Mailbag 4 – All By Myself, Part 1

"Solo Scale" (c) copyright 2010 Chris SimsMike Shea asked me how I’d handle solos at upper levels so that they shine against powerful characters and skilled players. In a similar vein, John Hixson asked about the infamous black dragon, a solo notorious for its cloud of darkness power and associated grind. A lot of people, in general, think solos are a great idea but that they often fail to live up to their intended use.

I have similar feelings.

Mike believes the problems with solos are exacerbated at higher levels. I agree. Where my thinking might diverge from Mike’s is my observation that solos can perform poorly all the way to the lowest levels.

Over multiple Mailbag articles, we’re going to talk about solos, as well as what they can and should do for you. We’re also going to talk about what you can and should do for them in your encounter design. Wrapping up, I hope to touch on how to properly inform and engage the players when you make your solos truly solo.

This article assumes you’re already using the updated rules for solos found in Dungeon Master’s Guide 2, page 133.

Job Description

When you grab a solo, you’re often saying, “Wanted: Badass Monster to Challenge Whole Party.” Dungeon Master’s Guide says a solo is supposed to challenge the characters like five monsters. The design of numerous solos actually fails to live up to this expectation, though, likely because the original intent was to also to make solos simple to run. The concepts of simplicity and badass monster can fail to mesh.

As I see it, our task here is to figure out how make solos perform better, in general, preferably retaining as much simplicity as possible. To do that, we need to make sure our solos not only attack and deal damage like five monsters, but also move and shake off effects more effectively than normal monsters. These latter two points are, in my mind, how solos fail most at any level.

Why Are You Hiring?

How a solo should perform depends on how you’re planning on using it. A lot of DMs use solos mostly as the central figure in what some call “boss monster” fights. The final confrontation with the rampaging dragon or the demon lord fits here. But solos can also be used to up the challenge in a given encounter or to simulate the power of a particular creature compared to that of the characters. Typical solos can perform well in such circumstances, because they’re usually part of a larger array of encounter elements. Solos most often need help when they actually appear alone.

Task Assignment

Solos present an encounter-building challenge because their statistics can lead to design that violates a simple rule: novelty breeds interest. In this case, interest is equal to fun at the game table. (Even for non-solo encounters, always remember this rule.)

A fight with a single monster that has a limited array of powers can lack novelty because not enough changes in round-to-round give and take. Further, as a battle moves forward and resources dwindle, the rounds of combat start to look and feel the same. This is what we need to avoid.

We need to train our solos to do their job better.

Retraining

The basic solo needs rethinking with an eye toward keeping complexity in check. When designing your own solos or checking an existing solo for suitability, you might consider a few elements of the monster.

At the most basic level, make sure the solo is dealing enough damage. It should be dealing as much damage each round as do five monsters of equivalent level. In fact, a true solo can stand to deal a little more damage than that. A small damage increase accounts, over time, for some action losses the solo suffers and conditions the characters inevitably impose on the creature.

Solos also need a better action budget than any normal or elite monster. What if the typical solo were initially designed like an elite monster, including all normal elite statistics except that a solo has fourfold normal hit points? Such a solo’s second rules exception to being elite would be that the monster receives two turns each round–two places in the initiative count with a full array of actions in each turn. Thirdly, the solo should recharge its immediate action at the start of each of its turns, granting it two immediate actions each round. (This might be where a little extra damage lives on your solo, since the characters can trigger an immediate action twice a round.)

Make the most of this action economy. Even a normal 4e solo should have a triggered action that lets it take advantage of conditions in combat that would normally hinder a lone creature. It should also have other useful triggered powers and a minor action power or two.

A solo such as this also rolls recharges and saving throws differently. For simplicity’s sake, the creature rolls recharges only on its first turn each round. It rolls saving throws at the end of each turn with a +2 bonus. Being able to roll twice in a round more than makes up for the other +3 in a normal solo’s +5.

These few changes make the solo more mobile, action-oriented, and resilient.

Durations can be a little tricky when the solo has two turns. If a solo’s power has a duration of “until the end of the creature’s next turn,” the duration is the end of the next turn during which the condition was imposed. In other words, if on its first turn during a round the solo slows a target until end of the solo’s next turn, that target is slowed until the end of the solo’s next first turn. Enemy-imposed effects that use the solo’s turns to determine duration (unusual) should, on the other hand, remain normal. This latter situation favors the solo, which is intentional.

That’s because all conditions imposed by character powers usually favor the characters. They’re too effective against a solo. Some easy fixes exist for this problem, too. Each dazed, dominated, or stunned condition should affect only one of the solo’s turns, but the solo can be affected by such conditions multiple times like a heroslayer hydra (Monster Manual 2, page 151) can. So a solo has to be stunned or dominated twice to lose a whole round’s worth of actions. Further, any movement-hampering effect that has a duration that lasts until the enemy’s next turn should end on a successful save or normally, whichever comes first. Essentially, the solo can make saving throws against slowed, immobilized, and restrained conditions that should last until the end of an enemy’s next turn.

Performance State

Changing how the solo performs over time in an encounter is essential. Such modifications to performance are commonly called monster state changes. State changes can create a narrative flavor such as a desperate or enraged foe, or whatever else you might want to evoke. They also change the encounter, and at their best, change the combat’s shape enough to refresh the novelty.

State changes as the solo takes damage are common and good, particularly those keyed to the bloodied condition. As page 133 of Dungeon Master’s Guide 2 suggests, a bloodied solo might lose access to one power and gain another. It could trigger a recharge power immediately. The solo might change the terrain or encounter environment, permanently or until the characters can overcome the change.

You can and should create monster state changes for your solo. Triggered actions can be good locations for creating small state changes. Such changes last a short time and often exist to give the monster some room to work. Encounter and recharge powers are fine places for big state changes. The best large changes last for the rest of the encounter, until the characters change the state, or until another state begins for the solo Especially appropriate are state changes that are also effectively disengagement powers or . . .

Termination Clauses

Especially when alone in a fight, a solo needs ways to end one board state–the arrangement of the elements of the encounter–in favor of another that gives the solo a temporary advantage. Especially at higher levels, a solo must be able to disengage to seek favorable fighting conditions. Being able to do so not only keeps the monster from getting dog piled and locked down, it also keeps the flow of the encounter interesting. Interesting is what we’re after here.

Having two turns during which the creature can move helps, but it’s not always enough. A mere increase in defenses against triggered-action attacks, such as opportunity attacks and mark-triggered attacks, help a solo escape being cornered, especially a flying solo. The solo might alter the terrain and move away, summon or create minions that hinder its attackers, and so on. What’s essential is that the creature can, at least sometimes, get away from an adverse tactical arrangement. Care is needed here–player/character tactics must still matter, so the solo shouldn’t be too slippery or seem like it escapes every bad situation.

An example of a simple termination clause is the young red dragon’s tail strike power. The dragon punishes an enemy that moves into a flanking position, and also throws that enemy back. It might be better if the dragon reacted to being hit by a flanker (so it doesn’t cancel an attack) and/or the tail strike were stronger in its effect–maybe just adding knocked prone would work.

The bloodied breath power of dragons is an illustration of a state-change power that could become a disengaging power. It’d be better if it allowed the dragon to do a lot in its increasing desperation. What if a dragon had the following power instead?

Bloodied Rampage • Encounter
Trigger: The dragon is first bloodied.
Effect (Free Action): The dragon ends all conditions currently affecting it, and it gains a +4 bonus to defenses against opportunity attacks until the start of its next turn. It can move or fly its speed. Breath weapon then recharges, and the dragon uses it.

That power might be too good, but if it is, it’s only just so. If we left off “and the dragon uses it,” this power is definitely fine. It’s also fine for illustrating the point.

Advancement

Higher-level solos need more ways to deal with powerful characters and the high-end effects such characters can impose. Having more actions helps this, for sure. Beefy state changes and good disengagement powers are also vital for high-end solos.

More action points might suit higher-level solos, too. Vecna (Open Grave, page 212), for instance, gains an action point every time an enemy uses an action point. He’s a god, though. One extra action point per tier is good enough for a typical solo. Restricting the use of half those points, round down, until after the creature is bloodied is even better.

In the action-economy department, a few other options exist beyond action points. You can simply give an epic-level solo another full turn. Doing so can be complicated, because you still have to watch out for damage balance and immediate actions, as well as how durations function. Easier to implement is giving an extra attack or two on the creature’s regular turns, such as how the heroslayer hydra operates, along with minor action powers that allow small attacks or limited movement/disengagement.

You might also increase the likelihood of a higher-level solo escaping hampering conditions. At the simplest level, its saving throw bonus could be higher. Its disengagement powers should also be more reliable in function and meaningful to the state of the encounter. Whenever such a solo disengages, the characters should feel it.

Players also feel it when a monster does something surprising or recognizable as belonging to epic tier. Acknowledging this, another way I’d consider altering the state of an epic solo is allowing the creature to do what epic PCs can often do: come back from the dead. You have to play this carefully and balance hit points to account for the state change.

Even though it’s elite, the firbolg bloodbear (Monster Manual 2, page 109) shows what I mean. In its initial state, the bloodbear has two-thirds of the normal hit points for an elite brute of its level. When it first becomes bloodied, it heals completely. You could place a similar state on the 0-hit-point end of the spectrum. The solo has two-thirds normal hit points, but being reduced to 0 hit points the first time in the encounter is merely the trigger of another state change.

For an epic-level solo, especially named threats such as Orcus, I recommend that this state change also involve disengagement and/or environmental change, as well as something that removes all effects on the solo when it “died.” The solo then returns to combat at the start of its next turn, likely in a new position. It’s still bloodied, but it’s back in the fight and probably has a temporary advantage.

Management Training

Later, I’ll expand on this topic and see if I can show an example or two. Plenty of good stuff exists out there for you to gain inspiration from in the meantime. Here are some of my favorites (which I’m trying not to duplicate in this series).

Comments

  1. Bookmarked for posterity. I will study all this carefully when next a Solo encounter I make. Great work, as usual mon brave. I agree 100%

  2. I’ve been away from 4e for a little bit, so I have a question.

    What do you think about a solo that is a few levels below the characters, teamed up with other random monsters, or another low level solo? How do you think that fight might go?

    -Tourq
    .-= Tourq´s last blog ..Special Thanks =-.

  3. Peraion Graufalke says:

    “(This might be where a little extra damage lives on your solo, since the characters can trigger an immediate action twice a round.)”

    I think it should read “opportunity action twice a round.” A character gets one immediate action between his turns, but one opportunity action for each monster’s turn.

    Regarding saving throws you could also allow the solo to roll a save as an immediate reaction when a condition is imposed (like the barbarian’s “Shrug It Off”), or alternatively let it roll saves at the start of its turns. I’d give him at least a +3 or +4 bonus to saves, though. *cough*orb wizards*cough*

    Good read, eagerly awaiting part 2.

  4. @Peraion, I think he did mean immediate actions. He was referring to Tail Strike, the immediate interrupt power that the Young Red Dragon gets, and most solos have a power like this. Monsters and players both get only one Immediate Action per round, but can take an opportunity action each turn. By giving the monster two slots in the initiative order, the DM can also plausibly state that the monster gets to take its Immediate Action (in this case, Tail Strike) twice per round.

    Against a typical Young Red Dragon, the party needs to either flank with someone who has very high Reflex defense (a rogue is great for this) or send someone in as “chaff” to deplete the monster’s Immediate Action so the dragon won’t be able to use Tail Strike when the real flanker closes in. If the monster can recharge its power each time it takes a turn, the “chaff” effect doesn’t last as long and the flanking team needs to delay its actions to make sure they don’t have the dragon’s turn between their turns. This has the effect of making the monster tougher to flank.

    Each player can take an opportunity action once per every creature’s turn, so increasing the number of opportunity actions allowed would weaken the boss monster.

  5. Peraion Graufalke says:

    @JR: You’re right, thanks for clearing that up. I misread that part.

  6. Andrew Schneider says:

    @Tourq: That encounter mix works wonders! Lower level solos and up to the party level (if you want to mix it up for a truly tough fight) are a lot of fun thrown in with other monsters. Don’t let the moniker SOLO throw you. I think they really shine as team players.

  7. @Andrew: I feel the same as you. I think I’ll do that a few times and test it out. In the past, I would throw a solo (by himself) that I thought would give them a tough fight, not a lesser solo with a team.

    -Tourq
    .-= Tourq´s last blog ..Special Thanks =-.

  8. @JR: Thanks for helping out on that one. You are right.

    @Tourq: As Andrew says, this mix can work really well. And typical, unadulterated solos work fine. I ran an encounter like this during which the party faced two young dragons lairing together and ruling a tribe of kobolds. Terrain favored the dragons. It was a dynamic and definitely not boring fight.
    .-= Chris Sims´s last blog ..Mailbag 4 – All By Myself, Part 1 =-.

  9. Great article, I bookmarked this so hard.

    I really like the idea of state changes and I’d like to read more about that. I haven’t seen anyone suggest e.g. role change when bloodied. A wizard could start the combat casting spells but turn into a hideous thing/demon/tentacle monster when wounded badly enough. The enigma of Vecna monster in Thunderspire Labyrinth was kind of like this but I’d like to see more elaborate ones.

    And how about multiple dead monsters turning and fusing into a single larger monstrosity. Works the other way around too.

  10. Oh yeah: Parts of large monsters as monsters. Heroic level characters could duke it out with a gargantuan monster and cut off the extremities and drive the beast away without killing it so that in later levels they could confront it and lay it to rest.

    Or: As a part of an epic quest they’d have to fight small parts of a mountain-sized monster and visit different geographic areas so that later they could defeat the core/brain.

  11. Pekka: OK, now I have to make a Voltron monster of some kind.

    “And I’ll Form The Head (When First Bloodied, Encounter)”

  12. Awesome article! I’m also off to read that article in DMG2, I seem to have forgotten all about that…

  13. Wow, so much grat things about solos latetly o.o i cant wait to design my very first one and trow it to the party hmm i think i can squeeze one solo in the Delve im planning ^^

    Thx for the great materials as always Chris

  14. The Stray says:

    This article is seven flavors of awesome, and couldn’t have come at a better time for my game. You, sir, rock, and I will be putting some of these ideas into practice as soon as possible!

  15. Thanks for enjoying the article, everyone. I hope it and others like it help solos shine in player memories.
    .-= Chris Sims´s last blog ..Mailbag 4 – All By Myself, Part 1 =-.

  16. Great advice! I’ll try to put some of it in practice when I get to DM in our campaign again… It’s a pity that most solos in MM1 don’t implement these ideas, though – I really like to be able to use monsters right out of the book.

    Since one of the readers had asked specifically about the Black Dragon, I’d like to mention a post I wrote about the subject a while ago. It discusses why the monster is problematic, and presents a revised version that has proved rather successful in play:
    http://squarefireballs.blogspot.com/2010/03/broken-bits-black-dragons.html
    .-= Perico´s last blog ..Character survivability across levels =-.

  17. A bit late to the party here, but as always great article chris.

    I completely agree with giving monsters more turns than players as it helps keep Combat interesting. Allowing monsters to deal massive damage multiple times throughoght combat can help them become intimidating and menacing. That way i can pull out a good chunk of HP and defences to reduce grind. So my solo’s can die in about 2 rounds but they have actually had 10 attacks in that time. I actually do it for all my monsters

    Minions 1 turn per round
    Standard 2 turns per round
    Elites 3 turns per round
    Solos a turn after each PC.

    Looking forward to the rest of the series. Thanks Chris.
    .-= Scott´s last blog ..An Undead History =-.

  18. PinkRose says:

    First Off, Thank you for the articles so far Chris. They are appreciated.

    Second, How would you work this into a Solo that isn’t so cut and dry like the Dragon? It seems that a dragon has all the abilities needed to convert to your system. With the Tail Slap, and Flight for disengaging, and breath for a Performance state change.
    What about something like a Berbalag? It gets multiple attacks with its clones, but what about the disengaging? What about the extra damage, is sneak attack enough? How about a bloodied state effect?
    I’ll take any thoughts from any readers.

    Again, welcome Chris. I appreciate your work on our favorite hobby and look forward to your views on all things D&D.

Trackbacks

  1. [...] going to start talking about setting your solos up for success. You can see the first article here. Another article is on this one’s [...]

  2. [...] exploration of solos, we have two statistics blocks based on what we’ve been talking about in the first and second [...]

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  5. [...] answers burning questions from you, the reader, and featured a five part series on solos (parts 1, 2, 3, 4, 5), advice on pitching to Dragon magazine, and how to play your character boldly at [...]

  6. [...] Chris Sims has posted some wonderful articles on improving solos at Critical-Hits. The first one is All By Myself, Part 1. Greg Bilsand posted a similarly great article about using solos in D&D called Solo Monster [...]