February 15th, 2010

Rastan Kill Monsters

D&D and Similar Games Fall Apart at High Level. They Just Do.

Consider for the moment, looting the bodies. After all, the second half of an encounter, after "kill monsters" is "take their stuff."

At low levels, monsters encountered generally have little or no treasure. A few copper or silver pieces, a small gemstone here and there; the goblin chieftain might have a +1 mace, which when you're first level is an exciting find. But if you've got a party of 10th level characters, say, fighting giants, and they go through a normal on-level encounter, the commensurate treasure reward is somewhere in the thousands of gp; suddenly even the trash monsters are just these enormous piñatas full of gold pieces, waiting to be smashed open and have the loot come pouring out.

Why is this? Well, because high-level heroes need high-level gear, which is made incredibly expensive to keep it out of the hands of low-level heroes and thus muck up the game balance (beware the 2nd level fighter with a +5 battleaxe). And also because, depending on the particular group, why would you go through the risk of daring the demilich's Tomb of Gotchas if there wasn't the possibility of walking away with a diamond the size of your head at the end?

This leads to situations where you're fighting grunts wearing +2 chainmail and carrying vorpal swords, not only to bump up their threat level against the heroes, but also so that if defeated, the loot they drop can be taken back to town and sold (because the heroes are still wearing the +3 mithral plate they got from that last dragon's hoard, so they might as well sell the +2 chainmail). But of course, that requires there can be somebody in town who has 1,000 gp to buy the +2 chainmail ... but that person is probably a 5th level expert/noble (in 3.x) or even a 0-level character (in previous versions). So ... dang! Why are we wasting our time with these giants? Let's just ransack the town! Ack! That means the merchant has to have some way of countering 10th-level Chaotic Troublemaker PCs ... but if the merchant (or their bodyguard) is all that, why aren't they out there stomping the giants?

And so on.

Of course, the most popular and time-honored way of dealing with the issue is "Don't look behind the curtain." Establish an unwritten agreement (or even a written one if you like) with the players that This Is the Way the World Works, and that you'll continue to provide the monsters and treasure as long as they agree not to go ransacking the campaign city or otherwise turning the setup against itself.

Another possibility is to continually move the campaign city to a higher and higher bracket ... from the Village of Hommlet to the City of Greyhawk, from the City of Greyhawk to the interdimensional city of Sigil -- where people on the street do routinely carry vorpal swords because the economy is just that huge. Personally, while I see the value of this idea as a problem-solving tool, I hate it from a storytelling perspective. Planescapey stuff makes my teeth itch and is completely the kind of fantasy I never want to touch with the proverbial 10' pole.

My personal favorite way of dealing with it is "never go above 10th level," but certain corners of the gaming table are chafing at that prospect. ;P I have been observing LotRO to see how it copes with "super-high level characters in a generally low-level world," but honestly I don't think it's done that good a job. Outside of the instances, it's still okay and mostly-resembles Middle-earth, but you start going on those end-game raids, you might as well leave Professor Tolkien at the door because nothing in there makes sense from a storytelling point of view. It's all game mechanics.

That doesn't even begin to deal with high-level cheese like the good ol' "scry'n'fry" teleporting ambush and character death-and-resurrection being an expected part of the adventuring day. But I'll get to that rant later...

-The Gneech
Rastan Kill Monsters

On Minions

Minions are a neat idea in 4E that in practice end up rather meh. The idea is to be able to fill a room with monsters and have the heroes spend time mowing through them, getting to feel awesome while the real foes get themselves into position, do buffs, and what-have-you.

The difference between a "minion" and "just a really low-level monster," is that minions have the similar attacks and defenses to other "on-level" foes ... but they only have 1 hit point. In short, they're made of paper.

Sounds good in theory; in practice, minions don't usually last past the first round. The party wizard tosses out his AoE attack, and the minions are all gone -- very often without even having had a turn.

But! The idea is still worth trying to salvage. So today for my Giants game, I started putting together a usable "Minion" NPC class for 3.5. What I came up with is pretty simple:

HD: 1 hp/level.
BAB: +1/level.
Fort/Ref/Will: +1/2 level, rounded down.
Class AC Bonus: +1/2 level, rounded down. (Does not stack with worn armor, but does stack with natural armor.)
Proficiencies: All Simple and Martial Weapons; Light, Medium, Heavy Armor, and Shields.
Skill Points: 2 + Int mod/level (8 + Int mod at 1st level)
Class Skills: Balance, Climb, Hide, Intimidate, Jump, Listen, Move Silently, Ride, Search, Spot, Swim, Tumble
Special: Minion weapons all do damage as if they are size Medium or the minion's actual size, whichever is smaller.
CR: Total levels -4 or CR 1/4, whichever is higher

It's sort of a half-class, half-template, as you replace all of a given critter's hit dice or levels with minion levels, rather than stacking the Minion levels on top of their hit dice as you would with another class. For example, an ogre normally starts with four hit dice; if you wanted to make an 8th level ogre warrior, they'd have 4d8 (humanoid) + 4d8 (class) ... which would give them a huge pile of hit points that they really don't need if they're going to be cannon fodder. So instead, you strip out all their racial hit dice (and associated feats, stat raises, etc.) and just give them 8 levels of minion. The result looks something like this:

Ogre Minion

CR 4, CE Large Giant Minion 8
Init +0; Spd 25
Senses Darkvision (Ex): 60 ft., Low-light Vision (Ex) Listen +5, Spot +6

AC 17 (FF 17, Touch 9)
hp 24 (HD 8+16)
Saves Fort +8, Ref +6, Will +6

Atk +12/+7 base melee, +7/+2 base ranged;
Grapple +17; Face 10'x10'; Reach 10'
Melee +13/+8 Greatclub 1d10+7
Ranged +7/+2 Javelin 1d6+5

Abilities STR 20/+5, DEX 10/+0, CON 15/+2, INT 6/-2, WIS 10/+0, CHA 7/-2
Feats Armor Proficiency: light, medium, heavy; Cleave, Power Attack, Shield Proficiency, Simple Weapon Proficiency, Weapon Focus: Greatclub
Skills Climb +2, Jump +2, Listen +5, Spot +6

Possessions Greatclub; Javelin; Hide Armor, 3d6 gp

Note that this particular minion is intended to go into an 8th-level(ish) encounter, but is only CR 4. That's partly due to the wonky math of 3.x encounter balancing. With only 24 hit points, this would be a lousy foe to throw solo at four 4th-level characters. They'd chew him up, and it's not what he's intended for.

But the 3.x CR/EL system has built into it the idea that if one creature is "EL," then two of the same creature is "EL+2," and four is "EL+4." Thus, if you want the equivalent of one CR 8 foe, you have four CL 4 minions. It's wonky, but the 3.x CR/EL system has always been wonky.

Note also that he still comes out with 24 hit points. That's not enough to survive a big ol' fireball to the face, but it's probably enough to survive if he makes his saving throw. Similarly, it's probably too high for the fighter to one-punch him at 8th level unless the fighter is really tricked-out or manages to crit. I haven't decided if that's a bug or a feature. My original idea was that the minion would get 1 hit point per level and then his Con bonus once ... which in the case of the ogre minion here would give him 10 hit points total, definitely in one-punch range for just about any 8th level character no matter what they're doing. But that seemed too low, leading to the same problem with 4E minions, i.e., that they die before they even get a chance to go.

Another option would be for them to get 1/2 a hit point plus their Con bonus per level. For the ogre here that would still put him at 20 hit points, which makes him a two-hitter for the average 8th level fighter (which might be feasible with a full attack at +9/+4 or so). Finally, there's the possibility that they only get their Con bonus/level and no hit points for the class, with a minimum of 1 hp/level for those sickly minions with a Con of 11 or lower, and possibly a maximum of 4 hp/level for those tankety minions with Con 19+. That would put our ogre here at 16 hp ... which an 8th level fighter might be able to do on a really good round, especially with Power Attack, but isn't so low that he might as well not roll the dice at all.

Hmm. Must ponder!

-The Gneech