Lurkers are bad choices for Encounters (spoilers)

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tl; dr - low-level lurkers have far too great damage potential for a casual Encounters session.  They shouldn't be a part of the experience.  Rant and discussion below.

An important design element for 4E was that characters were heroes right out of the gate.  An orc with a battleaxe that scored a lucky crit wasn't going to just kill a character at max HP.  One-hit-one-kill was reserved for minions or monsters on the receiving end of a striker potent encounter or daily power with a critical hit.  Fragility isn't a heroic trait.

We've seen at least two sets of lurkers so far (the Duergar from last season and the Blackhearts from this season) that are capable of killing (negative-bloodied) or dropping undamaged first level characters with a single hit.  This doesn't make for a good play experience.  Heck, for the players of characters on the receiving ends of those attacks, it may not make for any play experience at all.

Remember encounter one of the Dark Sun season?  The ranged attackers were meant to focus fire on Castri and each could drop him in a single hit.  The melee opponents were capable of dropping any of the characters with a single hit.  Any number of tables reported Castri's player never getting to act in the encounter (it happened at my table).  The players weren't happy.  We lost a lot of people because of that first encounter.  The rest of the sessions of that chapter were on-par for that level of brutality, and attendance suffered because of it.

The seasons (and, to be fair, the chapters after DS:C1) largely stopped including such over the top opponents.  I'm sad to see them sneaking back in.  Players shouldn't be wondering why they bothered to show up.

[spoiler Side Rant:]The Smoke Form ability on the Blackhearts doesn't belong in 4E.  It occupies the design space of Insubstantial and Phasing cranked up to 11 .   In a nutshell, a creature in Smoke Form can move anywhere it likes (except through walls), can move through opponents, can't be attacked (the hell?), can't attack, and can come out of Smoke Form as a free action.  It renders characters powerless.  Don't render characters powerless, especially in a casual play environment.[/spoiler]
While they are tough, the players at my table didn't seem to have much trouble with them.  The wording specifies that they cannot be attacked, nothing is said about whether or not they can be damaged; so the wizard did a lot of "do damage to an ally adjacent" damage to the things.


The only scary part in the whole encounter was when one of the blackhearts dropped the paladin (round 2 or 3) with combat advantage, blocking him from spending a healing surge.  That was a hairy situation, as they had to work to get the effect off before healing.    
My group had some difficulty, but in the end, none of them came close to dying.  I know you may be exaggerating, but it is impossible for one of those creatures to outright kill a character.  Even a wizard with a Constitution of 8 would require 27 points of damage to die outright.  Those creatures only do 26 points max.  Also, this encounter was meant for Level 2 characters, who have an extra 4 to 8 Hp and higher defenses.  Also, the extra damage is only if the Blackheart started its turn as smoke, not if it was smoke just before the attack.  If anything, I think the Spider Swarms in the Armory were worse than these guys: level 3 soldier swarms are pretty difficult to kill.

But I do agree that it is not fun to KO a character in the 1st or second round.  Which is why, as GMs, we need to watch out for such things and either tweak them beforehand or on the fly.  Remember that each group of PCs is different.  What one group handles easily could mean TPK for another.

A reply to the side rant...
[spoiler Side Rant:]
The Smoke Form ability on the Blackhearts doesn't belong in 4E.  It occupies the design space of Insubstantial and Phasing cranked up to 11 .   In a nutshell, a creature in Smoke Form can move anywhere it likes (except through walls), can move through opponents, can't be attacked (the hell?), can't attack, and can come out of Smoke Form as a free action.  It renders characters powerless.  Don't render characters powerless, especially in a casual play environment.


While I agree that it is powerful, it just needs a bit of adjustment, not total annihilation.  Maybe if it was an encounter or at least required a minor action to resume form, it would be a bit more balanced.  If the GM were to abuse it: start in smoke, move into position, drop smoke, attack, resume smoke, it would be very rough.  However, players can always ready attacks to hit it when it becomes coporeal and could possibly kill it in one round.[/spoiler]

I'm not sure what kind of insanely low-Con characters you may have at your table, but 2d6+14 = max 26, last time I checked. That's a hell of a lot of damage, but I can't think of any L1 character that would be outright killed by it from max HP (unless it was Gamma World and the character in question had a Con of 5 or less). That kind of damage does indeed threaten to drop a lot of characters in one shot (assuming the target is L1, where the adventure assumes that PCs are L2 by this point), but that's a chance to do so, and it can only do that much damage every other turn. Given the HP and defenses the Blackhearts are sporting, I'd wager that they'd get annihilated the second the party sees a single Sly Attack land.

In the long run, yes, lurkers like the Blackhearts and Duergar Scouts that trade good damage per turn for a 'charged up' hit every other turn can be really nasty, but I disagree that they're bad design or shouldn't be included. In general, mosters like this help change up how the party can tactically approach the combat, and help put an emphasis on using response tactics and focus-fire to minimize the impact of (and eliminate) the high threat monsters.

Across the 5 tables at my LGS last night, the Blackhearts were indeed a nasty challenge, but in general the players I was talking with enjoyed that they were a nasty bit of work and made for a good challenge to overcome. One table saw the potential nastiness of that Sly Attack with a good monster knowledge check, and responded by putting their Mage in a corner while the rest of the party formed up around them to prevent any melee attacks from being able to target the Mage (while simultaneously putting all of the spaces around this 4-PC brick in the Paladin's Defender Aura). The net result was that the Blackheart popped out of Smoke Form, tried to stab someone and missed, then got utterly wrecked for their trouble immediately afterward... long story short: smart play beats nasty stat block, PCs feel smart and cool, everyone goes home happy.

I will grant that not every Encounters table is likely to have this level of tactical play without a lot of prompting, but a threat like the Blackhearts is certainly a great way to introduce new players to the rules for Ready an Action or Death and Dying, as well as concepts like basic tactical positioning.

While the duergar 'scouts' and blackhearts made for two of the more memmorable and fun combats in the last two seasons - for me, with my 30 years of gaming history behind me - I have to agree that they're not the ideal sorts of monsters for casual gaming.  Heck, MM3 and forward monster damage figures aren't entirely apropriate, let alone such an extreme implementation of them.   In casual play, socializing, learning (or teaching) the system, and maybe 'winning' a little extra reknown or something, is plenty of fun.  In more serious play, an encounter with an extremely dangerous creature that is vulnerable only at certain times is a great idea, it forces the players to bring their A game, and wakes up the more jaded participants. 

You wouldn't have to drop their damage much to put them back in the ballpark, though.  And, the way the combat was written did at least reduce the chance of the blackhearts ending with a TPK.

As for the side rant: agreed.  The duergar scout's invisibility and stealth last season, made them very /hard/ to attack while lurking, but it was doable.  There were a few times at my table where one was spotted, or where the wizard 'depth charged' one successfully with an AE.  This time around, the 'lurking' effect was just too absolute.  I suppose it's 'against the spirit of 4e' in being an absolute effect, but Essentials has re-introduced some absolute effects for the players (Magic Missle, obviously, but it's not the only Mage spell to have an Effect instead of an attack line).

But, we did have some 'serious' players and with a little coaching (and 'illegal' Bravura Presence), all three (yeah, we were a table of 6, we got an extra one) Blackhearts were burned down in the 2nd round (after bloodying the Fighter and dropping the Binder who was already taking ongoing damage in the first round).  The Binder was litterally rescued by 'Fearless Rescue' as he could have died at the start of his next turn, before either healers' turn came up.  It was a very exciting round.  ;)  So it was a fun encounter for our table, dangerous and dramatic.  The other table carried the day by killing everything else, after which the Blackhearts - hardly touched, and having dropped half the party - 'fled' per the encounter description.  So, it worked for them, too, though I doubt they had as much fun with it as we did.

 

 

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My group had some difficulty, but in the end, none of them came close to dying.  I know you may be exaggerating, but it is impossible for one of those creatures to outright kill a character.  Even a wizard with a Constitution of 8 would require 27 points of damage to die outright.  Those creatures only do 26 points max.  Also, this encounter was meant for Level 2 characters, who have an extra 4 to 8 Hp and higher defenses. 

Not exaggerating.  The insty-death critters were the duergar from last season.  The Blackhearts only dealt enough damage to drop (to zero or below) a first level character with a single hit.

If all characters were of the expected level, this isn't as much of a concern (the duergar were still a bit over the top).  The decision to track XP by individual hoses this expectation.  In a casual play environment, it's possible - if not likely - that some characters at the table won't be the appropriate level when facing these creatures.

Readying... isn't nearly as effective as it might seem.  If the Blackhearts were the only combatants and the party was prepared to deal with their tricks, sure, readying works.  If not, some characters are probably attacking something else.  Unless the DM plays the monsters as particularly dim-witted, they'll just avoid the enemies that are ready to pounce and instead go after the guy that's not ready to smack them down the moment they solidify.  Readying a charge means you're unconcerned about the other enemies and gambling that the Blackhearts don't attack you or anyone within two of you.  Doable?  Sure.  Effective?  Maybe.  Frustrating?  Yeah.  If "ready an action" is the best counter to a mechanic, you have a bad mechanic.

As for the side rant: agreed.  The duergar scout's invisibility and stealth last season, made them very /hard/ to attack while lurking, but it was doable.  There were a few times at my table where one was spotted, or where the wizard 'depth charged' one successfully with an AE.  This time around, the 'lurking' effect was just too absolute.  I suppose it's 'against the spirit of 4e' in being an absolute effect, but Essentials has re-introduced some absolute effects for the players (Magic Missle, obviously, but it's not the only Mage spell to have an Effect instead of an attack line).

Bingo.  My problem was with making the monsters present but untouchable.  These guys were less corporeal than ghosts.  Heck, even combining the insubstantial and swarm traits generates a creature you can attack... and hurt... and apply conditions against.  

I'm not sure how the early tables fared, but - of the three tables running in our 8:30 slot - we had one TPK; a TPK only avoided because the controller managed to run away, leaving the rest of the party for dead; and a cakewalk.  The cakewalk was largely due to an illegal character (Warden) with the Swaying Branches feat nullifying a key out-of-smoke attack while the Executioner and Vampire novaed the second Blackheart to death after seeing what the first could do.  The lurkers entered the fight a round apart, and the DM split their initiatives; I've no idea if that was intended by the module or not.
While smokeform is powerful its not without its drawbacks.  Due it being a Standard action, the creature effectively loses its ability to do damage on that turn.  Clever players use readied actions to help overcome the movement benefits due the power.  Also players can use clever placement of the group to limit the ability of the Blackheart to attack weaker members. 

The bigger issue I had was the at will attacks with the miss half damage.  That really got the players goat every time they were missed they still were 'hit' so to speak.  Miss effects really should only be on single use or rechargeable powers in my opinion.

Regardless of either thing, the monsters aren't overpowered, and certainly don't do enough damage for its ecounter level to slay a PC of level 2 (level its initially scaled for) outright, even on a crit.

Still these monsters were supposed to scare the party.  What I feel 4E lacks is that old school "oh @#$@" factor, where the party gets worried fast when they see or face a monster.  Creatures like the Blackheart require the party to pay attention and start using at least some basic tactics, often something most 4E groups I've seen don't bother doing.

As for it being a tough encounter, yes.  As a DM you can always modify things as you see fit, even outside of the 'rules' posted by WotC.  Using the WotC rules, you probably should limit the number of blackhearts if you had more than one 1st level PC.  If the party is really struggling with the tactical ability to deal with them, lower their HP on the fly to challenge the PC's but not outright destroy them.  Remember its the goal of a DM to challenge the group and make sure its a fun game, not follow every rule to the T.
The bigger issue I had was the at will attacks with the miss half damage.  That really got the players goat every time they were missed they still were 'hit' so to speak.  Miss effects really should only be on single use or rechargeable powers in my opinion.

Agreed.

Regardless of either thing, the monsters aren't overpowered, and certainly don't do enough damage for its ecounter level to slay a PC of level 2 (level its initially scaled for) outright, even on a crit.

Not agreed.  If you're discussing the monster design, this is a level 2 lurker.  It's meant to face first level characters.  If you're discussing the encounter design, scaling needs to consider that Encounters characters will eventually range from 1st to 3rd level within any given encounter.  Including monsters that can remove characters from the fight with a single hit (or remove them from life, in the case of the duergar scouts) is just poor planning.

Still these monsters were supposed to scare the party.  What I feel 4E lacks is that old school "oh @#$@" factor, where the party gets worried fast when they see or face a monster.  Creatures like the Blackheart require the party to pay attention and start using at least some basic tactics, often something most 4E groups I've seen don't bother doing.

4E has a host of conditions that could be applied to characters or buffs to the enemies.  Look at the cloaker ambusher for a great example.  A power that applies "Death" as a condition to unhurt characters and "Untouchable" as a monster buff are over over the top.  If "make it scary" was the intent behind the new design lurkers, they only succeed at low level.  Using MM3 as a source, there isn't a lurker from level 8 - 13 that can drop a character within four levels with a single hit.  The danger doesn't scale.  Low level lurkers are special, in that they are uniquely equipped to eliminate PCs with a single attack.  Heroes shouldn't be disposable.

Then throw these lurkers in to a program designed for new players; where character level, party composition, and grasp of tactics simply can not be predicted.  

This is where I call foul.

As for it being a tough encounter, yes.  As a DM you can always modify things as you see fit, even outside of the 'rules' posted by WotC.  Using the WotC rules, you probably should limit the number of blackhearts if you had more than one 1st level PC.  If the party is really struggling with the tactical ability to deal with them, lower their HP on the fly to challenge the PC's but not outright destroy them.  Remember its the goal of a DM to challenge the group and make sure its a fun game, not follow every rule to the T.

One of the guys running a TPK table remarked of the Blackhearts "They were second level lurkers.  I didn't think they'd be that much of a problem."  They took DMs by surprise.

"Here's something bad.  DMs, fix it if you want.  If you have time.  And if you notice the problem.  Enjoy!"  This was the official take on the Dark Sun season, as well, and it just doesn't hold water.  The encounters ought to be fair, entertaining, and good fits for the Encounters program as presented, and then DMs can tweak to fit.  It's a matter of addressing an issue at the single-point source rather than hoping each individual endpoint recipient fixes the problem.

  If the GM were to abuse it: start in smoke, move into position, drop smoke, attack, resume smoke, it would be very rough.  However, players can always ready attacks to hit it when it becomes coporeal and could possibly kill it in one round.




This would not be DM abuse, but strait-up rule breaking. While it takes a free action to revert to normal, this also ends the Smoke form. The blackheart would have to spend another standard action to resume smoke form; so it can't do that on the same turn that it attacks.

This also means that, if opperating to maximum effect, the blackheart is only in smoke form every other round, leaving it quite hittable on the round after it attacks. And if you did have a readied attack, you'd get two chances at it before it could resume: the readied one when it reverts (before it can attack) and another right before it acts, on your new initiative count.
Yeah, the blackhearts and duergar scouts are 'assault' monsters ('assualt' in the sense of the 'heartbeat crime,' if you scare someone with a violent action, even if you don't touch 'em, it's assualt).  ;)

The point of such monsters is to scare players.  The effect of them, though, is to have encounters that turn into cakewalks or TPKs with little in between.  Use them too much, and they push a campaign back towards the 15-minute workday, and can send a campaign into a death spiral, as the players nova more and more to bring 'scary' monsters down quickly and the DM thows down more and more monster damage to keep 'challenged.'

A better way of delivering the 'scare' factor is simply giving a monster a potent encounter power and leading with it.  (Don't even give it a 'recharge 6' - you never know what your dice might decide to do).  

 

 

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You should NOT be able to be knocked unconscious from full HP at level 1 nor 2
You should NOT be able to be knocked unconscious from full HP at level 1 nor 2



That is certainly your opinion, I don't recall seeing anything in the source material that says that this is a premise in the game.

I dare say that were every encounter filled with lurkers, all the time, the game would get boring quickly, however, lurkers are a part of the game. I find it hard to believe that there are no monsters in a world of magic capable of doing the damage that a striker-classed PC can. And a good PC striker can take down a AL 1/2 monster in one hit under the right circumstances. I've seen it happen at higher levels too.

Mind you, for encounters, which is meant to demonstrate the game to new players your point seems to be that players should be, for want of a better word, 'coddled' and I don't agree. I also don't think they should be subjected to overly deadly encounters all the time but there is story in danger and so they should see that.

Yes, the game does need to have an element of danger or it's not really a challenge.  However, I don't particularly like the idea of a monster that simply appears out of nowhere, surprises the party, and with a lucky crit, brings someone to 0 hit points before they even get an action.

That sort of thing happens in real life all the time, but when we play D&D, it's nice to at least have the illusion that you have some sort of control over your fate.  That if you make the right decisions, you can overcome any challenge, no matter how overwhelming.  Nobody likes to feel helpless.

The game is about interaction with the environment the DM presents.  Any time a player has no ability to interact with the game, they're not having any fun, and a game that isn't fun is...not much of a game.

In a world with deadly monsters, and effects such as stunning, there are going to be times when you will be rendered helpless, true.  But before your first turn?  Obviously, this is just my opinion, but I think that's unecessarily harsh.  "You can die at any time" was certainly a hallmark of earlier editions, with Gygaxian instant death traps- some people prefer that playstyle, and I respect that.

At the same time, however, others do not care for it.  And I really don't think there's anything wrong with that view either.  I think you should really know your players before you start planning encounters with super deadly monsters, though.

Since Encounters is intended to attract new players to the game, I'm kind of leery about the idea of introducing such monsters to a possibly random group of people I don't know.  And yet, I've consistently seen things in Encounters that aren't very much fun.  Overuse of the insubstantial quality and monsters that cannot be targeted, for example.

To me, these are the kinds of challenges one presents to expert players.  Which Encounters really isn't meant for.             

"You can always judge a man by the quality of his enemies." -The Doctor, Remembrance of the Daleks
Getting knocked out for a turn and getting killed are very, very different things.
Granted, but neither of them are very much fun.
"You can always judge a man by the quality of his enemies." -The Doctor, Remembrance of the Daleks
Getting knocked out for a turn and getting killed are very, very different things.



The problem is escalated when you have multiples of the monsters.

The first monster may hit for 2d6+14; the DM rolls a 10 for 24 points of damage; the PC announces that they are bloodied.

The second creature, naturally, attacks the bloodied PC . . . killing a 30 hp PC with a roll of 7 or better on 2d6. 

Dan Anderson @EpicUthrac
Total Confusion www.totalcon.com
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That's when you, as DM and ultimate arbiter of the story simply say (regardless of the roll):  "A dark knife slips from the shadows, but you've seen this trick before and are prepared, the knife narrowly misses you."

It's exciting to get hit hard and then survive the second attack.
Meh, I haven't fudged any rolls in a long time. If I still bothered with physical dice, I'd make all my rolls in the open anyway. In the case of creatures that have the potential to do very high single-hit damage, you can just have them target different characters when they make their attacks. While that may not be tactically perfect, it feels tactically appropriate for such nasty attacks - the monsters choose not to focus-fire in a gamble to severly injure / threaten two PCs instead of just one.
...did anyone forget this is 4th Edition?  Characters don't die, much less TPK unless the players collectively do a LOT of things wrong combined with horrible luck, or the encounter was scaled too high.  I just don't think the latter is true.  Here's how it went at my table:

Combat started with a minion tiefling ruffian wandering out into the hall to see what all the noise was (binder blasting the hell out of the fiery imp trap) then alerting the other tieflings before dropping from a well-placed arrow.  Round two was more minions swarming into the hallway while the blackhearts assumed smoke form and did the same.  

The DM should try to play monsters according to their disposition and the listed tactics, so I had the blackhearts (two instead of one because of a 6-player table) set up combat advantage in smoke form on the first adventurer behind the front rank, then attacking with their Sly Attacks for 2d6+14 AND the CA rider that they can't use healing surges (save ends.)   Seeing a party member drop in the second round put a scare in the whole party, who immediately concentrated on the blackhearts.  They found the low-hp lurkers were very easy to bloody.  The cleric granted a spare saving throw after his attack, which the "dying" player used to save vs. "no healing surges", followed by a Healing Word to bring him back up to 1/3 max hit points.  The other adventurers poured on the pain, front-loading encounter powers on the blackhearts.  By the time the lurkers' turn came up again, only one bloodied blackheart was still alive to use his standard action to resume smoke form and sneak away.  By this time the party was mowing through minion ruffians to get at the bigger threat, the fell mage lobbing Infernal Bolts from the back of the hallway.  A couple of rounds later, the party was cornering the bloodied mage and had killed the remaining blackheart.

The point is that even a party with a majority of new players making "rookie" mistakes can still play their characters according to role and easily survive a low-level lurker.  The DM's job is to help point out to new players what that role is and what their options are.  The typical party response, even for beginners, to a monster that can "one-shot" a PC is for everyone to focus fire on that lurker.  ("AAGHOHMYGAWD! KILL IT! KILL IT!") Because lurkers are designed with low hit points, they usually only get their every-other-round "nova" attack off twice before dying.   As far as the "dying" character goes, even a party without a Leader can spend a single standard action on First Aid to grant a Second Wind or saving throw to bring them back in the game.  Again, unless the DM engineers the perfect focus-fire beatdown to do 150% of max character hp in damage, you are not going to take a single PC permanently out of the fight with a lurker, due to the typical response to a lurker.
-Alveric "And the sword that had visited Earth from so far away smote like the falling of thunderbolts; and green sparks rose from the armour, and crimson as sword met sword; and thick elvish blood moved slowly, from wide slits, down the cuirass; and Lirazel gazed in awe and wonder and love; and the combatants edged away fighting into the forest; and branches fell on them hacked off by their fight; and the runes in Alveric's far-travelled sword exulted, and roared at the elf-knight; until in the dark of the wood, amongst branches severed from disenchanted trees, with a blow like that of a thunderbolt riving an oak tree, Alveric slew him."
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