Rogue Ramblings: Spell-in-a-Monster

By Owen K.C. Stephens (owenkcstephens.com)

One of the things that is often a sign of boring design is the spell-in-a-can, that is, a magic item that is just a way for a player to access a spell. Wands, scrolls, and staves are obvious forms of this, but so is a +1 flaming sword that lets you cast fireball once per day. That’s vaguely cool—but it’s not as interesting as a flaming sword that offers some genuinely new fire-based power, or that connects the power more to some combat option.

However there is another form of spell-in-a style design that can be a lot more fun and a fast and easy way for a GM to create custom foes that take players by surprise, and that’s the spell-in-a-monster. In the Pathfinder Roleplaying game, the most obvious example of this is the blink dog. A blink dog isn’t much more than a wolf with constant blink and at-will quickened dimension door (self only), with some higher Intelligence thrown in for good measure. You could, in fact, create a simple “blink” template that turned a creature into a magical beast, and gave it Intelligence 10, constant blink and at-will quickened dimension door (self only). Maybe you add one extra hit die, since you’ll want the creature to be +1 CR. Suddenly you have the option of blinktigers (perhaps favored allies of rakshasa), blinkeagles, or even blinkephants, if you are so inclined.

The very things that make a spell-in-a-can boring – that it introduces nothing truly new to the campaign and is something some PCs have access to anyway –work in favor of the GM with a spell-in-a-monster. The fact it introduces nothing truly new means the GM should already know good tactics for the new spell, and the spell is something *players* often have access to, but monsters are much less likely to. The tables are turned, and fairly boring foes can suddenly be a new and challenging encounter without PCs having to learn brand new mechanics.

To varying degrees the doppelganger, invisible stalker, and mimic are all other well-known and classic examples of spell-in-a-monster-design. And the fact they are so well known and generally considered worthwhile additions to the game shows how effective this form of monster design can be.

Spell-in-a-monster generally works best with a 3rd level or lower spell that is primarily defensive or mobility-based. You generally don’t want to add more than one or maybe two related spells to a creature when using this kind of design, and it is best if you add them to a fairly straightforward creature. I generally prefer tacking a spell onto an animal, elemental, or giant. I prefer to avoid having to redo all a creature’s statistics, so even if I change an animal into a magical beast, I don’t redo all its hit dice and attacks and saves. Instead, for all of these I generally increase CR by +1, hand out bonus HP equal to the creature’s new CR, and give a +1 bonus to attacks, AC, CMB, CMD, saving throws, and skill checks.

Here are a few sample spell-in-a-monster ideas, based on the spells blur, mirror image, and sanctuary.

Flicker Flames

These flames leap, dance, spiral, and spin in a constant undulation of motion, hopping from one color to another and periodically being lost in the smoke created whenever they touch and scorch any object.

Flicker Flames (CR 6)

XP 2,400
CN Large outsider (elemental, extraplanar, fire)
Init +9; Senses darkvision 60 ft.; Perception +12

DEFENSE

AC 20, touch 15, flat-footed 13 (+5 Dex, +1 dodge, +4 natural, –1 size, +1 template)
hp 66 (8d10+16+6)
Fort +9, Ref +12, Will +5
DR 5/—; Immune elemental traits, fire
Weaknesses vulnerability to cold

OFFENSE

Speed 50 ft.
Melee 2 slams +13 (1d8+2 plus burn)
Spell-Like Abilities (CL 8th; concentration +8)

Constantblur

Space 10 ft.; Reach 10 ft.
Special Attacks burn (1d8, DC 16)

STATISTICS

Str 14, Dex 21, Con 14, Int 10, Wis 11, Cha 11
Base Atk +8; CMB +12; CMD 28
Feats Dodge, Improved InitiativeB, Iron Will, Mobility, Spring Attack, Weapon FinesseB
Skills Acrobatics +15, Climb +10, Escape Artist +13, Intimidate +10, Knowledge (planes) +6, Perception +12

Flicker flames exist in the regions of the Plane of Fire closest to the Astral Plane, where the transitive natural of the Astral causes the fire beings there to be much more active and indistinct that deep in the planar flames.

Giant, Fog (CR 8)

This gray, muscled figure looms out of the thick mist, its expressionless face unchanging as it hurls a stone disk at you.

XP 4,800
NE Large humanoid (giant)
Init –1; Senses low-light vision, mist vision; Perception +7

DEFENSE

AC 22, touch 8, flat-footed 21 (+4 armor, –1 Dex, +9 natural, –1 size, +1 template)
hp 93 (10d8+40+8)
Fort +12, Ref +3, Will +4
Defensive Abilities rock catching

OFFENSE

Speed 40 ft. (30 ft. in armor)
Melee greatclub +15/+10 (2d8+10) or 2 slams +13 (1d8+7)
Ranged rock +6 (1d8+10)
Spell-Like Abilities (CL 8th; concentration +8)

At willquickened obscuring mist

Space 10 ft.; Reach 10 ft.
Special Attacks rock throwing (120 ft.)

STATISTICS

Str 25, Dex 8, Con 19, Int 10, Wis 10, Cha 10
Base Atk +7; CMB +16; CMD 25
Feats Cleave, Intimidating Prowess, Martial Weapon Proficiency (greatclub), Power Attack, Weapon Focus (greatclub)
Skills Climb +11, Intimidate +13, Perception +7
Languages Giant

SPECIAL ABILITIES

Mist Vision (Su)

A fog giant can see through fog, clouds, and similar obscuring effects with perfect clarity.

ECOLOGY

Environment temperate plains
Organization solitary, gang (2–5), band (6–8), raiding party (9–12 plus 1d4 bristle boars), or tribe (13–30 plus 35% noncombatants plus 1 bloodrager or slayer chief of 4th–6th level, 11–16 bristle boars, 1–4 bog nixies, and 13–20 hobgoblin slaves)
Treasure standard (hide armor, greatclub, other treasure)

Fog giants generally rule over lowlands prone to heavy mists and rolling fogs, and form hunter-gather societies that move along with the densest mists. Some are fisherfolk, using nets to catch prey on perpetually foggy lakes. Whenever possible, they use their obscuring mists to form defensive fields of cover, and engage enemies by hurling disks of stone from out of sight. They view featureless fog as aesthetically perfect, and have no facial expressions.

Holy River Guardian (CR 10)

This reptilian behemoth, a crocodile of monstrous proportions, is golden hued and glows with a light that emanates from its eyes and maw.

XP 9,600
NG Gargantuan magical beast
Init +4; Senses low-light vision; Perception +15

DEFENSE

AC 22, touch 7, flat-footed 22 (+15 natural, –4 size, +1 template)
hp 148 (12d8+84+10)
Fort +16, Ref +9, Will +9

OFFENSE

Speed 20 ft., swim 30 ft.; sprint
Melee bite +19 (3d6+13/19–20 plus grab) and tail slap +14 (4d8+6)
Spell-Like Abilities (CL 12th; concentration +12)

Constantsanctuary (DC 17)

Space 20 ft.; Reach 15 ft.
Special Attacks death roll (3d6+19 plus trip), swallow whole (3d6+13, AC 16, 13 hp)

STATISTICS

Str 37, Dex 10, Con 25, Int 10, Wis 14, Cha 12
Base Atk +9; CMB +27 (+31 grapple); CMD 37 (41 vs. trip)
Feats Improved Critical (bite), Improved Initiative, Iron Will, Run, Skill Focus (Perception, Stealth)
Skills Perception +15, Stealth +1 (+9 in water), Swim +22; Racial Modifiers +8 Stealth in water
SQ hold breath

SPECIAL ABILITIES

Sanctuary

The constant sanctuary spell of a holy river guardian resets at the beginning of its turn every round. If the holy river guardian attacks a foe, the sanctuary spell ends for that foe, but only until the guardians next turn. If the guardian has a foe grabbed or swallowed, the sanctuary does not apply to that foe until it escapes.

The save DC for the spell-like ability is Constitution-based.

ECOLOGY

Environment warm rivers and marshes
Organization solitary, pair, or colony (3–6)
Treasure standard

These enormous crocodilians are the divine guardians of holy rivers, preventing foes from despoiling or desecrating sacred places.

Swarm Rat (CR 1/2)

This collection of filthy rats the size of small dogs all move together in perfect unison, slipping past and over one another making it impossible to track any one of them.

XP 200
NE Small magical beast
Init +3; Senses low-light vision, scent; Perception +5

DEFENSE

AC 15, touch 14, flat-footed 11 (+3 Dex, +1 size, +1 template)
hp 5 (1d8+1)
Fort +4, Ref +6, Will +2

OFFENSE

Speed 40 ft., climb 20 ft., swim 20 ft.
Melee bite +2 (1d4 plus disease)
Spell-Like Abilities (CL 1st; concentration +1)

Constantmirror image

Special Attacks disease

STATISTICS

Str 10, Dex 17, Con 13, Int 10, Wis 13, Cha 4
Base Atk +0; CMB +0; CMD 13 (17 vs. trip)
Feats Skill Focus (Perception)
Skills Climb +12, Perception +5, Stealth +12, Swim +12; Racial Modifiers uses Dex to modify Climb and Swim

SPECIAL ABILITIES

Disease (Ex)

Filth fever: Bite—injury; save Fort DC 11; onset 1d3 days; frequency 1/day; effect 1d3 Dexdamage and 1d3 Con damage; cure 2 consecutive saves. The save DC is Constitution-based.

Mirror Image

The swarm rat’s mirror image resets automatically once per minute.

ECOLOGY

Environment any urban or underground
Organization solitary or pack (2–20)
Treasure standard

Swarm rats are most commonly found in the sewers of cities with large schools dedicated to alchemy and/or illusion. Because each swarm rat appears to be 3-4 rats, a pack of such creatures often appears to be an enormous moving colony. They have a natural enmity for blink dogs and sphinxes.

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About Owen K.C. Stephens

Owen K.C. Stephens is Lead Developer for the Starfinder RPG by Paizo Inc. a developer for Green Ronin Publishing, and the owner and Publisher of Rogue Genius Games. He has his own blog and a Patreon!

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