It ain’t easy DMing, and solo monsters heap some responsibility on your shoulders. You might think that one monster on the field is an easier management task. Sometimes you’re right. But good management starts well before and proceeds throughout an engagement.
You have to be adept at recognizing weaknesses in an encounter before play starts. Then you have to plan. After all that, your plan will–will–fall apart when the players come in using their characters like wrecking balls.
In this article, we’re going to start talking about setting your solos up for success. You can see the first article here. Another article is on this one’s heels.
The first article discussed what a solo needs to do its job. An awful lot of solos fall short, and it can be hard to tell this at first glance. To briefly repeat, a solo needs to attack, move, disengage, and shake off effects more like the five monsters it’s meant to replace in an encounter. (But follow along for more on this point.)
As reader PinkRose reminded me (thanks PinkRose!), some solos are different. Take the berbalang (Monster Manual, page 34). This monster is solo by virtue of splitting into multiple duplicates. The duplicates provide much of what a solo needs: multiple attacks, multiple turns, mobility, different targets for effects, and so on.
The berbalang fails to function ideally for a few reasons. It’s too complicated for easy assessment, for one. As written, it’s also too hard to run for what it’s trying to evoke. It can heal itself and hurt itself, and it’s overly vulnerable to area effects. The descriptive text is unclear on whether the PCs know which creature is the original. A berbalang is just too darn easy to kill if the players can tell which one is the real deal and focus fire on it. Not good.
I’d make several changes. Instead of charging the berbalang minor actions to create duplicates, I’d allow it to create five as an encounter power that triggers when the berbalang rolls initiative. Then I’d track a single pool of hit points for the creature and the duplicates. That’s simpler. Every time the new berbalang loses one-quarter of its hit points, it loses one duplicate–its effectiveness declines as its life force diminishes. Lost duplicates could pop, kind of like the sacrifice power. The duplicates should be able to flank with the creature and one another. Area effect damage should be applied to the creature only once. In this design, it’s a flavor distinction as to which berbalang is the real one–the duplicates deal psychic damage, but the ability to distribute damage is implied rather than actually tracked. I’d play up this damage distribution in the narrative of the encounter rather than the mechanics of the monster.
A berbalang could be changed in other ways, but this way seems simplest. And that’s the point. You want effectiveness while you retain simplicity. Keep the parts that work, and make sure anything you change lives up to what we already said a solo needs in the first article.
The diminishing damage capability of my impromptu berbalang redesign brings up an important point about solos that’s easy to overlook. Over the course of a normal battle with multiple monsters, especially with sharp players who focus fire, the damage the monsters can dish out decreases over the course of the battle. A solo that attacks like five fully effective monsters for the whole fight is going to devastate the characters.
This is why some solos look like they deal too little damage from round to round when their damage is actually fine. It’s also why action denial on solos isn’t always as bad as it seems. Only detailed math can tell you if a solo is doing its work in this way, and that isn’t always easy to evaluate. When in doubt, lean toward lower damage rather than risk raining inadvertent ruin on the party.
Work Honest, Work Smart, Work Fun
Whatever you do, make sure you play a given solo not only as an adjudicator and roleplayer, but also as an entertainer. All these parts are in your game-management job description. Sure, you want to follow the rules, and you want the monster to use its abilities in the best way possible within the limits of its cunning. If pregame assessment or in-game circumstances show that playing honest and smart isn’t fun, the two former have to give way to the latter.
The young black dragon (Monster Manual, page 75), for example, can be a fun killer if you play it like it’s written. As Jon Hixson pointed out in his question, a smart black dragon turns out the lights, and then tears its blind victims apart while sustaining its cloud of darkness. It rarely takes any injury, because the poor sightless saps fighting it cannot land hit one. None of this sounds like fun to me, from either side of the screen. If you’re a DM and this scenario sounds fun, you just might be too cruel for your own good. (Just saying.)
A fix is relatively simple without changing much else about the creature. The dragon uses a standard action to bring down the blindness. Fine. Then, like other lurkers, it should move with impunity and receive two turns worth of potential damage on its next turn. Cloud of darkness goes away as the dragon makes those devastating lurker attacks, leaving it exposed to retaliation for a round. Then it repeats the tactic as soon as the flow of battle calls for it. The darkness also works great for covering disengagement or even an escape to a new battle zone.
The black dragon’s lurker roll brings up another unusual element of solo design. A solo’s role is more of a theme than a strict job description. Normal monsters need to fill roles as part of a team. Not so with a solo. An artillery solo might have more ranged attacks, and a skirmisher might be more mobile, but a solo often has to do without help. It can’t afford to hold fast to a single ideal that could leave it lacking on its own.
Even so, the black dragon, as presented, is not so much lurking as it is just holing up. The dragon also has other minor problems as a solo. Those claws and the tail look a little light on damage to me, and I want it to bite sometime other than opportunity attacks. Having been on the receiving end of that breath weapon with my druid character, though, I’m tempted to say the acid breath weapon’s damage is fine.
That’s about all for this time. Next time, I’ll look into the work environment for your solo. If not then, later we’ll also discuss pacing and coworkers for solos. Maybe I’ll even get around to some stat blocks for my modified monstrosities.