Thursday, December 08, 2011

Running Monsters - A 4e Monster Hack

There is a trend with RPGs that I've noticed over the years. When a game first comes out, everyone jumps right on board, playing the game as it was written, glossing over the bumps, and occasionally giving feedback on what could be done better.

Good game companies respond to this feedback, and if they're diligent, try to improve their game with upgrades that smooth out those previously mentioned bumps. If a company doesn't do that, then another company might come along and do it for them. I think the best example of this is Paizo's Pathfinder. It's basically the ultimate D&D 3.5 "hack". Seems it's pretty popular, too.

So. The longer a game is played, the more likely it will be "house-ruled". The 4e version of Dungeons & Dragons has been out for nearly 4 years now. I think WotC has been as diligent as a large company can be with encouraging player feedback and responding to the gaming communities' needs. You might argue that Essentials was even a result of that. Nevertheless, as the game ages, more and more "hacks" of the game can be found. Maybe someone didn't like "this" rule or "that" rule. A quick scan of the gaming blogs (even just the 4e gaming blogs) shows that people are playing the game in a bunch of different ways.

There's nothing wrong with this. You could say that even board games get this treatment. Have you ever sat down in someone's home and NOT had some house-rule version of Monopoly played?


All this is leading up to something that occurred to me the other day. As a DM, one of the biggest challenges I face is running monsters. Monsters have a wide variety of different powers that are used under different circumstances. While Player indecision at the table is talked about a lot (particularly as a factor in slow game play), the DM can face similar indecision, especially when faced with solo monsters with multiple powers. While WotC did a great thing a year ago or so when they changed the layout of the monster stat blocks, I'm finding that this is not enough. As a DM it would be nice if the monsters "ran themselves". This way, nature could take it's course, and it would be less of a contest between myself and my players on a tactical level. It wasn't until yesterday I figured out how to do this.

Basically what I would do is set up each major monster with a "combat profile". What that means, is that I inventory the powers of the creature, and then set up a small table to determine (at random) what power a monster might use. In this way, you can sort of "animate" the monster to act on its own. The only real decision you have to make is the creature's movement (which is much more difficult to randomize).

You might recognize Kalarel, the Scion of Orcus. Mean guy. Lots of powers. Let's break it down.

Side note: This stat block is in the old format. I'll break his powers down by action.

Standard Action Powers - 

Rod of Ruin
Decaying Ray
Master of the Undead (limited use)

Minor Action Powers -

Touch of Ruin (conditional use)
Call of the Grave (rechargeable use)

Five powers, split between standard actions and minor actions. This particular version of Kalarel has no movement action powers. So how do we automate this guy? Well, let's take his environment into consideration first. He's near an underground portal, has some undead servants helping him out. He can't fly, so it's not like he has powers that would assist him in that kind of arena. He does have a mix of ranged and melee attacks, though, in order to handle both ranged and nearby enemies. To "automate" this guy, this is how I'd set up his powers:

Die Roll (d6) - Power Used

1 to 2 - Decaying Ray (S), Move (M), Touch of Ruin (Mn - applicable)
3 to 4 - Rod of Ruin (S), Move (M), Touch of Ruin (Mn - if applicable)
5 - Master of the Undead (S - if applicable), Move (M), Touch of Ruin Mn - if applicable)
6 - Decaying Ray (S), Move (M), Call of the Grave (Mn - if applicable)

Now, you'll notice that there are a couple of things I ignored. Recharge powers? I hate having to remember them. Instead of worrying about the recharge, I just assign them a lower probability on the "Powers Used" chart. In the above example, Call of the Grave is a recharge power. Thus, I set it as the "6" on the die roll. Of course, you can always fool around with the probability. You might wish to use a d10, which equates to a percentage a little easier. Something like this, maybe:

Die Roll (d10) - Power Used

1 to 4 - Decaying Ray (S), Move (M), Touch of Ruin (Mn - applicable)

5 to 7 - Rod of Ruin (S), Move (M), Touch of Ruin (Mn - if applicable)

8 to 9 - Master of the Undead (S - if applicable), Move (M), Touch of Ruin Mn - if applicable)

10 - Decaying Ray (S), Move (M), Call of the Grave (Mn - if applicable)

Changing the die changes the probability some. Essentially, powers you think will be used more often will get more pips.

Finally, for really complex solo creatures whose power profiles change abruptly, you might create two charts. Some creatures go a little crazy once they're bloodied. In that event, you might create a random Power Used profile for when the creature is healthy, and one for when the creature is bloodied. The nice thing about this system is that you can expand it as much as you like.  The only real drawback, is that it does require some knowledge of the creatures you are running. It's good for a Dungeon Master to have this information anyway, but it you're pulling out random monsters, you might use a generic chart like this:

Die Roll (d10) - Power Used

1-4 - Basic Melee or Ranged Attack
5-7 - Optional Full Melee or Ranged Attack
8-9 - Encounter Power
10 - Recharge Power

I plan on using this in the future with my monsters so I can be a more efficient DM at the table. I'd love to hear what you think about his idea? Leave me note!

Until next time...

Game excellently with one another.


  1. Anonymous2:59 PM

    cool idea, I use a system much the same (weighted, but random) ...or just get extra folks to run the NPCs and 'monsters' ...heck, I have one guy that enjoys running traps and obstacles for me!

  2. @chad360 Thanks! Yeah, my main goal is to try to save the DM some mechanical work, so that he or she can focus on the story & interaction work. :-)

  3. I like it. One of the advantages to using a d6 to assign actions is that monster powers recharge on a d6. So, if the roll to determine what the monster does could also be the recharge roll. So, if a power recharges on a 5-6, assign that power (plus whatever else) to a roll of 5 or 6. After all, you usually want to use rechargeable powers as soon as they recharge.

  4. @Benoit - Glad you enjoyed the post! Yes, combining the recharge with the die roll isn't a bad variant at all. Thanks for stopping by!

  5. Hm, yep I like it very much. After playing Castle Ravenloft Boardgames I was thinking about making "self-running" standart monsters, so that DM ran only some distinctive once - like commanders or champions.
    And I see your hack as a good way to do it. Will definitely try it.

  6. Anonymous3:37 PM

    Interesting idea. It seems like a lot of extra work for the DM to literally create a chart like this for each solo, but I could see this as a useful guideline for DMs who want to run such a monster on the fly.
    Personally, I try to run my monsters with as much role playing as I can. If it's a dumb beast, it's probably going to go after the nearest or most obvious threat with the nastiest attack it has available. If it's intelligent, it will save its most powerful abilities for the most devastating moments. It's rare that randomly choosing what the monster does will result in the monster behaving believably, but I'm sure it can happen.

  7. @Pavel Berlin - Thank you! Yeah, now that I think about it, the seeds of his idea may have started when I got a hold of Wrath of Ashardalon (a similar game). Let me know how it goes!

  8. @onlinedm - This method might not be for some, as it does add a little work. My biggest problem, though, was deciding (on a turn by turn basis) what my monsters were going to do. It helps me eliminate my decision paralysis. Besides, the heroes will usually have no idea why a certain creature is acting a certain way. Certainly, if the combat is wrapped up in a story element that has to go off, then certainly, that story element would get higher priority than a random die roll. Thanks for stopping by! I appreciate the comments!

  9. This seems like a very good way to ensure that less smart monsters don't fight too intelligently, which is a problem a lot of DMs struggle with.

    I don't think I'd ever use it for a major boss, though - those guys should always use the optimal tactics. And none of them are more complex than a PC, so it shouldn't take you any longer to do their move than it would take a player. Use the chart for their minions.

  10. If nothing else making a chart like that could give you a template for a monsters turn. Even if you didn't want to determine it randomly it is helpful tor organize it like that. That could be awesome for the somewhat more generic baddies.