Now we come to another piece on managing your solos. If you’re just joining us, you can read the first, second, and third installments if you like. It’s probably not necessary. I’ll reiterate a little before we start.
DMing a solo is at least as rewarding as running encounters with more monsters. It can be even more satisfying, since a solo can and should evoke strong reactions from players as it deals out destruction. But running a solo requires extra care, especially if you’re using the creature as the lone menace in the fight. Make sure your aware of what your solo can and can’t do, then prepare for it.
In any encounter, you need to provide your monsters a good workspace to spice up tactical play and the narrative. This is even more true for a solo. The most memorable encounters are a magical mixture of monster, terrain, roleplaying, and story.
It’s your job, as an encounter’s designer, to make sure the environment is working for the solo creature, but not necessarily against the characters. (I’ll elaborate on this latter point in the final installment.) A flying monster can use some open space. If the creature climbs and has good ranged attacks, think about including ledges and similar high terrain. Any monster that relies on stealth needs places to hide.
Terrain effects, such as those found in Dungeon Master’s Guide and Dungeon Master’s Guide 2, can benefit the creature, shoring up its weaknesses. A monster’s strengths might also be emphasized, such as how a flying creature’s aerial capabilities are highlighted when it has space to take wing. A creature that can use forced movement might have hazardous terrain in its lair, especially if the monster itself is highly resistant to the given hazard. Terrain can also be used as a story element—it makes sense for a red dragon to live in a volcano, for instance.
Terrain can provide the monster special powers, one or more times. A Huge creature might knock down walls or cave in a passage. Intelligent critters can also plan ahead for advantages with this type of terrain. A dragon might have dammed an underground river to use against intruders on one level of its lair. What if the volcano-dwelling red dragon unplugged such a dam to allow water into a chamber that has lava pools? Steam bath!
This last example also shows that creatures might be able to create terrain or other environmental effects. The ability to do so might be a power in the monster’s statistics or a terrain power you situate in the environment. Quinn Murphy’s Worldbreaker rules provide one a neat way to do this.
In any case, if the characters have little chance to gain a benefit from the terrain, be sure to consider it to be part of the encounter’s difficulty. Neutral terrain benefits those who occupy it, so terrain that helps only one side or the other isn’t neutral. If the terrain is an advantage only to the monster, it’s more or less a trap or hazard. Traps and hazards, as well as monster-favoring terrain and terrain powers, are fine supplements a solo’s ability to work well, as long as they’re part of the XP budget for the encounter and thereby fair to the players and characters.
A solo doesn’t care about being fair to its attackers, though. The best terrain features, in its mind, help it hurt or otherwise hinder its enemies, as well as disengage and reenter combat effectively. Terrain features like these also work to add movement and excitement to the battle. If the archlich can teleport to a ledge, forcing the characters to reengage on his terms, that can be cool. It starts to be uncool, however, if the archlich does that in a way that costs the characters whole turns to catch up to him. Smart monsters should be played as fun and smart, in that order, as I’ve said before.
Smart monsters, and even critters that are merely cunning beasts, have fallback plans, or positions, and escape routes. If the dragon becomes bloodied, it might withdraw to another area of its lair. An animalistic creature could simply flee until cornered in a new area. This requires a little more preparation, but it has the effect of changing up the battlefield, adding novelty to the ongoing combat. The Angry DM’s second article on D&D boss fights also talks about this.
Some DMs I’ve talked to take the solo label a little too literally. Although a solo is meant to challenge a party like five monsters might, the creature needn’t be alone. Whether it’s unaided is entirely up to you, your adventure’s story, and the XP budget you choose.
Good coworkers for a solo help the monster perform better or in ways that are more interesting. Allies might tie up attackers, allowing the solo freer movement during the early battle. They could impose effects and conditions on the characters that are beneficial to the solo. The combinations are limitless.
I like minions for this role, especially those who enter the fight in a paced way. A young dragon’s kobold minions might come in waves, especially to cover their beloved master’s strategic retreat. The solo creature might create minions intermittently, like Mike Shea’s dracolich.
Minions that impose effects on the characters, or aid the solo creature’s attacks, instead of attacking are even better. For instance, I created fire sinks in Seekers of the Ashen Crown. These creatures each have a 1-square aura that not only deals a small amount of fire damage but also negates fire resistance. The sink just moves to keep characters in its aura, and it never attacks. Such minions are easy to use and track, and they’re less time-consuming than minions that require attack rolls. Now, consider if all the fire sink’s aura did was negate fire resistance and grant vulnerable 5 fire in that red dragon’s volcano lair. Maybe the dragon’s breath even creates the sinks. Burn, baby, burn!
A poor work environment and poor coworkers can make for a poor encounter, solo monster or no. But solos have staying power, so standing in one place beating away on such a monster can become tiresome. Terrain solves some of the problem. Movement creates some sense of pacing, as well. Proper planning and pacing can do more.
I’ve said that my theory on disengagement powers on a solo is that such powers help the lone creature gain a tactical advantage every once in a while. Disengagement powers also allow you to change the rhythm and/or location of a clash. Like any movement, these tactics increase the freshness in a fight. They force the characters to revamp their tactics.
You can purposefully use pacing in any encounter, even without disengagement powers. Monsters attack, retreat, regroup, attack again, surrender, or flee. You decide if and when the critters take these actions when you design the encounter. They look for tactical advantages and a way to put enemies on the defensive. You do this during play. Pacing for a solo is different only in that involves keeping a battle interesting with, ostensibly, only one enemy on the field.
Usually, a solo creature is so much more powerful than any one character that it might be bold while it’s not bloodied. Maybe disregards opportunity attacks to move and attack as it likes. When it becomes bloodied, it might become more cautious. As the DM, your roleplaying like this can keep the conflict interesting. As we’ve discussed before, a solo could also have a state change when it becomes bloodied or meets some other trigger, altering how its powers work. That’s another form of pacing.
The Work Environment section mentioned fallback positions. This is yet another tool in your pacing arsenal. The creature withdraws, giving itself, and the characters, time to regroup. Maybe it then attacks again, but from a different angle, or forces the characters to pursue it into unknown territory. Both options change the feel of the fight.
If the monster flees for a short time, be sure the characters lack the time for a short rest, unless you intend for them to take one. Allowing a short rest can make the finale a little more interesting, however, since the characters recharge their encounter powers. But what’s good for them is good for the monster. If you do let the monster heal, grant it no more than a quarter of its hit points, no matter how many healing surges it has. This break in a combat encounter can be especially useful if the characters are slightly outmatched.
Healing or no, give the poor solo creature a break. If it’s clear to the monster that it’s going to lose, it should retreat or surrender. Newbie DM had a fantastic idea about applying the rules for subduing a dragon from Draconomicon to use for other solos. (You could use those rules for attrition in any encounter, really.) Basically, the creature unleashes all it has, and it stops fighting when it’s bloodied or reaches some other appropriate measure you choose. Then the monster acquiesces to character demands based on how badly it was beaten. As a designer, I wholly endorse this intuitive application of the rules. Monster surrender is also a roleplaying opportunity that is not to be overlooked. It can tell you a lot about the characters.
Next time, we’ll take a look at solo encounters with the characters in mind. The focus, of course, is fun for those on the other side of your DM’s screen.