Monday, November 26, 2012

Monsterize Me! Themes, Templates, and Mass Combat (4E, Ars Magica)

I've been getting a few requests over at Pelgrane Press' forums regarding the conversion of monsters from other systems to 13th Age.  While I've already given my guidelines in the thread, I think it's appropriate that I  dedicate a portion of my blog to converting monsters as well, using information found in Pelgrane Press' archives and, from time to time, my own creative twist to them.

Today I'll be focusing a little less on specific monsters, and instead focusing on customizing monsters. I'll be focusing on three things in particular: themes, templates and mass combat.  While I take inspiration from both D&D 4E and, for mass combat in particular, Ars Magica 5E, as much as possible I'll take ideas from what already exists in 13th Age and utilize them in different ways, for the benefit of both myself and other GMs who would like to use these.


Themes allow you to group different monsters under one collective theme that's appropriate to the scenario.  Highlighted in Dungeon Master's Guide 2, these are very interesting toys to play with as they add story elements on top of tactical elements to the game; after all, there should be a better in-story reason for having X Archers, Y Blockers, and a couple of Mooks all under the banner of a Leader than just tactical considerations, right?

In utilizing themes, you show how outside influences change your creatures' habits as well as abilities, so even if you have wildly different creatures stat-wise, their common theme makes explaining their existence not only in the area but in the campaign itself much easier.  It's particularly useful if you're the type who tends to roll on random monster tables but want to make sure that there's a logical explanation for a goblin, a dragon, and an owlbear being in the same encounter, on the same side.

With that, I give you this sample theme:

Goblin Allies

For more details on the story behind this theme, see Dungeon Master's Guide 2 for 4th Edition, pages 110-111.  The gist of it is that living among the goblin races for years does allow you to pick up a thing or two from these creatures.  Devils, wolves, drakes, etc. can be in contact with certain goblin tribes for long periods of time, and sometimes bear the same symbols and markings as that of the goblin tribe, and work together -- through fear, loyalty or both towards yet another victory for the tribe (although devils may either resent being marked -- having them marked at all may mean that the tribe's shaman is VERY powerful -- or accept the marking a bit too willingly (which might mean that the devil's manipulating the goblins instead of the other way around).  Adding particular in-story conflicts between the various related factions that the more ingenious PCs could take advantage of would be a neat addition; for instance, having the hobgoblins and bugbears fight each other so that the mother owlbear that was being held captive (which forced her children to fight for them) could be freed and allowed to wreak havoc on the goblin tribe would certainly help spice up a campaign, especially one that uses themes.

Feel free to add one utility and one attack power from the list below to the monsters in a campaign:

Attack Powers

  • Give Yourself To The Tribe! Standard Action vs. one nearby mook who is engaged to at least one enemy.  Effect: that mook makes a melee attack against one enemy he's engaged to (commanding creature's choice) and is reduced to zero hit points.  In addition to taking damage on a hit, that enemy is dazed until the end of his next turn.
  • Blindside The Enemy Quick Action 1/battle. Add 3 damage per level to your next melee attack this turn, provided that he's engaged with one of your allies (1 damage per level if you're a mook).
  • Protect Me You Fool! Free Action 1/round.  Whenever you fail to disengage and an opportunity attack misses you, shout the name of this power at an ally that's engaged with you.  That ally can make an attack against the enemy that attempted an opportunity attack against you (even if he is normally out of reach) as a reaction.
  • Protect the Tribe! Reaction.  Whenever an ally you're engaged with fails to disengage from a nearby opponent and the resulting opportunity attack misses, make an attack against that enemy even if he's normally out of reach.
  • Follow My Lead, You Useless Rabble! Trait.  Adds 3 damage to the attacks of all nearby allies (1 damage if they're mooks) whenever two or more of them are engaged to an enemy.

Utility Powers

  • Group Morale Trait.  Gain +4 to hit while your faction has more creatures than any other faction in battle.  If you are the only member of your faction left in battle (or the GM determines that your faction is clearly losing), you are weakened.
  • Goblin Cunning Trait.  Gain +5 to disengage checks (just like goblins, you only need to roll a 6+ to disengage)
  • Goblin Phalanx Trait.  Gain the Group tactics trait found in the Hobgoblin Captain and Hobgoblin Warrior entry. For purposes of this trait (and the associated Well-Armored group power), you are treated as a Hobgoblin
  • Rally To Me! Quick Action 1/battle.  Each nearby ally gains temporary hit points equal to 3 + their level.  Double this value at champion tier.  Triple this value at epic tier.


Sometimes you just want to throw a PC-like opponent at the group, and may be tempted to build an entire PC out of the existing rules to do so.  While there is nothing wrong with that approach -- in fact, I may actually recommend the said approach to those GMs if they want to -- some GMs may find that it can easily become a tiring task due to the number of abilities as well as talents and feats that PCs have, and more often most of those abilities won't even see the day of light if those monsters die too quickly.  Finally, it's one thing for five players to sift through 3+ options at a time, while it's another thing for one player (the GM) to sift through 12+ options at a time (and this is counting only selectable talents, not even powers or feats or what not).

The simplest solution, if you want to evoke the feel of a class without actually going through the mechanics over and over again, is the use of a template.  There's already a default template anyway (the universal monster table), so it's just a matter of adding the "toppings" that would make a monster feel like a PC without actually having to make a PC.  And it's not as hard as you might think: mooks don't really need much highlight anyway, so give them either 2 talents, or 1 talent + 1 power, in addition to their basic attack.  Most opponents will be fine with 2 talents + 1 power, or 1 talent + 2 powers, although if they're really important, feel free to throw in 3 talents + 3 powers as well as the Escalation trait (which will allow them to benefit from the Escalation die, just like any PC would).  This is in addition to whatever racial powers a PC would get by the way.

So a sample level 1 Half-Orc Barbarian Mook:

Half-Orc Barbarian

1st Level Mook (humanoid)
Initiative: +1
Club +6 vs. AC, 4 damage Miss: 1
Barbarian Rage: As a quick action 1/day the barbarian can enter a ferocious rage for an entire battle.  Roll 2d20 for attacks; if both attacks are 11+ and one of them hits, the attack is a crit.
Lethal: Once per battle, reroll a melee attack and use the roll you prefer as the result.

AC 17 PD 15 MD 11
HP 7

Mass Combat

Sometimes having five individuals in a party against a group of 20 mooks doesn't feel epic enough.  How about  five individuals leading thousands of warriors into battle against an army at least twice their size and winning?  While role-playing might be able to handle this, some groups prefer to have wargame rules utilized, and this is where I bring in Ars Magica, which already has several similarities with 13th Age anyway -- particularly the freeform nature of some forms of magic (in Ars Magica it's the spontaneous magic, in 13th Age it's the ritual magic).  Given how Ars Magica already has mass combat rules -- I know that there's at least one D&D 4E monster that's supposed to work with mass combat as well (aside from Swarm type monsters) just can't seem to find it -- I might as well port that in and make it work with 13th Age.

Basic rules are as follows:
  1. As much as possible, use mooks.  They already have a semblance of group combat anyway, might as well take advantage of it.
  2. Group creatures of the same level and the same relative capabilities into one group.  Mooks with mooks, large with large, casters with casters, etc.
  3. Assign one member of each group as the Vanguard.
  4. During the group's turn, roll the Vanguard's attack against the opponent's defense.  Likewise, whenever the group is attacked, use the Vanguard's defenses.
  5. Whenever the Vanguard hits, deal damage equal to the Vanguard's damage multiplied by the number of members in his group.
  • For groups that don't consist of mooks, note that the above total represents the combined force's attack, so feel free to deal the Vanguard's damage to each member of the defending group until the total damage is reached; just remember that the Vanguard should take at least as many hits as all his allies, if not more.  For example, an enemy deals 9 * 10 = 90 damage against a group consisting of 7 individuals that aren't mooks.  In this case, each member of the group takes 9 damage except for the Vanguard, who will take 36 damage (9 * (10 - 6 other members) = 9 * 4 = 36).
If the Vanguard dies or is unable to fight, the group will be forced to separate.  Each individual can later on choose to reform the group during their turn, so by the round after that they can work as one again.

The more advanced version of mass combat would involve picking a leader.  If the leader is a monster that has a leader role, he can effectively command a number of creatures as a trained group equal to his level.  If the leader is a PC that has a background pertaining to leadership, he must make a Charisma check the moment the group is formed; succeeding against a very hard DC lets him command an army that's up to twice times the combined value of his level and his applicable background, otherwise he can command an army that's up to his level plus his applicable background (NOTE: the leader and the vanguard can be one and the same).  In either case, if the group is too large, it becomes impossible for them to effectively guide their attacks, reverting to the basic rules of combat as above**.

A trained group has one distinct advantage: during the group's turn, the leader can call for the group to focus on either offense or defense.  While on offense, the Vanguard gains a bonus attack and damage equal to the number of members in the group (except for the Vanguard), up to a given limit; for monsters this is +4 at adventurer tier, +5 at champion tier, and +6 at epic tier; while for PCs this limit equals the leader's Charisma modifier + applicable background.  While on defense, the same bonuses and limitations apply, but instead of to attack and damage, they apply to all defenses.

So for example, a 16 CHA level 1 Fighter with a +3 military officer background can easily command a group of 6 members (himself included).  During his group's turn he can grant himself +5 to hit and damage, or +5 to all defenses (but not both), due to his high Charisma and background bonus -- he is effective at barking orders to make sure that they all work effectively in spite of superior forces.  If he already does +4 to hit and 1d8+3 damage (let's average it to 7 damage shall we?), that means he can easily deal 12 * 6 = 72 damage instead of 7 damage to an opposing group (which can easily take out as many as 8 mooks in one go).

If for example let's literally ramp it up to the thousands.  The PCs with leader-type backgrounds can make checks to improve the odds of winning, but as every good plan goes out the window when the fighting really starts, all you can do is just divide the thousands of opponents between each PC and then using the basic mass combat rules as mentioned above; either that, or organize the groups so that there'd be a chain of command that'd allow the PCs to coordinate attacks with other groups, allowing maximum bonuses and army-vs.-army realism.  Consider also having the opposing team divided into groups as well, to both maintain multi-opponent dynamics*** and to make sure that each player participates in the fight and not just one guy.

** although assigning sub-leaders -- commanding officers, non-commissioned officers, etc. -- might work if you REALLY want to keep (and stack up) the bonuses and invoke more realism in your game.
*** it'd be effective if you had 10,000 mooks gather and fight one group at a time, yes... but it'd be anti-climactic unless you consider allowing the PCs to utilize traps and what not, which would whittle the 10,000 strong in a jiffy.  That said, there's a reason why you rarely hear stories about that one guy who solos an entire army of 10,000... although feel free to throw 10,000 level 1 mooks against a cocky level 8+ PC; if he does take out even a third of them by himself before dying, he deserves to be in epic tier.

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