Dan's Tips - Designing Solo Monsters

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Dan's Tips - Designing Solo Monsters

Post  Stairc -Dan Felder on Mon Sep 10, 2012 2:51 pm

Solo monsters are tricky devils and they require certain elements in design that other monsters, intended to opperate in groups of 3-5, just don't need. The way the combat system works, solo monsters have to be designed specially in order for them to actually be a challenge to a group.

Here's why.

1) Solo monsters are supposed to be one big monster that is as threatening as many smaller monsters. This means that if an enemy puts a status effect on a solo monster, like blind, it's like applying that effect to a whole army of lesser enemies at once. This makes status effects massively more effective.

2) Interrupts that stop the enemy from attacking become ridiculous. Stunning Heron's Hoof goes from an expensive but powerful, "get out of death free card" to just skipping the enemy's turn entirely. A group that took nothing but Stunning Heron's Hoof or similar interrupts has a solid chance of knocking any classically designed solo monster down without even taking damage. If you don't account for these powers, players WILL destroy your solo monster with them. This isn't necessarily a bad thing, the system is built to reward players for intelligent play and bringing the right tools into battle. This means you should usually expect your players to do everything in their power to make life miserable for your monster. Let it happen, but give the monster a chance to fight back. There's a difference between a strategy being, "super-effective" and thus giving the players a great chance of victory against an otherwise overpowered foe (attack the weak point for massive damage!) and a strategy just making the combat lose all tension, becoming irrelevant.

3) A solo monster can become boring if it doesn't function in a climactic way, since it's the only monster on the battlefield. Here's a great article on designing such exciting battles. This works best for bosses, but any solo monster can benefit from these insights.


With these three points in mind, here are some tips for addressing the first 2. The third is covered extensively by the article, so I won't bother going into it here.


1 - Status Effects
Single-Target status effects become many times more powerful are way too good against solo monsters. Traditionally, there are three main ways you can deal with this.

A) The Target is Immune

You're fighting through an rpg game, killing a bunch of weak monsters in quick skirmishes, and suddenly you run into the boss of the area. It's big, it's terrifying. Now it's time to pull out all the stops. You cast, "demi" on it - which will cut its health down by 25% automatically.

Text pops up over the boss. "Immune" it says.

Okay... Blind it!

"Immune."

Try turning it to stone.

"Immune"

Now pull out the big guns. Cast the extremely expensive "Death" spell. The one that uses 5x the MP of your second most powerful attacks. You never use this in normal combat, because the damage on your normal spells are enough to destroy the weak creatures running around without a problem. But now, the spell's finally useful - as it has a high chance of instantly killing an enemy.

"Immune"

GAH!

So yes, making an enemy immune to all these effects works. However, it's also extremely frustrating and unsatisfying for the players. I don't recommend this option.


B) Pay to Play
Instead of making the target immune to the status effect you fear, try just making it able to get rid of such effects at a cost. Try giving it a free action ability that lets it pay health in order to make a saving throw or perhaps automatically remove the condition. That way dropping the status effect on the creature still hurts it, but it can get rid of anything that would stop it from functioning. Make sure the health cost is significant enough that it will only use it on truly crippling effects (like stunned or blind) and not just on every status effect a player might ever drop on it. This functions similarly to immune, but is much more satisfying to play against. You can even just up the solo monster's health with the idea that some of it will go into paying to remove such status effects - giving you the same combat effectiveness as the "Immune" option without frustrating players nearly as much. This is a very good approach to take. And of course, you can have it consume other resources - like minons - instead of just using health to pay for such status removal. Letting the monster consume a minion to remove a status effect is particularly interesting, as it gives the players a sub-goal in combat to make sure its minions die first - so they can cripple the target with conditions.

C) It's GAHDZIRRA!!!
The third option is to just make the solo monster so frickin' badass that the only way you stand a CHANCE is to keep conditions on it. Double the monster's damage or give it twice the number of attacks it would normally have and the players need to keep it blind just to keep it playing fair. This is a fine tightrope to walk, because if players don't play correctly the monster will just destroy them and they might get frustrated, feeling you threw an unfair monster at them. To combat this, make sure their skill checks or helpful NPCs informed them of how terrifying this monster is ahead of time, NPCs perhaps warning them to stay away from it. Players will often forge ahead anyway, and if they're warned it's going to be nuts they'll feel less frustrated - because they were warned ahead of time. Also, if the players don't come up with the idea of status effects on their own - make sure you reinforce how effective they are. Either with an NPC's suggestion to make sure the monster is crippled while fighting it - or simply by giving them a great description about how frustrated the monster gets once they finally drop a status effect on it in combat. So yes, this is a dangerous one - but a potentially rewarding one too.

Changing between using B and C, sometimes combining the two as well (a less powerful Gahdzira in exchange for a Pay to Play ability) works well. You can even start off using Immune, so long as you give the players a way to crack the shell. For example, the enemy might be immune to save-ends effects until one of its allies is taken down. Either way, employing these methods will go a long way to helping balance your solo monster's threat level.


2 - Interrupts
These are both more annoying than status effects and often easier to deal with. In fact, the main worry when constructing a solo monster is making sure that you don't go overboard and make a player's reflect ability irrelevant. No defensive interrupt is a perfect defense. Stunning Heron's Hoof requires dealing damage to the user, as does Misdirection. You can deal with both these defensive interrupts by having the enemy simply slap status effects on the target, even ongoing damage (as the status effect is what deals damage to the player - not the creature in question - they can't use the defensive interrupt to reflect it on the enemy). You can also foil Misdirection by giving your monsters multi-attacks. Let the enemy make 4 attacks immediately against the same target, each dealing only 25% damage of what a single attack would, and Misdirection can only reflect one of them at a time.

However, such defensive interrupts are very smart to use against solo monsters - and thus they should be effective at times. I tend to give my solo monsters ways to drop status effects on the enemies or multi-attacks (sometimes both, try dropping vulnerability 2 on a player then making 4 small attacks... Vulnerability triggers for each one of them) so it can bypass those defensive interrupts - but also some big [-x] ability that deals a huge chunk of damage in one blow... Something that is AWESOME for them to reflect on the monster or interrupt with a stun. This means players get to pull the trigger on their defensive interrupts at the perfect moment, very satisfying, while still being under threat the rest of the time.


3 - The Article
The article linked above is great. Definitely recommend checking it out.


Final Thoughts
Even with all these ways to make solo monsters work, I tend to stay away from them in my campaigns. They make the multi-target attacks of players much less effective and because they need to be built with with the above 3 criteria in mind - it often doesn't feel like a normal fight. Which is great for boss battles, but not so great for intermediary encounters. Even in big conflicts, when I use Solo monsters I usually have them summon minions as well to fight the players with - the minions usually providing the enemy with a bonus (+1 damage for each minion on the field) or resource (solo monster can sacrifice a minion to deal massive damage, regain life, save against a condition - etc) so the players have an incentive to kill them; adding additional layers of strategy onto the battlefield. Another thing I do with my Solo monsters is usually give them 2 turns in combat. They usually roll initiative twice and act on both those turns, which makes the enemy feel more dynamic and more terrifying - as well as splitting up its damage into more manageable chunks that give the players time to heal eachother. If an enemy deals 30 damage in one attack, the player will drop immediately most of the time. If an enemy deals 15 damage on each attack, but goes twice a round, players will have a chance between its turns to heal eachother. This also lets you show off more of the monsters abilities, which is great. Players should get a chance to learn how the monster fights and then have time to fight back, so giving it more rounds is a good way to manage it. Once they see its big energy attack, they'll be able to take tactical countermeasure the next time around.


And... That's solo monsters folks. Hope this helps out.
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Re: Dan's Tips - Designing Solo Monsters

Post  AProcrastinatingWriter on Mon Sep 10, 2012 4:56 pm

Well, this is a useful post.

[/completesincerity]
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Re: Dan's Tips - Designing Solo Monsters

Post  Stairc -Dan Felder on Mon Sep 10, 2012 5:05 pm

AProcrastinatingWriter wrote:Well, this is a useful post.

[/completesincerity]

Glad to hear it. Cool
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Re: Dan's Tips - Designing Solo Monsters

Post  SilentBelle on Tue Sep 11, 2012 1:03 am

Ah, Solo monsters are probably my most favourite and memorable monsters to run. I used to home-brew one of these guys for every 2nd session of DnD or so. In fact in my Ponytales campaign I've been keeping up with that tradition. (I mainly like them because it's so much easier to run one monster than a huge group, and easy enough to remember any of their abilities so long as they are flavoured properly.)

A good set of tips.

I hope to see more Solo monsters make their way into the monster arena soon.
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