Mike Shea asked me how I’d handle solos at upper levels so that they shine against powerful characters and skilled players. In a similar vein, John Hixson asked about the infamous black dragon, a solo notorious for its cloud of darkness power and associated grind. A lot of people, in general, think solos are a great idea but that they often fail to live up to their intended use.
I have similar feelings.
Mike believes the problems with solos are exacerbated at higher levels. I agree. Where my thinking might diverge from Mike’s is my observation that solos can perform poorly all the way to the lowest levels.
Over multiple Mailbag articles, we’re going to talk about solos, as well as what they can and should do for you. We’re also going to talk about what you can and should do for them in your encounter design. Wrapping up, I hope to touch on how to properly inform and engage the players when you make your solos truly solo.
This article assumes you’re already using the updated rules for solos found in Dungeon Master’s Guide 2, page 133.
When you grab a solo, you’re often saying, “Wanted: Badass Monster to Challenge Whole Party.” Dungeon Master’s Guide says a solo is supposed to challenge the characters like five monsters. The design of numerous solos actually fails to live up to this expectation, though, likely because the original intent was to also to make solos simple to run. The concepts of simplicity and badass monster can fail to mesh.
As I see it, our task here is to figure out how make solos perform better, in general, preferably retaining as much simplicity as possible. To do that, we need to make sure our solos not only attack and deal damage like five monsters, but also move and shake off effects more effectively than normal monsters. These latter two points are, in my mind, how solos fail most at any level.
Why Are You Hiring?
How a solo should perform depends on how you’re planning on using it. A lot of DMs use solos mostly as the central figure in what some call “boss monster” fights. The final confrontation with the rampaging dragon or the demon lord fits here. But solos can also be used to up the challenge in a given encounter or to simulate the power of a particular creature compared to that of the characters. Typical solos can perform well in such circumstances, because they’re usually part of a larger array of encounter elements. Solos most often need help when they actually appear alone.
Solos present an encounter-building challenge because their statistics can lead to design that violates a simple rule: novelty breeds interest. In this case, interest is equal to fun at the game table. (Even for non-solo encounters, always remember this rule.)
A fight with a single monster that has a limited array of powers can lack novelty because not enough changes in round-to-round give and take. Further, as a battle moves forward and resources dwindle, the rounds of combat start to look and feel the same. This is what we need to avoid.
We need to train our solos to do their job better.
The basic solo needs rethinking with an eye toward keeping complexity in check. When designing your own solos or checking an existing solo for suitability, you might consider a few elements of the monster.
At the most basic level, make sure the solo is dealing enough damage. It should be dealing as much damage each round as do five monsters of equivalent level. In fact, a true solo can stand to deal a little more damage than that. A small damage increase accounts, over time, for some action losses the solo suffers and conditions the characters inevitably impose on the creature.
Solos also need a better action budget than any normal or elite monster. What if the typical solo were initially designed like an elite monster, including all normal elite statistics except that a solo has fourfold normal hit points? Such a solo’s second rules exception to being elite would be that the monster receives two turns each round–two places in the initiative count with a full array of actions in each turn. Thirdly, the solo should recharge its immediate action at the start of each of its turns, granting it two immediate actions each round. (This might be where a little extra damage lives on your solo, since the characters can trigger an immediate action twice a round.)
Make the most of this action economy. Even a normal 4e solo should have a triggered action that lets it take advantage of conditions in combat that would normally hinder a lone creature. It should also have other useful triggered powers and a minor action power or two.
A solo such as this also rolls recharges and saving throws differently. For simplicity’s sake, the creature rolls recharges only on its first turn each round. It rolls saving throws at the end of each turn with a +2 bonus. Being able to roll twice in a round more than makes up for the other +3 in a normal solo’s +5.
These few changes make the solo more mobile, action-oriented, and resilient.
Durations can be a little tricky when the solo has two turns. If a solo’s power has a duration of “until the end of the creature’s next turn,” the duration is the end of the next turn during which the condition was imposed. In other words, if on its first turn during a round the solo slows a target until end of the solo’s next turn, that target is slowed until the end of the solo’s next first turn. Enemy-imposed effects that use the solo’s turns to determine duration (unusual) should, on the other hand, remain normal. This latter situation favors the solo, which is intentional.
That’s because all conditions imposed by character powers usually favor the characters. They’re too effective against a solo. Some easy fixes exist for this problem, too. Each dazed, dominated, or stunned condition should affect only one of the solo’s turns, but the solo can be affected by such conditions multiple times like a heroslayer hydra (Monster Manual 2, page 151) can. So a solo has to be stunned or dominated twice to lose a whole round’s worth of actions. Further, any movement-hampering effect that has a duration that lasts until the enemy’s next turn should end on a successful save or normally, whichever comes first. Essentially, the solo can make saving throws against slowed, immobilized, and restrained conditions that should last until the end of an enemy’s next turn.
Changing how the solo performs over time in an encounter is essential. Such modifications to performance are commonly called monster state changes. State changes can create a narrative flavor such as a desperate or enraged foe, or whatever else you might want to evoke. They also change the encounter, and at their best, change the combat’s shape enough to refresh the novelty.
State changes as the solo takes damage are common and good, particularly those keyed to the bloodied condition. As page 133 of Dungeon Master’s Guide 2 suggests, a bloodied solo might lose access to one power and gain another. It could trigger a recharge power immediately. The solo might change the terrain or encounter environment, permanently or until the characters can overcome the change.
You can and should create monster state changes for your solo. Triggered actions can be good locations for creating small state changes. Such changes last a short time and often exist to give the monster some room to work. Encounter and recharge powers are fine places for big state changes. The best large changes last for the rest of the encounter, until the characters change the state, or until another state begins for the solo Especially appropriate are state changes that are also effectively disengagement powers or . . .
Especially when alone in a fight, a solo needs ways to end one board state–the arrangement of the elements of the encounter–in favor of another that gives the solo a temporary advantage. Especially at higher levels, a solo must be able to disengage to seek favorable fighting conditions. Being able to do so not only keeps the monster from getting dog piled and locked down, it also keeps the flow of the encounter interesting. Interesting is what we’re after here.
Having two turns during which the creature can move helps, but it’s not always enough. A mere increase in defenses against triggered-action attacks, such as opportunity attacks and mark-triggered attacks, help a solo escape being cornered, especially a flying solo. The solo might alter the terrain and move away, summon or create minions that hinder its attackers, and so on. What’s essential is that the creature can, at least sometimes, get away from an adverse tactical arrangement. Care is needed here–player/character tactics must still matter, so the solo shouldn’t be too slippery or seem like it escapes every bad situation.
An example of a simple termination clause is the young red dragon’s tail strike power. The dragon punishes an enemy that moves into a flanking position, and also throws that enemy back. It might be better if the dragon reacted to being hit by a flanker (so it doesn’t cancel an attack) and/or the tail strike were stronger in its effect–maybe just adding knocked prone would work.
The bloodied breath power of dragons is an illustration of a state-change power that could become a disengaging power. It’d be better if it allowed the dragon to do a lot in its increasing desperation. What if a dragon had the following power instead?
Bloodied Rampage • Encounter
Trigger: The dragon is first bloodied.
Effect (Free Action): The dragon ends all conditions currently affecting it, and it gains a +4 bonus to defenses against opportunity attacks until the start of its next turn. It can move or fly its speed. Breath weapon then recharges, and the dragon uses it.
That power might be too good, but if it is, it’s only just so. If we left off “and the dragon uses it,” this power is definitely fine. It’s also fine for illustrating the point.
Higher-level solos need more ways to deal with powerful characters and the high-end effects such characters can impose. Having more actions helps this, for sure. Beefy state changes and good disengagement powers are also vital for high-end solos.
More action points might suit higher-level solos, too. Vecna (Open Grave, page 212), for instance, gains an action point every time an enemy uses an action point. He’s a god, though. One extra action point per tier is good enough for a typical solo. Restricting the use of half those points, round down, until after the creature is bloodied is even better.
In the action-economy department, a few other options exist beyond action points. You can simply give an epic-level solo another full turn. Doing so can be complicated, because you still have to watch out for damage balance and immediate actions, as well as how durations function. Easier to implement is giving an extra attack or two on the creature’s regular turns, such as how the heroslayer hydra operates, along with minor action powers that allow small attacks or limited movement/disengagement.
You might also increase the likelihood of a higher-level solo escaping hampering conditions. At the simplest level, its saving throw bonus could be higher. Its disengagement powers should also be more reliable in function and meaningful to the state of the encounter. Whenever such a solo disengages, the characters should feel it.
Players also feel it when a monster does something surprising or recognizable as belonging to epic tier. Acknowledging this, another way I’d consider altering the state of an epic solo is allowing the creature to do what epic PCs can often do: come back from the dead. You have to play this carefully and balance hit points to account for the state change.
Even though it’s elite, the firbolg bloodbear (Monster Manual 2, page 109) shows what I mean. In its initial state, the bloodbear has two-thirds of the normal hit points for an elite brute of its level. When it first becomes bloodied, it heals completely. You could place a similar state on the 0-hit-point end of the spectrum. The solo has two-thirds normal hit points, but being reduced to 0 hit points the first time in the encounter is merely the trigger of another state change.
For an epic-level solo, especially named threats such as Orcus, I recommend that this state change also involve disengagement and/or environmental change, as well as something that removes all effects on the solo when it “died.” The solo then returns to combat at the start of its next turn, likely in a new position. It’s still bloodied, but it’s back in the fight and probably has a temporary advantage.
Later, I’ll expand on this topic and see if I can show an example or two. Plenty of good stuff exists out there for you to gain inspiration from in the meantime. Here are some of my favorites (which I’m trying not to duplicate in this series).