13th Sage: How to Customize Monsters – The Human Thug

chaos symbolWhen you need a new monster in 13th Age, customizing an existing monster is a great option. For this post, we’ll turn an existing monster—the human thug—into a variety of guards from across the Dragon Empire by adding a single, distinctive special ability.

Player characters in 13th Age (and almost every other RPG) tend to go places someone else doesn’t want them to be in. As a result, they often encounter guards. Guards are monsters whose job is to keep watch in a certain area, determine whether or not Waldo the Wizard belongs there, and if not, eliminate Waldo as a problem.

As a city adventure, Crown of Axis—which I’m currently writing—needs more than the usual number of guards. They’re everywhere, from the Palaces to Rabbleward and every neighborhood in between. However, populating the city with only one kind of guard doesn’t feel fun or interesting. My solution was to create baseline humanoid stats for different roles that guards might have in a battle (bumbling mooks, competent leaders, and terrifying brutes), and create special abilities that give them the flavor of whichever part of Axis they’re in. Rabbleward cops fight dirty. Goldring and Upside security forces deliver savage beatdowns that send a message to would-be trespassers. Palace guards know exactly when something’s not quite right along their well-traveled patrol routes.

Normally in adventures we provide icon-themed options for reskinning monsters, and I do that with other monsters in Crown of Axis. But because I see all guard-type monsters in Axis as linked to the Emperor, I decided that the major differences between them would be rooted in their location and function.

For the show-and-tell portion of this blog post, I’ll have a go at reskinning the human thug from the 13th Age core book. Here’s the original writeup:

Human Thug

1st level troop [humanoid]

Initiative: +3

Heavy mace +5 vs. AC—4 damage

Natural even hit or miss: The thug deals +6 damage with its next attack this battle. (GM, be sure to let the PCs know this is coming, it’s not a secret.)

AC 17

PD 14    HP 27

MD 12

Getting Started: What’s Your Deal?

The first thing I do when I’m creating or customizing a monster is to figure out what their deal is. Knowing this helps me design abilities that create a distinctive experience for the players when their PCs fight that monster. I’ll ask questions like:

  • What word or short phrase best describes its nature? Loyal? Cowardly? Honorable? Cunning? Cruel? A vessel for a greater power?
  • What’s its purpose? Defend its territory? Protect someone, something, or some place? Keep the peace? Accumulate treasure? Feed?
  • How does it fulfill that purpose successfully?
  • Does it do this for itself, or for someone/something else? Who or what is that?

For example, in my version of Axis:

  • Upside security forces are reliable professionals, tasked by their clients with protecting the property of the upper classes in Axis. They succeed by working as a team to beat the crap out of unwanted outsiders before handing them over to the Imperial Home Guard.
  • Rabbleward cops are corrupt bullies, tasked by the government with keeping the poor and marginalized in the district under control. They succeed through terror, by inflicting horrible pain and injury on their enemies.

This process applies to other kinds of monsters. If I were designing a Martian spider, I might decide it’s a ferocious beast whose purpose is to capture and eat prey, and to protect its hundreds of eggs from predators. It does this by spinning multidimensional webs that can entangle and daze creatures, which it then kills with its mandibles.

Sample guards

Let’s pick a few major spots around the Dragon Empire, and give our human thug special abilities to reflect their location and role. I’ll include my answers to the who, what, why, etc. of the monster, and some notes on how I turned that into an ability. In almost every case I used an existing monster ability, reskinned for the guard.

Shadow Port Thieves’ Guild Sentry

WADE THINKS: “This is a cunning rogue tasked by the Guild to defend its headquarters from intruders. It accomplishes this through stealth and surprise. When I search the core book for the word ‘surprise’, I find the gargoyle’s statues, statues, everywhere ability. Yoinked!”

Softly, softly: Think those guards stationed at the door are the Guild’s first line of defense? Nah, mate. The real guards wait in the shadows to ambush you before you even get close. PCs must make a Wis skill check (DC 20) to avoid being surprised (see 13th Age core book page 164).

Glitterhaegen Bodyguard

WADE THINKS: “This is a grim professional tasked by a client to keep someone safe. It does this by putting its body between whoever it’s protecting and whatever’s attacking. Hmm, maybe I can adapt the skeletal hound’s skilled intercept.”

Protect the client: Once per round as a free action, an engaged bodyguard can automatically pop free from one enemy without taking an attack of opportunity and intercept an enemy who is moving to attack one nearby ally. Other enemies engaged with the bodyguard can take attacks of opportunity.

Frost Range Shrine Guardian

WADE THINKS: “This is a spiritual warrior tasked by the priesthood to protect a sacred place from desecration. It does this by making itself a vessel for the power of the gods of the frozen North. I imagine this power growing like a blizzard or encroaching ice, and the escalation die makes a great timer. If I were doing this for a book, I’d definitely ask a developer to check the math and make sure I haven’t made this monster too fearsome, or not fearsome enough.”

Spirits of the ice: The Frost Range shrine guardian adds cold damage equal to the escalation die to the damage from heavy mace. (This ability replaces the +6 damage that follows a natural even hit or miss.)

Guardian of the Golden Citadel

WADE THINKS: “This is a penitent knight tasked by the Great Gold Wyrm to keep vigil in the ruins of the Golden Citadel, slaying monsters and testing pilgrims in battle. It does this through self-sacrifice. If it’s paying a penalty to access an attack, that attack should be pretty good. Maybe I’ll give this attack an automatic success, like the despoiler mage’s magic missile attack, but keep the amount of damage the same as heavy mace.”

Penitent: The first time the guardian becomes staggered, the guardian can make a Penitenziagite attack on their next turn.

[special trigger] R: Penitenziagite (one nearby or far away enemy)—both the target and the guardian take 4 automatic damage
Limited use: 1/battle

Highdock Ranger

“This is a courageous wilderness fighter tasked by a fellowship of rangers to roam far and wide across the Highdock mountain range—a place that attracts and sometimes spawns flying realms—keeping the peace and repelling invaders. It does this using weapons it’s found while exploring crashed flying realms. Highdock, and flying realms in general, call for weirdness; so I’ll create an ability that uses a random table to generates bonuses, penalties, and special effects.”

Sky realm weapon: Highdock rangers’ weapons are strange items they’ve found in flying realms. In addition to the +6 heavy mace damage that follows a natural even hit or miss, the attack does something unusual. Roll a d6 on the following table:

  1. At the beginning of its next turn, the ranger disappears with a faint pop and the weapon falls to the ground. If the PCs ever journey to Moonwreck, they find the ranger’s skeleton lying on the tundra.
  2. The ranger is surrounded by a glittering halo. Ranged attacks against the ranger get a +1 bonus until the end of the ranger’s next turn.
  3. The air is filled with butterflies made of rainbow light. They have no substance and disappear at the end of the battle.
  4. Dark clouds form in the sky overhead. Participants hear ominous peals of thunder, and see weird lights moving within the clouds. The effects disappear at the end of the battle.
  5. The target is surrounded by a glittering halo. Ranged attacks against the target get a +1 bonus (normal save ends).
  6. The ranger’s weapon emits a deafening chime. All nearby enemies must make a normal save or take a -1 to their attacks until the end of their next turn.

13th Age combines the best parts of traditional d20-rolling fantasy gaming with new story-focused rules, designed so you can run the kind of game you most want to play with your group. 13th Age gives you all the tools you need to make unique characters who are immediately embedded in the setting in important ways; quickly prepare adventures based on the PCs’ backgrounds and goals; create your own monsters; fight exciting battles; and focus on what’s always been cool and fun about fantasy adventure gaming. Purchase 13th Age in print and PDF at the Pelgrane Shop.

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