Z’s Also for Zodar, Just Look at This Trash

One of the takeaways from April should be that you can make just about any creature interesting by putting your own spin on it, either by playing up its role in the story, subverting the players’ expectations for it, or using its stats to make something that does what you need. Now that it’s May, I’m going to throw that right out the window. Not every creature is interesting. Heck, not every creature is even salvageable. Consider the zodar.

Zodars are mysterious to a fault. Their origins are unknown. Their goal is unknown. Their methods are unknown. Their reason for being in the 3E Fiend Folio is unknown, because they don’t seem to serve any sort of purpose. They’re a haphazard arrangement of numbers and words assembled as though by manatees pushing balls with monster powers on them. I can’t rightly understand why they exist or why they would be published, and I can’t see any way to use them without scrapping so much of their stats and background that I might as well have made something up on my own. They’re a master class in how not to design monsters.

Don’t take my word for it. Look at their stats. A zodiac is a CR 16 monster, which in 3E meant it was an appropriate challenge for L14-L17 characters, and they are always met alone, so we can consider it without the benefit of allies. Let’s compare it to the sample NPCs in the Dungeon Master’s Guide, which we know are underpowered compared to actual characters. Using these NPC as an example, the zodiac’s AC is laughably low and a front-line character will hit it with his or her first attack about 75% of the time. Its attack bonus is decent but its damage is on par with a CR 4 monster; for three rounds per day it can be much scarier, but it’s still almost impossible for it to kill a L16 tank with any sort of healer support. Its hit points are objectively terrible, but it only takes damage from bludgeoning weapons, so if the party only has mundane clubs the fight becomes a meaningless slog. Besides that, it has no combat abilities and nothing that makes fights dynamic. It’s a boring monster with a boring combat strategy.

A bad monster can be saved by a good story; the zodar is not. As I said above, they exist, and that is most of what we (characters, players, and DMs) know about them. They can talk but only do do once every fifty or sixty years, and the one sentence they say is guaranteed to be important and is understood by everybody who can hear it. Sometimes they stumble upon an adventuring party and follow them around for no discernible reason, and that’s the only way they seem to interact with PCs. They don’t guard anything, they don’t hold ancient secrets, and they don’t offer any assistance.

It’s possible they’re the emissaries of some forgotten god, slowly observing and nudging history to a point where their master can return or take over. That would be a great background for them, and it would explain their once-per-year wish ability, which they tend to use only once per century in such a way that nobody even knows the zodiac did anything. But unfortunately, it’s impossible. See, despite being able to shadow PCs, speak on matters of great importance, and cast wish with intentional subtlety, zodars have no Intelligence score. They cannot think. But they’re also chaotic neutral, which means they want to advance entropy, but quietly, which they accomplish by not acting at all and not thinking about it in any way. I get the impression they needed another paragraph of backstory to explain everything, but they don’t have it, and without it they’re a mess.

When I discussed this with other DMs, one offered that zodars are a heavy-handed DM adjudication tool. They don’t help the party, they resist attempts to kill them out of spite, and they can push the players by word or deed into a specific course of action. I like them better as extensions of some godlike being, ceramic shells will no will but that imparted by a sleeping or imprisoned deity. They’re chaotic neutral because this creature is, they’re tough because they only sort of exist, and they’re standoffish because they’re being controlled via a slow, spotty mental link that gives them a lot of downtime with no commands. Whether they’re an intentional metagame bludgeon for the DM or Lovecraftian sock puppets, none of this is even alluded to within the monster entry. We have to look at the creature and invent some story for it, connecting unnumbered dots over and over until we get a shape that vaguely resembles something useful. We shouldn’t have to solve an ancient riddle before we can use a monster.

The zodar is, above all, boring, and that’s the worst thing a monster can be. No matter what backstory or purpose we invent for it, we’ve invented that. It’s because of our action, not the monster’s. The zodar itself resists all attempts to use it because of the hurdles we need to jump to give it a place, punishes characters for interacting with it through its unexplained defensive powers, demands deep investment from the DM and players, and relies solely on us to provide its payoff. It’s a thoroughly, almost aggressively bad monster.

At the beginning of the month, I asked why we don’t treat monsters more like characters, and I spent twenty-six posts giving examples of how to do it right. Luckily the zodar still fits this framework: whether it’s a monster or a character, if you see something this shoddy, throw it out and start over.

…in fact, I just might do that.

This entry was posted in A to Z Challenge. Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *