Article: Solo Monster Design

Posted on March 6, 2011

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Okay, the recent discussion after the Pathfinder 2 Review led to the creation of this article, which is sort of a mini-preview of the Vampire Bestiary (which has a four page section on solo monster design) in itself. This article won’t be as detailed as the material in the Vampire Bestiary (hey I have to sell the books somehow), but I thought it would be a nice way to collate my suggestions with the experiences and suggestions of other people and maybe this can ultimately act as a good resource of ideas.

So before we solve the problems we need to understand them first.

Problems with Solo Monster Design

  1. Too Boring: Many complain that solo monsters just are not as fun to fight, probably a combination of less fight synergy (the fewer the enemies) and less variety to attacks. Solutions: Ensure the solo monster has multiple attacking options so that, not only can it change tactics, but it can also keep the PCs guessing what comes next.
  2. Too Easy: Primarily a problem at epic levels or with solo monsters that don’t follow the official design parameters. Solutions: Follow all the Top Tips below.
  3. Forgettable: Solo monster carry the burden of being ‘End Bosses’ and often don’t live up to the hype. Solutions: Try something unique with each solo monster, even if that something bends the rules a bit or seemingly comes out of nowhere (while battling the solo monster, another monster comes out of nowhere and kills it).
  4. Grinding: This occurs when the PCs are certain of victory but the monster still has lots of hit points remaining, leading to a laborious ‘going through the motions’ remainder of the battle. Solutions: Increase the damage output of the solo monster by approximately 50% when it becomes bloodied.
  5. Initiative: More of an annoyance within bigger groups of players where it can take a relatively long time between the monster’s action. Solutions: Auras and Triggered Actions are a quick method of countering this problem. Or alternatively stagger the solo monster’s various actions on different initiative orders.
  6. Too Static: Battles with solo monsters are inherently less dynamic than other encounters. Solutions: Giving a solo monster a Move Action can change this.

Top Tips for Solo Monster Design

  1. Base Damage: Always make sure you set monster damage to the maximum suggested amount (per the Dungeon Master’s Guide errata from last July). This seems like a no-brainer, but you’d be amazed how many times the official material doesn’t give monsters their due damage.
  2. Bloodied/Death Throes: Either give the solo monster an Encounter power that activates when its bloodied, or when its killed. These one-shot powers should be very powerful.
  3. Critical Hits: One of the ways to reduce grind is to give solo monsters bonus damage on critical hits. That bonus damage should be equal to the base damage dice of the attack. I also suggest increasing the Crit Range of the attack by 1 per additional tier (19-20: Paragon, 18-20: Epic, 17:-20: Immortal, etc.).
  4. Extra Damage/Features: Its relatively rare (in 4E) for non-basic attacks to simply deal flat damage. Most attacks add a condition, ongoing damage or additional feature (slide the target etc.). Always treat these as EXTRA features. Don’t reduce the base damage just because the attack also stuns the PC.
  5. Fatalities: Another option to consider is to give monsters attacks that deal damage ‘beyond damage’. Either attacks dealing an amount equal to the opponent’s bloodied value. Or attacks equal to the opponent’s total hit points. Heroic Tier = Bloodied Damage as an Encounter Power. Paragon Tier = Bloodied Damage as Recharging Standard Action. Epic Tier = Death as an Encounter Power. Immortal Tier = Death as a Recharging Standard Action. These attacks work best when gained upon the monster being bloodied.
  6. Interactive Scenary/Terrain: A nice simple way in making encounters seem more unique without resorting to increasing the difficulty (as adding additional foes, hazards and traps would do). Interactive scenary is something both the PCs and the monster can utilise, for instance in a chamber full of stalagtites the PCs could damage one into falling upon the dragon, or the dragon could break one off and throw it at the PCs.
  7. Ongoing Damage: Speaking of extra damage, when assigning ongoing damage use the following suggestions as your defaults: Heroic Tier = 5, Paragon Tier = 10, Epic Tier = 20, Immortal Tier = 40.
  8. Overall Damage: A solo monster needs to average the equivalent damage of approx. 3 standard monsters. Either allow it multiple Standard Actions and/or give it Minor and Move Actions. Auras and Triggered Actions should not count towards this overall damage figure.
  9. Powers: A solo monster needs options. As a rule of thumb, make sure a Heroic Tier solo monster has (at least) 8 powers (this total does not incorporate Traits other than Auras). Add one extra power per additional tier, and add one power if the monster is also a Leader. 
  10. Reinforcements: One often quoted oxymoron is to “Never use solo monsters on their own”. However to avoid overtly unbalancing your encounter, use creatures worth no more than 19% of the solo monster’s Total XP. These are just enough to divert attention, but not significant enough to really sway the outcome of the battle (ie. they don’t change the Level of the Encounter).
  11. Resilience: Solo monsters need to have ways to reduce the chances of getting stun-locked (or similar). One way to accomplish this is to give them a save (Immediate Reaction) as soon as they are affected by anything allowing a save. A second method is to give them powers they can sacrifice to remove afflicting conditions.
  12. Situational Damage: One often overlooked design feature is to give monsters a bonus to damage when a certain favourable situation presents itself. The classic example is of course bonus Sneak Attack damage when you have Combat Advantage. But there are any number of possible situations such as: when a target is prone (or indeed any condition); when a target is bloodied; when the monster is bloodied; if the target is taking ongoing damage, etc.

Advanced Tips for Solo Monster Design

As noted at the top of the page, there are a few ideas I’ll be keeping from this article for the Vampire Bestiary…including:

  1. Boss Phases: Breaking up the action.
  2. Memorable Bosses: And now for something completely different.
  3. Random Action Generator: Building monsters one power at a time.
  4. Segmented Bosses: Very simple rules for fashioning multi-part monstrousities.
  5. Super-Solos: Monsters bigger than Gargantuan: castle sized, mountain sized, planet sized, star sized, solar system sized, galaxy sized and universe sized etc…admittedly this section won’t be in this first volume of the Vampire Bestiary.
  6. Weak Spots: Some very quick and dirty risk and reward style mechanics.
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