Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Using monster templates and themes

I’ve taken a stab at using the DDI monster builder and found it a little clunky but serviceable. However I still was looking for offline tools that would allow me to tinker with making custom monsters. Another resource out there, straight out of the DMG, were monster templates and themes.

I tend to think monster templates and themes never really got any ground with DMs. It’s a clever idea. You’ve got a few key characteristic powers and traits you can slap on just about any monster and end up with a custom creature. The DMG2 expanded on this and gave some more general powers based on the role of the monster. Even an article or two in Dungeon magazine had a few templates (#190). One hiccup however with using templates (or themes) was that some of the earlier ones didn’t scale too well in level.

There was a workaround to this as the math for setting damage, defenses, and to hit bonuses were readily available. So with a little work, you could tweak the powers to make a level appropriate creature. This is one great thing about 4E, a lot of the numbers behind the scenes in the design were freely accessible, allowing for tinkering that made it difficult to break the game.

Enter the DM Cheat Sheet over at Sly Flourish, offering the most handy table any DM would ever need. This breaks down all the bonuses and average damage for any monster, level by level. Granted you could figure all of these values out, but looking it up on a chart makes the process tons easier. Not to mention the chart has been adjusted to the ‘new math’ for monsters, making them more on par with the PCs.

What is really great about this chart is that it makes some of the monster templates more flexible (especially many in the DMG2). The listed damage in these templates can be altered to reflect something more appropriate for that monster level. This also works wonders for creatures in the monster manuals. I can switch out the attack bonuses and damage with expected values for that monster level, and create a creature that can provide a sufficient challenge to the group.

Now, I’ve got a handy means to make some unique monsters on the fly. If I need to create some ice demon cultist group, I can switch out a few keywords and swap particular defences, HP, and damage output, making something that I am more confident will not TPK my players (or be a complete pushover).

Take Lolth’s Chosen from the DMG2 for this imaginary ice demon cultist group. You could drop out the poison keyword for many of the powers and use cold instead (imagine a biting, icy, cold spreading across the player’s body when they are hit). The cloud of darkness power could be described as a blast of hurling snow, which blinds the players. Scuttling escape could mean the ground is suddenly covered with a sheen of thin ice that the monsters could freely shift through. Not all the powers in the theme match, but with a little wrangling you could give your monsters a few custom powers making them stand out.

It’s too bad this hasn’t been explored more as articles in Dungeon. Having a greater variety of templates and themes offering different powers, particularly for certain monster roles and minions, would be a nice set of tools for that DM looking to spice up their game. Still, altering customizing monsters is a little less nebulous with 4E and a snap to do using themes and templates. I encourage folks to try it for their game.