Blog Archives

Building New Things That Feel Iconic

I love making new fantastic things. Not just “fantasy” things, but amazing and otherworldly things you could find in supers stories, or ancient mythology, or scifi, or weird west tall tales, or all of the above.

I especially love to make new things that feel like they have a long, established, iconic niche even if they are brand new. Obviously that’s a great *goal*, but it’s extremely difficult to do without making something that’s just a pastiche. It’s also extremely difficult to know when you have succeeded.

I do have some tricks I try to apply. Firstly, I often find if I can’t explain a thing within the number of characters allowed by a Tweet, I don’t have a firm enough grasp of what the core of that thing is. Second, I try to think about what the base of a thing is, and what the expansion is.

For example, today I had an idea leap into my head (likely due to insomnia-induced fatigue toxions) which I described thusly:

Ghortal are 7-8 foot tall unguligrade bipeds with roughly bull-like heads featuring tusks and 2-7 curling horns. Immune to undeath, if infected their faces take on skeletal features as their aging slows and they gain occult power.
They have a strong clan structure.

The base of ghortal is clearly that they are a kind of minotaur-kin, though with tusks and more horns. But then the idea is expanded to give them a special immunity to undeath, and a reaction to undead exposure that’s unique to them.

Minoaturs are clearly iconic, and there are a lot of similar beast + biped creatures in myth and fiction. Bovine skulls being used as masks and symbols is also extremely common, so I wanted to find a neat way to combine those into my minotaurs-with-extra-pointy-bits concept to make ghortal new and more interesting.

As for how I know when I have succeeded — it’s always a matter of how other people take to the idea.

But it’s sure a good sign when a professional cartoonist is so taken by the idea, they do art for it. Relatedly, here’s art the amazing Stan! did after reading my ghortal post earlier today. 🙂

Image

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Fighting Fire (Elementals) with Fire (Damage)

Heya folks! Gaming veteran and cartooning luminary Stan! wrote a response-with-counterproposals to my blog from last Friday, which I am delighted to present to you here as another Guest Blog!

If you are involved, or getting involved, in tabletop games and are interested in having me feature a guest blog of yours, let me know! You can drop me a line at owen.stephens@gmail.com.

On Friday, Owen wrote an interesting and provocative post suggesting that Fire Elementals Shouldn’t Be Immune to Fire. As so often is the case, I was gobsmacked by the brilliance of this simple game design heresy. But the more I thought about it, the more I felt like the idea would be improved with a little tweak. When I brought it up to Owen he said, “Fine … write it up!”

Damn it, Owen!

Demons and Devils

Owen’s first suggestion was that since demons and devils were placed in Hell as punishment for their evil natures, it makes sense for they themselves to share the eternal torment that the souls they tend suffer. His suggestion was that these creatures are merely immune from being DESTROYED by hellfire because they are immortal spirits. While that made some sense to me, it also made me wonder why in that case they wouldn’t be eternally on the EDGE of death, burned to near cinders but unable to succumb.

My counterproposal: In addition to being unable to be killed by fire damage, demons, devils, and other similar creatures get a new trait so that at the start of their turn, they heal all fire damage they have suffered. That way they are fresh at the start of each turn, and then get burned all over again. And if you target them with spells or other sources of fire damage, they have to take that too … they just can’t die from it, and they’ll heal it all back when their turn comes along.

In Their Element

The second half of Owen’s pitch was that Fire Elementals not be immune to fire in the same way that we creatures of flesh are not immune to fists, suggesting instead that they are adapted to their natural habitat and “see routes through the flames” so as to avoid taking damage. I suppose partly this comes down to how one envisions the Plane of Fire, but for me there are no routes “through the flames,” they are omnipresent. And my interpretation of creatures native to that plane is that they are cozy and comfortable when in the presence of natural occurrences of their element (sitting in a campfire is like a soothing bath for a Fire Elemental, likewise a Water Elemental is total at home in any amount of water).

My counterproposal: While elementals are sanguine when faced with their natural substance, they are still vulnerable to magical, chemical, and alchemical variations of it. So a fire elemental could be fine fighting in the middle of a burning house, but it’d take damage just like anyone else might from a <ital>fire bolt, fireball,</ital> or burning oil. It would be impossible, of course, to set a fire elemental on fire for ongoing damage … but the initial blast or splash sure hurts.

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Fire Elementals Shouldn’t Be Immune to Fire

In a lot of ttRPGs, a whole slew of creatures are immune to fire damage. Most commonly, demons/devils, and things from the elemental plane of fire.

The logic goes, demons and devils live in some kind of fiery hell. But most fantasy mythologies have them put there as punishment. Why put them someplace they are immune to?

Similarly, a fire elemental is said to be immune to fire because is it made of fire. But I’m made of flesh and bone, and a leather-wrapped femur slapped upside my head damages me just fine. Slap me with a side of beef and I show no sign of being immune to it.

Now, you DO want these creatures to be able to exist in their environments, but that need not make them immune to a common form of damage, and classically one of the things you CAN use against monsters in fantasy fiction. Demons and devil may be immune to being destroyed in Hell because they are immortal spirits, but they can still burn and suffer, making their existence damnation, Fire elementals can be given an ability to see the routes through the plane of fire, escaping burning not because they are made of fire, but because they are adapted to their environment.

So, since people aren’t immune to damage from being hit by the things they are made of:

Fire elementals should not be immune to fire.

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Ablative for Pathfinder 1st edition

Ablative is a creature ability you can add to monsters to make them shrink as they take damage. It’s designed for use with elementals, constructs, and slimes, but could apply to other creatures as well. If applies to creatures that primarily do weapons or natural weapon damage, it’s reduced damage output heavily counters its increased AC and accuracy. For creatures that use offenses not modified by the reduced size, it generally becomes more dangerous as it’s injured.

When an ablative creature has lost 1/3 or more of its HP, it becomes one size smaller until its HP total is healed to be over that threshold. This otherwise functions as reduce person.

When an ablative creature has lost 2/3 or more of its HP, it becomes one size smaller until its HP total is healed to be over that threshold. This also otherwise functions as reduce person, with the modifiers stacking with the first application.

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Koufrawraiths – A simple d20 monster template

This is designed as a simple template for monsters in a wide range of d20 games. It has a horror/mystery theme, and the GM should consider its use carefully. Certainly it’s going to be as dangerous as a creature 1 level or CR higher, and if PCs do not yet know how to deal with it, it may be much more dangerous. On the other hand, a group could walk right past one and never know it, so it needs to be used in an intentional way with forethought, rather than as a random encounter.

Koufrawraith

(Sleepless art by likozor)

A koufrawraith is a creature that exists in the dim fog between the waking world and the Plane of Dreams. They cannot be encountered by anyone fully in either realm, but do cross into any other reality where creatures able to sleep exist. Despite the name koufrawraiths are not necessarily undead, though undead koufrawraiths do exist. Many are hags, fey, monstrous beasts,and rarer examples exist as constructs, dragons, and oozes.

A koufrawraith’s existence can only be experienced by those who are fatigued or exhausted, but conscious. For any other creature, they cannot be perceived or effected, and the koufrawraith similarly cannot directly effect those who are ineligible to perceive it. It does perceive waking and sleeping creatures, but no action it takes (including things like casting spells that leave lasting effects, such as a wall of stone) can be perceived by, effect, or be effected by such creatures. Secondary effects can be–if a koufrawraith damages an exhausted person, the damage is visible and can be healed, but there is no evidence of how it was caused. Any effort to identify a koufrawriath from secondary observation or description suffers a -10 penalty.

Also known as sleepgaunts, koufrawraiths often prey upon lone insomniacs and those suffering great loss or toil. If feeds on the suffering of the tired, and prefers to hurt and frighten its food source, rather than kill them.

The ancient order of the Wearied Guard once drove koufrawraiths to near extinction, but once they were no longer a common threat, societies stopped supporting, or even believing, those who claimed their crucial work had to be done in the still of night, while bleary-eyed and staggering from fatigue.

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Ways to Boost a Foe’s CR in Starfinder

Yesterday we discussed why Starfinder doesn’t really follow the CR and CR equivalent charts in the core rulebook in all situations. I also linked to my “CR 6 +1” manticore as a way I had created a CR 7 monster appropriate for 5th level characters. A lot of people wanted to know if there were fast and easy ways to boost the CR of a Starfinder creature by +1 without making them too dangerous for lower-level players.

So, here are three! (Note that these don’t work as well if the players are already higher-level than the monster’s CR.)

Art By Herschel Hoffmeyer

*Boost All It’s Lower Values: Look at the creature’s saving throws, and make them all as good as its best save. Look at its attacks, and make all its attack bonuses as good as it’s best attack bonus. Look at its skills, and give them all the bonus for its highest skill. Increase its initiative modifier to be 4 higher than its highest ability score modifier. If it’s EAC is more than 2 lower than its KAC, bring it to be within 2. Remove any vulnerabilities.
This doesn’t raise the opponent’s numbers to be higher than the PCs can deal with at its level, but it does make it as strong as is reasonable in every area of combat. Without a weakness the PCs can exploit, the foe is more effective in whatever area happens to be important in the chaos of a fight.

*Double Its Hit Points: A foe that lasts longer can do more damage, but obviously it’s as dangerous as two of the same foe, since it can still make only one set of attacks per round, can only be in one place, and any penalties the PCs inflict only have to target one enemy. This one is fast and easy, but it has the downside that combats can drag on a bit, so only use this sparingly, and when you want an opponent to come off as super-tough.

*Give It Area/Ranged Attacks: You don’t want to make it do more damage or have a better attack bonus, but you can give it ranged, area attacks that do appropriate damage for its level. A breath weapon is a good example of this, as are any grenades with an item level equal to its CR or less. The idea here is to let it damage multiple PCs in a single attack action, and be able to switch up its attack options based on what’s happening in the combat.

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Cephalephants for Starfinder

So, the amazing Jacob Blackmon (support his Patreon!) illustrated a cephalopod – elephant creature, and I was so taken with it I knew I had to write it up for Starfinder. The flavor text below is geared around the really Wild West setting, but you could equally well use it as a mutation in a GammeFinder game, or just a weird creature for a typical Starfinder science-fantasy campaign.

RWW Cephlephant

Cephalephants are native to the shores of the Kingdom of Orungu, on the western equatorial coast of Africa. They are amphibious, able to breath both air and water, and powerful swimmers. They mate for life, and give birth in the water, with young cephalephants not bale to move onto land until they are 7-8 weeks old.

The Myènè speaking people of Orungu accept cephalephants as sapient equals, and local law has always given them right-of-way through Orungu lands and waters, as long as they do not do significant damage to an area. However, as the tentacled pachyderms are not tool-users and depend on telepathy and memory-ivory to communicate and pass down their culture, many other nations see them as no more intelligent than a typical dog or camel. There are only two places they are commonly found outside of Orungu — Germany (where a expedition herd migrated to petition for inclusion in the Paderborn Edicts, but arrived decades too late and are now waiting for the 1896 council), and Montana, U.S. (where a small herd has maintained itself while searching for some mammoth-related item they consider to be of great importance.

While cephalephants are as sapient as typical humanoids, they are also insular and slow to trust. When they are threatened or attacked, or those they think of as allies of the herd are, they are quick to respond with overwhelming force (especially bulls). The long-term safety and security of the herd–often as defined by its matrons and young–are considered much more important than the life of a single member.

Cephalephants eschew tool use not out of stupidity, but because their own tool-making is limited by a nomadic lifestyle that includes spending a great deal of time in water, and a focus on training as mystics. Most cephalephants prefer to learn magic that augments their daily needs, rather than become proficient with objects.

CEPHALEPHANT
Cephalephant     CR 6
XP 2,400
N Huge magical beast (aquatic)
Init +2; Senses darkvision 60 ft., low-light vision; Perception +13

DEFENSE              HP 90
EAC 18; KAC 20
Fort +10; Ref +10; Will +5
Defensive Abilities Camouflage

OFFENSE
Speed 50 ft., swim 20 ft.
Melee gore +13 (3d4+13 P, critical bleed 1d6)
tentacle +15 (1d8+13 B, grab)
Space 15 ft.; Reach 10 ft. (20 ft., tentacle)
Offensive Abilities Ink cloud (DC 14)

STATISTICS
Str +5; Dex +2; Con +3; Int +1; Wis +2; Cha +1
Skills Athletics +13 (+21 when swimming), Profession +13, Stealth +22, Survival +13
Other Abilities amphibious

SPECIAL ABILITIES
Camouflage (Ex) A cephalephant can change its exterior to match the coloration of its surroundings. This allows it to hide even when they do not have cover or concealment.
Ink Cloud (Ex) A cephalephant can create a 20-foot radius cloud of ink that works in air or underwater. this acts as a smoke grenade (DC 14). All cephalephants are immune to a cephalephant’s ink cloud.

ECOLOGY
Environment temperate coasts
Organization solitary, pair, family (3-5), or herd (6-30)

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Fire-Breathing Robodino for Starfinder

Okay, so we did a quick robodino kitbash, and compiled the rules for it in one place. But folks still want more robodinos! What’s a game design blogger to do?

Give ’em what they want!

The “Tyrannocyber Wrecks” is a slightly more complex animal-to-robot conversion. We followed the steps outlined yesterday, but we have gone a bit further. We added an integral ranged weapon appropriate for a CR 9 combatant array, and removed swallow whole and replaced it with a fire breath weapon using the guidelines for the universal creature rule. (I’m not sure who decided tyrannosaurus robots breath fire, but it’s a well-known science-fantasy trope. 🙂 ) Since we gave it ranged weapons, we updated the skills and the ability scores to be standard for a CR 9 combatant and adjusted the initiative and melee damage to match.

This is the work of maybe 10 minutes instead of 5, but it gives us a more complex example of a kitbashed foe!

Mecharex

(Art by vexworldwide)

ROBODINOSAUR, Tyrannocyber Wrecks

Tyrannocyber Wrecks             CR 9

XP 6,400
N Gargantuan construct (technological)
Init +4; Senses darkvision 60 ft., low-light vision; Perception +17

DEFENSE             HP 145

EAC 22; KAC 24
Fort +10; Ref +7; Will +7
Immunities construct immunities; unliving

OFFENSE

Speed 40 ft.
Melee bite +22 (2d10+15 S; crit. bleed 2d6)
Ranged integrated salamander-class burner +19 2d10+9 F, line, crit burn 2d6)
Space 20 ft.; Reach 20 ft.
Offensive Abilities breath weapon (60-ft. cone, 10d6 F, Reflex DC 16 half, usable every 1d4 rounds)

STATISTICS

Str +6; Dex +4; Con —; Int +0; Wis +0; Cha +3
Skills Athletics +17, Intimidate +22
Languages Common, Draconic

ECOLOGY

Environment any
Organization solitary, pair, or pack (3–6)

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More Robodinos for Starfinder

So… apparently robot dinosaurs for Starfinder are popular!

Who knew?

Okay, even through the whole point of Monday’s article was to make it easy for folks to create their own kitbashed creatures, I’ll offer a few more robodinos since so many people asked for them.

To put the dino-to-robodino “template” all in one place, here’s what you need to do to your stat block:

Change type from “Animal to “Construct (technological)”
Add darkvision (60 feet).
Set Constitution to —
Reduce Fortitude save by -4
Reduce Reflex save by -4
Reduce Will save by -2
Add “construct immunities” and “unliving”
Increase all attacks by +1

Let’s do my obvious favorite–the mechabrontosaurus.

Mechabronto

(Art by PatSM)

ROBODINOSAUR, Mechabrontosaurus

Mechabrontosaurus, CR 10

XP 9,600
N Gargantuan construct (technological)
Init +0; Senses darkvision (60 ft.), low-light vision; Perception +19

Defense          HP 165

EAC 23; KAC 25
Fort +12; Ref +7; Will +8
Immunities construct immunities; unliving

Offense

Speed 30 ft.
Melee tail +22 (2d10+18 B; critical knockdown)
Space 20 ft.; Reach 20 ft.
Offensive Abilities trample (2d10+18 B, DC 17)

Statistics

STR +8; DEX +0; CON +5; INT -4; WIS +1; CHA -2

Ecology

Environment any
Organization solitary, pair, or herd (3–12)

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Quick Kitbashing Starfinder Monsters

Sometimes you want a new foe your players haven’t seen before, or that perfectly fits a need in your adventure. (I’ve been doing this fairly often as I prepare to run Really Wild West games, for example). But you don’t want to take the time to build a minor foe from scratch.

Luckily, in Starfinder, reskinning and kitbashing new foes can be quick, easy, and do a great job of creating new enemies.

Let’s say you want a new robot foe for your PCs to tangle with. A robot dinosaur, perhaps?

Let’s make a velocirobot.

Robodino

(Art by DM7)

Since the dinosaur, dromeaosaurid is pretty close to a velociraptor, let’s start with that. First, we take away anything it shouldn’t have. So, the dromeaosaurid is an animal. That means it got low-light vision, and a +2 bonus to Fort and Ref saves. Since our velociraobot is a construct rather than an animal, we strip those out.

Next we add what a construct gets. So darkvsion and low-light, set Con to –, -2 to all saves, and +1 to all attacks. That’s all we *have* to do to make this rules-correct. (If we’d done things with subtypes, we could go through those too… but the Robot Dragon entries suggest we can also just blur those lines if we want to).

And now, in less than 5 minutes, we have a custom robot!

ROBODINOSAUR, VELOCIROBOT

Velocirobot    CR 3
XP 800
N Medium construct (technological)
Init +3; Senses darkvision 60 ft., low-light vision; Perception +8

DEFENSE                HP 45

EAC 13; KAC 15
Fort +2; Ref +3; Will +0
Immunities construct immunities; unliving

OFFENSE

Speed 50 ft.
Melee talons +12 (1d6+5 S; critical bleed 1d6) or bite +12 (1d6+5 P)
Offensive Abilities pounce

STATISTICS

Str +2; Dex +3; Con –; Int –4; Wis +1; Cha +0
Skills Acrobatics +8, Stealth +13

SPECIAL ABILITIES

Pounce (Ex) When a velocirobot charges, it can also make a full attack.

ECOLOGY

Environment any
Organization solitary, pair, or pack (3–12)

Robodino2

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