Friday, May 6, 2016

On Sea Monsters

What is a sea monster? Why is it so horrible? and how do I avoid just letting my players hack it to death?

There are three notable features of a sea monster. First, its aquatic nature. Second, its predatory savagery. Third, its immense girth. For some reason tales of sea monster result in totally massive creatures more often than purely land based tales.

On Bulk

So just how big is it? This is one of the biggest questions when making your sea monster. A great place to start out is "how big is the boat?" Sea monsters are rarely compared to the size of a person: they are compared to the size of the boat. Some sea monsters will attack the people on a vessel much larger (but those tend to be fish people and tangential to our real topic), and sometimes you throw a monster against the ship that's much smaller than it, but as a general rule, the boat and the monster should be evenly matched in size. This is especially true of monsters you want to drag the ship down.

One of the monsters shown is an appropriate encounter. The others? Not so much
Gurps suggests adding HP and ST in accordance with the cube of weight. This is the scientificly correct way to do things, due to something called the square cube law. Of course, most giant monsters are flagrant offenders of the square cube law, and so I (and many others) suggest raising ST with the cube for most giant monsters. A third option is to use the damage from Cubic Strength and the HP from Square ST: this will give monsters that require lots of hacking away at but don't kill ships with a single blow.

The table below matches stats to sizes, with three entries for each SM. Note that individual monsters are likely to vary from the numbers given. Not that it really matters if a ST 120 monster hits your boat or a ST 125. The examples given to the side are conservative weights: Record holders, Boasting Anglers, and Film directors usually move the creature up a level or two, when they don't create another creature that looks like the original but is much bigger.

WeightSMShort LengthLong LengthCube STSquare ST
100 lbs01.5m2.1mST 90d+2ST 8.50d+1
150 lbs01.7m2.4mST 100d+2ST 100d+2
200 lbs01.8m2.7mST 111d+-1ST 121d+-1
300 lbs12.1m3.1mST 131d+0ST 151d+1
500 lbs12.5m3.7mST 151d+1ST 192d+-1
700 lbs12.8m4.1mST 171d+2ST 222d+0
1000 lbs23.1m4.6mST 192d+-1ST 273d+-1Big Bottlenose
1500 lbs23.6m5.3mST 222d+0ST 333d+2
1 tons24m5.8mST 242d+1ST 384d+0Record Squid
1.5 tons34.5m6.6mST 283d+-1ST 475d+1
2 tons35m7.3mST 313d+1ST 546d+0Great White
3 tons35.7m8.4mST 354d+-1ST 667d+2Orca
5 tons46.8m9.9mST 424d+2ST 859d+2Mausosaur
7 tons47.6m11mST 475d+1ST 10011d+0
10 tons48.6m12mST 536d+0ST 12013d+0
15 tons59.8m14mST 607d-1ST 15016d+0
20 tons511m16mST 677d+2ST 17018d+0
30 tons512m18mST 768d+2ST 21022d+0Humpback
50 tons615m21mST 9010d+0ST 27028d+0Moby Dick
70 tons616m24mST 10011d+0ST 32033d+0Megaladon
100 tons618m27mST 11012d+0ST 38039d+0
150 tons721m31mST 13014d+0ST 47048d+0Blue Whale
200 tons723m34mST 14015d+0ST 54055d+0
300 tons727m39mST 16017d+0ST 66067d+0Kraken
500 tons831m46mST 19020d+0ST 85086d+0
700 tons835m51mST 22023d+0ST 1000101d+0
1000 tons840m58mST 24025d+0ST 1200121d+0
1500 tons945m66mST 28029d+0ST 1500151d+0
2000 tons950m73mST 31032d+0ST 1700171d+0
3000 tons957m84mST 35036d+0ST 2100211d+0
5000 tons1068m99mST 42043d+0ST 2700271d+0
7000 tons1076m110mST 47048d+0ST 3200321d+0

Bulk is a defense in and of itself. Even if a creature has no natural armor, large animals can take a lot of damage by the simple fact that their vital organs are deep within them. Even an animal without natural armor should have DR at 1/10th of its HP. Additionally, targeting the vitals of such a creature is not trivial. Those wishing to target the heart, brain, or kidneys will need either a lot of penetration from their missile or a  sufficiently ridiculous stick to put a blade on. Adding another DR at 1/10th to attacks vs the vitals is appropriate.

On Aquatics

 One of the trickiest difficulties of a sea monster is that its in the water and you're stuck on a boat -- if you're lucky. Being alone in the water is even worse, unless you have some powerful technology or magic to back you up. Don't let the characters attack the monster whenever they feel like it, and most attacks can't be blocked or parried.

Sea monsters are generally more maneuverable than ships. They may also be faster, but that's true less often -- though you may have to run with the wind to outrun the thing. Most of the time, you don't go to the sea monster: the sea monster comes to you.

The water often forms an additional barrier against injuring the creature. The diffraction in the water gives a -4 to hitting something across the water barrier. Not a problem if you're a aiming for the main body, but if you're aiming for a place that you can actually hurt the thing, like an eye, it can be tricky element to add. And if launch the weapon in the water itself your arm will be impeded! Ranged weapons have greatly reduced ranges, and firearm projectiles will actually bounce off of water.

nothing visible underwater
Of course, That's once you spot the thing. The water forms a reflective barrier that makes it near impossible to see things far away. The angle is important.. you actually have a chance to see things coming up from under you -- but the distance is very reduced. Most of the time, you have to rely on spotting momentary surfacing  (which is usually not complete) or bubbles coming up from a surface creature. Fortunately, most of the time you just want the monster to go a way, and a lot are pretty obliging about displaying before they attack or coming to you to latch strait onto your ship. But exceptions do exist, particularly among leviathans, and a smart monster can use hit and run to great effect.

If you're serious about running a fight in the water, gurps pyramid 26 -underwater adventures, contains the rules for underwater fights.

On Being Monstrous

There are a number of shapes that show up in sea monster lore again and again.  The serpent, the kraken, and the leviathan (ie, really big fish shaped creature). There is a curious dearth of arthropods, probably because arthropods aren't open water creatures and don't get as big as the others.

Sea Serpents tend to be smaller than the ship. They also tend to either have main bodies impervious to most hand weapons, or to display only their head during an attack. 

One signature mark of the sea serpent is the head. Unlike the other two classic forms, The serpent can stick his ugly head up on board the ship and look you in the eye before he eats you. The head of a serpent moves across the deck of the ship monstrously fast -- it should have enough reach that it can strike most of the crew with them striking it. Attacking the serpents head requires ranged weapons, a sufficiently long stick, or acrobatics in the rigging.

The other signature of the sea serpent are its coils. In fiction, sea serpents are always coiling around the ships they attack. Their goal may be to crush the ship, it may be to drag it under, or it may be to just get a firm grip on the thing its attacking (which would actually a tactically sound idea if it was dealing with a leviathan).

The Kraken is a squid shaped monster. That is to say, it has lots of arms. It is common for fiction to not even bother giving a proper count on the arms. Battles with Krakens on the big screen often depict a lot of tentacle chopping. Realistically, this will end the battle pretty quickly -- unless you have the kraken with the improper arm count or a cinematic kraken. Of course, its usually only heroes who can cut through a tentacle. Be sure you know a kraken's goals -- If its trying to just grab the crew for a quick snack, it can be terrifying as it sweeps around tentacles, grabs three or four of them, and then disappears into the deep. Of course, Krakens in fiction usually try to sink the ship, presumably because they want to eat it.

The leviathan is at once the tamest and the trickiest of the forms. Its the truest to life, as evidenced by classics like Moby Dick (Ok, Jaws can also be considered a leviathan). A battle with a leviathan is a very impersonal thing. There is no eye contact, and the leviathan makes good use of the protection of the sea -- most attacks can be made without leaving the water. Of course, Leviathans don't usually float right under the boat and chew until their is a hole: Leviathan combat is about movement. They charge their targets, and its not uncommon for them to launch themselves right out of the air after an attack.

Which one to use? decisions, decisions!
 And sometimes the craziest monsters combine multiple forms. Such is fiction, nightmares, and crazy GMs. When I was a kid I gave a serpent a tentacled end, a shark head, and crab claws. When you do this, step back, and ask yourself what the thing is going to behave like. In retrospect, the thing acted much like a serpent -- a personal, face to face conflict based on picking off specific crew. So when you run into something really crazy, just ask yourself what it acts like. And its entirely possible for that kind of crazy monster to act like different monsters at different times.

There is actually a fourth archetype that may play into some sea monsters: the Dragon. which deserves its own article (and got its own book). In some ways, its an extension of the personal and armored serpent, but in other ways, its an extension of a land dwelling monster to the ocean. A similar thing can be said about the giant crab -- essentially a land monster in an aquatic environment.

Facing Down a Ship

A sea monster attacking a ship generally has one of three goals:
  • It wants to eat the ship
  • It wants to drive the ship out of its territory
  • It wants to eat the people
These motivations effect the way the monster fights.

It also important to remember that most monsters are dumb brutes that don't realize the advantages they have. The smart ones generally only have a few tricks that make them one step above animalistic, and don't tend to come up with new tricks. Of course, truly intelligent monsters are possible. Just don't be surprised when they become much tougher to defeat. 

Dragging it down:

So often in fiction, the goal of the monster appears to drag the ship down into the water with it. Ships are remarkably buoyant, up until the point where they start taking water on the inside. It takes a great deal of strength to drag the ship all the way down, but merely tipping the ship over can be just as bad. Of course, most boats are built to intentionally be difficult to capsize. In most cases, the crew can do little to help the ship beyond clever tricks to give small penalties to the contest (likely -2 at the most), and fighting off the monster.

To drag down a ship, a monster needs a way to grasp it -- so serpents and krakens tend to do this the most. The point at which the monster grips the ship is important, as that's where the heroes need to focus their attack.

Ships are remarkably bouyant and stable -- those are pretty much the qualities they are designed for. They also won't fight back being tipped over with more than brute force -- which means you need a reasonable way to roll strength. B349 has rules on how to adjust the scores. You can resolves a monster trying to tip over or pull down a ship however you want, but remember the following:
  • Treating it as a grapple where sinking is a take-down takes a mere 1 second
  • Treating it as a grapple where tipping or pulling down is a pin will still be over within 10 seconds.
  • Ships are big. Even a monster capable of simply pulling it down will need time to move the ship the requisite distance.
  •  Attempting to pull a ship down is a great way to cause it damage. 
  • Attempting to pull down a ship may result in inadvertent tipping. 
  • The time to capsize is effectively a time bomb for your players -- it forces them to confront and defeat the monster quickly. Time the capsize accordingly
This is completely made up, but the following should be playable.
  • Find the effective strengths of the ship and the monster. 
  • Each round roll a contest of strength.
  • Each margin of success by the monster sinks/tips the ship by 5%.
  • If the ship is being pulled down, it returns to its place at a rate of 10% per margin of success. Its also appropriate to add the ships stability to this roll -- and to tip the ship if the stability bonus gives the ship the victory. Don't add the two numbers together -- track them seperately
  • Once 100% is reached, a tipped ship is on its side, and starts taking on water. It takes 5 minutes of work and a successful shiphandling roll at -4 (this may be a good place for a technique) to right the ship. The monster may attempt to just keep rolling the ship, which doesn't really change its
  • Once 100% is reached on a ship being pulled down, the ship starts taking on water. It keeps on resisting the monster's pull, though as water fills the ship, it will resist less and less. 

Is this a tip or a pull under?
The rate at which water enters the ship is highly dependent on the design of the ship -- the GM should decide on a rate.This method can and should be modified when need be -- changing the rates at which the contests of strength happen and 'percent capsized' can slow, speed up, or make more swingy the rate at which the boat goes down. Smaller boats should tip or pull down faster than large ones.

Sometimes a Leviathan will attempt to capsize a vessel (classically a smaller boat). This is not an attempt to drag down or tip the ship via grappling rules. The leviathan needs either a large ST advantage or persistence and a clever mind to pull this off. Model a single attempt like a fluke sending a wave or bumping the ship with the head as a take down attempt using half the ST score. A more involved attempt like amplifying the rocking motion of the boat takes longer (probably 20 seconds), but may be able to use the full ST score at the GM's option. Unlike a physical grapple, these actions DO give the crew a chance to react and fight back, but they will need to be aware of what's going on and ready to counter it to avoid massive (-4?) penalties to their rolls.

Breaking the Ship:

Leaks can happen through punching through the hull, but they can also happen due to internal stress. And sea monsters don't generally punch small holes in the ship: they squeeze it, ram it, or otherwise attack the grand structure. Monsters generally don't bite ships -- boats they might, but not ships. 

Despite the cannon ball problem  and the fact I often have problems with how slam and constricting damage work, this is probably one time when the rules on those three topics come out nicely. Alternatively, have the ship make HT rolls after each slam or 5 seconds of constriction or take an appropriate amount (10 percent?) of damage. Its worth noting that most underwater ramming attacks will take place with fairly long intervals as the creature rams, pulls away, and then builds up speed again. Impact velocity for leviathans is generally between moves 10 and 15. Additional DR should be given to a creature that intentionally rams, and especially one thats designed to do so (Orcas come to mind).

Using Sea Monsters

The sea monster fight is interesting because its almost obligatory to throw in once and boring to do it twice. Voyage of the Dawn Treader -- many monsters, only one serpent. 20 Thousand Leagues Under the Sea -- one giant squid. Dreamwork's Sinbad: Legend of the Seven Seas. Several different monsters, but only one counts as a sea monster as treated in this work. In Odysseus, we have two sea monsters-- who show up at the exact same time. Order of the Stick talks about fighting every aquatic monster in the book (literally, as befits order of the stick), but so far only ever shows one fight with a big aquatic monster (a summoned giant squid). There is a lot of precedence for fighting a giant monster once and only once. And if the campaign (or campaign leg) consists of nothing but fighting massive aquatic beasts, you run the risk of being boring.

Unless! your characters go into the game knowing that sea monsters are main foe and specialize as hunters of them. A crew of larger than life whalers hunting down killers that ravage shipping lanes, or  hunters of exotic creatures. This is because sea monsters by nature don't bring a lot of plot with them. They show up, terrorize a ship, and then go away. Additionally, it takes an odd set of skills to fight a monster correctly and most characters won't have that set.

But lots and lots of campaigns can use sea monsters as an added element. I hope this article gives you lots of ideas of what to add and how to handle the fight.


  1. Have you ever considered that since people on the ship can only really attack the bits sticking out of the water, you could get away with only statting up the tentacles/head/whatever and give a general stat for pulling this ship down/capsizing it? It might cut down on the bookkeeping and makes monsters a touch more scalable (want a kraken with 40 arms? drop forty Kraken Arms on the map).

    1. I did actually consider that. Its one method of handling the kraken -- but it doesn't feel like a massive underwater creature. It feels like 40 individual monsters boarding the ship. I decided to focus more on fighting monsters as a whole. It may have been worth mentioning though.

    2. Fair enough. I can see where the GM would have to make sure to run the arms as a whole sort of, having them respond to each other's wounds and work together to accomplish stuff. It might end up being messier than a single monster. It just feels more easily scaled ip and down.