This final piece is all about the competition for your solos—the players and their characters. You design encounters to challenge those others at your game table, so almost all of this series has really been about them anyway. Rather than the mechanics of making and using solo creatures, this section focuses on engaging players, and keeping them that way, and allowing characters to shine against a solo.
You probably already know it, but if you’re a good DM, you’re probably having the most fun when the players are enjoying what you’ve created. That’s one reason why DMing is so great. You are able to work on and take pleasure from both sides of the game’s interactions. Hopefully, some of the stuff here helps you do that better.
The characters have to earn their glory. It’s true. You’ve created a dynamic scenario for the monsters, but you need to make sure the scenario and encounter have elements that make them the most fun for the players. Make sure the players have the opportunity to play creatively.
An informed player is best suited for fun and success. You need not just give the information away if play demands otherwise. The truth is, though, that stumbling into the dragon’s lair is a lot less fun than anticipating the terrible battle bound to occur there. Running into any solo unexpectedly can leave players at loose ends, and the characters might suffer for it. Then your game will suffer, too.
The players also need the skinny on the environment. Your description of the surroundings is more than an imparting of setting detail. It should always hint at, if not directly convey, what’s possible in the area. What casual observation fails to reveal, judicious skill use should. If you want the characters to interact with some part of the location, don’t hide the information about that encounter element behind a hard skill check DC. In fact, if you want to be sure it’s used, don’t hide it at all. It’s okay to give away some information for the sake of fun. Besides, our characters are way more competent than we are. Just ask my characters. They’ll tell you.
It’s hard not to bow to the feeling that players should earn the lore they and their characters learn, but I’ve seen more than one encounter go off the rails because the DM wasn’t clear or hid needed details behind a bogus skill check. If player knowledge of the situation is important, but the player’s fail to ask for that necessary skill check, let the characters suffer only for a little while. Then do the hard part. Ask for the check. It’s okay to lead a little. Again with character competence.
Once combat is joined, the players need to know how the battle is progressing. Be explicit about state changes in the monster and alterations to the environment. Ask for checks or use passive skill checks when the characters might or might not notice a change. Be descriptive and informative about how the monster uses powers, and why certain results occur. If you catch signs that the players don’t really understand what’s happening fully, make sure they grasp what you think is essential and that the characters should know. Repeat yourself if necessary. You’re doing everyone a favor, believe me.
That’s because knowing the situation is central to the players’ ability to make informed decisions. A dynamic encounter demands that players change character tactics based on what they know or learn. Solo encounters should be among the most dynamic in design, since the monster doesn’t always provide the needed dynamism. If the monster does, then all the better.
Information and its exchange are the primary tools in a cooperative game such as D&D, but we’ve talked about those. Environmental elements, skill uses and challenges, and calculated advantages can help the characters out and liven up a solo encounter. Give the characters cool toys.
Add terrain effects and terrain powers that the characters can use to gain an advantage. One such environmental power might even be a deal changer in the battle. Think about how Conan dealt with larger, stronger creatures or how Wulfgar finally slew the white wyrm Ingeloakastimizilian (Icingdeath). The ability to drop a huge stalactite on a dragon can be a cool event in the fight, especially if the characters discover the option when their normal resources are dwindling. The dragon might even make such a choice available after it uses a terrain power to cause a minor cave-in during a state change or pacing change in the confrontation.
When it comes to skills, not only should you let players use checks to gain advantages in a combat, but you should also encourage it. Little boons—from hidden clues garnered through shrewd use of knowledge skills to unexpected benefits gained by boldly seizing good terrain with physical skills—are the spice of a tactical game. To me, the game is a fantasy action movie slowed down into digestible gaming bits. Such bits even tastier when they allow a character to accomplish action-hero tasks or one-up the badass monster.
Skill challenges, especially those that can help mitigate a state change in the solo monster or an advantage the monster has, are doubly useful. They can give an encounter pizzazz, as well as adding to the challenge. Maybe those versed in Arcana, Nature, or Religion can work to unravel the field of unfathomable geometry defending that Far Realm entity (Thoon!), while those with Insight and Endurance can ignore the worst effects for a while.
When you use skills, I recommend taking a page from D&D editor Greg Bilsland’s blog. Try to keep the action cost low, allowing checks with minor actions. Limit each character’s check to once per turn if extending the tension is an issue. Standard-action checks should have effects at least as significant on the encounter as a hit with an at-will power. I say that such willingness on a player’s part to break out of a normal combat mode should be more rewarding. Giving up a standard action can extend the fight, but if you make the effects of that standard action worthwhile, the player should feel it. Solo fights need no help in the length department.
If the battle starts to drag, and the characters are down to at-will attack powers, be brave. Employ the next big disengagement as an excuse to allow a brief short rest that allows the characters to regain the use of some or all their encounter powers. (Greg Bilsland also points out how the time for a short rest is ambiguous. Use that for added excitement.) It might be okay for the monster to recover a little, as well, but that’s a decision you have to make on the fly while eyeballing the encounter’s pacing. Err on the side of allowing the monster to recharge some interesting powers during the pause, rather than allowing healing. If you do allow healing, give the monster back what a normal monster might regain from the use of a healing surge—do not give it back a quarter of its solo hit points or, gods forbid, more.
Acting in Good Faith
You need to avoid a few potential pitfalls when designing and playing out an encounter with a solo monster. Use certain conditions judiciously, play dramatically even if that diminishes optimum monster performance, and steer clear of thwarting the characters too much. These mistakes can grind the encounter to a messy end even if the characters win.
When I design encounters, I shun what I call one-hit weakened and stunned conditions. I also minimize one-hit dazed conditions. A one-hit condition is one that an attack imposes on the first hit with no other circumstances required. I instead place these conditions in cascading effects—effects wherein a character who has one condition worsens when hit again or when hit by a specific power, or fails a save or two. Multiple hits or save failures are required to impose progressively worse conditions. Why? Stunned, weakened, and dazed conditions not only diminish fun, but they also add to grind. Conversely, when placed in cascading effects, the potential of facing the worsening of a condition can change tactical choices and add tension to the encounter. The gameplay result is positive instead of frustrating or grindy.
It’s important, if you diminish serious conditions such as these, that you increase the monster’s damage at least a bit. This assumes the attack deals damage, of course. Some don’t. In that case, you might consider adding damage or tinkering with the action cost the way I did on my copper dragon’s version of frightful presence. Simply eliminating the serious condition without upping the damage can make the power flat.
Dull is what you want to avoid, and that can mean playing in ways that are less than truly optimal or strategic for a given monster. We’re playing a game here, and cinematic value has to trump strategic play at times. Sure, it’s best when the two mesh, but that’s an ideal situation. If less than ideal is the situation, change that situation. Further, let players feel the difference in power, and let characters trigger some of their powers. Solo creatures know they’re mighty, so provoking a few opportunity attacks and ignoring marks from the puny characters might be okay a few times.
Take the Monster Manual black dragon. It could hide in its cloud of darkness, and certainly might do so in a “realistic” situation, but how is that fun for anyone? Change monster elements like this when you find them while you’re preparing. Be prepared to make alterations on the fly if you see a monster’s power having a negative effect on the game. Thrashing the characters isn’t essentially negative, but frustrating the players is. It’s better if the dragon uses the cloud to gain clear advantages, such as choosing its targets without regard for the defender or covering its disengagement.
Disengagement powers, similarly, must be used wisely, or the players might start to feel like the characters just can’t gain an edge. A recharge, such as my copper dragon’s twice-per-encounter frightful presence, can help to control disengagement. So can player choice. For instance, maybe one of a solo monster’s disengagement powers works only if the creature is flanked. As long as you’re clear that the power has that limitation—probably after it goes off once, and then you fill the players in on what’s happening in game terms—the players choose whether their characters flank the monster. If the players refuse to change tactics, the characters suffer. Too bad for them.
While I was writing this, I realized that these play strategies apply to general encounter design, especially important encounters, in numerous ways. You probably realized that before I did. I’m not going back and making this a general article, though. Nope.
Anyway . . .
Players always need to be informed or to have a chance to be so enlightened. Terrain and other extra encounter elements can make any encounter saucier. Skill use is fun and makes a player feel smart for having chosen a skill. (Remember, what’s good for the characters is good for the monsters. Lead by example with skill use. Make them pay!) You owe it to yourself and your players to tinker with the game, before or during play, when frustration seems to be a likely result of a given mechanical element. D&D is an evolving game, and even official material has flaws. Drama and fun are always more important than rules or realism.
You won’t get it right every time. Don’t sweat it. Neither do I. But we can all aim high, and learn from each shot that misses the target or hits it dead center.
We’ve also come the conclusion of my series on dealing with solos in your game. Thanks for coming with me on this journey. I can only hope you learned as much as I did while thinking and writing on this topic.
If you’re just joining us, you can read the first, second, third, and fourth installments if you like. You can also see the other solo articles in the rundown of my Analysis Paralysis column from the Columns menu. Updates on the column can be had by selecting Analysis Paralysis from among the available RSS feeds.