Sunday, January 31, 2010

Challenging the PCs (Part 2)

In part one, I discussed some of the elements that have resulted in my PCs not really being challenged too much in recent combats (pretty much since the beginning of Paragon).

Chatty DM in his series on the same subject (Part 2 and Part 3) discussed some solutions to the problem. Ironically enough, Radio Free Hommlet also discussed this with respect to Solos in their latest podcast.

I agree with several of his points. Just adding monsters to the encounter, while it will increase the threat due to the economy of actions (more standard actions = more damage), it also increases the time it takes to complete the encounter.

Increasing the levels of the monsters is even worse. The damage that monsters do doesn't really scale much. What increasing the level of the monsters does is makes the monsters harder to hit and makes the monsters more easily hit the PCs. It also increases their hit points. All of these also mostly increase the length of the encounter, for not a lot of increase in threat.

Also, if you've cut back on the hit points of monsters do avoid "The Grind", reconsider it. The reduction in hit points makes it much easier for the PCs to get a numerical advantage that, while it does decrease the length of the combat, significantly decreases the threat level too, additional damage notwithstanding.

I don't necessarily want to kill the PCs off...I want them to think I'm trying to kill them off. I want
to put some fear into the PCs.

It seems to me that what players fear are:

1. Sudden Death. This doesn't happen much now, but while there are no more save-or-die effects, there are many fail 2 saves and die effects.

2. Item destruction. This isn't so much of a big deal anymore either since magic items don't do as much in the game anymore.

3. Level Drain. Doesn't exist anymore. Next.

4. Lots of damage. Especially if it's in one sudden blow. The most memorable scary moments recently came from some Water Archon Wavestriders, who surprised the party and each one managed to attack each of the PCs. Another was from a hydra who used action points later in the combat to get 10-15 attacks off in one round. More recently, a Drow Demonbinder (Marilith) managed to get 6 attacks off on a Barbarian and hit will all of them, for around 80 odd points.

I do disagree with Chatty DM's idea of increasing the damage using Page 42 by one level (ie Normal to High). The increase of damage using this is minimal generally speaking...only on the order of one or two damage. Going with Mike Shea's idea of increasing damage by a set amount (say +5 for Paragon, +10 for Epic) would have a greater impact. He also recommends increasing damage by one die when the monster is bloodied. While I think this works great, I think that powers that do 4 dice of damage or more need more oomph...I recommend adding 2 extra dice of damage.

Solos though are a special case, and as mentioned, Radio Free Hommlet did an excellent podcast on this (although I wish they'd post the monster that scared the crap out of them the following week).

I will summarize some of their comments below, although the podcast is really worth a full listening.

The main problems that Solos have is by definition they're pretty much the only monster in the encounter (though there have been lots of recommendations to have at least traps if not some minions added into the encounter to provide other targets).

This means that Defenders can really lock them down and reduce their attack rolls significantly. They are at threat of being perma-proned by several powers. Dazed and stun effects have a much greater impact on Solos than Standard monsters).

As they are written in the Monster Manuals, Solos have often significantly fewer standard actions than five Standard monsters. This makes them seem much less threatening, although the argument is that Solos never lose much effectiveness until they die (and now actually get stronger when bloodied), when you compare them to Standard monsters, which can get whittled away one at a time.

Personally, I don't have a problem with the idea that they are a major threat for the entire combat. Isn't that kinda the point? Solos are supposed to be the uber-Monsters. Combats with Solos are supposed to be legendary. They should take the party to the edge (and possibily a bit beyond).

Radio Free Hommlett discussed a couple of the really good Solos: Beholders and the Aspect of Tiamat. I would add the Behir to this as well.

What makes them so threatening are several aspects.

1. Beholders get a free action attack at the beginning of each player's turn, if they are within 5 squares of that PC. This allows the threat to scale with the size of the party, and also avoids some of the problems with dazes (which allow free actions).

2. The Aspect of Tiamat, Tiamat and the Behir all have multiple actions at different initiative steps. This cuts back on the effects of stuns, and also increases the effective number of Standard actions they get.

3. Many Monster Manual 2 monsters get combo attacks (eg Silver Dragons) as part of one single Standard Action. Previous editions featured claw-claw-bite...there isn't any good reason not to have that in 4e.

The bottom line is that any truly challenging Solo needs lots of actions (either through extra initiative steps, additional standard action attacks, free actions at the start of players turns, minor action attacks and immediate action attacks). They also need some sort of defense against stuns and daze effects, and some ability to deal with Defenders.

You don't want to completely neuter Controllers and Defenders though, but you do want to keep their abilities in check slightly.

In the next post I will post an amped-up Solo as a Monster of the Week.


  1. I really wish the beach mages would give us official revisions to previously published monsters who were found to not work to their full potential, especially solos, instead of making us do the guesswork. Thanks for your thoughts on the subject!

  2. Love that... "Beach Mages" :-) Anyways, I wish they'd update them too, but I'm guessing the reason they don't is that is spending money on something that won't make them money. Understandable, but unfortunate.