[4e] Solos and Big Bosses

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In my tabletop game last week, the players got themselves into a situation where I needed to drop a dragon on them.  True to form for them, they’d gone and done something I wasn’t entirely expecting so I didn’t have the encounter prepped beyond knowing that it was an Adult Red with a Githyanki Sword Seeker riding it. I opened the MM1 to the page on Dragon, Red, Adult and the fight began.  Within a few rounds I realized there were serious problems here and that I needed to look at some of the Solo redesign philosophies that have come out in the 2.5 years since MM1.The good news was it was late so we finished off the session in the middle of combat and will pick it up again next week. The Githyanki is dead, the dragon is barely scratched and a lot of dailies and encounter powers have been expended with little effect. The defenses were all in the 30s and my lvl 11 PCs just weren’t tagging it without a roll of 15-17+ in most cases. They’ve done a grand total of 40 points of damage to it so far. It lists at 750. This is looking to be a long dragged-out slog that will end in a couple of hours with everybody down to at-wills chipping away at a handful of points per round, assuming I just don’t kill them all first.

In the couple of rounds we did play through I foresaw some other serious problems. A couple of weeks ago they party had to fight a scaled down aboleth – it was a lvl 14 elite and had a bunch of friends with it, but the party managed to lock it down with dazes, immobilize effects and knocking it prone to the point where what was supposed to be a really fierce cap to the heroic tier ended up not at all threatening, frustrating for me and frankly kind of anticlimactic and boring for everyone involved. To name the big pitfalls here: having a single monster going only once per round vs 5 or 6 PCs, and the ability of various effects to limit even that one action to be inconsequential. This is by no means a problem unique to 4e – I’ve wrestled with it a LOT in supers games. Simulating the very common motif in comics where an entire team takes on one archvillain has always been problematic in rpgs in every system I’ve ever used.

In fighting this dragon I need to make it really bad-ass while at the same time not keeping it so far out of reach w/r/t its defenses and total HP so as to make it impossible (or worse – boring) for everybody.

The design changes as noted in DMG2 are that solos should have a 4x multiplier rather than a 5x multiplier and that the non-AC defenses should be about 2 points lower across the board. The July 2010 Rules Update also included a revised damage expressions table that was a LOT more deadly.  Fewer HP plus greater damage output equals shorter encounters with more “OH SHIT” moments. There is also a modified table for monster stats by role  – I have to sit down and look at what changed between DMG1 and this.

My brother also directed my attention to the write-up of a Young Black Dragon that was distributed at GenCon and was included in issue zero of the new “Dungeons & Dragons” comic written by “member of our tribe made good” John Rogers. This critter has some really interesting stuff going on. It’s built on the new DMG2/MM3 model so the HPs and defenses aren’t disgusting. It has a trait called “Instinctive Devouring” that gives it a free action at its Init check+10 where it can either charge or bite (and if it can’t take a free action due to a stun or dominate then that effect just plain ends) and another called “Action Recovery” that ends any dazing, stunning or dominating effects at the end of its turn. That would be a lot nastier if it were at the start but it certainly keeps controllers having to work for their dinner (too much maybe? Dunno. I suspect it’s pretty balanced compared to a room of 6 or 8 baddies who get locked down a couple at a time and then die).  There’s also a really delicious sounding rechargeable power called “Shroud of Gloom” that drops a nasty debuff on foes and allows the foes to remove it with a successful Heal check as a standard action. That’s pretty sexy right there and both chews up some PC actions and keeps them on their toes having to decide whether to keep on attacking or try to remove the debuff (on themselves or on someone else). Very nicely designed power in that it is INTERESTING, which is really all I ever ask for.  I’m really looking forward to seeing the design changes in the MonsterVault – do I really have to wait another month and a half?

Those things seem to solve a lot of my mechanical problems. But I’d still like the encounter to have a little more zip.

This series of posts from the Angry DM blog is helping me crystallize my thoughts toward a more interesting encounter. The series hit on the same conceptual problems I was having with big bads, The thesis there is that video games like God of War and WoW do end bosses really, really well. The trick is using stages with the critter changing forms/powers/approaches at each stage, complete with some kind of quicktime event in between as it transforms.  The PCs get a bit of a benefit between segments as well, being able to spend a haling surge and recover one spent encounter power. And because what will happen in stage 2 or 3 is unknown, players are possibly less inclined to drop all their dailies and encounter powers up front and be left with only at-wills toward the end, which makes for a more interesting encounter.  Also of great interest to me here – the stages don’t even need to all be fighting the big bad. You can plunk a skill challenge in as stage 2, as the boss flees down a corridor collapsing the ceiling behind them and the PCs have to pursue. Or, more relevant to my own game, as an Adult Red Dragon breathes fire on the deck of a skyship hidden under a dense tree canopy and camouflaged with delightfully flammable brush.

One of my players has also (foolishly?) directed my attention to the Worldbreakers series of articles at the At-Will blog. I haven’t had a chance to read through that yet but it’s on my list.

I’ll write a follow-up once I have a better idea of my exact plan. This was more just setting out the problems I have and the resources I’m hoping to bring to bear.

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