It is hard to believe we are nearing the end of Season 3 and our first Patron Game. Mark and I (J-M) were talking about the next season and game (both are going to be great!) As we chatted, Mark asked for my monster stats for use in Ta’nar. The problem with that is that I always make the monsters the day of, on the fly, scratched out on a piece of paper, which inevitably gets trashed after the game. That is, if I don’t just re-skin another monster for my purposes.
But easy monster design is one of the great things about 13th Age. The advice the designers give in the books (13th Age Core (C) and Bestiary 1 (B1)) make it simple, but if you are new to running the game, you might not think so. We at Iconic chatted about it for a bit and I decided for this month to look at my process for monster creation, in hopes that it will help you.
Like much of 13th Age, I start monster design with the narrative. What place does the creature serve in the world or the story? To help Mark out, I am writing up one of the Var (a spider-like race from Ta’nar) for this example. Looking at the Var which are unstatted (all of them), I decided on writing up the Var-Nul. My concept at this phase is:
The Var-nul are upper echelon members of the Var society. These Var have dedicated themselves to the study of dark magics which they rain down in corescating waves on valiant heroes.
Simple and to the point. For me, the concept feels like a One Unique Thing for my monster. It should give me or other GMs just enough to figure out what to do with the monster. In this case, they are Var nobility with magic.
The simplest thing to do here is to just find a monster that is close enough and reflavor their abilities. However, when you are looking to design a monster, you can also keep an eye out for abilities to steal for your creatures. I start looking through the Bestiary for powers which feel magical and refined. In this case, I really like the feel of the Ogre Mage’s Prismatic Blast (B1 p. 153) and the Lich’s Shadow Ray (B1 p. 135). They give the GM choices and add some depth to the creatures. Keeping those in mind, I head to the build section.
When building, the first thing to consider is the tier of the monster. To me, looking back at my concept, the Var-Nul do not feel like an adventurer or an epic tier monster. They are the nobility of the Var, so they should be more than an adventurer can handle, but in the world of Ta’nar, the Var are not the epic threats of the world. So, these guys are solidly in Champion Tier.
Looking at the champion tier stats (C p. 254), level 5 feels right. Low enough that the Var-Nul will appear at the end of adventurer tier and a solid choice continuing through the levels. Just picking our level gives us most of what we need, and in a pinch, you can just run with the base stats and still have a great encounter with flavorful descriptions.
But…. I like tweaking. The first thing I do is lower the Var-Nul’s HP from 72 to 65. They are frailer on average than a standard 5th level monster, but they will make up for it with powerful attacks. I keep the AC where it should be, seeing in my mind the Val-Nul wrapped in robes invested with powerful magics, and assign their better defense to MD but drop it by one to increase their PD by one. They are spidery after all. They are also slightly faster than the average monster, so I give their initiative a bit of a bump, setting it to +7.
Right, now to powers. Like all var, the Var-Nul have multiple limbs, so I think they should have two attacks. But as they are casters, I drop their to-hit and damage a bit, to represent that these are not their primary attacks.
The Var-Nul’s primary attack is a venom spell, which lances out to envenom their targets. Again, the spell can target two targets, but in the interest of spreading the damage, they cannot target the same two targets. This means that instead of halving the damage they can do in a round, we can afford to up it a bit, as they have to make two attack rolls. Some added ongoing poison damage based off the die roll is always needed, so you can check that out below.
When should you add d20 mechanics to a power? I tend to want to use it when it is the monster’s showcase power. For these venom bolts, it makes sense that they should do ongoing damage, but I want to limit that trigger. Looking at B1 p. 230, the designers give us great guidelines on when and how to use the d20. Looking there, I settled on two effects. One being ongoing damage if the Var-Nul rolls a natural 16+ as a strong hit gets the venom into your system. But I decide to add a miss effect, so that even if some of the venom gets on you, you still take a bit of damage. I don’t want a lot of this type of miss damage, so it only triggers on an even miss (50% of the time) and because it was a miss, I feel like making the save easy makes sense.
I wanted one more attack. These guys are sorcerers, so they should have something else in their repertoire. I want that classic area effect spell but one they can only do once or twice. Looking at the Ogre Mage’s Prismatic Blast power, I like the idea of a chaotic invocation. It works with the Var-Nul and their place in Ta’nar. But I do not want just extra or different damage and decide this power should represent all the myriad ways a spider or spellcaster can incapacitate a foe. This power applies conditions instead of a lot of damage. You can see below which conditions I chose for the power. In my mind, the Var-Nul lets out the chaotic nature of its magic and essence and a lot of strange stuff happens on the battlefield. I limited its use to once per battle. I thought about letting it do it twice, but concluded it downplays what I feel is the main role of the Var-Nul, the envenomed ray. Plus, if you were to field 2 or 3 of these at a time, each with two uses of the power… it would get crazy very quickly.
The spidery-humanoid grins with its mandibled mouth and begins chittering in arcane tones. A pale green light begins to surround it, and you wish you paid more attention in Varthen as a Second Language.
5th level Caster
Surprisingly nimble striker limbs: +9 vs AC (two attacks) – 8 damage
Eldritch envenomed ray: +11 vs PD (two different nearby targets) – 15 damage
Natural 16+: 5 ongoing poison damage (save end)
Natural even miss: 5 ongoing poison damage (easy save ends)
Chaotic invocation: +10 vs PD (1d3 nearby targets) – Roll 1d4 against each hit target to determine the effect of this spell
- Darkness of the Deeps! – Target is vulnerable and dazed (save ends both effects)
- Web – Target is stuck and hampered (save ends both effects)
- Chaotic Convulsions – Target takes 15 ongoing damage (save ends both effects)
- The Mark of Unlight – Target is vulnerable and takes 8 ongoing damage (save ends both effects)
Limited use: 2/battle
PD 16 HP 65
There you go. That is how I create monsters from scratch. It took longer to write up the process than it took to design the Var-Nul.
Now, I am not usually looking to publish my monsters, so I tend to make them a bit tougher than normal. If you are looking to publish monsters, you need to keep an eye on how they will scale. What works for an equal level encounter (where the monsters are the same level as your PCs) at your table may be wildly unbalanced when another GM fields them en masse against higher level parties. Playtesting is key.
Finally, did you know we are streaming games now? You can check out Becca on Twitch running 13th Age in Ta’nar on Monday nights or get caught up on our YouTube channel. And if you liked this article, let us know. We may do a whole episode on this topic!