The D&D Boss Fight (Part 1)

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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.

22 thoughts on “The D&D Boss Fight (Part 1)

  1. A defender’s mark should never, ever, discourage a solo from doing what it wants. The same goes for opportunity attacks. Moving and attacking with impunity addresses the problem of static fights.

    The fighter might find the solo’s damage low, but it might really hurt the controller or striker.

    If the players are smart and spread their encounter powers out, then not everything cool is happening at the beginning.

    If you want to have a “solo” encounter, but you need a way to diminish the effects of conditions, add a trap or a skill challenge that engages the players and uses up some of their actions. Such obstacles usually can’t be affected by conditions. The obstacles could themselves also confer on the solo some immunity to certain conditions

    I’ll grant you 1, 2, and 6.

    • It’s not about the defender’s mark discouraging the solo; it’s that a Fighter can mark the solo, and then prevent the solo from ever moving as long as the Fighter can score a hit on an OA.

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  3. @pdunwin I cannot agree that defender marks and opportunity attacks should never discourage a solo from acting because this is too close to saying “a solo should always ignore a defender mark.” Nothing should absolutely always ignore a defender mark. While the extra damage and other effects that trigger on a mark are helpful, especially against a beastie with a lot of HP, the purpose of the mark is to protect other party members. Ignoring it too often diminsihes the defender role in the party.

    As for players spreading out their encounter powers, I wouldn’t expect them to. It is smart to open with your best abilities and unload as much as you can before the monster has time to react. The fact is that there isn’t an incentive to spread things out unless the encounter creates them.

    I will admit that adding traps or skill challenges is an option, but it is no different than adding monsters. That is why they are worth experience points on par with monsters. The assumption in solo design is that a solo can be a complete encounter by itself. Obviously, that doesn’t always play out. One solution is indeed to never use a solo by itself. But I am trying to fix the problem rather than work around it.

  4. Ah, excellent, excellent. I’ve been spouting about solos, OAs, and marks for sometime and haven’t been able to tell if people are taking the point seriously. So, thanks for responding to it.

    I think my specific wording is important. I said those rules should never “discourage a solo from doing what it wants”. This does not mean that it should “always” ignore a mark, or “always” provoke an OA, but that if someone is causing trouble for the solo they should not expect the fighter’s mark or the characters between him and the solo to slow it down. Considerations of solo mechanics aside, if the solo wants to attack the wizard, it can, it should, and it will.

    This does not diminish the defender role in the slightest, even if you never heed the mark. For one thing, the defender’s ally is still protected with what amounts to a +2 to all its defenses. This can’t usually be diminished, and some things can increase it. If the defender is dealing damage (and bear in mind that not all do, or have to) then he’s still defending his allies by ending the fight sooner.

    You say you wouldn’t expect the players to spread out their encounter powers. I agree. But one of the points you make above is “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.” If the expectation is that they won’t spread their powers out, then the monster won’t necessarily be laboring for the entire encounter. If they expectation is that they WILL spread them out, then you have less of a grind.

    A lot of the problem with solos, defenders, and skill challenges is that people get hung up on definitions. A solo should be solo. A defender’s not defending if his allies are being attacked. A skill challenge must always use skills and must always be challenging. We all have to ease up on our usual geek reflex (and I do it too) of expecting things to work exactly as they’re named instead of working how they work. A solo works by not allowing itself to be locked down (if possible, and for many of them it is) and by surrounding itself with distractions for its enemies. This isn’t a work around, it’s how they work.

    As for skill challenges and traps, they’re not entirely like monsters. You can have a skill challenge that’s far below the level of the party that gives the monster immunity to stun. It’s trivial to deal with the challenge – ooh, except that it takes a standard action for every one of the 4-12 successes needed. So, for a niggling bit of additional experience, you can greatly complicate a solo encounter. To be honest, I’m not sure any of the premade traps would really work at a low level, since the attack rolls wouldn’t mean much to the players. Still you could have something that, say, causes the terrain to shift on the other side of the battlefield when they move into the wrong square. The trap would be obvious to their passive Perceptions, but they might not have time to deal with it, or would have to restrict their own movement to keep from disrupting their allies. Heck, look at doomspore: even if the damage is meaningless, a solo who can take advantage of the concealment would get a lot out of them.

    And while I’m at it, a word about terrain. The solo should always have advantageous terrain if it’s attacked on its home turf. This could just mean Circles of Power that it runs to, but it could mean almost anything else. Terrain types aren’t listed in the Compendium, but I think one could come up with terrain, or a combination of terrain that would make the fight more dynamic, reduce the effects of conditions, have cool stuff happen throughout the fight (think: destroyable terrain), and give a sense of progress (think: rock that explodes when exposed to dragonsblood). And all without impinging on your XP budget or sense of “solo-ness” one whit.

  5. @pdunwin I don’t disagree with anything you’ve said here, though I admit to jumping to the conclusion about ‘always avoiding the mark,’ but only because it’s a common sentiment.

    I am going to disagree with the idea that skill challenges and traps are how solos work as written. And this, to me, is the important distinction. Currently, you are correct that solos work best when combined with traps, skill challenges, hazards, and even other monsters. But this is something that DMs have discovered; it is not how they are sold in the books. And, unfortunately, many amateur DMs will get hung up on the terminology and feel that a solo monster should actually be able to be the only thing in the room. Likewise, I do not deny the importance of terrain in any encounter.

    But, what I notice is that you are saying that you should use terrain, skill challenges, traps, and other elements to make the encounter more dynamic, tactics to protect the solo from the party and give them an incentive to spread out their abilities, and so on. These are actually the exact things I am trying to do. I’m just trying to provide a more systematic approach.

    Ultimately though, my observations have come from a combination of my own play experiences and listening to many other DMs and players relate theirs. Whether solos are broken or not as written, the fact that you can readily identify some excellent ways to improve solo fights means that there is room for improvement. And that is what I am trying to do. I wonder if you have read the second part of this, because your excellent suggestions about incoporating other elements into the encounter are some of the possibilities that I was trying to open up.

    Either way, thank you for all of your great feedback.

  6. Hmm, last session I ran a few weeks ago had a solo (Dungeon Delve lvl 8, 3rd encounter, black dragon). The changes one can make doesn’t have to be drastic for there to be an improvement.

    The encounter had a MM1 dragon fight in a sewer. Very static. I halved the hp, added a base die and an extra d4 to damage rolls, and had 4 ‘shadow tornadoes’. Standing in a tornado square made attacks vuln 10 but earned the character vuln 10 damage. Didn’t tell them that at the end of the round characters in the tornado could be slid 5 sqaures.

    A very simple alteration, going through the 6 points:

    1. Most Solos Do Not Act Often Enough
    At the end of every round, I could either slide characters around or place a vuln affliction on them. True it wasn’t the solo directly acting more often, but there were more interesting things going on.

    2. Solos Lump Most Of Their Actions Together
    Again, free forced movement or controller-like afflictions. If I wanted, once blooded the solo could have made the spouts simply deal d8 + 4 and 5 ongoing acid damage to any character who started their turn in the sqaure and removed the vuln toggles.

    3. Solo Fights Are Static
    The players thought the risk/reward option was great. They murmured, “I thought that would happen” when I first moved those in the tornados. They really started to consider the benifits when I moved them all in a clump and dragon breathed.

    Even thought the fight was in an 8×8 room, every turn the layout was different. One point everyone is spread out, the next all grouped up, the next two clumps, I kept them on their toes, and they kept me on their toes.

    4. Solos Are Disproportionately Affected By Conditions
    Somewhat. Had a psion in the group who had mastered the ability to prone npcs. The dragon spent a good time standing up. But being able to move the risktaking pcs around offset this: the solo gained what amounted to extra movement by forcing movement on the pcs.

    5. Everything Cool Happens At The Beginning
    The true nature of the tornados took about 4 rounds to realize. First, they appear. Then they are risk/reward platforms. Then they force movement. Then, oh crap they forced us into a bad situation.

    6. There Is No Sense Of Progress
    This wasn’t addressed at all, it was just a normal tank and spank with shiny shadow vortexes.

    So yeah, I don’t think much is needed to start addressing these points, even a small touch can go a long way into polishing the rough edges of solos.

  7. I’ve been playing a 4th edition game for about 8 months now, and looking back, I agree 100% with this. The fights the felt the most drawn out were the solo battles. They were really terrible! We all felt so drained after getting through them. I’ve now started a campaign of my own and I’m definitely going to look into the next bit of advice from you before prepping any solo encounters. Thanks.

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  15. Hey i was actually designing my Campaigns final boss while i was reading this and it occured to me with the very awesome god of was parallel that maybe solos should have multiple bloodied values, where in each tier they lose something thus making a sense of progress seem more apparent, and heck maybe a immediate standard action after a PC hits, (make it an aura?) so that way they gain more actions It’s actually my first time DMing, so not exactly an expert on all this,but i figure throwing my buck o five could help.

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  18. Curious, do you think 5e has solved this issue (it’s definetly improved on it). I haven’t played with it enougth to decide yet. Though I have a boss fight coming up soon.

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