Collision of Perfect Spheres

This is the third part of the two-part series on interactions between characters and encounter elements. Having discussed in some length how DMs can design compelling terrain powers and how players can be encouraged to interact with terrain, I now move on to the other significant element of encounters – monsters. Unlike the aforementioned posts, this one won’t be about (what I feel to be) a deficiency in design, but rather about an opportunity that is not being utilised. The whole of 4e is, essentially, about characters interacting with monsters. Yet these interactions are remarkably one-sided, going both ways. Characters do their thing to the monsters while monsters do their thing to the characters until one side, preferably monsters, runs out of hit points.

When it comes to being chopped to bits, the process is fairly homogeneous. Monsters may have certain defences that are lower than others, they may have vulnerabilities or resistances, and that’s about it. Every now and then a monster has special vulnerabilities, like undead whose aura turns off when hit with radiant damage or golems who behave erratically when hit with particular energy type. Those are good, and they are the focus of this post. Most of the time though the monsters don’t get an individual approach as they get thrown into a blender that is adventurers.

A power that works on a goblin will work just as well on a dragon. This leads to a disconnect where characters easily trip and daze dragons, the source of many how-to-make-your-solos-not-suck fixes, and this is something worth thinking about – in a future post, maybe. But this stems from the exact same issue mentioned in the first post, the perfect spherical nature of characters. They have to fight goblins and dragons and stranger things, so they can’t have powers specifically for fighting dragons and powers specifically for fighting goblins. They can’t, but monsters can.

Just as with terrain powers, we want to amplify certain actions of the characters, making them more cinematic and desirable. Consider the following trait a golem could have:

Feet of clay

Whenever the golem falls prone while bloodied, it takes x damage.

A somewhat more complicated example. Consider a dragon with overdeveloped fire glands that grant it an (essentially) at-will breath weapon, that simply flies 5 squares above the party, safely out of reach of most of it, and breathes fire on them and the village they protect.

Fire Glands

While this trait is active, the breath weapon is recharged at the start of each turn. If the dragon takes damage after declaring it is using breath weapon and before the attack is resolved (i.e. because of an immediate interrupt or a readied action), the breath weapon use is cancelled and the action is lost. Fire glands have been punctured and the breath weapon no longer recharges at the start of each turn. This trait also becomes inactive once the dragon is bloodied.

The dragon still has its melee attacks and can go down and express its displeasure towards the attacker. And yes, this is very much a “shoot the boss in the exposed glowing dot as it’s about to attack” trait.

Another example, with a giant spider *ahem* Shelob *ahem*:

Soft Underbelly

While this creature is bloodied and can not make opportunity attacks (i.e. is dazed, stunned or dominated), one enemy may end their movement in its space. If this creature regains the ability to make opportunity attacks while an enemy is within its space, the enemy falls prone and it makes a melee basic attack against that enemy as a free action.

Any melee attacks against it made from within the creature’s space become critical hits. They still have to hit.

This could conceivably happen even before the creature becomes bloodied and dazed, as some of the striker powers allow them to shift, stab and shift again. In that case – cool!

Just like with terrain powers, sometimes the effect is too unique that it deserves its own power, not just an augmentation.

The character who brings the goblin chieftain below 0 hp gains the following trait until the end of the encounter:

He killed da boss, run!

Aura 2 – Fear

Goblins within this aura grant combat advantage. Goblins that started and ended their turn within it are dazed until the end of their next turn.

The final example is from an enemy I’m yet to use in my campaign. The Rotting King is a fomorian ruler who, like any self-respecting fomorian ruler, has been engaged in a vicious war of conquest with neighbouring fey tribes. A few years ago he was struck by the dreaded gae bolga spear, which invariably kills its victim when it is removed from the wound. The spear is still stuck in his festering wound, hence the title.

Mortal Wound Exposed

Once the Rotting King becomes bloodied, the armour shielding the spear shaft is broken. He gains the Tide of Rot aura. Any enemy adjacent to him may use the following power:

Gae Bolga – Standard, Daily, Reliable

To use this power you must have at least one hand empty. This action provokes an opportunity attack form the Rotting King. Make a Hard Athletics check. If you fail, nothing happens. If you succeed, you withdraw the spear and most of the Rotting King’s innards with it. The Rotting King gains the Death’s Promise Fulfilled trait.

Death’s Promise Fulfilled

The Rotting King takes ongoing 30 damage. His Tide of Rot aura’s size and damage increase.

As usual, the more complicated traits are best reserved for Elites or Solos.

In these examples, the characters have the usual option of just wailing on the monsters until they die. But with a monster knowledge check, Perception, Insight or just roleplaying research/observation, they can gain a significant benefit, truly interacting with the monster. This can easily be used as a less arbitrary variant of the combat out, and activating these traits only after the monster becomes bloodied allows us to avoid their premature death.

6 thoughts on “Collision of Perfect Spheres

  1. A very good idea I should say. I saw a lot of solutions to make 4E battle more interactive and fast and this one could be added to any of them. I have my own post in the making about it :), but this one I’m totally stealing :)

  2. I feel a strong kindred spirit of ideas proposed here with all kind of “options” introduced into the combat rules of DnD during its long history. Namely: more criticals with obscure effect, more additional powers to weapons with even more obscure effect, and – worst of all – more monster’s custom augumentation with obscure possibility of its cancellation.

    While not inherently “evil”, these optional rules tend to grow into “novice player meatgrinder” after prolonged usage by selected DM.

    1. I think the key difference here is that none of these are universal rules (which would, therefore, require universal knowledge from players). These are all individual traits the DM can give to individual monsters. It is, of course, important not to overdo such things, as encounter complexity has to remain manageable. But the rules of good monster and encounter design are massive topics and are definitely outside the scope of this post. I did try to keep the abilities in the examples simple, easy to explain and use. And yeah, most of them would only be appropriate for elites or solos.

  3. How do you expose these traits to players? Simply tell them what they can do? Show them monster’s stat block? Require knowledge check?

    1. Just as with terrain powers, we want the players to use them, and to use them they have to know about them. At the same time, it’s good to reward players for investing in knowledge or investigation skills. I’d recommend revealing such traits upon a successful monster knowledge check at the start of the encounter. If the players fail such check, reveal them a round or two later anyway.
      As for the actual presentation, if the trait is any more complex than the first example, I’d suggest printing out a card with that trait in large font and placing it on the table next to the battle mat once it is revealed.

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