Jack & The Dungeon #1 - Beetle Drones
Samurai Jack is an excellent cartoon that ran from 2001 to 2004 on Cartoon Network. It was recently resurrected by it's creator for an also excellent (so far) conclusion to the original story. One of the many things that makes Samurai Jack so good is the huge variety of original creatures and characters that Jack encounters throughout his journey. From the talking dogs with british accents in episode 2 right up to the musical assassin Scaramouch the Merciless in the first episode of the revived series Samurai Jack is packed to the gills with awesome characters.
While re-watching a bunch of classic episodes in the lead up to the new season I realized that nearly all of the episodes play out like D&D encounters for a party of 1. Jack must contend with alien monsters, bounty hunters, devious puzzles and traps, and magic items of all stripes. All in the name of an epic quest to rid the world of the god like evil sorcerer Aku. Jack even travels into the belly of a dragon in an attempt to heal it and save a nearby village. How's that for a D&D-esque narrative?
With all of this in mind and armed with the Angry GM's excellent series on monster building in 5e D&D, I have set forth on my own quest to translate the monsters and magic from the world of Samurai Jack to the world of Dungeons and Dragons. I think it will be great DM exercise to deepen my understanding of the 5e mechanics and hopefully churn up some fun monsters and items for myself and the D&D community at large to have fun with.
This series isn't intended to teach you the gritty crunch of monster building, the Angry GM (and others) have already done a great job of that already. Through this series you can see my process for transforming narrative characteristics from the screen into game mechanics for the table. That way the next time you see a creative monster in a movie or TV show you can feel empowered to make a stat block and throw that thing at your players so you can enjoy watching them squirm against a new unforeseen foe.
For the first installment of this new series I decided to start with the first of Aku's future minions that Jack has to fight: the Beetle Drone.
The beetle drone is the basic foot soldier of Aku when Jack arrives in the future. In Episode 2 and 3 an army of them is sent to wipe out the aforementioned group of rebellious talking dog archaeologists. We see them running up and down vertical walls and steep inclines perfectly, using tactics of grappling and surrounding their target. So how did I start translating that into a D&D monster?
First I tried to identify what were the obvious narrative characteristics of these creatures that separate them from any other generic minion. Here's what I came up with:
- They attack in swarm-like groups, working together to surround their prey.
- They are proficient grapplers, managing to hold even the mighty Samurai Jack a round or two.
- The beetles move fast in addition to being able to scale vertical walls.
- They are mindless hunter/killer drones, following a mission objective to completion or destruction.
As the Angry DM suggests I started by sussing out the Challenge Rating. We can see Jack ripping through these things like butter. Aku clearly has a ton of them at his disposal, but they don't have much functionality beyond hunting targets to either retrieve or kill for Aku. So that means I want to be able to send them at players in groups, at lower level parties in smaller squads of two to six and against higher level players in waves. They also don't need to be smart or charismatic, but have a reasonable wisdom score to perform their jobs as hunters as well as good physical stats, particularly strength.
At the same time, they aren't pushovers. Against normal human beings (or aliens, or weird dogs) these things would be efficient hunters for Aku. From the combat ability they display in the show, one could imagine a single beetle taking down a few goblins before they bring it down. Given all that, CR 1 was the natural place to set the bar.
Monster Traits in 5e can add narrative flavor to a creature and I used three here. Spider Climb, Pack Tactics (renamed Swarm Tactics, because it sounds cool), and Grabber. Spider Climb gives them their sweet wall scaling capability, so they can come down a hall full speed on the ceiling Aliens style. Swarm Tactics represents their method of surrounding a target as a unit. To represent their high speed, I chose 35 feet for land and climbing. Why 35? Because it is one square faster than most humans can move in one turn. Round after round they close slowly on their prey. When they do they can capture them using the Grabber trait, which states that if both their claw attacks successfully hit the same target, it becomes grappled by the beetle.
Now for their attack. These things are armed with 4 bad ass scythe arms. Giving them a multi-attack of 4 would bring it's offensive CR up and make them more lethal than I intend them to be. Interestingly enough, in the show they only ever seem to strike at Jack with 2 blades at a time. So two attacks per round. I modeled the damage off of the Sickle, for 1d4 damage. However, they're quite strong at STR 16 meaning each sickle is dealing 4 - 7 damage or 8 - 14 if both hit, triggering the Grabber trait.
On the defensive side, they're relatively easy to hit even at low levels with an AC of 13 but they have enough HP to soak a few hard blows from low level players. This is in line with the DMG suggestions for a CR1 creature for AC but the HP is dropped down to account for Swarm Tactics and the creatures high strength bonus to damage.
To further emphasize their role as hunters I gave them proficiency in Perception and Athletics for their skills. Perception to help sniff out enemies, of course. With an Athletics of +5 they have some serious bulk to throw around in the grappling department.
But what use is this kind of creature in D&D? Imagine a wizard too busy with his research creating a pack of clockwork beetle drones to retrieve rare magic reagents he needs for spells and potions. The adventurers traveling the woods come across a pack of 6 beetle drones swarming around a growling Owlbear. Even as it rends one apart with its beak the others move in behind it methodically bringing it down with insectoid bladed arms. Carefully, almost surgically, they begin prying off its beak and removing its eyes before scuttling straight past the players ignoring their presence. If the party chooses to attack and are at a low level, one or two of the beetles peel off the pack to engage while the others return to the tower. At higher levels, maybe they trigger the two dozen beetles held in reserve to swarm out like an angry ant colony. That might cause a few conversations around the campfire that night.
I hope you found this useful, it was a fun exercise trying to translate something from screen to statblock. Feel free to steal this, tell me its garbage, or come up with your own version. As for me, there will be more Samurai Jack inspired creatures to come!