We're hoping this column becomes your window into roleplaying design and development—or at least the way we approach these things here at Wizards of the Coast. We'll handle a wide range of topics in weeks to come, from frank discussions about over- or underpowered material, to the design goals of a certain supplement, to what we think are the next big ideas for the Dungeons & Dragons game. All of this comes bundled with a healthy look at the people and events that are roleplaying R&D.
This creature looks like a big, demonic human...
In my last column I talked about how development approaches monsters, and applied some of those ideas to the rust monster. In this installment, I take a look at the ogre mage and discuss what works, what doesn't, and how and why I can develop it. As D&D has evolved, R&D has learned more and more about what works, what previous ideas don't pan out, and how we want to shape the experience of playing D&D.
This installment looks at the ogre mage, another classic monster with the game since its earliest days. Originally inspired by Japanese mythology, a connection that has faded with time, the ogre mage is a combination of brute strength, cunning, and magical abilities. If you have a Monster Manual handy, open up to page 200 for a look at the ogre mage's entry.
In many ways, the ogre mage has the opposite problem of the rust monster (which we discussed last time). The rust monster has one very clear, easily identifiable ability. It attacks the party's metal weapons and armor, leaving fighters and other warrior-types weaker than normal. You can easily picture how that would be useful as a single monster (the rust monster weakens the fighters, forcing spellcasters to play a big role in the fight) or as part of a bigger fight (do the PCs attack or avoid the rust monster, or do they take on its orc druid master?).
In comparison, the ogre mage suffers from something of an identity crisis. Its art depicts a hulking monster with a massive sword and nasty looking fangs. Yet, its HD and hit points are very low for a CR 8 creature. Its AC is mediocre, and while its attack does good damage, it fails to stack up to other big, beefy monsters at CR 8. For example, compare the ogre mage to the stone giant:
As you can see, the ogre mage hits about as hard (damage-wise) as a stone giant. In every other category, it lags far behind. Keep in mind that while comparing two creatures of the same CR is useful, it isn't the final answer. After all, we don't design monsters to fight each other. We design them to fight a party of adventurers. So while the ogre mage doesn't have the stone giant's fighting skills and AC, it might have magical abilities that make it a threat to a party.
Let’s take a look: The ogre mage’s regeneration and flight make it hard to pin down, though its Large size can be a problem. Its spell resistance can neutralize a party's magic, but does little to hold back a fighter or archer. Since fire and acid defeat its regeneration, we can expect most parties to have ready access to the means needed to deal such damage. The ogre mage does have a ranged attack it can use when flying above the party, but its +2 attack bonus with its longbow makes it nearly useless.
The ogre mage's last chance for salvation lies in its spell-like abilities. It can cast darkness and invisibility at will, useful spells for a tricky monster that can't afford to stand in melee for long. It can also cast charm person, cone of cold, gaseous form, sleep, and change shape (formerly polymorph) once per day each. Gaseous form is another great spell, useful for a creature that can serve as a recurring villain. Polymorph had allowed the ogre mage to shift forms, but as detailed elsewhere (see the polymorph announcement and subsequent errata) this spell has a number of issues. In the current development environment, we try to remove the spell from monsters when it shows up. As such, this was revised to change shape, as the concept of the ogre mage as a creature that can turn into something stronger or disguise itself as a friend is still useful to keep around.
The rest of its spells are a mixed bag. Cone of cold gives it a good offensive punch, but renders the ogre mage as a one-trick pony. Charm person is perhaps too weak to have any effect on a fight, though it is useful in terms of story as the ogre mage recruits unwilling allies. Sleep simply won't work against the characters it should face.
Thus, as it stands now the ogre mage lacks a clear identity. It's a big, hulking brute, but lacks the stamina and power to be a tough, melee fighter. It has some tricks, but lacks the offense to do anything really threatening when using its abilities to evade the party. Its cone of cold can hurt the party, but has one shot with it and then lacks any more useful spell attacks. Worst of all, a few successful saves and the spell does less damage to each PC than a stone giant's melee attack.
Redesigning the Beast
The ogre mage lacks a clear hook, an obvious role that it fills in an adventure. When development looks at a monster, one of the first questions we ask is what real estate does the creature carve out in the game? As we add more creatures, we have to work harder to ensure that we aren't simply reinventing the wheel. We already have the orc, so a CR 1/2, savage, barbarian humanoid needs something interesting and unique to justify its introduction to the game—after all, why use a new monster when the orc fills its role just as well? Development must grapple with the process of adding new stuff to the game in a way that expands D&D in new and interesting ways. Whether we like it or not, we raise the bar for good, unique design each time we release a book. If you already have 300 monsters, then the next 100 we want to sell to you have to be better, more interesting, and cooler than the ones that came before. Otherwise, you can just keep using the critters you already have.
Thus, the ogre mage lacks an identity compounded by the fact that it doesn't really do anything different or interesting compared to monsters in its CR. The stone giant is better at beating the snot out of the party, while the mind flayer has more powerful special abilities. All of the ogre mage's abilities are "off the shelf parts". In other words, they come from other areas of the rules. Its spell-like abilities derive from the Player's Handbook. Flight, regeneration, and spell resistance are common abilities shared by many monsters. When a creature lacks an identity, it’s usually a good idea to think about giving it a unique ability.
The ogre mage also seems like its CR is simply too high. Its combat abilities don't stack up to other big, tough CR 8 creatures. More importantly, it has a link to the CR 3 ogre. At CR 8, the ogre mage is too difficult for parties that are only ready to handle ogres. On the other hand, a higher level party can easily take on even multiple ogres (and their ogre mage boss). A single ogre has an attack, AC, and hit points in the same ballpark as an ogre mage, but as I showed above those numbers are pretty low for a CR 8 threat. If I drop the ogre mage's CR, I can put it in a position where it’s strong enough to serve as an ogre leader, but not so strong that its ogre minions are too weak to threaten the PCs. Even better, the ogre mage's basic stats would make it a good melee threat at a lower CR. That means less work, which is always a good thing. In this redevelopment, I settled on CR 5—close to 3, but not so close that the ogre mage isn't noticeably more powerful than its dimwitted cousins.
The next step in redeveloping the ogre mage lies in finding its schtick. Given its link to ogres, it would serve well as a leader for those creatures. Perhaps the intelligent ogre magi enslave their dimmer cousins, providing a cunning intellect to direct the brutish, physically powerful ogres. The next step is to think about how such an "ogre boss" would function best in a fight. I like the idea of an ogre mage as a tricky mastermind, and several of its abilities already help support that role. Regeneration rewards the ogre mage for running away, while flight, invisibility, and gaseous form help it get away. Even better, ogres have a fair number of hit points and, as Large creatures, take up lots of space. The ogre mage can flee behind its ogre minions, heal its wounds, then leap back into the fight. The party simply can't afford to ignore the ogres' attacks, as one hit can cripple a 3rd-level character.
Invisibility and flight allow the ogre mage to set up flanks, and nothing says tricky like sneak attack. That boosts the ogre mage's offensive abilities, highlights its reliance on its ogre minions, and helps cast it as a tricky, conniving mastermind.
To replace polymorph/change shape, I first look at disguise self. I want the ogre mage to have the ability to adopt the guise of a humanoid, and disguise self falls short in that area. This seems like a good place to create a new ability. I take the disguise self spell and allow it to make a creature appear up to one size category smaller. Otherwise, the spell works perfectly.
Now comes the ogre mage's offensive spell-like abilities. Sleep still has a HD limit, making it a poor choice against many parties. Charm person just clutters the list. The ogre mage rules by intimidation, not by magic. Cone of cold does lots of damage, but it might be hard for the ogre mage to avoid catching its Large-sized ogre followers in the cone. Finally, darkness covers the same ground as invisibility in that it conceals the ogre mage. It might prove useful if the standard ogre had the Blind-Fight feat, but without it the spell can cause more trouble for the ogre mage and its followers than it solves.
To replace these spells, the ogre mage gets lighting bolt and swift invisibility, both usable once per day. Swift invisibility allows an already endangered ogre mage to escape or to make a quick sneak attack. Lighting bolt deals good damage, plus as a line the ogre mage can thread the spell through its followers to hit the PCs.
The ogre mage now has a clear place in the game. It leads ogres and other big, tough creatures, both as a mastermind and as a war leader in combat. Its abilities work best when it has allies around, and it is a shifty, difficulty to pin down target. Almost all of its abilities are still off the shelf parts, but that's fine. A DM doesn't need to learn any new rules aside from the modifications to disguise self in order to run an ogre mage. That's always a key consideration in development. We want monsters to be cool and interesting, but we also want to avoid making them overly complex or difficult to run.
Finally, to finish things off I give the ogre mage a couple more hit dice to make it a good warrior for its CR. As a villain-type creature, it can rest at the upper range of its new CR. Plus now it gets an extra feat with its increased HD. Combat Expertise is a good feat for PCs, but it can be annoying for a DM to track. Let’s replace it with Combat Reflexes, another somewhat complex feat but one that’s easier to track and benefits from the ogre mage's size. For its third feat, I pick Weapon Focus (greatsword) to improve its attack abilities. I keep most of its skills the same, but remove Spellcraft and replace it with Intimidate. Spellcraft has limited use for a monster, while Intimidate fits the ogre mage's role as a leader.
I also boost its Dexterity to 14, both to improve its AC and its Reflex save. I do a quick comparison to the CR 5 troll, and calibrate the ogre mage's AC and hit points to roughly equivalent. This process is relatively simple: I determine how long it takes a 5th-level fighter with an 18 Strength and a magical weapon to defeat the troll; I then use that number of rounds to estimate how many fewer hit points the ogre mage should have and how much better its AC should be. I want the ogre mage to have a good AC and fewer hit points. It's a slippery, difficult to corner opponent, but if you can slow it down and force it to fight you can quickly defeat it.
To finish the process, I ran an encounter with an ogre mage, a rust monster, and an ogre against a party of three 6th-level adventurers ably played by D&D designer James Wyatt, web guru Bart Carroll, and master of accounting Steven Montano. As proven, the ogre mage is happiest attacking the party, dashing into hiding, then popping back to bushwhack a PC. In particular, with reach and Combat Reflexes it's a lot of fun for an invisible ogre mage to land in the midst of the party, then start making attacks of opportunity as the party moves around to search for it.
Yet the playtest also revealed that the ogre mage verged on the edge of annoying. Basically a creature that can regenerate, that has a high AC, can fly and turn invisible at will is really, really hard to finish off. A crafty (or cruel) DM can have the ogre mage dance around the party forever, keeping the fight going for hours.
This showed me that I needed to limit the uses of invisibility, drop spell resistance, and go from regeneration to fast healing. The ogre mage really needs to heal as it hits and runs, so fast healing is a more reliable tool. To compensate, I drop its Constitution by 2 to reduce its hit points by 6.
Swapping invisibility to three uses per day was the key change. That limit allows the ogre mage to make a few ambushes, but it can't endlessly harass the party. If it must escape, it uses gaseous form to flee.
Finally, I thought about giving the ogre mage ranks in Hide and Move Silently, but I decided not to. I like the idea of keeping the chance to hear the ogre mage flying around within reach of almost any character.
Here's the ogre mage after I've developed it.
We wanted to continue the question this week: is there a monster currently in the game that you'd like to see redeveloped? Drop us a line at email@example.com!
About the Author
Mike Mearls is the dark hope of chaotic evil: young, handsome, well endowed in abilities and aptitudes, thoroughly wicked, depraved, and capricious. Whomever harms Mearls had better not brag of it in the presence of one who will inform the Demoness Lolth!
Evil to the core, Mearls is cunning, and if the situation appears in doubt, he will use bribery and honeyed words to sway the balance in his favor. He is not at all adverse to gaining new recruits of any sort, and will gladly accept adventurers into the ranks, but he will test and try them continually. Those who arouse suspicion will be quietly murdered in their sleep; those with too much promise will be likewise dealt with, for Mearls wants no potential usurpers or threats to his domination.
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