A Case for Half-Standard Monsters

In 4e, instead of the concept of bounded accuracy, we have monster group roles:  Minion, Standard, Elite and Solo.  Monsters can be rebuilt to fit different group roles so that they are appropriate challenges for different level of PC.

To give you a feel for relative power level:
  • A first level solo monster is worth 500 XPs, or the equivalent of five 1st level standard monsters, and is considered to be an at-level challenge for five 1st level PCs.
  • A sixth level elite monster is worth 500 XPs, or the equivalent of two 6th level standard monsters.  Two of them would be an at-level challenge for four 6th level PCs.
  • A tenth level standard monster is worth 500 XPs.  Four of them would be an at-level challenge for four 10th level PCs.
  • An eighteenth level minion monster is worth 500 XPs.  Four of them are the equivalent of a single 18th level standard monster.  Sixteen of them would be an at-level challenge for four 18th level PCs.

This pattern repeats regardless of the level of the solo monster, so any solo monster of level n is worth the same experience as an elite of level n+5, a standard of level n+9, or a minion of level n+17.

It is relatively easy to alter creatures to change their group role, so one could imagine a campaign where a party encounters a single young white dragon at 3rd level, two of them at 8th level, four or five of them at 12th level, and 16-20 of them at 20th level.  And the same progression can be used for NPCs.

But what would they encounter at 16th level?

Combat Math

The reason it is important to be able to rebuild monsters this way is the combat encounter math breaks down if the level of the monster is too divergent from the party level.  For an unoptimized party (which is probably most casual players), on average, an nth level character will hit an nth level monster more or less 60% of the time and be hit 55% of the time.

By contrast, and nth level character will hit an n+4 level monster 40% of the time and be hit 75% of the time, which can frustrate the players.  And if the monster is updated to Monster Manual 3 era math, that monster is going to be hitting pretty hard.  On the other hand, the character can hit a level n-4 monster 80% of the time, and will be hit 35% of the time.  That is not much of a challenge for the players, and may be frustrating for DMs who care about that kind of thing (I am not one of those DMs).

It really boils down to the fact that using monsters that are more than 4 levels different from the party level makes it hard to estimate encounter difficulty, and removes a very useful tool from the 4e DM’s toolbox.  So if you want to adapt a minion to challenge a party 4 levels lower than it, or adapt a standard creature to challenge a party four levels higher than it, you really need to have a creature with a group role halfway between a minion and a standard monster.  I call them half-standard monsters.

Flexibility in Encounter Placement

In addition to cleaning up the combat math, half-standard monsters allow the DM to design combat encounters to accommodate a larger range of levels of PC parties.

According to page 285 of the Rules Compendium, a level appropriate encounter rages from level n-2 to level n+4.  Individual monsters in the encounter may range from level n-5 to level n+7 .  You can in theory include monsters within that range, but (a) as discussed above, it is so easy to rebuild monsters to be closer to party level that I don’t know why you wouldn’t, and (b) the narrower the level ranges of the monsters in an encounter, the larger the level range of parties for which the encounter is appropriate.

To illustrate the second point, take a level 6 party attempting a level 6 combat encounter. According to the RC, that encounter could include level 1 monsters and level 13 monsters.  But if it in fact included level 1 and level 13 monsters, the only party for which the encounter would be level appropriate is a 6th level party.  Because the level 1 monsters are too low for a level 7 party, and the level 13 monsters are too high for a level 5 party.

If, however, the level 6 encounter included only level 6 monsters, then primary constraint would be encounter level, and it would be level appropriate for parties of 2nd to 8th level.  If you add half-standard monsters to your roster, you should always be able to build your monsters within a sufficiently narrow level band that the most important constraint is the encounter level.  Ideally, an encounter of level n should be appropriate for parties of levels n-4 to n+2, which means you want to use monsters of level n-3 to n+3 (there are reasons why you might want to always keep monster level lower than encounter level, that that is for another post).  That should always be achievable if you add half-standard monsters to your roster.

You may ask, why should you care about broadening the range of party levels that an encounter can accommodate?  Aren’t 4e adventures built with a particular party level in mind?  Well yes, that is true of 4e adventures, but the consequence of that type of design is that it favours the DM choosing when a party has a particular encounter; whereas if the party range is wide, the party can choose when it wants to have the encounter.

Imagine you built a sandbox area in a relatively safe, well-patrolled area with three dungeons.  The party is 1st level, and among the three dungeons there is enough experience available to raise the party three levels.  All of the dungeons feature encounters from levels 1-5, with monsters of levels 1-4.  The party can choose to take on the dungeons in any order, and the encounters and treasure will always be level appropriate.

Now imagine there is a swamp nearby with a dungeon in it.  Players instinctively know that areas like swamps and forests are more dangerous than civilized areas, so the encounters in the swamp and the swamp dungeon range from level 1-7, with monsters of level 1-6.  As the party rises in level it can choose to adventure in the more dangerous area, with commensurately  greater rewards in treasure and experience.  That is how you can truly give players agency, by allowing them to decide just how much risk they want to take and when.

Too-Weak Humanoids

A third reason I like the concept of a half-standard monster is a matter of my own personal preference.   The default level designation for an untrained but relatively healthy and active human is a second level minion, like Human Rabble or Human Goons.  Which means that out of the gate, a first level PC can handle three of four of them, and a party of five can handle twenty.

While there is some appeal to a character like Conan, trained an hardened by his experiences, mowing down fields of low-level enemies, I feel like that is something that must be earned.  A two-to-one ratio of ordinary folk to freshly trained but inexperienced PCs is about all I can manage.

Humanoid minions are also too weak in comparison to other monsters.  There really isn’t much weaker than a level 2 minion like Human Rabble.  In the three Monster Manuals and the Monster Vault combined there are only seven level 1 minions, of which three are humanoids.  The balance are an Ankheg Broodling, a Decrepit Skeleton, a Giant Rat and a type of giant ant called a Hive Worker.  That’s right, in 4e the average human with a club or a dagger is barely tougher than a rat “the size of a small dog—better than 3 feet long, including its long, scabby tail”, and could be taken out by it if he loses initiative.

As a result, I generally take low level humanoid minions and upgrade them to a half-standard creature of the same level, and use fewer of them for the encounter.  My untrained peasant Human Rabble would therefore be a second level half-standard brute.

So What is a Half-Standard Monster

I have seen several variations on monsters built to fit this slot, primarily the “two-hit minion”, which I have never liked.  Here is what I do.

  1. Make it worth half the experience of a standard creature of the same level.
  2. Give it half the hit points of a standard creature of the same level.
  3. Give it fewer powers and traits than a standard creature but more than a minion.
  4. Make it do 75% of the damage of a standard creature of the same level. 

That’s all there is to it.  It has been working well for me, but I would be interested in the results if anyone else chose to experiment with it.


Common Problems in 4e D&D Adventures

I’m getting ready to start reviewing the adventures published in Dungeon magazine during the 4e period.  Generally, they follow the same format and have the same problems.  Rather than engaging in repetitive lengthy reviews which explain the faults in detail every time, I thought I would call out the common problems here so that I can call them out in shorthand later.

I will probably add to this list as I go along.

Overuse of Combat Encounters:  Grognards like to complain about the duration of combat in 4e, but the real reason it feels like a grind is the frequency.  Using Moldvay dungeon stocking, there was a 33% chance of a room containing a monster in Basic DnD.  Appendix A of the first edition Dungeon Master’s Guide gives a 25% chance.  I would estimate that with 4e adventures the chances are about 100% for a delve or side-trek, and 80% for a bigger adventure, with the balance being skill challenges and the odd “role-play” encounter.  In early-edition DnD you could often trick, avoid or talk to the monsters, but in published 4e adventures they invariably spot you, attack, and fight to the death.

Combat is a big deal in 4e; it would be a bigger deal if it was rarer.

Using Skill Challenges for Uninteresting Game Elements:  If a task is inherently uninteresting, it does not become more interesting by dragging it out with a bunch of die-rolling.  Skill Challenges are frequently used for parts of the game that should just be summarized.  If it would be a montage in a movie, it should not be a skill challenge in the game.

Using Skill Challenges in Place of Interesting Game Elements:  If a game element is inherently interesting, it should not be abstracted by a skill challenge.  You can identify these when the SC actually eludes to interesting challenges in the Skill descriptions.  For example, in a travel montage which includes an Athletics check to signify “crossing a river or scaling a cliff”, it would be more interesting to put a river or a cliff in front of the party and see how they handle it.

You might ask, if you should not use Skill Challenges for uninteresting encounters, and you should not use Skill Challenges for interesting encounters, when should you use Skill Challenges?  The answer is rarely, and only in situations where you expect that the resolution of an encounter will require at least four successful skill checks, and where the players have real choices about their approach that can have an impact on the outcome.

Do not add checks just to turn an encounter into a Skill Challenge, and do not use them where “alternate approaches” are limited to choosing different skills.  This probably requires some explanation, which I will try to get to in a future article, but an example would be during a combat encounter, when there is a real choice between the resources you apply to fighting team monster and the resources you apply to disarming a trap or closing a portal.

Linear Dungeons:  Not necessarily in a straight line, although those happen.  I am talking about dungeons where the party either has no choice about where to go, or the choices effectively don’t matter.  If it is a fait accompli that you will explore each branch of an intersection (which it usually is), and the order in which you explore them doesn’t matter, then there is only the illusion of choice.

Contrast this with a dungeon with loops and changes in level that may allow the party to skip sections with a poor risk-reward ratio, or to approach a given room from different directions or different angles or different amounts of cover, or that have discoveries in some areas that will help in others if you choose them in the right order, and you should see the difference.  Bonus points if you include some small clue to let the party know that their choices will made a difference.

The Alexandrian has a decent series of articles relating to this issue which you can find here.

Linear Plots:  At least the constraints in linear dungeons are logical because, you know, walls.   Worse than that are adventure-writer plots that take place in the wide world, supposedly unconstrained by any physical barriers, and yet force the party to experience one location or event after another, irrespective of any player choices.  The problem is exacerbated by a lack of overview maps and NPC rosters, because there is no support to the DM for situations where the party decides to do something else.

The Alexandrian also had articles for addressing these issues which begin here.

Lack of Transitional Devices:  Its bad enough that the plot is linear, but could you at least tell me how to get from one mandatory scene to the next?  Sometimes this is a problem of dividing information between the summary and the tactical detail pages, but much of the time there are no transitional elements at all.  You have a combat encounter at a location.  And then you are at another location, where monsters attack you and fight to the death.  The problem is even worse when it occurs in the rare adventure that is not linear; how do your players know where to go if you can’t describe their options?  Note that a decent overview map can work as a transitional device.

Lack of Overview Maps:  I have alluded to this already with respect to problems with linearity, but it also arises in the few adventures where there are choices as to where to go next.  The GM has no framework that helps him to place the scenes or locations in relation to each other, or to help him adlib if the players choose a different direction.  Even if there is no map per se, a flowchart of areas or scenes showing what choices lead to each would be very helpful.

Well, here I am…

I’ve been thinking about this for a while.  I read a lot of tabletop RPG blogs, mainly D&D based, a lot of them in the OSR, and comment from time to time, as a way of connecting to a game I no longer have time to play with any frequency.  Those are often difficult discussions; I think I come from a different place than a lot of TTRPG bloggers, and I sometimes feel like a voice in the wilderness.

I needed a place to fully express my opinions without filling out some guy’s comments section, and to do so on a timetable of my own choosing.  There are not a lot of people who prefer the fourth edition D&D combat engine to play a pre-Hickman style of D&D.  I don’t know if anyone out there shares my opinions.  I guess we will see.

I’m not entirely sure what I am going to do with the blog, but I expect there will be at least some discussion of how 4e mechanics can be used for an old school game, and how the young’uns can learn a thing or two from the OSR, even if it tends to be curmudgeonly.

I may also pick up where Bryce Lynch left off over at tenfootpole.org.  Bryce wrote reviews of the adventures in the print issues of Dungeon magazine – that is, the first 150 issues.  I might pick it up with issue 155, the first 4e issue.  I don’t know how far I will get, but for the time being, reviewing published 4e adventures will be a good way to illustrate my thoughts on kickin’ 4e old school.