Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Game Design (VIII): Minions, elites and Solos

Like a kind of messier, deadlier game of basketball, the default combat scenario in a 4E encounter has 5 guys on each side running around and beating on each other. As a consequence, your average monster is roughly equivalent to a single adventurer. Now, to spice things up a little, the game also includes the option for trading normal monsters for lots of weaker critters (i.e. minions), or for fewer, stronger opponents (elites or solos). And this is a brilliant idea that adds depth and variety to encounters, but suffers from a less than ideal implementation. Simply put, non-standard monsters aren’t all that well balanced relative to standard ones: elites rarely perform as well as two regular creatures, solos require a ton of work from designers and DMs to be credible threats, and minions are mostly harmless. In today’s article, I’ll discuss what’s wrong with the rules for these monsters, and how to address it.

The value of a monster

First, let us go over the relationships between different monster types in theory, and in practice. The game assumes the following to be true:

  • Standard: One standard monster is a match for a single adventurer
  • Minion: One standard monster is equivalent to 4 or 5 minions (depending on level).
  • Elite: 2 standard monsters are equivalent to one elite monster
  • Solo: 5 standard monsters are equivalent to one solo monster

All these comparisons are based on same-level characters, and are valid for any given level.

How does all this hold up in real play? Unfortunately, not all that well:

  • Standard: The standard monster-to-adventurer equivalency is mostly true, and the glue that holds together 4E as a game. To be fair, PCs are quite a bit stronger than their monster counterparts, but this is only to be expected - the players should win same-level encounters most of the time, and this is fine as long as combat remains moderately challenging and some degree of risk exists. For the most part, Standards are at the right place, power-wise.
  • Minion: Here is where things start to go wrong: minions fail miserably at threatening adventurers, even when in large numbers. Interestingly, their base stats are fairly well tuned, and they would actually meet the game’s expectations (being worth 20%-25% of a standard monster) if adventurers were limited to regular attacks and the occasional area explosion. The problem is, the PCs tend to cheat in this regard, turning minions into a joke - there are way too many powers that let you kill minions by the droves, with little effort involved, and no risk of failure. Simply put, anything that lets a character deal even a small amount of automatic damage (auras, stances, conjurations) will make a mess of any minion in sight and, to make matters worse, the current game balance makes such powers highly desirable for adventurers (even without taking minions into consideration), virtually guaranteeing their presence in most parties.
  • Elite: Close, but not good enough. Though elite monsters sure take punishment as well as two regular monsters, and likewise tend to dish out about twice the damage of a Standard, they are effectively twice as vulnerable to any kind of negative condition, or penalty - and those both are extremely common and have a huge impact in encounter outcomes. If stunning a single monster is usually crippling, negating a big bad that takes up two monster slots with no additional effort is, more often than not, devastating - and Elites have barely any advantage over smaller monsters to make up for that. To make things worse, as is often the case, this Elite weakness is something that you can already notice when playing with casual parties, but is extremely aggravated when any kind of character optimization takes place (since one of the optimization rules for 4E is “take stuns over just about anything”).
  • Solo: See Elites, above. Solo monsters have the same problems of their weaker Elite cousins, turned up to 11. Any penalty or condition imposed by an adventurer gets turbo boosted to 5 times its usual effectiveness, and while solos often include rules aimed at mitigating these (such as the saving throw bonuses, or the newer dragons’ resilience to stuns), it is clear that these mechanics fall way short: they are usually limited to a subset of the wide variety of nasty tricks available to adventurers, and anything that falls through the cracks (say, an immobilization, or a -5 penalty to attack) will reduce the Ultimate Villain to a vaguely intimidating bag of hit points, inviting adventurers to come collect some free experience and treasure. In order to put Solos up to the standard of, well, Standard monsters, they absolutely need to have a way to reliably mitigate any and all kinds of effects that adventurers can impose - yet, and this is the tricky part, in order for players to enjoy fighting said Solos, these mechanics should not just give a blanket immunity, but merely reduce condition effectiveness by about 4/5.
    As a side note, it is interesting to note that, as it happened with minions, once we take away the one flawed mechanic (i.e. condition vulnerability), the stat block of a Solo has the right power level. This may not be all that intuitive, since in their current form, Solo monsters are equivalent to 4 Standards in survivability, and between 3 and 4 Standards in offense - but they take the place of 5 standard monsters. However, it turns out that concentrating all that much power in a single unit (again, if negative conditions didn’t exist) is much more effective than spreading it out, since the Solo’s ability to damage the party doesn’t decrease as it takes damage - so giving it 75% the raw stats of its lesser counterparts is a fair deal, after all.

So, to summarize, Standards are our reference benchmark, minions need to stop blowing up with automatic damage effects, and Elites and Solos need a reliable way to resist negative conditions. In order to achieve this, I came up with the following rules:

Minion Elusiveness: Whenever a minion takes damage from a source other than a hitting attack, it can make a saving throw. If the saving throw succeeds, the damage is negated and the minion is knocked prone.

Elite Resilience: At the start of its turn, an elite or solo monster can choose to take damage equal to 10 per monster tier, ignoring resistances and immunities. If it does, it can choose a condition (other than marked) or penalty affecting it, and make a saving throw; on a successful save, the monster can ignore an instance of that condition or penalty until its next turn. This ability can only be used once per round.

Veteran readers will recognize Minion Elusiveness as a streamlined version of my previous houserule for minions. It’s something I have long used for my campaigns, and I believe it provides minions with the right amount of survivability, and it weakens auto-damaging effects in a way that players can find fair and flavorful.

As for Elite Resilience, it’s a rule that needs to solve a complex problem, and it has gone through many iterations. There are several aspects of its implementation worth discussing. First, there’s the slightly awkward text about “ignoring” the condition or penalty for a turn, rather than simply ending it. Though it is easy to come up with alternatives that are more elegant and intuitive, most of them fail to address a crucial issue: we want to give monsters a way to deal with powerful effects from daily attacks without rendering them pointless - so just shrugging off a condition that’s supposed to last for the whole encounter is out of the question. In order to avoid such effects, a monster will need to roll to save (and take damage) every turn. Speaking of which, the damage aspect is a way to compensate players for having their powers failing to work - granted, 10 or 20 extra damage may be a poor consolation for a lost stun, but it all adds up. As for the saving throw part, it means that, barring any modifiers, you will be able to stick your worst condition on an Elite monster 35% of the time, whereas Solos will only be affected 20% of the time - a difficult maneuver to pull off, but a highly rewarding one.

Not by coincidence, both new rules make use of the saving throw mechanic, which barely saw any use before. This presents some interesting design opportunities when I get to introduce new monsters and new player content. I’m particularly interested in leader-type monsters boosting the saves of nearby allies, but also in separating controllers from other roles through the use of save penalties.



  1. Does the job in a very up-front, straightforward way. What more could you ask for?

  2. My main concern with making solos basically be 1/5th effected by control effects is that a lot of control effects are multi-target, meaning that if there's a solo and the wizard casts Icy Rays, instead of being 1/5th affected, it should be 2/5ths affected. Not sure how best to handle that.

    What I usually do is give solos multiple turns per round, and just have any "short duration" effects end at the end of each turn. This ensures that Save Ends effects always last as long or longer than end of turn effects, and makes solos harder to control, but not impossible.

    I would posit that for the "monster takes damage to ignore the effect," a controller character should have a bonus to damage in this instance, sufficiently so that if the controller unleashes full control on the monster, that the controller's damage is roughly even with a striker's-much in the same way that if a defender constantly triggers their punitive mark, their net damage should be roughly equal to a striker (making them a striker + a -2 penalty to enemy attacks)

  3. I'm not too worried about multitarget control effects because most Solo fights tend to include some additional enemies - you will certainly have less targets than usual, but even so, single-target Icy Rays should remain a rare occurrence. Either way, I'm fine with area powers being better suited to fights against large crowds - that's kind of the point - as long as they are at least decent in other scenarios.

    As for controller bonuses, I lean towards granting better conditions rather than higher damage. I find that in this case, save penalties should work just fine: with the numbers I'm using, a mere -2 to save changes the chances of stunning a Solo from 20% to 30% (and from 35% to 45%, in the case of an Elite), which is quite an improvement. Also, since Elite Resilience is limited to 1/round, overloading on conditions (say, immobilizing twice, or immobilizing and stunning) should prove an effective tactic - though note that any condition resilience from individual monsters (like dragons being hard to stun) will still be there.

    1. Well, I tried the "the solo saves" technique and players responded poorly. As for the "overloading on conditions," I find this rather minimizes the controller because the controller is the condition "guy" but everyone technically has conditions, and if the strongest condition (theoretically the one the controller uses) is the one that gets negated, then it's the other roles that are unaffected.

      Still, it's better than nothing; I just tend to like the "multiple turns per round, end short duration effects" model.

    2. Thanks a lot for the feedback! Do you think your players' problem with the rule was an issue with the numbers (chance to save, damage inflicted), or rather that they found it inherently unfun? Was it the controller who disliked it most, or was it bad for everyone? And, also important: does your group normally find Solo fights satisfying? If they already had fun in those encounters, I can see them finding this change an unwarranted nerf.

      As for the controller problem, a quick fix would be to grant all controller characters "enemies gain a -3 penalty to Minion Elusiveness and Elite Resilience saving throws against attacks from this character". This is in line with what I intend to grant via feats (when I eventually get to writing about new feats!), and would go a long way towards compensating this.

    3. Well, a lot of my players don't care for challenge as much as I do, so they're a lot happier with cakewalk battles than I am. I like to compare myself to my Sunday game where I'm a player; we virtually never have solos that are by themselves and play by standard rules. On the other hand, my DM often uses outright condition immune enemies, or enemies that are immune to all conditions except X.

      Sometimes creates an issue, but it tends to work out though more due to crazy siderules.

      For my game, as I've stated, I've found that 2+ turns per round with "Short Duration" effects ending at the end of each turn is ideal. For the controller, I've given him an ability to use a control power (Slow, "Dazzle," or-for more PP-stun) as an immediate reaction to a creature ending its turn. Therefore, if a solo acts three times per round, he can somewhat reliably stun it for two of those turns-at the cost of 6 PP per stun (meaning he runs out of juice pretty quickly!).

      This is high epic tier of course. Generally speaking, I think how solos are handled needs to be based on the party you're dealing with. As PCs get more and more and more control effects, you obviously need to scale solos resilience to control as well. Honestly, I've found that with any even remotely optimized party, AOE control effects make dealing with large groups of mooks pretty trivial, so it's not even just a problem with solos.

      The main reason I stopped using the Save Ends against short duration effect model is because it's adding extra randomness into the game; it's like having to hit twice, except one of those attacks has only a 20% hit chance. So, even if you stun an enemy three times over the course of an encounter, there's a greater than 50% chance your control won't have any actual impact in any given encounter. Using the "partial control" model of "it affects one out of X turns," you always have *some* impact, but you never have *total* impact.

      Of course, if you have a party of rogues and fighters with Stunning Strike and Anvil of Doom and have 5 stuns per encounter, well, you're probably boned.

  4. These modifications are really nice. I've actually already used a version of your Elite Resilience that I lifted from somewhere else.
    Solo Resilience - No Action (1/round): The creature takes damage equal to 10 + its level and removes any effect on it.
    This mod has tested pretty well, in my epic-level game, but I like your tweaks to it. Yours scales great for both elites and solos, since it still requires a save AND only lasts until EoT. I've had to take care not to abuse my version when a player uses an encounter-long daily effect.

  5. Great analysis! I don't see a problem with effective solos requiring a lot of individual designer work, though. It will also make them more unique and exciting. I don't have the text on me, but the last iterations of dragons worked out pretty well, I think.

    1. Speaking as someone who has had to devote a lot of individual designer work to make even Solos from the latest books work, it adds up very quick. To me, one of the major advantages of this game is the relatively short DM preparation time, but having an entire monster category that requires significant tweaks and patches to work doesn't help.

  6. Another excellent post ... definitely a couple of tweaks I'm going to try out

  7. I do something similar with respect to both elites and minions.

    My elites all have elite resilience: they make saving throws at the beginning and end of their turns and the +2 bonus gives them a reasonable chance of success. Solos get the same thing but can make saves against (end of next turn) conditions as well as (save ends).

    My minions are typically grouped with a leader whose aura grants the minions a saving throw against any sort of damage with the damage being negated on a successful save. (For crusty sergeants, said aura is called "Hold Your Guts In!")