Design & Development11/11/2005

You Craft the... Special Ability

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 week, we examine our creature crafted so far -- and give you the chance to craft next week's vote.

This week we have more of a design question for you, rather than a design or development answer – specifically, related to You Craft the Creature. (If you haven't yet heard of this feature, take a look at the first article, located here.) First off, the votes are in for our creature’s challenge rating – and not only is this aberration a mastermind, but it’s a very challenging mastermind at that!

15+: 27.3%
9-11: 24.4%
12-14: 18.1%
6-8: 16.1%
3-5: 14.1%

This week’s vote looks at environment: the type and climate where this creature is typically found; this describes a tendency, but is not exclusionary. (Refer to Chapter 3 of the Dungeon Master's Guide for more details on terrain type and climate.)

What environment should this creature occupy?

Now, here’s where this week’s design question comes in. It's pretty hard to separate special abilities from a monster's core concept, so the next step in You Craft the Creature is to create some special abilities. We've started a thread on our message boards for you to post your abilities. In about a week, we'll go over the submissions and pick a half dozen or so, then let you vote on which ones we're going to use for the monster's final design.

Please note that special abilities have a better chance of making it to the final version of the monster if they:

  • Clearly relate to the monster's niche (mastermind in this case).
  • Are easy to adjudicate in combat -- it's important to make the DM's life easy.
  • Don't do the same thing a different way (we've got enough flame aura mechanics; having a monster with a flame aura can be cool, but there's no need to design a new flame aura).
  • A few effective abilities that lead to one or two interesting choices for the DM are better than a host of minor or ineffectual abilities, especially as the monster's CR increases.

It's OK to submit suites of related abilities.


Before you begin, we’d also like to review the following glossary definitions for reference:

Special Abilities (from the Monster Manual, pg. 315):
A special ability is either extraordinary (Ex), spell-like (Sp), or supernatural (Su).

Extraordinary: Extraordinary abilities are nonmagical, don’t become ineffective in an antimagic field, and are not subject to any effect that disrupts magic. Using an extraordinary ability is a free action unless otherwise noted.

Spell-Like: Spell-like abilities are magical and work just like spells (though they are not spells and so have no verbal, somatic, material, focus, or XP components). They go away in an antimagic field and are subject to spell resistance if the spell the ability resembles or duplicates would be subject to spell resistance.

A spell-like ability usually has a limit on how often it can be used. A spell-like ability that can be used at will has no use limit. Using a spell-like ability is a standard action unless noted otherwise, and doing so while threatened provokes attacks of opportunity. It is possible to make a Concentration check to use a spell-like ability defensively and avoid provoking an attack of opportunity, just as when casting a spell. A spell-like ability can be disrupted just as a spell can be. Spell-like abilities cannot be used to counterspell, nor can they be counterspelled.

For creatures with spell-like abilities, a designated caster level defines how difficult it is to dispel their spell-like effects and to define any level-dependent variables (such as range and duration) the abilities might have. The creature’s caster level never affects which spell-like abilities the creature has; sometimes the given caster level is lower than the level a spellcasting character would need to cast the spell of the same name. If no caster level is specified, the caster level is equal to the creature’s Hit Dice.

The saving throw (if any) against a spell-like ability is 10 + the level of the spell the ability resembles or duplicates + the creature’s Cha modifier.

Some spell-like abilities duplicate spells that work differently when cast by characters of different classes—for example, true seeing. A monster’s spell-like abilities are presumed to be the sorcerer/wizard versions. If the spell in question is not a sorcerer/wizard spell, then default to cleric, druid, bard, paladin, and ranger, in that order.

Supernatural: Supernatural abilities are magical and go away in an antimagic field but are not subject to spell resistance. Supernatural abilities cannot be dispelled. Using a supernatural ability is a standard action unless noted otherwise. Supernatural abilities may have a use limit or be usable at will, just like spell-like abilities.

However, supernatural abilities do not provoke attacks of opportunity and never require Concentration checks. Unless otherwise noted, a supernatural ability has an effective caster level equal to the creature’s Hit Dice.

The saving throw (if any) against a supernatural ability is 10 + 1/2 the creature’s HD + the creature’s ability modifier (usually Charisma).

Aberration (from the Monster Manual, pg. 305):
An aberration has a bizarre anatomy, strange abilities, an alien mindset, or any combination of the three.

Features: An aberration has the following features.

  • d8 Hit Dice.
  • Base attack bonus equal to 3/4 total Hit Dice (as cleric).
  • Good Will saves.
  • Skill points equal to (2 + Int modifier, minimum 1) per Hit Die, with quadruple skill points for the first Hit Die.

Traits: An aberration possesses the following traits (unless otherwise noted in a creature’s entry).

  • Darkvision out to 60 feet.
  • Proficient with its natural weapons. If generally humanoid in form, proficient with all simple weapons and any weapon it is described as using.
  • Proficient with whatever type of armor (light, medium, or heavy) it is described as wearing, as well as all lighter types. Aberrations not indicated as wearing armor are not proficient with armor. Aberrations are proficient with shields if they are proficient with any form of armor.
  • Aberrations eat, sleep, and breathe.

Why We’re Not Funny, cont...

“So then, Jokes with Traction... Oh wait, I'm getting my columns confused. Well, not really. There are funny things that happen at games, and then are forgotten the week after. Then there are those jokes that just Don't Go Away, and will leave the group paralyzed with laughter months after they originally occurred.”

So wrote in Merric Blackman, and we couldn’t agree more. Our thanks to everyone taking the time to send us your tales of game table shenanigans -- intentional or otherwise -- and now entrenched among the legends of your gaming groups.

“I was terribly disappointed by the jokes you included in your article you left out my very favorite one on page 123 of the old DMG that has the wizard, druid (I think that's what he is) and fighter who are looking at a hand on the end of a stick and it says: "Well either it allows a magic-user to throw the various Bigby's hand spells or it's a +2 backscratcher. So far we're not sure…"

To satisfy Ninja Emoticon’s request: presenting the wayward cartoon. Enjoy!

(From last week's article:) "In that campaign, I played a dwarven fighter/rogue named Tauroc Wintervein. He was, by and large, a grim tunnel fighter with a hair trigger and a thousand-yard stare. But on some level, he recognized that he needed to be social to his comrades. So he decided to use humor as an icebreaker."

“I found this rather humorous that you accidentally made a pun while talking about a lack of humor and tom-foolery.”

Wintervein. Icebreaker… Ah yes, you did catch that one, Bryan Bischof!

And finally, thanks to Bartleby_GoC for pointing out this ongoing thread. “One of the best and most popular threads on your message boards.” And also about humor at the gaming table!

About the Authors

Design: David Noonan is a designer/developer for Wizards of the Coast. His credits include co-designing Dungeon Master's Guide II, Heroes of Battle, and numerous products for the Eberron campaign setting. He lives in Washington state with his wife, son, and daughter.

Development: Jesse Decker is the development manager for RPGs at Wizards of the Coast. His credits include a two-year stint as editor-in-chief of Dragon magazine; design work on Complete Adventurer, DMG II, and other RPG titles; and development work on numerous D&D products, most of which he can’t talk about yet.


Thoughts or suggestions for this article? Topics for future Design & Development articles you'd like to see covered? By all means, please feel free to write directly to the authors, at:

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