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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