Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Monster Roles, part 2

In part 1 I discussed the primary monster roles; here, I will move onto secondary roles. The secondary roles are standard, leader, minion, elite, and solo.


These are the bulk of monsters, and they also serve as a reference point for the other monster secondary roles. For example, 4-5 minions equals 1 standard, 1 Elite equals 2 standards, and 1 Solo equals 5 standards. An encounter composed of all standards will typically have the same number of monsters as the PCs, or see the PCs slightly outnumbered. Individually standard monsters aren't much of a threat to an adventuring party, but by working together they can become greater than the sum of their parts.


A leader monster is unique in that it is almost a tertiary role (albeit the only one in the game); leaders can be found among standards and elites, as well as any of the primary roles (though some are more likely to be leaders than others). They don't usually function very much different from a normal monster of their type, except that they have either a trait, power, or possibly both which directly helps their allies. These can consist of offensive or defensive buffs, granted attacks, granted movement, or healing. Not every encounter needs a leader, but it's a good way to mechanically represent the guy that's in charge to make him feel like he's in charge. Prepare to have standards, minions, or more rarely elites directly protect the leader if he gets into trouble, because he will be a priority target. Once he goes down, all of the other monsters get worse at what they do (depending on how significant his abilities were).


I'm of the opinion that minions were one of the best things to come out of 4e. Each minion has only 1 HP and their attacks are extremely simple (they have set damage instead of rolling for damage), so they require virtually no book-keeping on the part of the DM aside from removing their minis/tokens when they die and remembering their initiative order. They also allow you to run balanced encounters where the monsters vastly outnumber the PCs, which tend to be cinematic affairs with PCs mowing through their foes. Just because they're pushovers though, doesn't mean that they're not deadly. They're designed to swarm around PCs, threatening them with many OAs, blocking off squares, and causing high damage attacks to be wasted. Even if each of them attacks for relatively low damage, that damage can really start to add up! Besides, they have the normal defenses and attack rolls for their level so despite being easy to bring down, they're not necessarily any easier to hit. Best of all, they add tactical variety to the age old single target vs multi-target damage issue. Before their introduction into the game, single target attacks were obviously superior because injury doesn't impair a monster's ability to fight until it's knocked down to 0 HP. Therefore, it's in everyone's best interest to take single-target attacks (which deal higher damage per target) and to focus fire on a single enemy, bringing it down as fast as possible so that next round it isn't present to attack. Well, that's a bad idea when dealing with minions. AoE attacks are the way to go here, because you can wipe a whole swath of minions off the map with a single action. Focus firing on stronger enemies is still a very useful strategy, but now the game rewards the multi-target strategy as well (that's not to say that multi-target PCs are simple glorified minion poppers; multi-target attacks also allow you to spread status effects to more enemies, and to finish off severely injured enemies while simultaneously softening others up).

I would highly recommend that encounters featuring minions also featured them in waves. This way if the controller gets rid of all of the minions in round 1 there will be more to harass the PCs later. It's also important to balance having minions swarm PCs to overwhelm them (where they're vulnerable to AoEs), or to keep them safely spread out (where they're less likely to be as annoying). One of my favorite tactics is to use artillery minions that can focus fire on PCs while staying spread out at the same time. This shouldn't be the only way to use minions, but it's a good way to keep them around longer. Just remember that most PCs like clearing a half dozen enemies at once, even if you might be slightly disappointed that you didn't get to "use" them. Even minions that die right away have done their job, by putting a grin on the face of the player that single-handedly took them all out.

Minions tend to interact differently with PCs of different roles, so keep in mind your party makeup when designing encounters. Strikers hate minions, because any time they attack them is a waste of their high damage (the exception being the Sorcerer and Monk, who have plenty of AoE attacks in their repertoire). Defenders usually aren't fond of minions either, because the number of marks and/or punishments they can dole out are limited, and so they typically want to go after the toughest-looking soldier or brute and keep him busy while the other PCs finish everyone else off. Defenders also typically work with melee strikers to protect them as they slaughter priority targets, and minions can a) keep the defender from getting to those targets and/or the striker, or b) harass the striker despite the defender's presence, since he can't stop all of them. That said, a defender provides very effective area denial against minions, who can't afford to take a single OA because of their single HP. Controllers love minions, which shouldn't come as a surprise. They have the greatest selection of AoEs and multi-target attacks, in addition to zones and walls which are a hindrance to most monsters, but downright lethal to minions. The very threat of a controller's AoE may be enough to prevent minions from clumping together to focus fire. A Leader's opinion of minions often depends on their secondary role or the party make-up, since a leader's main job is to act as a force multiplier and make everyone else more efficient. If a leader can buff a controller's attack he may like minions just as much as that controller. An enabling leader, on the other hand, just wants to give the striker extra attacks, and he doesn't want to waste those on minions any more than the striker does.


Elites are relatively straightforward, in that they are beefed up monsters meant to count for 2 standard monsters. This alone makes them priority targets, since killing one eliminates 2 monsters from the field. Their high HP makes them able to endure roughly twice as many attacks, however, so it's much tougher for PCs to bring them down early. Because of this they can be "trap" priority targets, since it's often more efficient to take down weaker enemies first to reduce the amount of incoming attacks. Beware of controller PCs, however; each successful status effect applied to an elite reduces your side's effectiveness twice as much as it would a standard. Furthermore, elites are less likely to have effect-shaking abilities like solos (though they do get a saving throw bonus). The most important piece of advice on Elites, however, is to look it over before you use it!!! Many elites from earlier sources may have had double the HP of a standard, but only slightly higher offensive capabilities. An elite's attack should deal roughly twice as much damage as a standard monster of the same level and role, whether that comes from stronger attacks, the ability to attack multiple times per turn, or significantly more powerful recharge or encounter powers. Also keep in mind that elites get an action point, so they're able to front-load their offense very efficiently (use it early to really frighten the pants off the PCs!!!). Elites tend to be slightly more complicated to run, as they often have more "big hit" powers (recharge or encounter) and more traits. As a final note, don't be afraid to provoke OAs with your Elites; they can afford to take the hits, and if it gets them into a favorable position it may be a good move (also, movement makes a combat dynamic).


I'll lead off with a warning here - examine any solo monster carefully, and as a rule outright avoid the ones published before MM3 unless you personally tweak them. Because a solo counts as 5 standard monsters but is wrapped up in 1 body it has a significant impact on how an encounter plays out. First of all, AoE powers are reduced in effectiveness, as are powers and class features that trigger off of bloodying or killing enemies. Status effects, however, have the potential to completely shut down the encounter if the solo is improperly designed. Save penalties can often cancel out the solo's save bonus at high levels, allowing a controller PCs to remove five monsters from the fight with a single status effect. Newer solos get the ability to shake off the more powerful status effects more easily, somewhat ameliorating this weakness. Another potential pitfall is that a solo battle could turn into one where the PCs all crowd around the monsters and both sides exchange blows. Well-designed solos will be more resistant to this outcome, such as the new dragons that get a move + attack outside of their normal turn. And that brings us back to offense. A solo needs to have even more reliable offensive output than an elite. This is usually accomplished through one or more of the following: making multiple attacks per turn, making attacks in response to triggers (like being hit), having impressive "big guns" powers, and getting multiple turns in the initiative order. Solos also have 2 action points. A solo's stat block is usually much longer than that of a standard monster's, with a lot of different triggers, recharges, etc. to keep track of. Still, you're only running the one monster in place of 5, so it evens out.

Finally, my biggest piece of advice is not to take the term "solo" literally! A well-designed solo encounter will feature an at-level or level +1 solo, with a smattering of other monsters to ramp up the total encounter difficulty to level +3, 4, or even 5. A solo is most often the BBEG (Big, Bad, Evil Guy) that the party has been searching for, defeating many encounters with his lackeys before confronting him. BBEG's don't get where they are without being intelligent, and an intelligent creature will have his minions do some of his fighting for him! A solo can usually put off getting attacked for a few rounds while the PCs deal with his underlings (which they should do; it won't take very long to kill them, and killing them reduces the amount of attacks that the PCs need to endure. Imagine going for the solo for 5 rounds while suffering from not only his attacks, but also his minions for that whole time!). Have solos fight smart, and keep in mind that they got to be so powerful by surviving. They'll very rarely fight to the death unless absolutely forced to, which gives you a perfectly believable excuse for "calling the fight" early, especially if it ceases to be exciting. Solos have a LOT of HP, but if they know that they're not going to defeat the PCs they certainly aren't going to stand there while they whittle away at it. As with Elites, don't be afraid to provoke OAs with solos, especially early on.

Monster Roles, part 1

Much like player classes are split into leaders, controllers, defenders, and strikers, monsters in 4e are also categorized by role, or their function on the battlefield. This is a great tool for DMs because they can glance at a monster stat block without reading any of the powers and have a pretty good idea of how that monster is going to behave. In this article I'll discuss primary roles: artillery, brute, controller, lurker, skirmisher, and soldier.


These are probably my favorite type of monster to use because they're easily identified priority targets. They have high single-target damage output and often some AoE's as well, and because they're using ranged attacks their targeting capacity is excellent. Simply pick one of the PCs, move to get a clear line of sight (i.e. eliminate cover) if possible, and fire. From the DM's side of things, it's the easiest way to have the monsters focus fire, which provides the greatest threat to the PCs. They're also easily protected by front-line enemies, terrain, and other hazards which can serve as challenges that the PCs must strategically overcome in order to engage the artillery. It's often getting to the artillery which provides the real challenge, and PCs are rewarded with the fact that artillery defenses and HP are the lowest of any other monster role, meaning they go down quick.


This is my other favorite monster role, and I'd go so far as to say that they provide the best "base" for an encounter. That is to say, when you're designing most encounters you should start by adding in some brutes and going from there. They're simple to run, since they usually walk up to a vulnerable looking target and start swinging away. They deal high damage so they pose a sufficient risk to PCs (and after all, combat is fun because it's risky!), and they have high HP which gives them some staying power. They also have notably low defenses (except Fortitude, usually), which means that when PCs attack them they're likely to hit. Basically, DMs like running them and PCs like fighting them, so you might as well use them a lot.


The most important thing to keep in mind with controller enemies is don't go overboard! Most fights probably shouldn't contain a controller, and the ones that do should almost never contain more than one. Why? Controllers screw over PCs by taking away their actions. PCs would rather have their HP taken away, because they like doing stuff. As a DM, you also like when the PCs do stuff because otherwise the encounter stagnates. That's not to say you should never use controllers because they do pose a different kind of challenge, and it's always nice to keep things varied and interesting. Use them when you really want to maintain tactical control of the battlefield, whether that's to ramp up the challenge level, to keep certain monsters around longer, or to make it more difficult for the PCs to complete some other objective (i.e. keep them away from the trap so they can't disarm it).


These guys are a lot of fun, and can be very tactically rewarding. More than any other monster role, these will put the threat of death on your players. Most of them appear every other round to deal massive spike damage, and then use their standard action to disappear or become really tough to hit or damage in between damage spikes. They also tend to be mobile, adding in an element of suspense; you never know where the lurker will strike from! Because they put such intense pressure on the PCs, you generally only want to include 1, or sometimes 2, in any given encounter. They provide a great incentive for PCs to focus fire on the rounds when they're actually vulnerable, but beware that if your players are not tactically savvy they can really wreak havoc. Many of them can be really swingy as well; if they don't hit, then that's usually 3 rounds where the PCs didn't suffer any of their massive damage making their contribution minimal. If, however, they crit or roll high for damage they are very likely to outright kill bloodied PCs by bringing them down to their negative bloodied value (and by playing tactically there's no reason why a lurker wouldn't go for the most vulnerable PC). For this reason alone they should be used somewhat sparingly; after all, the more lurkers you use the more likely one of your crits is going to come from them.


Skirmishers tend to deal respectable damage, often dealing more conditionally (if they have CA, or if they've move a certain number of squares). The most significant way that they harass PCs, however, is by their mobility. Defenders and controllers often have a really tough time locking them down, so they often have their pick of the juiciest targets (usually a squishy PC or one that's already suffered a lot of damage). Despite this, they usually have solid defenses meaning that they won't be the low-hanging fruit that an artillery or brute is. They're great for harassing the party, and can be a very effective distraction as the PCs try to take these annoying little buggers out instead of the real priority targets (artillery, controllers, lurkers). They're safe to use frequently, and their function will often vary depending on what other types of monsters are present. They'll usually try to occupy a certain PC's attention and then avoid (or mitigate) the consequences of doing so, or they'll focus fire much like artillery, since they too have excellent targeting capacity.


These are the typical front line guys that attempt to keep the party away from the rest of the monsters. They will almost always be the lowest priority target because their job is to get in the way more than being a legitimate threat. Personally I use them somewhat sparingly, often using a combination of brutes and minions to substitute their function on the battlefield. Why avoid them? They deal relatively low damage so they're more of an annoyance than a legitimate threat to most PCs, and worst of all they tend to have very high defenses which means that PCs end up missing more often (especially if the soldiers are higher level than the party; try to keep them at level or level +1 to reduce missing). Players get frustrated when they're constantly missing. In short, they're not really fun to fight. That doesn't mean that you shouldn't use them, though. They hinder PCs quite well, and as long as the PCs employ tactics to circumvent them and save them for last they do create an interesting dynamic. Feel free to make them more likely to surrender or flee if the PCs are in mop-up stage; they'll know that they don't stand much chance of defeating the PCs without help from high damage allies. Furthermore, mop-up against high defense enemies that don't pose much of a damage threat is extremely monotonous; everyone knows what the outcome will be, so why roll all of those dice since the battle has ceased to be exciting at this point?

Putting it all together

Like a party of PCs monsters are not designed to exist in a vacuum; it's assumed that they'll fight as part of a team, and utilize appropriate terrain and tactics (assuming they're intelligent). Even if you mix it up occasionally, you should try to pair monsters that work well together up. The classic example is a front line of soldiers blocking access to artillery, who are barraging the PCs at range. Most of your encounters should also have an obvious priority target or two so the encounter's not just a slugfest against some random enemies. Artillery, controllers, and lurkers are almost always high priority, though brutes and skirmishers can sometimes fill that role too. Don't forget the effects of level, either. A line of level-1 artillery may end up being less dangerous than a single level +4 brute. Everything I've said has been a generalization, since there is a great amount of variability between monster level, the actual powers a monster has, or even their damage dice vs their static modifier (high dice, low modifier attacks will be more swingy, and crits will probably hurt more). Fine tune your encounters by picking out monsters based on their powers and/or traits, and feel free to tweak monsters if you can't find exactly what you're looking for.

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Delivery: The Emerald Iron Scepter (Session 4)

Cast of Characters

Meryl "Wiggy" Wiggins - Gnome Chaos Sorcerer
Sophia - Half-Elf Valorous Bard
Tavar - Deva Retribution Avenger

The King's Welcome

The players reached the city of Ostengard, which happened to contain a landing pad for the airship. The Lander (Dwarf that anchors the airship as it lands) asked them upon exiting the ship why they didn't take it to the Astral Sun's private docks. They played it confidently, saying they were in a hurry and to just let them pass. The Lander stopped them as the hobgoblin and bugbear appeared, saying that they don't allow evil creatures such as them in the city. They were escorted to the dungeons, and they PCs were told they could pick up their captives when they left. They delivered King Norvi (a jovial, charismatic fellow) his scepter, and he promptly invited them to a banquet that night so that they could tell him the tale of their delay. The banquet, which turned out to be a traditional forum for laid-back business meetings in the city, was host to 20 or 30 people. Norvi made his introductions, and the PCs were surprised to learn that 3 members of the Astral Sun were present: Vargus Heskan, the scion of an Arkhosian noble family, Misha Silvertree, a Half-Elf Ritualist, and Morthos Akkenon, a Tiefling Explorer.

Norvi bustled around after eating very little, offering his guests plenty of ale in return for good tales. The PCs began their story before Norvi was called over to another group (no matter, as Sophia was still working on her performance). The PCs noticed that of the Astral Sun representatives, Vargus Heskan seemed stiff but very polite, Misha seemed noticeably irritated by the whole situation, and Morthos was thoroughly enjoying himself (and the King's ale). When Norvi finally came back around to the PCs, Sophia sang her Ballad of Bruce Wyllis, which was received with much applause and raised glasses. Afterwards, Morthos came over to chat with the PCs and share his own stories of far away lands and priceless treasures. They were wary of saying too much to him, but it was soon obvious that he was completely sincere in his interest and didn't seem to be involved in the attack. Still, the PCs were able to glean some information about the Astral Sun and it's operations from him (it is a magical trade guild with outposts in several cities in these lands). When asked about his companions, Morthos vouched for them completely, saying they were admirable and excellent (though he'd never personally worked with them). When asked about the scepter, Morthos merely recounted legends of it, which stated that it was forged by Norvi's ancestors but lost in an Arkhosian raid of Ostengard back when the empire was strong. Perhaps a Dragonborn might feel that he had a rightful claim to this heirloom?

The PCs decided to approach the Vargus (Vargus is an Arkhosian military rank, meaning "captain"). He was exceedingly polite, though it seemed like he was annoyed by them. They asked him what his job was at the Astral Sun, and he stated that he mostly dealt with security. They asked if it was his responsibility to guard the fleet of airships, but he said that he was mostly involved with guarding valuable objects in transit. When he spoke the words "valuable objects" the PCs noticed that he inadvertently glanced directly at the Emerald Iron Scepter. The PCs had heard enough. They returned to their seats and kept an eye on him, but he left 10 minutes later.

Failed Pursuit

The PCs tried tailing him, but thanks to Wiggy's low stealth roll he heard them and dashed off around a corner. The PCs found themselves in the outer city (Ostengard was halfway inside of the mountain, halfway outside in what seemed to be a section of mountain that had been removed to create the outdoor courtyard). Wiggy decided to head to their captured airship to make sure it was still secure, while Tavar and Sophia kept in pursuit of Vargus Heskan. The courtyard was bustling this evening, but the Dragonborn was easily spotted moving amongst the Dwarves. He crossed the courtyard, dashing into a house on the other side. The PCs tried the door, but it was locked. They were soon spotted trying to pick the lock, and the bystander immediately shouted "Thieves! Burglars!!" Sophia tried to bluff her way out of it ("I just lost my key!") but the Dwarf said that he didn't know of any Half-Elves that lived in this neighborhood. Soon the guards approached, asking what the problem was. Sophia tried to talk her way into letting the guards turn a blind eye because this was important business for the king, but they weren't having it. They said that they were pursuing someone whom they suspected of trying to steal the King's newly returned scepter. The guards scoffed at this, saying it was unlikely that anyone would breach the King's security. The PCs again attempted to persuade the guards, saying that speed was essential or the suspect would get away. They stated that they had to investigate suspicious characters as well, but that they had actual authority to do so. In one last attempt, Sophia used Words of Friendship to convince the guards to at least take them directly to the King so that they could explain.

The King heard their tale, thanking them for bringing the situation to light but warning them that they had no authority in the city. He spoke to the Vargus' companions and while Morthos, ever the apologist (and drunk at that) stood up for the guy, the disgruntled Misha said that he'd come to the city only recently, and already he'd had a mishap where he failed to register an airship on official business. Upon hearing this, Norvi sent his guards to investigate the house and the records of the Astral Sun. He advised the PCs to enjoy the banquet and then go back to their rooms at the inn.

The next morning the PCs were summoned to King Norvi's throne room. He told them that the investigation was complete, and that his guards had discovered a secret passage in the house. Vargus Heskan had escaped, and his activities in the Astral Sun had implied that he was actually a mole, possibly working for some other organization. Norvi thanked the PCs again for bringing him the scepter, and for warning him of the danger in his midst. They were handsomely rewarded, and then they returned to Fallcrest (bringing the liberated prisoners, Valthrun and Tiktag, with them).

The Ballad of Bruce Wyllis

Come on people and gather round!
A story I have for you.
A tale that may be very sad and grim,
The Ballad of the day Bruce Wyllis said adieu.

A day Oh nice, not unlike today,
A sky of sun and blue.
The goblin raiders happened to attack,
Bruce Wyllis knew what to do.

They battled and fought, thick and thin
But the blimp came down and crashed;
But Bruce, like us, survived the blight;
The blimp, mangled and mashed.

Then not too far, an ambush was placed,
To thwart your favorite dude,
They battled and bashed, their hobgoblin ass
But Bruce, up their ass, he shoved his shoe.

One was left, a pitiful coward that ran,
Bruce, to him he deserved it too
When a bulette came out and swallowed up Bruce;
What's left? A finger between two.

So my friends, don't forget,
The most badass person you could ever know;
We miss him a lot, and wish he was back;
Bruce Wyllis, goddamn, fuck you!


Sophia's player came up with this on the fly at King Norvi's banquet. It was composed in about 10 minutes, but gets the job done!

Sunday, August 28, 2011

Delivery: The Emerald Iron Scepter (Session 3)

Cast of Characters

Meryl "Wiggy" Wiggins - Gnome Chaos Sorcerer
Sophia - Half Elf Valorous Bard
Tavar - Deva Retribution Avenger
Tordek - Dwarf companion character (defender)

The Wizard's Cellar

After killing one dark drake and routing the other, the party was free to explore the rest of the basement. The first room that they investigated appeared to be the scene of a magical experiment gone awry; there had clearly been an explosion in the room, and there were pieces of destroyed implements everywhere. Nothing of interest in there. The next room contained a stone face on the opposite wall, with a jaw that appeared to be moveable. When the PCs entered the room an iron door slid shut behind them, with 3 locks automatically latching shut. The mouth opened, and water poured out of it and began to fill the room (this was the Water-Filling Chamber from DMG2, p. 67). In each corner of the room, magical turrets that shot force bolts also appeared (this was a trap of my own devising). Without Bruce the party was at a loss for strength checks; one failed attempt to close the statue's mouth in an attempt to slow the water flow was all it took for the party to abandon that tactic. Wiggy was able to successfully pick the first lock, but when I randomly decided which character took 2 turret hits (4 turrets, 3 PCs) Wiggy was the unlucky one and ended up bloodied due to 2 high damage rolls. He was also soon swimming since he was small, and the room was filling up quickly. Not much progress was made in the escape attempt the next round, though Wiggy was able to use Arcana to disable 2 of the turrets for a round (by suppressing the magic of the glyphs that were powering them). Next round another lock was picked, and Wiggy failed to sustain his hold on the turrets but managed to pick the last lock. Tavar then slid open the iron door and the turrets deactivated when the water rushed out of the room. The stone face animated, and in a booming voice yelled "You are worthy of my counsel and my master's greatest secret. Step forward and I shall look into your future." A niche also opened up in the wall, which contained a magical mirror, though layers of enchantments hid the mirror's true function (into Wiggy's top hat of holding it went for later). When Sophia stepped forward to have their fortune read, the statue simply stated: "Start by going where you struggle to breathe. From there, follow the wind into the fire. If you succeed, prepare to be a careful judge of character." The face then returned to normal, and the PCs left the room. The only other room in the cellar contained a half-dissected Vrock, and some fungus growing in a corner which Wiggy (through a successful Dungeoneering check) informed the party improved vigor if eaten (it would restore 1 healing surge). Wiggy had the fewest surges so he at the mushroom.

Airship Capture

The party left the cabin and re-discovered the trail of the goblin scouting party. Soon they smelled a strong, sulphurous odor as they descended into a wide valley. Discerning that the source of this odor (a thermal vent in a bog) was where they would "struggle to breathe," the party headed toward it instead of continuing to follow the trail. They reached the vent, and then followed the direction of the wind (which happened to roughly correspond to the direction of the airship). So far their fortune seemed promising. When they reached the top of a small hill they saw a large clearing below them, in which was parked the airship. A bonfire burned in front of it, but they couldn't discern how many goblins there were. Tordek, though still injured from the battle and crash on the original airship, volunteered to help capture the goblin ship. The party came up with a pretty ingenious plan to approach the ship, which I honestly didn't expect when I designed this adventure. The non-combatants were all shoved inside of the top hat of holding with the Deepfarer's Pouch as a reliable source of air. Tordek, Tavar, and Wiggy all got into the bag of holding while Sophia chugged the potion of mimicry to gain the appearance of a hobgoblin. Though Sophia didn't speak goblin, when the hobgoblin leader addressed her as she approached the ship she convincingly appeared to be in a bad mood, merely grunting disgustedly (very successful Bluff check). Her failure to speak eventually aroused suspicion though, and several goblins and bugbears moved their hands toward their blades. She quelled their suspicion with a surprisingly successful Diplomacy check (despite a hefty penalty for using only body language and casual grunting), and moved forward between the leader (a magic type) and the airship, as if to come talk to him. Her surprise round was spent dumping the combatants out of the bag of holding and into an advantageous position in the clearing. After several more goblinoids closed the distance to attack them, Sophia used Shout of Triumph to knock 2 Bugbears into the bonfire. The leader, who was a modified Daggerburg War Mage (from Monster Vault 2) used his icy stream attack to slide Tavar into the bonfire. Later in the battle Sophia was also slid into the bonfire (and was actually knocked unconscious there!). This was a textbook example of a terrain effect being utilized by both sides, which added a fun dynamic to the encounter. Reinforcements came bursting out of the airship in round 2, and overall the party handled the encounter quite well. I should mention that this was a level 9 encounter (level +4), which I was unsure about given the difficulty that level +2 and +3 encounters were posing to this party (and the fact that Tordek was a companion character, and thus weaker than a normal PC, seemed like it might make matters even worse). Surprisingly, the first half of the encounter was practically a breeze. I was rolling really low for monster attacks (they missed more than half the time), and in one round Wiggy hit 5 creatures with a lucky Chaos Bolt (3 of which were minions!). Again, the Wild Sorcerer proved to be much more effective than I'd previously given them credit for, though they're admittedly swingy and at the mercy of the dice. At some point the battle took a subtle turning point though, despite the fact that most of the enemies were down (only the war mage and 2 Bugbear backstabbers were left). Focus fire is a lot more effective when the monsters aren't missing all the time (and the backstabbers were utilizing heavy undergrowth to remain practically perma-hidden), and soon almost all healing resources were used up (both Majestic Words, all second winds, and 2 of the 4 potions), and most of the party was bloodied. Sophia's Stirring Shout was also a boon, albeit an unreliable one (I'd given the War Mage an ability from Monster Vault's Goblin Hex Hurler, where ranged attacks could be deflected onto adjacent allies. This made up for the Daggerburg traits that I removed from it). One of the backstabbers was finally killed though, and the War Mage brought down to only 4 HP. Even though the remaining backstabber rushed to his aid, the hobgoblin threw down his staff and surrendered, begging for mercy. Since the PCs needed someone to pilot the captured airship anyways, they let him live.


After verifying that both the hobgoblin and remaining bugbear could indeed pilot the ship, the hobgoblin tried to convince the party to inventory a bunch of supply crates that were sitting in the clearing, claiming that they contained many useful supplies. The party was smart enough to instantly recognize the stalling tactic, suspecting that there were still goblin patrols in the forest that may have heard the sound of combat. Therefore the PCs loaded their captives into the airship quickly and forced the goblins to take off (as they gained altitude, looking down they saw that there were indeed several goblins that rushed into the clearing in vain). The airship contained 2 prisoners that the goblins had manacled to the wall - an insane kobold chief named Tiktag and a human sage from Winterhaven, Valthrun. Tiktag was mostly muttering in Draconic, but would occasionally let slip a few curses in common. He would also occasionally shout things like "those idiot goblins will feel the wrath of Vestapalk!" Valthrun informed the party that Tiktag's tribe frequents the hills northwest of Winterhaven, and that Vestapalk is a green dragon who has shared visions with Tiktag and has thus allied himself with the tribe. Partially out of fear of the dragon (who could potentially be in pursuit of the ship, the PCs reasoned), but mostly because they were still pondering the final words of the stone face in the Wizard's cabin --"prepare to be a careful judge of character"-- the PCs unbound Tiktag in addition to Valthrun, and gave them both some rations (they had been mistreated by the goblins, suffering beatings and going days at a time with no food, if you can even call what the goblins did give them food). The PCs explained to Valthrun that they were heading to Ostengard, but that they would return to Fallcrest after completing their mission. They also attempted to explain this to Tiktag, and some of the malice seemed to disappear from his eyes at the news, though he still crouched by himself in a corner muttering in Draconic. Valthrun had no information about why he or Tiktag was captured by the goblins; he had been tending a shrine just outside of Winterhaven when they captured him for no apparent reason.

As the PCs had overcome their predicament and escaped the foreign wilderness, it was determined that this would be a good stopping point. Next session will conclude my adventure, and will likely see the start of the next DM's adventure.

Saturday, August 27, 2011

New series on encounter-building advice

The title says it all, really. Because of the nature of 4e's tactical combat, encounters can be quite a bit more complex compared with previous editions. That's not to say that encounters are tougher to design and run in 4e, because in my experience the opposite is true. 4e as a rule is extremely DM-friendly, and is significantly easier to plan for and run than 3.x edition (despite the fact that encounters typically have more going on).

Because of the importance of movement, terrain, and a general increase in the amount of tactical options 4e encounters have more potential than 3e encounters; defenders can actually do their job, leaders have a bigger toolbox and more available actions per turn, controllers have a more nuanced job to do, and strikers (as well as everyone else) genuinely need the support of the rest of the party. This is inherently more exciting that walking up to a single enemy and standing toe to toe with them, round after round, unloading full attack actions (ok, perhaps "exciting" is too subjective a word, but it's certainly more dynamic). But enough with edition comparisons. I merely want to illustrate that, while 4e combat can be run in a simplistic way like this, it can also be much more interesting, and that obviously starts with encounter design.

Terrain Basics

One of the most commonly touted pieces of advice that I hear about 4e combat (and to some extent with combat in any edition) is that it all starts with terrain. Fighting on a flat, featureless plain or in a 5x8 "box" of a dungeon room is neither evocative nor does it offer anything for the combatants to interact with. At the very least a DM should provide a couple of pillars, overturned tables, or bushes to be utilized as cover and perhaps some sections of undergrowth or rubble to serve as difficult terrain. These things are easy enough to add to a map, and while they're pretty simple features they still present a spatial goal to both the monsters and PCs; occupy terrain that provides an advantage, and try to hinder your enemy with terrain that provides a disadvantage. If the PCs aren't taking the bait, as a DM you should make the monsters set an example! One important piece of advice is don't overuse difficult terrain! If most of a map is a field of rubble, encounter after encounter, it ceases to be interesting and becomes merely annoying.

Terrain can of course be much more complex than the example stated above, and may even consist of things like terrain "powers" (see the DMG2) or hazards. Pools of acid, pits, cliffs, or fire pits are great when combined with forced movement because it encourages PCs to interact with their environment in a really obvious way. Make sure the monsters have some form of forced movement if you feature such hazards, if for no other reason than to ensure that the PCs need to be on the defensive. If a monster has no native forced movement powers, it's easy enough to add one! Just tack a push onto a melee basic attack and call it a different standard action. Don't go overboard with altering monsters like this, though; if all of your monsters conveniently have push attacks the technique will grow stale, and it will challenge verisimilitude.

Since most dungeons commonly involve the PCs invading the territory of their enemies, it makes sense that many of those enemies (especially the intelligent ones) will know how to best take advantage of the local terrain, and may even have modified it to suit their needs (including things like setting traps and ambush points). For example, artillery should generally have cover to hide behind so that PCs have to close the distance to them before they can attack without penalty. Additionally, it should be hard and/or dangerous for PCs to get to ranged enemies, whether that is because brutes and soldiers are blocking their paths or because the terrain is hindering them in some way. Perhaps there is difficult terrain that skirmishers and flying enemies can easily skirt around, but PCs are slowed down by.

The main goal of terrain in general is simply to entice the pieces on the board to move around, which is a big part of keeping an encounter dynamic. Sure, PCs might think it's a good idea to stand in front of a doorway to bottleneck enemies, but what if there is a holy altar in the middle of the room that grants creatures adjacent to it attack and/or damage bonuses? What if there are hostages in the room that need to be rescued? What if monsters in the room will alert their friends unless dealt with swiftly and their escape routes cut off? What if you simply sprinkle a liberal amount of enemies with AoEs in your monster repertoire (that'll teach PCs to instinctively scatter!)? Be creative, and take lessons from encounters that may not have gone quite as well as you expected!


There is one more subject which I would like to address in this post, and though it's mostly unrelated to terrain it's something that doesn't take much explanation (and thus doesn't warrant its own post). It's a good idea to plan at least some of your encounters to occur in waves. That is to say, the PCs encounter a group of enemies, and then in later rounds "reinforcements" arrive. This is a common tactic to use with minions, since minions provide a good excuse for there to be many enemies on the map. Waves are a great tool for several reasons:
  1. They allow you to fine-tune encounters on the fly. Are the PCs destroying your enemies far too easily? Increase the number of monsters in the second wave, or even if you didn't have another wave planned have one show up anyways! Are the monsters giving your PCs more of a beating than you expected? If you had another wave or 2 planned, consider reducing the number of reinforcements, or eliminating them altogether. The whole point is that you don't put all your cards on the table in round 1.
  2. They allow you to create larger-scale battles. Focus fire can really kill PCs, but if you expect a few monsters to be dead before a second wave shows up you can afford to plan more difficult encounters since the PCs won't actually be dealing with the entire encounter at once. Essentially you're refraining from "alpha-striking" the PCs in round 1. This is the same logic that makes the controller role tick, except controllers are the ones forcing the DM to act with fewer monsters.
  3. They can dramatically alter the tactical landscape, which can be great if the encounter has stagnated for whatever reason. For example, if the ranged PCs are sitting comfortably behind the frontline "tanks," simply have a second wave appear from the opposite direction! Now the party needs to form a second frontline, or somehow delay the advance of one force or the other.
One note of caution when dealing with waves: try not to draw an encounter out overly long. Nobody likes a grindy combat, so don't keep throwing monsters at the PCs just because you can. Following the natural tempo of combat the PCs are supposed to have an easier time toward the end of combat, during the "mop up" rounds. Don't throw more enemies at them just because things have gotten easier. And on a related note, feel free to "fast forward" mop-ups when it's obvious that the PCs will win without expending many more resources. Nobody likes to chip away at HP when the monsters are no longer a threat (and the monsters probably don't want to stand there and take it; have them flee!).

Delivery: The Emerald Iron Scepter (session 2)


Meryl "Wiggy" Wiggins - Gnome Wild Sorcerer
Sophia - Half-Elf Valorous Bard
Tavar - Deva Retribution Avenger
Brucarius "Bruce" Wyllis - Human Sword and Board Fighter

Setting Off

When we last left our heroes, they had managed to survive the crash of the airship, albeit with a loss of healing surges (due to the rough landing, since both the pilot and co-pilot were killed). They led the surviving passengers of the airship in the general direction of the goblin airship, which had landed ahead of them. Survivors included Mindartis (an Eladrin prince), Rangrim (a Dwarf banker), Tordek (a Dwarf soldier), and Adelé (a Human merchant). Several miles into the journey, the party came across signs of a bulette (specifically, the mound of dirt where it had emerged from the ground and a swath of broken trees where it had ambled through the thick forest). They hastily continued, veering away from the bulette's path. Soon they came across a standing stone marked with a single rune just outside of a clearing. As far as the PCs (Meryl and Sophia, anyways) could discern the rune marked a "gate" or "entry" in an archaic form of Elvish. The clearing contained strange trees and a circle of exotic mushrooms, which Meryl identified as a crossing to the Feywild (though it wasn't currently active). Upon leaving the vicinity of the mushrooms, the trees seemed to bewitch the party, disorienting them and interfering with their compass. They confirmed with Mindartis (who had lived in the Feywild as a child) that this was indeed a crossing, and that the trees were native to the plane of Faerie (the Feywild). Without a compass, all the party could do was head in the general direction of the enemy airship.


While walking through the forest, the PCs were ambushed by a scouting party from the goblin airship. A Hobgoblin Warmonger commanded 3 Bugbear Thugs and 2 Hobgoblin Battle Guards (all from Monster Vault). The bugbears charged Tavar, who was in the lead, in round 1 (Tavar's passive perception prevented a surprise round - fortunately heavily armored and/or large goblinoids aren't terribly stealthy). The party did a fair job of killing bugbears and hobgoblins until the start of round 3, when a young bulette emerged from the ground out of nowhere, seemingly attracted to the sounds of battle. It randomly attacked combatants, and unfortunately the dice seemed to hate Tavar as he was attacked by it twice in a row (round 3 and round 5). The fight proved tough, as the goblinoids were employing sound tactics (focus-firing, flanking, etc.) and the bulette was wreaking havoc with its high damage attacks. Wiggy had some exceptional luck with Chaos Bolt, however, nailing 4 opponents with it one round. I've never been a huge fan of the Wild Sorcerer; I guess I'm just distrustful of randomness. From the DM's side of the screen, though, it seems that I was under-estimating the build's effectiveness. It wasn't too long before the Bugbears and the Hobgoblin Battle Guard's were defeated, leaving only the Warmonger left. He had charged into melee to flank Wiggy, but was soon routed after seeing his allies hewed to pieces. Tavar was unconscious at this point, and Bruce Wyllis was eager to finish the leader off, moving and then charging. The hobgoblin was cut down, but just at that moment the bulette (who was currently burrowed underground) got to randomly decide to attack a PC. The dice couldn't crap on Tavar with him being out of the action, and so the bulette chose to go after Bruce (who, to be fair, probably made the most racket charging down that hobgoblin. Bruce was already bloodied, and the bulette happened to crit. That's 48 damage to a 5th level PC who was already pretty well injured; needless to say this was more than enough to bring him below his negative bloodied value. And so the bulette leapt up from the ground, snatching Bruce Wyllis and devouring him nearly whole. The powerful jaws severed one of his hands off as he bit down, but not before that hand had managed to extend his middle finger in protest. Wiggy kept the hand as a memorial to Bruce's fighting spirit (in a top hat that he'd turned into a bag of holding).

The Moat

The disheartened PCs followed the trail of the goblins through the woods (a trail that was very obvious in the thick vegetation). If there was any doubt cast upon them by the disorienting spell of the Feywild trees, it was now dispelled; they had a clear path to follow, as these goblins must have come from the airship. They followed the trail uphill into increasingly rocky terrain, until they came upon a bare, rocky bald with noticeably strange geological features (the rock didn't look quite natural up here). At the other edge of the bald stood a castle. As the PCs made their approach, they noticed that the castle's moat did not contain water, and that it was climbable on their side but perfectly sheer on the other side (which was approximately 100 feet away). Great chunks of earth had seemingly been ripped from the bottom of the moat, and were now magically floating as a series of platforms leading across (assuming one was brave enough to jump from platform to platform over a 20 ft deep moat). Two gargoyle statues stood upon two of the platforms. Well, needless to say the party which now consisted of an Avenger, Bard, and Sorcerer wasn't the most athletic. All of them ended up failing to jump across gaps at some point, and they hadn't even gotten halfway across the moat. Their solution was to toss a grappling hook onto one of the gargoyle statues and climb up onto the platform, which was roughly halfway across. At least now getting across would only require 2 more jumps! Sophia and Tavar made it across to the next platform when 2 earth elementals (leveled up from the MV versions) emerged from the very rock of the platform. After the surprise round, 2 air elementals (also leveled up) appeared as well, and the gargoyles shed their stone forms and attacked (with devastating spike damage). I should mention that by this point Wiggy had only 1 healing surge left, so being cut off from the group and flanked by a gargoyle and an air elemental was a bad spot to be in. He ended up using that last surge during the fight, but managed to escape falling unconscious with 0 surges left by the skin of his teeth. The encounter taxed the party's resources (almost all remaining Dailies were used, and everyone used an action point), and they were desperately in need of an extended rest. Note that they hadn't used any dailies prior to this encounter, so while they had the means to really give it their all, they probably would have been in better shape if they'd used dailies in the previous 2 encounters.

The False Castle

As Tavar investigated the castle after clearing the moat, he was discouraged to learn that it had no doors! Sophia walked up, instantly recognizing it was an illusion. The party simply walked through the illusory castle wall and saw a small cabin. They were welcomed to the cabin by a horrible stench, which they soon found out was its owner who had been dead for months. Tavar's heal check revealed the cause of death to be a stab wound to the back. The party searched the room, finding an assortment of magic items (several different potions, a Silent Crowbar, a Deepfarer's Pouch, and a Bag of Holding, among other things). They learned that the deceased owner was clearly a Wizard (big surprise, given the castle illusion), and they also discovered a trapdoor in the kitchen. After smelling an even more horrible stench upon opening it, the party decided to fetch the NPCs and camp outside the cabin but within the confines of the illusory castle walls. Feeling refreshed after the extended rest, the party then went back into the cabin to explore the trapdoor. They discovered a room that contained 1) a dead Shadar-kai assassin, 2) a teleportation circle, 3) a broken line of residuum that had apparently acted as an arcane barrier before the Shadar-kai disturbed it, 4) a huge, rotting pile of strange meat, and 5) a Hellghost Dark Drake (Monster Vault 2) eating said meat pile. The drake immediately attacked the party. In round 2 a (the?) Dark Drake of the Moon Hills appeared in the hallway behind the party (the drake has the ability to gain insubstantial/phasing, after which it becomes invisible). While the Hellghost Drake was quickly dispatched, the Dark Drake proved problematic. I played the creature as it would reasonably act, using its ability to become invisible every other round and following it up with a devastating attack on the weakest-looking PCs. Soon everyone was bloodied (including the Drake), and healing was completely gone. I believe Sophia was down, and one more attack would easily bring either Wiggy or Tavar down (possibly killing them outright if I rolled well). With the drake down to its last HP, however, I simply had it flee through the door ahead. Tavar and Wiggy revived Sophia, but with the threat of an invisible opponent lurking ahead Wiggy decided to pursue the beast instead of letting it flee. It was secretly waiting on the other side of the door with a readied action, and fortunately I rolled poorly or Wiggy could have been in very big trouble. Seeing that Sophia was now back up (and attacking it), the Drake decided to phase through the wall outside of the cabin. Fairly sure they were safe (and unable to pursue the drake through walls even if they weren't) they searched the room. They found a significant haul of residuum, a book of teleportation circle destinations, and a ring on the Shadar-kai that depicted a wilted rose and was adorned with onyx gems. This seemed to be the symbol of some type of organization, though the PCs didn't recognize it. Seeing as this was a good stopping point, we ended the session here.

Closing Thoughts

I'd never used lurkers much before this, and I think I used them too much in this session. This was partially due to the improved monster design which made lurkers seem so much cooler. The young bulette, the gargoyles, and the dark drake were all lurkers, and these were all consistently the most problematic enemies for the PCs. The biggest problem was that I tended to roll critical hits with these guys, and given their extremely high damage dice the PCs were regularly at risk of dying. The first encounter with the goblin ambush was already won when the bulette snatched Bruce Wyllis up before fleeing with a full belly. I didn't intend to kill a PC here, and honestly I really didn't think it was all that likely! I was simply trying to put pressure on them by draining their surges, adding an element of desperation to the rest of the journey.

I like the tactical possibilities that lurkers present - you really need to prioritize them during the rounds that they're vulnerable because their spike damage is so high. I also like the suspense that they generate when they aren't yet taken out, because the PCs all know that they're going to appear out of nowhere in another round and deal some really hefty damage. Perhaps this group is a little too inexperienced to make full use of all of the tactical possibilities. Perhaps the party simply isn't optimal (2 relatively low-damage strikers and no controller). Or maybe it was just dumb luck. I really have been critting a lot during the last 2 sessions (which is funny, because I never seem to crit as a player and I'm using the same gorram dice!). I honestly didn't have these problems when I playtested the encounters (with the Wizard and Panther Shaman that I'll be using in this campaign, as well as a Warforged Fighter and Eladrin Brutal Scoundrel Rogue). I think at the very least I should use lurkers more sparingly. I devised (and playtested) these encounters at different times, and I didn't realize how similar they were to each other (in their lurker-heaviness) until playing them consecutively!

Thursday, August 25, 2011

Delivery: The Emerald Iron Scepter (session 1)

So it's my turn to DM, and this session took place last week. The naming convention for our adventures specify the general task followed by a specific detail, so it should come as no surprise that the PCs will be delivering an ancient heirloom called the Emerald Iron Scepter. They're en route to the kingdom of Ostengard, where they are tasked with delivering the long-lost scepter to its true heir, king Norvi (Dwarf). Because it's been so long since we've played, most of this "session" involved leveling up characters, players re-acquainting themselves with character details, and in one case searching for lost character sheets which weren't found, so an older character had to be brought into the fold.

The cast of characters for this adventure are as follows:

  1. Myril Wiggins - Gnome Wild Sorcerer. I've taken to calling him Wiggy (Gnomes need a silly nickname, right?)
  2. Brucarius "Bruce" Wyllis - Human Sword and Board Fighter. Big. Bald. Bad.
  3. Sophie - Half Elf Valorous Bard, filling the critical leader role
  4. Tavar - Deva Avenger (I believe he has Censure of Retribution...this was the last minute character)
Because so much time was spent on character stuff, the group only got through 1 encounter. I opened the scene with the entire party on an airship (a zeppelin-like craft kept aloft half with technology and half with magic), on their way to Ostengard. The cabin contained 4 large fixed tables, and several NPCs. As soon as I finished describing the scene, I had 2 large cannonballs burst through the cabin, exiting the other side. This resulted in powerful streams of wind that slid characters who entered or started their turn in its path. A mix of goblins and hobgoblins immediately swarmed in, with most NPCs ducking under the tables as noncombatants (the only other warriors on board were a human standing near the opening when the cannonball came through and presumably thrown out of the ship, and a Dwarf who took on some of the goblins). A hobgoblin commander and a bugbear set up shop near the door to the cockpit, and stood guard, only attacking when a PC came too close.

The PCs were at the rear of the ship, and started attacking foes that were closest to them. In round 2 I had another wave scramble into the cabin, and a noise coming from behind the door revealed that the cockpit too had been breached by a cannonball, and goblins were likely flooding into it as well. In the 3rd round the final wave of goblins showed up, and the PCs were mostly trying to clear the cabin of enemies. I'd expected them to prioritize the guards at the door, but you really can't ever predict player behavior, can you? After the 4th round the party heard a scream coming from behind the door (the goblins killing the pilot). After round 5 another scream (the co-pilot's death). After 6 rounds they finally made it through the door (after defeating every last foe), only to find goblins swinging out of the hole on ropes, their jobs complete. The PCs all tried to aid the Avenger in landing the ship as safely as possible. Its balloon had been slashed open during the attack, so it had been losing altitude the entire time (I also forgot to mention that this resulted in quite a bit of turbulence, which caused chairs to hit random combatants during the fight, damaging them and knocking them prone. Ironically, the dice chose to mostly hit the character that thrives on randomness, the Wild Sorcerer). During the descent, the PCs saw the goblin ship also descending (unharmed), landing several miles ahead of the crash (presumably in a clearing somewhere, as the land is heavily forested). Everyone tended to their injuries (and the injuries of the NPCs), and it was decided that the NPCs would accompany the PCs as they headed toward the goblin airship in an attempt to commandeer it and get to Ostengard. The PCs pilfered their ships navigational map and compass, so they have a good idea of which direction they're heading in.

Red Frogs progress update (quick summary of Investigation: The Black Powder)

Wow, I've been really bad at updating this blog! That's partially because our group had a 3 1/2 month hiatus due to me working out of state, but we're back now, and we have an official name!

Just as a reminder, currently our group is rotating DMs because I have the most experience, and 2 of the other players want to get more experience DMing. Thus, our characters are all part of a mercenary guild called the Red Frogs, and each DM does a single adventure, with all characters leveling after each adventure. Because it's a small group, players usually control 2 characters each, and these can be rotated out between adventures.

Before our hiatus the second new DM tried his hand at DMing, and his adventure was actually really well-constructed and he ran it fairly smoothly. Basically the campaign was a Law and Order style investigation where a dockworker who was a member of a small criminal organization was intercepting small amounts of black powder from shipments that were coming into town. He'd been storing the black powder in the sewers below the town hall, where the party defeated him before he was able to cause any damage. My memory of the details of fuzzy (it was several months ago, after all!) so that summary will have to suffice.

The strong point of the adventure was definitely the engaging "investigation" plot. We began with very little information but just a few leads, and clues and hits were appropriately doled out. We (the PCs) probably played things out a bit more cautiously than most groups, but that was part of the fun. We wanted to get as much information as possible before acting, and I think that lends itself well to this style of adventure (if the players are willing to go along with it!).

If there was one criticism of the new DM's adventure, it's that encounters were slightly easy and somewhat repetitive. This player had DMed 3rd edition, and 4e requires a bit more boldness in encounter design, I think. Of course you can make the argument that quick, easier encounters allowed us to focus more on the plot, so it's not like it detracted much for the experience. He might have also been trying to play it safe after the first new DM's adventure, which resulted in a TPK (see recaps for session 1 and session 2).

The cast for that adventure was as follows:

  1. Lyra Cinderfield - a Human Wizard, control focus with strong blaster secondary, Staff of Defense class feature (one of my characters).
  2. Thorfin Gelgithar - Dwarf spring Sentinel with Fire Hawk as an at-will and a Shaman M/C. Very competent healing for that level (my other character).
  3. Meryl Wiggins - Gnome Wild Sorcerer
  4. Brucarius "Bruce" Wyllis - Needs no introduction :) But he's a human sword and board Fighter.