Monstrous Traits

CC BY-NC-ND 3.0 eric-orchard

Approximate time to read: 8 minutes.   

CC BY-NC-ND 3.0 eric-orchard
CC BY-NC-ND 3.0 eric-orchard

Should Monstrous Traits be more generic?

I had that strange thought the other day while looking through some of the reference material I’ve already created. Perhaps I had a look at the Player’s Handbook as well. Who knows. I think, in the back of my mind, I have been flirting with the idea of stats for normal creatures, but at the same time I probably enjoy the weird stuff more.

At the moment, Monstrous Traits (Symbaroum Core Rulebook, p 198-201) represent the facets of antagonists and beasts that don’t represent expertise, per se, or the impact of culture. Creatures aren’t necessarily born with Monstrous Traits – perhaps created might be the better term. A ghost, after all, is not born.

Most Monstrous Traits appear in the core book and they’re aspects of the beasts, monsters and undead presented toward the back. In addition to Monstrous Traits, more civilised antagonists also have Abilities and perhaps Traits. However, when I started considering statting up new creatures and I looked through the options, it seemed to me that the focus was, in many respects, too tightly focused. In some instances, it just came down to the name. In others, it warranted casting the ability in a slightly different light.

Why Generic?

If you want to create a new creature for your game, why reinvent the wheel. I have seen other gamemasters setting out on their Symbaroum journey seeking alternative antagonists, perhaps a bestiary to come? However, it seems to me that you have quite a lot of flexibility in the current system. I take 13th Age as my template in considering this, as that system has an approach that aligns stat blocks with creature fluff in a way that means you can switch the fluff out and around and not worry too much about icky mechanics.

Is a Kraken and a Spider Brood so different, considering they both have the means to fight with multiple restraining attacks in an environment that will slow and disadvantage their opponents?

Keep in mind that generic does not equal flavourless. Generic is simple in a way that allows the gamemaster to run the game and focus on the richness of the setting. You can see this in the existing adventure material where the Järnringen team say, “For X use the stats of Guard Warrior” – but that character is a pirate, a back street heavy, or whatever. The colour and flair come in the storytelling and the engagement of the players with the game – and the GM can deliver that by worrying less about the crunch.


In the process of playing and running Symbaroum, I have come up with some shorthand terms that cover facets of the game that don’t current have snappy sobriquet.

  • Chained – Any test of an Attribute to avoid harm or affect that, if failed, perpetuates or extends in range; the default Chain simply continues to harm or affect the original target
  • Favor / Disfavor – Where a player must roll two dice and select the better or worst result, respectively (see also Favor and Disfavor)
  • Lingering – The effect of an attack that runs over a period of time before fading
  • Penetrating – The quality of an attack that ignores armor and, therefore, always causes Harm
  • Harm – Any attack that always inflicts 1 or more damage

Just a Name

Some abilities warrant renaming to give them greater flexibility in application – or to clearly delineate their potential and range. By naming too narrowly, it feels odd when you refer to the Monstrous Trait and the creature in the same breath.

An entity with a lingering attack that degrades health but that doesn’t involve acid – like a wraith or a basilisk – seems odd when assigned Acidic Attack.

How about a creature made of acidic slime that scars and maims? Spirit Form doesn’t seem right, but you need to have that before you can choose Alternative Damage, which supports the means to reduce Persuasive instead of Toughness.

With that in mind, I would suggest that the following Monstrous Traits undergo a small name change:

  • Acid Attack becomes Necrotic Attack
  • Acidic Blood becomes Necrotic Essence
  • Poisonous becomes Poisonous Touch
  • Many-Headed (from The Copper Crown) becomes Multifaceted
  • Spirit Form becomes Baleful Form
  • Wings becomes Fly

Using Necrotic instead of Acid means the attack causes irreversible damage to flesh, which might be healed but probably won’t look perfect ever again without magical intervention. A necrotic attack might age flesh or turn it to stone. Someone struck by Necrotic Attack III could die of old age or become a tortured statue, rather than dying in a puddle of bloody goo.

Many-Headed provides for hydra and their ilk, but Multifaceted opens up the options around any entity capable of attacking on multiple fronts, each of which requires forceful attention. A corruption-riddled Symbarian sorcerer might have Multifaceted, the magic creating twisted doppelgangers that spread his material essence thin, but each must be defeated to destroy him. The aforementioned Kraken might have Multifaceted to cover its many tentacles, while a Spider Brood fights with hive-minded arachnid fury amidst the webs within their lair.

Baleful Form distances what was previously Spirit Form from Undeath and spirits alone. Creatures who possess Baleful Form have a presence inimicable to life, which might include ooze, smoke, energy, elemental, or dimensional forms (amongst others), as well as the entities created through Death Magic (though not necessarily all Undead). In addition, I suggest Baleful Form be pre-requisite to the following slightly altered list of other Monstrous Traits:

  • Alternative Damage
  • Gravely Cold (not previously required)
  • Manifestation
  • Terrify

Almost, But Not Quite

On closer inspection, some Monstrous Traits run sufficiently close that you can merge them with a small tweak to the wording. I think this is true of Alternative Damage and Crushing Embrace (from The Copper Crown). On first pass, you might think they don’t sound too similar, but written down in a fairly generic fashion they look pretty close.

Alternative Damage

I – Penetrating; inflicts either 3 damage to an Attribute or 2 damage to Toughness + lose Action; victim may lose one or more additional Actions by trading out damage to Toughness on a 1:1 ratio

II – Penetrating; inflicts either 4 damage to an Attribute or 3 damage to Toughness + lose Action; victim may lose additional Actions in trade of damage, as I

III – Penetrating; inflicts either 5 damage to an Attribute or 4 damage to Toughness + lose Action; victim may lose additional Actions in trade of damage, as I

While similar to Corrupting Attack, you can’t merge that because it isn’t Penetrating. You also can’t merge Necrotic Attack, despite the common and ascending damage track of the Trait, because the necrotic damage is Lingering.

Boons for the Beasts

In structure, characters and monsters build in a similar fashion. At heart, a character has a stat string and a set experience allotment to spend. A beast is no different. When you give a creature Regeneration, you’ve just spent 10 experience from that allotment, as you would if you gave a character novice expertise in Man-at-Arms.

Now, the Player’s Handbook, which Swedish players have now and we should have in other languages next year, contains a section on Boons and Burdens. These minor Abilities cost 5 experience and offer a tweak to the character, like a +1 favourable adjustment to an Ability test, for example, or the deeds to a small business.

Why can’t creatures have Boons as well?

When you have a low experience creature, you might want to make more out of it than a single Ability might allow. If you want a group of creatures of 100 experience in total, would five creatures with a Novice Ability and a couple of Boons work better than only having two Novice Abilities. Maybe you could create some mix-and-match combos amongst a group, giving all the small creatures the same Novice Ability, but varying the Boons.

Monstrous Boons

  • Malefic Touch [Alternative Damage 0] – The creature’s touch causes fleeting numbness or physical deterioration. You might feel weak, nauseous, tired or clumsy. Penetrating attack; inflicts 1 damage to an Attribute.
  • Echo [Multifaceted 0] – The creature generates physical noise that makes it difficult to strike true – like sloughing skins, fragmenting parts, raising dust clouds, or reflecting light or shadow. Targeted individual engaged with the creature attacks with Disfavor.
  • Bewilder [Enthrall 0] – The creature’s glancing touch or strike is enough to cause brief confusion, dizziness or indecision. Touch, lose next Action.
  • Glide [Fly 0] – The creature moves in gentle swoops or drifts not far from the ground. While it provides no benefit in combat, all movement happens without penalty from terrain.
  • Shudder [Gravely Cold 0] – The creatures brief touch causes the target to start or flinch. Touch, lose next Action; Chained, immune on success.
  • Necrotic Touch [Necrotic Attack 0] – The creature’s touch causes mild physical deterioration. Target suffers 1 damage to Toughness per round (non-cumulative).
  • Necrotic Spray [Necrotic Essence 0] – The creature’s bodily functions or responses splash or discharge toward their attacker(s). Target(s) – those engaged with the creature – suffer 1 damage to Toughness per round (non-cumulative).
  • Sicken [Poisonous Touch 0] – The creature’s touch causes nausea and disorientation. Target suffers -1 on next Action.
  • Disgust [Poison Spit] – The creature coughs or spurts a toxic spray. Ranged; target suffers -1 on next Action.
  • Bulky [Robust 0] – The creature stands slightly taller than average with thicker limbs and a more obvious physical presence. They either inflict +1 damage or ignore 1 extra point of damage on top of normal Armor; calculate Defence as Quick -1.
  • Scare [Terrify 0] – The creature causes inexplicable consternation and nervousness. On a failed [ResolveResolve] test, target opponent cannot choose to move toward the creature and suffers -1 on next Action.
  • Strands [Web 0] – The creature leaves a trail of touch fibers that catch on clothes or ensnare limbs, if only briefly. Quick save to avoid, otherwise [StrongCunning]. If successful, lose next move action. If failed, lose all actions for the next turn.
  • Snare [Grab 0] – The creature has prehensile hair, fine branches, fleshy tendrils or something similar, not enough to grasp, but sufficient to hinder. Requires that an attack cause harm. Save chain to avoid, with failure causing next Action to test at -1

And while we’re at it, I’ve started thinking about a few Burdens. These all pay out an extra 5 experience – so you could have a Boon and a Burden for nothing, but turn a 0 experience creature with no full-blown Abilities into a more interesting opponent.

  • Dependents – Resolve test to Act if dependents threatened
  • Stink – Hide with Disfavor on first test in any turn
  • Vulnerable – Resist indirect Harm (e.g. poison, disease) at -1

What’s Grab?

Okay, so Snare’s the Boon version of Grab. But – wait a minute – what’s Grab?

Well, while I was at it, a new Monstrous Trait seemed in order:


The creature has a physical means to reach out and restrain a target, after which it can cause harm without needing to make a further successful attack – and, indeed, causing extra harm while in control. Anyone held can continue to attack or try to break the Grab by forfeiting an Active Action.

I – Requires Harm; [StrongStrong] Chained, cannot act until removed

II – As I, but Grab also inflicts +1D4 damage per turn held on top of normal unarmed damage

III – As I, but creature can use a Grabbed target as a meat shield, taking a selected hit – and associated damage – instead of the creature; or the creature can inflict +1D6 damage per turn held on top of normal unarmed damage

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