Solos at High Paragon and Epic

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Sometimes, a solo really justifiably for story reasons, is just a solo. Not backed up with minions, not an elite with henchmen, just a solo. 

In cases like that, it's pretty easy for the party to throw down -6 to attack rolls EONT (unless the rogue misses, which he can pretty much guarantee only happens on a 1), divine challenge by the Hospitaler Paladin (Half-Elf with group defense), and weakened until EONT if it makes even a single attack that does not target the swordmage (and at a -9 to hit, who really wants to target the swordmage anyway?).

Those are encounter-long effects on top of whatever current-turn ailment the wizard slaps down.

As a DM, what sorts of clever ideas can we use to get out of the problem we're in? We can write its accuracy 6 above level and give it double damage, but that seems like cheating.

One idea is that since solo fights slog on far too long normally anyway, we do something like
Free action:
The solo takes damage equal to half its bloodied value. Remove any number of conditions affecting it. Until the end of encounter, when a new condition would affect it, the solo may make one saving throw as a free action--if it saves, the condition ends immediately; if it fails, the condition expires at [either start or end, balance to be determined] of the solo's next turn.

Even blind for a single turn effectively means another huge chunk of the solo's HP are coming off without any real threat/retaliation, unless the solo happens to have a burst attack, which is why I think "start" would work better, but then in a lot of cases, the condition never had any benefit at all, and the players may feel cheated.

Using terrain-based attacks that bypass these things is a good idea, and I intend to make use of it when I can, but I still need ideas for more traditional 5v1 fights, if you have any.
Don't let the name fool you - solo's should never be solo. Perhaps it was intended to be different, but in practice, there's not much you can do. Whatever time you spend trying to offset the PCs' abilities with augmentations of the solo, up its level, give it ways to shrug effects, etc. etc., you'll find when you sit down to fight, it still sucks against a party of paragon and epic level characters. Even heroic level characters more often than not. You'll wish you had spent that prep time on more interesting things.

As far as the story demanding a solo opponent, you've got a couple options. First, change your story. This is what I would do. In D&D, the fiction is the most mutable part of the game, period. For however many plausible reasons you can think of that your solo must be alone, I can think of just as many plausible reasons they shouldn't be. And in the end, your players really won't notice or care. Most of that kind of angst exists solely in the DM's mind. At the very least, if your story is so narrow that you can't imagine another single creature being with your solo, then throw in traps or hazards.

Alternatively, you could create your solo encounters such that the goal is not necessarily to kill the big bag of hit points. Killing it will take a while (as you say) and during that time, the clock is ticking on some other goal, one that the PCs are trying to complete or trying to stop the solo from completing.

No amount of tips, tricks, or gimmicks will ever be better than simply talking directly to your fellow players to resolve your issues.
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By the time I submit this someone will likely have already said it. But solos should rarely (if ever) be solos. They need support for the fight to be interesting. Otherwise the solo monster becomes a punching bag and your players are just waiting for it to die.

I like using on-level solos plus a couple of elites or 2 regs & one elite for an L+4 encounter that has some meaning. More importantly, make the fight about a goal beyond just kill the BBEG.

Another consideration is at-will.omnivangelist.net/features/world.... I've yet to employ worldbreaker rules, but most of the feedback I've heard in the community is quite positive.

EDIT: Ninja'd! I knew it. 
By the time I submit this someone will likely have already said it....

EDIT: Ninja'd! I knew it. 



I guess you could say I caught you FlatFooted?

No amount of tips, tricks, or gimmicks will ever be better than simply talking directly to your fellow players to resolve your issues.
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[rim shot]
Sometimes solos have to be solos but what they DON'T always have to be are monsters.

Sometimes, perhaps most of the time, the truly massive badguy at the end of the adventure should not be something they can effectively fight with their powers but something more like a massive set piece whose actions they must deal with, or a puzzle that must be solved.

I suppose this is what is known, much to my rising bile, as a "worldbreaker," but it's not really anything outside the rules. 4th Edition in particular shows, I think, how not everything that moves has stats that you can whittle away with a sword. So, give them a boss that's really something to be feared, something they can only bring down by ramming their ship into its belly-equivalent.

You can still use the solos in the books of course, just not as part of a battle that must be epic, because it might not be. However, my standard advice is to look for ways for the monsters to win the battle without having to kill the PCs, and this applies double for solos.

[N]o difference is less easily overcome than the difference of opinion about semi-abstract questions. - L. Tolstoy

Sometimes solos have to be solos but what they DON'T always have to be are monsters.

Sometimes, perhaps most of the time, the truly massive badguy at the end of the adventure should not be something they can effectively fight with their powers but something more like a massive set piece whose actions they must deal with, or a puzzle that must be solved.

I suppose this is what is known, much to my rising bile, as a "worldbreaker," but it's not really anything outside the rules. 4th Edition in particular shows, I think, how not everything that moves has stats that you can whittle away with a sword. So, give them a boss that's really something to be feared, something they can only bring down by ramming their ship into its belly-equivalent.



Good advice. "Worldbreaker" is really more of a way of thinking about and setting about the design of an encounter rather than of a specific creature. It adds moving parts and threats at predetermined times. Some of those moving parts will often be minions... which may not be what the OP is looking for. But having used Worldbreaker design before in prep and in play, I give it a thumbs up. (In fact, I'm working on such an encounter now.)

The other alternative Centauri mentions is a solo that's not really defeatable by traditional means. Wizards put up an article about this (back in 2009?) that talked about skill challenges being used as an alternative means to defeating a creature. My encounters are certainly no strangers to skill challenges to represent other goals as it adds some nice layering. I have run encounters where the skill challenge was specifically a puzzle to be solved in order to defeat the solo BBEG. It worked fine as well once the players figured out that their swords and spells weren't doing much. But this is something you can't pull out too often.

No amount of tips, tricks, or gimmicks will ever be better than simply talking directly to your fellow players to resolve your issues.
DMs: Don't Prep the Plot | Structure First, Story Last | The Art of Pacing (Series) | Improvisation Guide | Prep Tips | Spoilers Don't Spoil Anything | No Myth Roleplaying
Players: 11 Ways to Be a Better Roleplayer | You Are Not Your Character
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It adds moving parts and threats at predetermined times.

Oh. I guess that's not what I mean, then.

But this is something you can't pull out too often.

For every catastrophic boss fight you can.

[N]o difference is less easily overcome than the difference of opinion about semi-abstract questions. - L. Tolstoy

Oh. I guess that's not what I mean, then.



It's not a great leap to arrive at the conclusion you did. Worldbreakers can have elements of a puzzle in them if you design it that way. The base assumption doesn't necessarily mean that's the case though. It's more about changing terrain and piling on danger at certain points in the scene - the titan creating earthquakes or the red dragon a volcano. That sort of thing. How you interact with those added threats plus the original creature could very well be a puzzle. At first glance, Worldbreakers seem to be a way to alter a solo, but really it's a design process to develop a scene.

I don't think there's a name per se on what you suggest. Maybe you should give it one!

For every catastrophic boss fight you can.



True, though I'd probably do the skill-challenge-as-combat thing once or twice in a whole campaign just to keep things varied and somewhat fresh.

I'll also add that I know some people use Piecework Monsters (q.v.) which I believe was either created by wrecan or Pluisjen. (Speaking of which, where has that guy been lately?) I haven't learned any of those design elements yet as I don't have any room in my brain at the moment, but people seem to like them. I'd recommend looking into it.

No amount of tips, tricks, or gimmicks will ever be better than simply talking directly to your fellow players to resolve your issues.
DMs: Don't Prep the Plot | Structure First, Story Last | The Art of Pacing (Series) | Improvisation Guide | Prep Tips | Spoilers Don't Spoil Anything | No Myth Roleplaying
Players: 11 Ways to Be a Better Roleplayer | You Are Not Your Character
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Environmental and terrain features are the simplest way to go to give your solo solo a chance against a party. I've had magic pillars that granted defense bonuses, trapped townsfolk that were consumed to fuel the solo's powers, and a tornado to toss around players and foil their ranged attacks. In each case, the players could deal with solo directly and ignore the terrain, or address the environment first. In some cases, it was tactically better to just wail on the solo (although not necessarily story-better, as in the case with the trapped townsfolk), while others the terrain clearly had to be dealt with first.
Sometimes, a solo really justifiably for story reasons, is just a solo. Not backed up with minions, not an elite with henchmen, just a solo. 

As a DM, what sorts of clever ideas can we use to get out of the problem we're in?

I know you gave your caveat in the first paragraph, but the answer really is simple: Don't let yourself get backed into a situation where your solo has to be alone.

But the advice everyone gave here is spot on in how to mitigate some of what happens when you allow yourself to get backed into that corner.
Here are the PHB essentia, in my opinion:
  • Three Basic Rules (p 11)
  • Power Types and Usage (p 54)
  • Skills (p178-179)
  • Feats (p 192)
  • Rest and Recovery (p 263)
  • All of Chapter 9 [Combat] (p 264-295)
A player needs to read the sections for building his or her character -- race, class, powers, feats, equipment, etc. But those are PC-specific. The above list is for everyone, regardless of the race or class or build or concept they are playing.
In some cases, it was tactically better to just wail on the solo (although not necessarily story-better, as in the case with the trapped townsfolk), while others the terrain clearly had to be dealt with first.



That's one of the toughest parts of layered encounter design - balancing out the threat level of each element or choice so that it's just about as good or bad to do one thing as opposed to another and making those choices obvious enough for the players to know that without giving away the farm. Luckily, my players will tend to choose the less tactically optimized path in favor of story goals, though this is never a guarantee...

No amount of tips, tricks, or gimmicks will ever be better than simply talking directly to your fellow players to resolve your issues.
DMs: Don't Prep the Plot | Structure First, Story Last | The Art of Pacing (Series) | Improvisation Guide | Prep Tips | Spoilers Don't Spoil Anything | No Myth Roleplaying
Players: 11 Ways to Be a Better Roleplayer | You Are Not Your Character
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I like some of the ideas in Worldbreakers, and yeah, terrain is always good. Balancing Worldbreakers seems tricky, but in general, the party can take anything I dish out, so I'm not likely to go too far

The next solo will have plausible access to an unlimited supply of minions (an admiral commanding an airship, troops can come up from below decks ad nauseum), so that will at least put some pressure on the party, although the solo himself will still be completely crippled by -6 (or worse) to attacks and perma-weakened, so I do need to do something that can remove EoE conditions.
That's one of the toughest parts of layered encounter design - balancing out the threat level of each element or choice so that it's just about as good or bad to do one thing as opposed to another and making those choices obvious enough for the players to know that without giving away the farm.


Actually, I'm fine with an imbalance in this regard, as long as the characters have means of assessing which action is better (though failure is always an option). And sometimes, a player will give me a creative solution to the problem, making what I had conceived, in my planning stage, to be a poor tactical choice a brilliant maneuver. I love it when that happens.
Luckily, my players will tend to choose the less tactically optimized path in favor of story goals, though this is never a guarantee...


Most towns now have temples dedicated to deceased hostages...
The next solo will have plausible access to an unlimited supply of minions (an admiral commanding an airship, troops can come up from below decks ad nauseum), so that will at least put some pressure on the party, although the solo himself will still be completely crippled by -6 (or worse) to attacks and perma-weakened, so I do need to do something that can remove EoE conditions.



Have the admiral be a strong leader that doesn't make attacks on his own. All his standards make his crew attack. Penalties and weakened state just won't matter. Then in the scene, you just have him commanding people around and maybe trying to accomplish some goal with the airship that the PCs need to stop like he puts the airship into a tailspin and says, "My crew and I will gladly go down with our ship... will you?" Is he bluffing? Can the PCs take the chance and be wrong? Do the PCs now need to focus on getting him away from the wheel and taking the helm rather than attack him?

That's how I would use a solo like that...

No amount of tips, tricks, or gimmicks will ever be better than simply talking directly to your fellow players to resolve your issues.
DMs: Don't Prep the Plot | Structure First, Story Last | The Art of Pacing (Series) | Improvisation Guide | Prep Tips | Spoilers Don't Spoil Anything | No Myth Roleplaying
Players: 11 Ways to Be a Better Roleplayer | You Are Not Your Character
Hilarious D&D Actual Play Podcast: Crit Juice!
Check Out My D&D Next Playtest Campaign: The Next World

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Actually, I'm fine with an imbalance in this regard, as long as the characters have means of assessing which action is better (though failure is always an option). And sometimes, a player will give me a creative solution to the problem, making what I had conceived, in my planning stage, to be a poor tactical choice a brilliant maneuver. I love it when that happens.



Totally agree, but I no less agonize in the design phase to strive for that sweet spot where no choice stands out as the best one. Results vary, casting doubt on whether or not my agonizing was really worth it in the first place...

No amount of tips, tricks, or gimmicks will ever be better than simply talking directly to your fellow players to resolve your issues.
DMs: Don't Prep the Plot | Structure First, Story Last | The Art of Pacing (Series) | Improvisation Guide | Prep Tips | Spoilers Don't Spoil Anything | No Myth Roleplaying
Players: 11 Ways to Be a Better Roleplayer | You Are Not Your Character
Hilarious D&D Actual Play Podcast: Crit Juice!
Check Out My D&D Next Playtest Campaign: The Next World

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Idea 1: stolen from some advice givent to iserith in a thread he posted asking how to make a red dragon more interesting, some of the responses included having his breath attack spawn fire elemental minions or some such.  I recently had a rogue type human NPC working for the "evil" mage's college in my game who had a "mirror amulet"....this amulet basically gave the rogue the old 3.5 mirror image spell with a twist....each image of her worked like a minion, except for one, chosen each round on her turn.  Whenever she was hit, that copy of her died if there was at least one other image still up....basically, all the copies had to be destroyed, THEN they could kill her.  It made a fight with only 2 enemy elites (there was an illusionist wizard with her to help set the tone for the fight) into a much more dangerous encounter, and helped prevent the 2-enemy encounter from being a pushover for my control-heavy group.

Idea 2: an "end of adventure" type solo monster, if encountere alone, probably is about level+4 or +5 on the players.  A -6 to his only leaves him one down off a standard, on-level monster.....this turns the solo's very scary 75% chance to hit down to a manageable 50% chance to hit.  Retributive actions (immediate reaction, at-will attacks guarantee at least one extra attack every round) and no-hit auras or abilities, as well as damage on a miss attacks helps make the creature effective regardless of a reduced hit chance....except now its a manageable solo instead of an overwhelmingly powerful solo.

Idea 3: "get him before he gets you" - hit and run, high initiative, action removal attacks (stunned or no standard action, or can't attack) will help wipe clean the penalties until the next time he gets hit.  Dragons are easy to hit and run with (though they might need some help escaping defenders sometimes, its nothing a good recharge 4,5,6 move action that doesn't provoke OAs can't fix), but a wizard, or even an agile, acrobatic rogue can be just as powerful.  There's no reason that the wizard thats FIVE TIMES more powerful than any individual hero PC can't have a quick-recharging teleport power (recharges at the end of any turn he didn't use the power?) or the acrobatic rogue can't backflip 6 squares up and hide.


Keep in mind, with a player that can throw out that kind of control, any "true solo" encounter HAS to be custom made monsters.  Your goal is to let the player shine, but don't let it control the entire encounter.  If the -6 to hit is needed in order to bring the solo's to-hit down to a manageable level, then the rogue is important, if the -6 shuts down the monster every other turn, forcing him to escape for a round before re-engaging and the party can setup for his return, then the rogue is STILL important. 

I deal with the same kinds of problems constructing encounters in my current game...i have a "black hole knight" controller....2/encounter he can suck everything within 3 squares of him to into his defender aura, and can knock prone on melee basic attacks, so once something is pulled in, it doesn't get out easily.  i have to constantly struggle to find a balance between shutting off his power every now and again to let the monsters do something, and still letting his character do his "thing." 

Solos are an added challenge...i've so far used 1 solo fight, with another coming up.  The first one was a modified fire elemental turned level 13 solo - it had the "deal 5 fire damage to every adjacent enemy when its hit by an attack" tacked onto a 500 hit point monstrosity....and on top of that it had an aura that dealt 10 fire damage to anyone who started within 2 squares.  It didn't hit with melee attacks often, but a few blast attacks with several attack rolls and the aura+free action fire damage really made the encounter a challenge.  The next solo will be a melee-centric dragon solo that doesn't mind focusing on the defender....he also has a recharge 5,6 move action that will let him (stand up and) take to the air without provoking OAs and a flyby attack at-will, and the party is low on surges, so it will be a real choice whether or not the defender wants to try to absorb all the hits, or whether to let the dragon spread out the damage.
 
Try never to let your solo be ambushed or surprised, unless the PCs have gone to great lengths to acquire that advantage. Instead, your solos should almost always surprise the PCs. The right encounter power might be enough to neutralize or hinder at least one PC for a round. I think dragons are a good example of this: they can and should surprise the party and use frightful presence, possibly stunning one or more and giving them an attack roll penalty.

Solos should also be the enemies who know about the PCs's powers and take steps to counter them. If the PCs have daily powers they're fond of, the solo should avoid the PCs until he gets word that some of those powers have been expended. If the PCs make do with encounter powers, the solo should attack during their short rest.

Solos should also carry items that help them against the PCs. Draconomicon states that dragons can swallow a magical item and gain the effects of it. A dragon fighting near its hoard might find a chance to gobble up just the right item to help it.

The worst enemies always have an escape plan. Solos should have some sort of contingency for when the battle goes against them, on a dead-man switch in case they're stunned.

[N]o difference is less easily overcome than the difference of opinion about semi-abstract questions. - L. Tolstoy

I suggest reading piecework creatures blog by wrecan.

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There a lots of tools a tricks these days to deal with epic pcs and solos.  The new MV dragons and Lords of Chaos article this month have some good methods.

I am a firm believer that sometimes (and I do mean sometimes) a solo needs to be solo.  However, to do this it needs to be constructed carefully.  Here are some suggestions:

Multiple Actions:  off turn actions (MV dragons) or multiple turns (tiamat, dragon of tyr, etc.), ups the threat, allows the solo to move around more (reduce speed maybe), and gives you action recovery options (see below)

Action Recovery:  trait that ends effects at the begining or end o turn (MV dragons, Lords of Chaos), lose actions instead of effect (tiamat), solo takes damage and removes effect(s), spend an action point and remove effects, etc.

Saving Throws:  gods save immediately against effects and ongoing damage (originally it applied to all effects even if they didn't allow a save - tiamat - but then they watered it down), this could be a method to prevent effect all together some of the time, but you might want to limit to once or twice an encounter

Minor and Move actions:  more ways to attack and more options for action recovery

trigger actions:  provide off turn movement and/or attacks, I also use them to deal with multi-attacking strikers

Mutliple targets:  burst and blast attacks that also target the swordmage


Those are some quick thoughts.  I have use all of these and more in the gods I have posted in this thread:  community.wizards.com/go/thread/view/758...

However, these are end of campaign threats and depending on your adventure I wouldn't use all of the tricks.  I wouldn't throw solos at your PCs like this all the time either.  Most of the time (especially in epic) I treat solos as elites really.  They like to have help.