Friday, 20 January 2012

An Elite Boss (part 2)

This is part two in my series on the "Boss Monster" concept, created by The Angry DM.  Part 1 can be found here.  In it, I will talk about my experiences in adapting the concept to an elite monster.

The Premise
Since the introduction of "Solo" and "Elite" monsters, I have thought about the relative toughness of monsters at different levels, but the same XP.  What would it be like to fight a solo monster at a low level, then fight them again when you had grown stronger (represented by them now being elite), and then finally beating them when you had become stronger yet (and they were now standard).  It just so happened that I had a recurring villain (undead, of course), that could be a good example of this, so I set about working on Nemeia, my Tiefling Empress.

The History
At level 5, the party were first introduced to the ancient and powerful undead tiefling, when they foiled someone's plan to raise an undead army.  As luck would have it, the paladin of the group (A dragonborn by the name of Torinn) accidentally set in motion her animation and escape, and so has, for many levels, had the extra weight of guilt upon his scaled shoulders.

It was five levels later, and ten months had passed in the 'real world', before the heroes would stumble upon Nemeia's new plot.  She had opened pathways for both the dead and demons to come to her side, and was vowing to take over the Nentir Vale, making it the base of her ever-expanding undead nation.  When they came face to face with her, she was a level 12 solo, adapted via Quinn Murphy's Worldbreaker concept.  She threw some nasty effects around, encompassing the room in shadows and fire, and summoning help to her side.  The shifter cleric, Edgewood, was particularly scared, and spent most of the encounter cowering in the doorway.

The Challenge
Taking a look at her current XP, and consulted the charts to see what was an equivalent Elite monster, I decided that a level 17 elite was a rough fit.  So I planned to reintroduce her late in the paragon tier, with further plans and another attempt at restarting her lost empire.  But a simple Elite monster would not do as a follow-up of a Worldreaker solo!  And so I set about working out how a creature could be both Elite, and a Boss.

I used the same rules as ADM did initially: I split her HP into thirds, and created three identical copies of her.  Where the Solo Boss had three APs, I gave her two (+1 each time).  I made sure she had explosive 'end of stage' reactions, to really kick it into the next scene.  I split her powers up over the stages, making each stage a little different thematically. In particular, her aura grew as she was beaten down, and her powers changed to show a more angry, dangerous creature.  But how did it work?

The Result
Overall, Nemeia was a successfully dangerous foe.  However, that is not to say that what I built was a complete success!  On the night, I adapted and changed things, as needed to keep the game interesting, and keep her reasonably fair.  Interestingly, the first stage felt too easy, and her last stage could have been too hard.

Stage 1 had Nemeia with a large aura that did little damage; indeed, some of the party happily ignored all of it, and thus it was rather ineffective.  Being an elite creature, she had allies - at this point, it was two NPC giants that were helping the party, but that the empress dominated (this action started the combat).  As we were still missing a few of our players, I had one of the giants waver between helping and hindering, to try to keep the battle around the right level for them.  As it turned out, Nemeia's 110 HP were taken away very quickly, and even her regeneration didn't help as the cleric dished out a decent amount of radiant damage (as expected!).

The two other problems with her in this stage were purely of my design.  Firstly, she had too many powers.  Five active plus two triggered powers was a lot to recall and be fresh with, especially as many of them were to change shortly!  When next I create a boss monster (and *especially* for an elite boss), I will try to keep it to three or four powers at most.  Hopefully, focusing on fewer powers will also accent the changing nature of their opponent to the party.

Along this line, too many of the powers relied on each other.  In general, I like that - having powers that say "If the target is X, then Y" allows for more devious attacks that have to be set up well; having them all on one creature, however, means that the party will usually save vs most of the effects before the monster can get a second hit in (especially with paladins giving +6 to saves!).  It also limits the DM's options each round, but in a bad way.  I was finding that I had to study the powers carefully, to ensure I didn't play power B before power A was out there. 

Her domination in particular was hard to trigger - though, when it hit, it worked well.  Alkameer (an elven beastmaster ranger) turned and fled on his griffon mount, removing him from the encounter for a round or two, and leaving him without a weapon (he dropped his bow before his departure).

I ended up adding some more HP to Nemeia during the encounter, and let them have a proper short rest at the end of it.  A few players arrived towards the end, or after the end of the encounter, which would have left their encounter resources at quite different levels of depletion, so the rest was an evening of the PCs before the big final battle.

Story-wise, she hid, recovered herself, then attacked once she had recovered, but by then, she was into Stage 2. She had returned, and this time, she had a friendly Eye of Frost Beholder with her! (Frost because of story reasons: the party were tracking her through a snowy mountain range, where she had hidden *because* it was unlike her normal habitat).
Her regeneration was less, and her aura was shorter, but more fierce.   Fire now flavoured many of her attacks, and she set about summoning allies (though they never seemed to hang around for long!).  Again, there were too many powers for me to properly use them in the encounter, and a few subtle changes to certain powers were completely missed by me (I should have spent more time preparing and memorising her!  Or perhaps, simplifying her?).

Note also her role change: from controller to skirmisher.  This was something I tried to do to really emphasise the various stages, though it was lost a little as the stages rolled by so quickly.  There *was* some control in the first stage, but there was still damage, too.  Perhaps, with fewer powers, these roles could be more focused?

Stage 3 started with the arrival of her personal Rime Hound / Winter Wolf amalgamation.  Here, her aura was only against those adjacent to her, but it was four times as strong as it had started, and covered two damage types.  No one was resisting it now!

Instead of regeneration, Nemeia now has a whole lot better defences, and is invisible to those too far away.  Sadly (or fortunately), I totally forgot this bonus until part way through this stage, and decided to leave it out.  It was clear that she was enough of a threat by then!  The overlapping auras of two chillborn zombies she raised to help really hit the PCs hard. Mid-battle, Escharra (the drow scout), who had danced around death a few times already, finally burnt away.

As mentioned, this was most definitely the harder stage - the aura and the PCs dwindling resources made it a challenging battle.  The assassin (Isis, a Deva) spoke openly about fleeing the battlefield and leaving the others behind, but to the benefit of the group, stayed behind and battled their foe. 

As well as ignoring the "Mist of Shadows" invisible feature, I also toned down the "Shifting Shadows" reaction, only using it one or twice.  I'm not sure why I thought that using it at-will would have been fun...for anyone other than the DM, that is. 

The Conclusion
Most clearly, when compared to a Solo Boss Monster, an Elite Boss is quite fragile.  But that does not make it impossible to use!  With proper planning and support, it can work; however, I would suggest asking yourself: "Why does this have to be Elite, and not a Solo?"  Clearly, in the case of Nemeia, I had a good story reason for this; I will probably stick with Solo Bosses from here on, though.

Next time (be it an elite or solo), I would drop the number of  powers per stage.  Four powers (basic melee, ranged, some recharge ability, and a reaction) are probably enough, with the slight chance of a fifth *if* that fifth is the "end of a stage" power, and the others are relatively simple.  So, 3+1 or 4+1 is about where I would have it (not the 6+1 I had for each stage!).  It could be interesting increasing or lowering the powers per stage, too.  Starting out simple and building, or possibly losing powers as the enemy was whittled away.

I thought the increasing aura was good, as it allowed for some heavy damage at the end, whilst not scaring the PCs into fleeing at the start.  Likewise, removing the regeneration from the final stage ensured that the battle wouldn't drag out at the end.  However, to suit this better, I think that front-loading more defensive powers (such as the hiding) might have been better.  Some ways of mitigating an attack or two at the start could have provided reason for a little fear (the good "how are we going to kill her" kind; not the bad "where did my arm just go?" kind), whilst keeping her appearance threatening but not impossible.

Oh, and yes, I have realised that her XP is wrong.  It's just a typo, not sure how it made it through ;)

1 comment:

  1. Having played Torinn in this encounter, I think the analysis is pretty accurate. There were instances were some powers were forgotten about until it was too late, which supports the "too many power" debate.

    Also, as the aura got stronger, it got smaller, eventually just the burst 1. The size of an aura should probably be set based on the party.

    An aura 1 that does 20-30 damage a round is not too devastating to a mainly ranged party, but was nasty to our mostly-melee party.