Okay, two weeks ago I barged back onto this whole blogging scene by announcing I’d figured out the perfect way to build climactic boss monster type encounters in Dungeons & Dragons 5E. And then I showed you a pretty lame ass way to make a monster last a little longer and hit a few more times. But I did promise I was just laying the groundwork for something much cooler. I made that very, very clear.
So obviously, a good half of the feedback was “that thing with the two snakes isn’t really the amazing thing you think it is.”Well no s%&$! I KNOW! I said the thing with the two snakes was a thought experiment. I mean, for f$&%’s sake, did people go to Erwin Schrödinger and say ‘I don’t really get why that cat thing is so cool?’ Well, that’s a bad example, because that’s all anyone knows about Erwin Schrödinger. That cat thing. Does anyone give a motherloving f$&% about the fact that Schrödinger’s cat was actually him trying to rip holes in the Copenhagen interpretation by showing how ludicrous it was? You could have a cat that was both alive and dead. And more importantly, does anyone even mention pretty much the most important f$&%ing equation in all of quantum theory? Want to guess why it’s called the Schrödinger equation?!
Now, I’m not saying that my idea about hit point pools and extra actions and Paragon Monsters is as important as the equation that describes the evolution of basically every goddamned subatomic particle in the universe as long as we’re not looking at it (seriously). But seriously, if you’re reading this blog, you’re more likely to use cool boss monsters than some partial differential equation about waveform evolution. So, I’m kind of better than Erwin Schrödinger.
Before we launch into today’s awesome topic (a monster that’s better than two snakes which, I might add, can be both alive and dead at the same time too), I want to take a second to review and update the Paragon Creature thing. Because I sort of might have forgotten to explain some s$&% last time.
The Whole Concept of Living Rules
So, here’s the deal. I meant for the Paragon Creature rules to be a kind of salad bar of fantastic olives and croutons and bleu cheese crumbles you could sprinkle onto any old monster and turn it into an exciting boss fight. They are all based around the basic lettuce and tomato of hit point pools and extra actions. But let’s be honest, no one eats salad for the lettuce. The lettuce is merely a delivery system for all the crap you pile on top.
And, even though I ran a bunch of tests on my own and let the super secret inner cabal of the Cult of Angry run a few tests and f$&% with the system too, once I threw back my trenchcoat and left my Paragon Creature flapping out there on the internet, exposed to all, a few people pointed out some of the odder… you know what? I’m cutting the metaphor off. People noticed a few things were unclear, confusing, and overly wordy.
So, I did a few revisions. And, of course, I’m adding more today. And I will add more as time goes on too. More possibilities. More systems. So, I’ve started building the Paragon Creature Living Rules Document and the Paragon Bestiary The first draft is already in The Angry GM’s Pile O’ S$&% which you can access in the navigation bar. I will keep it up to date with all the various revisions of the Paragon Creature system and add sample stat blocks that you can try out in your game. Cool? Of course it is.
Yeah, Schrödinger isn’t looking so hot now, is he?
Meanwhile, I want to bring up a couple of quick edits and revisions. First and foremost, I have decided that all Paragon Traits will end up in their own special section of the stat block called Paragon Traits. Second, I reworded and renamed the first two Paragon Traits I showed off two weeks ago. Third, I added a third Paragon Trait based on some recommendations. The trait Paragon Fury starts a creature with one turn and gives a creature more turns as it runs out of hit point pools. The older trait, Paragon Exhaustion, starts a creature with multiple turns and they dwindle away as the creature weakens. I also made the rules for initiative more explicit. Anyway, here’s the three traits as they stand now.
Paragon Fortitude. The creature has multiple pools of hit points, each of which is tracked separately. All damage and healing must be completely applied to only one pool. When a pool is reduced to zero, all ongoing conditions and effects affecting the creature end. Once a pool is reduced to zero, that pool cannot receive any healing until after a long rest. If all hit of the point pools are reduced to zero, the creature is killed.
Paragon Exhaustion. The creature may take one complete turn in each round of combat for each hit point pool it has above zero and receives one reaction between each of its turns. When a pool of hit points has been reduced to zero, the creature loses one turn each round thereafter. The creature determines initiative normally for its first turn, though it gains advantage on the roll. Each subsequent turn is inserted immediately after any one PC’s turn in the initiative order.
Paragon Fury. The creature may take one additional turn in each round of combat for each of its hit point pools that have been reduced to zero. The creature determines initiative normally for its first turn, though it gains advantage on the roll. Each subsequent turn the creature gains is inserted immediately after any one PC’s turn in the initiative order.
Okay. That’s out of the way. Let’s do something a little more exciting with our Paragons, shall we?
Snakes! Why Did It Have to Be (Two) Snakes?
Let’s start by revisiting the two-headed, two-tailed, bifurcated snake and ask a question: why did it have to be two snakes? Why couldn’t it have been two different creatures? Why not a snake and a wolf? Or a shark and a tiger? Or a pigeon and a rat? Or a duck and a bunny? After all, if you’re going to cram two monsters in the same body, with one popping out after the other dead like the world’s scariest stripper, why not have the second monster be something different?
Now, you might remember that this concept was the centerpiece of my 4E Boss Monster concept. And you can go back and check that out. The basic idea was that you had two or three stat blocks, each with their own hit points, and they turned into each other as they died. The monster didn’t necessarily change form in a visible, obvious way. It could be as simple as a change in tactics or a change in equipment.
Transforming monsters are cool. They break up the fight and force the players to change up their tactics and figure out a new strategy just as they’re starting to settle into their roles. That is to say, just as the battle is about to become an exchange of blows and a fight of attrition, BAM, the monster changes somehow. It’s pretty f$&%ing cool.
Admittedly, the basic Paragon Creature rules do provide something that staged monsters didn’t. They balance the action economy. The creature has multiple turns and loses them or starts with one turn and gains more. That alone provides a different dynamic to the different stages of the fight. And I already explained why balancing the action economy in that way is important and why it matches the output of multiple monsters. And why it makes the fight more dynamic simply by giving the monster more moves to play with. But I still wanted more.
So, let’s take a look at how we might have a monster undergo a more drastic change by smashing together a couple of ideas from Dark Souls and The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess. Yeah, imagine that, Angry is going back to the video game trough to rip off more ideas. Well, shut up. It’s how I do things.
Super Smash Monsters!
In Dark Souls, there are these awesomely bada$& black knights running around the world. They are huge and terrifying, a bit like mini-bosses, and each one has different weapons and fights with a different strategy. They have the same basic capabilities, but their tactics change depending on their weapons.
In The Legend of Zelda: Twilight… oh wait. I forgot to mention, the black knights are empty suits of armor because the people inside them were burned away centuries ago when the sun god f$&%ed up, so they are basically ghosts and that’s pretty much f$&%ing awesome.
In The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess, there are these big dumpy knights with oversized weapons called darknuts. Why are they called darknuts? F$&% if I know. Anyway, as you beat the snot out of them and they keep attacking you with these big, slow, sweeping attacks, you break their armor off. Eventually, they lose enough of their armor that they say “f$%& it” and throw the giant weapon away. They draw a side sword and suddenly they are fast, skirmishy duelists. It’s a pretty awesome “oh f$&% moment” because you have to change your methodology to deal with them.
Meanwhile, the players in my one of my D&D games were exploring an ancient dragonborn shrine and I needed a guardian for the vault at the bottom of all of this. And ultimately, the scene I pictured was this: there are scattered bits of armor all over the place. And when the moment is just right, just after the PCs have satisfied themselves that the bits of armor are just broken bits of armor and its time to move on, the bits of armor assemble themselves into a massive dragonborn knight with a huge weapon. He’s also got a side sword and a kite shield hovering “strapped” to his back. The party fights with the lumbering monster as it lands heavy, deadly blows. And then, when they start to take it apart, it discards the great weapon. The kite shield hovers into place at its arm and it draws the side sword, focusing more on speed and defense to last as long as possible.
The scene, by the way, was f$&%ing awesome!
Anyway, that was the first test of the transforming boss monster. And it was a simple transformation. Just changing the equipment loadout really. But it’s a great example of how to cram two monsters together.
The Guardian Armor: Cramming Two Monsters Together
I’ll fully admit that the creature started out as nothing more than an Animated Armor (MM 19) with two hit point pools and two initiative turns. When the first pool of hit points dropped to zero, it would switch equipment and lose one initiative turn. What you are seeing is NOT QUITE that first attempt. Instead, we’re going to do this in a little more complicated way. But, once I’ve shown you the basics, I’m going to give you three more sets of magic armor with horrible elementals crammed inside. Okay? That’s right. You’ll get four different Paragon Creatures out of this article. And you can find all of their stats as a downloadable PDF in my Pile O’ Shit.
Now, just like when we’re building a basic Paragon Creature, we start with a base monster. Except this time, we start with as many base monsters as we want to have forms. In this case, two. We have the Aggressive Animated Armor that swings a maul and cracks skulls. And we have the Defensive Animated Armor that uses a sword and shield. Take a look at the two stat blocks.
Now, you’ll notice the two stat blocks are very similar. That’s no accident and you’ll see why. Its important that both stat blocks have the same hit points and the same challenge. In theory, you can use two creatures with different hit points and different challenges, but then you need to be careful about who gets multiple actions or you could drastically f$&% up the balance of the monster. So, I find it easier not to bother.
As a side note, you might want to get good at creating custom monsters as described in the DMG (273-282).
So, we have the two monsters, how do we cram them together? It’s actually kind of easy and I’ll show you the end result because, after that, I probably don’t have to explain much.
First, I did all the Paragon stuff I talked about two weeks ago. Hit point pools, paragon supertype, challenge, and the Paragon Fortitude and Paragon Exhaustion traits. But then, I also gave each hit point pool a name. There’s two different forms for the creature and therefore each pool needs to match up with one form. And then, I keyed all of the stats that are unique to one form or the other with the name of one of the forms. Finally, I added the trait that actually makes the transformation happen.
Paragon Transformation. The creature has multiple forms, each corresponding to one of the creature’s hit point pools. The creature begins the battle in one form. When that form’s hit point pool has been reduced to zero, it assumes its next form immediately. Statistics, traits, or actions keyed to a specific form are only used when the creature is in that form.
EDIT: As a side note, I fully admit this creature probably would have worked better with Paragon Fury given that it’s second form is supposed to be the more dynamic form. I’m going to update that in the PDF version.
Now, by the way, you might wonder why multiattack kicks in only when the creature is in it’s defensive form. Well, that’s because of a quirk in the challenge calculation (DMG 274). Basically, I needed to up the damage output to keep the creature firmly at challenge 1 and that was the easiest way to do it. Otherwise, I would have had to change more stats between the two forms. And, as you can see, that can get complicated.
Admittedly, I could pull this whole thing off with two stat blocks instead of one, but frankly, I think the one stat block approach is cleaner and more elegant. Most importantly, it encourages you to focus on small differences in the traits and actions rather than the wholesale changing of stats. Why is this important? Because the players are less likely to notice stat changes than they are to notice full-on traits and actions. You want to focus on a small number of very obvious changes.
Honestly, there isn’t much more to say about this. That’s the system. It’s pretty easy. So, instead, let’s spend the rest of the time on something cool.
I know a lot of people are down on a lot of the things that 4E did. I, myself, have very mixed feelings about it. But one thing I LOVED about 4E was that it got creative with the monster designs in a way no other edition did. They were willing to really change things up and give us some wildly different stuff. I miss a lot of those monsters and I spend a lot of time trying to force the flavor of some of the great 4E monsters into other editions. Hence: archons.
Remember archons from 4E? I mean, in previous editions, archons were a grab bag of different celestial creatures. They were supposed to be the neutral good version of demons and devils. Or chaotic good. Or whatever. Who the f$&% can remember? You had one that was a globe of light and one that had green skin and looked like Dragonball Z and one that was a dog man. But meh. They were just a mess.
But 4E said f$&% that. Hound archons? Lantern archons? F$&% no. Imagine this. You build a magical suit of armor. You cram an elemental into it. Give it some weapons. And you have bound elemental infantry. Now THAT is cool and memorable. So, when I had to pick some creatures to show off the transforming boss idea, I decided to do archons. Here’s the fluff.
An archon is a small elemental crammed into a suit of magical armor and given an appropriate weapon. You can use them as servants or bodyguards or infantry or whatever. You can frankly figure out your own fluff. I give no f$&%s. The important fluff is the fluff that informs the monster design. So lets talk about that.
Elementals have all these resistances to damage and auras and weird movement modes, right? When you bind one into a suit of armor, you’ve got give up something. So you give up some of what makes the elemental an elemental and make it function more like a knight or soldier. But when that armor takes enough hits, the elemental breaks free. That’s a completely different fight. And that’s what I wanted to capture. The Armored Form is basically like fighting any armored dude with a weapon, more or less. But obviously with a fighting style informed by the element. And since you’re targeting the armor, you don’t have to worry so much about all the weird resistances and s$%&. The Elemental Form is wild and elemental. It’s completely different. In fact, I decided to build a little fun flavor into it. When the elemental breaks free, it is PISSED OFF. The armor bound it and forced it to serve something or someone. But now, it’s wild and in a fury. And it will kill anything or anyone.
And this is a little advancement thing. The thing is, if you were running a campaign based around elementals (or elemental EVIL… *wink*), you might use archons a few times. The first time the party encounters the archon, they are probably low to mid level and the archon is a boss by itself. They probably never even notice the uncontrolled fury thing. But as they get to higher levels and encounter archons with other creatures, the uncontrolled fury becomes a tool they can use. It’s the sort of thing that rewards multiple encounters at multiple levels.
But I digress. I built three archons, which I called the Avalanche, Blaze, and Storm Archons. I built custom monsters for each of their two forms, based on the elementals, genies, and a few other beasts in the Monster Manual. I’ll show you the two components and then the finished paragon creature.
The Avalanche Archon
In all three cases, I built the elemental form first and then stripped off the abilities that should only exist as part of the elemental to start the armored form. Then, I added on abilities to the armored form. And I discovered I had a very unique problem. In fact, if I had this to do over again, I wouldn’t have worked with elementals at all. Here’s the deal.
I wanted one of the big changes to be the difference between hitting a suit of armor and hitting a blob of living element. The elementals in the MM all have resistance against normal weapons. But, that means they effectively have twice as many hit points when calculating their defensive CR (DMG 277, 274-275). So, when I stuck to my hard and fast rule that both forms have to have the same hit points and the same challenge, I ran into some trouble. I had to do some hefty rebalancing. You’ll notice the armor class and damage outputs vary a bit widely from form to form. That was all done to keep the challenge the same. That makes these beasts swingy. They seem to work okay though.
The Storm Archon
One of the other things I liked about 4E was having different versions of the same creature fill different battlefield roles. So, while I built the Avalanche Archon as a tank, the Storm Archon was definitely going to be Artillery. I knew going in, I wanted it to be all about range. In its armored form, it’s easy enough to pin down. But when it breaks free, it can fly. Flight and range is a very, very difficult combo to deal with.
The Blazing Archon
I am fully cognizant of the fact that even against a party of four PCs of levels 8 to 10 (which is what you need because, remember, it’s 5,400 XP worth of challenge when you factor in the multiplier for it being two creatures), this thing might be pretty powerful. It just doesn’t look it at first blush. Why? Well, let’s consider this a monster building tip about considering ALL the damage.
When calculating the offensive CR of the creature, you have to consider it’s potential damage output per round. And if that damage output varies from round to round, you want to average it over three rounds. The thing is, the Blazing Archon doesn’t do a LOT of damage, but a lot of damage is happening from a lot of different places. Take it’s Fire Form trait, for example. One to two PCs will probably be hitting it in melee every round, meaning that’s 10 points of damage output per round that doesn’t come from any sort of attack. On top of that, it can enter a PC’s space and do 5 damage that way. And it’s happy in melee. There’s no reason for it not to do that. The hapless PC also catches fire, meaning the PC takes 5 damage on its next turn too. So, already, before the thing makes an attack, that’s 20 damage. It’s touch does only 4 points of damage, but it gets three of those, for 12 more damage. Plus, the PC that isn’t inside the elemental and on fire might catch fire from the touch, meaning 5 more points. So, all told, we’re talking 34 points of damage output per round. It just doesn’t look like it. That, by the way, is why it can use its scimitars four times but it’s touch only three times or it’s fire breath power only once. It’s the sort of beast that chips away at two or three PCs at a time and the PCs better keep it under control. Because if it gets at one of the squishier PCs, it can wreck them.