Like almost everyone, I’ve spent some time thinking about Witcher style monster hunting in RPGs, racking my brain over and over again as I try to “solve the case” as it were. Often the advice suggests vibe and a certain procedure of play:
- Run the monster as a “puzzle” instead of a straight up fight. Do this with resistances, immunities, and weaknesses.
- Make discovering information about the monster the main purpose of the adventure. A successful investigation leads to a fight that is significantly easier as a result.
This is solid advice in terms of trying to evoke Witcher vibes, but it doesn’t really scratch the itch in the right way for me. The other inspiration I’m drawing from is Horizon: Zero Dawn, which has you targeting the components of the beasts you’re hunting as opposed to just smashing the side of them with your spear.
To demonstrate my idea, we need to boil down some common GM principles:
First, looking at The Basic Procedure of the OSR by Prismatic Wasteland gives us a play-by-play of how information is presented and acted upon by players. The referee gives information, the players clarify, and then the characters make actions (typically to discover more information or move forward in some way).
Next up, looking at Matryoshka Search Technique by Justin Alexander, we’re given an effective way to “engage” the players when they’re interacting with the game world. In his example, there’s even a dreaded “search” roll made—instead of presenting the immediate answer, players get more information and discoveries that they can act upon.
Lastly, in Landmark, Hidden, Secret by Anne Hunter, three meta-types of information are offered. The first, landmark, is automatic and free, given immediately by the GM. The second, hidden, is earned by asking for it and payed for in some way (time, risk, etc). The third, secret, is only given when players succeed with chance—usually a dice roll.
Putting these all together and you have a very strong foundation for the actual “how-to” part of GMing. Many adventures in the OSR even structure their formatting and writing so that running the game this way is implied.
And then your players get into a fight, you call initiative, the energy is high, and all of this falls to the wayside. Sure, you might still interact with the environment using the above techniques, but it’s rare that a fight with a monster is treated in the same way. That’s not to say that combat is wrong or boring. But it’s usually leaning heavily on the impact part of Information, Choice, Impact.
I’ve devised a method for running high choice, high information monsters. I’ll follow with the concept and mechanics first, and then an example.
A more complex monster
Build complex monsters by splitting their HD and nesting it as components. The more complex your nesting the harder the monster is to defeat. Going five layers deep implies a powerful “boss” monster that will prove a challenge.
Reveal all components except hidden ones when describing the monster. Make sure the players understand the components. You may need to repeat this throughout the fight as a summary of the situation.
When players attack, always ask them how and what they attack. This is why it’s important that you’ve revealed the components. They need to choose a method and a target of attacking.
If the monster can be defeated without all components being destroyed, tie certain ones to a “Lifeblood” tag. Destroying all Lifeblood components kills the monster.
Tie abilities and attacks to the components. All attacks and abilities should be tied up to hit dice in some way. Everything than becomes negatable by PC actions and you’ll have a better grasp when making a ruling about ad-hoc actions.
Players automatically fail when they attack a component without dealing with the upper layer. When this happens, spell out very clearly why their attack failed. This may involve revealing hidden components.
Critical hits either deal double damage or the player can opt to redirect to any known component. This bypasses the rule about upper level components acting as a shield. If the component is protected by a hidden layer that the players haven’t discovered, inform them about the hidden component and then tell them they must choose a different target.
We’ll start with a more beast like creature.
For the statblock, we’ll go over what each of the icons represents:
- hidden component
- melee attack
- ranged attack
- special ability
This four-legged, rhinoceros-sized beast has brilliantly colored flowers growing along its spine, two scythe-like claws for front legs, and a valuable flower-heart that can revive it from grievous wounds.
AC: 14, Movement: 40 feet, Desire: lay eggs inside fresh meat, Rage Stimulus: iron, Fear Stimulus: damaged carapace
Hyper-Sensitive Antenna (1 HD, 4 HP)
Provides an acute sensory net of all its surroundings out to 30 feet.
Scythe-claws (2 HD, 8 HP)
MELEE ATTACK x 2 +3 to hit, 1d8 damage.
Stinger (1 HD, 4 HP)
MELEE ATTACK +5 to hit, 1d4 damage + paralyzing poison.
RANGED ATTACK +5 to hit, 1d4 damage + paralyzing poison. Regrows each round unless the Flowerheart has taken damage.
Hypnotic Flowers (1 HD / 4 HP)
ABILITY Anyone that looks at the creature must save or be hypnotized for 1 turn.
Thick Carapace (3 HD / 12 HP)
The hide of the Rootbloom is exceptionally tough.
Flowerheart (1 HD / 4 HP)
ABILITY Heals 1d4 HP to carapace each combat turn.
ABILITY Heals all damage at the end of an exploration turn.
So, how does this play out? Let’s run through an example of play:
GM: Alright. You’ve been trekking through the jungle for hours, opting for speed over stealth. As you’re passing through an area with a stream there’s a thunderous crashing through the trees! A giant creature bursts out.
It looks sort of like a giant mantis crossed with a rhino and a scorpion. It’s got these two waving bug-like antenna on top of its head. Instead of regular front legs it has these weird scythe-like claws that are tearing up the foliage. There’s a stinger on the back side of it, vibrating and dripping venom. And lastly? All along its back are these really vibrantly colored, beautiful, blooming flowers. It’s hard to look away from them!
That’s a ton of information, so it’s likely you’ll need to recap the components of the monster often during the fight. Always make sure the players have appropriate information when they make a decision!
Moving forward: players need to choose a method of attacking and a target for their attack. Let’s continue the example:
GM: John, it’s your turn. Those flowers on the back of it are really captivating and strange. They’re lulling you into a trance. Make a save or you’ll freeze up this turn.
John: Passed the save! I’m going to draw my sword and attack it. I rolled a 15!
GM: Awesome. Where are you attacking it?
John: Hmm… I guess I’m going to just stab it in the torso or something?
GM: Alright, a 15 would have hit, but as you charge up against this thing the antennas on it whirl around, clock you, and it easily anticipates your attack. It seems like it’s really perceptive with those things! Jane, it’s your turn. You’ll need to pass the same save against those hypnotic flowers.
Jane: I made the save. Seems like those antenna are going to be a problem. Can I just take out my cooking pot and start banging it against my shield? The noise should confuse it, right?
GM: Oh, that’s really clever. We’ll say that as long as you’re banging them together it can’t benefit from the antenna. That’s definitely your action though, which means it’s the monsters turn now.
In this case, Jane doesn’t make an attack but rather provides an opening. She could have straight up attacked the antenna, but she opted for a more creative solution.
Let’s advance a bit, saying that John took some hits from the claws but the stinger missed him. It’s a pretty dire situation.
With Jane negating the antenna, John opts to throw a flaming pot of oil onto the flowers, burning them up. At this point, the Hypnotic Rootbloom makes a run for it, knowing that it can heal up using its flowerheart and then track down its prey later.
After a few more scuffles with the thing, John and Jane are in a small village trying to learn about it. Someone tells them that the flowerheart inside the thing is what keeps healing the creature. Now they know how to kill it, but still need to contend with its components. In this new situation below they’re fighting it again—this time they’ve disabled the antenna by bringing a hireling to bang on drums while they fight.
GM: Alright Jane, your turn. John managed to scrape off the majority of the flowers with his sword so you won’t be hypnotized anymore.
Jane: Great. I’m going to stab it in the dang heart! Rolled a 19!
GM: You go to stab this thing where you think the heart is—and your dagger just scrapes along the chitinous carapace! You’ll have to hack through that first, you think!
John: I’ve got an axe. Time to start chopping.
In this case, once Jane goes for the heart the GM reveals the hidden “thick carapace” component of the monster. Once they contend with that, they can defeat the thing for good.
A built in crafting system
One of the cool things about implementing these nested components is that you immediately lay down a foundation for a “monster harvesting” system. All you need to do is tack on Crafting with Concepts from Saker Tarsos and you’re done.
Another Statblock Example
Here’s another statblock, this time for an otherworldly cosmic foe.
The Locust King
The humanoid, nearly eight feet tall, wrapped in chains made of night-metal, lumbers towards you. Two piercing eyes of sickening green lock onto you, and a furious buzzing begins…
AC: 12, Movement: 20 feet, Desire: take the eyes of defeated enemies, Rage Stimulus: fire, Fear Stimulus: sunlight
Crowned Helm of Iron (2HD, 8 HP)
The crown-helm protects the powerful, all-seeing eyes of the Locust King.
Eyes of Green Fire (1 HD, 4 HP)
RANGED ATTACK +7 to hit, 1d10 damage.
Cosmic Endurance (Special)
Can only be negated by driving a 9 inch spike made of silver into the Locust King. It will spend its next turn trying to pull the spike free.
Sack of Stolen Eyes (2 HD, 8 HP)
ABILITY The Locust King can spend their turn replacing damaged or destroyed eyes, immediately gaining 1 HD back.
Chrysalis Dagger (1 HD, 4 HP)
MELEE ATTACK +3 to hit, 1d4 damage. After being struck, the target is locust-sick. Each morning, they must save. They recover after 3 consecutive saves. After 3 consecutive fails they burst into a cloud of locusts.
Otherworldy Chains (3 HD, 12 HP)
These chains bind the Locust King to this world.
Locust hives (3 HD, 12 HP)
ABILITY fills the air around the Locust King with hundreds of fist sized insects. Anyone other than the Locust King in the swarm can only see a few feet in front of them.
This one provides a tough fight! Players will need to:
- Destroy the helmet to get to the eyes
- Drive spikes into it
- Destroy the chains that bind it here
- Destroy the eyes (most likely multiple times)
I think this provides a difficult boss fight where the boss only has two attacks! You don’t even need to pad it out with minions.1
What are you opinions on these more complex monsters? Certainly they’re a bit more challenging to run, but I think that’s offset by the fact that you don’t need anything more than one of these creatures to provide an ample threat and a puzzle to figure out.
If you’ve got thoughts, I’d love to hear them below in the comments or on twitter!
Which, by the way, I think is pretty important to running these complex monsters propely. They’re complicated stat blocks, with a lot of moving parts. Adding minions or multiple creatures is going to make it more so!↩︎
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