Applied Kaijunomics

I recently unleashed the water demon on my unsuspecting PCs. I was unsure how they would react – facing an enormous creature that blots out the sun was outside the box enough that it made them rethink their default response (“kill, kill!”). It was a risk. It could easily have ended in confusion, arguments and accusations that I was designing unkillable monsters. Thankfully, none of that happened (much).

The encounter was, as I had hoped, a learning experience.

What went wrong

Things started going wrong before the encounter even started. Now, that sounds like a bad thing. It probably is most other contexts. But when running a game, it’s business as usual. Players like to behave unpredictably, jumping the gun and doing crazy stuff that isn’t the specific crazy stuff I had in mind.

As such, I had to rejig the conditions leading up to the fight. In terms of the scenario I outlined in the last post, it was like encountering the epic monster far away from Goodville, before meeting Baron von Nefarious, with no one else around for miles. It forced me to rethink everything about how the encounter started and thus how it could end.

The other problem was that I realised he was taking damage too quickly, so I boosted some of his HP by about 30%. But that’s a pretty basic tweak and certainly not the first time I’ve done that.

What worked

Oh boy. Oh boy. Where do I begin…

Firstly, I had fun. My players had fun. Not bad, given that I was messing around with the guts of combat mechanics.

I could leave it there because, really, that’s the main consideration. But so much went so well that I just have to brag. The kaiju showed up when the PCs were exploring a mansion (one of their childhood homes). It was clearly huge and powerful. The mere sight of it drove the PCs to race through the mansion, frantically scooping up whatever valuables and information they could. They wanted to bail as soon as possible. Epic monster looked epic: check.

When it arrived and started tearing the mansion to pieces, a frenzied debate emerged: fight or flee. They chose to flee (another point for how intimidating it was). Unfortunately for the PCs, the demon restrained one of the PCs. This tipped the decision the other way, ensuring that they stood and fought. Personally, I’m happy that they chose to fight. But the other possibility – somehow distracting it enough to let the slower people get away – would have made for a great encounter too. Had no one been slowed they could have simply run away – this would have meant not engaging it directly, which would have been disappointing. Still, in that case, I would have made sure it showed up somewhere down the road, threatening something they loved. But that would have meant postponing the fight (and my experiment).

In short, the circumstances encouraged (but didn’t force) the players to engage the threat. Good encounter design: check.

The players figured out how to fight the water demon very quickly. The strong visual clues and a little metagaming (ie, noticing that I was tracking more than one lot of damage) made it pretty obvious. I think the best case would have been if it had taken a bit of thought and experimentation to figure it out, but the worst case being the players giving up, thinking the creature was unstoppable. On that spectrum, this outcome sits strongly on the ‘win’ side. Especially since this was their first kaiju – the next one can afford to be trickier, as they now know they can deal with them.

Another awesome outcome was how creative the players became. Half of the party decided to attack the ‘foot’, which made good tactical sense. The others, though… one realised the head was in range of her Summon Monster spell. One PC climbed the crumbling mansion and leapt onto its shoulder. Another used the image of the water demon to argue that she could swim between the chest rocks and attack from the inside.

So, half the party is hacking away at ground level, frantically leaping out of the way of its rampages. Two heroes were clinging to its shoulders, striking at the head and chest. And one PC was swimming through its body, blasting it with area effect attacks. All while the mansion is crumbling around them. Epic? It sure felt that way. Check!

The party destroyed all the boulders. The water demon is still alive but is outside a protective shell, meaning they have defeated it. For now. But it took a lot of damage, a lot of firepower, to get it to this state. The kaiju absorbed enough damage to kill a dragon and is simply damaged, weakened. So that’s cool.

On the other side, one of the party dropped below zero hitpoints at the end of the fight. The others were in reasonably good health though. The good guys bled a lot, it’s true, but they came much closer to death that time they fought a gang of spiders. They suffered to cripple this epic monster, but they weren’t on the verge of a TPK. I’m not calling this aspect a success, but it was certainly no failure.

What I learned

  • I learned that I can pull this off. Everyone had fun and the fight felt properly epic.
  • If you want your players to stand and fight, make them invested enough to risk TPKs. A childhood home tugs on the heartstrings… but less than a hulking, evil monstrosity induces terror.
  • Overengineering encounters only sets you up for failure, since the PCs will do something unexpected. Guaranteed. At this stage in my game mastering career, I have learned that I tend to overcomplicate matters. On the other hand, I’m pretty good at adjusting things on the fly.
  • My party is light on healing abilities but they have powerful tanks and strong damage-dealers. They are tougher than I think they are. They can handle more damage than I think they can.

I’ll be using similar encounters in the future. This worked better than I had hoped. Experiment: success.

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…

waterdemon_scale

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…

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.