John "The Gneech" Robey (the_gneech) wrote,
John "The Gneech" Robey
the_gneech

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The Wonkiness of Carrion Crawlers [gaming]

jamesbarrett and I had an extended discussion about carrion crawlers today (yes, my job is that boring). I've only used 'em once or twice, but he loves 'em to death. My general opinion is that as monsters go, they're a neat idea marred by irredeemably bad mechanical design.

Here's the SRD block on a carrion crawler:

Carrion Crawler
Large Aberration
Hit Dice: 3d8+6 (19 hp)
Initiative: +2 (Dex)
Speed: 30 ft., climb 15 ft.
AC: 17 (-1 size, +2 Dex, +6 natural)
Attacks: 8 tentacles +3 melee, bite -2 melee
Damage: Tentacle paralysis, bite 1d4+1
Face/Reach: 5 ft. by 10 ft./5 ft.
Special Attacks: Paralysis
Special Qualities: Scent
Saves: Fort +3, Ref +3, Will +5
Abilities: Str 14, Dex 15, Con 14, Int 1, Wis 15, Cha 6
Skills: Climb +10, Listen +6, Spot +6
Feats: Alertness
Climate/Terrain: Any underground
Organization: Solitary or cluster (2-5)
Challenge Rating: 4
Treasure: None
Alignment: Always neutral
Advancement: 3-4 HD (Large); 5-9 HD (Huge)

Combat
Carrion crawlers use their keen senses of sight and smell to detect carcasses and potential prey. When attacking, a crawler lashes out with all eight tentacles and tries to paralyze its victim. The tentacles deal no other damage. The creature then kills the paralyzed victim with its bite and devours the flesh. Multiple crawlers do not fight in concert, but each paralyzes as many opponents as possible. The unintelligent creature continues to attack as long as it faces any moving opponents.

Paralysis (Ex): Those hit by a carrion crawler’s tentacle attack must succeed at a Fortitude save (DC 13) or be paralyzed for 2d6 minutes.


The idea behind the carrion crawler is essentially the same as behind the ghoul -- the threat is that the whole party will be paralyzed and unable to fight back when they get eaten alive. The problem is that the way the probability works is that any single attack of the carrion crawler has almost no chance of success -- so it gets a bazillion chances. It's essentially a low-level "save or die" situation with the wrinkle that it's "save, save, save, save, save, save, save, save ... or die."

Carrion crawlers, at CR 4, are going to be going up against 2-5th level parties. If the party is smart, they'll shove their fighter into its maw and then go get snacks while they wait for the combat to be over. With its attack bonus of +3, against a fighter wearing something like chainmail and a shield, the carrion crawler will only hit with one or two of its 8 attacks, and then when it does, the fighter will probably easily make the Fort save.

Can you imagine a more boring combat?

GM: "*rolls d20* Carrion crawler attacks and misses. *rolls d20* Carrion crawler attacks and misses. *rolls d20* Carrion crawler attacks and misses. *rolls d20* Carrion crawler attacks and misses. *rolls d20* Carrion crawler attacks and misses. *rolls d20* Carrion crawler attacks and misses. *rolls d20* Carrion crawler attacks and misses. *rolls d20* Carrion crawler attacks and hits! Make a Fort save to avoid paralysis."

Fighter: "*rolls d20* 16."

GM: "You aren't paralyzed! Your turn."

Fighter: "*rolls d20* I attack, I got a 14."

GM: "You missed. *rolls d20* Carrion crawler attacks and misses. *rolls d20* Carrion crawler attacks and misses. *rolls d20* Carrion crawler attacks and misses. *rolls d20* Carrion crawler attacks and misses. *rolls d20* Carrion crawler attacks and misses. *rolls d20* Carrion crawler attacks and misses. *rolls d20* Carrion crawler attacks and misses. *rolls d20* Carrion crawler attacks and hits! Make a Fort save to avoid paralysis." etc., ad nauseam.


There are few things more dull for a player than sitting there watching the GM roll dice and mutter to himself. Jamie's opinion is that the tension of "OMG, so many tentacles, am I going to get paralyzed?" will sustain interest, but my experience suggests that just the opposite is true. Most players want to cut to the chase because they're eagerly waiting for their next chance to go -- the more time that lags between one turn and the next, the more likely they are to get bored and stop paying attention, no matter what peril their character is in.

If you have just one carrion crawler, this is bad enough -- the GM is rolling 8d20 of attacks every round and the 3-5 players are doing 1d20 each; he's already "hogging the airtime." Add a second one, and it is dramatically worse! Assume a "typical" group of 4 players:

1 carrion crawler: DM rolls 8 dice, players roll 4. Each player has 8% of the action in the round vs. the DM's 67%.
2 carrion crawlers: DM rolls 16 dice, players roll 4. Each player has 5% of the action in the round vs. the DM's 80%.
3 carrion crawlers: DM rolls 24 dice, players roll 4. Each player has 4% of the action in the round vs. the DM's 80%.
4 carrion crawlers: DM rolls 32 dice, players roll 4. Each player has 3% of the action in the round vs. the DM's 89%.
5 carrion crawlers: DM rolls 40 dice, players roll 4. Each player has 2% of the action in the round vs. the DM's 91%.

To get around the inevitable slowdown, a good GM will figure out what the target "to hit" roll is beforehand, scoop up 8 dice and roll them all at once, then tell the player to make however many saves as there were successful hits, but it's still a lot of number-grinding, which slows the game and leads to boredom.

If the bottom-line goal is to have a low-to-moderate chance for the paralysis to succeed, my personal view is that it would be much better gameplay to have 4 attacks at +5. The probability works out to be roughly the same, but it cuts the annoying number-crunching in half!

There is, however, another larger problem with carrion crawlers, a problem they share with ghouls, incorporeal undead, mind flayers, and umber hulks: being negated is anti-fun. You have to be very careful about any creature that invokes paralysis, attack-negation chances, or mind control. Most people play RPGs because they want to kick butt and have exciting adventures, not because they want to sit there and be told what their characters do (or don't do). On the rare occasion that a carrion crawler actually succeeds at paralyzing somebody, that person is out of the rest of the fight. If the player has an animal companion or a henchman or somebody similar they can control as a backup, it's okay, but if they don't, well, all of their fun for the encounter just went out the window.

In the old days of D&D, most characters had one or two henchmen following them around, leading to parties of 8-12 characters tromping down into the dungeons. If your primary character was held, paralyzed, eaten alive, whatever, you still got to act through a companion. Four players with two characters each against carrion crawlers makes for a much better ratio of player-to-GM activity:

1 carrion crawler: DM rolls 8 dice, players roll 8. Each player has 12% of the round vs. the DM's 50%.
2 carrion crawlers: DM rolls 16 dice, players roll 8. Each player has 8% of the round vs. the DM's 66%.
3 carrion crawlers: DM rolls 24 dice, players roll 8. Each player has 6% of the round vs. the DM's 75%.
4 carrion crawlers: DM rolls 32 dice, players roll 8. Each player has 5% of the round vs. the DM's 80%.
5 carrion crawlers: DM rolls 40 dice, players roll 8. Each player has 4% of the round vs. the DM's 80%.

This is where you have to choose whether you want to play a game that's based on character development, or a skirmish game of pieces on the combat board. A few players can handle more than one character and make them distinct and interesting (credit where it's due, Jamie is certainly good at that), but many cannot and I would expect that most don't want to. Huge parties are also just unwieldy and tiresome. Getting to go twice in a 30-minute round with two different sketchy characters is probably not as much fun as getting to go once in a 15-minute round with a single character you're very interested in!

So given that everybody having a "backup" character in the party isn't a great solution, you have to be very careful about any kind of monster ability or spell that knocks the player's single character out of commission -- which is exactly what the carrion crawler is designed to do. That's its whole shtick.

Maybe instead of instant paralysis, stacking "fatigue" status effects would be better (first hit makes you fatigued, second makes you exhausted, third makes you unconscious) -- that way instead of "save or DIE" it's more like you're worn into submission. Of course, that would require a complete rebuild of the monster, but with a build like this, that's no real loss.

That's my "game-designer's-philosophy" POV, anyway. :)

-The Gneech
Tags: dungeons & dragons, gaming
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