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4E: Designing Monsters for the DM

July 3, 2011

Right now, I’m busy remixing stats for 4E monsters. A couple of things are occurring to me as I’m doing this…

Tracking in Play

4E is set up to have players have 3-4 viable options every round. This makes sense for players, since they play the same character for extended periods of time- it gives them something interesting and fun to do every round.

The DM, on the other hand, is in no danger of being bored- she’s tracking at least a half dozen monsters, with different powers, and will probably have new monsters and NPCs nearly every encounter.

In other words, the DM doesn’t need more choices- they need less. They also need rules that reduce how much they need to track at any given point in play.

Decision Time

When it’s a monsters’ turn, it’s decision time. The DM has to decide what the monster does. I’m finding it works best when the monster either only does one thing well, or only has 2 options. It reduces the time I have to spend thinking about what to do.

You might think this would make monsters “too predictable” but typically in games, there’s usually only 1-2 good options to do anyway, as far as core mechanics go. The interesting part of monsters isn’t the variety of powers, it’s the combined effect of the monsters working together and the environment they’re in.

Resolution Time

When the DM is rolling the dice to see if the monster’s attacks hit, and what effects they have. How much does the DM have to track and add up? How many modifiers or effects do they need to keep in mind at one time?

Reaction Time

When the players are taking turns- what does the DM have to track? What powers, abilities, modifiers does the monster have that the DM needs to consider in response to the players?

The reason I’m pointing out these 3 categories is this:

It’s easier to have a monster with one thing to track in each category than it is to have a monster with three things in one category. It’s easier to keep 1 thing in mind, 3 times successively, than it is to keep 3 things in mind at one time.

This is actually a big deal as far as designing your monsters’ powers go- because it makes the rules easier to use.

Formulas for easy tracking

So, with that in mind, there’s actually a few ideas you can fall back on in monster design that will naturally produce these results…

Basic Attack + Tactical Condition

An easy road is to give the monster a decent basic attack, and then a power which improves it when certain tactical conditions are met.

Extra damage when flanking is a classic example (“These monsters do an extra 2D6 damage when they flank a target”)- you’re still using the Basic Attack rules, but now there’s also a situation that you try to set up as a DM, while the players are trying to thwart it.

Common tactical triggers:
– Flanking
– Allies adjacent to target
– Target is prone, helpless, immobilized
– Target is blinded (or other condition)
– Opportunity Attack
– Target is Bloodied
– Attacker is Bloodied
– Attacker is charging
– Attacker was attacked by Target last round

You’ll notice that a lot of the Player Character classes in Essentials use this kind of set up for their Stances.

One-Two Combo Attack

An At-Will attack sets up for a special, more damaging or condition inducing attack. The classic example would be a giant monster grabbing a character then applying crushing damage each round until the character escapes.

Again this sets up a situation the players will try to avoid and also keeps the decision making simple- you’re not choosing between two actions, you’re just doing part A or part B of the same strategy.

I like One-Two combos to target different Defenses – it rewards players whose characters are well rounded and also makes some characters more fearful of certain monsters than others- if the follow up attack does a lot of damage but rolls against Will? Your heavy armor fighter might be more wary of rushing in.

Group Modifier Power

The Group Modifier does something that affects the monster’s allies- it makes monsters work better in tandem- maybe it lets other monsters move about, do extra damage, etc. Think of the classic “Holy Aura” or “Protection from Evil” stuff that gives adjacent allies bonuses to AC or similar things from older D&D editions.

These are particularly nasty if they can stack bonuses- for example, getting a +1 to hit for every ally adjacent to the target can end up giving 8 monsters +8 to hit!

Counteroffensive Powers

These powers happen in response to the player’s actions- they might be stuff like a free attack whenever an enemy is adjacent, or they might be a counter-attack of some sort. These are easy to track, because you don’t have to make choices about these- they have triggering events and you simply resolve them.

Also- counteroffense because powers that DO something to the PCs are more interesting than powers that prevent the PCs from doing things.

The most obvious powers do attacks or damage- Opportunity Attacks are a universal example of a counter-offense ability. But you can get more interesting by allow the monster to inflict conditions, push, pull, or slide a character, or inflict a penalty. (Other nice benefit, because this affects the PCs, it becomes the players’ jobs to track these, not yours).

Think of what you don’t want the players to do, and build your power around that.

Example: Kobolds remixed

Kobolds
Level 1, weak

HP 12 AC 14 (16 w/shield) Fort 12 Ref 16 Will 12
Speed 6 Contests: DC 8 (strength) DC 12 (most things), DC 19 (speed, engineering, traps)

Basic Attack: Spear +8 vs. AC 1D4 +3 (avg. 5/crit 7)
Basic Attack: Sling (range 20) +8 vs. AC 1D4 +5 (avg. 7/crit 9)

Trap Ingenuity
Any target afflicted by a condition produced by a kobold trap is -4 to Saving Throws to shake off the condition.

Overwatch (Standard) Aura 5
Until the beginning of the kobold’s next turn, any foe within range and clear line of sight, attacking an ally with a melee attack gets hit with a sling stone for 4 points of damage.

**DM caveat** – This assumes normal encounter numbers and not mass lines of troops. Overwatch can inflict it’s damage on 5 different targets in a turn, and any given triggering melee attacker can only be hit by 5 different Overwatch kobolds per attack.

Notes on design

So, you’ll notice that kobolds have two powers that only take effect on the players’ turns- one involving Saving Throws, and one involving melee attacks.

The Saving Throw effect is designed to give kobolds some advantage with traps- it makes conditions stick around a little longer, which, at low levels isn’t actually all that deadly – just really annoying.

The Overwatch power skips attack rolls, which would be broken in other situations, but it’s easy to circumnavigate (use ranged attacks, make melee attacks from behind cover, etc.) and mostly forces players to think a little harder about where they want to stand when they fight.

It’s more annoying damage than serious damage, and the powers highlight the general monster concept- cunning little guys who set up traps, fight dirty, and then are a pain to chase down after the fact.

During my turn, I’m only deciding between basic Attacks or doing Overwatch.

Anyway, more to come as I stat up monsters.

ETA: I just ran across this great example of tracking overload for the GM as an example of why this kind of design is necessary.

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