Posted by : David Guyll July 03, 2013

This week's Wandering Monsters is about letting players run with the normally wrong crowd. As someone who has played an earth elemental paladin, half-blink dog/half-blue dragon, and gynosphinx diviner this is something I can get behind. If done properly, that is.

I never owned Complete Book of Humanoids, having severely throttled gaming funds during the Age of 2nd Edition, so my exposure to monstrous races began with Player's Option: Skills & Powers. I tended to roll with gnoll, though minotaur was another popular choice, that despite whats it's Monstrous Manual entry stated thankfully did not start with a Strength of 18.



Though 3rd Edition advanced the game in what I would consider to be a number of very positive ways it, among many other things, had some very, very poor rules when it came to rolling up monsters due to a combination of Hit Dice and the infamous Level Adjustment.

The idea was that no matter what abilities the monster had, its level was at the minimum equal to its number of Hit Dice. For example a minotaur has 6 Hit Dice, so it is at least considered a 6th-level character. Once you established that it was a matter of dividing up a monsters powers between each Hit Dice, similar to everything a class gets its divided up over the course of 20 levels. The problem is that often times the package of what a monster gets--ability score modifiers, various features, perhaps more--ended up being a check that their Hit Dice could not cash, and so you get a Level Adjustment (that despite being a positive modifier was actually a penalty).

Keeping with the minotaur example, they got a +8 to Strength, +4 to Constitution, -4 to Intelligence, -2 to Charisma, a gore attack, natural armor, darkvision, natural cunning, and scent. I guess they were able to reasonably divvy everything up over eight levels, because it has a Level Adjustment of +2. The problem is that normal 8th-level characters have an extra pair of Hit Dice, which means their base attack bonus, base saving throw modifiers, and maximum skill ranks are higher. It also means that they get another feat, extra attack, and ability score increase sooner, and are more likely to be immune to spells with a hit point or Hit Dice cap.

Now aside from the fact that most non-spellcasting classes were woefully underpowered in 3rd Edition, if you were to compare your minotaur fighter 1 to a human fighter 9 you would likely be a fair match: your Strength and Constitution are virtually guaranteed to be many points higher (helping to offset the attack bonus, hit point, and saving throw issue), natural armor would more than offset your size penalty to Armor Class, and your size would not only let you wield Large weapons, but also give you a hefty bonus to grapple, disarm, trip, etc (potentially making them actually viable tactics).

What about a spellcasting class? The same minotaur would be 9th-level before he gets his hands on 1st-level spells, so have fun pegging CR 9 monsters with magic missiles or finding a random encounter in which sleep will work. It is even worse for the mind flayer, a race that I would expect to excel as psions, as given their 8 Hit Dice and +7 Level Adjustment they are unable to manifest even the weakest of disciplines until 16th-level. So while you are ineffectually zapping dragons with energy rays for 1d6 damage, the elf wizard is obliterating the opposition with 16d6 damage polar rays (and that is not counting utility magic and save-or-sucks).

4th Edition thankfully abolished both Hit Dice and Level Adjustment, changing up a monster as needed so that would be on par with other races. It was now possible to say, play a minotaur at 1st-level that not only still felt like a minotaur, but would not lag behind the rest of the party down the road (ditto for drow and tieflings). Combine this with 4th Edition's removal of racial penalties, and you could experiment with race/class combinations that were pretty much impossible before. Minotaur wizard, anyone?

4th Edition also briefly dabbled with the idea of monster-as-class with the vampire from Heroes of Shadow. Though I found it to be very viable, flexible, and evocative of the base creature, the concept of a monster class was sadly never revisited.

I think that combining both of 4th Edition's approaches, with perhaps a dash of 3rd Edition multiclassing, is how monstrous races should be handled. Relatively "dirt-simple" races like the goblin, orc, kobold, gnoll, hobgoblin, tiefling, and so on can just be easily designed as a standard race. Since feats are not going to be an assumed thing, you could go the direction of 3rd Edition's Unearthed Arcana (man, but I do bring up that book a lot) by giving them access to a handful of racial levels that let them gain more abilities. Just, you know, make them actually worth it and play well with spellcasting classes.

More complex monsters could still arguably start out with "standard race" iterations, so you can have a satyr monk or umber hulk bard if that is your thing, but could also have a full-blown class if you just want to stick with it. I keep pitching the idea of flexible classes capable of realizing a variety of concepts, and the same principle could apply here, making it possible to design, for example, a dragon class that lets you pick the color/metal you want, as well as if you prefer to rely on your natural weapons, breath weapon, transform, cast spells, and so on.

{ 21 comments... read them below or Comment }

  1. One complaint I always had about 4E, actually, was that it didn't have very many rules for what 3rd Edition manifested as 'templates'. Vampire was one, werewolf was another, and a bunch of other possibilities in the library offered; each template had very clear changes you would make to your character to use it, with a level adjustment to show the difference in power. Hell, my most successful character was a half-dragon sorcerer (even if his consciousness was transferred to a changeling body during the campaign).

    This lack of 4E templates has proved quite frustrating for me as I have been redesigning a Expedition to Castle Ravenloft campaign for my group (something we've discussed previously) and one of the characters may end up becoming a werewolf. With no real rules on how to employ that template in 4E, and the solution of creating a new class not particularly appealing to me, I've been at a bit of a standstill in that regard. I discovered some variant rules from the Forgotten Realms campaign setting (I think) that might be useful but, really, I think it was a shortcoming of the system. It would have been great to see more monsters get the class treatment, as the Vampire did but, as is, I'm at a bit of a loss.

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  2. We probably just did the level adjustment thing wrong, but we didn't include the HD and the LA for monstrous PCs. They just took the LA penalty and then started taking class levels. For most races this worked fine in our games, because we usually started at level three or four. As an example, we had a doppelganger in one game who started at level 4 with no PC class; when he reached level 5, he took a level in his first PC class. We treated the 4HD of being a doppelganger as part of the reason he had a +4LA. That's probably not the way it was supposed to be done, but it worked fine and was a fairly balanced character.


    As for 4E racial classes, my only complaint (and why they may not have revisited it) is that the Vampire is a poor choice for a class. I currently have a Vampire in the home game I run and one of the biggest issues I have is that the character cannot be cured. Other races (like Dragon, which would be pretty cool) don't have this same issue as commonly, but I wish they'd gone the route of the Revenant for Vampires.

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  3. @Nick: What I would do is when the character levels up, allow them to pick powers from a "werewolf" category. Similar to how you can choose Skill Powers if you have the right trained skills, just for monsters!

    This avoids 3rd Edition's issue of piling on a bunch of cool things, as well as avoiding having to force a feat tree (though you could do that, too), or changing themes (as Neverwinter Campaign Setting had werecritter themes).

    Actually, Monstrous Power sounds like a good 4E book...

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  4. @Svafa: Given how underpowered many monsters were, I would believe it if you did not enforce the Hit Dice bit, too. :-P

    I played a vampire for a short while (only a handful of levels) and did not run into any problems: staying alive was pretty easy and the damage was nice. Maybe the issues would have manifested at higher levels?

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    1. It's not so much an issue with the mechanics of the class, but that as a class the character cannot lose the vampirism, which is sort of one of the character's stated goals. It wouldn't be an issue if the class were, say, dragon, because typically being a dragon isn't something you contract or are cursed with and could potentially be cured of.

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  5. @David: Haha, Monstrous Power sounds like a great book! It's too bad that they'll be leaving 4E behind because of D&D Next. There's so much potential left in that system!

    The only problem with that solution, though, is that it doesn't make the werewolf component a core part of the character. I misspoke earlier: the character, by design, will actually be a werewolf from the beginning; I could certainly add a Werewolf 'class' as an alternative choice -- smashing together some stuff from the Druid and other Primal Power classes would be apt and fairly easy -- but it was a matter of wanting the werewolf component to be a core part of the character. I've also toyed with giving an alternate racial power -- something akin to the Druid shapeshift class feature, only perhaps a bit stronger and less delicate -- but I'm not sure that would fully realize what I and the player are envisioning.

    A Racial Power combined with an alternate 'class' to choose from might be a good compromise, though. That way, the player has a representation of 'werewolf' from the beginning while still having the freedom to embrace or reject that other part depending on what powers he chooses as he levels. Thoughts?

    (Also, completely unrelated: loving the new look of the site, man! It's really slick. Cheers!)

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    1. Thanks! Victor (aka The Planeswalker) has been hard at work trying to find something new and better than the previous layout.

      This is where I think something like 3rd Edition's multiclassing could have made customization better, and would actually be pretty easy to implement (especially since attack/spell level did not set your bonuses or DCs): start as a class, and when you level up you can pick a power from another class of your character level or lower.

      If you wanted to bar access with a feat, that could be a fine way to throttle spreading out too much, just not a feat for every kind of category. I could also see some classes giving you the option to pick from other classes, like rangers and druids, or paladins and clerics.

      This way you could start as a werewolf, then at level 2 pick up a utility from another class that you want to go into, or just stick with werewolf. You could also start as another class, get bitten, and start picking up werewolf attacks.

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    2. I really like the idea of having multiclassing being limited by specific groups. Maybe a easy rule of thumb would be that you can only multiclass with other classes that share your Power Source? Primal, Martial, Divine, Psionic, Arcane, what-have-you. I enjoyed that 4E made that distinction, it gave each character a bit of extra flavour that you might have lacked in 3E.

      Regardless, I'm fairly certain that I will have to create a Werewolf 'class' for the player to choose from. I'm excited to see it in action, and to actually get this campaign off the ground. I'll be sure to take notes and share each session on my blog; I'll give you a heads-up when we get started!

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  6. @Svafa: That is actually a good point. Not sure what to do about that, except allow characters to swap them out for levels in an existing class (assuming they even have one). That could get wonky.

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  7. @Nick: Are you doing this in 4th Edition? I could ask Victor about his werewolf class that he has been kicking around for awhile.

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    1. I am running it in 4th Edition! It would be cool to compare notes and see how he's designed his class; if you could ask on my behalf, that would be stellar!

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  8. here you go sir https://app.box.com/s/g3qloboh0eq2nco2e47y
    I hope it helps!

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    1. Thanks plenty! I haven't read through the whole thing yet but, from what I've seen so far, it looks pretty spot-on for what I've been thinking of. Cheers!

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  9. I noticed from a casual perusal of your doc that their accuracy is terrible. If I'm reading it right, they use implement powers that target AC, except for a few powers that target Reflex and Will. And, to add insult to injury, the AC powers mostly have secondary attacks that target reflex! Who do you think you're fooling with, here?

    Targeting AC without a weapon proficiency bonus will things tricky for a werewolf to do it's job as a striker. A simple fix would be to a) fix all the powers so that it says 'Dexterity +2 vs AC' instead, or add an accuracy boost to one of the class features or make another one. The former would be less broken, I think, because then it wouldn't make the NAD powers hit every time.

    Don't think that I'm a hater or anything, I just think that it needs a fix.

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    1. I agree with you in that regards. I never managed to playtest it thoroughly but decided to upload it anyways in the event there was something Nick jewel would be able to scrap from it.

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  10. @Nick: Awesome. If people are interesting in more 4th Edition-esque monstrous classes, I could always get back to work on my red dragon.

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  11. I probably should have asked back in the day but I was wondering where you guys got the template to create your own class for the Werewolf document? I'd like to put together my own class but can't seem to find a custom class template anywhere! Any help would be most appreciated!

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    1. I used Microsoft Word to create the class. Once I get home, I'll try to put a blank document for you to fill in with your class' info. Stay tuned.

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  12. Oh, that would be Victor. I'll let him know you are looking for it. :-)

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  13. Haha, thanks guys! I really appreciate the assistance!

    Tomorrow is the first day of the revisited Ravenloft campaign! I'm very excited to get started. I'll be writing up play reports after each session so I'll keep you posted on how it goes!

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  14. Ooooh...Ravenloft you say? Hopefully you get further along than we did. :-)

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