Monday, February 24, 2014

Creature design talk, part 5: Layers

Welcome back to our continuing discussion of creature design for your RPG. So far we've discussed creature motivation (part 1) and creature encounters (parts 2, 3, and 4). Today the topic is how we as game designers and Game Masters may layer our creature designs.

Layers

Layers are what I call the different levels or phases of an encounter with a creature (or any encounter, really). It usually comes into play when dealing with "boss" level challenges, but can work well in random or lower-tiered challenges as well.



The first layer is the initial encounter, which is usually going to be some sort of straight combat, but really can be any type of encounter that we've discussed (Hunter, Trapper, Giant, or Non-Combat). Upon overcoming that challenge by defeating the creature, or just gaining the upper hand, the next layer comes into play.

Subsequent layers change the status quo. The creature changes tactics, shows a new type of attack, calls allies to its defense, morphs into a different monster, raises a forcefield, becomes invisible, or does something else to change the cards. The battle begins anew, and hopefully with an uptick in the level of the challenge.

Why?

Why build layers into your creatures, or at least your important ones? For starters, it provides a fun and dynamic challenge for your players. It keeps them on their toes and helps keep you out of those all-too-common ruts. Players expect innovation and "wow factor" from designers and Game Masters, and this is one way to provide that.

Layering can also provide a buffer against unexpected player character success. If there is a commonality between every gamer reading this blog, it's this: you have been in a game where the players/characters turned an encounter on its head. Whether through dumb luck, rare genius, or an exploit in the rules, every Game Master has seen a battle or some sort of encounter that was supposed to be the highlight of the session turn into a totally one-sided shellacking, with the party coming out on top. This isn't necessarily a terrible thing, but it can be disruptive and a little disappointing. After all, players know when a big, important event is upon them and they want it to live up to their expectations. Providing layered creature designs can give you something of a do-over in these situations.

Some Examples

It might be easier just to list a bunch of examples rather than try to rationally list all of the possible scenarios by category. It's not too tough to think up a bunch of possible examples:

  • First, be sure to check out this article by The Angry DM about Solo boss battles in D&D 4e. It's really great, and relates well to this discussion.
  • After defeating a magical creature, the party discovers that it divides and quickly regenerates, leaving them forced to figure out how to prevent its continual resurrection, while fighting more and more of the beasts each time they are wrong.
  • A giant monster is destroyed, only to have large (compared to the characters, anyway) and very hungry parasitic creatures slither free from the corpse and attack the party.
  • A demonic creature is nearly subdued when it is suddenly possessed by a greater demonic force, increasing its power and arcane skill, with a new set of hit points.
  • A high-speed chase through the jungle allows the characters to finally evade their speedy predatory enemies, only to find that they have been chased into their den, left with no choice but to stand and fight.
  • The party negotiates traps and pitfalls placed before them by an angry A.I. in an advanced military base, only to have it possess some prototype hardware in a last-ditch effort to prevent the characters' escape.
  • As a group of armored monsters assaults the party's base of operations, the characters pick them off, one by one. The remaining creatures absorb or attach the armor of the fallen to enhance their own durability, getting tougher and tougher as they come.
  • A tentacled, burrowing creature assaults a character from the front. A round or two later, this is shown to be a diversionary tactic as the creature's proper attack is launched from behind, by surprise.
  • A robot is defeated after putting up a great struggle, only to reveal its final revenge comes in the form of a powerful explosive packed into its casing, capable of destroying everyone if it can not be circumvented.

Next time...

We'll wrap up the talk of creature design with what I think is the weakest part of my skillset: creature appearance.

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