image: Cover art of Pelgrane Press’ Battle Scenes: High Magic and Low Cunning
Carefully picking monsters for your encounters can do wonders for the theme and feeling of them. Whether it’s a fight with a hundred copies of one enemy, or a mixed bag of targets, it’s important to know what direction you’re taking the image of the combat into. For the most part, the type of monster can heavily affect how the encounter feels. Fighting orcs feels rather different from fighting a rakshasa or two, as it should be.
Sadly, it can be difficult to find the monsters you need. Sometimes they haven’t been created yet, or all of the orcs are scattered across a multitude of books and supplements. Most people would probably tell you that you need to take your game prepping up a notch, which never hurts, but I say there’s another solution. When building a themed encounter, it almost goes without saying that you have to know what your adventuring party consists of. You wouldn’t throw a group of spell casters at your adventuring party that is solely made up of melee classes. The opposite can also be true if they hit too hard. When in doubt; a group of melee monsters will always work against any adventuring party, just take the squishies into account.
When we think themed encounter, however, we’re mostly talking about one type of monster or a group of monsters that serve a common purpose. In 13th Age, The Blue has somehow created a city of monsters that coexist and even make up her government. Typically, an ogre mage would scoff at the idea of kobold underlings, but in Drakknehall, such is not the case. Using concepts like this opens up a multitude of options when building themed encounters. If you lack a higher power like an Icon, giving them all a commonality of some kind is essentially the base of this point. Much like player races; if given a reason, monsters can band together.
A little different than the “common goal” method, using a bunch of one monster type can prove a little difficult. In another post about encounter building, I talked about monster roles (spoiler, blocker, wrecker, etc.), probably the most important aspect of making an encounter work in 13th Age. For those of us who own most of the books, making themed encounters that uphold this philosophy can be pretty easy… once you find everything. In the core rules, the orcs were pretty limited; all melee fighters save one, which is a shaman that takes the role of leader, a monster that gives buffs to their friends. There was plenty to work with there, and it satiated what we needed to do when learning 13th Age. Now that the game has been out for a while, there’s a multitude of orc options. The 13th Age Bestiary has some good ones, and I hope the Bestiary 2 will keep the tradition. You can never have too many orcs, right? But not every monster has been so fortunate to be given a bunch of friends. Some monsters from the Bestiary, like the Lammasu or Cuoatl can be a little more tough to deal with. Throwing more than one at a party can feel strange, mainly because they’re large and intelligent. A creature of their size is bound to have hubris, having more than one around seems unlikely.
But if the theme demands it, that’s what you should do, right? The answer is, well, kind of. Carrying the Lammasu idea, throwing more than one at a party could be extremely deadly. If that’s the feel you want and it fits your story, go for it. Having a reason for more than one to hang out together is key to making that believable. However, I would argue that having one extremely strong Lammasu (one as written) and a bunch of smaller, weaker ones that are being bullied around would be better. The stats as written don’t have that, so as a GM, you’re faced with two options: 1) Create your own 2). Reskin an existing monster.
Reskinning takes way less time, and is the route I would recommend if you don’t have all the prep time in the world. The key to making that work is finding other monsters that feel similar to the Lammasu (or whatever) that fill different roles. A Lammasu Wizard is a spoiler, and he needs some troops and mooks to back him up. Taking something like an Orc Berserker from the core rules and giving it the Lammasu’s ability Refuge of Stone can really surprise and challenge players. Of course, you’d have to level up the berserker stats appropriately, which is a task in itself, but it saves you from making a completely new monster. On the other hand, instead of something as simple as a troop, you could throw a wrecker with a bunch of mooks. Even a wrecker and a blocker or three, the blocker serving its function as protector of the Lammasu and collector of wrecker fodder. Get creative, it’s what makes it all interesting.
When it comes to making battles themed around specific Icons, I found that the Battle Scenes books are awesome. They have pre-made encounters, sprawling across multiple levels and the books come divided by Icon. If the adventures don’t fit your game, shelf them for later and just rename all the monsters in an encounter. Voila! You have a battle ready to go that has a theme. Don’t let the name of a stat block keep you from incorporating it into a fight. If you don’t have that book, the Bestiary does have a section at the end of every monster block talking about what Icon they’d serve and who they’d hang out with. It gets the creative juices flowing and has proven to be an invaluable resource for me. Shuffle it up, mix and match things that already exist, and most importantly, make sure it’s fun.
Stay Metal \m/