Thursday, March 31, 2011

Solos: Indefensible Defenders

EDIT: I'm lazy, so rather than trim this down, I created an abridged version of the post that cuts through all the justification and just gets right to the conclusion.

In your standard encounter, the defender will typically not be able to mark all enemies. There are exceptions to this, but if you take a look at defenders in general, it doesn't appear that it's really intended that everything on the field be marked.

It's true that marked enemies typically have to make the decision between suffering the effect of the mark or targeting the defender. But, when have you ever run into a group of five monsters where every single one of them simply ganked the defender? Actually, the play experiences out there are so wild and varied it wouldn't surprise me but, again, and perhaps this is my own faulty intuition, this is not the default case.

Generally, defenders are a very poor choice of target if not for their defender features. In terms of reducing net enemy damage per round (as in, reducing HP causes offense to go to 0), they're less than strikers, and defenders-knowing full well that they're built for defending-tend to also have high defenses. So, given an even choice between attacking the defender and attacking, say, the leader, any given monster who understands the rules in play is going to go after the leader. Assuming the leader doesn't have anti-targeting mechanisms of his own.

But defenders can't successfully control the entire enemy party all at once-even if they have everyone marked, they only have one immediate action per round. So while that -2 to attacks may be ever-present, the decision making process for the monsters is different before the defender's immediate action, rather than after wards.

But wait, there's more! We can even get into the game theory of attacks now! If a soldier knows that by triggering the defender's immediate, he knows the defender can't use it against the artillery, and the soldier knows full well that the immediate is less threatening to his side's overall position when used against himself, rather than when used against the artillery, then he can subvert the mark freely. The defender, knowing that using the immediate on the soldier would be a waste-and free the artillery to attack others, decides to reserve that immediate action. Thus, it doesn't matter how many targets the defender has marked-the only one that's actually going to be redirected to him is the one who the mark's effect would be most significant against. In a very real sense, the defender is only marking one creature at a time, even if his mark is multi-targeted.

With solos, you don't have this dynamic. WHERE the enemy is when the mark triggers can vary, as well as when, but ultimately, when it comes to a solo it's not a question of who is marked, but a question of whether the enemy force is marked or not.

Obviously, there are those that see this as a feature. I'm not so certain. In practice, solo monsters have four main modes:

1.) Heavy damage: That is to say, rather than making one melee attack per round, they make five! In this instance, you run into what I like to call "Lobbing nuclear weapons." With all the focus on himself, the defender's chances of surviving two consecutive rounds without healing drop pretty substantially, whereas the surge count of the rest of the party remains largely unharassed.

2.) Single target attacks that are really multi-target attacks: Trample is the most common feature we have here, though Hand of Radiance style attacks function the same. The issue with this kind of mode is that its effectiveness varies wildly from defender to defender. Fighters (assuming you can't exploit Combat Superiority!) and Assault Swordmages are essentially converted into just another striker, whereas Shielding Swordmages are leaders who don't require you to use a surge. Wardens and Ensnarement Swordmages can either completely negate this mode by totally interrupting the movement (either by slowing the enemy or by simply relocating them). Battleminds on the other hand can be rendered either next to useless (unless they have a good opportunity attack) or unfathomably powerful, depending on the circumstances. These distinctions between the classes are, when looked at in that context, a good thing. However, it just goes to show the unpredictability of the game engine when making small changes.

3.) Close and Area attacks. This tends to be my preferred way of building solo monsters-particularly of the "Bonus action on Initiative Count +10" style, but I tend to hear that defenders forced into combat with such solo monsters feel like they're not really marking the enemy at all. It's true that if every single attack targets every single PC, it doesn't matter that the creature is marked. Still, control is an element-the smaller the burst, the more control the defender has. If the defender is physically distant from his allies, attacking the defender and said allies as part of the same attack becomes a non-option. Thus, again, ranged defenders (Shielding and Ensnarement swordmages, along with some paladin builds) can be fundamentally more potent in this regard than melee defenders-particularly if a given party is all or predominantly melee oriented.

4.) Non-Attack Options. This is the one that I feel gets the most mileage, but also the one most groanworthy. The DM in my current game has a fascination for damaging auras, but quite often doesn't give an option for not suffering the aura damage (one specific encounter involved something along the lines of 35 lightning damage per round, or 100 if you weren't in the aura). Likewise, with ongoing damage, when used in conjunction with close or area attacks, the initial damage may not be relevant, but the ongoing damage will be. Finally, most marks trigger only on a successful attack-meaning that solo monsters with miss effects can potentially be better off missing with melee and ranged attacks than they are hitting! Again, this varies defender to defender.

What bothers me the most about all this is that the thing that's the most disorienting is that the most troubling scenario is also the most common-a fighter against a non-teleporting solo. Even ignoring Combat Challenge, the promise of Combat Superiority means that a fighter who previously could only keep a small fraction of enemies exactly where he wanted them can essentially completely immobilize the entire enemy force.

Then again, there's always shifting and charging-which turns the Fighter into a makeshift striker. Only downside there is with such feats as Mobile Challenge, allowing the fighter to have his cake and eat it too-the enemy triggers combat challenge by shifting, but then doesn't gain the benefits of shifting, as the fighter can still take his movement denying opportunity action , thus negating any attempts to charge.

But, Combat Superiority is part of the core of 4th edition. Mobile Challenge is not. If a DM feels that the dynamic of fighters is oppressive due to Mobile Challenge, that's a simple fix.

To put it another way, I fear I've digressed-

So ultimately, the question boils down to what the problem is. Ultimately, I view it as twofold: Either A.) four fifths of the party doesn't have to care about defense at all (barring using party buffs from a cleric) or B.) The defender is useless due to close attacks. The solution of automatic damage may do to add challenge to the game, but it's not particularly engaging. There's no decision making process involved or real way to utilize resources to interact meaningfully with the mechanism, except to drink a potion of resistance and say "Well, there goes a healing surge."

In all honesty, I do not have a solution ready. Every plan I have is morbidly complicated, involving various "tiers" of marking features that acknowledge that a "Mark all creatures" type effect is of greater effectiveness than a "Mark one creature" effect. And that doesn't even solve the fundamental problem of the lack of game theory a solo monster has that a standard does not.

So, why bring it up? Because like most things in life, I think the best solution is an imperfect one.

Solo monsters don't have the decision making process of whether or not to eat the mark or pass it on to their buddy-but there's no reason a monster can't have a substitute process. Namely, counter-mark powers.

Excluding the hybrid Swordmage, defenders don't typically have encounter limitations on marks. They may have encounter limitations on bonus marks, but typically, a defender can mark another creature and only lose the fact that he'd marked an earlier creature. But when the defender can mark a creature is usually quite simple: On his turn, when he has the actions necessary to do so.

A solo monster bequeathed with the unique ability to Shed the Mark (so to speak) on a limited basis does not make the decision simply to respect or subvert the mark of the defender, but also makes the decision of when he has to make that decision. That is, the monster is not deciding to shift the burden onto an ally, but rather, deciding when is the least disadvantageous time to be marked.

To deal with defenders, all monsters should have at least some mechanism of attack that does not simply target all enemies on the field. To the same extent, all monsters should have some mechanism to subvert defenders-to be able to make meaningful decisions of how they want to play their odds. This comes with a cost: either a trigger cost (the monster must be hidden, or the monster must self-inflict a certain amount of damage, or the party must have made some kind of specific mistake) or simply as a non-at will power (Encounter, Recharge when Bloodied, Recharge X, Recharge when a player says "Bazinga" whatever). Due to the nature of action economy, even a minor action cost on an at-will power may make for a viable tradeoff, but I'd strongly recommend against using it for anything other than monsters who already have plenty of minor action options each round. After all, if the minor action would normally go to waste anyway, it's not really a cost, now is it?

So, next time you play a solo monster, try it out-use a mark negation technique. Your defender probably won't thank you for it. And if he happens to be a hybrid swordmage, tell him to be thankful he still gets to be a striker.


  1. God DAMN this post is wordy. I should probably trim some stuff out.

  2. So if I'm reading this correctly, your main point is that solos should have some method of dealing with marks because marking what is effectively multiple monsters is too powerful. The thing is though, that a defender can only punish a single attack that violates his mark. Your first 3 solo "modes" all involve multiple attacks. Assuming that a solo gets to make 5 different attacks (like in your "heavy damage" example), the defender can still only punish one of them. How is this different from a defender punishing 1 standard out of a group of 5 (aside from the attack penalty)? Add to that the fact that solos have bucketloads of HP (making the decision to violate a mark much easier) and not only maintain the offensive force of an entire enemy group, but often gain strength when bloodied, and I'm not really seeing why most solos would hesitate to violate a mark if they needed to. In fact, from a DM's perspective I often have elites and solos provoke mark punishments (and OAs) simply because it ensures that the pace of the combat remains fast. In this sense, I actually see turning the defender into a makeshift striker as a good thing.

    That said, I do agree that certain defenders pose some encounter design problems. These are primarily the "sticky" defenders like Fighters and Wardens who can impose hard control to literally prevent an enemy from escaping from their defender vortex of doom.

    These guys can even shut down shift + charge tactics, which means that the solo is inevitably going to have to focus all of its offensive force on the defender, and then move on when the defender's down. Used in moderation, this isn't too disruptive for most games, though. The party just has to realize that the best option is likely going to be to spread out, and they'll expect one PC to go down pretty much every round. DMs with such a defender in the party can probably only get away with using certain solos very rarely because there really isn't much strategic variety.

    There are a few other options that DMs can utilize, though. Tacking forced movement onto a power can allow the solo to shove the defender out of the way with the first attack, and then attack other PCs with subsequent attacks (won't work with Shieldmages, Paladins, or some Battleminds, but these guys aren't the sticky ones anyways). Dazing the defender will also prevent his punishment from going off, and there are always abilities like the notorious Deathjump Spider's which allow a monster to move away without provoking an OA, but which also aren't considered shifts (which means they can get around most stickiness mechanisms).

    Ultimately, these are pretty functionally similar to your mark negation idea. There are some PC powers that allow marks to be shed, and I think it's a good idea to incorporate a similar mechanism into some solos. Perhaps a minor action rechargeable would be most preferable (at least IMO). For a long term campaign, I would definitely mix that up with the other mechanisms (dazing, forced movement, hyper-mobility) just so the players don't try to accuse you of pulling the same "cheap" trick on them over and over ;)

  3. Not a huge deal, but I believe the Heroslayer hydra had his own way of discouraging marks... it is a rather abusive way of doing it, but I figured worth mentioning.

    Way less relevant, but I thought I'd just share a little bit, one of my DMs hates me/defenders. Not sure why, but his monsters always go after me and have some strange aversion to attacking our leader players. It makes encounters much easier, but confuses me on a tactics level just about every fight. I play a paladin and almost never encounter stickiness issues because of his odd tactics.

    I noticed you through Square Fireballs, your blag is nice, I will be keeping up with it. I have my own if you wouldn't mind checking it out =).

  4. Kellinadin: It sounds like you know this, but I'll reitterate since a lot of people tend to forget. What you're describing is called "Respecting the Mark." Some DMs do it, some don't. Following proper game theory, a monster would make note of enemy defense values, the value of attacking the defender versus the value of attacking the leader, and then the punishment for attacking the leader rather than the defender; this would result in their decision. But a lot of monsters just play it safe.

    If you find your DM is psychologically bound to attacking you rather than your leader friend, it's generally a good idea to pay less attention to feats and items that beef up your defender feature, and pay more attention to your ability to avoid and heal damage to begin with. Personally, I think respecting the mark is only a good idea if the leader also has high defenses and that -2 to defense is going to hit.

    As for the Heroslayer Hydra? Well, let's just say it's unclear as to whether Rampage triggers mark or not.

  5. Your idea about mark-removing powers is worth trying out (though I would make its use VERY limited so as not to alienate my defenders). But I haven't seen you mention some very popular control techniques that work wonders in taking the defender out of the way, at least temporarily. I'm talking about dazing and forced movement. Of course, harder stuff like stunning and dominating will also work, but my point is that even moderate levels of control can achieve what you want.

    Dazing is the ultimate defender counter, since it prevents most opportunity attacks and mark enforcing shenanigans. But the majority of defenders (and, arguably, the strongest ones) are very dependent on good positioning (i.e. next to the baddy), which a good push or slide can take away. Of course, good defenders will have ways to counter these counters, but even if they just open a small window to butcher a striker or a leader, the damage is done.

    Strong mobility is also amazingly effective, for these types of encounters. One of my favourite pre-monster vault dragons was the green one, due to its ability to flyby ignoring opportunity atacks - which was nicely complemented by a minor action slide.

    Finally, I really think area powers and multi-target attacks are the way to go. Moderately-sized areas are best at this, and I love blasts (i.e. Dragon Breath) because they really reward good party tactics - it's possible to position your PCs so that very few, if any, fit in the same blast as the defender, but it can be quite challenging. Small auras and close bursts that punish groups ganging up on the solo have also worked well for me, but my personal favourite are melee attacks hitting several times.

    I must clarify that this is the point where I introduce a small house rule, but it's a very minor change that has brought great improvements for my games. There is an issue with how the game parses twin-strike styled powers, and their interaction with marks. Depending on how they are worded, targeting a defender and another character with such a power may, or may not, trigger a mark. My personal ruling is that, regardless of wording, these powers ALWAYS allow the most favorable interpretation for the attacker. So, if you use a dragon Double Claw attack, targeting the fighter and the rogue flanking with him won't trigger the mark. It's not as bad as it seems, because the defender IS performing his role by absorbing a part of the attacks, yet nearby allies are definitely vulnerable. And, of course, hydras LOVE this...