Into the Unknown

In roleplaying games, the D&D game especially, characters delve into mysteries that surround them. They might wish to bring light into the darkness of the world. Curiosity could drive them. A desire for wealth and fame might be enough motivation. Whatever the case, adventurers go in search of the unknown.

Discovery is a process. It requires motivation, followed by exploration and a willingness to keep going despite setbacks. In games, it also requires that the truth is discoverable. Someone has to know the facts, or something has to exist to help lead seekers to the situation’s reality.

Mysteries must have answers in all roleplaying games. At least, the secrets the players wish for their characters to uncover should have some means of being laid bare. That means the DM, at least, has to know, or have an idea, where a path of exploration leads. In the case of published work, the designers should know such answers and, more important, reveal them.

We designers fail to do that sometimes, however. In books, we make statements such as:

Iyraclea is the mistress of the Great Glacier. From her realm beneath the ice she spell-snatches young, vigorous mages for some unknown but doubtless sinister purpose. Iyraclea worships Auril the Frostmaiden and commands magic of awesome power . . . . Few see her castle of sculpted ice and live to tell the tale.

Half a century before the start of the Last War, an unknown evil infected the lycanthropes of the Towering Wood, stirring them to violence and driving them east to wreak chaos in settled lands.

I’ve been guilty of it:

Known also as the Wood of Dark Trees, this dense jungle is home to all sorts of dangerous creatures. The animate and malevolent trees from which the forest gets its name are numerous, as are venomous flying snakes. A pair of chimeras with black dragon heads lives deep in the forest, lairing not far from the Mound of the Sleepless and attacking any who approach. What the chimeras guard is unknown.

My sensibilities have changed over time. Once, I might have tolerated such vagueness in my own game writing. Now I see this type of ambiguity as a disservice to DMs and players. It’s unhelpful at best, and maybe even lazy at worst.

I know the reasons for leaving narrative elements undefined. We primarily tell ourselves that we’re leaving space for the DM to create, or we’re avoiding imposing our “official” ideas on users. Maybe we’re even evading canon bloat. We’re protecting DMs, in case the players read “the truth” in the campaign guide. Further, our blank space is a call to design for those who use our products. Occasionally, the “unknown” is the subject of another product such as a novel or adventure. To me, this situation is even weaker than the aforementioned reasons. It also misses a chance a cross promotion, but I digress.

All those rationalizations are malarkey.Read More »

Loss Builds Character

I’ve experienced a bit of loss recently. I lost my job at Wizards of the Coast this past December. No permanent employment has come my way yet, so I could lose my house. (Maybe not such a bad thing, all considered.) I gave my pound of flesh to the surgeon who removed my little cancerous growth. (Shaking my fist at the sun, I know it’s really my fault.) I lost my sister this past month. Heck, I’ve even lost over thirty pounds, taking the good with the bad. Loss has been on my mind a lot recently.

This isn’t about me, though. Truth be told, despite some dark instances, life has been good to me. Any suffering I’ve endured has been, thankfully, minor. I feel like I’ve gained a lot in the past few months, from experiences to friends to opportunities.

Loss shapes us. How one responds and moves on from loss can have a profound effect on the path one’s life takes and the deeds one performs. In this world, loss is inevitable but often without deep impact. We don’t live in a place where kobolds can eat our babies or a maniac can call up the avatar of the Mad God. Our characters do.

Making Up Losses

The minor travails of modern life are not the norm in for heroes in a fantasy world like those of the Dungeons & Dragons game. The harsher the world is, the greater the potential for suffering. Take Dark Sun. Characters on Athas have a potential for loss few of us would like to imagine. Even if you’re playing a game set in cushy Faerûn, DM or player, you should take some time to imagine loss.

Loss and the desire to do something about it is one root of character motivation. It can be key in the background of a player character and the adventuring party’s forward momentum. Something as little as gambling debt or as big as the death of an entire tribe can shape a character’s path. If you’re a DM, loss can turn good guys bad, bad guys good, and mold the fate of nations and deities.

One element I included in the character history questions for players in my Dark Sun game was had to do with loss. It went something like: Athas is a harsh world in which people suffer regular hardships and loss. What have you suffered or lost? How has this event shaped you or your life? What are you going to do about it?

Malamac, one of those characters, had a lot of loss in his life. He was the only dwarf in his clan who had no touch of primal magic. For “blasphemous” discoveries in an ancient dwarven city, servants of the tyrant of Tyr killed Malamac’s kin and enslaved Malamac. Malamac found himself an unwilling gladiator bereft of possessions and friends.

Like with Malamac, I learned the most about the characters from the losses they had suffered and what they planned to do about them. The answers have shaped adventures and encounters for over a year now. As the characters approach paragon tier, I’m working to provide opportunities to resolve or provide closure for many of those losses. I’m also fostering new attachments and planning possible threats to those attachments.

You see, loss often leads to new experiences and connections. Malamac’s initial loss opened the way for his primal power to blossom. It also provided him with a new “family” made up of some characters in his party if not the whole group. He has risen to leadership among his friends, providing him with a sort of status he might never have gained otherwise. The “loss” of his status as a slave opened the door to adventure, and adventure has led to prestige that might become actual influence in Tyr. Certainly, Malamac and his peers stand in a position to influence Tyr’s future fate.

Losses Influence

Loss I’ve imposed has shaped the narrative course of my Dark Sun campaign. I began the game, and some of my “Welcome to Dark Sun” sessions, with an encounter against a gang of slavers known as the Red Hand. The encounter was (and is) utterly unfair, a beatdown five levels higher than the characters. After putting up a truly spectacular and desperate struggle in the first run of this encounter, the characters fell to the superior forces. They lost their freedom instead of their lives, setting up the first adventure, where they must regain their freedom far from home or die.

The players, and characters, have been itching to even the score with the Red Hand since that first encounter. The current meat of the campaign is rooting out the gang and its leaders, and gaining some payback alongside some justice. The motivation is largely based on the first loss with a dash of “let’s end slavery in Tyr” thrown in.

That’s cool, because the players are the driving force behind the course of the action. Yes, I bait the hooks well, but the players choose which ones the characters bite. Attachment and connection, and possible loss of these, are huge motivators.

In the narrative, characters also wanted revenge on the owner of the Cracked Jack (a cracked drinking horn as its sign), the bar in which they were abducted. Jak, the owner in question, a bald half-elf with a scar down one side of his face, seemed like he was in cahoots with the gang. It turns out, as it does so often, that Jak was almost as much a victim as anyone. What would you do if a gang of thugs gave you the option to let them use your establishment or lose your skin?

When the characters returned to the Cracked Jack, they ended up facing the Red hand again and discovering Jak’s dilemma. They tried to save Jak, but failed. They then felt a sense of duty toward Jak’s orphaned teenage daughter, Danae. She is now part of the characters’ NPC entourage. Jak’s loss has led to new possibilities in the narrative.

Looming Losses

I have another hook floating out there that the Dragon of Tyr demands a thousand slaves per year from each of the seven cities. The free city of Tyr has no slaves to send, and too few prisoners who deserve such execution. Rumors are now spreading on the streets that Tyr is doomed to face the Dragon’s wrath. The players and characters know they can’t face the Dragon and hope to live (at least they can’t at 8th level). Yet this possibility threatens almost everything the characters love. What can they do?

Possible losses need not be that concrete, however. Corvas, a deva avenger, exists on Athas only because he comes from a time long forgotten. He remembers little of his existence as a once-great servant of the goddess Melora, not even her name. Divine power is part of his being, however. He is one of the few devas left on the planet, supposing any others survive. He is the rarest of characters in that he has actual divine power.

Corvas looks at today’s Athas and can feel only great sadness. Although the past isn’t clear in his time-fractured mind, he recalls better days in his subconscious. He also knows who’s to blame. Defilers.

The very threat of any more loss to defiling on Athas drives Corvas to rage beyond reason. Further, he cannot, will not, accept the dying world. A desire to bring life back to the brittle husk that Athas has become drives Corvas to strive and slay, and to seek his memories and true power. Does his “Painted Lady” live, is she dead, or is she a delusion?

Loss looms large in Corvas’s future, formless and ominous. It has countless strings I can pull to manipulate the course of the game.

Loss to Catharsis

The point of loss in a game is to provide some sort of tension. It can provide motivations for villains that characters can sympathize with. Player characters can explain unusual or nontactical behavior with it. (For instance, to the chagrin of his teammates, Corvas breaks off from his current target to attack anyone who or anything that defiles. I like it, even if the other players sometimes don’t.)

Tension is a good thing for any old story, and much more so for a narrative game. The tension doesn’t need to be released, but it’s very satisfying when it can be. Players feel rewarded for their efforts, in character background and in ongoing play, when the game’s play provides a chance to make up for past failures. Imagine how the players felt when they faced the Red Hand again and won with no losses.

Consider using loss and the emotions it entails to give your characters and scenarios more depth and tension. Then manipulate the depth for personalized narratives, and use the tension to set up satisfying clashes and releases. Give loss meaning. I hope I’ve given some of mine a little more by sharing this with you.

Illustrations by Jared von Hindman of Head Injury Theater.

Minions on the Table

In my last miniony article, I wrote about tinkering with minions mechanically to come to the flavor you really want from them. Now it’s time for your minions to meet the consumers, your players. A lot off cooks say that a big part of the experience with food is presentation. It’s the same with encounters in general and minions in specific. The tastiest minions might fail if you give them poor table presence.

A Nice Spread

Monsters can lose a battle before it begins if they have bad tactical positions. This is even truer with minions. Even if we assume, narratively, that your minions have no way to know they’re little competition for the characters, the creatures have a reason to seize tactical advantages. Beasts do so by instinct and natural ability, and smarter creatures do so through cunning, inclination, and planning.

Consider where the minions might want to be on the battlefield, just like you would for a monster of similar role. Assuming the monster has the ability to choose its lair or the fight’s locale, you can even build the encounter area to accommodate such a minion group’s terrain needs. Any artillery monster, as an example, seeks favorable terrain that allows it to shoot without direct melee confrontation. They favor high or protected places, such as a ledge or a window, that are hard to get to.

Speaking of hard to get to, movement modes can obviate the need for specific terrain while allowing a minion longevity and some narrative coolness. A movement mode—burrow, climb, fly, or swim—can allow minions to have the run of the combat zone. Skirmisher or lurker minions, or those designed for a specific narrative effect, might even be able to disengage with little risk, and then return to battle when they choose to. Such movement modes also make it easy to fill an encounter area that seemed empty when the characters entered. (Ambush!) The arrival of new monsters during the ongoing fight is also easily explained. In the previous articles I talked about myconid gas spores and kruthiks, both of which can use specialized movement modes to appear in combat from unusual angles.

When designing a space for your minions, take cues from cinematic video games, especially high-action games such as Borderlands. In Borderlands, some creatures (skags) emerge from burrows to join the fight, while others (spiderants) emerge from the soil in ambush. (It’s easy to see kruthiks as spiderants.) Still others (rakk) dive in for a flyby attack, then retreat. You often encounter an interesting array of creatures, weak to strong, that have varying powers despite physical similarities.

Consider that what’s good for the characters is also good for the monsters. Terrain powers add to a combat encounter interesting effects that the characters can exploit. A minion or group of minions might become particularly effective if they try to make use of the terrain powers, too. It’s all fair if everyone has an equal chance to use the terrain. When the kobold miners push the fiery brazier over on the characters, the players might just start to value terrain powers more. Just be sure to adjust the difficulty if it seems likely a terrain power might really favor the monsters.

Ingredients List

Food labels normally tell you what you’re eating so you can make informed dietary decisions. Gamist transparency is the same. It’s telling the players what the characters are facing so smart choices can be made. It’s called gamist because it’s more about the mechanical side of the game than the narrative side. It’s called transparency because the players are allowed to see through the game’s narrative reality, or what the characters might know, into the mechanical reality.

Transparency is a controversial subject. Some DMs prefer to tell the players everything, even if doing so requires giving out metagame knowledge—information the characters can’t really know. Such a DM allows players to act on this metagame knowledge. The DM justifiably assumes the characters are way more competent and informed than the players, so giving the players a little gamist leeway is harmless. Other DMs are stricter. They provide only information the characters have a way of really knowing, allowing knowledge and perceptual skill checks to expand the available data. As with other aspects of the game, the “right” way is what works best for you and your players.

Let’s face the facts. Minion, like any other role, is a game term the characters don’t know in a narrative or in-game sense. The characters can, however, sense whether an opponent looks less competent, poorly armed, or less prepared for battle. A fighter should easily notice that the fighting technique of an opponent is amateurish. An arcanist might note that the arcane power in a magical creature is weak, just like a cleric could be able to sense that an undead minion’s ties to the Shadowfell are tenuous. A ranger surely knows whether an individual beast is too feeble to be much of threat to the characters.

I favor some generosity in the realm of transparency. Sometimes I assume the battle-hardened characters can just tell when a creature is a minion. Other times, I use passive knowledge to determine what the players know. Every once in a while, I require an actual check or wait for the players to ask for such a check. (This is most true when the minions are considerably higher in level than the characters.) I have called for a check when a player is about to use an encounter or daily power on a minion. My inconsistency on this subject is due to conflicting desires, unique situations, and differing narrative needs in a given encounter. I prefer for the players to be able to use their resources as wisely as possible, but I also want to minimize the use of metagame knowledge. It can be an immersion killer. A decent level of immersion is required for me to have fun as a DM.

Robert Howard—a friend, player in my game, fine DM, and master of Pen & Paper Games—has a different perspective. He sees at least some of his minions as fully competent monsters that the characters can’t tell from the mechanically superior counterparts. The characters just happen, in cinematic fashion, to take out some of the fully competent monsters with one shot. Robert is using such minions to create an illusion of the characters’ badassery. To a character in such an encounter, he or she just took out a dangerous opponent in a single, gruesome blow. My difficulty with this tack is that the players see through it too easily; the mechanical reality is usually apparent.

Matters of Personal Taste

The point of all this is that minions, along with the other monsters, can be used in a variety of ways. You can create countless game experiences and stories by carefully employing minions, by manipulating their mechanics, and by engineering the encounter—XP budget to terrain—to accommodate them. You can even control transparency in varied ways, like Robert and I do. The process is more art than science, so experiment and have fun. You are the (evil?) mastermind and these minions are all yours.

Illustrations by Jared von Hindman of Head Injury Theater.
Dragon illustration appears in
Sly Flourish’s Dungeon Master Tips.

Minions of Differing Flavors

Last time, I talked about how minions spice up encounters and what they’re meant to do in the D&D game. But, just like the epicure needs new and exciting experiences, numerous DMs among us need new ways to mix it up with minions. This is especially true if you feel your minions disappear too quickly to be interesting or seem to be no added challenge. I’m going to attempt to, as an infamous chef might say, help you to kick it up a notch . . . sometimes.

I already suggested that you take some care in using minions to create a specific flavor when you’re brewing up encounters. You can take it a step further by creating or altering minions. Several methods can be used to change minion effectiveness and flavor. Used cleverly and in the right amount, these schemes can make minions a tastier addition to some encounters.

Spice to Taste

Let me reemphasize the use of minions as a form of encounter pacing and narrative flow. When you design an encounter, you can make up storyline reasons why the minions show up in intervals—or show up, then disappear. then show up again. When you design the pacing this way, only a portion of the minions is on the battlefield at one time. The characters can kill only what’s there at the time. The arrival of new combatants changes the course of the encounter.

As an aside, I never roll initiative for new minions. They appear and go on the same initiative count as the initial minions in the encounter did. Doing this keeps the game rolling. (I actually rarely roll initiative for any monster, but that’s a topic for another day.)

In my Gen Con Dark Sun game, as an example, the characters were the fuel for an evil ritual in which a dray (dragonborn) sorcerer was turning himself into a kaisharga (lich). They were far from alone in this predicament, but they were the only individuals with the fortitude and influence of other forces to awaken during the ritual. Each round, the ritual dealt damage to the characters, and some of the other unfortunates being used for arcane fodder died. A defiled spirit, like a weak wraith, rose from the remains of each NPC who perished. These minions, appearing two or three per round, harried the characters as they tried to unravel the ritual. In fact, the minions caused some nail biting, since the defiled spirits were in a position to take out a character or two who had to choose between attacking the minions and continuing to oppose the ongoing ritual.

Long Live the Flavor

If minion survival is a goal, it’s fair to carefully fiddle with what keeps a minion alive and in the battle. At the heroic tier, you might need to be cautious with such tinkering. At higher levels, minor survivability changes to minions rarely matter much. Just make sure the narrative quality of a minion fits with its longevity.

What happens if you change “HP 1; a missed attack never damages a minion” to “HP 1; this minion takes damages only when hit by an attack”? You’ve just eliminated automatic damage, such as from rain of steel, and attacks that require no attack rolls, such as the new magic missile, from possible damage sources for this minion. Hazardous terrain effects that require no attack roll can’t take this minion out, either. That’s good for some minions, as long as you mean to remove the effects of some powers, such as cleave, when making such a change.

Again, use these techniques with care, avoiding thwarting character abilities just because you can. Single encounters with unusual creatures are fine. Repeatedly being faced with monsters who are immune to aspects of your powers is frustrating.

That’s why traditional immunities aren’t great options for normal monster design. They can thwart a character too much, and they can eliminate certain character themes as viable builds. However, immunity to a damage type or two can work well for minions. Resistance does little for minions, since only 1 damage has to make it through. A fire minion with fire immunity makes perfect sense, though. Fire never deals enough damage to kill such a creature, but it still takes only one solid hit with another damage type to kill it.

You can make it so that one solid hit isn’t enough to kill some minions. Two-hit minions come in various forms. Insubstantial, like most resistances, does little for a minion. However, it’s easy to imagine an insubstantial minion being allowed a saving throw against taking damage from an attack once per encounter. In fact, the fell taint drone from Dragon 367 does just that. I’ve also made minions I wanted to appear tough or heavily armored, such as dwarf militia warriors, that receive a saving throw against the first hit. The narrative tells the players and characters why the minion is hard to kill.

No hard-to-kill minion discussion is complete without mentioning zombies. To me, zombie minions are almost required to give any horde of shambling corpses the right feel. Further, as my players know, I like for zombies to get up again after they seem dead. Some of my regular-monster zombies rise again as low-hit-point monsters, and others reanimate as minions. Zombie minions can also be two-hit wonders, because they might stand back up on their next turn if not dealt with appropriately. It works even better if you make the ability to rise again unpredictable. You can probably think of reasons for non-undead minions to behave similarly—elementals, demons, primal spirits and so on.

Savor the Subtle

Minions are meant to deal damage and worry the characters enough to change party tactics. Consider, though, the countless ways a minion might deal its damage. It need not have an attack to do its dirty work.

Like a warlord granting the barbarian an extra attack, a minion can simply stand around and benefit the stronger creatures in the fight. I’m not talking about resorting to Aid Another, although that can be cool in an all-out kobold free-for-all. What I mean is a minion that provides openings, hinders enemies, and/or damages characters just because it’s there.

Imagine a minion that has an aura to make enemies vulnerable to other damage, less effective at defense, or something else insidious. It might deal automatic damage—what’s good for the players is good for the DM—impose a condition, or alter terrain around it. The players will want those minions gone, believe me. All the better if you decide to add new ones over the course of the encounter.

The fire sinks from Seekers of the Ashen Crown are this type of minion. They don’t attack. Instead, a fire sink moseys up to you and eliminates your resistances to fire. Then it burns you if you end your turn next to it. Hello Ms. Tiefling, it’s time to get out of the kitchen or taste the heat. New experiences are fun, no?

Consider the Aftertaste

Speaking of tasting the bitterly unexpected, I’m no fan of gotcha powers on monsters. You know the ones. When the boneshard skeleton blows up all over the whole party, that’s a gotcha power. Such powers are the worst when they have large areas, like the boneshard skeleton’s boneshard burst. A close burst 1 allows the characters to pull out forced movement powers to move the foe away before the gotcha power goes off. Close burst 3, though? Not interesting, so no thanks.

For minions, however, I don’t mind gotcha powers so much. If a minion does something funky and fun when it dies, and it makes sense for the creature’s nature, that’s fine with me. Even so, minions don’t need to be too gotcha to be effective. I still favor small areas and powers that require attack rolls, or powers that affect the minion’s allies for a time.

A myconid gas spore (from Underdark) is much more fun if its spore burst is small enough that pushing the creature 1 square away saves you and your buddy from the damage. Then it becomes a tactical puzzle rather than a situation that no amount of careful play can help. Making the players interested and wiling to adapt is the point. That’s why I changed the spore burst to close burst 1 for my game. The players started pushing the spores around rather than shrugging and taking the original burst-3 spore burst.

In this vein, I also like powers such as Monster Manual 2‘s rupture demon’s demonic infestation, at least in spirit. A minion that dies, and then it gives its buddy a few hit points and more melee effectiveness? Nice! More, please. What I dislike about the power is its duration. I’d rather see a bigger damage boost, like the rupture demon’s normal damage, for 1 round. The cumulative, whole-encounter effect is too much.

What I’m saying with all this is: Rather than increasing a minion’s survivability, consider giving it some aftereffect, like those above, when it dies. Once again, make sure you’re creating a fun experience rather than a frustrating one. Watch the area on exploding minions and the duration of lingering effects. What’s amusing or tactically exciting for a round might become tedious in the long run. Play it out in your head or even with a grid and minis to see if your imagined effect is really what you’ll see in play.

A Third Course

I’ve reached the limit for this article’s digestibility, methinks. A few elements remain on environment and narrative roles (illusions) for minions. It looks like I’ll have to give all that to you next time.

For now, share some of your minion ideas in the comments. Let’s see what we can stir up.

Illustrations by Jared von Hindman of Head Injury Theater.

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.

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.