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
Click to Enlarge

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.