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.


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Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Game Design (VII): Character conditions, patch notes

On my previous article, I dropped a ton of variant rules with very little in the way of comments or explanation (though the broad guidelines had been established before). Furthermore, it may be hard to make out what has really changed from anything but a very in-depth read. What follows is a list of changes, with some design comments along the way.

1. Miscellaneous changes

Total defense: Defense bonus increased from +2 to +4, is now typed (power).

This is intended mostly as a way to weaken attack-denying conditions. Losing a turn worth of attacks should be slightly less painful now, and stunning a character over several turns should be significantly harder. Note also how I gave the bonus a type - I want to really cut down on stacking bonuses.

Condition source: No functional changes. Introduced new keywords and definitions for clarity: ‘condition source’, ‘dominator’, ‘grabber’, ‘marker’, ‘swallower’.

I wanted to be able to reference the source of a condition in a clear way, for the definition of marked, dominated, and other conditions.

Multiple instances of a condition:

Two reasons for this change. On the one hand, I wanted to change how dominations, grabs, and especially marks work when applied by multiple characters on a single target. On the other, I intend to provide Elite and Solo monsters with built-in ways to remove conditions (which I’ll describe on a future article), yet allow PCs to counter this by applying several instances of a given effect.

  • Defined ‘condition instance’. Now a character can be subject to multiple identical effects (previously, only the longest one applied). Each condition only applies once, but multiple instances are relevant for determining duration, and impact of effects that end conditions.
  • Rules now support characters being dominated, marked or grabbed by multiple enemies.

Penalty types and stacking:

Typed bonuses work great for the game, and I see no reason why penalties shouldn’t follow the same principle. In this new framework, ‘untyped’ penalties should be reserved for self-inflicted penalties (e.g. power attack).

  • Penalties now have a type: cover, concealment, power, or untyped. Penalty stacking is resolved like bonus stacking.
  • Cover and Concealment modifiers now treated as typed penalties.

Opportunity attacks: Opportunity attacks can now be made against unseen enemies.

This is here to make the blinded condition a bit less harsh. Note that the -5 concealment penalty would apply to these opportunity attacks, and that a character could use stealth to become untargetable by them. This also weakens invisibility, which is fine by me.

2. Condition changes


Opportunity attacks were changed to make the condition weaker. The perception change is just to make the modifiers more reasonable.

  • Perception penalty changed from -10 to -5
  • Blinded characters can now make opportunity attacks


Dazing was previously way too effective, considering how common it was. Removing combat advantage here not only weakens the condition, but also goes a long way in making combat advantage less ubiquitous in the game. Dazed characters now also enjoy an extra minor action, which is particularly important for healing leaders and characters with sustained powers.

  • No longer grants combat advantage
  • Can now use a minor action on top of the single action per turn


This was previously irrelevant, but also given almost for free in some powers. Combat advantage is an effect with an adequate power level, and the condition is scarce enough that this will not significantly hurt my goal of minimizing combat advantage overall. Again, perception modifiers were changed in order to work better.

  • Now grants combat advantage
  • Perception penalty changed


The strongest condition in the game receives a vicious nerf that leaves it as... the strongest condition in the game. I wanted to prevent the easy exploits of dominated characters provoking opportunity attacks and violating marks, which I have played with for a long time - but that was only the beginning. I never liked how domination breaks the economy of actions, so I changed dominated actions to work like those of summoned creatures. Finally, I took away the combat advantage from the condition, and added a clause to break the condition upon receiving damage - so no more dominating a foe while beating down on it. Despite all these changes, if you want to stop someone cold, domination is still your best bet.

  • No longer grants combat advantage
  • Damage on dominated character now grants save vs. domination
  • Dominator now needs to spend actions for the dominated character to attack or move
  • Movement and attacks while dominated count as forced (don’t provoke, violate marks, etc.)
  • Dominated characters can’t attack themselves


A rare condition, I tried to make its use a bit clearer, and make it slightly weaker by allowing exiled characters to use actions to heal or defend themselves.

  • New name (was “removed from play”)
  • Clarified that character does not occupy space, returns to previous position when condition ends.
  • Character can now take actions (previously couldn’t take any actions).


One of the rare conditions that actually got better, grabbing was rendered almost useless by forced movement under the previous rules. It should now be much more competitive with straight immobilization.

  • Characters are now pulled adjacent to grabbers, when grabbed
  • Forced movement now allows escape check rather than automatically breaking grabs.
  • Escape check no longer grants free shift.
  • Multiple grabs now possible.

Helpless: No changes

Immobilized: No changes

No direct changes, but the new rules for Total Defense impact this condition quite a bit.


Changed to better support multiple defenders in a party. A character can now be subject to several marks (and/or defender auras), without each defender stepping on each other’s toes. Also, defender auras will now work properly with any rule that references marks. The mark violation clarifications are intended to make multiattack powers interact with marks in a similar way to how areas and bursts work, and to prevent some cheesy exploits involving interrupts.

  • Multiple marks now possible
  • Defender Aura now treated as a mark
  • Defined ‘mark violation’. Clarified many confusing or broken mark scenarios
    • A power with multiple attacks now only violates a mark if each individual attack violates it. This applies to multiple attacks made simultaneously as well as in sequence.
    • Target redirection effects no longer cause marks to be violated.
    • Marks inflicted while interrupting an attack are no longer considered to be violated by that attack.

Petrified: Petrification resistance changed to match new resistance rules - damage is now simply halved while petrified.


The status of Prone has changed quite a bit since the original rulebooks - originally a somewhat rare condition, it is now often present in at-will attacks, which does not really match its moderate power level. I made minor tweaks to the combat advantage and defensive bonuses, but the big change is a free square of movement upon standing up. This makes it much harder to lock melee characters out of attack range by knocking them prone.

  • Standing up now allows 1 free square of movement.
  • Combat advantage now granted to adjacent enemies, rather than on all melee attacks.
  • Defense bonus is now cover bonus, applies against all attacks from non-adjacent enemies, rather than just ranged attacks.
  • Attack penalty is now typed (power).

Restrained: Attack penalty is now typed (power).

Slowed: Now each square moved costs double (previously reduced speed to 2).

This one got a bit better in some scenarios, and worse in others. The fixed speed of 2 didn’t work well with a variety of movement-granting powers (e.g. “shift 3 squares”), so I went for a more general effect. Slowed characters can now move slightly farther than before when not running, but they lose the ability to shift 1 square. This means that slowed is no longer such a one-dimensional effect, since it becomes quite useful against characters already engaged in melee.

Stunned: Can now take a single action per turn (no attacks or movement) - previously couldn’t take any actions.

Though getting stunned is still not by any means a pleasant experience, it no longer just reads “skip a turn”, which is important in my opinion. Characters can use total defense (now an actually pretty decent option), but also use Second Wind, sustain powers, or use utilities, if any.

Swallowed: New condition

This effect was previously just present on a handful of monsters, but with inconsistent rulings that didn’t work as well as they could. This is well worth its own condition, in my opinion, which makes it easier to use it more liberally in monsters, and potentially make for some truly awesome PC power.


Non-dying unconscious characters now wake up when damaged. The condition still provides potent action denial, but can no longer be used to enable a whole party to severely beat up on a foe, which was too strong and, in my opinion, didn’t have the right feel.

  • Condition now ends when taking damage, if above 0 HP.
  • Removed defense penalty

Weakened: Added new effect - healing on character halved

A bit of an experiment here, by adding a completely new dimension to the condition. Characters that don’t really care about damage, or that attack through others using leader powers can no longer completely ignore the condition. Also, I wanted some common mechanic to interact with character healing (now that monsters also get it), and this looked like a good place for it.

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