After a long absence that I will not be explaining for once, I am back. Let’s just dive right in.
My weekly 5th Edition game continues at the local game store. Life does obstruct this game from time to time, but I persevere, and my players are seeming to have a good time. Today’s blog is about last week’s adventure, and specifically, the monster I put in it.
Quick back story: the PCs are working for a powerful church in the hopes of earning a resurrection for their dead comrade. While on a mission, one player used a very unreliable artifact to save the day. The side-effect was the opening of a sealed gate to some demon dimension or other. The players had to then travel to gate and close it with the same unreliable artifact. Problem in the way: Something got out.
That something was a nameless horror. It being nameless, I get to name it, so I shall name it Phil. Phil was a fun challenge for the PCs, primarily because they didn’t know what to expect. You can’t find Phil in any monster manual or guidebook. I made Phil entirely from scratch… or did I?
Phil is a giant, blind, enormous crab monster with dozens of spear-like segmented legs. He radiates fear like a dragon, casts magical darkness at will, has 300 hp, AC 20, and a fun attack mechanism. His spear-legs tap their surroundings to echolocate their targets and then strike with such unerring precision that it’s a dex save to avoid them. Every round that a PC stays in range of Phil’s claws, more legs strike out, doing more and more damage as his targeting solution improves. For the record, I like Phil.
So why is Phil the way he is? Because he was custom built for facing the party. I designed him to take on all the PCs at once, inflict damage that got worse as the fight went along, and included multiple ways to get around him (which no one noticed or bothered to use). In the end, the party beat Phil down, but not before he savaged several of the PCs and dropped two of them to 0 HP.
Afterwards, one of my players, a young teen (most of my players are young teens), asked me how I thought him up. I didn’t give a very satisfactory response, and said something like, “I’ve been playing RPGs for over 20 years, and designing them for 5, I just kinda figured it out.” So young player (who is also an aspiring GM) here’s how I thought up Phil.
I knew I was working with limited time. My game had to run in under 4 hours, and there was a lot of stuff leading up to Phil, so I had to limit the time allotted for the final battle. That means one big boss instead of a group or team of bosses. 1 boss means less book keeping, a simpler combat sequence, and less for everyone to keep track of. Despite the Phil’s heap of hit points, and high AC, running one big bad is faster and easier than lots. Also, Phil’s attacks were all saves made by the PCs instead of me rolling the dice. This meant there was even less for me to track.
Phil needed to take on 7-9 PCs so to make a threat I need him to be able to do a lot in a round. He also needed to survive a lot of punishment, as I know my PCs can pour out buckets of damage. The first idea that came to mind was an octopus or other larger creature with lots of limbs. Phil got his armoured carapace (and thus high AC) from a similar monster in the first half-life video game, that giant spikey crab monster was terrifying then. I’m sure it would be now. So Phil can attack a lot, and he can hit every PC every turn. His armour class makes him hard to hit, and his high HP ensures the PCs won’t take him out with a few lucky hits.
Phil is scary. He lurks in darkness, and taps at his surroundings to “see.” I got the idea of an echolocating monster from a recent episode of NPR that talked about blind people using clicking noises to echolocate. I knew that knocking on the table like Phil’s claws would build tension before I revealed him. Phil had the magical fear spell to back me up on creating tension, but I knew it would be better to pull it off by making him menacing before the fear spell hit. Once the PC’s dispelled Phil’s darkness I tried to describe him as being as alien as possible, and tap into that innate human fear of things we don’t understand. I was aiming for something akin to a Cthulhu Mythos horror, I’m not sure how well that worked out, but the players seemed nervous and off-put, so I achieved at least some success.
Phil was not a true Cthulhu monster in that he could be killed, and he had certain built-in weaknesses. The biggest weakness, that only some of the PCs realized, is that Phil was immobile. They found him hulking over a vineyard structure in partially destroyed convent that contained the aforementioned dimensional gate (sidenote: Convent with demon gate is an idea straight-up lifted from a New Orleans ghost tour I attended the week before the game). Phil was stuck, though, he could lash out with his spear claws, but he lacked the strength to drag his armoured carapace anywhere. Several of the PCs realized this, held back, and attacked at range. Phil could only return fire with a relatively weak firebolt spell. Phil’s second main weakness was spin-up: he need several rounds of targeting a PC before his attacks did full damage. If the characters had played smarter, moving in and then out of range of his attacks, they would have faced a much lower risk.
Those who take great risk earn great reward when they succeed. One of my PC’s allowed himself to be impaled by Phil in the hopes of getting in closer for a better attack. Phil did his level best to devour this daring fellow, but failed, so when Phil’s HP got low, I planned to let this PC land the killing blow. As it turns out, the PC landed the attack that crossed the 300 HP threshold, so there didn’t have to be any fudging of the numbers on my part. Phil died and the PC’s then closed the breach. A good time was had by all, except for Phil.
I created Phil to fulfill a specific need in a very specific amount of time. I gave him stats that I knew would work for my game, and drew inspiration from science, Cthulhu mythos, aquatic creatures, psychology, legends, and video games. No part of Phil is truly original, but my blending of so many elements hopefully made him seem as though he was. By building my own monster I put all of the players back on their heels, creating the uncertainty and fear that people feel when they face the unknown. Phil fought, Phil died, and the PCs prevailed.
Good game, Phil.
Rest in peace.