On Legendary Monsters

Vagrant Story is a video game from a million years ago, back when Square Enix was just Square. It details the adventures of a young man with ridiculous hair and 76% of a pair of pants as he explores the area under a city and hits skeletons with a telephone pole. I didn’t actually play it, and anybody who did probably figured that out one sentence ago.

The reason I mention it is its battle system. Ashley could approach an enemy and attack a startling number of times, landing a dozen hits before an enemy can even respond. The limiting factor is that each attack lowers his accuracy and defense. Swinging once or twice means Ashley’s probably fine, but swinging a hundred times means most of the attacks were worthless and Ashley has armor made mostly of wishes. The exact balance isn’t fully relevant; what matters is that Ashley’s attacks were likely to vastly outnumber his opponent’s.

During Delve Night we began exploring this style of character in 4E. Our takeaway was that Ashley was really, really fast, but whenever he exploited his speed it caused problems. The first time we tried it, Ashley was the actual enemy and he got a full turn immediately after each player. His accuracy penalties ended up not being sufficient for balance, but we continued refining the mechanic over time. It turns out that an ordinary enemy with Solo-level hit points and the Ashley Riot mechanic is pretty close to a Solo’s power level even without changing its powers to the sort a Solo normally has. It also means that the creature gets less powerful as PCs are knocked out, because it gets five attacks per round against five PCs but only two attacks against two PCs.

It’s a delicate mechanic that has a pretty serious chance to kill a party unless handled well. We’ve had our share of TPKs caused by it and an equal number of skin-of-our-teeth encounters. But it makes a monster with the mechanic feel very special, and it adds a level of challenge sufficient for even overpowered characters with jaded players.

I told you that story to tell you this one.

A recent Legends & Lore managed to bring up both something that I love with all my heart and something I hate with the passion of a thousand suns. It’s about the Legendary mechanic, the idea that there are certain creatures that are inherently boss monsters, more powerful than everything else even at their own power level. It’s similar to the Solo mechanic from 4E, but harkens back more to an early design version of it to make monsters that aren’t just heavy but also legitimately challenging.

This idea is really, really neat. In short, Legendary creatures have a certain number of times per day or per round that they can opt not to play D&D. They can act on other player’s turns, ignore effects, bypass player abilities, and so on. It means that both normal characters and overpowered characters, the type that exploit the ruleset, don’t harm them as much because the ruleset doesn’t apply to them in the same way.

Even before the Ashley Riot mechanic this is something we’ve toyed with a lot. For example, monsters generally shouldn’t have an ability that says “once per day as an effect that requires no action, regain all your hit points” because all is does it double the length of the combat. But for certain bosses (or even the occasional mook) this makes sense narratively. It’s the cleric who gets her second wind and chooses to fight despite her failing body, or the fighter who sheds his collapsing armor and rejoins the combat as a nimble swashbuckler, or the robot who intentionally overrides its safety limitations. Unless the players are on their last legs and can’t survive another round, it’s a fun story idea to make a boss feel more like a boss.

On a smaller scale, I’ve been known to arbitrarily give this power to a monster mid-combat:

Fix it fix it fix it! (no action, at-will)
Trigger: The monster fails a saving throw against an effect at the end of its turn.
Effect: The monster succeeds on the saving throw and loses one action point.

A lot of the time I’m willing to give up one potential action later if it means I can shrug off an effect now. Every once in a while I really need that action point later, and I’m sure to point it out. The players like seeing me spend the action point and knowing they’ve cost me a resource, but at the same time I don’t have to spend another round stunned, immobilized, or otherwise uninteresting.

But this is something I can decide on the fly based on the pace of combat, the status of the players, and the mood at the table. It’s great for a subjective in-the-moment assessment of play, but it gets to be a problem in the objective design:

The specific mechanics can range from a free pass on saving throws to dictating outcomes of attack rolls or checks, but it does so in a limited manner. The deck is stacked in a legendary creature’s favor, but the game is not completely rigged. You can eventually stun one, but only with a persistent effort.

This may look like a paragraph, but it’s actually one sentence repeated three times (even repeating the same sentence structure):

This monster is going to cheat, but we promise it’s interesting.

Cheating within the rules isn’t the problem it sounds like on its face. Heck, most feats are acceptable ways to cheat. Your hit points are always defined by level, though Toughness lets you violate this. Your initiative is always d20 plus your Dexterity modifier, but Danger Sense or Improved Initiative violate this. It’s a small-scale built-in cheat, which doesn’t make it much of a cheat at all and in fact makes it a design decision.

The problem is that it’s too easy to go overboard when you’re free-forming monsters. It may be flavorful, but the players who expect the game to work a certain way might not appreciate that the monster gets to ignore their armor just because he’s great. If I spend two rounds trying to poison a dragon and he completely ignores it, what I have I spent two rounds actually doing? Should I keep trying it, or should I give up on it and try something else? What if my character is poison-based? There’s a fine line between “challenge the players, not the characters” and “frustrate the characters and the players”, a line that the Legendary mechanic is designed to toe.

As an example, look at the dragon linked in the article. The fact that it can uses its breath weapon every round is only the beginning of its power. Four times per round, it can make a tail attack at the start or end of another player’s turn. Combined with its normal three attacks per round, this means that the dragon can make seven attacks between the healer’s turns, and this dragon in particular specifically attacks the weakest party members first. This can be incredibly dramatic, forcing the players to fight hard and survive by the skin of their teeth. It can also kill a player before their first turn, so that players sits around while everybody else suffers the same fate one by one. This dragon (and as far as we know most if not all legendary creatures) has a built-in Ashely Riot mechanic, which is enough to make me very worried.

D&D is built with a slight edge to the players. When that edge shifts, it makes for interesting, fun design that comes dangerously close to annoying, terrible design.

And that dovetails into the part I hate: the example is a dragon.

My distaste for dragons isn’t exactly a well-kept secret. The explicit conceit that all dragons are legendary is another just another brick in the wall between D&D as designed and interesting gameplay. See, all dragons in the world have the ability to violate the action economy or ignore even the strongest abilities of players. It’s a thing that happens because dragons are great, and they’re positioned obviously and solely to be the movers and shakers in any and all campaigns. This is a trait all dragons get not because they’re experienced (like elder elementals) or commanding (like fiend lords) or chosen (like a monster welding an artifact), but because they’re dragons, and the word “dragon” is a sufficient explanation on its own regardless of age, power, or accomplishment.

It’s an even more irritating version of the “all dragons are solos” design in 4E, which required that a dragon was always encountered alone and must be a serious fight, because there’s no possibility that a dragon in and of itself could be uninteresting. The best thing about dragons is that they’re subject to the only template in 4E that makes a creature weaker.

Dragons are positioned to be big scary monsters that DMs want to throw at players and that players want to meet, befriend, or kill. If every dragon uses the legendary mechanic as dangerously as the example, there’s a very good chance that dragons will cause TPKs. This is especially true for the inexperienced DMs that 5E is designed to court, but TPKs are rarely fun or interesting even in the hands of experienced DMs. There’s a dangerous confluence between “Dragons are great, and you should use them.” and “Dragons have a high chance of causing a frustrating play experience.”

In limited doses the legendary mechanic is a really neat idea, giving some structure to the freeform way we’ve been using to make combat interesting (a running theme in 5E). But it’s startlingly close to giving DMs a justifiable way to kill their players by ignoring the D&D’s built-in assumptions and ruleset, and that’s a real iffy design goal.

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