The Monsters chapter is another fun one with lots of great pieces of technology in it. It opens with the information needed to read a monster stat block which reveals two interesting things. First, monsters do fixed damage, something I imagine makes bookkeeping much easier on the GM side. The second (and more interesting) is the presence of triggered abilities, which work like flexible attacks – they’re effects that are triggered by the creature’s roll.
This is an innocuous passage, but it’s implications become obvious as soon as you start looking at the monsters. See, monsters only have a few possible attacks (only one in many cases) and the theory seems to be that you can have special attacks be triggered rather than forcing the GM to make tactical decisions on the fly, especially where very nasty abilities are concerned. In theory, a well designed monster effectively has an implicit “script” to its behaviors based on how it rolls.
For example, the Chimera makes three attacks per round (a lot of monsters have multiple attacks, often with the C abilities providing extras as quick actions) to represent its three heads. But rather than track each head and its special abilities, you can determine that based on the roll. If it rolls a 14–15, then you’re dazed from the goat’s headbutt. If it rolls a 16–17 then you take extra damage from the lion’s claws. If it rolls an 18–20, then it makes a fiery breath attack. Now, while this does simplify many things, it does introduce a different sort of bookkeeping, so it may not be to everyone’s taste, but ideally this can greatly simplify running fights with interesting enemies while still allowing for wild and crazy stuff to happen.
That’s the theory at least. The actual monsters themselves are a bit more uneven. Most every monster has a default melee attack, but some have other options. They might have a ranged attack (Noted with an R) which is reasonably self explanatory, but they may also have a close attack (noted with a C) which seems to kind of be a wildcard, with the qualifier that using it does not trigger an opportunity attack. Since the C abilities tend to be weird and potent, it tends to introduce its own complexities that undercut the elegance of the triggered abilities. It’s not a bad thing, just kind of a shame because I admit I really dug the scripting idea (and, in fairness, lots of monsters do script just fine, just not all of them).
The C actions end up feeling like a catchall, the bucket that all weird things end up in. On one hand, that simplifies the monster entries by keeping the weirdness largely penned in, but on the other hand it makes for a lot of exceptions. But, to devil’s advocate myself, many of the C abilities have very clear cadences to how they’re supposed to be used, enough so that even if it’s not truly scripted, it’s still fairly close to automated (but that does make the exceptions stand out all the more)
Ok, so before we hop back into the monsters themselves, lets jump back to the surrounding rules. This section explains how mooks work (1/5 HP, damage spills from one mook in a mb to the next) and has the good taste to explicitly nod to Feng Shui for the naming convention. There are also Large and Huge creature which explicitly call out why so many spells are tied to the target’s hit points – it’s to keep you from being able to cheese the big ’uns.
And then there are burrowing rules because I guess they had to go somewhere.
There are fewer sections on Monster special abilities than one might expect. There’s an interesting bit on “last Gasp” saves, which are basically the PC’s chance to avoid instakill effects, which are moderately generous. There are also rules for fear auras, which are keyed to hit points. I actually dig this, though it’s pretty nasty – it means Fear aura don’t matter much when the fight starts, but they become more important if things go badly.
After that are guidelines on how to read a monster’s statblock. It’s largely self-explanatory, but there are a few interesting tricks.
First, there aren’t much in the way of monster illustrations. Instead, the monsters have tile art which evokes a particular icon’s tile art. This suggests a relationship, though the details vary and may be elaborated in the monster’s text. There’s not much mechanical heft to this, but it’s interesting, and resonates interestingly with player’s icon relationships. It is, however, another area where the game leans heavily on the reader’s previous exposure to monster art.
Second, there are often options for nastier versions of the creatures, though this is not particularly reflected in the rules for building battles (which are conveniently/redundantly repeated here for reference).
The actual monsters themselves are exactly what you would expect them to be – it’s the d20’s greatest hits. I went through and checked a few touchpoints – Kobolds are suitably annoying, Dragons are suitably scary and the Medusa has great mechanical clarity(this last is a real triumph). It’s a good spread, and much like 4e Monsters, every monster has some manner of schtick that keeps it feeling unique, so Orcs feel different from Gnolls feels different from Kobolds.
Finally, there are guidelines for creating your own monsters as well as levelling up existing monsters. These are practical and clearly presented in a series of charts, and they seem pretty workable. Most importantly, there is a section on what abilities to avoid in designing a monster, especially calling out the need to take care with defensive abilities as they tend to slow fights down without much return.
All in all, the monsters chapter is a lot of fun. The triggering attack mechanic definitely gets the biggest workout of the lot, but there’s a fair balance between clarity and diversity which – I believe – does the job well.
- And it’s super important to remember that these are quick actions, not free actions. I had that moment of confusion early on and it felt like monsters got SO MANY attacks. ↩
- One mechanical bit – per the description, triggered abilities are triggered by the roll, not necessarily the hit (and some actually specific a hit with the qualifiers listed). A lot of the ones that are 14+ or higher seem to assume that the roll corresponds to a hit, but I’m not sure that’s always going to be the case. To use the chimera as an example, if it rolled a 14 (headbutt) and missed, I wonder if the intent is that the headbutt hits anyway. That feels wrong to me, I admit, and I’d probably still require a hit. It’s an edge case – high rolls will usually be hits – but just struck me as odd. ↩
The fixed damage for monsters threw me and my players at first. But, then, they started gaming it, realizing it provided a guideline as to how long they could expect to stand up in a fight against the nastier monsters I threw at them.
And this is one of the few D&D games I felt I could use Medusae and their full panoply of powers effectively.
One thing I noted: if you have no idea what a bulette looks like or even is, other than a damaging burrowing creature, the book won’t make that any better.
I think there’s an argument that much like comments in other parts of the book that encourage changing appearances and such as desired that the minimalist monster illos serve to enable customization of creatures.
So maybe it doesn’t matter what a bulette looks like generally but only what a GM describes it as in his/her game? Just a thought…
One notable thing about monsters is that some get to use the escalation die (i.e. dragons). Others have special abilities keyed to the escalation die that can be triggered. For instance, the Marilith has a base six attacks with its multiple arms and when staggered gets to add the escalation die to its crit range.
One of my particular favourites is the rakshasa. Their two “nasty extras” are so interesting, I couldn’t imagine ever throwing a rakshasa at players without using both of them.
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