Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Solos: A lonely problem

EDIT: I've removed the issue of Multi-targeting power users and the troublesome nature of ongoing damage from the lecture plan.

The prevailing attitude I see and hear about solo monsters in 4th edition is to "Never drop one into a battle and expect it to work on its own-use satellite monsters to liven up the fight."

Which is all well and good, but fundamentally defeats the entire premise of such a monster being a solo monster. A Solo monster is not just a bigger bag of HP and XP, it's an encounter in and of itself, and if the solution is to add additional monsters, you're subverting that intention.

Now, it's certainly true that many encounters can be dramatic utilizing a solo monster and some add on monsters-the standard "Floating head with a pair of disembodied hands" archetype is quite appealing. But then you also have the godly warrior who should be able to take on armies by himself, that the PCs wish to face off against-am I to make his right pinky treated like a minion? I think not.

Fundamentally, the fallacy being committed when it comes to solo monsters is thinking that one monster is five monsters. The errors that arise are the result of this thinking-overlooking the differences between one monster and five monsters.

I'll create a seperate entry for each of the following premises, but for now, I just want to get them on the table. You'll note that most of them fixate around targeting (though there's a surprise twist at the end):

1.) Defenders are overly effective. The most common way of subverting this is with close burst attacks, which tends to leave defenders feeling useless. More on the full dynamics of this later.
2.) Status effects are too powerful; stunning a monster for one round in a normal fight reduces enemy effectiveness by 20%. Stunning a solo monster for one round in a normal fight reduces enemy effectiveness by 100%! (roughly). The unique resistances to daze and stun are a band-aid to fix a gaping flesh wound.
3.) Action economy: This isn't just about damage, but about overall preparedness and ability to respond to battle.
4.) Solos don't die at the same rate as standard monsters, meaning that their damage per round is flat over the course of a battle, unlike standard monsters, which typically wildly reduce their effectiveness after the first round.

Like I said, I'll be addressing these points one by one in later posts, but for the moment, it seemed like a good idea to set out a decent guideline.


  1. While judging from the first monster manuals, it might appear that solo monsters in 4E are inherently broken, more modern books have proven that it is possible to design compelling, challenging solos using the existing framework.

    The issues you mention do exist, but I'd argue that the most troubling of them (1, 2, and 5) can be mitigated through careful design. I think point 6 is usually accounted for in the damage output of most solos (since they tend to deal 3x - 4x the damage of a standard monster, rather than 5 times as much). As for the rest, they look more like annoyances than legitimate problems, to me. But I'll wait for future entries to discuss those in detail :)

    Anyway, I'd really recommend you to try out the dragons and other solos introduced in Monster Vault, if you haven't done so already. They are the real deal, and I wouldn't hesitate in throwing them against a party on their own.

  2. While the older solos inevitably lead to a grind-fest, I've run (and fought) some of the newer ones and found them pretty enjoyable. Between interrupts, multi-attacks, triggered actions (i.e. bloodied breath with dragons) and multiple pseudo-turns (i.e. solos that can take a specific action at some point in the initiative outside of their normal turn), problems with action economy are very much reduced. As a DM, I find that I'm "doing things" much more than just on the solo's initiative, making it feel more like multiple monsters. Granted not all solos are designed well, but most of the newer ones are, IMO.

    I personally don't have a problem with defenders being more effective vs solos and multi-attackers being less so. All encounters are not meant to be created equal, and some classes will be better in some situations than in others. Personally I love running encounters with loads of minions that flood the battlefield in waves. Defenders don't do so well in these encounters, but multi-attackers wreck house. Obviously these are two extremes on the spectrum of encounter design, and the effectiveness of a given class will vary based on the types of encounters that lie all along this spectrum.

    As for a solo monster being intended to be the lone enemy, that depends. They're certainly designed such that you CAN run them as the only enemy and have the encounter be balanced. I faced a White Dragon from the MV, run by a DM who is only just learning to DM 4e. This would normally be a perfect recipe for a boring grindfest, but the dragon is designed such that it was intuitive for him to run a fairly dynamic, challenging encounter. Everyone had fun, on both sides of the screen.

    On the other hand, sometimes a DM wants an encounter with multiple enemies, but one of them is just really, really strong. An Elite won't cut it, because they're normally just not dangerous enough. The whole party is supposed to feel overwhelmed by this one guy, even if there are other monsters on the field. Usually this is going to be a very challenging encounter, probably moreso than a fight with just the solo. Point being, the encounter will have a much different feel, as some PCs will have to hold the big guy off while the rest try to kill the little guys before they can assist too much. Or sometimes you just want to create the imagery that the solo is so powerful that as he lumbers along he doesn't care if he kills his own minions by accident. They're expendable to him, but they can still provide a minor annoyance to the PCs.

    cont. in next post...

  3. ...cont. from prev. post

    Overall, even if some monster types don't work quite as well as others (I do acknowledge that solos have drawbacks, even if they are much reduced from the early days) they still provide options for piecing together a wide variety of encounters. IMO the minion design is better than the solo, so I tend to include minions more often than solos. Minions are just so darn versatile. But I can successfully run a solo encounter every now and then, where everyone still has fun.

    Overall, you're picking out flaws in solos whereas I see some* of these flaws as characteristics. They provide a different encounter experience, and one that can be just as fun.

    *1 and 3 (as explained above). 2 and 5 are very dependent on the individual solo and can admittedly be a huge problem for early ones. I'm not sure what you mean by 4, and I disagree with the premise of 6, at least for some solos. Damage output will vary round by round based on triggers (i.e. recharge powers provide offensive spikes, and many solos get more powerful when bloodied). And sure, you can't predictably reduce the offensive output of team enemy like you can by killing a standard monster, but again I'd call that a feature of solos rather than a flaw. In addition to your statement that defenders are more effective and multi-attackers less so, I'd say strikers are less effective and leaders are more so as well. A controller's mileage may vary depending on build and power selection.

    Nice topic for discussion!

  4. I'm actually evaluating solos specifically on the basis of the Monster Vault Dragon Design spectrum. They're much better, but ultimately, they took a look at the worst case scenario and made a fix that is applicable only to such worst case scenario.

    For instance, you can give the Tarrasque immunity to daze and stun and give it a standard action each round all you want-it doesn't change the fact that if it's immobilized, a range centered party is essentially immune to its attacks.

  5. Ok, going along with your Tarrasque example and assuming a solo has no viable ranged attacks, yeah immobilize is going to be a great strategy for the PCs to use. I wouldn't go so far as to call the party "immune" to its attacks though.

    1. Any save ends immobilizes will be shaken off fairly easily given the bonus to saves that solos get.

    2. PCs don't have at-will immobilizes (Druid notwithstanding, but that requires they stay adjacent), and unless they're specialized for immobilizing most controllers won't even have more than 1 or 2 UEoNT immobilize powers. From a practical standpoint, most parties will get to hold this guy off for a couple of rounds at most, and that's assuming they hit. Of course there are exceptions (i.e. if the Wizard has Web or a similar zone immobilize), and yes these parties will walk all over a melee-only solo. Some parties are just built to handle certain types of encounters really well. The same holds true for a party with a Wizard, Monk, and Sorcerer in encounters with a lot of swarms and minions. This doesn't make swarms and minions poorly designed, it just means that a well-equipped party can defeat them more easily. Most DMs will take this into account when designing encounters (personally, I'd give the Tarrasque a close or even ranged attack if I absolutely wanted to use it).

    3. Most of the time a ranged-dominated party is going to have a tough time because it's easy for multiple melee enemies to swarm whoever they want without fear of OAs. I'm fine with such a party having an inherent advantage in some encounters.

    4. Even if ranged party members are going to be safe, that means that any melee PCs will either be taking ALL of the solo's damage (resulting in them getting dropped quickly), or pelting the solo with ineffective ranged attacks (if they even have any; see the Warpriest).

    Depending on the party I think your concerns should definitely be kept in mind. I guess I just see it as relatively easy for a DM to get around. DMs should put thought into their monster selection. I'm fine with not every monster being appropriate for every party; you run into the same problem with flying ranged attackers and all melee parties. Such enemies are fine for most parties, but if the encounter will simply be unfair (and not at all fun) then the DM shouldn't use those monsters. And most importantly, given how DM-friendly 4e's design is it's a simple matter to tack on a defense against problematic conditions or add a ranged attack to a monster. You could even beef up a solo's HP, defenses, or damage if you know that it'll be out of the fight for a few rounds (I'd personally give it a couple of rounds of big damage to make up for the loss of actions; it'll also make the party feel like their control tactics were crucial to their survival).

  6. It just occurred to me that we ultimately may be thinking along similar lines. I see your "flaws" as being either intentional features or situational annoyances for the most part, but if a particular monster does have some weakness that becomes absolutely crippling in a given campaign I see it as easily patched (thanks to the design of 4e). Which is kind of the premise of your blog (players improving aspects of the game that don't work for them). IMO one of 4e's biggest strengths is that it's so easy to do just that. The monster stat blocks are simple, standardized, and ultimately "editing" them can usually be done on the fly in under a minute without altering balance much.

  7. To be fair, the purpose of the blog is really just to bitch about potential players who insist that any variant rule is a terrible rule.

  8. Also for the record, and I acknowledge this is rather a weird case, but Psions have Void Shard, which is permanent immobilization as long as the psion can drop the shard next to it.

    But what does it matter if it's "At-Will" immobilization? I'll get more into how this kind of thinking is fallacious when I address status effects, but basically, amongst the entire party, for effects that hit, you only need enough End of Next Turn powers to last the duration of the encounter.

  9. Ah, I'm not a fan of Psionics so I wasn't aware that they had an at-will immobilization power. And while at-will immobilization isn't necessarily the only way to ensure that the effect gets applied every round, IME most parties don't have the ability to immobilize UEoNT for 6+ rounds. Heck, I probably play controllers more than the other 3 roles combined and I've never had a PC that was loaded up on immobilize effects. Most controllers will want the ability to deal with a variety of situations, and that usually means having a variety of status effects in their arsenal. Most controllers tend to have 1 or 2 immobilize powers IME, and the effect is less common on ranged classes of other roles. Yeah, defenders can pack some immobilization powers, but they'll be presenting themselves as a viable target in the meantime.

    Granted the party will probably have other UEoNT effects outside of immobilize, but these will vary in their effectiveness against solos. Many solos get their daze + stun bonuses, but even a dazed melee solo can charge (same goes for prone). The only effects that I can see being really devastating are domination (which is a rare effect) and blind (which, while more common than stun or dominate, is still not terribly common).