Behind the Screen08/29/2004

Indiana Eddie and the Template of Doom
Building a Campaign Story Arc, Part 4

"So Eddie, how's the frog farm going?"

"Very funny, Vince," Eddie replied. "You may think this is a bad idea, but actually it's going pretty well."

"So where are you now? Magic? Monsters? Mayhem?"

"Actually, I had some feat ideas but they didn't seem quite right, so I decided to work up a creature template. This ancient frog-race shows how great amphibians are -- they're like a master race -- so I figured they'd probably have cobbled up some way to enslave creatures and turn them into amphibian mutated horrors!"

"Sounds good," said Vince with a chuckle. "You know, it's a beautiful thing to be able to say a sentence like that out loud and be perfectly serious about it! So I assume you looked in all the usual books already -- "
" . . . and didn't find a thing," Eddie finished for him. "Well, that's not exactly true. I found some pieces, but nothing quite right. It has to fit, you know."

"So Eddie the Artiste decided to do it himself, right?" Vince chuckled again. "I know the feeling. Let me peek at whatcha got and I'll see if you missed any steps along the way."


Know the reason why: Why does the template exist within the game world? Is it naturally occurring? Intentionally created? How do template creatures relate to others of their kind? Where do they fit in your theme?

The basics: Does the template alter statistics or give skill bonuses or bonus feats? Does type change? How do size and speed change? What about ability scores, racial bonuses to skills, or racial bonus feats?

Attacks: How does a templated creature fight compared to a normal creature of its type? What special attacks or tactics should it use to take advantage of altered combat abilities?

Special Qualities: What kind to add? Basics like DR, SR, and energy resistance? Feat-like abilities? Think through how the special quality will actually come into play.

Welcome back to our Behind the Screen workshop on building campaign story arcs. Our fictional DM, Eddie, is building a theme around an ancient race of frog-folk called sivs, and we're using his process as a model for creating your own unique campaigns.

What do you do when you want a creature that fits a theme? The obvious answer is to first look at the monsters that already exist. Why make more work for yourself? If you're doing a freaky jungle adventure, look for freaky jungle monsters (mmm? ahuizotl). Also, make liberal use of jungle animals -- things from the real natural world can be quite vicious, especially if massaged a bit in terms of feats. (See the earlier "When Animals Attack" column). You can, of course, create entirely new monsters (or new natural animals that have not previously been given game statistics), but we'll discuss that in next month's column.

Last month's article dealt specifically with feats, including "regional feats" and tying together a race of creatures through the use of a common set of feats. Any intelligent creature can have feats, so you could use that method to tailor a creature (like the animals noted above). For many monsters, however, that doesn't quite feel right, and I also pointed out that there should be limits on what you can do with a feat. Sometimes you want to make more basic or more powerful changes than would be warranted by just adding a feat (or even several feats).

Still, you want a way to make the changes to monsters feel connected to the theme, not just random. You want a certain unified feeling that says these creatures are part of the theme. Take Return to the Temple of Elemental Evil as an example. Who are the main antagonists in that campaign? Evil elemental cultists and their demon allies. There are lots of monsters in that supermodule, so it's not just a boring one-note hack-fest of cookie-cutter monsters, but fiendish, half-fiend, and (especially) half-elemental templates crop up throughout. You could probably play up this angle even more with elemental templates from the Manual of the Planes, if you want to reinforce the theme more strongly, but it's in there well enough to pound home the theme in-game. This is not just some random dungeon with random creatures. This is the Temple of Elemental Evil! Creatures there are elemental, and they are evil -- or if not, it won't be long before you meet something that is.


This sample template offers a rules-eye view of the general ideas in this month's column.

Creating a Ba'traa creature: "Ba'traa" is an acquired template that can be added to any corporeal creature except a construct, elemental, ooze, or plant (referred to hereafter as the base creature). A ba'traa creature uses all the base creatures statistics and special abilities except as noted here.

Size and Type: The creature's type remains the same, but it gains the aquatic subtype. Size is unchanged.

Speed: A ba'traa creature gains a swim speed equal to one-half its highest nonflying speed. If the creature already has a swim speed, use the better of its normal swim speed or its ba'traa swim speed.

Attacks: A ba'traa creature gains a tongue attack as a secondary natural weapon (-5 attack, 1/2 Strength bonus to damage). Like a whip, a tongue attack cannot harm a creature with an armor bonus of +1 or greater or a natural armor bonus of +3 or greater. The tongue can also be used to make a trip attack or to deliver a touch attack. A ba'traa creature of size Large or larger can use the tongue try to draw a creature to itself. Treat this as a bull rush attack, except that it does not provoke an attack of opportunity and the attack it may be used only to move a creature closer to the ba'traa creature by the most direct route possible.

Special Attacks: A ba'traa creature has all the special attacks of the base creature, and it also gains the following:

Hopping charge (Ex): A ba'traa creature may use the Jump skill as part of a charge. If it is able to make at least a 10-foot leap during a charge, a ba'traa creature gains a +1 bonus on attack rolls (in addition to the normal +2 bonus for charging) and inflicts extra damage on a successful hit, based on its size: Fine 1, Diminutive 1d2, Tiny 1d3, Small 1d4, Medium 1d6, Large 1d8, Huge 2d6, Gargantuan 3d6, Colossal 4d6.

Special Qualities: A ba'traa creature has all the special qualities of the base creature, plus low-light vision. It also gains the following:

Amphibious (Ex): A ba'traa creature may breathe air or water as needed, without difficulty.

Siv subservience (Ex): A ba'traa creature suffers a -10 racial penalty to Will saves vs. any effect used against it by a siv. Sivs gain a +10 bonus to Charisma checks (including Charisma-based skill checks) made against a ba'traa creature.

Toxic skin (Ex): Contact poison, initial and secondary damage 1d3 Dex, Fortitude save DC 10 + 1/2 the ba'traa creature's racial hit dice + the ba'traa creature's Constitution modifier. This poison may affect any creature using unarmed attacks, natural weapons, or touch attacks against the ba'traa creature, assuming the ba'traa creature is unarmored.

If a ba'traa creature wears light armor, anyone attacking it with unarmed attacks, natural weapons, or touch attacks gains a +4 bonus to avoid the effects of the poison, except that creatures grappling with it must save normally. If a ba'traa creature is wearing medium or heavy armor, only creatures it grapples must save, and they receive a +4 bonus to their saving throw.

Wide-angle vision (Ex): A ba'traa creature gains a +2 bonus to Spot checks, and creatures flanking it gain only a +1 bonus to hit. A ba'traa creature suffers a -2 penalty to saving throws vs. gaze attacks, patterns, and dazzling or blinding effects with the light descriptor.

Abilities: Change from the base creature as follows: +2 Dex, +2 Con, -2 Wis, -6 Cha.

Skills: A ba'traa creature has a +8 racial bonus on Jump checks, and it may use either its Strength or its Dexterity modifier, whichever is better.

Because it has a swim speed, a ba'traa creature has a +8 racial bonus on any Swim checks to perform some special action or avoid a hazard. It can always choose to take 10 on a Swim check, even if distracted or endangered. It can use the run action while swimming, provided it swims in a straight line.

That kind of feel is what Eddie is striving for. Not that every creature in the jungle is a siv or a siv-servant, but lots of them are, and he wants that fact to be in evidence. The sivs are supposed to be arrogant elitists who believe they are the exemplars of perfection. What better vanity project for their arrogance than to use their power and knowledge to make everyone else just like them? This background detail is one of those things that can be a key point for the DM even if the players never discover it. It helps everything hang together and make sense inside your head, and regardless of whether the PCs figure it out, it will make you more confident in pursuing your vision and presenting a coherent campaign.

Thinking about the reason why you're using the template is important not just for your mental health and well-being as DM. It also helps you make sensible choices. What is really important in the template you use? What game mechanics do you want? SR? DR? Spell-like abilities? Stat bonuses? What are the thematic elements you want? How do you balance those? How about special weaknesses? Is the template something that occurs naturally (e.g., fiendish creatures are not much different from regular creatures, but grew up in a fiendish environment) or something that you can acquire (like lycanthropy or vampirism)? If acquired, can you get rid of it? Does the template breed true, or create crossbreeds or spawn? Is there an in-game creator of the template? Why and how do they use the template on others?

Okay, so templates make sense and they're good for building a theme. The obvious question is which template to use. First, as always, look at what you can find and see if the work is already done for you, unless you have tons of free time and want to do it just for fun. Unfortunately, Eddie couldn't find pre-made templates that really fit what he's looking for, so it's to the drawing board (with a little help from a buddy -- DMs have to stick together!).

Eddie's basic idea is that the sivs use their magical secrets to genetically alter creatures into amphibian forms -- the ba'traa -- mutating them into something closer to their vision of amphibian perfection. Now we know why the sivs are always trying to stun or entangle or capture people: They're going to sell the lot of them for medical experiments! The resulting creatures could be mutated from almost anything, so the PCs could run into a variety of freaky froggies, all with slimy wet skin, hopping and swimming about, sticking out their long, slimy tongues, and meeting the PCs in the direct service of their siv masters. Maybe one of the PCs will get captured, receive the full treatment, and return to face the party -- or will need to be rescued just in the nick of time to avoid being made into a frogged-out horror!

Once you've established your rationale and your style, you need game mechanics. What is the basic creature concept -- things like type, size, and habitat? How does it move? Your theme will give you direction here: Apply types or subtypes appropriate to the theme. (The frog-infused ba'traa are amphibious and therefore aquatic; the type could change -- aberration might work -- or leave it unchanged for simplicity). Decide if some types just don't fit the template. If we're talking enslaved mutates, for example, oozes, plants, constructs, and elementals probably don't make sense. Undead and outsiders are common template exclusions, but in a weird way they actually fit with the ba'traa concept (frog-mutants enslaved even in death, or imposing amphibian dominion even on extraplanars). Size will usually stay the same (unless you're using a miniature or hulked-out theme), but speed may change; the amphibious ba'traa will need a swim speed (which besides the obvious also grants combat advantages in aquatic combat).

Having a swim speed also affects the Swim skill, and this is a good reminder that you should think about racial bonuses to skills or bonus feats. Before you go too far into the exotica of your template, make sure to cover the basics! This also includes basic statistics -- does the template make creatures more or less agile, strong, smart, etc.? If your template is based on a natural creature (like a frog), you can work in some of that creature's intrinsic traits when thinking about adjustments to ability scores.

When it comes to combat, many templates add special attacks. If you have cool ideas, great, but you can also cut and paste pieces of other ideas that don't work intact for you. Eddie keeps contemplating frogs' long, sticky tongues, and he saw that the Chameleon template from Underdark has a tongue attack, but it wasn't quite what he wanted. Still, he could adopt part of the template, or tweak the part that he likes to get it right. If grapple checks are overused, maybe he could devise a variant tongue attack that works like a bull rush attack in reverse (a quick straight-line jerk that pulls toward the tongue-attacker instead pushing away from it), or maybe a trip or disarm attack like a whip.

Besides attacks, you can also add in special qualities that fit your theme. Some might be basic game concepts -- damage reduction, SR, energy resistances, or even magical powers. Others might resemble feats, but are maybe just a touch too strong or too weird to be a true feat. Ba'traa could have wide-angle vision like frogs, and of course the toxic skin that spawned the whole template idea. The poison is really more of a defensive thing (like real-life poisonous frogs), so it needn't be designed for attack. Still, it's a contact poison, so Eddie needs to work out how easy it is to be affected by it with different kinds of attacks (e.g., touch, grapple, melee weapon). It's sensible to make the poison ineffective (or less effective) if the creature is wearing armor, but in some ways this template is more for monsters than humanoid creatures anyway, so this needn't be much of a limitation.

Speaking of limitations, one tricky idea to add is a weakness as a special quality -- maybe a particular energy susceptibility, or skin that dries out on land, or light sensitivity. Eddie's idea, since these ba'traa are the sivs' slaves, is that they should have a special weakness against being controlled by their siv masters. Mind-affecting spells or even ordinary skills are much more effective when used by a siv against a ba'traa. Of course, PCs could turn this to their advantage if they can figure out this weakness and pose as sivs. . . .

Obviously, every special quality is different. Eddie's ba'traa is just one example of the steps you need to go through in creating something as complex as a template. Some templates will be very different; just make sure you tailor them to fit your theme. Templates can be simple power-ups, but use a little flavor and vision to make them really punch up the impact in your campaign.

Next time we'll finish with the monsters and get ready to make some magic!

About the Author

Jason Nelson lives in Seattle with his wife (Judy), daughter (Meshia), son (Allen), and dog (Bear). He is a part-time homemaker, part-time medical transcriptionist, part-time Ph.D. candidate in social & cultural foundations of education, and is an active and committed born-again Christian. He began playing D&D in 1981 and currently runs one campaign while playing in two others.

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