Mailbag 5 – All By Myself, Part 2

"Solo Scale" (c) copyright 2010 Chris SimsSubtitled: “All By Yourself, Part 1”

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.

Assessment

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.

Thinking Ahead

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.

Mailbag 4 – All By Myself, Part 1

"Solo Scale" (c) copyright 2010 Chris SimsMike 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.

Job Description

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.

Task Assignment

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.

Retraining

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.

Performance State

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 . . .

Termination Clauses

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.

Advancement

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.

Management Training

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).