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.
It floats before you, a bulbous body with a central, unblinking eye, and a large maw filled with daggerlike teeth...
Monster Makeover: The Beholder
Welcome back to another installment of the Monster Makeover series! I originally intended this series to run for a column or two (with the rust monster and ogre mage), but the high volume of feedback encouraged me to take another crack at it. Eventually, I'll talk about other development issues and subjects relating to D&D. For this week, at least, it's time to redo another monster.
The beholder is perhaps one of the all time most popular monsters in D&D, and certainly one of the game’s most iconic. Its distinctive appearance and strange, deadly powers earned it a permanent home in gamerdom's collective memory. It’s appeared in D&D computer games, its miniature in the Deathknell set is one of the most popular figures out there, and it even had a starring role in an episode of the D&D cartoon.
(Yes, for the whippersnappers in the audience, there was once a D&D Saturday morning cartoon. Producer’s Note: In fact, it’s hitting DVD shelves this December—and look for your chance to win one on this website, coming soon!)
Before we begin, special thanks to everyone who showed up for the Monster Makeover panel at Gen Con. Your input was helpful in shaping this article, and you guys provided a lot of good ideas. Thanks!
Problem 1: Facing
The beholder appears, naturally, in the Monster Manual. If you’re looking for even more options, take a look at Lords of Madness, with the elder eye and other beholder variants. Plus, the recent original adventure: Legend of the Silver Skeleton, provided the doorway of the beholder—a kobold-designed trap, bringing the powers of the eye tyrant against anyone daring try to pass through.
The first problem with the beholder is that it suffers from facing. "Facing" isn't some weird monster disease. Instead, it’s a fancy term for rules that describe which direction a creature faces on the battle grid. The D&D rules keep track of location, and also use a variety of abstractions to remove facing. Facing sounds reasonable, but it has a multitude of ripple effects on the rules. I like to think of facing as one of those rules that forces you to ask a lot of questions that you’re much happier just forgetting. Here are the issues that facing brings up:
- It makes drawing line of sight more complicated. It's already annoying enough drawing straight lines to determine charges and cover. With facing, you need rules to determine from where on a creature you can draw that line.
- It makes movement more complex, since we now have to differentiate between a character that moves forward, backward, and sideways. If an orc is looking at the eastern wall, what happens when it starts to move away from that wall? Does it have to turn around first? Can it move backward as fast as it moves forward?
- Now you have to introduce Spot modifiers if you try to notice something in front of or behind you, but those modifiers can't be too good. Otherwise, moving behind someone makes the Hide skill pointless. Yet if the modifiers are too high, you could always surprise someone by approaching from behind. There might be some benefit in creating a clearer distinction between Spot and Listen, but it likely isn't worth the complexity.
- Shields become strange and annoying. Does a shield count if you attack someone from behind? Probably not. But what about the Dexterity bonus to AC? Flanking provides a nice, easy means to provide a modifier on attacks. Facing asks us to replace it with a plethora of modifiers, and maybe even another AC to track (shieldless AC).
Facing might pass the reality test, but it fails in terms of complexity, ease of use, and most important of all play value. "Play value" is short hand for saying, "The time and effort needed to learn and implement this rule yields sufficient amounts of fun." Is the game significantly more fun because we know which direction an orc faces? No. It might be more realistic, but the game isn't more fun.
The tricky thing about facing, however, is that it applies to all characters and monsters during every round of a battle. If a rule comes up a lot, it should be simple to learn and the easy to remember. On the other hand, if a rule comes up only rarely then it's a pain to look it up every time. Thus, if a rule rarely comes up, it should also be simple to learn and easy to remember. Complexity in rules is best kept away from the table. It's OK to spend time reading over a character class to learn how it works, but in play you shouldn't have to flip through the book to make things move along.
So, that's problem one. The beholder uses a weird set of rules to give him enough facing for his powers to sort of work.
Problem 2: Save-or-Die
|Tangent Alert!: For more on save-or-die effects, take a look at the Elite Opponents: Medusas article, where alternate gaze effects are considered.
Problem two lies in the beholder's powers. Of his ten eye rays, five of them are designed to force a player to sit and watch the game due to a single die roll. When used too often, save-or-die abilities are B-O-R-I-N-G. They're dull for both players and DMs. They bloat the game, because each type of save-or-die needs some sort of counter. Clerics are saddled with a number of spells that, outside of removing save-or-die conditions (paralysis, poison, fear, and so on) have no role in the game.
For DMs, save-or-die abilities are even worse. There's nothing quite so anti-climactic as watching the big, evil villain die to a single failed save on the first round of combat. Even worse, in many cases save-or-die abilities do nothing on a successful save. If a DM fudges things to allow the villain to make his save, the players have wasted their spell or ability without any benefit.
Of the beholder's five remaining eye rays, one of them is useless against PCs of a level appropriate to the party (charm person), one inflicts relatively light damage (inflict moderate wounds), one is a generic utility option (telekinesis), one inhibits the party's actions (slow), and one is a terrifying, powerful attack (disintegrate).
Let's look at each eye ray, render a judgment on whether to draft a new one or keep it intact.
An Eye For an Eye… For an Eye… For an Eye…
Charm Person: This might seem inappropriate given the beholder's CR, but it helps explain away a beholder's lower level allies and is a useful tool for creating the story around a beholder. With ten different eye rays on a beholder, there's space for ones useful outside of a fight. Let's also add a version that allows this ray to stun a target with a failed Will save. During a fight, the beholder uses this ray to knock a target senseless. Otherwise, it uses the ray to make friends with potential vassals.
Inflict Moderate Wounds: This eye ray illustrates a subtle but important issue with the beholder. It either kills you outright, or zaps a 10th-ish level character for about 15 points of damage. That's simply not very interesting. It might be cool for a beholder to heal undead at range, but it seems a little pointless to saddle an eye ray with a spell of questionable flavor and utility. Let's replace this ray with one that inflicts 6d6 damage, no saving throw. That gives the beholder a useful, generic damaging blast. Let's make this a ray ability called blast ray, and the beholder can choose the ray's energy type.
Telekinesis: Another utility eye ray, telekinesis helps explain how beholders manipulate tools. Unfortunately, this spell is really, really annoying in play. It has three different versions, each with radically different mechanics. Let's keep this eye ray in place, but add a modification to make the DM's life simple. Now, a beholder can use this ray to move a creature up to 20 feet; a Reflex save negates this movement. This ray is useful in moving fighters and other melee guys away, and is a cruel combo with slow.
Slow: A powerful counter against melee types and casters alike, since it forces PCs to decide if they want to move or attack. It stays.
Disintegrate: Another cool, iconic beholder ability. It stays.
That leaves us with the five save-or-die eye rays: charm monster, fear, finger of death, flesh to stone, and sleep. These five abilities provide at least some of the motivation behind limiting the beholder's facing. After all, blasting someone with five abilities that all require a save against death or incapacitation is brutal to say the least. Well, if all the save or die abilities go away can we simply ditch the beholder's line of sight issue or at least make it more forgiving. Let's ditch them, but modify the beholder's eye rays text to say the following:
Eye Rays (Su): Each of a beholder's eye stalks can produce a ray of magical energy. As a standard action, a beholder can produce one ray from each eyestalk. It can target up to three rays at a single target. Each ray aimed at a specific target must have a different effect, but a beholder can use the same ability twice per round.
For example, a beholder has 10 eye stalks. It encounters a party of four adventurers: a fighter, a cleric, a rogue, and a wizard. On its turn, it uses three rays against two targets, and two rays against two other targets. It cannot use any specific ray more than twice. It uses its rays in the following manner:
- Fighter: Telekinesis, slow, disintegrate.
- Wizard: Telekinesis, blast ray (cold), stun.
- Cleric: Stun, disintegrate.
- Rogue: Slow, blast ray (acid).
Hopefully, the double blast of disintegrate makes up for the lack of save-or-die effects. Plus, the beholder has the chance to hand out two stunning rays per round.
These changes also bring out another useful addition to the beholder. A DC 17 save for its eye rays is a little disappointing given its CR of 13. A PC with a good save probably has around +12 or so, or a 20% chance of failing the save. A PC with a poor save should have +6 or +7, or about a 50% chance of failing. Those numbers seem a little low, especially since the beholder still has to hit with its eye ray. Worst of all, it makes the beholder scale poorly. Higher level PCs can laugh off the beholder's effects as they make save after save.
The low save DCs are likely caused by the beholder's many save-or-die abilities. I've removed those, so the save DC needs a boost to give the abilities more bite and to make up for the loss of save-or-die. A +4 racial bonus to the beholder's save DCs makes the eye rays more dangerous. A character with good saves still makes that save more than half the time, but the beholder can always choose to target PCs based on their good and bad saves.
Problem 3: Antimagic
So, the development pass so far has removed the beholder's facing issues while getting rid of its save or die effects. There's still one thing to handle, the beholder's antimagic cone.
Antimagic field and similar effects are a pain in the butt. I could write an entire column on that spell, but I won't. Let's just look at some obvious interactions it has with the beholder:
- It shuts down the beholder's abilities. That doesn't make much sense.
- It forces the players to recalculate a number of things on the fly, grinding the game to a halt.
- It makes an already complex monster even more burdensome to run.
The design intent behind the antimagic cone is pretty clear. When you fight a beholder, it can shut down your ability to cast magic spells. Why bother wrapping that in the complexities of antimagic field? Instead, let's take the shortest route to our destination.
Antimagic Eye (Su): The beholder can focus its large, central eye on an area, disrupting all spellcasting that takes place there. As a swift action, the beholder creates a 60 foot cone. Anyone in this area who attempts to cast a spell must make a caster level check (DC 22) to successfully complete the spell. This DC is Intelligence based and includes a +4 racial bonus.
Voila! The beholder no longer hoses his own abilities, plus—when combined with slow—this ability can be really, really tough on PC casters. Still, the beholder is missing that one, final piece to make him interesting. Let's add a funky little ability to keep the adventurers on their toes.
Sustained Barrage (Su): Beholders continually seethe with arcane energy, allowing them to create a sustained barrage of rays. A beholder rolls two dice for initiative and records both results. On a beholder's initiative count, it can choose to take its normal turn or a special barrage turn. It may take one normal turn per round and one barrage turn per round. On its barrage turn, the beholder may fire its blast ray or telekinesis rays at any target within 60 feet. The beholder fires twice, using either ray for each shot. It may fire at the same or a different target. The beholder cannot take any other actions on its barrage turn except to delay.
Let us know how this made-over beholder players for you—drop us a line at email@example.com. We’d also love to hear your tales of beholders in action, from your past and present games.
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.