Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Wednesday Grab Bag: Monster Tips and Random Thoughts

Howdy all. I have been busy busy busy lately, but thought I would post a few of my recent ponderings. Rather than stretch these out into separate blog posts, I figured I would just mix it all together in a bucket.

Simpler Monsters = More Flavorful Monsters

I have posted a bunch of monster tips over time, but thought I would emphasize something that I have mentioned before but never really focused like a laser on. In 4e, it is very easy to overdo monsters. I think part of this is bc it is so easy to design 4e monsters. I remember the first game of 4e I ran. I was starting a new campaign, and I came up with this location-based adventure set at these mines. Anyway, the first bad guy that the players ran into was "Scalpel Jim", along with his entourage. Jim used-you guessed it-a scalpel as his weapon. I had built him out with four or five different scalpel powers, some encounters, some rechargeable, I spent some time on it, and ended up with what I thought would be a very memorable villain. Anyhoo, prior to the encounter, Scalpel Jim made a two-fingered gesture at the party's female Monk. The Monk promptly won initiative and walked over and critted Jim with "Open the Gates of Battle", killing him before he ever even acted.

I learned a valuable lesson that day. Two actually. Don't cross bad ass Monk chicks, and do not over-design 4e monsters. Ask yourself what the essence of a monster is, and design accordingly. The more powers and doo-hickeys you add to a monster, the more diluted the flavor. You want monsters to be memorable. You want their flavor to come through in obvious, unmistakable fashion when PCs encounter them. Ask yourself what the monster does, then have it do that and nothing else. You might not have time to do much, so make it count.

Learning from Lareth the Beautiful

As you might be aware, I am running the Temple of Elemental Evil using the 81' B/X rules. It is going swimmingly. One thing that I must admit I like quite a bit about old editions that is missing from the 4e game is that the PCs encounter spellcasters that use the same spell lists and character creation rules as PCs. Now don't get me wrong; in most cases I much prefer to just build every NPC off of a monster template. 4e character creation is just a little too complicated for building NPCs from actual character classes, especially since they are usually going to get killed pretty quickly. You will spend more time building it than it will ever see on the battlemat. But what if you want that classic edition feel, where evil spellcasters, such as the ToEE's Lareth the Beautiful, have a juicy list of spells? I also love having classic edition spellcaster adversaries cast some spells in advance, like Guards and Wards, or Mordenkainen's Faithful Hound, etc. This way the "table is set" prior to an encounter. How can we get this feel in 4e without wasting a ton of time working through a grueling character creation process?

Turns out it is pretty simple. Give the bad guys rituals! And let them cast rituals ahead of time. As a player, I have hardly ever seen this done in 4e. You might have to stop a bad guy from completing a ritual, but it is rare indeed to see a list of rituals on a monster stat block. So, the next time you have your 4e PCs encounter a "spellcaster" (Cleric, Mage, or otherwise), give the caster a list of rituals. See if it would be advantageous for them to have cast one or more of the rituals already. This will add a nice layer of unpredictability to the proceedings. It can also serve to make an encounter much more difficult, emphasize flavor, or simply just allow you to use a ritual in your game for once. A party can trigger an alarm from a warding ritual, encounter odd summoned creatures, be teleported away, heck who knows. You can also make up new rituals, or use an old spell as the basis for a new ritual. Like Lareth the Beautiful's "Continual Darkness" spell. Anyways, I hope that this doesn't read too "rambly" and makes sense. Use the 4e Ritual Index from the mags, and see if you can't get something resembling that old-school caster flavor going for some bad guys in your game.

4e is Ideal for One-Page Dungeons

I spoke before about making tweaks to 4e to help it work better with megadungeons. Yet, no matter what you do, 4e will still never be the best system for megadungeons (in my opinion). However, the more I think about it, 4e is perfect for one-page adventures.

Not familiar with the one-page dungeon phenomenon? Man, you are going to love me then. They have a yearly contest where people submit their one-page creations. The winners over the years can all be downloaded for free from this website. There is some really awesome stuff to be discovered there. At another site, someone has put up some templates that can be used for one-page dungeon creation. Just look at the column on the right for the free downloads.

Anyway, I find that you only need one or two encounters for a good one-night 4e adventure. Thus, you do not need a lot of space. I never much cared for long, drawn-out, over-described encounter scenarios for 4e. I don't need everything spelled out. With a one-page template, you can describe a locale, give it some flavor, then go. Instead of trying to fit a stat block on there, just reference the book a creature is found in, or keep stats on a separate page. I think you will agree that 4e is really suited to this format. It is no wonder that the Dungeon Delve book was (and still is) so popular. Although the outdated monsters need to be boosted, and I would probably drop the first or second encounter from many of the book's mini-adventures, it does show you that just a little 4e adventure design goes a long way (partly because 4e combat lasts a little longer than other editions). Anyway, I found it inspiring, and I will be calling for some one-page 4e dungeons/adventures once I start taking submissions for 4e Forever.

So that is it. Just some ideas that have been bouncing around. Sorry for the rambly feel! As always, I would love to hear comments/thoughts. See you next time!


  1. I use Dungeon Delve all the time, but 3 encounters rarely fits into a single session in my 7-player, 3-hour-max game . A recent one I dropped the third encounter from DD#11, making it just a skill challenge to close the demonic portal before a Carnage Goristro could break through. That let us resolve it in one session for the benefit of a visiting ex-player who'd returned as a one-shot. More commonly I add an initial, framing encounter, making the delve a 4-encounter, 2-session affair (did that with DD#12, creating above-ground castle ruins to the temple, and DD#6, creating a noble's mansion with the snake cult temple underneath). Or we might do encounters 1 & 2 in one session, then do encounter 3 as a big climax, followed by aftermath and non-combat roleplay - did that for DD #7.

  2. Simpler monsters - yup, there is definitely a complexity sweet spot that is often exceeded in published 4e monsters. Usually one at-will and one rechargeable power is good. Elites might benefit from a third power. Solos work well with lots of off-turn stuff, esp auras & ongoing damage to blast PCs on the PCs' own turns.

  3. "I learned a valuable lesson that day. Two actually. Don't cross bad ass Monk chicks"

    I once had a duel set up between a Brawler Fighter PC and an angry Elite Soldier female knight type NPC of about the same level - she was 8th, he was 8th or 9th. I think she did win init and hit him. He attacked back with some high W power - "20" - Action Point, another high W power - "20" - 2 crits and she was dead right off. Fun moment, waste of a stat block!

  4. Yeah, alot of published monsters have a few too many thing to do. Often, when using them I will not get the chance to do all of the "cool Things" that a monster can do in one battle.

    When making a Custom Monster of my own though, I stick to what I call the "Rule of 5". An Average Monster(Non-Minion, Non-Elite and Non-Solo) should have at most a total of 5 things it can do.Those are: a Basic Melee, a Basic Ranged(Not always nessisary, if primarily Melee), an Awesome Bad-Ass Power(Usually encounter or recharge and either does a "Crap-Ton" of damage or some nasty Status Effect or some combination of those), A helpful Aura or Trait, and Maybe an Triggered ability of some kind. This is not an absolute, but any creature that breaks these guidelines has to have a very good reason to do so! Elite and Solo Monsters that I make have about 2-3 more things, one of which is ALWAYS a "Make Multiple Basic Attacks as one action" Power or make a basic attack as a Minor Action Power.