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The D&D Boss Fight (Part 1)

April 29, 2010

When 4th Edition first came out, I wanted to do three things to show my party that we weren’t in Kansas anymore. First, I wanted to have a skill challenge. Second, I wanted a battle with a lot of minions. Third, I wanted a fight with a dragon. At first level. All three of those things were iconic changes to Dungeons & Dragons in my mind. Ironically, skill challenges, minions, and solos are three things that people are still debating, discussing, and fixing. Well, I’m not here to talk about skill challenges or minions. I’m here to talk about dragons. And solos in general.

So, my first 4th Edition experience involved my 1st level party trekking across a wintery landscape, fighting scads of kobolds, and finally confronting Frostmarrow, the young white dragon. I wrote this adventure because, as a 20-year-veteran of the DM trenches, I ooze originality and creativity out of every orifice. At least it wasn’t Kobold Hall.

As the party trounced my poor white-scaled brute, I began a long love-hate relationship with dragons in 4th Edition, and all spiritual kin, the solo monsters. I love the idea of solo monsters – huge, devastatingly dangerous masterminds that let me use big minis – but things have gone wrong in the execution. I know I am not breaking any new ground here. Not yet. Every D&D website and forum eventually features an article or thread about “fixing solos” or “the problem with solos.”

Recently, however, I was working my way through a backlog of Radio Free Hommlet episodes and got to Adventure 41: Always Outnumbered, Somtimes Outgunned in which the hosts discuss the problem with solo monsters. They enumerated the problems very well and proposed some piecemeal solutions, all of which were good enough to blatantly steal. At the same time, however, I had also sunk my tax refund into a Playstation 3, thus entering the current generation of gaming consoles. And I had been playing God of War III. Between the two, Radio Free Hommlet and God of War III, I suddenly saw how I might be able to use my beloved dragons once again and make them fun for me as a DM and fun for my players.

The first article in this three part series will look at the weaknesses of current solo design. In the second article, I will propose a new method for building solos within the existing rules framework that will solve what I feel are the major problems with solo design. In the third article, I will provide two example heroic tier boss monsters as a proof of concept for you to try in your game. If my own play testing goes well and responses are positive, I will post more boss monsters for other tiers in time.

The Problem With Solos

If you ask the average player or DM to list the problems with solo encounters, you will generally get three answers. First, they are boring. Second, they are a grind. Third, they aren’t threatening. And that is why asking the average person anything is a mistake. These answers are about as useful as a waterbed is to a manticore. All they really say is that solo encounters aren’t fun. While this is definitely a concern, these answers don’t identify any real, solvable problems. And so, they have led to some slapdash solutions like reducing hit points, reducing defenses, and increasing attacks. The trouble with these solutions is that they treat the solo fight like ripping the duct tape off the mouth of a hostage: get it over with quickly so it doesn’t hurt as much. ¬†Shouldn’t we be a little more concerned with why a solo fight feels like a hostage situation in the first place?

So what are the problems with solos? Here is my list, some paraphrased from the folks at Radio Free Hommlett and the rest from my own experiences and discussions with other DMs and players.

1. Most Solos Do Not Act Often Enough

Even with action points, minor action attacks, and the occasionally immediate action; most solo monsters simply don’t act often enough in a given round of combat. In a standard encounter, the bad guys get at least five standard actions and five move actions every round. They also get occasional opportunity and immediate actions. Of course, some solos are more effective in this regard. Take a look at beholders. They generally get to act at the start of every PCs turn, and that works well.

2. Solos Lump Most Of Their Actions Together

In a standard encounter, the various monster actions come at different points during the battle. One or two PCs act, then a monster goes. Another PC goes and then two more monsters. And so on. This breaks up the action. In a solo fight, the monster goes and then the party beats up on it. The solo occasionally has immediate actions to break up the initiative order, but this doesn’t help the feeling of a dog pile and beat down.

3. Solo Fights Are Static

Most solo encounters eventually become static. The solo stands there and throws out attacks and then the party savages it. This is partly due to the lack of extra move actions on the solo’s part and partly due to the fact that the party can easily ‘surround and drown’, keeping even a flying monster penned in with defender marks, control abilities, and good positioning.

4. Solos Are Disproportionately Affected By Conditions

PCs have a lot of different ways to inflict statuses and conditions on monsters. In a standard fight, a given PC can only ever do this to one fifth of the enemy party. In a solo fight, every condition affects the entire monster party. While it is true that solos get a +5 to saves, that doesn’t really help the problem because many, many conditions last until the end of the PCs next turn. If the party is smart and spreads the use of encounter powers out, they can keep the solo monster laboring under detrimental conditions through the entire fight.

Because solos do not have the action budget of other monsters, they are devastated by action denial conditions. Action denial conditions include dazed, stunned, and prone: conditions that remove one or more actions or the ability to act outside of the normal initiative order.

Worse yet are daily powers that inflict conditions until the end of the encounter. There aren’t too many, but each of them is five times as effective on a solo as in any other encounter.

5. Everything Cool Happens At The Beginning

When the party enters a solo fight, they usually begin by throwing out the best powers they have and, for good measure, spending as many action points as they can. This is just clear thinking. The solo, of course, does the exact same thing. It opens with its strongest powers and spends action points early. I firmly believe that this type of dynamic, along with the static nature of solo fights, is what leads to the feeling of a grind. It isn’t that solos have too many hit points and that the fight takes too long. It is that the party quickly expends its best resources and then has to settle for at-will powers and weaker encounter powers with no action points for the rest of the fight. The solo, meanwhile, spends most of its rounds waiting for recharges.

6. There Is No Sense Of Progress

In a standard encounter, there are ten points during the fight that tell the party they are getting closer to victory. Each of five monsters will become bloodied and each of five monsters will become dead. Every time the party bloodies a monster, it gives them a warm fuzzy feeling of progress. Each time a monster drops dead, it lets off a little bit of tension. Solo fights have two points of progress: the monster gets bloodied and the monster gets dead.

Putting It All Together

In conclusion: solos are not scary, they are boring, and they are a grind. Exactly as most people have already said. But the reasons for these problems are now a little clearer. They are not scary because they do not have enough actions and because they are easily controlled. They are boring because they are static, because all of the cool things happen too early, and because most of the solos actions come all in one lump. And they feel like a grind because everything cool happens too early and because there is no sense of progress.

Of course, you can fix most of these problems just by speeding up the fight with reduced hit points and defenses or by increasing the solo’s output with attack and damage boosts, but I would argue that that is selling the system short. A long fight with a powerful monster is not, in itself, a problem, so long as that fight is fun and exciting from beginning to end.

In the next part of this series, I’ll discuss some changes to solo design to address these six specific issues. And, because I believe in simplicity, I’m going to do as much as I possibly can inside the standard stat block and without fiddling with any of the raw numbers. Not even hit points.

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