Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Monsters of the Trollhaunt V: Encounter W4

Monsters of the Trollhaunt: Index – Previous - Next

This is a series of articles about the monsters included in the adventure P1: King of the Trollhaunt Warrens- so you may want to stop reading, if you intend to play the module anytime soon.
Our party keeps delving into the dungeon. Here are the updated monster stat blocks for their second encounter there.

Blackfire Flameskull (Level 10 Artillery)
Aside from its outdated stats, this flameskull isn’t as broken as you’d think by looking at my extensive list of revisions. Several of the changes I made were due to my personal preferences and expected party composition, rather than things that were inherently wrong. If you want to remain more faithful to the original monster, just changing the Fireball and updating damage would do the trick.

1. Issues identified:
- Flying Artillery. Your mileage may vary, but I find that combining flight and monsters that can attack at long range can often lead to annoying encounters unless a DM deliberately makes poor strategic choices. This is particularly true at heroic and lower paragon levels, where melee PCs can’t be expected to have a method to counter flying enemies other than ranged basic attacks. Given that 60% of the enemies in this encounter were flameskulls, and that my party was very melee-heavy, I really wanted to change the monster to prevent turn after turn of throwing javelins.
- Lack of reach. I only realized this after playing the encounter. Once the monster’s near immunity to melee was taken away (by limiting flight), we found that it could become extremely vulnerable to certain varieties of defender, on account of having reach 0 on its melee attacks. Typical artilleries get screwed enough when engaged by a defender, on account of having terrible AC and HP, and lousy melee attacks, but flameskulls are even worse off. Against a defender that punishes shifting (like fighters or cavaliers), reach 0 means that you can’t even make a bad melee attack without taking damage.
- Devastating opening attack. As bad as it is for wizard PCs, Fireball makes for a great monster power. It is not rare for a flameskull to target all PCs with its fireball on the first turn of an encounter, dishing out quite a bit of damage. This is particularly troublesome in multiples, though - put two (or three, like in this encounter) of these monsters together, and you can end up with most of the party bloodied before they even know what hit them!

2. Changes introduced.
- Added maximum altitude. Maximum altitude is a mechanic I’d like to see on more low-level flying monsters. Setting this at two stops flameskulls from sitting comfortably at the dungeon ceiling without worrying about melee attacks, though they retain an amazing level of mobility.
- New melee power: Fiery Assault. This is not particularly elegant, but after seeing three (!) skulls locked down by a cavalier, unable to do anything without taking considerable amounts of radiant damage, I am persuaded that they need a method to use their humble bites against defenders.
- Blackfire Ray blinding toned down. Blinded (save ends) is way above the power curve for an at-will attack from a non-Controller monster. I opted for gradual blindness instead.
- Fireball now has ongoing damage. After lowering Fireball damage (or, rather, not increasing it) to leave it as 100% of a normal attack instead of 125%, I was still worried about the effect of multiple instances of the spell burning down a party in a single round. By making part of its damage ongoing, we penalize this course of action, and create an interesting decision for the DM: use all fireballs at once, or try to wait to maximize damage?
- Tweaked resistances and vulnerabilities. I prefer to cap monster resistances at 5/tier unless there is a very good reason, so fire resistance took a small hit. I also dislike how radiant vulnerability can have an excessive effect on undead monsters; having radiant damage shut off regeneration instead of hitting harder is still good, but not as crippling.
- Tweaked damage and defenses. Damage was brought up to MM3 standards, ranged accuracy was increased a little, and I slightly reduced reflex because having defenses much higher than AC doesn’t feel quite right, to me.

Dire Bear (Level 11 Elite Brute)

The Dire Bear was one of the lucky monsters to get revisited in Monster Vault, so I didn’t need to change much for its stat block. Still, I was not entirely happy with how the side effects of its attacks worked.

1. Issues identified:
- Grabbing enemies is too difficult. An effect that relies on hitting with two consecutive attacks might end up not triggering at all during a whole encounter, particularly if defender PCs are involved. Since this is the only special ability of the bear (apart from Ursine Crush, which only works against grabbed targets!), there is a definite risk that the monster will end up excessively boring, in play.

2. Changes introduced.
- Make the grab trigger off a single hit. Letting the bear get a sucessful grab almost every turn doesn’t break anything, and makes for a far more compelling monster. There is even a remote chance to have multiple grabbed enemies at a given time, which led me to tweak Ursine Crush in order to affect “all grabbed creatures”. It won't come up all that often, but it should feel great when a DM gets to live the dream.

Troll Vinespeaker (Level 14 Controller)

1. Issues identified:
- Thorny Burst provides excessive control. I am usually wary of ongoing action-negating effects for at-will attacks that target a single character. On an area attack, it definitely crosses the line, particularly when attached to a permanent area of damaging difficult terrain. Something has to go, or be moved elsewhere. There is also the concern that the troll has four standard action attacks, and very little motivation to use anything but Thorny Burst.

2. Changes introduced.
- Toned down Troll Healing - see previous article about trolls as a race.
- Added Forest Walk. This is a minor change, but I thought it would be fitting for the troll to ignore difficult terrain from his own.
- Tweaked damage and defenses. Will defense in particular was extremely low, so I raised it by a whopping 5 points to leave it at standard levels.
- Redesigned Thorny Burst. Since the bramble zone was the coolest part of the power by a mile, I left that and took away the absurd immobilization effect. I turned it into a slow, which still has huge synergies with the permanent zone. This also allowed me to turn Ray of Thorns (the ranged attack) into a tempting option, by granting it the immobilization rider, but only against slowed enemies.

All images are (C) 2010 Wizards of the Coast LLC, a subsidiary of Hasbro, Inc. All rights reserved. The formatted statistics blocks have been generated using the D&D Adventure Tools. But not with the last version, which lacks a Monster Builder. The one before that, which works despite the billions of bugs.

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