Minions Are Spice

(c) 2010 Chris Sims

A minion is a tiny onion used for flavor, especially in soups. That’s what my father told me when I was a kid. Even then, though, the D&D game had imparted enough for me to see the lie and the humor. In fact, if analyzed closely, this quip from dear ol’ dad, and my assimilation of it, might explain a lot about me. Talk about analysis paralysis.

But that’s not why we’re here, all thoughts about narcissism and social media aside. No, this isn’t about me. It’s about our D&D games and the cute little minions in them. Dad’s pun is right about D&D minions. They are, in fact, for flavor, especially in the best and tastiest soups.

D&D encounters are metaphorical soups of mayhem and roleplaying, escapism and illusion, bloodshed and heroics. Like spices change the flavor of food, minions change the flavor of encounters. Used well, they enhance consumption and digestion. Employed poorly, they can make the experience a little off or worse. It’s all about perception and taste.

Simple or Complex Tastes

In its most basic form, a minion is a zing in the player’s perception. A character zaps, punches, slashes, or whatevers a minion in the face, and the minion goes down. Splat! The character strikes a badass pose, the player smiles, and the encounter continues. Minion mission accomplished . . . to an extent.

Minions are also meant to deal characters damage and to balance an encounter. Dungeon Master’s Guide says so. That book tells you what a minion of a given level is worth in your encounter XP budget. It even gives you exact numbers of minions to use at different tiers. This stuff is basic information, general guidelines such as an amateur cook might find in book such as How to Boil Water.

That’s fine. Dungeon Master’s Guide is the basic DMing book for the 4e D&D game. Minions were brand new D&D technology when that book came out. You have to start with the basics.

The basics start to fail, in food and in gaming, when your tastes outstrip them. Sophisticated DMs and sharp players need refined ways to use and encounter minions. Common are the cries that minions die too quickly or are otherwise ineffective.

I agree, to a point. Minions can disappear quickly, and they might do so without so much as a whimper from their enemies. But if you have minions that started the battle still on the battlefield at the beginning of a normal encounter’s third round, then your minions have probably done their job. However, if you’re really feeling like minions aren’t pulling their weight, as I sometimes do, then it’s time to roll up your DMing sleeves and use a little more strategy.

Layering Flavor

Minions, like spices, combine with other encounter elements to create a whole that is very different from its parts. They provide two basic illusions in the game. The first illusion is that aforementioned burst of “my character is awesome” minions can impart to the player, especially when the character is a controller who clears the field. Second is the illusion of the heroic few against the hordes of evil (or whatever). Add minions to battles not only to emphasize these illusions, these flavors, but also to change player tactical decisions and encounter pacing.

In any encounter, you have to decide how you want the minions to perform. What taste are they supposed to leave in each player’s mouth? When cooking, you could just throw all the ingredients together in a bowl, stir them up, and cook them. Haphazard mixing rarely works out well. You concoct carefully, based on what you’re trying to make. In encounter design, your intentions determine the amount, placement, and timing of minions.

Add minions to an encounter deliberately, not by some by-the-book formulation. How few or how many you use should depend on the encounter’s an story’s needs. If your war campaign calls for troops of goblin conscripts, more minions might be better. Fighting in kobold mines might call for a few kobold miners in every clash.

Chunks of spice can be good or bad, depending on the flavor you’re looking for. Clump minions together at the start of the encounter only if you want the wizard to blow them all up quickly. (Although I might be repeating the obvious, it’s perfectly valid to add minions to some encounters just to make the players feel cool or smart.) Otherwise, you can probably think of plenty of good and fair reasons for minions to be dispersed or even out of sight when combat begins. Then you can reward careful tactical play or good skill use.

Similarly, based on the creatures’ intelligence and self-confidence, use tactics with minions. If the minions see everyone who starts a turn adjacent to the fighter becomes hamburger thanks to that awesome stance the fighter has, then maybe they’ll avoid the fighter. Or maybe they’ll rush in and die. Again, it depends on what you, the head chef, want the taste to be. In this example, you can have the best of both worlds by forcing the fighter to chase down those minions he wants to make into chum. You could even make that a poor tactical decision . . . .

I like to disperse my minions by adding them to an encounter after it starts, like one might add salt and pepper to a dish after it’s cooking or cooked. You might do the same. As long as the appearance of new monsters makes sense, and the XP reward is on the money, the players won’t mind. Another way to add minions is to have a creature that summons or creates them intermittently. Heck, you can even “cheat” by adding minions on the fly to turn up the heat on an encounter that seems too easy. New monsters change the pace of any combat, making it more exciting, especially if those monsters can’t last too long.

Full Flavor

Late in playtesting the 4e D&D game, I ran a few encounters using kruthik minions to reinforce the bug-hunt feel I was looking for. A conclusion I came to then was that minions should not actually be part of an encounter’s main challenge unless the DM wants an encounter that’s slightly easier than the XP budget suggests. When used conscientiously, such a tack is another fine tactic in encounter design, but it’s neither obvious nor spelled out in any D&D rulebook.

When I created my bug-hunt encounters, I wanted the minions to create harder encounters. I used tactics I have already explained, especially adding on minions as the fight progressed. (“Just when you thought the fight was in hand, more kruthiks pour out of these tiny holes! Bwahahaha!”) Another scheme I used was to put most of or all the kruthik minions in what I call “the gap.”

The gap is that magical zone between the XP budget total for one level and the XP total that pushes the encounter level to the next highest one. If you build a solid encounter of the level you’re shooting for, use one or more of the strategies I’ve already mentioned, and then place the minions in the gap, you might find your minions work out a little better. Even if the minions don’t last long enough to suit you, the encounter should still challenge the characters.

Where does black dragon breath come from!Savoring It

In my campaign, the characters recently fought myconids. Myconid gas spore minions spontaneously popped out of surrounding mushroom terrain througho ut the fight. This pacing changed the dynamic of the battle in a few ways. The spores showed up from unexpected angles. A few times, one thwarted a player’s preplanned tactics for a round. Once the players figured out that killing the death-bursting spores could be bad, the characters started looking for ways to be far away from a spore when it died and exploded.

The result was I was after is what I got. Gas spores added a weird flavor to the fungal rumble. They mixed it up and made the whole scene more fun. To me, fun is the point of an encounter. Fun can come from the challenge, the scene and story, or both. I like both.

Admittedly, though, the gas spores had one advantage over typical minions. The death burst added a level of threat some minions lack. It’s true that some minions are harder to use effectively because they lack effective mechanical advantages. Numerous older minions deal too little damage, as well. These facts can become more problematic as level increases.

Next time, I’ll talk about tinkering with minions and their environment on a mechanical level. We’ll see if we can make them not only more effective, but also more fun for you and your players. I’ll also touch a little more on illusions minions can create in the game, as well as issues related to gamist transparency.

Canon Fodder

Yeah, that was an easy pun, but it’s in stride with my opinions on this subject and has a deeper meaning in this essay. Based on discussions I’ve had with various colleagues and friends, I decide to put my viewpoint on display here. Hopefully, it’ll give you and me some clarity. First, though, we need to define terms.

In a Dungeons & Dragons campaign setting context, canon can be defined as imagined world history up to just a moment ago. This can consist of an overarching metaplot, as with White Wolf’s 90s and early 00s World of Darkness games. It can also encompass dozens of smaller stories, as with the Forgotten Realms setting and its embracing of novels as canon. Game setting canon can also include differences from core assumptions, spelled out or not, in a game’s implied setting, as it is in the core 4e D&D game. For instance, Eberron has different deities and styles of magic than those assumed to exist in the D&D game’s implied setting.

Canon Aims

Defining differences can make a game world stand apart from its peers. The myriad gods of the Forgotten Realms help make the world seem different. Highly organized kingdoms, complex politics, and large areas of known territory also distinguish it from the core “points of light” assumption. Eberron is similar. It’s not as wild as one might assume the implied world of the central D&D game is. In Eberron, most deities have no physical manifestation in the known universe. Magic is used much like technology might be in a Wild West or Pulp Era setting. In the history of Dark Sun, the primordials defeated the gods, driving them into hiding, imprisonment, or death. Divine power is hard to come by in Dark Sun, to say the least. Misuse of arcane magic led to the ecological collapse of Athas, Dark Sun’s world. With unnatural devastation and the absence of divine power came significant changes to the cosmology.

Differences that really define a campaign setting are cool. They help shape the image of the setting in the minds of the game’s players (including the DM). Such broad strokes also help the players understand mechanical divergences that might be in the setting. For instance, a player in a Dark Sun campaign assumes he or she should play a divine character only if a compelling reason exists as to why the character has access to divine power at all. Most players probably presuppose the divine power source is off limits, but they shouldn’t.

You see, setting changes that mess around with default game elements, such as whole power sources, should avoid absolutism. At least, their creators should avoid absolutes. Rather than writing in a Dark Sun book that you cannot use the divine power source, a designer should teach you how to use the divine power source in out-of-the-box ways that make sense on Athas. (By the way, I’m not saying whether the upcoming Dark Sun campaign setting is absolutist in the use of divine power. This is just an example.) Any given DM can choose an absolute stance for his or her campaign, although even that is less than ideal.

Also less than ideal are trivial changes that fail to define the game world in a meaningful way. The worst among these are absolutes that some designer or novelist added without much thought. Dark Sun setting material from older editions read that kank meat is inedible. So what? Does that small fact help you tell a story set on Athas? Or does it make you, like I did, question why anyone would herd these beasts over the delicious, egg-laying erdlu? Sure, kanks produce an edible honey, but a herder can use everything an erdlu produces, down to beaks and bones. If I lived on Athas, I’d herd erdlus and hunt kanks, or at most, keep small herds of kanks for work and riding.

I’m waxing pedantic there, which is something trivial changes can almost force you to do. Requiring and encouraging detail-oriented attention, especially in a game’s official product line, is far from good for the game. In another instance of this, the older Dark Sun setting had Cleansing Wars in the past, wherein powerful arcanists attempted to wipe certain species from the face of the planet. Taken on its face, this fact is fine. A story of racist sorcerers slaughtering certain folks can make for good history and an excellent basis for current politics and superstitions. But when you start listing races the Cleansing Wars wiped out to the last individual, when that fact is not important to the design or story, you’ve gone too far. Why? Because DMs don’t need to be told they can’t use a particular monster, and players don’t need to be told they can’t play a certain race, just because a novelist or designer arbitrarily decided to wipe out a particular creature.

It’s better to create tension, saying the arcane pogrom targeted gnomes, than to create absence, saying the arcane pogrom wiped gnomes out. In the former case, those who want gnomes in their campaign can have bitter, furtive gnomes that dislike human arcanists. In the latter case, those who want gnomes have to break with the official position on the subject. In both cases, those who want no gnomes can use the historic massacre as an excuse. Which tack is more flexible? Isn’t more flexible better for the game?

Canon Damage

As hard as it might be for veteran game tinkerers to believe, it’s difficult for some players, especially new ones, to break free of the official position on a subject. The official position is “the rule,” after all. Taught by the example of those in lofty official positions, newer players might also start to think absolute positions are right and good. I’ve met players who believe these points, who believe that changing what you don’t like about a game is something one does not do. That’s breaking the rules.

To use older Dark Sun material as a reference point again, some of the adventures and the second edition of the setting were less than popular among fans. This was with good reason. At least a couple adventures place novel characters in the central roles they had in the novel. They do the cool stuff while the players and player characters watch or take up secondary roles. Fun, eh? The whole second edition of the setting assumes the Prism Pentad novels have happened—have become part of the canon—and that the world has changed. A number of defining elements from the original setting are gone, because the novel protagonists removed them, usually bloodily. Allowing the novels to interfere with the game material did the fans no favors.

This is one reason why it’s insane to use novels as canon for any game setting. Another is that a roleplaying game is about interacting with an imaginary world as a potentially important imaginary person or as one who directs events set in that world. The game is not about merely consuming someone else’s narration or spectating at historic events. Further, as the number of novels increase, the canon becomes increasingly unwieldy until it’s overwhelming for normal players. Most people avoid playing cumbersome games. Enforcing novels as canon from an official position also, eventually, makes it a nightmare to design game material and write shared-world fiction for that setting.

This was a very real problem that faced the Forgotten Realms setting when the 4e D&D game came on the scene. Keepers of the Forgotten Realms went even further in the past, actually. Just about everything with an official seal on it is canon for the Realms—games, video games, novels, and so on. Now that’s crazy and limiting. However, it could have all been solved by hitting the reset button on the Realms the way Wizards did with Eberron and Dark Sun. Back to 1357 DR, anyone?

Some novels or other non-game setting materials do more or less harm to games that exist alongside them or follow them. The Forgotten Realms setting is indeed a place where thousands of stories can happen. It is more tolerant to canon because of this. On the other hand, Middle Earth really has one ultimate task that needs accomplishing. If you ain’t a member of the Fellowship of the Ring, pal, you’re nobody.

A rich media environment is still good for a game. Novel and such serve the game and their own purpose when they tell what could be or might happen in a game world without enforcing that reality, as canon, on the game. Such stories then become great territory for DM looting, for adventures and NPCs, and player looting, for character concepts and backgrounds. They retain their value as entertainment, as well. No one can stop one DM or another from making a novel’s story canon for his or her game. That’s fine.

Canon Misfires

The point is, as my friend Stephen Radney-MacFarland liked to point out when I got too serious in some meetings at Wizards of the Coast, we all just make this stuff up. I’m just saying that what the official source makes up and peddles as canon needs to be defining and flexible rather than trivial and absolute. Trivial absolutes are the worst. They’re hard to remember, and often not worth remembering. (Oh, yeah, I can’t use trolls here because the trolls were wiped out in the Cleansing Wars. There goes my adventure idea. Bleh.) They also give those who can remember such trivialities a way to choose against being immersed in the distinctive world an individual DM wants to portray. Sure, that’s jerky, and we should avoid playing with jerks, but it happens. Put simply, trivial canon and absolutes, especially arbitrary ones without guidance on how to make exceptions, just make the game harder to play.

For the record, a lot of game material contains arbitrary absolutes that make the material harder to use. Take any monster that doesn’t play well with others, a prime reason why 4e monster entries try to give you reasons to mix and match. Look for any statement with a never or an always in it. When I edit, I kill such absolutes with wild abandon. I want to avoid making the game harder.

Final Volley

Game world canon can and should make the game better and easier to play. It should be defining rather than trivial. Setting material should teach you how to make a game of your own, instructing you on how to make fitting exceptions even to defining canon. What I’m really saying is that you can portray a unique and interesting game setting, and at the same time, make that setting easy to play. You have to be careful with your canon.

Just don’t point it at me.

Illustration for Art Crash 2010, by Jared von Hindman of Head Injury Theater.

Mailbag 8—All By Myself, Part 5

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.

Informed Opposition

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.

Providing Tools

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.

Closure

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.

Mailbag 7–All By Myself, Part 4

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.

Work Environment

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.

Coworkers

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!

Pacing

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.

Competition

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.

Mailbag 6 – All By Myself, Part 3

Dragon (c) 2010 Chris Sims
Click to Enlarge

In this installment of the exploration of solos, we have two statistics blocks based on what we’ve been talking about in the first and second installments.

Brand Power

First is a dragon. In or out of the dungeon, this monster has to leave an impression.

I envision many dragons as a little brutelike, along with another role in most cases. What I mean is that I like to see most dragons acting like the big, strong creatures they are. The solo role determines how they finesse the badass creature role.

The statistics here depict a copper dragon, as I might make it up to fit what we’ve been looking at. The dragon is built like a very strong elite, but draconic alacrity gives it two turns and two immediate actions each round. Draconic resilience is the way the dragon shakes off effects that are too effective against a single creature.

For an elite, the dragon has normal attack features, with two basic attacks for variety befitting a dragon. Its double attack maintains variety of choice for the DM, and its flyby attack does the same while playing up the skirmisher role. This dragon’s fly speed is a little lower than might be expected, because the two turns it receives make it a quick flier in combat, despite its speed.

You might notice this dragon pushes enemies around, knocks them prone, and slows them on occasion. That’s not only the emphasis on the brutlelike quality I was talking about, but it’s also another way this dragon skirmishes and disengages. If it’s marked, or otherwise wants to get away from a target, it uses its attacks to push and knock prone. It also punishes a flanker, but only twice per turn and only after the flanker hits the dragon. (It’s fun-killing and combat-lengthening when you deny a character a hit with a power such as tail slap.)

Frightful presence is a special case. I hate stunning powers, for and against monsters, because they diminish fun by denying someone the ability to play for a while. Typical frightful presence on 4e dragons is right out. Therefore, I made frightful presence a good minor-action disengagement power. The dragon has a decent chance to push creatures away so it can use the rest of its actions to resituate itself or even flee.

Dragon breath weapons are a racial shtick. They need to be felt. I believe dragon breath weapons should always deal half damage on a miss for this reason. Breath weapon’s slow effect is another stay-away aspect to an otherwise damaging power–the half damage on a miss is a must for me on dragon breath. It also harkens back to the earlier-edition versions of this dragon. Bloodied breath has one minor and subtle change from default 4e dragons: it says the dragon can use it. That means the DM can save the free recharge for later use if using the breathe weapon immediately is suboptimal or worse, as it can often be.

Berbalang (c) 2010 Chris Sims
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Photocopy Guy

Next we have a third-party-refurbished berbalang. This version jettisons all the complexity and confusion of the original. It’s relatively straightforward. It also acts like five monsters over the course of the battle.

Sure, it creates duplicates, which can be confusing even in this version. Here’s the simplified one: once per encounter, on its turn or when it’s hit with an attack before its first turn, the berbalang creates four copies of itself. Reactive projection, the triggered version of the psychic projection power, works even if the berbalang becomes stunned or dazed before the power goes off. (Technically, it’d also work if the berbalang died from the triggering attack, but given the context, that outcome is highly doubtful.) Although it lacks projection powers, each projection is otherwise considered to be a berbalang. That fact is key when reading the other powers. A berbalang projection is a berbalang for the purposes of the other powers.

To keep track of which berbalang is which, simply color code each marker. You can use file label dots on a miniature’s base or on a counter’s face. If you make your own creature tokens, you might give each one a different border.

Each berbalang resists 10 damage from any attack that has an area of effect. Although that might seem low, since the berbalang might take a lot of damage from such attacks, I’m inclined to leave such resist numbers low. That’s because seeing all your damage disappear to a resist trait is no fun–it’s hit robbery. (Another solution is that the berbalang takes damage from such powers only once, even when multiple berbalangs are hit, but I prefer some player satisfaction from the use of area powers.

I’d rather leave resist low and give the monster a payback power of its own. That’s when psychic backlash comes in. When a bunch of the berbalangs in the battle take an area hit, they retaliate with mind war. Psychic backlash also comes in handy against those pesky defenders who don’t want to let a monster move freely. On occasion, a player is going to decide to forgo an opportunity attack, area attack, or similar attack to avoid the chance of the damage from psychic backlash. That’s the point.

Move as mind‘s point is to be a simple disengagement power. Each berbalang–the original and two projections at the point this power can be used–can use this power to move without much regard for enemies. Or they can all flee to a more advantageous position or location. You need only keep track of which berbalang has used the power, but that should be simple since you’ve differentiated each one on the battle map.

Otherwise, the berbalang is a claw and bite machine. You have to watch for specific hit point counts, but you can pretty much ignore its projection powers once one or the other has been used. You needn’t worry about move as mind until the berbalang is bloodied, and you can forget about it as soon as each berbalang on the field has used the power once. Other than that, it’s move for combat advantage, rip, and chew with a few leave-me-alone or think-twice moments provided by psychic backlash.

Improving the Culture

I’m not positive everything is perfect with the samples here. Feel free to playtest and critique, or just critique. This is the internet, after all.

My biggest ambition with these samples isn’t perfection, however. I hope to improve the fun you and your players have interacting with monsters such as these. I also want to give you, the DM, food for thought for creating or adjusting your own solos.

If I’ve succeeded at those ambitions, you’ll let me know. Won’t you?

The next article in the series appears here.

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.

D&D Trivia Archive 1

On Twitter, I give out little tidbits about D&D history as I know it or experienced it. You can get yours quickly by following me on twitter or emailing me with a question. I’ll also be archiving each month’s tweets here on Critical-Hits!

Here’s the April 2010 D&D trivia archive.

  • Tiamat is one of the major gods in the core D&D pantheon; she’s a “god” rather than “greater god.”
  • As Splug’s creator (in a 4e playtest, actually) @mikemearls must join #TeamSplug!
  • Rich Baker did a lot of work on the warlord, with power names such as “Feather Me Yon Oaf”–any guesses what it did?
  • One piece of #dnd trivia some folks seem to doubt is that all the peeps in (and once in) D&D R&D play and love D&D in multiple editions.
  • I created the Worm of Ages (E1 Death’s Reach)–a solo + encounter environment–but it’s based on the original 4e purple worm.
  • Vedic spirituality (and its heir Buddhism) and cross-cultural animism/ancestor reverence mix in “Ecology of the Deva” article.
  • Trivia with @gamefiend’s diversity theme: Feudal Japan mixed with a li’l Rome and Vedic warrior ways helped form my take on dragonborn.
  • Rich Baker created much of the Nentir Vale and Fallcrest in the 4e DMG. His hand-drawn map of Fallcrest was amazing!
  • “Lord of Battle” was Combat Challenge’s working name. My group pictured a well-armed warforged on a Riverdance-like t-shirt.
  • Edgar Rice Burroughs’s Martian novels influenced Dark Sun back in the day, as did Richard Corben’s Neverwhere (Den).

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).