Saturday, April 30, 2011

The Problem with Interrupts

Interrupts are a really nifty concept. But frankly, they can create issues. For instance-Opportunity attacks interrupt actions. So, if you happen to be able to slide an enemy when making an opportunity attack, you can potentially make their attack invalid. And frankly, that's how it's supposed to work. But occasionally, it becomes a little too easy to invalidate attacks entirely.

Imagine a Knight that multiclassed monk and now has an Abduction Ki Focus. Suddenly, his Knight's Defender Aura can slide enemies if they attempt to shift, or if they attempt to attack anyone else. This can invalidate entire movements. And this is an unbelievably simple combination-requiring exactly one item, and one feat.

Relocating enemies on the battlefield is not a problem in and of itself. Having attacks resolve before the effects that trigger them is not a problem in and of itself. But when an interrupting attack suddenly comes with the promise of enemy relocation, you negate an entire attack. If this is an intended game mechanic, it really seems that the designers intended to sacrifice balance for the sake of "Doing something really awesome."

And make no mistake-it's really really awesome.

Monday, April 25, 2011

Feats I have a problem with

Am I the only one who has a problem with Epic Fortitude, Epic Reflexes, and Epic Will? With Improved Defenses or-gawd-Superior Fortitude/Reflex/Will, it seems like these feats are a good way to get ridiculously high non-armor defenses. Add in that the main common items for Head/Waist/Feet are all +1/2/3 Fort/Ref/Will items, and it feels like there's a lot of math-fix type bonuses.

I almost think we need to reintroduce "Competence" as a bonus type. Circlet of Indomitability, for instance, could give a +1/2/3 Competence Bonus to Will. Epic Will could add a +4 competence bonus. Makes the feats give an incentive to avoid the most obvious +Defense items.

Speaking of, maybe change Staff of Ruin and the like from item bonuses to competence bonuses, and grant a feat? Of course, then you have the problem of any remaining item bonus to damage roll powers.

Sunday, April 24, 2011

Bonuses: Too many is a lot, but too few is far too many

Third Edition had this fun thing where there was an incentive to build every foreseeable type of bonus possible onto every stat. Insight, Sacred, Holy (why you need Sacred AND holy is beyond me), Enhancement, and so on. The result was long strings of effects that stacked because there were just so many different types of bonuses that you could be using mere +1s and still end up with a net +8 bonus or whatever.

Forth edition got rid of that-mostly. Indeed, as we entered into the forth edition of the game, we found our bonuses pretty limited: Feat. Item. Power. Enhancement. And that was about it. Everything else was untyped.

But that's the rub. When everything is untyped, everything stacks. The entire point of removing the "Twenty seven types of bonuses" was self-defeating. Of course, most feats use feat bonuses-but a good many of them use untyped bonuses.

Ultimately, it's a question of what's mutually exclusive. I look at feats like Slashing Storm or the +Damage paragon path features and think "Well, that's not a problem on its own" but then you see builds stacking up bonus after bonus after bonus, and everything gets out of hand. The problem is that builds that don't take advantage of these sorts of bonuses end up coming in wildly behind. That's what happens when your best features aren't mutually exclusive-you want all of them.

So what's the solution? Feat bonuses with higher values, I would imagine. Untyped bonuses becoming power bonuses. Converting certain feats to at-will stance powers. Unfortunately, there's not an easy and simple This Fixes Everything answer.

Thursday, April 21, 2011

All Bark and no Bite

It is time for a confession.

I actually do not much care for Dungeons and Dragons as a Dungeon Master. Much of this is likely due to the fact that I've been unable to play off-line games, and have been involved in inferior means of online play involving trading a bunch of IRC chat rooms and Maptools-needlessly complexity that makes the game slow to a grinding halt.

I enjoy encounter building. I do not enjoy encounter running. But it is disingenuous to build a blog on "How to build a proper encounter" without simultaneously having the ability to test the theory that's being proposed. I am unable to test my own theories. As thus, I cannot in good conscience continue this blog.

That being said, more than likely, I will anyway. I'll leave testing up to others though.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Apologies for a Brief Hiatus

My apologies for the recent total lack of updates. What do you mean "It's only been about a week?" I try and keep a very tight update schedule! This blog will not rest until every generalized failing of 4th Edition has been remedied.

Next post should be sometime next week.

Sunday, April 10, 2011

Turn Shenanigans

An interesting trick was opened up to the Rogue with the introduction of Essentials. Because sneak attack was revised to once per turn, rather than once per round, a Rogue who had one of the dreaded minor action attack powers (I'll talk about those later) could use Sneak Attack on his turn, and then ready an action-probably waiting for an ally to attack (Since readying for an enemy's action means they can negate your Ready an Action by not triggering it). Because the Immediate Reaction occurs on another character's turn, you can benefit from Sneak Attack twice per round. Before accounting for Lazy Warlords (yeah, we'll talk about that later too).

I once presented the question "Is there a name for this tactic?" dubbing it Turn Shenanigans. Indeed there was.

"A bad idea." After all, for all the benefits of getting around 1/turn restrictions, when you open up the door to using Readying an Action in order to affect how "turn" effects relate, you can have monsters attacking PCs on their own turns; suddenly, the fighter can't use Combat Challenge because you can't use immediate actions on your own turn!

The conventional wisdom is to just have a gentleman's agreement against this kind of tactic but honestly, when has "Everyone agrees that it's broken so don't use it" been a proper excuse for broken gameplay in the first place?

Before isolating the "proposed solution," I would like to identify something that I do not inherently consider a problem that is along the same vein of thought: delaying one's turn until after that of an enemy who has a status effect that will then expire. For instance, the Wizard immobilizes the enemy until the end of the wizard's next turn. The enemy, who originally acted immediately before the Wizard, now acts after the wizard. Because the status effect is relevant to the Wizard's turn, not the target's, the target can delay in order to negate the effect as it pertains to his own turn. It's unclear if this would work with Daze, and Domination and Stun obviously prevent this tactic. Now, many of you are probably crying foul-

-but I don't see it that way. In order for this tactic to work, the monster necessarily has to be granting the Wizard an additional turn relative to the target's turn. If the wizard and the monster were the only two creatures in the encounter, delaying until after the Wizard is nearly identical to simply abandoning his turn!

On the other hand, delaying your turn when you are suffering from a Save Ends effect prevents you from making that saving throw until the actual end of your turn-but, likewise, it prevents you from having to make that saving throw. This means that if you're one step away from being petrified by a "Second Failed Save" effect, you can wait for your best buddies to apply some pluses to saving throws. Technically, the Delay rules don't state what happens if you lose your turn due to delaying too long as it pertains to saving throws. Conventional wisdom would suggest that at the start of your next turn, you basically resolve the end of your previous turn.

This Save Ends Turn Shenanigans is a significant gameplay decision, but I'm not convinced that it's broken in and of itself. Rather, it just suggests that perhaps Save Ends effects should be increased in danger when it pertains to failing saving throws, because characters do in fact have options to negate their failed saves. Of course, once a creature has been stunned, that's the end of it.

But let's get back to the basic problem of Turn Shenanigans-readying an action. The problem arises because it means that actions originally not intended to take place on anyone else turn end up occurring on their turn. Thus, the solution is simple: with the exception of "You cannot take an Immediate Action on your own" clause, for the duration of the readied action, it is considered the readier's turn, and not the turn of anyone else. Thus, you can utilize Immediate Actions if an enemy readies an action to attack you on your turn, but you may only use said Immediate Action in the course of the enemy's action. The same goes for Opportunity Attacks.

The reason this is the solution is that the purpose of Readying an Action is not to get around the fact that your own actions occur on your turn, but rather to take part of your turn at a later point in time; that is, the Immediate Action is merely a mechanism to accomplish this task. Though it is admittedly somewhat inelegant to put such an ad-hoc solution to the problem that flies in the face of the definition of a creature's "Turn" as being a single connected period of in-game time, it's also important to realize that rounds and turns are abstractions to begin with.

Friday, April 8, 2011

Side Effects: Hybrid Swordmages

Those who pay close attention to the blog may notice that at one point, I was "rather dismissive" of Hybrid Swordmages. Hybrid Swordmages, as far as swordmages go, are nearly universally better than their non-hybrid breathern. Swordbond is by and large a relatively useless feature, Swordmage's Warding can be regained through Hybrid Talent, and unless you hybrid into a class without leather armor proficiency, you're not losing anything on AC (and even if you are, it's another feat). In short, except for being marginally feat starved, hybrid swordmages have one-and only one-downside:

Their defender feature is usable only "once per encounter." That sounds like madness! And if that were really the case, it would be. But rather, Aegis of <Whatever> Is usable once per encounter to mark, but usable at will to trigger, and can even mark multiple enemies at once.

An ordinary swordmage gains very little by repeating his usage of Aegis to mark enemies, because he unmarks previously marked enemies. Since Aegis lasts until the end of the encounter, this means that in a lot of cases, unless the "Face of the battlefield fundamentally changes," there's not a lot of difference in the mark feature of a hybrid swordmage compared to a non-hybrid.

The bottom line is that, it doesn't take anything to "Remain a defender" as a hybrid swordmage. This means that, unlike the Fighter, you can actively pursue your other class (usually a striker) while simultaneously being roughly as potent of a defender as a full class swordmage.

Prior to my Solo Monster rules, Hybrid Swordmages were particuarly effective against solo monsters-after all, they literally marked the entire encounter from the outset. With the universal ability of solo monsters to negate marks though, hybrid swordmages are hit with the harshest rules scenario since third edition-not quite akin to a wizard facing an Iron Golem, but running a bit close.

So what's the solution? Again, it's not just important to realize what the problem is, but to realize why it's a problem. The essential solution is to look fundamentally at how hybrids are "supposed" to function (assuming that they're even supposed to-I'll look at hybrids more generally later, but for now, let's just look at the concept). Striker features only apply to the class powers of said striker class. If you look at the Defender, instead of triggering whenever the defender attacks, it triggers when using Fighter attacks.

Seeing a pattern? The basic premise is that, in order for the Hybrid Swordmage to make sense, instead of arbitrarily limiting how often the Swordmage can mark in terms of encounter resources, we need to make the Swordmage play like a swordmage.

My fix is simple: Aegis is an at-will power. The immediate action related to Aegis is not. You can only use Aegis of Assault's Immediate Reaction, for instance, once per encounter. The trick, however, is that whenever you hit or miss using a Swordmage attack power, you regain the usage of your Aegis power. What's really nice about this build is that it stops hybrid Swordmage/Avenger (or I guess hybrid Swordmage/Paladin) that uses Power of Skill from being the only reasonable option for an Assault Swordmage-after all, now those Swordmage Encounter Attack powers that can be used in conjunction with Aegis of Assault actually recharge Aegis of Assault.

If enemies are triggering your aegis every round, you're going to have to be using Swordmage powers every round. This prevents "Archery Shielders" so to speak from standing back from 10 squares away and using Aegis of Shielding every round; there are no super long-range Swordmage attacks, because Aegis of Shielding wasn't intended to be used at super long range as a rule of thumb.

If you happen to have Rapid Aegis Reaction, you may find you can't use Aegis of Assault for both your bonus immediate, and your standard. But on the other hand, if you're a hybrid defender and you only have one option for Immediate Actions per round, you're probably not hyper optimized in the first place

Not Quite Broken: How to Get People To Not Use Daily Powers

Personally, I have no intention of ever utilizing the following rules, but it goes into the Game Design theory I was talking about earlier:

Daily powers, and encounter powers, are used partially on a Use Them Or Lose Them basis. This can be contrasted to consumable items and powers, which are not Use Them Or Lose Them. My own (FULLY ANECDOTAL) experience has been that players tend to be a lot more willing to use the former than they are the latter-though, in a total pinch, because they have to use consumable items to win, they will, as no one wants a TPK. The exception to this is when consumable items are so cheap-as is the case with low level reagents at mid to high paragon and beyond (prior to the rarity rules)-that the real expected cost of the consumable is so low that it might as well be something akin to an At-Will.

As I said, I don't have a problem with this mechanic-it encourages players to use every part of the character build, so to speak, but if you happen to like the idea of there always been a trade-off between using a power or not, at the end of an Extended Rest, consider rewarding characters who have unspent daily resources. The reward should be proportional to the number of encounters faced over the course of the day, the power (probably simply related to level) of the power, and any other factors concerned. This has the result of making burning off daily powers a little less desirable because of the associated opportunity cost. It does, however, put martial Essentials classes (barring the Assassin) in a bit of a pickle, especially considering how controversial they are to begin with.

That being said, it's not that it's complicated-a daily power that goes unspent is a one-time resource that wasn't used and as thus is wasted. Consider giving a "bonus" consumable power of comparable level, with a rarity based on the difficulty of that adventuring day. Obviously, common consumables are little more than worth 1/5th their level as bonus treasure, but uncommon and rare consumables are a major benefit.

But be prepared for the last fight of any given adventure to be a lot more difficult-your characters may start hoarding consumables, but whether or not they actually use them depends on their response to Use It Or Lose It free resources.

When is an Encounter Power not an Encounter Power?

In my upcoming Dungeons and Dragons game, Sands, Serpents, and Scales, I'm using a number of variant rules regarding daily power usage and healing surges. The reason being that with the style of narrative I'm using, it's more difficult to create Extended Rest time periods that conform to the dramatic narrative, which tends to run to the unhappy situation where every even remotely difficult encounter can be rendered irrelevant by dumping a whole bunch of daily attack powers. Whatever-that's not what's at issue here.

What's at issue here is that, reading the Vampire Preview, I find that the mechanics of the Vampire Class are actually remarkably similar to the mechanics that I'm utilizing-very few "daily" healing surges, but the ability to regain (or rather gain) healing surges upon successful attacks. In the utilized system (which can be found at ; I have the wiki set to open due to the complications of having my players sign up, so please don't abuse the wiki), characters get a certain number of healing surges per encounter. So, what does this have to do with the topic?

Well, in addition to making healing basically impossible when you have 10 encounters per day (or however many), many of whom are more than EL (yes-you level up more than once per "day"), characters are able to use daily powers less often than normal. To allow characters to "Nova" a little bit more often, you'll notice the Finishing Move rules. Once per encounter, a character can use a daily attack power at the cost of healing surges.

Surges per encounter are use them or lose them. That means that, if you're not damaged at the end of an encounter, or if you're damaged only such that one surge (along with the bard's Song of Rest capability-good choice, By the Way) and you have a pool of two surges left over, that's a wasted resource-a resource that, had you used them differently, perhaps you could have prevented someone else from having spent resources.

In a standard campaign, barring the knowledge that certain enemies are more powerful while bloodied (and as thus should be engineered to spend as little time being bloodied as possible), it's natural to unleash one's encounter powers up front, to be sure that you're doing "as much as possible." After all, if you hang on to your strongest attacks, there's a heavy chance you'll have basically wasted them. Daily powers are the same way, except that the calculations are based on whether or not the power will be available this encounter, or available next encounter-so the "Use it or lose it" sense doesn't trigger until the last encounter of an adventure.

Of course, a Killer DM ( may be a master at setting up "False" final battles for an adventure, perhaps throwing a Purple Worm encounter on the way back home. This distorts how much information a player has for making decisions about when to use powers or not, but that's more an issue of Transparency As It Relates To Game Theory (of which I'm sure there are many books on the subject that I am only semi-qualified to even comment on).

But the interesting point is that we're looking at a binary state of Use or Don't Use as it pertains to being Wasted or Not Wasted. When you have something like the new Vampire Class that can utilize healing surges to power other abilities, suddenly, spending a healing surge isn't just an issue of whether you heal or not-it's the opportunity cost of those options you no longer have. Likewise, with the aforementioned Finishing Move rules, the information about how much those surges costs you changes over the course of a battle.

That's the beauty about having multiple Use it or Lose It resources that can interact together in different ways. Instead of dropping Fireball (a 2 surge Finisher) in the first round because, if you don't, you lose the ability to use a finishing move for that encounter, you wait to see just how valuable two surges are going to be to you over the course of the encounter. So if, as the fight is winding down to a close, you notice "Holy crap, I'm at full health and have two encounter surges left and haven't used my finishing move," you know that the opportunity cost of using Fireball goes from "Healing myself to full or not" to "Jack Squat."

They're called Finishing Moves for a reason.

Overlooked: Dungeon Master Spotlight <- Read that Article. Now tell me, what is Mearls forgetting here?

It's certainly true that balance isn't about how much DPR one character deals compared to another, but about how every character feels that they're contributing equally. But I think what Mearls is overlooking is that balance is not just described between different character classes, but also between the party and the Dungeon Master.

If the Wizard blows up armies, the Fighter has duels, and the Bard talks everyone out of forming armies and starting duels in the first place, then those are "Spotlights" for each of them. And the intensity of each spotlight, and frequency of each spotlight, can be measured against one another (Unfortunately, I'd love to use the word frequency to refer to the "color" of the spotlight to better serve the analogy, but it serves better in terms of "how often" here. Sadness).

OF course, it's comparing apples to oranges. A Red Spotlight is not the same thing as a Blue Spotlight, and who knows when the social skills character feels like he's contributed (I'll have an article on that later). But there is one thing that we can look at: the intensity of red, blue, and green taken together, let's just call it white. If each of those lights have an intensity of one, they're balanced against each other. If each of them has an intensity of three, they're balanced against each other. But a white light of intensity one, is not the same thing as a white light of intensity three.

It's very easy to give every player their own "I Win" button, and have them hit it at a relatively fixed frequency. You build a game like that, and every player feels balanced with every other player (at least in theory). But the game isn't just five players-there's also a Dungeon Master involved.

An argument can be made that "If the Dungeon Master wants to win then he should probably be a player, now shouldn't he? The Dungeon Master has to be the one who provides the spotlights, not the one who competes with them." I understand where this argument is coming from, but it's losing sight of the issue. If the balance of the Dungeon Master is rejected entirely, it doesn't matter what the net sum of intensity of balance between the players is. When you account for the balance between players and DM, the overall "difficulty" of the campaign, you have enough information that you can get closer to the "Perfect Game Formula" that we're all striving for.

After all, my redesigns to Solo Monsters aren't intended to rebalance Defenders and Controllers versus strikers-after all, Controllers and Defenders both lost out pretty substantially, and I'd already mentioned that Strikers gain a pretty substantial benefit in fighting solo monsters as is!-but rather in Party/Monster dynamics. It's not enough for the PCs to each be overcoming the same amount of challenges-they have to feel like they're being challenged and, just as important, the Dungeon Master has to feel like he is challenging them.

As a DM with a somewhat "Railsy" style of gameplay, I occasionally hear complaints (from people not in my campaigns) that "If I wanted to follow a linear story, I'd just go play a CRPG." But likewise, if there's no one interested in enjoying the Dungeon Master's side of the story, you really are playing a computer game. And no, Asimov, I Not Robot.

Thursday, April 7, 2011

Solos: Purple Worm (Test Build)

My players read this blog, so you can be sure that they'll be expecting to see something sneaky soon ('cause purple's da sneakiest)

Incidentally, I didn't include the cleanser or Save vs End of Next Turn effects into the stat block, as those are a bit more ad-hoc fixes. I'd generally recommend using Save at Start of Turn (as normal-that's implied in all my builds). For the Purple Worm, Cleanser should probably be usable once per encounter at most.

The purple worm is a straight up damage dealer, and not truly suitable for an end-boss to an adventure, so it's best not to make the party feel like they have to throw a whole bunch of daily resources at it just to take it down. Proceed with caution.

Purple Worm (14th level)
Level 14 Solo Brute
Huge natural beast
XP 5,000
HP 560; Bloodied 280
AC 28; Fortitude 28; Reflex 26; Will 24
Speed 6, burrow 6
Immune gaze, illusion
Saving Throws +5; Action Points 2
Initiative +9
Perception +8
Blindsight 10, Tremorsense 20
Mouth and Stinger
A Purple Worm either uses Poison Stinger or Burrows its speed as a free action on an initiative count equal to its initiative +10. Whenever the Purple Worm uses this action, it gains an additional Immediate Action for the round.
Whenever a Purple Worm would be dazed, stunned, or dominated, it instead loses its next Mouth and Stinger turn count.
Out of Sight, Out of Mind
If a Purple Worm begins its turn marked and underground, it is no longer marked.
Standard Actions
m Bite • At-Will
Attack: Reach 3; +19 vs. AC
Hit: 4d8 + 8 damage.
M Devour Whole • At-Will
Attack: +17 vs. Fortitude
Hit: 3d10 + 7 damage, and the target is swallowed (Escape DC 21). While swallowed, the target does not occupy a square and has neither line of sight nor line of effect to anything except the worm and other creatures swallowed by the worm; in addition, nothing has line of sight or line of effect to the target except other creatures swallowed by the worm. If the target attacks the worm using a close or an area attack, that attack targets all other creatures swallowed by the worm. While swallowed, the target takes 30 acid damage at the end of its turn.
M Poison Stinger • At-Will
Attack: Melee 3; +19 vs. AC
Hit: 2d8 + 0 damage, and ongoing 15 poison damage (Save ends); if the target is already suffering from ongoing poison damage, instead increase the ongoing damage by 10.
Minor Actions
Regurgitate • At-Will
Effect: One creature Swallowed by the Purple Worm appears in a square of the worm's choice within 4 squares of it. That creature is no longer swallowed and takes 3d10+8 damage.
M Fling • At-Will
Requirement: The Purple Worm must be bloodied.
Attack: +17 vs. Fortitude
Hit: 3d10 + 8 damage, and the Purple Worm slides the target 4 squares.
Triggered Actions
Thrash • At-Will
Attack (Immediate Reaction): Melee 3 (one creature); +17 vs. Reflex
Hit: 3d12 + 5 damage and the Purple Worm must push the creature five squares.
Str 17 (+10)
Dex 15 (+9)
Wis 13 (+8)
Con 25 (+14)
Int 1 (+2)
Cha 3 (+3)
Alignment unaligned     Languages
© 2010 Wizards of the Coast LLC, a subsidiary of Hasbro, Inc. All rights reserved. This formatted statistics block has been generated using the D&D Adventure Tools. Failure to post this line probably deals 2d6+8 Legal Damage, but that depends on your Resistance to ™ defense, now doesn’t it?

In all seriousness, let's dive right in. At first glance, the design probably looks a bit overwhelming. After all, not only does it have a fairly crippling standard action, it also gets a really nasty ongoing poison damage attack once per round. That combined with Regurgitating enemies already leads us to the desired 3 attacks equivalence per round. But then there's Thrash! If you've kept up with the Monster Vault, you know that Thrash normally targets up to two creatures, but seeing as how this Purple Worm can theoretically get Immediate Actions, it seemed appropriate to scale that back to one. But even ignoring thrash, when the creature's bloodied, you can expect to see it use fling as needed even if it hasn't managed to hit with Devour Whole!

So, what's the secret? The bottom line is that the Purple Worm is a melee-only build; this means even its bonus actions are useless if the party is sufficiently spread out. Obviously, when you have two or more melee classes, you can't really "do" the sufficiently spread out thing, but sometimes it pays to let the controller move the enemy so you can do hit and run tactics. In this case, however, forcing the Purple Worm to miss its Stinger attack means that you also give it the chance to burrow-meaning you're going to have a full round of doing absolutely nothing but defending or delaying. Or readying an action, but that's a dark dark road I'll explain later.

It's true that the Purple Worm being able to burrow gives it a certain level of immunity to all attacks-but it's important to remember that this isn't without cost to the Worm. Before being bloodied, the Purple Worm in this design doesn't have access to fling, and as thus can only use minor actions to regurgitate, but once the Purple Worm is bloodied, it'll want to use as many minor actions as possible. If the Worm has to retreat, that means that's also a move action it's going to need to spend-meaning a move action it won't be able to convert to a minor action. Playing the field and making sure that when the Purple Worm burrows rather than attacks it's on your terms, not the worm's, is the key.

Of course, the other fact is that the Purple Worm is still fairly easily to optimize against. Poison Sting is fairly harmless if you can somehow pre-negate the ongoing poison damage, and all attacks are melee attacks-leaving the Purple Worm particuarly vulnerable to slowing, immobilizing, and similar effects.

Overall, my redesign of the Purple Worm from Monster Vault really isn't that radical-the Worm has a bit more ability to respond to the changing circumstances around it, but overall can probably be considered to actually be a weaker design (due to the inability to simply use Fling or Poison Sting three or four times per encounter). If you're interested in using the Solo Rebuild rules, consider using the Pruple Worm to experiment, as it's deliberately designed to not be earth shattering, but to show the difference between Solo Monsters (Yes, even Monster Vault solo monsters) and 5E Now solos.

As for my crew, Level 14 is just the level of the Purple Worm as it appears in the Monster Vault-I can raise or lower it as needed.

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Musings: Long Fights

Let me preface this by saying, I love Long Fights (as outlined in the Dungeon Master's Guide 2).

But the reason why I love long fights is because they're harder. The fact that long fights can exist-even long fights comprised of Level +4 encounter segments-means that encounters can be increased in difficulty to begin with.

It's my general philosophy to steal a play from... actually I'm not sure who used it first. My DM used it in one campaign, after I had already thought of the idea, but I don't remember whether or not I had told him the idea when I first thought of it, and there's no way of telling who came up with it first. But anyway, the idea is simple-if a Solo Boss isn't threatening enough, make the party fight him back to back.

In short, a solo monster can be treated as two phases of a Long Fight. Upon "bloodying" the creature, the party regains encounter powers or can spend healing surges as per normal, and then phase two begins. Effectively, you have one creature with double the hit points, whose actual combat strategy can change completely between the phases. From a roleplaying standpoint, whever you're fighting just hot a whole lot tougher-like +4 level t ougher!-but the game is actually managable.

But again, it goes to show that the basic premise this blog takes-that without "widget items" 4E combat is balanced-is potentially flawed to begin with. Long Fights are winnable because normal fights aren't razors edge margins of victory. But if you throw nothing but long fights at players, it gets old fast.

But I suppose not every encounter has to be a death defying moment to begin with

Monday, April 4, 2011

Solutions: Solo Monsters

Build monsters with a damage expectation of 3x Standard monster damage, increasing to 4x when the monster is bloodied.

ALL solo monsters should have at least two standard actions per round, and two immediate actions per round. Factor any damage from standard actions into the above model.

Solo monsters should have a "Cleanser" ability usable once or more per encounter, whose effect is to effectively make the monster into a different creature altogether as it pertains to status effects. This should also apply to the monster's own abilities-any temporary buffs should also be negated.

Utilize a Save at Start of Turn effect for End of Next Turn type effects.

Solo monsters should have a limited means of negating marks.

Fifth Edition Now Solutions Series

As you may have noticed, I earlier added a few "abridged" entries. In addition, I will be adding "Solutions" entries.

Solutions entries will be abridged entries that combine multiple entries, only detailing the most rough elements of the conclusion. Stay tuned!

Sunday, April 3, 2011

Solos: Survival of the Solitary

I've been deliberately putting this topic off to last because I'm not sure what to say about it.

It's not that solo monsters being more subject to the laws of Critical Existence Failure ( is somehow wrong-it's just that it's different, and that difference means that some of the common conceptions of how combat works are out of touch.

I have to confess, much of my theory on the topic of solo monsters is based on an arbitrary number someone told me that encounters last for five rounds. And that's about it. It's a completely arbitrary statistic that I don't have the numbers to back up, and yet it's going to found the basis of this essay.

Now, the reality is that no two parties are identical (unless, well, they're identical) and how any given group deals with combat encounters varies. A group with three wizards all tossing Icy Rays everywhere may have monsters drop three at a time but dealing little overall damage. But a group with two strikers is likely to take out one monster per round for the first few rounds while they burn through encounter powers. So, even though there's five monsters in a standard encounter, the longevity and effectiveness of those five monsters isn't a constant.

If we just assume that a solo monster has five standard monster level attacks, that's great-ignoring other action economy problems-but we run into the nasty problem that it's not indicative of how a standard encounter functions*; it's like if everyone was attacking a different creature and not focusing fire. This means that, in a five round combat, you'd expect to see the equivalence of twenty five creature rounds.

Compare this to an ordinary encounter, where there's five creatures in the first round, four in the second, three in the third, two in the forth, and then one straggler in the fifth. That's only fifteen creature rounds by comparison, so your solo monster is 66% more effective over the lifetime of an encounter!

On the other hand, perhaps not. Controllers can't use multi-target damage, meaning that the net damage per round being dealt by the party is reduced. This can partially be balanced by the fact that there is no chance for lost damage in the form of overkill. On the other hand, if you're playing with an Essentials Assassin, there's also no chance for the Death Attack feature to trigger! And finally, despite being worth five creatures, ever since Monster Manual 2, solo monsters are only considered to have 4x HP in order to avoid having fights drag on too long!

The fact of the matter is that, I don't have the hard data to come to a decisive conclusion here. If we assume striker overkill balances out lost controller damage, then the fact that a solo monster only has 80% HP of a standard encounter leads us to the conclusion that we can multiple those 25 creature rounds by 80%. That's still 20 creature rounds, or 33% effectiveness over a standard encounter. So, what's the solution?

If we assume that because it only has 80% HP the solo monster only requires four rounds to defeat, we can expect that the first round it will be unbloodied, and sometime around the middle or end of the second round it will be bloodied. Working from this, we can use a 3 Creature Round x2, plus 4 creature round x2 model; in short, if the creature's effectiveness increases by about 33% while bloodied, but its effectiveness pre-bloodied is only three creatures rather than four, we're somewhere around the proper level we're aiming for. But again, this is very ad hoc, and making a lot of unsupported assumptions. For instance, most multi-target attack type monsters can't effectively attack the entire party, but a creature with sufficiently large close burst powers can.

Also, again, I think a lot of this has to go back to the Game Theory of Solo Monster design. If the players know that solo monsters are more powerful bloodied than not bloodied, they will want a greater percentage of the fight to occur with the monster not being bloodied. Upon first instinct, you may think that doesn't make sense-after all, in addition to our anticipated values above being "Bloodied by the end of the second round," half of the creature's HP is half of it's HP, right?

Not really-the fact of the matter is that party damage is wildly different between at-will output, encounter nova output, and daily nova output. If players know that the creature is more deadly while bloodied, then players can reserve powers for after the creature is bloodied. Of course, if the solo monster is aware that because of this PCs are taking it easy, the solo monster can use that information as well, so it gets complicated. But in reality, it's been my experience that most PCs don't think this way-they like to burn through encounters.

And to a large extent, that's wise. Not every encounter ends with every encounter resource having been spent, and for creatures with regeneration, every round you procrastinate is a round of additional HP you have to deal with.

Other alternatives for dealing with this kind of playstyle are having a creature deal low damage but have extremely high defenses-typically in conjunction with regeneration-for the first half of the battle. Each round is relatively non-damaging to the party, but still a cost in resources; procrastination only works in the monster's favor. Once the monster becomes bloodied, it becomes truly effective, but the party may have to expend its novas in order to get it that far, or risk being bogged down. The major downside of this gameplay style is that it's time consuming, and has a risk of alienating players, regardless of whether it makes for dynamic combat.

Saturday, April 2, 2011

Solos: A warning about Initiative

I don't believe this is supported by a technical reading of the rules, but it's generally recommended that if the bonus action granted to solo monsters can be in effect invalidated due to positioning, it's important that the creature not be permitted to delay its primary turn to be immediately before its secondary turn-doing so means that the party has no ability to respond and thus mitigate the bonus turn. If the bonus turn is designed with mitigation in mind, this means it becomes disproportionately powerful.

Less of an issue with charge and movement inclusive bonus turns, and not one at all with Demogorgon style solo monsters. It should be noted, however, that from a player standpoint, letting a solo monster get both of its turns consecutively can be very dangerous-but it's no different from letting all five enemies move in sequence with one another.

The primary reason why letting all five enemies move in sequence is that typically the way that happens is that the party universally wins initiative-making the chances of one of those five enemies being stunned or reduced to 0 or whatever extremely high before they can even act. Tomorrow, we'll go into greater detail about the dynamics of solo monsters versus the dynamics of standard monsters as it pertains to creature longevity.

Solos: When a Solo Is Not a Solo

I should point out the following now: If you've ever been in an encounter with two solo monsters, it should be noted that the dynamic probably resembles an encounter with two Level +4 Elites more than that of solo monsters.

When a solo monster is not the sole actor on the opposition side, the dynamic goes from "One creature for five" to "One Creature with five times the hit points."

About half of the problems you run into in a traditional setting don't even really apply-and since solo monsters done right are really complicated, running two "done right" at the same time is bound to lead to DM Confusion™.

Solos: Taking Action about Action Economy

Let me preface this by stating that the Monster Vault style dragons are not only a huge step in the right direction, but they solve between 70 and 90% of the problem. Seriously.

Actions aren't just "how much damage can this creature do here." It's about the ability to respond to the changing circumstances of an encounter

Minor actions: The fact of the matter is that, most creatures don't get a whole lot of mileage out of their minor actions. And excluding trying to make an active perception check or insight check, there's not a whole lot of general-purpose minor actions. Thus, a solo monster only having one minor action usually isn't a problem.

Move actions: This one is surprising-in terms of real net movement, the ability of the solo isn't restricted so much in terms of not having enough move actions; after all, every move action it takes is roughly the equivalence of five move actions. The real problem is in positioning-a solo monster can only be in one place at a time.

Immediate Actions: This is where it gets tricky. Most standard monsters don't have immediate actions, but a lot of elites do. Even if you load a solo monster up with a large number of Immediate action powers, it can only use one per round. My general theory is to treat solo monsters as having two immediate actions per round-possibly taking the Demogorgon Approach (which I'll describe below).

Standard Actions: No matter how powerful a solo monster's attacks, if it only has one standard action, it can only make one standard action attack per round. If that action is somehow invalidated, you've invalidated the equivalence of five creature actions.

As I said before, the "Bonus action at Initiative Count +10" is most of what's needed to solve this problem, but it has to be for all solo monsters. It cannot be seen as "a feature unique to dragons" because this is fundamentally an issue not of just some solo creatures, but of the basic concept of solo monsters in general. In addition, it pays to look into what that bonus action is.

Unless you're using the Demogorgon Approach (again-see below), a solo monster's bonus action doesn't usually come with a move action or a minor action. This means that the creature is, for all intents and purposes, getting a bonus turn each round where it's dazed, and the same dynamic applies. If the creature is melee-only and you can prevent charging (Slow, Immobilization, or simply being exactly one square out of reach), the creature has no means for attacking. This is the crux of the advantage in designing a solo monster that you really don't have in designing a regular monster: you can make a solo monster's bonus attack wildly more powerful than the numbers themselves would recommend, just so long as the party is given some means of counter-acting this ability.

Take the Catastrophic Dragons, for example. Their auras are nasty, certainly, but the real heavy hitting powers are when the auras explode. If you have a solo monster that, on its bonus initiative count, always makes a Close Burst X attack, or makes a melee attack, then the party can plan around this-withdrawing as needed. Note that this is much easier said than done. Most characters don't have a spring attack mechanism, and excluding Master's Wand of Magic Missile, there aren't a lot of at-will forced movement effects. Thus, a party has to come to terms with whether or not it wants to eat that bonus attack, or take the methods needed in order to negate it. If the attack is arbitrarily powerful, then you can bet the party will take the steps needed to negate it. On the other hand, the steps needed to negate the attack may itself be game breaking-most players can't easily withdraw from melee without at least provoking an opportunity attack, so make sure not to be too unreasonable.

Again, it's been my experience that the best solution is to use close burst or "attack all adjacent" type attacks, but rather than balancing the damage output for multi-target, balance the damage output for one target. This way, the party will space itself out in such a way that only one melee unit needs to actually be able to be hit at a time, but they can alternate-move hit, ally hits, then moves, so on and so forth. Again, you can potentially trigger a lot of opportunity attacks using this method, so don't go too overboard.

Of course, the alternative is the Demogorgon approach. In short: Build a creature like an elite, but give it two full sets of actions. The result will be a creature that is MUCH faster than usual (effectively having 10 move actions per round!) but otherwise is similar in function and ability to respond to changes in an encounter to a pair of elites. I recommend this approach when designing monsters intended to have extremely high levels of agility, or-of course-dual minded thinking.

Friday, April 1, 2011

Solos (Followup): Game Theory of Cleanser Rules

As an economist by training (if not by trade) I have a strange fascination with Game Theory. In my previous entry, I mentioned that one potential "solution" (if it can be called that) for dealing with status effects on solo monsters is the usage of what I called "Cleanser" rules, which effectively render one creature as being a different creature as it pertains to things like status effects.

The concept was introduced not for a specific gameplay reaction per say, but rather to better simulate a situation where a solo monster functioned like five individual standard enemies-that is, what applies to one enemy doesn't apply to all five. However, looking at Cleanser rules using Game Theory actually leads to some interesting thoughts.

First, let's assume that the players (and by extension PCs) know that the monster is able to use Cleanser at least once. Thus, players are aware of the fact that after using their powers, there is some chance that they will simply be negated. In this sense, the player and monster get into a relationship where, if the party lands too many status effects at any given time, the monster will remove them all. But if the party delays applying multiple status effects, the monster-in wanting to negate as many status effects as possible-will "Let it pass." However, in ensuring this state where the party uses only one status effect at a time, the party is themselves giving up a valuable resource-the ability to land status effects earlier in a fight.

The resulting dynamic is that players are more hesitant to drop multiple status effects-be they end of encounter, save ends, or even end of next turn-all at once as it applies to limited resources. However, how hesitant players are depends on the monster's own tactics as well, as if players realize that one power won't be suppressed, perhaps two won't be, or three won't be, and so on. Ultimately, we are left with a Price is Right-esque mechanism, whereby players will test the waters until they "bust" and end up negating their hard work-

-or will they? If the party as a whole drops one status effect at a time, it is unlikely that the monster will utilize its cleanser. However, as the fight nears its conclusion-and the monster recognizes what a precarious position it is in-the monster will be less hesitant to expend its cleanser. As thus, players recognize the difference in behavior of monster cleanser usage, and adjust their tactics accordingly.

Of course, this assumes a simple finite usage of cleanser. If the monster treats Cleanser as a rechargable power, then it has an extremely high incentive to use its cleanser when it recharges, as in addition to not removing status effects for the round in question, the creature is effectively "missing" potential cleansers. How missing these cleansers actually affects what status effects it will suffer over the course of the battle, of course, goes back to how the party and the monster play off each other-that is, whether the party "Forces" a usage of cleanser or not. After all, even if it's a rechargable, what monster would risk being stunned for a round in order to negate a -1 penalty to attack? But in making that decision, it is thus accepting that -1 penalty to attack.

Of course, as with any game theory, this only really applies if both sides know what the other side has to gain. A solo monster doesn't know that the enemy party has either one or five stuns ready. And the players don't necessarily know the mechanism by which the monster can use cleanser. The DM, on the other hand, knows both, leaving the DM in a monstrously (pardon the pun) superior position. To make the game "fair" the DM can overcompensate-by letting the monster make deliberately wrong decisions. Or perhaps the DM uses this advanced knowledge to the monster's advantage.

A more cunning DM might even make usage of skill checks as bonus actions in order to determine "what sort of information" a given creature is going to have access to. Can the party bluff the monster into thinking they're holding onto their strongest abilities until after it's dropped its guard? Perhaps an arcana check would reveal to the party the circumstances of the monster's cleanser. If both parties are on equal footing, then game theory can commence-

-however, if someone is misinformed about what the other has to gain, you can generally bet that they'll be at a disadvantage every time.

In Poor Taste

Too soon, guys. Too soon.

Solos: The Status of Status

First of all, my apologies for all the lame titles-but also, my warning that they're here to stay.

The problem with status effects on solo monsters is pretty well recognized-so much so that Wizards of the Coast has already taken action! Well, problem solved-except not. The solution that Wizards took was, in order to negate the impact of two specific status effects (daze and stun), most solo monsters have a mechanism whereby daze and stun are less impacting than for other monsters.

I'm not sure how to feel about this. On the one hand, it's a deliberate fix that partially addresses the problem, and is certainly better than leaving things as they are-and if nothing else, it shows that Wizards at the very least understands that the framework for solo monsters has to be different from the framework for standards and elites.

But the problem with status effects isn't just daze or stun. The problem with status effects is that, most non-controller powers that drop any significant status effect (barring ongoing damage) is single target. When you let, say, Stunning Strike apply to "the entirety of" a solo monster, you're effectively letting the rogue target five creatures with this one power.

So why is this a problem? Well, let's look at a typical lineup at 17th level*: Fighter, Rogue, Wizard, Cleric, Warlock. All PHB heroes.

Each character has three encounter attacks**. Now, not every power can be a daze or a stun-but at least one power from every class sure can be. So, over the course of a standard five round encounter, you can expect creature-rounds of stun***. But if that's a solo monster, that means you're effectively getting 25 creature-rounds of stun! That's the entire fight.

But it's not specific to stunning. It applies equally well to weakening. And certainly, if the entire party focuses on weakening powers, then it's not entirely out of line to halve the damage of the enemy for the duration of the entire encounter (though I wouldn't necessarily suggest it's the right solution either). And if it's immobilizing the enemy and the enemy is all melee, you can certainly let your melee withdraw for those rounds, and turn it into "safety damage."

The point is, every status effect is valuable, and letting status effects intended to apply to one creature apply effectively to five creatures fundamentally alters the expectations of the game.

Of course, there's exceptions to this. When I use Icy Rays (Wiz3) or Freezing Bolts (Wiz23) I'm immobilizing two or three enemies, respectively. Against a solo monster, I don't get that advantage-it's one creature, all or nothing. But all is five (whereas nothing is still nothing). So, whatever solution we choose to integrate has to take into account the controller's already disadvantaged state-after all, when it comes to solo monsters, overpowered status effects are all they have.

The situation is complicated further by the fact that "status effect" really isn't one single well defined concept. After all, solo monsters being one monster that equals five plays into a lot of powers in unexpected ways. The durability of a "The entire party gets +6 to attack and damage against the targeted creature" is much higher against a solo monster than it is against a standard; for a standard, the chances of the party taking down that creature and, as thus, "wasting" the remaining duration (end of next turn, end of encounter, save ends, whatever) is pretty high. But in the event of a solo monster, it is as if the remaining duration "transfers" over to the next monster. This is a pretty staggering fact! But on the other hand, I don't think the game developers were necessarily unaware of that fact-indeed, I'd find it pretty unlikely that anyone would expect you to use an End of Encounter party buff vs target daily resource against a standard monster

On the other hand, I've seen too many fights that essentially boil down "Daily power saves the day." Some powers aren't overwhelming in the generic scenario where they apply to standards, but you never use them in those scenarios, so they can't be evaluated in those scenarios. So we can either measure how these powers function in the scenarios where they're reserved for, or we can try and address solo monsters.

One potential option is the idea of a "Cleanser" ability. A solo monster at certain times in a fight (probably no more than twice, and usually no more than once) would have the ability to cast off any status effects affecting it. How this is written is pretty important though-does it just remove conditions, or does it fundamentally make the monster treat itself as an entirely new token on the field, to which no earlier effects apply? I'm cautious of this approach, simply because it requires a lot of ad-hoc intervention to make any sense at all.

Another option is to grant solo monsters the ability to save against "short term" conditions at the start of their turn. 1d20+5 means that a solo monster has an 80% chance of success on any such roll, so an end of turn effect has only a 20% chance of actually affecting the creature's turn. From a simple math standpoint, that answers the question of End of Next Turn (or ENT) effects, but it leaves something to be desired from the standpoint of rewarding player actions. Furthermore, if mark powers grant conditions to the target, then if the target also has the ability to shed marks (see part 1 of Solos), you're double penalizing defenders. Fortunately, this is almost never relevant-mark powers typically trigger on the triggering creature's turn, meaning that they'd almost always end before the start of the creature's next turn anyway.

Of course, this style of rule, like all End of Turn Start of Turn rules, tends to have problem with what I like to call "Turn Shenanigans." That is, readying an action for after a creature's start of turn, such that they cannot make a save against it for a full round. This kind of behavior requires DM Ad Hoc intervention-I don't have any way around it other than to say "You want to play that way?" and instigate "Mutually Assured Destruction Mode."

Of course, there are two things to remember. One: Solo monsters already get a bonus to saving throws. A standard creature has a 55% chance of passing a save, whereas a Solo has an 80% chance of passing a saving throw; this translates into a 45% chance of failure (extend duration 1 round) for a standard, and 20% chance for a solo monster. Assuming an effect is purely save ends, it lasts for one round + X + X^2 + X^3, and so on (I'm not good with the calculus but it's relatively easy values). In short, a typical save ends effect lasts for approximately 1.8 rounds against a standard monster, and about 1.25 rounds against a solo monster.

In other words, save your single target save ends effects for solo monsters, because you're getting 6.25 creature-rounds worth of status effects for every one-that's three and a half times as much as against a standard monster!

For once, I see no problem with this. Single target save ends powers scream "Use this against a solo monster." And it's certainly true that, no matter what your deadly Level +4 solo monster boss fight is, if the entire party loads, one by one, save ends stuns and you decided that you wouldn't include a "still effective while stunned" property because you figured dealing with End of Next Turn effects was enough, your boss will never get a turn-barring crappy hit rolls. But ... actually, I have no retort for that. Use the cleanser rules too.

The danger, as I alluded to earlier, is of players feeling like their options don't count. No one really wants to bank on the 1 in 5 chance that their end of next turn power will really work. And no one wants to see their daily powers go up in smoke due to a 1/encounter status cleanser. Players will feel cheated. Implementing changes without negating player input is important. But so is challenging characters. And if the only solution to challenge characters is to simply not run solo monsters, then solo monsters really shouldn't be a part of the game.

Whatever mechanism is used, controllers need to be compensated somewhat. Either a bonus to hit or damage, or a penalty to enemy saving throws. It's an ad hoc solution, but I wouldn't be opposed to having controller powers grant a -5 to the start of turn saving throw for solo monsters.

Obviously, when running against an entire party of thieves and scouts, it's a non-issue. If the group uses straight DPS, you don't have status effects to worry about. But that's of little consolation when your group deals 700 damage over the course of two rounds at 16th level!

*17th level is when Wizards get Ice Tomb and Phantasmal Horror, their first encounter stuns, so it's a convenient level to use.
**We're ignoring paragon path powers for the moment, but trust me-they make the model worse.