to avoid the fumble (you rolled a 1. Your shot is awful, you can either lose your successful attack against the ogre or you have to roll against the fighter). Still thinking about this a bit.

As an aside on probabilities, the third edition critical confirmation is actually genius, though it does slow things down. It takes actual critical hits from a flat 5% to 5% of hits, meaning they're much more common for fighters than wizards. In the flatter math world of 5e I'm not so sure it matters. Combat & Tactics gave crits on any natural 18+ that also beat the AC by 5 or more points which at least doesn't require another roll and eliminates the thing where you can only inflict critical hits against the dragon because you can't hit any other way.

Critical Hits. If you roll a natural 20 in combat, your attack deals either: a) maximum damage or b) normal damage and allows you to do something interesting. The DM may suggest some standard interesting things based on your weapons or spells (i.e. staves and flails tripping an opponent) or you can suggest something interesting yourself (i.e. disarming an opponent or knocking over a bookcase). The DM will tell you if your interesting thing will automatically succeed or if it may require a roll before hand so you may still opt for maximum damage instead.

Critical Fumbles. If you roll a natural 1 in combat, you've made a mistake. This may open you up for reactionary attacks from nearby enemies, force you to attack a different target, or make a save against some effect.

Second: Templates for more common effects. If you want a grabby ogre, or a slime that trails difficult terrain, or a frosty sword that slows enemies down... just let that happen on a natural even or odd. Well, ok, you might need to work out a slightly more complex template if you want to let the dice tell you what happens after he grabs you (rip off your helmet and try to eat your face!). But half a dozen templates or maybe even a dozen will probably go a long way and see lots of reusability. Even Grabby could be applied to the Orc when he's fighting the gnome and halfling!

So without further ado, additions to the Ogre's normal stat block based on the Grabby Hands template. I'm not 100% sure I like it all yet, but its a start and could be re-used for other creatures.

Slam. Melee attack: +6 to hit, reach 5 ft., one target. Natural Even Hit: 13 (2d8+4) bludgeoning damage and the target is grabbed. Natural Odd Hit: 13 (2d8+4) bludgeoning damage.

Dirty Hands. Melee attack: +6 to hit, reach 5 ft., one grappled target. Natural even hit: 13 (2d8+4 bludgeoning damage and inflict a level of exhaustion. Natural odd hit: Throw the target 10 ft, 15 (2d10+4) damage if the target hits a solid obstacle. If you fling the target into another creature the target takes half damage and that creature must make a dexterity save (DC 14) or take half damage. Miss: Fling the target up to 10 ft. Target must make a dexterity save (DC 14) or take 13 (2d8+4) damage.

Quick Grab. The ogre can make one grapple attack against one target within 5 ft. that rolls a natural 1.


  1. Thoughts, in roughly the order of the article...

    Exhaustion was not something I had even thought about including, but this reminds me that I should go back and read 5e's exhaustion rules and start making use of them.

    On Critical Fumbles: I might just be too deep into Dungeon World style DM'ing but I only strictly enforce the Action Type economy for PCs, which is to say that while I will have a monster do something extra (that probably would be a Reaction in the 5e action types) I think I might still require a player to spend their Reaction to act in reaction to an enemy fumble. Then again I've been using my GM Intrusion Mechanic for Inspiration so when a player rolls a Nat 1 I'm usually giving out Inspiration and having a monster get to make a Dungeon World style Hard Move. So it's probably time I start thinking more on if I start offering the PCs a chance to make Reactions of their own when enemies have fumbles or I if I try another mechanic or narrative (having the goblin drop it's shield, having the wyvern lose balance and crash to the ground, etc)

    To be honest, I never used a lot of templates in 3e or 4e (though they were called something different in 4? or am I making that up?) because it frontloaded more of the prep, also, perhaps, because by the time we were playing 3e and then again with 4e there were tons and tons and tons of monsters, so you could pretty much find any kind of goblin you wanted instead of needing to apply a stabby template. But I'm really intrigued now by adding a template to monsters in the middle of a combat, especially since I already balance combats on the fly by giving monsters extra HP (5e DM pro-tip, always bump up the HP of any creature facing the PCs by itself or it will be paste by the end of the 2nd round).

    Part of me wonders how much of a template you could just add on the fly, by having a list of triggers (even hit, odd hit, reduced to half HP, hit with nat roll 16+, players miss on a nat 8 or lower) and a list of effects (level of exhaustion, grapple, sundered weapon/armor, movement effects) and just throwing them together at the moment when a monster is needed. Though I suppose that would be less balanced, though lately combat balance has been one of the last things I've worried about as a GM.

    Plenty for me to digest, maybe a few options for me to go back and revise my tables and some monster templates for me to start thinking about. But I have a sneaking suspicion my players might face a Grabby Ogre in the near future.

    1. I like how you were thinking beyond just physical attacks. I hadn't really considered spells or skills (or saves..?). Also I've got a few things that overlap, such as the Ogre's reaction to an opponent rolling a 1 and general fumble stuff.

      I guess one thing I really liked when I looked at my weapon properties was certain types had clear differences on crits and it almost always makes sense that a whip might be able to do a trip/grapple while an axe might get a sunder effect. It would be easy to port to different damaging types of spells (cold spells impose a move penalty, lightning spells do something else...). Basically I'm thinking a few principles might apply to most types of attacks and have one or two clear examples for each type of attack as to what a crit effect might be. Your tables might be a clear example, though I wonder if 4 options wouldn't be plenty.

      As for templates, I figure if you had 6-12 examples (might all fit on one DM's screen page) then they'd be easy to apply and make a tiny modification to on the fly (like a big orc grabbing the halfling or the scourge-wielding priest entangling folk and knocking them down.