Building Your Own Kaiju

In the last post we talked about truly epic monsters, the kind who could level Tokyo with no difficulty. We talked about what it would be like to fight one in a game like Dungeons and Dragons. Now we have an overview of what it would be like, an aspirational target for what the fight should feel like.

In D&D 4e, it would probably boil down to a skill challenge. In other systems, it would involve taking our monster and giving it a bunch of extra hitpoints. Both are valid approaches, but neither captures the right atmosphere.

Let’s talk about Cloverfield for a second. A giant monster is ripping through New York City. The protagonists are kids with a camera. Even when it is just walking around, the monster is way beyond what they can handle. It is beyond what a well-trained army can handle.

The main characters have no chance of even piercing their enemy’s skin. Clover is so far above the level that they are operating at that the story had to introduce parasites to give them something to fight back against. Parasites. In other words, ordinary people struggle in a fight against this monster’s fleas.

Now, I’m hoping that your PCs are better at fighting than the Cloverfield protagonists. Even so, they are all roughly the same height, the same weight, the same intrinsic level of intimidating. The PCs, with their advanced training and magical abilities, will handle themselves much better than unarmed civilians… but they will still be operating at the level of a parasite.

But a parasite can achieve a lot. It can distract, irritate, injure, wound, even kill. It can’t compete in a fair fight, but it can strike from a position of strength. A human can kill a thousand fleas without even noticing, but fleas can also wipe out a third of Europe’s human population. The fleas can win but the odds are against them. And they’d have to fight smart.

There are a number of ways of capturing this in an RPG. Just like other encounters, it boils down to good design. Your kaiju, like any adversary you put on the table, should have behaviour, personality, an objective. It should also have strengths and weaknesses, though the strengths should be obvious and overwhelming; the weaknesses, hidden and subtle. Most things your PCs do, up to and including their best attacks, should have little-to-no effect on the creature. When they finally land a relevant blow, it should be obvious that they have, but the effects will still be minor.

How do you convey all of this? Good narration is a part of it. But to really distinguish these epic monsters from your run-of-the-mill orcs and giants, I like to draw on a powerful yet often neglected tool: art.

The Art of War

Providing your players with a picture of the epic monsters achieves so much of what we’ve covered. It is different and attention-grabbing, clearly telegraphing that this is no ordinary fight. It also makes it clear that this creature will not go down so easily, if its size and power and clearly visible. It also fulfils the puzzle element and the demonstrating of strengths and weaknesses. Those claws look sharp – but those finger joints aren’t covered in armour. It is covered with flames – but do its eyes look beady and vulnerable? It has strong legs – but if knocked on its back, can it get back up?

A lot of GMs use artwork to set a scene or show where the tavern is in relation to the temple. But using it as a combat mechanic? That’s less common. But there’s no reason why – after all, video games do it all the time. Aim for the glowing jewel on the dragon’s chest! The spaceship’s shields drop a moment before it fires! Target its eyes and maybe we can blind it!

The question then becomes, what artwork do you use? The answer to that is: it doesn’t matter. Really. Just get something that fits. The quickest way, in theory, is a Google image search (did you know that there is a lot of scifi and fantasy artwork on Google? I promised this blog would be educational).

Speaking from experience, this can take a lot more time than you’d think – especially if you start with an idea in mind. Finding a random picture that properly conveys the characteristics and behaviour of what you have in mind can be hard. Honestly, sometimes the best way is to create the artwork yourself. Before you baulk at the idea and anti-brag about your poor drawing skills… again, it doesn’t matter. You don’t need something that looks good, you just need something that conveys the general idea. That’s why drawing it yourself is such a great idea – you can create an image that is neat and clean, conveying everything you need and nothing unnecessary.

Besides, your artistic skills are not worse than mine are and I’m putting my artwork up for everyone to see. Oh yes, I am that shameless. But only because I care so much about putting big stompy monsters in your campaigns.

The rest of the combat mechanics

The biggest difference between this fight and a normal fight is how you go about resolving it. In our previous example of the heroic gnome taking on a dragon, the gnome picks an attack and rolls to hit. But our monsters are way more epic than that. You aren’t attacking the monster – you are attacking, for example, the monster’s front left claw. Or its tail, or the discoloured scale on its flank. And you might not even be just attacking – instead of swinging your sword, maybe you are using your sword to sever a finger or pry loose a gemstone. Mere combat is not worthy of our epic kaiju.

Your monster will need to be able to attack hard and often. It will be easy to hit but have lots of defences – casting a sleep spell should not be all that effective against it. It will also need some way of demonstrating its power without instantly killing the PCs (there’s a reason movies like this are set in cities – lots of damage and a high body count).

Above all, it needs an objective. And the PCs need some way of thwarting it.

This is all fairly abstract, so I’ll make it more concrete with an example. For my players: the following (kinda) contains spoilers for my campaign.

The Water Demon

Baron von Nefarious has been revealed as the evil hydromancer! Now he wants revenge on the fortress town of Goodville. He has summoned a water demon: a huge monster carved from magical water, rocks and ice. It towers over the PCs and even the walls of Goodville. But hope remains! The nearby Purity Temple has an anti-demon spell protecting it. Anyone who reaches the temple will be safe. But time is short and the demon approaches…

A nice, simple scenario. Rather than summoning a horde of weak, killable water elementals, the bad guy has gone all out and unleashed an epic monster. Baron von Nefarious – what a badass.

Objectives and behaviour

The Water Demon is a conjured creature. As such it has no hunger and is not territorial. It has no will of its own. Following its master’s bidding, it seeks to destroy Goodville and kill its inhabitants.

I’ll assume the players like Goodville, because this puts them at direct odds with the kaiju. They want to protect the town and save as many people as they can. Here is the conflict, the beating heart of the encounter. Like all good encounters, both sides want different things. What makes this different from most is that killing the opponent is not really an option.

Physical characteristics

Okay, time to show off some artistic skills. Wait for it…


Yeah okay, I know. It’s not the best picture in the world. But like I keep saying, it doesn’t need to be. It conveys all the information it needs to about our not-so-friendly water demon. For example, it is tall. The picture conveys how tall though, which is a good start. But what else? It is mostly made of water, with rocky ice floating within. It has an aura about it and glowing eyes.

All of which says a lot, and it says it clearer than a vague description. Try to describe my water demon in words only. I hope you’ve thought of something catchy, because without the picture you’d be repeating it to your players often.

Now, if you were faced with something like this, what would you do? I’d probably experiment with different attacks. The ice could be the weak point, but what happens if we attack the water body? How about the eyes – can they shoot lasers, are they weak points, or are they just decoration?

In this case, I’m not pulling anything too surprising. The water body is mostly indestructible but doesn’t do much. The ice boulders allow it to attack, but are also the most vulnerable parts. And, sure, let’s give the eyes some kind of psychic attack.

The water demon can use the boulders in the following ways:

  • Ground boulder – allows the monster to move quickly. As it moves, it slams into puny PCs and NPCs. In short, it does low damage to groups of enemies.
  • Fist boulders – make short work of buildings but are clumsy when used against PCs. High damage against Goodville’s walls and taverns, but low chance to hit individual targets.
  • Head boulder – psychic gaze. In other words, good at targeting individuals.
  • Chest boulders – can act as shields: attacks aimed at the head of fists could hit the chest instead. Also, blocks any adventurous fighter who tries to swim up to the head.

Each boulder is reasonably easy to hit, but has a lot of hitpoints. Essentially, treat each one as a fully-fledged enemy… a tough one at that. Each one also enables one of the above abilities, and most have their own initiative.

Yep, you heard me. The ground, head and fist boulders have initiative. Why? It lets the monster use each attack each round, increasing the epic factor and making the fight just that little bit more desperate. It reduces the impact of bad rolls – a cursed dice can turn your kaiju into a pile of suck. It also means that taking out boulders weakens the water demon, nullifying its attacks one by one.

Given that this is not a normal fight (though it resembles one enough to not throw your players too much), it’s important to add a bit of flexibility. You are a GM, after all – the rules are only guidelines. The water body doesn’t take damage, but if one of your players tries to, say, freeze or boil it, maybe that hinders it somewhat. On the other side, kaiju can “attack” even if they are completely defanged. A boulderless water demon can still crush, drown or otherwise inflict misery. Be creative. And reward your players’ creativity.

I like the water demon as an introduction to this concept. It will surprise your players but they will adapt quickly enough. The ice boulders mechanic – being both a strength and vulnerability – makes good sense. There are other ways to build a kaiju though. An obvious way is to decouple strengths and weaknesses – a battle tank with a huge cannon and concealed power cells, for example. The water demon gets weaker as the battle progresses, but it’s not hard to design one that stays as strong or becomes more powerful in time. Maybe one can only be harmed by exploiting the terrain, performing some skill check to expose weak points or taking advantage of its territorial nature.

This is still just an idea. I’ll inflict it on my players soon and write up the results. If it works well enough, I’ll try it out again. I invite you to do the same. No matter what happens, I’m sure we’ll learn something – that and your players will learn that you can, in fact, pull out the big guns from time to time…

Today’s Subject: Creativity

If this blog is about playing with creativity, it begs a few questions: what is creativity, and how do you play with it?

Creative readers will recognise aspects of this post and identify with them in their own lives. Some parts won’t resonate as much, and that’s fine. This is one way (out of infinite ways) of thinking about the process. How I think about creativity changes – right now, this is what my mind is going with.

Creative Engineering

Creativity is a bit of a black box. What goes in often looks nothing like what comes out. Exactly what happens to bring about this transformation isn’t always clear. Still, there’s a lot that we have figured out about it. Like how it is a balancing act between saturating your brain in inspiring media and embracing boredom to give ideas space to grow. Like how you accept that it’s a meandering path that goes whichever way it wants. Like how it needs to be a fun, positive and engaging process.

Another thing that we know is that ideas grow when shared. Spreading ideas around strengthens them, both by clarifying them in your mind and letting them interface with other ideas in the world. Collaboration is a powerful tool for spinning up new ways of looking at the world.

Taking those things together, we have the blueprint of what part of the process looks like. A properly cultivated mind – rich in time, inspiration and media – emits something resembling an idea. It is not quite an idea yet though. It is incomplete, anaemic, unable to support its own weight. I like to think of it as an idea fragment, just waiting for the right component to make it whole.

If you are trying to write a novel, then the purpose of your creativity is to produce a book. You take the idea fragments, refine them into ideas and upgrade them to a finished product. This is a laborious and demanding process. It is worthwhile, of course – this is the only way your ideas see the light of day and start working for you (and earning you money). Finishing projects is the real test of a creative professional – making the leap from abstract to real, translating an idea fragment into a finished product.

Creative Chemistry

This is where playing with creativity differs from being creatively productive – when playing, the goal isn’t to produce an outcome but to maximise creativity. In which case, we are freed from a lot of the hard work. Idea fragments invite response. Each idea fragment – each potential idea – is so clearly visible yet so clearly incomplete that you can’t help but think of ways to round it out. Ideas inspire creativity, but idea fragments make creativity explode.

I like to think of ideas as water molecules. Quite famously being H2O – two hydrogen atoms, one oxygen atom – water is chemically stable and very unreactive. It is powerful, useful, vital and beautiful but, chemically, it will just sit there.

By analogy, an idea fragment is like a water molecule fragment. Take away one of the hydrogen atoms and you are left with an OH- radical – one hydrogen atom, one oxygen atom. It is nearly a stable molecule, but the funny thing is being nearly stable makes you really unstable. A measly hydrogen atom will ‘complete’ the OH- radical. To get that hydrogen atom, it will react strongly with a lot of different chemicals.

This is the fun part. Most creative people love thinking up fun and creative ideas – it’s turning them into outcomes that is a drag. Building idea fragments is the first part, the funnest part, the easiest part. In an exploration of the creative, where else would we start?

When you read my other posts on this site, you’ll notice a lot of this going on. I will cultivate idea fragments and fire them off into the wild. I’ll endeavour to give them legs – a prototype here, a demonstration there – but they won’t be finished products. No, they’ll be eagerly awaiting the complementary reagent that makes them whole.

Creative Biology

It’s a shame that relentless idea generation such a bad habit, one that I am thoroughly guilty of. You have a vision for some creative endeavour, you start, but the inspiration runs low and momentum peters out. Dabbling in the idea fragment space is satisfying, most of the time. But it neglects half of the process.

If we have an ecosystem of idea fragments, colliding and spinning off whole, healthy ideas, it would be criminal to leave it there. Just as the chemistry-rich primordial earth gave rise to complex biology, so too must this frenzy of idea fragment generation give rise to ideas, then outcomes.

Here’s the thing: let’s not force it. Maybe we just sit back and let the ideas evolve. Let them come to us when they’re ready. If and only if an idea seduces us, we should run with it. Until then we can sit back, relax and keep nurturing our precious idea fragments.

I have books at home filled with idea fragments dating back years. In a way, I have already built an ideas ecosystem and have been all my life. But it is lacking a couple of things that you guys can provide. One is, of course, exposure – my idea fragments can go to other people and theirs can come to me, and somewhere in this amino acid soup will be the spark that takes them to the next level. The other benefit is accountability. Emergent ideas that deserve more out of life will have a public audience. If they whither from my neglect or negligence, I won’t be the only witness.

Creative Economics

Which is where you come in. I will provide you with what I can – gaming tips, creative resources, an insight into one rookie’s design journey, inspiration, a flood of idea fragments. I give you these things freely – nay, eagerly. In exchange, all I ask is that you participate. Share your own idea fragments. Comment on mine – what works, what is missing? Take my idea fragments and run with them – I won’t mind, as long as they find a good home.

I promise I’ll have fun. Invest your creativity in me and it will pay dividends.

Gaming is a window to our true selves. So is the creative process. Why don’t we indulge them a little more, see if they cannot surprise us.

Let’s Talk About Kaiju

The other day I was playing Dragon’s Dogma and I was struck by how fun the monsters are. While there are piddly little goblins who die when you glare at them, the real action is against hulking goliaths who crush entire towns before breakfast. These enemies are huge. And they are as tough as they look. There’s one creature early on that attacks a military town – naturally, the residents (and the player) take up arms against it. But it doesn’t care. Swords strike its sides and arrows strike its face but it doesn’t even react. It just picks the defenders off and smashes buildings, as if these skilled warriors are nothing but irritating insects. Heck, these monsters are so large that you have to climb them to stab anywhere other than their shins.

These creatures – I’ll use terms like kaiju and epic monster interchangeably – are an awesome part of popular culture. But while huge foes grace our tables every now and then, they aren’t quite the same. I’ve never had an encounter that felt like these Dragon’s Dogma fights.

Which got me thinking – could I develop rules for kaiju for tabletop RPGs?

[Aside: I’m going to frame these articles by talking about Dungeons and Dragons, but my process will be system-generic enough to apply to whatever you want.]

Before we go into this, we have to ask: how does normal combat in tabletop RPGs work? And how would a nearly-indestructible titan differ from this?

Normal combat in Tabletop RPGs

In a typical PC vs hostile NPC matchup, it assumes that all combatants are at the same scale. A human fighting another human will exchange blows – sword vs armour, magic missile vs reflex, back and forth until someone drops. Any hit, even a weak one, takes a decent percentage off the opponent’s HP. It’s a question of what attacks you use against what enemy, and when.

Now, a gnome and a dragon are clearly not at the same scale. But the rules don’t change – a dragon will breath fire on the gnome and the gnome will throw a spear at the dragon. The difference in sizes does not fundamentally change combat. Of course, maybe the gnome has a bonus to not being hit because it is small, or maybe the dragon is easier to flank because it is large. But at its core, this is little different from two humans punching each other in the face – attacks are exchanged, hitpoints drop, someone loses.

How a truly epic monster would be different

Imagine Godzilla attacking your PCs. Or even the guy on the cover of the D&D 5e handbook:

When your hand is bigger than your foe’s whole body, you’re gonna fight differently…

Here we have an enemy who is significantly bigger and more powerful than the PCs. Would your brave paladin really stab Godzilla in the toenail? Would an attack like that kill Godzilla… ever? And would Godzilla exchange attacks with the paladin, back and forth until the once-noble warrior is a pile of goo?

I suppose you could do it this way. And maybe if you scaled the hitpoints and damage appropriately, you could make an encounter that was fun to play. But suddenly it doesn’t feel like a fight against a kaiju. Godzilla has been replaced with a really tall goblin.

But if we change the rules, we can change how the fight feels. First, though, we need to have a think about what epic monsters are, and what sets them apart from the usual PC fodder:

Epic monsters are huge. Even if it can’t do anything but walk around, kaiju are gonna cause massive destruction. They will clear forests, wipe out towns and crush enemies just by rolling over and taking a nap.

Epic monsters are tough. Your PC’s best attacks will do nothing against them. Remember the smooshed paladin who thought stabbing Godzilla’s toe was brave? If Godzilla has 1000 HP, that attack should do approximately 0 damage. A thousand toe-stabs aren’t going to kill something this powerful.

Think about the conspiracy theories surrounding the Kennedy assassination. The idea that a powerful man could be killed by such a lowly one doesn’t resonate with people, so some folks sought out something equally powerful (the CIA, the Mafia…) as the true culprits. The same thinking has to apply here. If your kaiju can be taken out by a move that injures kobolds, it sucks the awesome right out of the room. Only something powerful and awesome can defeat an epic monster.

Epic monsters break the terrain. The passage of a kaiju is going to leave a mark. They displace water when swimming and flatten the earth while walking. A trail of destruction will follow their passage – uprooted trees, ruined houses, landslides, fractures in the earth. And that’s just assuming it’s merely physically large. If it has any sort of magic or technology, effects could be as dramatic as storms or high radiation counts.

Of course, if the creature is large enough it could also count as terrain…

Epic monsters are a puzzle. An ogre can be taken down with enough magic missiles, but an army of wizards won’t even hurt a kaiju. Brute force can’t work against them like it can against other creatures. The players need to figure out how to hurt it before they can even bloody its nose.

Epic monsters are, well, epic. Your players (let alone your PCs) should be terrified at the mere hint of one of these. They should appreciate instinctively that even with the best gear and the best dice rolls, they are unlikely to even cause it pain. They should feel its roars in their bones.

Now, of course, a truly untouchable monster makes for a pretty boring encounter. There has to be some way to drive off, injure, banish or kill it. But it has to seem invincible, at least early on. The players should know (or at least guess) that ordinary attacks are not going to bring it down. It has to radiate death and destruction, and invite the players to figure out its physiology and motivations.

There’s a simple way to achieve all of that, using an often-neglected GM tool: game art. In the next post I’ll talk about that and throw in an example.