Solitary Refinement

So, those of you familiar with 4e know something about the different monster types. There are lurkers, skirmishers, brutes, soldiers, leaders, minions, elite, and solos. I want to talk about the latter. The idea of solo monsters is iconic, the overpowering red dragon, the villain at the end of every tale of adventure. In theory a confrontation with this opponent should be the climactic finale to your DM opus, the masterstroke. In reality however 4e solos very often fall flat. They don’t live up to the hype and since 4e started people have been hatching harebrained ideas on how to improve or create different solo monsters. Some are very interesting, others weird, and some you can tell just by face value they require too much work to be of use.

What are specific common problems with 4e solos?

  • They’re designed to behave as normal monsters.
  • Stun Lock/Hate Box
  • HP Bore

 They’re Designed To Behave As Normal Monsters

So what does this mean? Well in your vanilla 4e encounter you have 5 PCs facing off against 5 equally matched monsters. On each creature’s turn they get a standard, move, and minor action. They may also get a number of opportunity actions and immediate actions.

So the baddies per combat round get:

  • 5 Standard Actions
  • 5 Move Actions
  • 5 Minor Actions
  • 5 Immediate Actions
  • 0 – 25 Opportunity Actions
  • 0 – Infinite Free Actions
  • 0 – Infinite No Actions

And people are surprised 4e combat can become a quagmire, that’s only half of what can be going on in a round. But, a solo on the other hand is one creature representing the ferocity of a 5 enemy fight. A simple look at the action economy of a combat round for a solo will show us a very different story.

Solos per combat round get:

  • 1 – 2 Standard Actions (2 Action Points, usable once per round)
  • 1 Move Action
  • 1 Minor Action
  • 1 Immediate Action
  • 0 – 5 Opportunity Actions
  • 0 – Infinite Free Actions
  • 0 – Infinite No Actions

They’re designed to act like a normal monster, but we can see they’re woefully underpowered in how many actions they can take. Later 4e design helped to mitigate some of this gap by providing more powerful move and minor actions. They also included more no actions and free actions.

Stun Lock / Hate Box

The 4e power gaming strategists out there are very familiar with this modus operandi. Essentially the party ‘puts baby in the corner’ either physically or with status effects and beats the ever-living snot out of it. One of the worst examples I have seen was a party with two controllers fighting a poorly designed solo fight against a blue dragon in a cave. Blue dragons are artillery and the DM made the silly oversight of stuffing it by its lonesome in a cave without enough room to fly about. The party backed it into a corner and dropped stuns, daze, ongoing damage, immobilize, and every other status effect under the sun on it. If it was a tv/movie the next rounds of combat would have happened off screen. An alignment change could have been argued given the viciousness of the animal cruelty.

This is standard operating procedure for solos, bust out the dailies and sustain effects to turn monsters into punching bags of HP. Take a flick back to the action economy of a solo. Effectively when you use a condition like Dazed on a Solo it’s as if you dazed an entire room full of enemies.

HP Bore

One thing I have seen many different critics of 4e bring up is the system’s bloat of hit points. Everyone has HP, first level wizards drop in around 25+ HP. It’s not such a bad thing, though the design attempt to eschew the 15-minute workday was not entirely successful. But one nice thing in 4e is you don’t usually have to worry about a single nasty sneeze ending your PC’s life before it even started.

Solos have a lot of criticism here and for good reason. One creature means it needs to be the equivalent of five and so obviously it needs staying power in a combat encounter and an absolute flood of HP to soak up the abuse. This is further exacerbated by soldier and brute classification solos. For the purpose of analysis and showing an example on how to retool solos to be more dynamic we will be looking at the Fen Hydra, a level 12 Solo Brute from Monster Manual 1. I picked this creature because it’s a particularly poor designed solo monster that was in the first wave of solos, before WoTC’s R&D began experiments attempting to correct obvious problems. The Fen Hydra has 620 HP, a serious glutton for party abuse. This is already dialed back from the equivalent HP of five level 12 brutes (150 x 5 = 750) by almost an entire creature’s HP.

Made with the excellent Monster Maker program from Asmor.com

Made with the excellent Monster Maker program from Asmor.com

But the problem is not so much the amount of HP solos possess but that the result of the conflict is forecasted long before its end. People who play RPGs understand this, there’s a metaphorical scale balancing the success of the party juxtaposed to the success of the opposition. When initiative is rolled (without an ambush) the scale is even. The first few rounds is the golden time, where the scale shifts back and forth as damage is dealt and taken in turn. Quickly you begin to notice a rather obvious tilt in the scale as creatures are dispatched secret ‘ace in the hole’ moves are spent. Then it becomes busywork. That is the problem with most solo monster encounters. The PCs have all but slain the solo and they’re simply taking turns to cut their pounds of flesh. Now, any experienced DM/GM also recognizes this and can feel the general atmosphere of the table. They know to hurry the creature’s expiration along. So really combat is at its best when victory and defeat is still up in the air. There are two prevailing thoughts on how to do this. The first, the solo changes/metamorphosizes to a different state keeping the combat fresh as the party learns the new tactics. Essentially instead of fighting one creature the party fights 2 – 3 different solo opponents in sequence, often with a target-all attack mortaring the creatures. The second is not creating a solo encounter at all by placing hazards, traps, minions, and other supporting features into the combat to harry and divert the party’s attention from the solo. This allows a solo monster to string out its big moves and be a large threat for a longer amount of the combat in theory.

So what’s a DM to do if he wants to use solo monsters but not have to recreate the wheel to make 1-2 new solo monsters or make guesses about how much extra XP can be plugged into the encounter before it becomes insurmountable?

Find out in Solitary Refinement Part II! I’m breaking this up into two posts given its length.

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