Thursday, October 20, 2011

Leveling Up Monsters

In Chris Perkins' latest article (the same article that I linked to in my last post on NPCs) he mentions that the stat block for one of his NPCs is a level 9 Succubus leveled up to 25.  Now, the DMG specifically warns against leveling monsters up or down more than a few levels from the base stat block.  Though I'd never thought about this before reading about Chris' over-leveled Succubus, I think this is an example of the DMG being too conservative rather than Chris doing something crazy and unconventional.

Because the math for monster scaling is so simple and transparent in 4e all of the basic numbers (defenses, HP, attack bonuses, and damage) will add up with no problems.  That's part of why customizing monsters is so easy and painless in this edition (cuts down on prep time, too!).  So what's the problem perceived by the DMG authors?  Most likely, it's status effects and riders that are tacked onto powers, or other traits such as auras, conditional damage, and off-action attacks (or number of attacks).  Not surprisingly, monsters get more dangerous at higher levels than their raw base stats can account for, which makes sense because players get more access to feats, items, powers, and paragon path/epic destiny features.  Leveling an Epic monster down for Heroic PCs would make for a disproportionately challenging encounter (possibly impossible in some cases), and leveling a Heroic monster up to Epic might make for a cakewalk. 

For example, lets look at the Efreet Flamestrider, a level 23 Skirmisher.  I picked this guy at "random" since he was the highest level standard monster in the MV.  He has an aura that multiplies ongoing fire damage, a MBA that inflicts ongoing fire damage on a hit, and an at-will ranged attack that both immobilizes and deals ongoing fire damage (save ends both).  And of course there's the at-will 20 square teleport (even if it does require fire, which any DM will build into the encounter while using this creature).  Even leveled down, Heroic characters don't have enough ways to trigger saving throws to easily counter his ongoing damage and immobilization (and teleports will be much more rare as well).  Their healing ability is also more limited, so PCs within the aura can easily find themselves overwhelmed by raw damage.  Finally, Heroic PCs will be more dependent on status effects like immobilized, slowed and restrained because they probably won't yet have wide access to dominates, stuns, and blinds, meaning that the efreet's teleport makes him very tough to hinder.  Likewise, a level 1 Goblin Cutthroat with just straight damage and some minor shifting tricks won't be much of a problem for Epic tier PCs.

After pointing out the problems of over-leveling, I'm still not going to advise against doing it, at least assuming you're reasonably familiar with the system.  The thing is, after pointing out the problems with the efreet simple common sense (and possibly a quick comparison with the Goblin Cutthroat) can inform which further changes must be made.  It's clearly too powerful when leveled down without further adjustments, but what if we made the following changes on the fly:
  • The ranged attack becomes a recharge or encounter power so it can't constantly immobilize PCs.
  • The teleport becomes an encounter power so it can't constantly escape the common status effects and re-position itself.
  • Either get rid of the aura, or get rid of the ongoing damage with the MBA.  Specifically, either have ongoing 5 damage and no aura, or have no inherent ongoing damage with the attack but have the aura inflict ongoing 5 damage if a creature is hit with a fire attack.  These 2 methods look identical, but keep in mind that with the latter option a ranged fire attack from a second monster can gain ongoing damage against PCs in an efreet's aura.  
BAM!  Your Efreet is now ready for Heroic tier play.  Similarly, you can level a Goblin Cutthroat up to epic and give him additional abilities based on a quick glance at several other epic creatures.  You can even just make stuff up pretty easily thanks to 4e's concise list of status effects; call his blade poisoned and have it inflict ongoing poison damage and possibly another status effect (blind and weakened seem thematically appropriate for poison).  Maybe give him an encounter or recharge power that stuns.  Rogues get to do stuff like that at higher levels, so it's not too big a stretch.

So now that I've demonstrated that you can level monsters across the entire spectrum of levels for just a little bit more work than with a more narrow level range, why should you?  It's mostly a matter of personal taste.  Do you want a specific monster for your adventure?  Use it regardless of its base level!  What if an off-level monster has a set of abilities that you really want to use for something else?  Level it down/up and re-flavor it, or tack its abilities onto an appropriate-level monster.  Are your PCs sick of fighting the same orcs over and over again?  Find a different monster with some interesting mechanics, level it as appropriate, and call it an orc!  Or, simply modify the existing orcs by giving them different abilities.  One of the great strengths of 4e is its modularity.  It's not only possible to mix and match elements from different monsters and different levels, but it's fairly easy as well!  So when you plan encounters, don't necessarily limit yourself to the pool of monsters in a given level range; branch out for more ideas and give the players something unexpected (especially important if your players also DM, and thus have access to the same monsters that you do).

Fleshing Out NPCs

Chris Perkins says it better than I could, in his new article on 3D NPCs.  I would love to play in one of his campaigns!  Anyways, I'd highly suggest anyone who DMs read this article.

In particular, I'd like to highlight the parallel between an ongoing D&D campaign and a serialized TV show.  Obviously with the PCs being the main characters a lot of the complex relationships will grow organically as the players interact amongst each other, thus making the comparison a lot less daunting for DMs!  However, DMs still must think about this since the PCs aren't the only people populating the campaign world.  Each "adventure" should feature at least a few fleshed out NPCs (more than just background NPCs, like the random shopkeeper or barmaid), and you should have a vague idea of these characters' personalities, motivations, and backstories.  This obviously doesn't need to be too in-depth, but at least summarize each of these 3 traits in a sentence or 2.  It doesn't have to be elaborate either; most NPCs are much more mundane than the Heroes! 

For example, let's look at one of the main NPCs from my Talamhlar campaign, Gaknar (this campaign ended prematurely when I moved away for a seasonal job, and due to the months that passed before I came home we just never resumed it).  To re-cap, that campaign started with the PCs captured in a castle, regaining consciousness with the place in chaos.  A group of mages were doing various arcane experiments in the castle, including the creation of super-soldiers.  Not surprisingly, the mages lost control of the super-soldiers, were largely massacred, and the magical containment was broken, freeing the PCs.  In the room their was also a goblin named Gaknar, and he promised to show the PCs to where their equipment was and how to get out of the castle if they freed him (he'd been a servant for the mages).  He accompanied the PCs throughout the campaign, becoming a valued member of the party (well, most of the PCs liked him).  There were a few times where he acted somewhat suspiciously and was caught lying, and so was never 100% trusted.  He even disappeared "on business" once, refusing to tell the PCs what the business was.  So what was the deal with Gaknar, and what ideas did I have floating around in my head for him?
  • Backstory:  Gaknar was a runt in his tribe, always picked on for it, and some semblance of a conscience (moreso than most goblins, anyways) didn't help matters.  During a raid he left his tribe, but finding it difficult to fend for himself ended up working for the mages.
  • Personality:  Sycophantic, and has quirky ways of showing affection.  Sly and sneaky like most goblins, but with a greater sense of loyalty.
  • Motivations/Secret:  On his errands away from the mage's castle, Gaknar began to see what life was like in the civilized worlds.  He became a spy for someone in the nearby town of Marblemount, helping to gather info on the mages to help shut them down.
Gaknar's secret never got a chance to be revealed in-game, and in fact I hadn't even fleshed out who he would be working for in Marblemount, what their exact goal was, or even whether it was a single person or an organization.  I didn't need those details until an opportunity arose for me to incorporate them into the game, and they would ultimately depend on what direction the campaign was headed.  I didn't plan on when that might be, but for things like that you just sort of know when the time is right.  I just really liked the idea of a goblin double-agent traveling with the PCs, who was ostensibly good but with a shadow of doubt.  And that concept came built in with a possible future story hook for later, even if I didn't know what that hook would be.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Holy Statistical Anomolies, Batman!

I'd like to qualify this post by saying that I was bored tonight, and really in the mood for D&D. Given that this wasn't a night that the group is available, that means that I decided to do a random playtest. Feeling particularly ambitious, I decided to transcribe everything that happened in this encounter (which I normally don't do). The PCs are all level 6, and the enemy forces are a 9th level encounter for 4 PCs.

In one corner, we have our PCs (some of which you may recognize from the Red Frogs campaign): Lyra Cinderfield (Human Staff Wizard), Berylis Lindelenon (Elf Panther Shaman), Albanon Izariel (Eladrin Assault Swordmage | Charisma Warlock Hybrid, with focus on teleportation), and Unit 27 (Warforged Weaponmaster Fighter). In the other corner, we have the Raven Roost strike force: 3 Raven Roost Outlaw Veterans, 2 Raven Roost Sharpshooters, and 4 Human Thugs (minions). I used the poster map that came with MV2, specifically the one in the woods near the water, with the small cabin (which is where the PCs started out).

This encounter turned out to be the epitome of an encounter-gone-wrong due to cold dice. Albanon missed a total of 10 times out of 16 attacks, for a hit rate of 38%! Doing a rough calculation assuming Eldritch Strike is used, he should have had a 70% hit rate versus the Sharpshooters, 65% vs the Thugs, and 80% vs the Veterans. But the dice just were not on his side, even with attacks granted by Aegis of Assault and Berylis' Claws of the Eagle. Normally I hit the mark pretty well with these playtests, defeating encounters in 4-6 rounds. This one took EIGHT! Healing Spirit was used both times, and Hearth Spirit was also used (both Lyra and 27 took advantage of the 2nd wind as minor despite poor positioning, all made possible by a strategically placed enlarged Winged Horde). Still, nobody ever fell unconscious so the encounter wasn't too challenging, it was just turned into a grind by all of the missing (specifically on the part of the party striker). Surge expenditure (including post-battle recovering back to full health) was as follows: Lyra used 2 surges, Berylis 1, Albanon 2, and 27 3. For much of the encounter Albanon was in danger (bloodied), and Lyra spent several rounds getting between enemies and him (fortunately she has both Shield and Staff of Defense, both of which negated attacks).

Now, I'll fully admit that cold dice weren't the only factor. I'll usually roll randomly before a playtest to determine which PCs have action points available and what, if any, Daily powers can be used. I didn't do that this time, so 1) nobody had action points, and 2) the only dailies I used were Icy Terrain (from Lyra's wand, which I hadn't used in play yet since picking it up with some leftover cash) and Hearth Spirit (because either Lyra or 27 or both would have gone down if I hadn't). Upon further reflection I also didn't focus fire as well as I should have, and tactics were more focused on action denial than anything (Albanon probably could have gotten more consistent CA if I'd tried harder...though to be fair I usually rely on a combination of Stalker's Strike and Claws of the Eagle for that, but they always kept missing).

Unfortunately, this isn't the first time this has happened. At the start of the Red Frogs campaign (before it was even named) the party was TPK'd in a very close fight; one in which my Hunter (a very accurate class) had an absurd missing spree where I rolled 5 or 6 twos and threes. It doesn't seem like anyone else I play with is quite as prone to such severe bouts of bad luck; perhaps I need to stick with a single d20 and develop some superstitious dice rituals (our player who rolls the most crits notably sticks his dice in his mouth a lot...maybe I'll try that?).

So what's a player to do in such circumstances? Well, aside from picking up the standard accuracy boosters (expertise, accurate implements, +3 weapons) one of my strategies is to favor controllers. The more attack rolls you make, the more likely you are to hit something. Definitely enjoying playing Lyra more than that poor Hunter. I'm also fond of implement users that can be flexible about which defense to target. Lyra does exactly this, with an emphasis on Will, which is just perfect. Auto-damage is also nice. Though Lyra hasn't been struck with a major missing streak yet, I think as I level her I may enchant a Wand of Beguiling Strands (my least-used at-will) and trade out that power for Heroic Effort. For the same reason I tend to favor Elf PCs as well. Interestingly, in this playtest encounter I ended up critting with Spirit Hunt in round 1 thanks to Elven Accuracy (talk about a hard-hitting power to crit with!), though lady luck balanced that out when I rolled a 20 for Charm of Misplaced Wrath and a 2 for the attack that it grants. Yeesh.