So, last night we watched the movie retroactively titled It Chapter 1, the first part of the more recent adaptation of Stephen King's novel IT. Our household's analysis of it was that much like the previous adaptation, it had its strong points and its weak points. I'm not really going to get into it here at this time, but I will say that I was struck by how different the climactic showdown was from the book, which involved harnessing the power of belief and some metaphorical rituals and basically took place across multiple dimensions of mind and space.
In the movie, the metaphysical aspects were downplayed to the extent that it's pretty much just (oh, spoiler warning) six pre-teen children beating a monster clown to death in a dirty tunnel.
The big advantage the children had in the movie was that Pennywise's method of attack required it to focus all of its attention on one child, and because it apparently can't just kill anyone outright without some kind of build-up, the others all had time to regroup and attack while it was occupied.
Now, I'm not writing this to nitpick or to explain the scene, and I certainly don't need it explained to me. I'm not actually here to talk about the way the movie handled things at all, so much as what we can learn from it about encounter design in Dungeons & Dragons.
As I noted to my companions as the credits were rolling: see, this is why you give your boss monsters legendary actions.
It's time for some game (design) theory.
In almost any roleplaying game in which combat is being tactically simulated along the lines of Dungeons & Dragons, it's hard to match the advantage posed by numbers, and I don't mean the ones you write down on a character sheet.
Imagine a fight between six plucky young heroes and one monster. Give the monster six times as many hit points and an attack that does six times as much damage, on average, as the attacks of its opponents. Is this a fair fight? You might assume it's a statistical dead heat. But play it out in your head.
Imagine a straightforward, toe-to-toe fight. Say the heroes have 10 hit points each and can do an average of 10 hit points with an attack, and each gets a turn to attack every round. The monster has 60 hit points and can do an average of 60 hit points with its attack, which it can also make once a round.
In this scenario, the monster, unless it goes dead last in the turn order, takes out one hero in the opening round... but loses 50 of its hit points, and there are five heroes still standing. Any one of them could take it down the next round.
Give it twice as many hit points as the heroes it's facing and it's still dead three rounds in.
Divide its damage among two or three attacks instead of one big one and things begin to get more complicated, but if we're not requiring the heroes to stand still and trade blows it still runs into a problem that springs wholly from the numbers: each time the monster takes its turn, all surviving heroes get to do whatever they can do before it gets to move and attack again. If we assume that the heroes have whole bags of tricks like spells ,magic items, special skills, etc., the heroes essentially have all the time and leisure they need to alter the battlefield to their liking. They can heal, they can regroup, they can hide or run away. They have six chances to act and the monster only has one opportunity to react.
I call it the Reverse Voltron Syndrome: it's really hard to balance a fight between two sides when the sides have a wild disparity in terms of numbers. It's almost always better to be on the side with more members.
5th Edition Dungeons & Dragons answers this by giving anything close to a "boss monster:" -- anything meant to be a credible threat for a whole party of characters past the entry levels -- a special feature called Legendary Actions. Legendary Actions are essentially mini-turns the creature can take at the end of another character's turn. They're all a single action, like a dragon swiping with its tail or a giant eye monster shooting a stray eye ray. Many legendary creatures have one action that allows the being to re-position itself or sweep attackers away, much as a human-sized person would wave a fly away or shake an ant of their pant leg.
Pennywise, as a properly developed 5E monster, would definitely have some legendary actions. The typical allotment is a stock of three actions that refresh on its turn. Most legendary creatures also have three specific actions to choose from; this is D&D's typical problem with re-using nomenclature. The three actions it has that it gets back aren't the three actions it can spend them on; it's more like it has three legendary action points, and three different ways to spend them.
So, it might look something like this:
Jump Scare: One creature within 30 feet that can see Pennywise must make a Willpower saving throw or become frightened until the end of the creature's next turn as the clown momentarily assumes a visage or aspect that is particularly horrifying to the creature. Any creature that fails this save must use its reaction to move its speed away from Pennywise, if possible.
Claw Swipe: Pennywise makes a melee weapon attack against one creature.
The Dancing Clown: Pennywise moves up to 30 feet. During this movement it can pass through spaces occupied by enemies, and its movement does not provoke opportunity attacks.
None of this stuff is so powerful as to be a curb stomp in and of itself, but look at what it does: if one child hero is menacing Pennywise, it can attempt to make them back off. If a whole gang is around it, it can slip away. And if it's not in any particular danger, it can still do incidental damage in between its full-fledged turns.
Now, when the Losers Club beat Pennywise into early hibernation, it was in its nest, which had some pretty freak stuff going on, what with eerie lights and floating bodies and whatnot. Very powerful creatures in Dungeons & Dragons who are associated with a lair are known to basically distort reality in and around the lair. These creatures produce what are known as "regional effects", which from what we see of Derry is definitely the case, and additionally are able to use what are called "lair actions" in fights that happen on their home turf.
A fiery being's lair actions might involve gouts of lava shooting up from the floor, or waves of shimmering heat that overwhelm foes. An aberrant creature that warps reality might be able to create portals between points, transpose the positions of combatants ,or do stranger things still.
A lair action generally occurs once per round, as if a character had rolled a 20 on the initiative roll -- meaning it's likely to be the first or nearly the first thing that happens on the first round of combat, to get things started with a bang. I feel like Pennywise should definitely had some lair actions available in its seat of power, things like filling an area with balloons to obscure or impede movement, summoning images of the dead, or causing miscellaneous ickiness (hair, bony hands, discarded clothing) to lash out and grapple all creatures within an area.
A few enhancements like this and Pennywise could have been a credible threat up close and personal... but of course, a movie isn't a game of Dungeons & Dragons and not every story is the same story told the same way. Central to the idea behind IT and any version of it is Stephen King's notion that ultimately, ultimate evil, is a "bumhug": not that scary, not that impressive. I'm not sure exactly what I think of the execution, but I can see what the filmmakers were going for with the idea that Pennywise just wasn't a credible threat to six children who knew its game and wouldn't abandon each other.
Fun With Etymology
The name "Pennywise" comes from the saying "penny wise, pound foolish," which refers to someone who takes an action to save a small sum of money at the cost of more down the line. E.g., someone who buys the smallest pack of Pop Tarts because it costs less than the big one even though the unit price is better in bulk, or someone who chooses to buy cut-rate products that break faster or cause complications that lead to expensive repairs. It can also, in a more general sense, mean someone who quibbles over minor details but loses sight of the big picture.
The first time I read this phrase, it struck me as weird because I thought of "pennies" as a US thing, but then I started realizing that British English is also littered with references to pennies. My immediate assumption was that "penny" was a diminutive nickname for "pence" that had caught on in the less formalized air of the United States. In point of fact, it's "pence" that's the nickname... it's a contraction of "pennies".
As for pennies being a US thing... would it surprise you to know that we've never minted a penny in the United States? Our smallest coin is officially designated the cent. They were called pennies by way of analogy, and, I suppose, an early sign of what an uphill battle metric adoption would prove to be on our shores.
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