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.
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…