Advanced Adventuring & Questing

Welcome Back! I’m going to continue on from the last blog so if you haven’t given that a read I suggest you read through it first.

We’ve gone over the basic quest types, so how do you make your own quests in a simple way? There’s a handy dandy list of questions that you need to run through. These questions are first answered by the DM and then answered by the players.

Who? The persons and parties involved
What? The quest’s objective
When? A sense of time, urgency or expiration
Where? What are the locations involved?
Why? The ‘so what’ part.
Why not you? Your players will ask why the quest giver or some other relevant party isn’t taking care of the issue; have a plausible answer.
What’s the reward? This is what hooks the players into the quest. Get fancy, add some secondary objectives, conditionals, and utilize intrinsic and extrinsic rewards. Does your group haggle? Low ball the initial reward and keep a reward ceiling in mind.
Consequences? What happens if the quest isn’t completed?

Ex. Reggie Needs 10 Wolf Hides
Who: Reggie
What: Needs 10 wolf hides delivered
When: Tuesday EoB
Where: Reggie’s Discount Hide Shack, Nearby over-populated wolf forest
Why: Reggie’s behind on his orders
Why not Reggie: Reggie isn’t a hunter, he’s a tanner. Reggie’s usual guy (his brother) is laid up with an injury.
Reward: 2 gp per hide and good relations with Reggie
Consequences: Reggie falls further behind in his orders, loses money. Someone comes and breaks his legs and he dies penniless in the gutter.

Simple enough to quickly see everything that pertains to a quest. The DM should always be able to answer these questions and the players should be able to answer all or nearly all the questions by the end of the quest. It’s important with this information as a DM to be translucent, not transparent. Give them the dots, but let your players connect them so they fel agency by putting the pieces together.

Speaking of player agency there’s one glaring omission on the question list: How. The players determine how they complete the objective. In the example above the players might want to see if there’s an over supply of wolf hides that can be bought for cheap and delivered to Reggie. Also, take what your players give you. A scrupulous player may want to know how Reggie’s brother got injured. Maybe it was a simple accident or something more deadly awaits the party as they go hunting wolves. It’s always a nice change when a group wants to find a solution not involving indiscriminate bloodshed, so reward that.

Now with the simple things settled you can make some tweaks, changes, and complications. Get inventive. Quest givers don’t have to be people with glowing symbols over their heads. The Mines of Phandelver kicks off its first quest with two dead horses prickled with crudely made arrows barring the road. Environmental quest triggers work really well, because players want to solve puzzles. They will often start theorizing what happened before searching the area. Also, really lean on the intrinsic rewards. Like the real world it’s all about who you know, not what you know. If you want your players to treat your NPCs with respect, give them a reason for it. Letters of introduction, referrals, and social friends trump their weight in gold. Favors and reputation are often more valuable than cold hard GP. You can also transform the objective, Bethesda’s Elder Scroll and Fallout games are good examples. NPCs aren’t omniscient, especially quest givers. They likely only know a facet of the larger issue. PCs can often make matters worse before making them better.

Make connections. Bridge different quests by sharing assets like NPCs, monsters, and rewards. This creates continuity and makes your world feel like it’s connected and alive, not simply a string of episodic adventures.

Then create complications. You can always make a simple thing more convoluted so it’s important your quests start off simple. Then you can drop in problems, roadblocks, and hiccups to make the party’s life difficult. Done badly it ends up feeling like an item trading quest: boring, repetitive, and usually it’s unnecessary to the larger plot. Done well: Bioshock. The original quest of Bioshock is a simple delivery quest to reach Atlas and escape Rapture. But the environment and society is crumbling around you. Passages get blocked and you either have to find a way around or through the roadblock. People with murderous intent keep getting in your way, indicative of the much larger issues plaguing the Randian paradise.

Let’s look at another example.

Ex. Lord of the Rings
Who: Council of Elrond, Sauron, The Fellowship
What: Take ring to mountain, drop in lava to destroy
When: ASAP, before Sauron’s domination of Middle Earth
Where: Middle Earth from The Shire to Mt. Doom
Why: To stop Sauron’s world domination
Why not Council of Elrond: Temptation of the ring and being too conspicuous
Reward: Not living/dying under Sauron’s move for world domination, destruction of The Shire, Fame
Consequences: Sauron’s world domination, destruction of The Shire, being driven mad by The Ring

Pretty simple idea, then you just add complication after complication. The first big obstacle being the blocked pass making the characters go into the Mines of Moria. Really everything from there on is an added complication, mini-quests within the bigger quest.

I could spend a lot of time and words going into the gritty details of this massive subject but I think these two entries give enough of a springboard to get you thinking and planning better adventures. Leave a question or comment if you like what I’m doing. you can also find me on Google+ and Twitter @Redraggedfiend


Transitioning from Action Points to Augmented Fate Points

Excellent For Counting Points During Play!

Excellent For Counting Points During Play!

For a reminder, if you didn’t read the last blog I suggest you read the previous post as this is a continuation.

Last time I spent a little bit talking about Fate Points and how they operate as a mechanical boon by offering up some specific leeway to the GM for one’s PC. Slacken the reigns a bit on your PC and you get yourself a point to be traded in later to make a challenge a little easier. So first let’s a take a more in-depth look at Action Points, Fate Points, and how they function.

Action Points

If you’re not familiar with Fourth Edition you can probably gloss over this section as it doesn’t pertain to you. Alternatively I suggest picking up a 4e PHB and reading up on Action Points. If you’re looking for just a little extra something to add to a different system’s game action points are a good place to start. Back on point, what’s the deal with Action Points? Action Points in the most basic of terms gives a creature the ability on its turn to take an additional standard action. In most circumstances it’s the opportunity to make two attacks in one round, which is pretty nice by itself; couple the idea with a PC that can utilize two Daily Attack Powers in a round and it is a super powerful boon. While not the only example you can probably see some hints as to why Solo monsters can be difficult to run in 4e. Each PC in the first round with APs can drop 5[W] or more damage on a creature with serious persistent effects. This is a problem is you’re running a Solo Artillery or Controller type with low HP. Get caught in the open early in the fight and a set piece finale battle can turn into 1-2 rounds of very ugly evisceration. The second big bonus to APs is it allows you to do multiple actions when you otherwise would not be able. The Dazed condition is a little more manageable, and an AP can give a PC 3 chances to escape a grab in one turn. The latter is crucial when fighting a creature that gets big bonuses on attack and damage against grabbed creatures or does automatic damage to them.

Action Points do come with limitations. Assuming general adventuring wear and tear most PCs will only have use of 2-4 Action Points per adventuring day. There is also no active way to gain APs. Outside of simply continuing to adventure and thus gain milestones there is no In-Character action a player can take to gain more. Additionally, taking an extended rest resets action points to one so there is a serious problem with wasting APs. This problem can be compounded as players can only use one AP per encounter and APs are practically useless as written for use in any situation other than combat.

Perhaps the biggest difficulty for Action Points comes for the DM/GM. The use is exactly the same for those behind the screen as those in front of it. Only two types of monsters have AP for the DM to play with, Elites and Solos. With the latter these AP are almost always used when the monster is under the Dazed condition defensively rather than offensively.

In Summary, Action Points are powerful but they’re limited in quantity and relegated only to use in combat situations. As written they are not particularly useful for a DM.

Fate Points

Fate Points operate in a different manner than the traditional Action Point. The first difference is FPs are more abundant. As characters advance they have a higher refresh rate. The refresh rate tells the player how many FP a character will start a play session with at a minimum. And, unlike APs, Fate Points are carried over to the next session. A PC with Refresh 3 ends the session with 4 FPs, he begins the next session of play with 4 FPs. If the PC ends the session with 1 FP he would begin the next session with 3 FP, i.e. his Refresh Rate.

Fate Points have different mechanics. While APs provide additional actions, FPs improve the chance for success or failure for actions. Fate Points can be used to gain a flat +2 bonus to rolls, give a player the opportunity to reroll an attempt, give enemies a -2 on their attempts, and in some cases they can be used to auto succeed at attempts.

In my opinion, the most novel idea about FPs is the way they are bargained back and forth between the GM and the players. Each PC is an amalgam of stats and aspects. Aspects are short, descriptive phrases that explain who the character is. Fate Points are used to engage aspects, for PCs this is usually to be better at something. For the GM, he can use these same aspects against the PC. Tapping the aspect costs a FP. PCs tapping an aspect hand over a FP to the GM. A GM only hands over a FP when he taps a PC’s aspect. If a GM taps one of his bad guy’s aspects the FP goes back to the FP bank/pool. Players can also tap detrimental aspects of their PCs to gain FP from the bank/pool. I’ll give an example of how this works.

In a recent game session I played a half-orc touched by the fire element, which he worships as a zealot (this serves no mechanical benefit). The party has been engaged with a boat trip across a massive lake, all the while being harried by an ice witch. Upon meeting the ice witch in combat my PC launches himself from the boat to charge down the ice witch, howling hateful, fury all the way. This is the sort of action that really reflects the concept of my character and is likely to earn me a Fate Point from the bank.

Fate Points are far more useful for a GM than AP are for DMs. Fate Points can be used to boost bad guys, hamper good guys, entice players to play up their PC’s drawbacks in exchange for FPs, or compel the detrimental effects of their aspects if they have no FPs.

New Points

So what about new points for 4e D&D or any d20 system? Drafting Fate Points directly over to d20 is ill-advised given Fate is a system that uses Fudge dice. But I’ve put together a pretty simple system for new points.

–        Each Player and GM/DM resets to 1 point per day session

–        +1d6 to Attack, Skill, Save Attempt

–        Reroll Attack, Skill, Save Attempt

–        Gain Points by going above and beyond by playing PC’s personality (GM discretion)

–        Gain Points by accepting GM advisement over PC’s personality

There are two major differences to implementing these points over the standard AP. First, there are some abilities and powers which function off of APs. Warlords especially give out bonuses to PCs when they use an AP. In such a case you may find it necessary to limit each PC to gaining these boons once per encounter. The other is that Elite and Solo monsters should still gain their built-in points. While this hinders solo monsters in their reduced ability to function under the Dazed condition it is offset by allowing them a greater bonus when attempting to save from conditions and a better chance of hitting with the limited, more powerful, attacks.

One point of clarification is using points to boost or reroll attacks. This is done for one attack roll. Therefore a monster using a close burst power that misses four PCs cannot spend a point to reroll all the attacks included in the power, but only a singular attack roll.

And that’s it. So read it over, try it out and let me know if you think it’s a better option than standard action points in 4e or a nice addition to 3.X or other favorite d20 system.

Chasing the Dragon

If you were expecting a post about opiates you’re out of luck, sorry? What it is about is chase scenes. Now if you’ve been hanging around tabletop RPGs for any amount of time you probably haven’t played in a lot of action movie style chase scenes. Well why is that? Play out a chase scene at the table and you will figure it out. Or better yet, try to design one.

One of the underlying problems that quickly arises is most games are designed from a mechanical aspect to deal with combat and tactics on a stationary set of scenery. The difficulty of hitting a moving target while moving compounded by strange situations creeping up into the cover rules make things a bit convoluted. Start opening up that dusty section of your favorite rules system book to look at the vehicle handling rules and you may as well stop the game. At this point no one is having fun.

I stole this from the Muddy Colors Blog. You should go there and tell them how despicable I am.

I stole this from the Muddy Colors Blog. You should go there and tell them how despicable I am.

There are more practical problems like the map. If you play on a tactical surface of any sort you’re going to run out of room and soon. Depending on system specifics an average can straight run off the table surface in about 3 rounds. All that meticulous work you put into making a grimy slum street turns to naught if the PCs only spend 18 seconds of play time in the scene. On top of that, let’s hope the bad guys are able to keep up or at least have a reliable way to slow the PCs down. You can throw the escort quest slow NPC in with the PCs but it’s pretty cheap tactic. It only works once so you’ll have to figure out something different if you want to do another chase in the next… ever. You really don’t want to be harangued by your players for this sort of thing until you die so I say just avoid it if possible.

So then what’s a DM/GM to do? We all would love to do chase scenes. Chase scenes done right are a great way to break up the monotony of see enemies, kill enemies. They also are moving scenes so they can actually provide a way to move your group from one plot point to another. Heck, you can even end your chase scenes with a standoff fight. Imagine you could very smoothly transition from a dialogue-filled plot building scene, broken up by… let’s say ninjas (because ninjas are always busting in and breaking up a good conversation). You transition to being chased by ninjas through a slums district. They’re hopping over buildings, diving over vendor carts, running across suspended laundry lines while chasing the party. Eventually the PCs get corralled into a dead-end alley with warriors of shadow closing in like a silent black hand gripping their throat. Now you can either seamlessly transfer this into a ‘roll initiative’ scene or use it to set up an NPC ally busting through the wall to save them just in time. Transition to another plot building dialogue scene at the new safe house. Do you want that? I want that, it sounds awesome.

First we need a very clear goal and criteria for success and failure of that goal so we can measure it. Using the example above the clear goal for the party in the chase scene is ‘OMG Ninjas, RUN!’, don’t get caught/killed by ninjas.
Success: Make a Clean Getaway
Failure: Get Killed/Caught

So one thing to keep in mind during this endeavor, especially if the usual M.O. for your group is kill everything that moves is make it clear the goal is not to kill the ninjas. Nothing will ruin a chase scene quicker than a group of PCs turning around and digging in their heels. You know how to best make your group aware of this. It might be having extra ninjas show up out of the blue at the edge of the scene each round to reinforce the idea they’re a never-ending supply. Or you could just tell the group they’re certain trying to have it out in a pitched battle is going to end with them dead.

So let’s nuts and bolts this. You know that super detailed map of the slums you made? Keep that around we’re going to use that. Take some time over the weekend and make yourself a really fancy map, don’t be afraid of making it too cluttered either as that may actually be beneficial.

Feel free to put some large features on the map, difficult, and impassable terrain. Get some height as well. This exercise is a great way to work on multiple level battles. Get some roofs on those buildings and make some larger than one story. Add a few balconies, have fun with it.

Grid out your mat/map. My Paizo Flip-Mat is a 30″ x 24″ grid. That’s 720 squares which can be broken down into 5 x 4 surface of 6″ x 6″ tiles. Why did I choose these dimensions? Well, a 36″ square has plenty of room for your PCs to be positioned. Also that divides my map into 20 distinct sectors. Now if only I had some sort of device for randomizing results of 1 – 20…

At this point we have a fun looking map divided into smaller block sectors. Well, it’s not a chase scene without some chasers. We’re using ninjas so pull out some baddies of appropriate difficulty with sneaky, ninja type attributes. Now this can be as deadly and complicated as you like. Feel like spicing it up, add some other groups that will be inserted at different types.

Group A: 1d4 Ninjas
Group B: 1 Master Ninja + 1d4-1 Ninjas
Group C: 1d4 Slum Thugs

You can weight the results and roll for them randomly or set some other criteria like ‘I always want ninjas and one other type of baddie on the board at any time.’ In the above groups I assume my ninjas will be the bread and butter, quick enemies with some ranged attacks and good acrobatics/athletics to be masters of the environment. A ninja master is a beefed up version of the average ninja. Maybe he’s a little faster and has a debilitating melee attack that immobilize or knocks prone. For fun I added some slum thugs, these guys are 1 HP cannon fodder. They’re basically around to be in the way and for the PCs to waste attacks killing.

Each round I add a few more guys to the board to reinforce the enemy. Now, if this is a long chase you may end up with a lot of bad guys. Remember to give the PCs plenty of advantage with cover and the like to keep them from getting killed outright. This helps to reinforce the havoc of chase scenes with death flying through the air in haphazard directions.

Armed with map, grid system, bad guys, and PCs you just need to do the deal. So how long do you make it? I took a page out of the D&D 4e DMG on skill challenges. Specifically I took a look at the successes needed. We have our own ability to gauge failure but we need some way to measure when the PCs ‘escape’ their pursuers. A short chase feels like reaching 4 sectors would be appropriate. An average chase choose somewhere between 6-8 sectors, and for marathons 10-12 sectors. Move to the next sector when the last PC has entered the current goal sector. You can either roll at the table for the sectors or roll them beforehand. I might look to roll them beforehand. The reasoning is I want to make sure there aren’t too many short, long, or same routes.

***Pro Tip: Feeling extra fancy/diabolical? Throw in a rotating black out sector or two. A simple run from sector 12 – sector 15 gets a little more complicated when sector 13 is blocked off.***

That’s it. The most difficult part of chase scenes using this method is the maps. Some of us love drawing maps and some hate it. If you hate drawing maps let an art-inclined PC go at it or use it as a game warm up. Remember that dialogue section at the beginning of our ninja game? Well give the group something to do while talking about it. You can have a really awesome, collaborated slums map with half a dozen people cobbling together random bits. Once they’re done with the dialogue scene it’s chase time. This is a great way to keep your players engaged with the game and save yourself some work. Or take a map off the internet, there are some really great ones out there you can use. So take this and run your own chase scenes and see how it works for your group.

Did I miss something or do you have an idea for something you’d like me to write about? Leave it in the comments or get in touch with me through social media!

In The Beginning You Meet In A Tavern

The trope starting point for any fantasy RPG campaign. A cloaked man at a dimly-lit table in the corner of the tavern motions you over and speaks in whispers about a job and a hefty purse of gold for its completion. Never mind the average fantasy tavern has more dark corners than a star fort under the new moon.

It’s a poor beginning for an RPG adventure and it’s unfortunately the template. As a beginning it suffers some serious drawbacks. First it’s boring. A bunch of tight-lipped strangers sitting behind tankards not talking to each other. They are complete strangers or vague acquaintances, no bosom buddies or even first name basis friendliness. It’s a passive beginning that relies on the players to make the first move, something even experienced players are reluctant to do in a brand new campaign setting. If you want your players to do something, give them something to do. Sitting in a tavern leaves very little room for interpretation on how to do that, or what might be of interest. Let’s be honest you probably didn’t even come up for a reason these adventurers are sitting on their rumps in the middle of the day, shouldn’t they have jobs or at least be looking for work? feasting-peasants-in-a-tavern

In some ways running a game from behind the screen is like helping a kid learn to ride a bike. To start out you provide the push and training wheels to keep them on the straight and narrow but slowly pull back the control and safeguards. If there is ever a time to be a heavy-handed GM it’s at the start, before the players get their feet up under themselves and even begin to know who their characters are. But before that happens it’s just a bundle of stats sitting around a table waiting for ‘the game’ to start.

Dive into action. Just like the adage ‘a wrong decision is better than indecision,’ sparking any sort of fire in the beginning will get your players involved and get them doing at least something. A few years back I did start a campaign in a tavern. The city was divided over a labor issue, the barge drivers guild up in arms over the construction of a new bridge that would severely cut into their work contracts. Things were really heating up with the barge drivers guild sabotaging bridge construction during the night. So the next step was then hiring an assassination attempt on the barge drivers guild headmaster. An attempt that brazenly took place during the day, in a tavern, with PCs around, under the cloak of a tavern brawl over the aforementioned labor issue.

By the end of the scene the PCs have saved an NPC who becomes an ally and patron. The natural first assignment being get to the bottom of the assassination attempt and who’s behind it. There were hiccups of course. Someone was carted of by the local authorities for committing blatant murder with lots of witnesses, others dragged into the affair by refusing to answer questions, flee the scene, and generally because the constables don’t like the way their face looked.

While not the classical definition of in medias res, start your games smack in the middle of something happening. Battlefield, sure; storm aboard a ship, absolutely; bread riots, sounds solid. Starting with action will immediately let your players know what the crucial issues are. Then you can begin to unfold the narrative’s past and future. The adventurers survived their wind-whipped night of a storm aboard ship, Mazel tov! Now tell them about the ship, why they’re on it, where it’s going and the objective. This is also a great way to give your players something to build upon as a back story. With a few well-defined points the blank sheet of a character back story becomes much easier to write. You begin to know what questions need to be answered, what events needed to happen to put this character with these skills in this position at this time.

Another tactic I commonly use is taking away character items and giving them something else, or nothing at all depending on the situation. In the recent adventure arc I’m running the players escaped a large travel camp with the clothes on their back and a satchel they grabbed running out. I pre-made the satchels with some general supplies based on the character types involved. In addition I added one personal trinket to each bundle.

Randomly they drew the bundles so received bundles not immediately useful to their PC for the most part. This gave them the opportunity to really scour their character sheets to learn the ins and outs while trading items back and forth. The trinkets have been fun as well, creating something of interest from strange items. A wooden pen scribed with runes becomes the druid’s spell casting wand. A strange serpent bracelet continues to find its way back around the human fighter’s wrist. The dragonborn has a silver flask engraved with the initials S.K., and the halfling thief is being very tight-lipped about his box with its strange ornamentation.

The other nice thing about playing with PC items is not only you can determine what they have, and can plant items on their person, you can also make level one’s looting actually important. Mundane weapons and armor of the enemy might actually be better than the adventurers in this scenario. They can also scrounge up general adventuring supplies.

Hopefully this will help you get a little more bang at the start of your game and get it going in the right direction sooner.

Solitary Refinement Pt. II

Solo Done Right

Solo Done Right

Before we roll up our sleeves and get to the yeoman’s work let’s take an inspection of the Fen Hydra stat block. This thing is in bad shape. A DM with 4e experience is going to notice some glaring problems right off hand. First, what the heck is all-around vision? This property is explained on some monsters (like the beholder) and was forgotten on others. All-around vision means PCs cannot gain combat advantage on the creature through flanking, super important thing to know about a solo as it means the hydra can mix it up in melee without always granting CA when the party surrounds it.

The HP is high, it’s a solo brute after all. I’m loathe to take the ax to HP prior to the table as a DM. Interest in solo fights deteriorates at an individual pace depending on the solo, the party, and how combat goes. I like to alter and trim HP at the table where I have more insight about what’s going on, hell I’ll even add HP to the monster if it furthers what I’m trying to accomplish. If I was going to have a rule of thumb for trimming solo HP in the planning stages I would take ½ of the less interesting/dangerous side of bloodied. Some monsters gain new powers or better damage when bloodied, some lose powers or auras when bloodied. Since the general problem with solos is they are not a threat for their entire tenure, cut the bit where they’re less imposing and conversely their danger time will seem longer in proportion while having less HP overall.

Speed, the Fen Hydra is slower than your average PC meaning it won’t be able to slip around them and it doesn’t have any neat trample tricks to bowl over the party. It does however have a nice swim speed. As the name suggests put this creature in a watery area like a fen, moor, bog, swamp, flooded caldera, atoll, etc. If you need to put it on land just give it a better speed so it can actually distance itself from a PC in a turn if needed. Maybe reward those elves with their base speed of seven squares by matching it.

Threatening Reach! One of the few things going for it is the Fen Hydra has threatening reach, use it to push those ranged attackers into corners and bring the hurt when they start slinging spells, bullets, and bolts.

Melee Basic Attack. The Fen Hydra is a one trick pony. Unfortunately its one trick is terrible. Anyone with a cursory knowledge of 4e can look at the MBA’s damage and tell it’s on par with a PC of level 1-4. This is a PARAGON TIER SOLO MONSTER, damage output unacceptable. Jump over to the Dungeon Master’s Guide, page 42. If you have never used this page shame on you as it is probably the best page in the whole book. It’s worthwhile to actually print out and keep with your DM supplies. The Fen Hydra’s MBA targets one target and does terrible damage with no ongoing poison or effect. As you can seen from the table it does the lowest normal damage for something of its level. Bump up the MBA’s damage to 2d6+5. This is the single most useful improvement made to the Fen Hydra.

Hydra Fury and Many-Headed, because of changes I’m going to make to how the monster functions as a whole I’ll skirt over these. It’s of note that Many-Headed shows and attempt early on in the game mechanics to deal with status effects and their plague to solos. Granted it’s poorly worded but as a DM you may want to flag this page or make a note of the property as it is something you could easily tack on to other creatures to make them more potent baddies.

The Fen Hydra has a swim speed and a halfway decent bonus to stealth, use it. Don’t let a good perception check wreck the surprise, play it as a large ripple in the water, a Nessie sighting, or even an iconic movie scene. Big Bad Evil Guys should never just be hanging out in a room waiting for the party to show up. Don’t give them monologue diarrhea, but do give them a moment to posture and make their entrance to the scene. They are part of the dramatis personae for your adventure after all.

The Nitty Gritty 

So the first problem acknowledged for solos is they are designed to act as normal creatures but meant to fill the shoes of five normal baddies. How do we fix this, rather than redesign the Fen Hydra from the bottom up let’s just have it emulate five normal baddies. Simple solutions are the best right?

That means we roll the same number of initiatives as the party. Fighting a party of four PCs, roll 4 initiatives and now they’re fighting 4 different creatures with a shared HP pool (remember to adjust the solo’s HP depending on the size of the party. A party of four PCs should fight a solo with 4/5ths its HP). Just like a normal creature your four solo initiatives gets a Standard, move, and minor action. It gains a saving throw at the end of each initiative turn as normal. The solo should also gain a use of any immediate interrupts/reactions between each of its initiative turns as described. Assign different attack powers to each initiative as possible. I chose the Fen Hydra as an example also for its simplicity, because it only uses MBAs. Discard any power that allows the solo to make a combination of other attacks as one action (Hydra Fury). By increasing the number of turns the monster acts in the round we have already compensated for limited attacks.

Increasing the number of turns a creature has in a round greatly enhances the solo’s ability to adapt to situations and be a reckoning force in the encounter. Combat is no longer the solo’s turn and then five PC turns as they make complex strategies with impunity. It also means the solo has multiple chances to save out of status effects per round. This is counterbalanced by the creature taking multiple stabs of ongoing damage per combat round. Ongoing 10 poison damage can easily deal 50 damage to the solo per combat round if the DM rolls garbage saves. But to be fair most solos gain a +5 to saves so you’re BBEG is not likely to get slain by ongoing damage. As a result of these changes PC EoNT powers will typically be more powerful than Save Ends powers as they function off the PC’s turn and not the solo. Still, having five actions while Dazed is preferable to one.

What initiative might look like before and after implementing these changes: 


  • Generic Rogue
  • Generic Warlock
  • Fen Hydra
  • Generic Wizard
  • Generic Fighter
  • Generic Cleric


  • Generic Rogue
  • Fen Hydra 1
  • Generic Warlock
  • Fen Hydra 2
  • Generic Wizard
  • Fen Hydra 3
  • Fen Hydra 4
  • Generic Fighter
  • Fen Hydra 5
  • Generic Cleric


  • Generic Rogue
  • Fen Hydra 1
  • Fen Hydra 2
  • Fen Hydra 3
  • Fen Hydra 4
  • Fen Hydra 5
  • Generic Warlock
  • Generic Wizard
  • Generic Fighter
  • Generic Cleric

As you can see there is a marked improvement in the flow of combat from Example 1 to Example 2. Example 3 may happen, depending on rolls and the initiative bonus of the solo versus the bonus of the PCs. You can just delay a few initiatives of the solo on the first round to better intersperse with the party or decide to keep things as they are and bring the hurt. Example 3 gives you the perfect opportunity to bring the hurt to the PCs, remind them this is a Big Bad Evil Guy. This is the combat the entire party will unload their saved up daily powers, no need to check brake or saw the reins on this combat. Punish the defender for the sheer amount of idiotic hubris it takes to go toe-to-toe with a BBEG and mark it. Unload it all on the fighter in five consecutive initiatives and give him the KO. Step over his mangled form and let out a bestial roar to put the fear of god in the party. If you’re really big bad and evil maybe your Fen Hydra (after dumping 10d6+25 on the fighter) knocks the mangled body aside into the bog and his heavy armor quickly drags him to the bottom putting him out of line of sight for healing and leaving him to drown. Now someone gets to heroically dive into the water and drag the fighter to safety as the rest of the party deals with the solo.

In general as rule the DM wants to avoid picking a target and ‘Nuking’ them. But with solos if someone marks it, meaning he compels it to attack him to the exclusion of others, you’re authorized weapons hot to exterminate the target with extreme prejudice. It’s a five on one fight and the PCs are going to unload their dailies without pulling punches so take every opportunity available to play dirty and make sure the party isn’t going to walk away from the battle unscathed.

General Rules for Better Solos

  • Initiative quantity equal to the number of PCs in the adventuring party (5 PCs, 5 Solo Init.)
  • Each initiative slot gains the normal action economy (Standard, Move, Minor) and makes saving throws at the end of each initiative per ongoing condition/effect.
  • Discard any power that allows for a combination of other powers to be used as one action.
  • Assign an attack power to each initiative. Exhausted encounters or recharge powers that don’t recharge on their initiative sub in melee basic attacks.
  • MBAs can be subbed as a standard action on any initiative.
  • Any At-Will immediate action can be used once between each Solo initiative as applicable.
  • Actions Points should be used to pull the solo’s butt out of the fire or to spark a combat beginning to lull.

Optional Rule for Even Better Solos

  • Divvy HP equally to each initiative slot.
  • Damage/Effects dealt by a PC affects the next, upcoming initiative slot.
  • When reduced to zero HP the initiative slot is removed.
  • PCs can make Called Shots on a specific initiative slot. Target gains a +5 to defenses against the called shot.

Or you can always just freehand beefing individual solo monsters. If I was just focused on making the Fen Hydra more memorable I would bump its damage as noted and have it start combat with 1d4 heads. At the start of each round it gains a new head, which applies to Hydra Fury and Many-Headed. A battle of attrition will not end well for PCs, they need to kill it as quickly as possible.

You’ve seen how to change a simple solo monster like a Fen Hydra, but for illustration lets do an iconic, more complex creature. The Young Red Dragon (MM1, pg 82) is a Level 7 Solo Soldier. Give it five separate initiatives to beat up on the generic five person adventuring party. Immediately remove Double Attack.


  • Init 1: Breath Weapon | MBA
    • Imm. Reaction: Tail Strike
  • Init 2: Frightful Presence | MBA
    • Imm. Reaction: Tail Strike
  • Init 3: MBA
    • Imm. Reaction: Tail Strike
  • Init 4: MBA
    • Imm. Reaction: Tail Strike
  • Init 5: MBA
    • Imm. Reaction: Tail Strike

Now the Young Red Dragon has two different MBAs (you can tell MBAs because they have the circle around the sword melee emblem) Bite and Claw. Now if something seems too powerful to use every turn it probably is. Bite does 4d6+6 damage, doing that five times a combat round is going to TPK your encounter. You probably only want to use Bite once a round so just pencil it in as the default attack for Initiative 3 and use Claw as the general MBA attack. If the party gets a little complacent don’t be afraid to bust out a few uses of Bite in a round, it’s technically an MBA after all.

It took me far longer to physically type the above changes to Young Red Dragon than determine them. This is a very simple way to beef up your solo monsters that can easily be done at the table with minimal to no pre-planning for solos of all types and tiers; also perfect when cold running a published adventure.

So let me know if you try it and how it worked out for you. Contact me by comment, email, Twitter, G+.

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

Made with the excellent Monster Maker program from

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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D&D 30 Day Challenge Days 21 – 25

Favorite Dragon Color/Type

Red Dragon I guess, classic steak and potatoes with a house salad.

Favorite Monster Overall

Goblinoids. Goblins, Bugbears, Hobgoblins, and Barghest. Some might argue whether these distinct races should be grouped together, I too often wonder, I enjoy their overall presence. With such a gamut of related monsters goblinoids are a common enemy from level one up to ten. Another facet of my enjoyment is their distinct differences. Cowardly and servile goblins, brutish and sadistic bugbears, and towards the top calculating and spartan hobgoblins. Any lair or dungeon that might conceivably fit one of the races is fair game for adding the others.

Where I think these monsters really stand out is when you get past the combat. Adventure parties who take into their fold a sniveling goblin servant who may steal from them or sell them out at the first advantageous opportunity. Hobgoblins are pragmatic if cruel leaders. They would pay better than average for mundane weapons to outfit their growing warband. Bugbears can often function just as well in any spot you might otherwise use an orc.

Honorable Mentions: Otyugh, Cadaver Collector, Wraith/Wight

Least Favorite Monster Overall

Dragons. I know, I know, it’s in the game’s title but it’s my list. They’re overused and underpowered. By mythical origins they are supposed to be some of the most powerful creatures alive; heck, Bahamut and Tiamat are worshiped as gods. I don’t believe them to be the sort of creatures that the average adventuring party and allies should be able to smite, even at level cap. Also they’re way too commonplace in most worlds for my liking.

I blame this perspective from Smaug. It may be overly pedantic of me, but oh well. In games I run dragons are generally myths and PCs are unlikely to encounter them; drakes, wyrms, and the like on the other hand…

Favorite Energy Type

Radiant, because turning and ripping up undead and demons with vulnerability is way more satisfying than melting an army of fire-vulnerable, evil snowmen with Burning Spray.

Favorite Magic Item

+X Learning Weapon


– Gain a cumulative +1 to attacks against the target when you miss with an attack with this weapon, up to a maximum equal to the weapon’s enhancement bonus. This bonus ends if you hit the target or attack another creature with the weapon.

– Gain a +2 to your next damage roll with the weapon when you hit with this weapon until the end of your next turn.

A weapon that helps you hit when you miss and do more damage when you hit. There’s little more I can ask of a magic item. Also, +X Inescapable Weapon as an economical alternative. Inescapable weapons only have the first property, which is still pretty good.