This week's play session brought something totally unexpected: a fun encounter with a solo monster, a dragon from the first Monster Manual. It's one of the last fights in Thunderspire Labyrinth, and I am going to spoil a good deal of it, so you should probably stop reading if you intend to play that module. Which, by the way, I recommend. It has a slow start, and the first half could do with some heavy revisions or be skipped altogether, but the last part is one of the best dungeon crawls I have had the pleasure of exploring, packed with memorable fights. Enough with the reviews, let's talk dragons.
(WARNING: SPOILERS AHEAD)
Solo monsters in 4E are flawed. That is not to say that it's impossible to have a climatic, exciting and strategically deep fight with one of them, but there are many things that can go wrong. Too often, the encounter with the Big Bad Boss ends up consisting in a dozen turns where the baddy sits there hitting someone, while the PCs surround him, unload most of their dailies and eventually repeat at-will attacks until he goes down. Alternately, if you play in a group prone to optimization, you can see the beast locked down for several (if not all) turns through stunning powers, being easily defeated without ever feeling like much of a threat. This happens, and it happens frequently. An unfortunate side effect of this tendency is that dragons, the undisputed most iconic monsters in D&D, are almost always Solos and, more often than not, they suck.
The recipe for a successful Solo battle is not a simple one. It involves a careful selection of terrain, with enough cover and interactive elements. There has to be some incentive for moving around, both for the players and the monster - traps are a great way to achieve this. Your worst enemy is monotony, as even the most well-designed monster is prone to repetition, when alone.
More recent books, like Monster Manual 2, introduce some new ideas to make Solos interesting, such as lowering their defenses and HP, but making them deadlier. But Thunderspire Labyrinth is one of the very first adventure modules published for 4E, and its monsters know nothing of such sophistications. So it has a lot of merit that the fight with the Young Green Dragon in the Wall of Demons works as well as it does.
The fight takes place in one of the poster maps included with the adventure, which is always a good signal. You have a long central room with a pit and a couple of altars, and one door on each extreme. This room is surrounded by a circular corridor, and around the corridor there are four rooms that are also interconected between them: a room with pools, a jail, a chapel, and a statue chamber. Overall, it's a huge and complex scenario, with few large open spaces, and lots of corners and obstacles that break line of sight.
Prior to the start of the encounter, the adventurers have collected four special items, and need to solve a puzzle with them in order to summon the dragon. The puzzle itself isn't particularly challenging, but it does contribute to the feeling of a climatic battle and, more importantly, requires the PCs to be spread all over the map. Once it is solved, two things happen simultaneously: the dragon arrives, and a series of traps activates throughout the map. Each chamber contains some kind of hazard that damages PCs and hinders their movement. In the corridor, a Sphere of Annihilation (!) appears that moves around, blocking movement and line of sight, and threatening to annihilate characters staying there for too long. Only the central room looks moderately safe, providing the players stay at a safe distance from the huge pit in its center, just in case. Problem is, each turn, one of the two doors leading out of that chamber is blocked by the Sphere.
Meanwhile, the dragon in question is moving through the scenery at lightning speed, picking any isolated PC and running away before the group can react. It is a Young Green Dragon, with an impressive array of methods for hitting and running, and many safeguards to prevent the players from locking him down. Planning a proper assault against it is far from easy, as it moves twice as fast as the adventurers, and the main corridor keeps getting blocked by the Sphere. It lacks the firepower to quickly destroy the PCs, so it tries to wear them down, using the convoluted scenario as both a shield and a weapon.
In our session, it worked out perfectly. The four players (I was playing a human fighter) tried to avoid the traps and join in the central room, to engage the dragon together. From there on, we had to move as fast as possible, with many turns of double run actions, and as many of moving and charging. Even the rogue had a good share of charges, which she managed remarkably well, given the fact that she neither had a good strength or Melee Training. Flanking the wretched creature was out of the question, as we barely managed to get within range - nevertheless, the rogue still managed to outdamage the rest of us out of sheer persistence and accuracy. My fighter prouds himself on his ability to block enemy movement, but in this case I couldn't achieve achieve this, as the Dragon used its powers to move while ignoring my Opportunity attacks.
The warlord also struggled to keep the pace, and was slowed several times, but eventually he got close enough to connect with Lead the Attack. This power is typicaly Game Over against a Solo, but in this case we found out that it only works while within 5 squares of the leader, which wasn't exactly a trivial task. Finally, the wizard (a gnome) kept moving in confusion from one extreme of the central room to the other, unable to get a clear shot to the beast. When she eventually got close enough, her Icy Rays and Ray of Frost proved invaluable to temporarily slow down the foe, but as soon as she missed an attack, it all started over again. She only connected with a couple of powers, but somehow managed to deal the killing blow. It had been a long battle, and we had triggered lots of traps, dealt several critical hits, and not suffered a great deal of damage. But it had been an awesome experience! The encounter was one of the high points in our campaign so far (we are at level 7), and I'll keep it as a reference for building homemade encounters against dragons, in the future. A complete success.