One-Shot Monster Powers

Here’s a idea I think is cool from Points of Inspiration: single use monster powers.

There are similar examples out there of this type of mechanics already. We’ve got limited dragon breath uses, D&D 4th edition rechareable dailies, and one-shot magic items.

However, upon reading Craig’s article, I wanted to explore the idea further, And so here we are.

Why One-Shot Abilities?

With intentional design, we can achieve several effects by giving foes a single use power or option:

  • Surprise! An unexpected power, which doesn’t have to be deadly or even combat-oriented, can catch players off-guard and delight everyone.
  • Strategy. A new capability or option should not be wasted. A one-shotter gives me a chance to invent effective new 3 Round Combat Plans for familiar foes, and present unexpected gameplay that players can creatively mitigate or leverage.
  • Balance. Whether it’s ESP or a nuke, a limited power offers a check and balance against potential design misalignment. In addition, it could explain why the creature is not more dominant in your setting, preventing a Logic Bomb.
  • Plotting. It’s hard to tell a great story around a hit point total and armour class number. Not much story there except at the edges. However, add a cool one-shot power to a monster and you’ve got great narrative potential.
  • Scaling. My TDL system (Target Difficulty Level) means I decide in-the-moment if and how to scale an encounter up or down, and why. We can add and remove one-shot monster powers at will to facilitate making gameplay harder or easier, as needed.
  • Climactic Endings. Singe-use monster abilities offer a fantastic way to amp up your Room IVs, boss fights, and grand finales.

A Few Examples

  • Draconians turning to stone upon death.
  • The Kraken creating a massive whirlpool.
  • A slime’s ability to divide itself into multiple smaller versions of itself.
  • The Xenomorph Queen detaching from her egg sac.
  • Smaug breathing fire one last time.
  • A vampire turning into gas and attempting escape.
  • A werewolf’s transformation at the moment of full moon.
  • Mogwai turning into gremlins upon having a late-night snack.

A Couple of Approaches

The mechanics should be simple. It could simply be GM’s call.

However, consider adding a trigger, such as dying moments, an attempt to escape, when a hated enemy (humans, dwarves, paladins…) speaks, or getting a spell cast at them.

Adding a trigger turns our monster (assuming it’s a recurring foe) into a puzzle as players try to suss out the pattern and then avoid the trigger or turn it to their advantage.

1. Raid Your Spellbook or Tech Tree

Spells and tech offer awesome inspiration for one-shot monster powers. Their mechanics have already been playtested and balanced, so you’ll be building off of a strong foundation.

Spells also give us a variety of utility or creative use type functions to inspire our designs.

d12 Examples:

  1. Maze
  2. Polymorph
  3. Power Word Stun
  4. Major Illusion
  5. Control Weather
  6. Animate Object
  7. Plant Growth
  8. Geas
  9. Speak With Dead
  10. Tiny Hut
  11. Summon or Gate-in Allies
  12. Wish

Legends tell of a strange giant who can send her foes into a pocket dungeon. And while this traps victims in a complex maze, the donjon is filled with amazing wonders to discover (and maybe clues and plot hooks).

3. Pillage Your Skills and Feats

Skills and feats offer fantastic inspiration for one-shot monster powers, especially for roleplaying or social abilities.

d12 Examples:

  • Acrobatics
  • Intimidate
  • Stealth
  • Medicine
  • Great Weapon Master
  • Lucky
  • Multiple Languages
  • Bluff
  • Craft
  • Diplomacy
  • Knowledge (XYZ)
  • Perform

Let’s take our typical eye tyrant and the diplomacy skill. Perhaps, once per week, it can sing a death metal siren song in an attempt to make its foes see reason. Doing the cookie monster voice, however, trashes its fragile vocal chords, which must heal for a time before being strong and effective once more.

3. Loot Your Magic Item Lists

Magic items are also treasure troves of ideas for unique one-shot abilities.

d12 Examples:

  1. Wand of Wonder
  2. Figurine of Wondrous Power
  3. Ring of Shooting Stars
  4. Snake Staff
  5. Cube of Force
  6. Girdle of Giant Strength
  7. Portable Hole
  8. Immovable Rod
  9. Slippers of Spider Climbing
  10. Boots of Striding & Springing
  11. Marvelous Pigments
  12. Grease

Next time we want to make a foe special, unique, or surprising, consider giving them a one-shot power. Look in your rulebooks for inspiration. And think about adding a trigger if the monster or monster type will appear again to serve up an interesting puzzle for your players.

Thanks for the great idea, Craig!

Have more fun at every game!

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