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:
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.