Tuesday, 23 October 2018

Altheic Truth and Dungeons and Dragons

I'm working on a brand new campaign world after a session zero. I've also just returned from a five-day education conference fascinated by an epistemological construct. Who isn't?

Both of these are of course a source for considerable excitement- I can delve deep into the mud of world-building and roll my brain around like some sort of cerebral swine. And I can use my new campaign world as a vehicle to explore Alethic Truth.

I have sent to my players a fairly terse thematic document about the setting. It has a few tensions, rules which create a ludonarrative incentive towards certain characters and nothing else.

No cosmology. No gods. No cities or mountain ranges or dungeons or dragons to wars or history or fauna or flora or NPCs or quests or antagonism or villains or organisations.

I have those things in my mind of course.

This will be something of an experiment. You see, I want my players to construct their own alethic truth or narrative around  the world.

If I dump on them some sort of tedious purple prose setting document (no matter how much  you kid yourself that's exactly what you're creating) they'll skim read it and refer to it vaguely. That document even if filtered through some artificial secondary person would be my omniscient DM narrative. This is a game world in narratives about the past and present are wildly divergent between the characters they meet.

I will give them no narratives. They will, like the children in my classroom, be engaged in discovery learning.

Instead I want them to encounter what I would call in my lesson sources. Experiences, NPC dialogue, texts, artefacts, locations, notes, literature, street names, monsters, foes....from each they shall make inferences and I will tell them nothing narrative.  I shall simply tell them information. "You rolled an 18 History check and recognise  this statue depicts an ancient Fey King in battle array, disgraced with graffiti and neglected " not "You rolled an 18 and know this area was a battleground between the Fey and the Humans who displaced them." They should infer the narrative from the facts. This is a human area. It depicts a fey King. Whatever they surmise from the interplay of these facts is their own alethic truth, and perhaps they will be different between characters. They shall have their own narratives.

There's considerable evidence that this form of learning in the classroom leads to meaningful long term learning experiences.  I'm going to see how if affects my players interaction with the world around them, and their own sense of agency in the world.

Monday, 17 September 2018

Monster Review - The Marid [Monster Manual, 146]

The Marid is a strange fish. It is one of several elementals who derive from Arabic culture and language, yet is has almost nothing in common with the mythological progenitor: a marid is simply a rebellious jinn and jinns have nothing to do with water.

I much prefer them to the other kinds of elemental, as they have far more character than 'a big living wave' and feel more like living things. Let's make waves...


Art
I have mixed feelings on this piece. The face is amazingly characterful and the face slightly looking over the shoulder just screams low cunning - I can imagine being ripped off by this corpulent cod-man. It manages the rare feat of having personality and character yet looking totally alien. There are some good little characterful designs in the clothing which are the kind of tiny hooks which can make a race memorable to players: are those big shoulders an example of Marid power-dressing? What's that fish on his belt for? I think a key inspiration here is the Vodyanoi of the Bas-Lag universe, which I can always get behind.

However, I hate the 'below the waist I am water/air/fire/some rocks' conceit in elemental design, and here is looks bizarre and amateurish. Because the Marid is a chubby fellow it looks even more incongruous. There's also the lack of thought - why does this creature wear obviously not waterproof clothing made from cloth? Wouldn't everything in that bag get soaked in water? Why is he wearing a belt when he doesn't have legs, never mind trousers? The fluff even claims they wear pantaloons...

Purpose and Tactics

The Marid, being an intelligent and powerful Chaotic Neutral creature, could easily be a quest-giver, patron, rival or contact of the player-characters, especially in an aquatic or maritime campaign. I'd love to run one as a rival to a party, swimming around on some half-sunk barge with slaves in tow.

Should you use one as an antagonist, they are not the most interesting battlers, working best as a boss supporting a group of damaging melee combatants like Sauhagin, Kuo-Toa, Chuul, Sharks or Merfolk. The most interesting mise-en-scene for such a battle would be a rocky coastline, island chain, coral reef, shipwreck, cliff-face or other place where there is an interplay of air, water and land, foregrounding the advantages and tactics of the Marid. His spells are fairly useless in an actual fight, and probably frustrating to player-characters if he is an antagonist: he can use Invisibility, Plane Shift or Gaseous Form to easily escape. He also carries a load of spells clearly intended to be helpful to a friendly party: Water-Walk, Water Breathing, Purify Food and Water, Tongues...The only spells that will see much use in a scrap are Conjure Elemental (note the one minute casting time though), Fog Cloud, Invisibility and Control Water. Aside from buffing sneaky minions with Invisibility or Fog Cloud, most actions spent on casting are a waste.

This reduces our Marid to a rather shallow pool of combat options. He has a Trident multiattack which deals reasonable if unimpressive damage - you should always use it two-handed in melee as the Marid has no shield and does not require an arcane focus etc for its innate spellcasting. The Water Jet is a pretty tidy supportive option, potentially pushing back foes and knocking them prone so your minions can smack them with advantage.


The Marid's other abilities revolve around being really, really time-consuming to kill. Ignoring the previously mentioned ability to just nope out of a combat with your players with Plane Shift or Gaseous Form, it also has a very fast swim and fly speed, a big pile of hit points and a few resistances to shore it up even more. I personally don't find battles of attrition all that fun, but a chase scene or combat where killing the Marid is not the direct goal could still be very fun - rescuing people from a sinking ship, hunting a great white whale or escaping a flood perhaps.

Fluff
The Marid gets a pretty big write-up for a Z-list monster which very few people will use and which can't be summoned with Conjure Elemental. Much of this info would make for a very memorable recurring NPC: they're egotistical and obsessed with self-aggrandising titles (never introduce a  Bob the Marid when you can introduce Sovereign of Saltwater, Sultan of the Seven Seas, Most Resplendent Emperor of Dew and Rain and Damp, Pearl of the Oceans, His Supreme Magnificence the Imperator Bob the Marid ...) They collect slaves but get a pass on being kicked down into chaotic evil because they're mostly just baubles - more of an entourage for this Z lister than someone who lowers themselves to work.  They also possess an almost bardic focus on stories, tales and legends: something which always makes an NPC interesting. I'd love to hear more of their coral fortresses, but I find its hard to tow the line between the tone of good underwater fantasy and silly My Little Mermaid-esque Disney underwater fantasy.

It's also full of rich tidbits for plot-hooks and adventure ideas: Marids politicking with wizards, Marids seeking out stories, Marids trapped in conch-shells, Marids kidnapping rock stars for their underwater courts....

Plot Hooks

Thuuloso the Ever-Wise, Countess of Crashing Tides can scarcely contain her rage. She shatters boat-hulls and throws up storms to lash at the shore in impotent fury. A cunning magi has stolen her beloved wife and secreted her in an old wine bottle to blackmail Thuuloso into obedience. She would like some mercenaries to walk their 'feet' over the dry lands to find this wine bottle and humble the braggart who would tear her from her soul-mate.

Sulis, Master of the Maberonian Sea, swans about on his great under-water flotilla across the sea, served by his chained mer-men and propelled by his prized hunting-sharks. Should it take his fancy he will drift underneath a mortal ship: some heavy-hulled merchant vessel groaning with amber, antler and fur, or some sharp blade-prowed warship with full complement of ballistae and and braggadocio - or even some low-decked fishing-sloop where a lone and aging man feeds his ever-growing family. From each Sulis will exact a tribute: a fine pearl, or strange delicacy from the land-dwellers (this small brown orb contains the heart of a great oak tree) or spun tale or joke or limerick or service - it matters not the tribute, for Sulis is as capricious as the sea itself.

Throughout the Gilded Sea there is an old legend about the island of Palette's End. Its jagged, romantic visage has inspired countless artists to greatness and yet....there are the disappearances. The losses. Some say artists, ever flighty and prone to melancholy, might have thrown themselves in the sea. Others whisper that the starving artists, penniless, fell victim to debt-collectors. Peasants gossip of the Witch of the Waves who plucks them like o'er-ripe fruit and drags them to her undersea court. But the fact remains - whenever the truly great stay to long on that strange, water-wracked coast, they disappear...

Verdict: A reasonably interesting creature concept let down by a stat-block which doesn't give much for the players to chew on in combat.


Sunday, 9 September 2018

Monster Review - The Merregon [Mordenkainen's Tome of Foes, 166]


Image result for merregon art mordenkainenThe Merregon is one of a legion of new monsters introduced in Mordenkainen's to flesh out the hierarchy of Team Fiend. Based on an unthinking, automaton-like soldier, he is the G.I. of Avernus - the banal evil marching to Hell's drum.

These foot-soldiers of Old Scratch are fairly old themselves, having been in  Third Edition and Pathfinder supplements, and they really help bulk out the armies of Hell without having a CR budget that looks more like a phone number. Let's march on to the Merregon:






Art
I adore this piece. The strange, slightly-too-low facial mask is perfect uncanny valley fodder, and manages to be chilling whilst evoking the Merregon's focus on uniformity and discipline. There is a fear not just of being physically defeated but of being assimilated and dehumanised by a faceless mass. It even has a sort of beatific calm to the face - standing in gross juxtaposition to the violence which typifies a Merregon's existence.

The focus on armour makes the Merregon seem almost mechanical rather than organic, but there are clear burly arms holding aloft the halberd. The creature seems to even stand in a way that shows submission before another authority. This is a great example of art reflecting fluff, and the subtle horror of this image made me immediately want to throw some at my players.

Purpose and Tactics
The Merregon's is not to reason why, his is but to do and die. As plodding poor bloody infantry their singular purpose is to fight and die in the endless parade of carnage which is politics in Hell. When used in your campaign, they work brilliantly as cohorts and bodyguards of the big bads of Hell. If you're running a Chain Devil or Erinye other powerful 'leader' of Hell, they make excellent support characters. Not only do they gain an extra attack when within 60 feet of any CR 6 or stronger devils, they can stand between them and an opponent and take hits. Whilst a measly 45 HP is not going to last long against focused PC assault, having them die in the place of the big bad keeps the scarier Devils alive long enough to loose their terrifying abilities. Additionally, like most fiends they have a big pile of resistances, boosting their durability. An immunity to Fire make them great opponents to cluster around a group of PCs who are about to be hit by a Fireball or other Fire attack - the Merregons can pin them in place and prevent them moving (fearful of attacks of opportunity) whilst a fiery fusillade of hell-fire rains down.



In terms of positioning, they should crowd around an infernal dignitary, halberds out - they can unleash a weak barrage of crossbow bolts on PCs that maintain distance and use their reach to try and keep player-characters at bay. Like all Devils, they have the Devil's Sight ability, so if they're guarding a spellcaster he could cast a high-level magical Darkness on his Merregon underlings to make a moving phalanx of shadow and spikes - a tough nut for any PCs to track. Weirdly, I was unable to find any Devil with the Darkness spell to take advantage of this - but you could use the Warlock and Mage NPC stat-blocks from the Monster Manual and Volo's to unleash this nasty combo.

To conclude, like the Guard Drake they are best as carb to bulk out an encounter, and work best in cahoots with big-name Devils or evil spellcasters.




Fluff

I really dig the Merregon fluff: these are the unfeeling lackeys of the big bad, those 'just following orders', the foot-soldiers of mortal evil performing the same role in Hell's legions. They are completely de-individualised by their masks and the process, making them a chilling foe to fight - in any combat, I'd emphasise that they feel no pain, remorse or passion, and simply coldly execute their orders with the absolute certainty of a madman or automaton. Even in death, they wouldn't react - standing in the way of the Paladin's smite and being cleaved in two without even a change in heart-beat.

Those masks are physically (and no doubt painfully) bolted their faces, so even their de-individuation is as element of punishment and damnation. Can someone be rescued from this state? Should they? Weirdly the Merregon have no ability to speak (having no working mouth-parts) but can communicate telepathically. What do they speak about to each other? I'd have left them unable to communicate in any-way but able to understand orders - a la "I have no mouth but I must scream".

My problem would be that this doesn't give much to work with: unthinking, unfeeling and unflinching soldiers of Hell are going to perform a singular role on stage in your campaign world: to fight and die at the hands of PCs as intelligent opposition without the requisite guilt of massacring a living being. There simply can be no negotiation or surrender or diplomacy, which starts to restrict play-options the moment the Merregon frog-marches into view.

Plot Hooks: 

Deep in Avernus is Facility Nine, a vast stronghold where errant souls are molded by exquisite torture into the unflinching soldiers of Hell. Should someone disrupt this process, it would be a weighty blow to the puissance of Hell's vaunted legions...

They are wordless, and yet they whisper - behind their masks of perfect stillness. Sometimes, when Merregon are stored in a lull in the Blood War, the telepathic energy is like the buzz of some enormous bee-hive. Their overseer Devils walk a little quicker as they inspect the faceless multitude. Could they think? Dispute? Rebel? Their masks remain impassive, giving no answer but an infinite silence.


Verdict: A good stock baddy - a fascist you can punch with minimal controversy. 

Saturday, 1 September 2018

Monster Review - The Black Pudding [Monster Manual, 241]

The Black Pudding
In that nebulous area between monstrosity and quintessential English breakfast item lurks the Black Pudding. This oft-neglected Ooze has been dripping and dissolving since First Edition, but it a monster I have never sought to use or seen used. Perhaps its the self-satisfied pun, perhaps its the fact I find fighting a spillage more reminiscent of janitorial duty than heroic adventure. Let's see if the proof is in the pudding...

Art
It's hard to illustrate a splodge of semi-sentient slime, and I don't envy the artist given that brief. They've gone for the option of showing it in action, devouring an Orc with pseudopods a-flailing.This doesn't quite manage to be menacing, somehow, whereas the Gelatinous Cube across the page has a spooky inevitability as it consumes an unlucky Dwarf. I feel a Black Pudding or any other Ooze is really best placed in an environment - lurking, about to fall, or creeping up some stairs. In all honesty, I don't think a single depiction of a Black Pudding in any WOTC book really gets me excited. Does anyone have a Black Pudding masterpiece to prove me wrong?
Purpose and Tactics
Somewhere in the No Man's Land between the nations of Monster and Trap sit the Oozes. They will essentially have no motivation or agency in your game-world so they're best thrown in as a disposable hazard, or as a threat being used by someone else. Luckily, they can fit into almost any dungeon or adventure locale: a wizard's tower, an abandoned ruin, sealed in a jar for millennia, hunting in a forest - wherever adventurers may go, an Ooze can creep after.

A cursory glance doesn't seem to make the Black Pudding look like much of a threat. With a paltry armour class of 7, your characters are not going to struggle to hit the Black Pudding, and with 85HP it should go down very quickly to concerted PC firepower. It also deals a paltry 1d6 + 3 damage, which is hardly going to dent a PC. What the Black Pudding does have in its grubby arsenal is its Corrosive Form ability and Pseudpod riders which will gradually obliterate a fighting party's equipment, slowly lowering their to-hit chance and AC. The intention being that an encounter with Black Pudding will force a party to replace their weapons and amour (a tedious result in most campaigns) or move through the adventure with a big dent in their effectiveness that doesn't come back after resting. This mechanic fits the design goals of the Black Pudding, but doesn't seem very '5e' to me. "Go home and buy more stuff." doesn't seem like the spur to a great adventure. My current campaign 'The Gloom' has a big emphasis on resource management with equipment, but I'd still find it a little onerous if characters lost their weapons - which are expensive - and either had to return to town or hope to come across replacement equipment, which you, the DM probably placed to hand, rather nixing the purpose of using the Black Pudding in the first place. Nothing about this seems to give the players much to utilise, and once they realise how this works they's simply retreat (good luck catching up with 20" movement) and obliterate the Black Pudding with ranged attacks. (Additionally, it hurts Fighters a hell of a lot more than say, Druids.)


To avoid this response, you're going to need to set your Black Pudding up as an 'accidental ambush' predator. It should fall from the ceiling in cramped conditions, be at the base of a pit-trap, be thrown at the players in a bottle by intelligent enemies - whatever gets it into the midst of your player-characters and stops them being able to simply high-tail out of the area works. So the Black Pudding is best as a trap or ambush encounter early in a dungeon, or as an ancillary obstacle whilst fighting big-ticket foes. This also gives the players the chance of utilising the Black Pudding (throwing enemies into it, for example..) which players always love.
The 'split' ability is an interesting way to play with the Action Economy, and will almost certainly happen in your party's first encounter with the Black Pudding as slashing damage is so common. This is an interesting mechanic in that it increases the actions your Black Pudding can take and makes it considerably more threatening....but, again, the effectiveness is lessened by the fact that most of the Black Pudding's abilities are passive or defensive - who cares about an extra Pseudopod a turn?
Fluff
The Black Pudding fluff is merely a paragraph, but manages to be fairly evocative - describing it as a 'blot of shadow' which characters could stumble into. The more generic Ooze fluff describes them brilliantly, as almost every sentence clicks into a possible plot hook or encounter - describing Oozes' locations and hiding places as they slip out to consume the living.  The 'unwitting servants' paragraph gives NPCs (and players) a range of uses for Oozes - this is all excellent gameable stuff.
As every creature needs some patron or god - even the ones that are essentially snot given hit dice - the Oozes owe their measly existence to Juiblex, a Demon Lord who has the unenviable job of being in charge of oozes. I quite like the idea that they're all some part or aspect of the Demon Lord (begging the question of how he might be reassembled....) more than that they are simply his syrupy progeny. I'm not sure this origin works for me, and I prefer the idea they're simply magic experiments or byproducts that got away, or simply a form of life as natural as any bird or bee.


Plot Hooks
The depths of Kvaroduun are teeming with Oozes and slimes that slither and devour anything that tries to delve in those ancient depths.  The King has offered a hefty purse to any who can find a way to capture, contain and bring back a selection of Oozes that His Majesty might employ against his foes.
The great Alchemist Huolto passed away unmourned after his fractious and snide life in academia. In a final act of spite he loosed a horde of experimental oozes that now drip over his laboratory, devouring any who would recover his research....
The Hobgoblin war-machine is supplied with oozes from a single fortress where they are harnessed, split and contained in magical flasks to be hurled at enemies.  A small team infiltrating that fortress could let loose a lot of chaos and a whole lot more Oozes....
Verdict
A useful and different trap-monster which could be as much a resource for the party as an obstacle, let down my mechanics that don't fit the spirit of 5e.
.

Sunday, 26 August 2018

Hirelings, Mercenaries and Pack Animals

Hirelings, Mercenaries and Pack Animals

When setting out into the depths of The Gloom, a party might need to hire extra help or supplies to aid in their travels, and to bolster their forces. These creatures (referred to as Hirelings from this point on) receive no share of the treasure, do not level up and are not under the control of players directly – if asked to do something dangerous a loyalty check will determine whether they comply. As such, they have their own motivations, fears and limits. They do not receive death saves. They will supply their own equipment but not their own supplies which the party must pay for.  Each PC may only have a single hireling per expedition.

Loyalty Check
Each hireling must make a loyalty check if their resolve or loyalty is tested. This is a D20 roll which must roll below their loyalty score in order to pass. (For example, if a Mercenary has a Loyalty Score of 15, a roll of 14 would pass but 16 would not.) If a loyalty test is failed the character’s loyalty will decrease for that expedition and they will refuse to take that action, or may flee the danger. Success and good treatment will increase a character’s loyalty.

Pack Animals and War-Animals

Pack Animals are used to increase a party’s effective carrying capacity or bolster their forces. They will require one food and one water ration a day just like a player-character. Animals do not eat normal Food Rations but instead eat cheaper Animal Feed (1EU, 1 SP). (Stat blocks at end of article.)

The Animal Handling skill is used to interact with animals and ensure they follow instructions.
Unlike other hirelings, animals are owned by the character once bought.

Animal

Cost
Loyalty
Mule – a surefooted and stubborn pack-mule. (Mule)

30
15
Guard Dog – man’s best friend, even in The Gloom.  (Mastiff)

30
18
Messenger Owl – It can carry your last words through the dark on silent wings. (Owl)

10
8







Hirelings

These are people who will offer their services to adventurers, but they are themselves not accustomed to combat and will be little use in a fight.  For a price, they will venture into The Gloom to aid you but they will avoid being put in harm’s way wherever possible. Use the Commoner stats should they be attacked.

Hireling

Wage per Day
Loyalty
Torchbearer – he will carry your torch and your bags, leaving your hands free.  He will watch over you while you sleep.

10
10
Sage – A wise and learned figure who can offer knowledge at critical junctures.

15
8
Barber-Surgeon – This figure can splint bones and prepare a poultice for your wounds.

20
10
Sherpa – He has knowledge of survival, and many tales of the dangers of the Gloom to offer.
20
10











Mercenaries

Some people fight and kill for money – a well-remunerated skill-set in the wilds of The Gloom.  Mercenaries will fight in the melee for you but will flee if the danger is too great.

For each mercenary hired, your DM will roll on the Random Adventurers table to generate their stats.
Hireling

Wage per Day
Loyalty
Mercenary
30
16


Monster Review - The Flind [Volo's Guide to Monsters, 153]

Flind
Taking the enviable position of ruling over Gnoll warbands is the Flind - a super-Gnoll of greatly enhanced Gnollness. This is all part of Volo's beefing up of the humanoid riff-raff enemies, giving you a boss monster for any campaigns in which Gnolls are a persistent enemy, and the Flind has been structured to work best in this role.

Weirdly, the Flind actually has a pretty distinguished pedigree in Monster Manuals past existing in almost every edition of the game. Like many weird creatures created by ham-fistedly bashing a fist into a keyboard and statting up the result, the 'Flinds' biggest obstacle is an awful name: it sounds like a skin-cream, or an insult form the 1920s, or the inedible organ of a parrot. It certainly does not connote Gnoll aristocracy, but here we are. Let's find our Flind...

Art

I feel a trifle guilty because I moved over this image whenever I flicked through Volo's - perhaps the neighbouring Girallon's gynecomastia made me leap over to the plebian Gnolls on the next page.

There's a lot of characterful details in this depiction:the silver-white mane and tied moustaches give our friend the Flind an obvious status and preeminence, and the grisly trophies and blood-stained armour fit perfectly with the idea of a chosen champion of Yeenoghu, wading through gore and carrion in leading their war-band. The eyes are quite horrifyingly predatory, and the Flind's picture really captures what should be scary about Gnolls: the universal taboo of cannibalism and the idea of a bestial horror suddenly getting up and imitating humanity with none of the pretensions to morality - hunger made organised. There's something almost licentious in the Flind's leering facial expression.

Purpose and Tactics

The Flind is the final boss of a low-level campaign arc to cast out invading Gnolls - he'll have been hinted at in previous moments in terms of awe and terror. He possibly has a secondary role as a supporting monster in a high-level encounter.

As every Gnoll and Gnoll-adjacent creature has Rampage ( and you could easily mod it on to anything you like), the leading ability for the Flind it his Aura of Blood Thirst, which enables even 1/4 CR Gnolls to beef up their action economy with extra Bite attacks. These attacks are weak, especially comparatively for the beefier Gnolls in Volo's, but should nicely boost their damage output. To take advantage of this your Flind should move in an honour guard of Gnolls (the ten feet range is very limiting). Whilst aiding and abetting his smorgasbord of Gnolls, he has a series of disruptive abilities with his Flail, all of which have reach. This enables him to stay behind a line of boosted Gnolls still striking at the front line, causing them to become paralysed whilst surrounded or turn their blade against each other. Your Flind can also target several different saves where appropriate, and drop the Flail of Pain late in the combat when simple damage is required to end his foes. Bear in mind that the Flind can drop each of its special attacks, so I would spread the paralysis and madness around before caving someone's head in.

To take the best advantage of the Flind, a tight combat in cramped conditions is ideal: a tense dungeon corridor or mountain pass or fortress battlements will keep the Flind able to disrupt dangerously whilst boosting his subordinates. It should also prevent the Flind and his Gnoll soldiers from relying on their comparatively weaker ranged attacks Should player-characters start to fall, Rampage will trigger and make the fight turn quickly. In a gruelling, action economy focused combat a stalemate could quickly become a rout.

In a high-level combat, a Flind could be a good monster to add to a combat against Demons - he's a sturdy melee fighter whose reach and variety of disruptive moves mean the party cannot simply ignore him.

FluffThere's some interesting stuff here: the Flind not only leads by virtue of strength but recieves prophetic visions: it can give knowledge to a Gnoll warband beyond what is possible. I personally love the idea of the barbaric Flind trying to make sense of visions that are fundamentally confusing, misleading or horrifying (Does Yeenoghu care much for clarity?).Or, the visions being used to evade and strike where the enemy is weakest, confounding the normal military response.

Plot Hooks

Batuhan the Gore-Bringer has lead his war-band through the very heart of the Kingdom of Altanasarai, but in a puzzling, maddening way. His band strikes at seemingly meaningless targets, evades rich market towns to cross mountain ranges, heading ever south. Noone knows where Batuhan's visions are leading him, or why......

Dhzambul and his war-band have come to the very frontier of civilization, and it is know that he is maddened by visions: he rolls on the ground, frothing, tormented by images of burning cities and armies on the march, of gnolls lying slaughtered by the thousand by the hands of prey-races, of abominations wandering desolate plains, of a burning sky - he can make no sense among it, and none of the yipping curs in his war-band can either. Dhzambul demands that the soft prey races send on the their shamans to make sense of his dreams, of he will plunder, slaughter and devours until he finds one.

Khongordzol rots in prison, his war-band defeated. The only bones he can chew are the dusty remnants of ancient prisoners, and his manacles have made his splendid fur matted and receding. In the darkness of the oubliette, though, Yeenoghu still blesses him with visions and portents...

VerdictA solid, dependable boss-monster which fits its theme and have some interesting abilities - and one suited to the role of champion.


Monday, 20 August 2018

Monster Review - Demogorgon [Out of the Abyss, 236]

[The] Demogorgon
Whether this thing qualifies as a 'monster' is probably up for debate - it is certainly monstrous but I doubt any DM is cruel enough to chuck this maniacal mandrill on their random encounter table. This beastie was actually statted up in 1e (Or OGD&D as I like to call it.) In the golden age of 1d4 hit points some people were apparently crazy enough to go toe-to-tentacle with the Prince of Demons himself.

This is it - the final boss, the biggest of cheeses. In the final battle of your campaign your near-godlike PCs are going to scrap with Demogorgon.

Art
We essentially have two pieces here, as Demogorgon is the cover model for Out of the Abyss and merits a two-page spread inside.

The cover shoot gives a great sense of scale, in a way only a full A4 piece of art really can ( a full-size spread can be found here). I love his thrashing tentacles, his bestial roar - the fact that whole buildings are plummeting into the Underdark as he rampages. I particularaly like the sense that you are underfoot in this image - before Demogorgon your sparkly PC Paladin is little more than a self-righteous beetle with delusions of grandeur. Somehow the goofiness of the Demogorgon design ("it's a big monkey with tentacles") is eclipsed by the energy of this depiction. Not bad at all.

Within is a more personalised image of Big D which I like less. They've add uniformity to his form in contrast to his earlier depictions to try and give some cohesion to Demogorgon. Normally this would make me appreciate a piece more and it would seem less gonzo and silly....but this is Demogorgon! Shouldn't he be jarring and messed up and crazy and silly? Shouldn't he carry on being a giant grumpy squidaboon with the sheer panache and gravitas that comes from being an OG Demon Lord?

Purpose and Tactics
We are going to assume three things here.
1) You're fighting Demogorgon in his 'lair' - the depths of the Gaping Maw - in order to kill him for good. The kid gloves are off, Demogorgon.
2) You're throwing the CR calculation guidelines away for this one.
3) You didn't go for a deus ex machina maguffin or decide your players kill Demogorgon with the power of love or something.




Obviously Demogorgon needs minions - he's the Prince of Demons. I'd err on the side of things with less fiddly effects to track and deal with, so more Mariliths and Hezrou than Nalfeshnee or Glabrezu.
Your party are never going to disable Demogorgon with save versus effects - he has Magical Resistance and very, very high saves, and legendary resistance if they manage all of that, so it may be a case of disabling the minions and focusing fire on Demogorgon. He even has a special ability 'Two Heads' which nixes a number of disabling effects. He also needs an insane arena with which to battle the PCs - some kaleidoscopic panopticon in the depths of the Abyss with a host of environmental effects. A building where gravity changes every round and every reflective surface summons a hostile but illusory Mirror Image would add to the general chaos. There's also call for aquatic elements - a flooding room or underwater aspect to the arena would also complicate the fight significantly, and open the door to some aquatic lackeys of Demogoron like Aboleths or Sauhaugin or Chuul.

This is essentially a DPS race: the players need to get in and nova hard enough on Demogorgon to cut through almost 500 hit points whilst he disrupts them from doing that long enough to finish them off with his (and his minions) attacks.This encounter should take a session, minimum.

Demogorgon has an insane number of disabling effects to disrupt and confuse your party: he can drop numerous Gaze effects which afflict players with damaging effects, often ones with no save and requiring no concentration. I'd read carefully how these abilities interact (You can't use Hypnotic Gaze and then Maddening Gaze as your legendary action) and a number of them are for a single turn. Unless Demogorgon is supporting some minions his action economy is going to be torn between disrupting the PCs and actually taking the time to smack them about with his tentacles. Causing a player to potentially lose their turn for one turn is never worth Demogorgon's actual action because every other character will still be working against him.  I'd ensure you use either the Tail or Tentacle attacks pretty much every round to keep the damage out-put constant. The Tail does significantly more damage but if your high-level party hasn't realised how incredibly inefficient in-combat healing is mashing them with the Tentacle can teach them the error of their ways by reducing the hit point maximum.

Both attacks also have decent Reach, meaning Demogorgon should be focussing fire and hammering weakened or squishy player-characters. You are playing for keeps with Demogorgon to try and ensure you finish off weakened players rather than spreading the damage around.  With his action economy, you will find yourself struggling with which of the vast number of potential actions you should actually do. The Lair Actions are nicely disruptive - one is a version of Mirror Image, and the other lets you plant Darkness around the arena, and help ensure he is disrupting whilst still maintaining damage output with his tentacles and tail.

Demogorgon has some nasty tricks buried in his spell-casting. Most of this is pretty unhelpful in combat (Illusions, for example). One brutal example is that he has Feeblemind, which can essentially take a caster out of the fight. Aside from Wizards, very few characters will have decent Intelligence, so if you're targeting a Bard, Warlock or Sorcerer you can reduce them to using whatever abilities fit the loopholes of Feeblemind or stabbing Demogorgon for 1d6 +trash damage. Adding insult to injury, this player-character will be a drooling moron for at least a month and will probably fail every other save against Demogorgon's disruptive effects too. Fear deserves a mention as it is not single-target like many of Demogorgon's gaze attacks, I personally think Fear  is even better when it doesn't affect the entire party, as some characters uselessly flee and others are left at Demogorgon's mercy. Telekinesis would be a waste of Demogorgon's action unless you have environmental effects that can cause some severe damage.

The biggest downside of this fight is your players are going to spend a fair amount of it disabled, confused or charmed. If your players find this frustrating (as many do) you might prefer to make your Big Bad Orcus or someone more straightfowardly damaging.

Built into his stat-block are variant rules that require you to use some form of sanity mechanic - I personally like this touch but it seems a bit pointless - if you're using a sanity mechanic you probably already have mechanics for everything here described. If you do utilise this, it could make the fight significantly more difficult as it essentially gives the players less ability to move.


Fluff
Much ink has been spilled on Demogorgon over the years and only his general conceptual wackiness keeps him on the rung below Orcus for most recognisable Demon. The tones of hyperbole on Demogorgon are, for once in WOTC's writing career, completely merited - this is the biggest bad of all the bads who wants to bring the bad to every corner of the cosmology. I love that the fluff opens with Demogorgon's nutty titles and end-goal.



Verdict: If you think your gods and demons lords should roll initiative and rumble with the rest of them, this write-up gives you a great starting point for a ruckus.