- Plane Weaver
In my last blog post, I mentioned that having base damage capped to a silent single poses a challenge when it comes to monster design, because damage is such a great metaphor for strength & the threat that a monster poses to the party.
One of other big ways to passively clue threat that exists is the weapon choice given to the monster. A monster wielding a spear and shield represents a different kind of threat than a monster with two daggers, for example, and a monster with no weapons or shields seems very nonthreatening indeed.
In Animus, we've tried to extend this through the use of the weapon passive abilities that exist. Though only sentient human monsters have access to them, they present their own set of challenges to the party when in play: daggers gain access to BACKSTAB, sword-weilders are IMMUNE to calls when at full health, and blunt-weapon wielders become very scary-looking when you're under STAGGER, as they then gain access to BREAK, the most powerful standard call in the game.
Thus, just by looking at a monster's weapon loadout, you gain some idea of the kind of abilities they could have and the strategies they might employ against you - and the same is true for sentient monsters facing down the player party, too.
Why is this good? Because if you can anticipate the kind of threat that a monster poses, you can make plans on how to fight it effectively. You know not to let the monsters with daggers outflank you. You know you should try and hit the monsters with great weapons somewhere other than the forearms. You know you should hit the sword-wielders first before trying to make physical calls against them, etc. This invites the player to make plans to deal with the monster party on its own merits, and empowers them to feel like a godsdamn genius when these tactics pay off. It also makes it feel less brutally unfair when a monster pulls something on you that you had no reasonable way of preparing against.
And because these threats are clued in advance, and are not something that you have to pick up in the middle of a combat where a large part of your brainfocus is tied up with remembering numbers and powers and trying not to die, you avoid the problem of what I call the 'puzzle encounter of doom', where you know you have to do something to make the encounter winnable, but have no idea what, and it's just about all you can do to defend yourself against endless waves of gribblies as you die an inexorable death in a giant meat grinder.
The problem with just having these with weapon passives, though, is that they don't go far enough - and are only applicable to certain types of human enemies, anyway. What would be really good, we thought, was if there was some way of encountering a monster and knowing in advance the kind of power level it was on - even something as detailed as how many hits it had, its calls, its strengths and its weaknesses.
And so, we came up with the bestiary.
One of the things that we didn't like about MM was that monsters could be wildly variable in terms of power. One week, wolves might be 8 hits, doing SINGLE THROUGH, with 2 strikedown, another 'wolves' might be 20 hits, DOUBLE STRIKEDOWN, immune to REND, as the dictates of the adventure and the party demanded.
In Animus, all monster types have fixed stats. 'Deep Ones' will always have the same hits, calls and abilities every time you encounter them; so will Forest Wolves. Champion or boss versions of these monsters will also have their own standardised stats. If it's ever necessary to have what are basically 'Deep Ones', but for a high-level party, then we will write a 'Dire Deep Ones' or 'Deeper Ones' entry in the Bestiary with their own fixed stats, as well. GMs can create as many weird and wonderful new monsters as they like, but all new monsters introduced in adventures will need to be approved by the LARPO at the same time that adventure is approved. These monsters will then be written into the Bestiary.
Any PC who has encountered a monster type before will, therefore, be able to recognise it and the level of threat that it poses to them. Conversely, completely new enemies are an unknown threat, which makes them a particular kind of interestingly-scary. Skills like Survivalist / Streetwise can be used to gain bestiary-like information on common monsters within those areas.
We see this as having the following advantages:
Empowers players to play smart. When you know in advance that, say, this enemy type takes STAGGER as STAGGER 5, you know to try and get your people who can deliver those calls in a position where they can take them down effectively. If you know that the enemy throws out a lot of FEAR calls, you can send your Torch paladin in to run control. If you know that the enemy are only affected by a particular kind of call, your Shaper can use their temporary instillment to exploit this, etc.
Empowers battlefield roleplay Because knowing about a monster's strengths and weaknesses gives you an advantage, it then becomes advantageous to discuss tactics amongst the party so that they can work together, which hopefully should have the knock-on effect of the party really feeling like a badass team.
Projects threat As above, if I know that an Abyssal Erosion Phantasm is an incredibly high-challenge enemy, and one appears, then I get a similar 'Oh shit' moment as I might do if I, say, saw that monster doing a ton of damage in combat. Conversely, if none of the party have ever encountered a monster type before, there's a particular kind of wariness this produces at not knowing how best to tackle the situation.
Makes life easier for GMs One of the more difficult parts of writing an adventure, at least in my experience, is statting everything, especially as a newbie. The Bestiary removes some of the pain out of this, as there will be a set of ready-prepared monsters with stats for people to use (or modify for stronger/weaker versions).
Makes players feel powerful One of the things that makes you feel like a badass in a JRPG is when you journey back to one of the starting areas and steamroll enemies that had previously posed a tough challenge for you. We can envision a high-level party facing waves and waves of monsters that they had struggled with at low levels. In other words: fixed stat monsters act as a benchmark for player growth. Additionally, as players venture out into the world, they gain more combat experience, which makes them more effective fighters.
Anyhow, this is a huge post already, and I'd better stop rambling. I have more thoughts on the Bestiary (especially how it interacts with upstatting/downstatting) and whilst I'm sure it'll undergo a number of changes before it works how we want it to, I think the idea of having fights where the players can actually approach the encounter tactically instead of relying on the same tried & tested strats is super appealing to me.
I look forward to seeing how it works in our next playtest.