A lot of times in games Animals seem like they get a sort of cannon fodder role. They don’t do a whole lot of what they could be doing – if you’re out in the wilderness and you definitively are going to fight an animal, chances are it’ll not be a really mechanically innovative brawl. I don’t exactly relish in brutalizing imaginary animals but I think it can be a compelling confrontation for fantasy characters, and often, it just mechanically isn’t very interesting.
Perhaps this is because, since we’re so familiar with them, it might distract us to see them do fantastic things. But honestly, I just don’t accept that – about any element of a fantasy game. While working on Expedition I’ve been thinking about what kinds of abilities, coming into this from the perspective of making a fairly intricate combat system, one could work into animals that would give them some pizazz. D&D 4e did a fairly good job with this, albeit a lot of creatures were still just getting abilities like “runs at a character and slashes them, but in a single action instead of two!” which while effective, isn’t very flashy.
So I thought I’d do a quick post on some abilities I think should get looked at when you design an animal-like creature. For now, let’s limit ourselves to more “realistic” things. We COULD for example, say “make it an elemental animal” or “have an animal with magic spells cast on it by someone else” but I’d rather go a different route, for variety’s sake.
Roaring: Immediately what comes to mind is that a lot of creatures have distinctive audio. It is deeply unsettling to hear these trademark bestial noises when you’re not expecting to. There’s something that shakes you to your very gut about the roar of a lion or the screech of a bat, or the cry of a mighty bird. In video games like Monster Hunter, in which monsters are placed as part of an animal-like ecology, a roar often stuns or knocks down the character, or gives some kind of penalty. Taking an animal’s cry as an ability can give the creature a lot of versatility – debuffing (in non-game terms, the act of debilitating or inflicting a negative state on an enemy) is a paradigm that tends to get reserved for magic or, if it’s expressed as a real thing, it tends to be inflicted by poison. But you can look at things like roars and see another expression of that paradigm.
Displays: This sort of fits into roaring, but when a large Ape beats its chest, or when an exotic bird bears its plumage, that can easily be more than flavor. It could be a setup for a specific mode of attack, or it could act as a buff to that animal or a debuff for the beholder. When a group of sharks circles around you in the water, they’re not wasting a turn moving around you – they’re putting the fear of the animal kingdom in you or building themselves up for battle, and this could be represented in the rules just as well. A lot of animals have unique displays and behaviors, and rather than reduce them to flavor we can incorporate them into the rules so that they are present in the combat as an advantage for the creature, rather than just flavor.
Home Turf: One way to “include terrain more” in your combats without going through the trouble of explicitly adding active rules (like 4e’s “terrain powers”) balanced for both sides of the event, could be to simply to give the creature abilities that assume where it is, is already its home turf. The trees aren’t there for you to climb in your plate armor, they’re part of the monster’s dodging and defense. The stream running through the middle of the field slows you down, not the creature. Whatever powers that terrain might have are reserved as part of the creature’s suite, and unless you’ve explicitly got your own powers that shift or use that terrain, you can’t compete with it that way. Just where the creature stands could be a buff or debuff.
Animals can be a lot more than speed and claws, both within the narrative of the game and within its rules, if you use a little bit of imagination and have a system with enough support for these kinds of conditions. There’s no reason that when fighting a tiger or confronting a kasowari, the players expect a bag of hit points and a flurry of boilerplate attacks. You can make these creatures as unique as any magical critter or humanoid adversary if you give it some thought. What other things would you do to give animals, as adversaries, more teeth, other than simply “more HP and more damage”?