Underpowered: Bullywug (4E)

D&D has lots of options, and it’s fairly obvious that they’re not all equally powerful. I’ve ranted about this, but over time I’ve also been doing something about it. Rarely, it’s a house rule to limit to power of a given option. More often it’s a house rule to power up something that’s fun or flavorful but isn’t as good as a more common, powerful option. Every once in a while I like to look at one of these options and see if I can tweak it so that players who go for it aren’t taking a hit for their characters.

I know that working on game balance doesn’t really fit with a free-form, DMing-with-Charisma style. But I believe that one of the points of a system like D&D is the ability to let players play just about anything. If a player sees something they want to play (especially after spending forever looking for it) and find out that it isn’t fun, there’s a problem. Not everything can be perfectly-balanced all the time, but if a player has their heart set on a specific character, the system shouldn’t be working against them.

Races in 4th Edition have a very simple, consistent formula. Each race (now) gets a +2 bonus to one ability score and a +2 bonus to a choice of two others, a speed of 5 through 7 (except for the pixie, who flies at 6 but walks at 4), two languages, a +2 bonus to two skills, two to four racial traits (except for shifters, who get none, and eladrin, who get five because shut up), and some racial power. There’s little variance from this formula for PC races.

Monster races, however, aren’t so lucky. Included at the end of the Monster Manual and Monster Manual 2 (and the occasional other weird place), monster races are seriously underpowered compared to PC races in the Player’s Handbook series. They have fewer racial traits, occasionally lack powers, and weren’t given the same treatment that PC races were when Wizards shifted from the two-stat-bonus system for ability scores to the one-and-a-choice system.

It makes me wonder if they were never meant to be played, which in turn makes me wonder why they were published. I expect that the authors expected somebody to play them. After all, the big taboo in playing monsters is that they’re, well, monstrous. They’re not supposed to fit in with PCs. But PHB2 introduced playable lycanthropes and reincarnated spirits, and PHB3 gave us minotaurs (formerly a monstrous race) and psychic crystal robots. At this point, “monstrous” is kind of a loose term. Dark Sun gave us bugs. So I don’t see any reason that the monstrous races shouldn’t be treated the same as PC races, given that there’s no strong reason to differentiate them.

There’s a lot of work to do in putting all races on a (more) level playing field. But I think the best way to start is with the most obvious outlier, from the Monster Manual 2:

BULLYWUG
Average Height: 5′ 4″- 6′ 0″
Average Weight: 150-240 lb.

Ability Scores: +2 Constitution, +2 Dexterity
Size: Medium
Speed: 6 squares (swamp walk)
Vision: Normal

Languages: Common, Primordial
Skill Bonuses: +2 Athletics
Rancid Air (Poison) aura 2: Any enemy that spends a healing surge within the aura is weakened until the end of its next turn.

Bullywugs, as far as I can tell*, are still on the two-stat-bonus system for ability scores. They’re one of only seven races that don’t get +2 to two skills (shardminds get three, humans and orcs get none, and bladelings, duergar, and githyanki get one; note that five of these seven are monstrous). They have no racial power. They only have one racial trait, and it only triggers when an enemy spends a healing surge, something that fewer than a dozen monsters do, most of which are in the MM1. Only one monster in MM2 allows allies to spend healing surges so Wizards knew when the bullywug was printed that its only trait was a rare corner case. And it also uses the Poison keyword, so any enemy immune to poison (the most common immunity) ignores the aura. So the only thing they can expect to use in any given campaign is swamp walk, a trait reliant on the DM’s kindness in determining the setting.

The lore of the race almost supports this, but not enough. The whole point of bullywugs is that the natural world hates them, more than aberrations, undead, evil gods, and everything else with stats. Clearly this included the designers. But they’re adorable in a Ninja-Tutrle-esque way, so let’s see if we can save them from their creators.

There are four bullywugs in the Monster Manual 2 as actual monsters, and all of them have good Dex. So let’s keep Dex as their mandatory ability score. Since Con is already included in the race, that’s going to be one of their optional ability scores. We need to determine the other. Of the four monsters, one is Str-primary, one is Wis-primary, one is Con-primary, and the fourth is Dex-primary. The Con- and Dex- primary monsters both have Str and Wis high and tied. We can make a case for either Str or Wis here. But since the half-orc is already Dex/Str,Con, doing the same with the bullywug wouldn’t add anything interesting to the race list. Let’s make them Dex/Con,Wis, a unique set.

Their speed, vision, and languages are fine. Of the forty-four published races, thirty-seven have speed 6 (and the pixie should count, so thirty-eight). The monster bullywugs have normal vision, so that fits. And the monsters only speak Primordial, so that’s a given as their second language.

Let’s determine their other skill bonus. Athletics is good because it’s already there and all of the monsters have it (Athletics determines jumping distance, and bullywugs are frogs, so draw conclusions accordingly). But three of the monsters only have Athletics. The fourth, a shaman has Nature. Athletics/Nature isn’t exactly new or special, but it fits for a race that lives in swamps, so we’ll take it.

The racial traits and powers are harder, because we’re largely free-forming it. The aura can stay, but since it’s so rarely useful it won’t factor into our balance considerations. Swamp walk is also a good choice for a trait. But we still need two mid-level traits and one power to bring them up to a PC race. The only power that all bullywugs share is one that heals any creature who hits them with a critical hit, something that’s neither fun nor helpful. I thought I was going to have to start making thing up wholesale, until I saw this:

Bullywugs say they were created by the original primordials, not by the gods…By amassing legacies of savagery, the curliest bullywugs imagine that they will one day be reborn as slaads.

So the race was created by primordials and aim to become paragons of chaos? Now we have something interesting. Slaads also don’t have any consistent powers or traits save that most of the have a teleport speed, which is too powerful for a low-level PC. But just the idea of chaos as an origin and goal is helpful. So let’s try building them some racial traits that leverage this drive toward chaos:

Mutable Physiology: Whenever you spend a healing surge or complete a short or extended rest, roll a d10 to determine a damage type. You gain resist 5 to that damage type until you spend another healing surge. The resistance increases to 10 at 11th level and 15 at 21st level.

1 – acid
3 – fire
5 – lightning
7 – poison
9 – radiant
2 – cold
4 – force
6 – necrotic
8 – psychic
10 – thunder

The idea is that the bullywug is changing frequently and randomly. It’s like the resistance offered by the shardmind but less powerful than the resistance offered by the diva or vryloka. Interestingly, it tends to go away just when you need it; if you’re in a fight where resist 10 fire is really helpful, you have a good chance of losing it if you take too much damage and need healing. It might make sense to drop this to a d8 and take away psychic and force, or to a d6 and also take away radiant and necrotic. A paragon path could also modify it. I know most races use resist 5 + half-level rather than 5/tier, but I’m toning this one down a bit because…reasons. I could be convinced to change it.

Yes, it duplicates the wild sorcerer trait. I’d actually forgotten about that one until I started looking up the correct language for the mechanics. But I’m not really bothered by the chaos race having ties to the chaos class, especially since bullywugs don’t gain a bonus to Charisma. A bullywug wild sorcerer would be underpowered but awesome, which I’ll allow.

Primoridal Origin: Your ancestors were native to the Elemental Chaos, so you are considered an elemental creature for the purpose of effects that relate to creature origin.
Deicidal: You gain a +1 racial bonus to attack rolls against immortals.

Primordials (elementals) and gods (immortals) fought a massive war deep in the lore of 4th Edition. Since bullywugs consider themselves fledgling primodials, this makes sense to me. It’s more flavor than anything that can really be expanded by feats or such. But attack bonuses are rare and cherished, so I think we’re done with racial traits. Now we need a power.

What makes a monstrous bullywug different from a PC bullywug? Since the race version doesn’t have the trait that heals enemies, maybe the PC version has gotten over this, to the point where nature doesn’t think the PC is quite as abhorrent as its brethren. But what if it was instead able to harness this “wrongness” and turn it into a strength?

Nature’s Revenge Bullywug Racial Power
As you feel nature shifting to thank your enemy for dealing a mortal blow, you use your mastery of chaos to pervert the reward.
Encounter
Immediate Reaction Close burst 20
Trigger: An enemy scores a critical hit against you.
Target: The triggering creature.
Effect: The target is weakened until the end of your next turn.

It it powerful? No, not really, unless you’re knocking a bunch of damage off a brute or solo’s next turn. It would be much stronger as an interrupt rather than a reaction. But for a power available for free at level 1, it fits, and it’s a rare racial power that affects an opponent without an attack roll. Again, it can be modified by feats to perhaps inflict ongoing poison or other ailments.

So we end up with this:

BULLYWUG
Average Height: 5′ 4″- 6′ 0″
Average Weight: 150-240 lb.

Ability Scores: +2 Dexterity, +2 Constitution or +2 Wisdom
Size: Medium
Speed: 6 squares (swamp walk)
Vision: Normal

Languages: Common, Primordial
Skill Bonuses: +2 Athletics +2 Nature
Deicidal: You gain a +1 racial bonus to attack rolls against immortal creatures.
Mutable Physiology: Whenever you spend a healing surge or complete a short or extended rest, roll a d10 to determine a damage type. You gain resist 5 to that damage type until you spend another healing surge. The resistance increases to 10 at 11th level and 15 at 21st level.

1 – acid
3 – fire
5 – lightning
7 – poison
9 – radiant
2 – cold
4 – force
6 – necrotic
8 – psychic
10 – thunder

Primoridal Origin: Your ancestors were native to the Elemental Chaos, so you are considered an elemental creature for the purpose of effects that relate to creature origin.
Rancid Air (Poison) aura 2: Any enemy that spends a healing surge within the aura is weakened until the end of its next turn.
Nature’s Revenge: You have the nature’s revenge power.

A lot more complicated, isn’t it? But it’s also a lot more balanced, and we’ve taken the worst published race in 4th Edition much closer to something playable. It’s not the only bad race (the whole point of the races in Monster Manual 2 seemed to be to make the already-lousy races in the Monster Manual look almost decent by comparison), but it’s a start.

* – A lot of the monstrous races have gotten updates via the D&D Insider subscriber system. Since I’m not a member, I hear about them third-hand, so I’m not real clear on what has and hasn’t been updated. In general I treat them the same way I treat an obscure rule book that none of my players own–if I can’t read it, it doesn’t exist.

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2 Responses to Underpowered: Bullywug (4E)

  1. Kevin Hagel says:

    If I may? I homebrewed a bullywug for a player that had a really good backstory for him but didn’t realize how underpowered they were. I changed the rancid air to weakening enemies when they gained back hit points instead of spending a healing surge, which balanced that power out a bit. Other than that, I love your suggestions. I don’t suppose you’ve done something similar to this with the kenku race? It has a lot of potential, but is also lacking.

    • MssngrDeath says:

      I saw the kenku as the best of a bad lot. Even through they have no racial power and haven’t been updated to PHB3 ability scores, their primary ability provides an attack bonus, which is startlingly powerful if a player can get flanking whenever they want. It’s underpowered, but not as bad as the bullywug or the duergar, so it got a pass for the time being. I’ll probably go back to it soon and work something out.

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