When can I start petrifying people? Guidelines and advice for adding status effects to custom monsters

(If you’re looking for the quick and dirty chart, then just open this link. It’s all pretty intuitive for veteran 4e DMs, and with the number cheat sheet available at Sly Flourish, all the basics of creating any 4e monster are covered. Just be nice to your players and hold off on all the at-will daze powers that are save ends! If you want the full-on, hopelessly thorough treatment, read on.)

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So you’ve DMed a couple of 4e adventures for your buddies, and the PCs have generally curbstomped everything you have thrown at them. You want to give them a real run for their money next time, so you open the online monster builder, crack your knuckles, and get to work making some custom monsters. After a couple of hours of Dr. Frankenstein-esque machinations (complete with maniacal laughter), you emerge with monsters that can hand out blind and vulnerable 10 all with their auras, can stun with their at-will powers and, just for giggles, can swallow a PC whole. That’ll show ‘em! Yeah, it’ll show ‘em to the other table where Dominion is waiting because, all of a sudden, your game went from easy to completely impossible.

I don’t know that too many DMs will go to this extreme. However, many DMs have wondered exactly when their monsters can start inflicting 4e’s many status effects in such a way that is challenging but fair for PCs of any level. Many good DMs strike that balance instinctively, but some tips and guidelines might lend some clarity and also help reduce a bit of the trial and error. To that end, and with the help of the truly wonderful online Compendium, I poured through the latest and greatest monsters presented in the Monster Manual 3, Monster Vault, and Monster Vault 2: Threats to the Nentir Vale supplements (which constitutes about an 18% sample size of all 4e monsters). Sure enough, some reasonably consistent patterns of monster abilities emerged. Hopefully, what follows will help DMs make awesome, whine-resistant custom monsters for the whole party to enjoy.

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When monsters deal out status effects, four things matter: the level (and role) of the monster, the type of effect, how often the monster can inflict the effect in a combat, and how long the effect will last on the PC. Generally, if you know the first two, the last two are easy to figure out.

I’ll get to monster level and role in a second. With regard to types of status effects, I think they can be grouped into three distinct categories:

“Meh, kind of annoying”: Category One status effects are hindrances, but they do not directly impact PC killing power and they can be overcome with a little party coordination. These include forced movement, prone, grabbed, slowed, immobilized, ongoing damage, and vulnerable (any). Monsters start throwing these effects down right from the start of a character’s career, and a consistent part of a monster’s arsenal throughout.

“Healer, where is my saving throw?”: Category Two status effects directly impact the math of a PC’s attack in some way, or deny them the actions they need to maximize their damage. These include dazed, blinded, weakened, and restrained. I put restrained in this category even though it is the older brother to immobilize for a few reasons – it’s pretty rare, it involves an attack penalty, it usually makes a player ask for a granted move action or saving throw to escape it, and at paragon, controllers and lurkers start combining restrained with other debuffs with great results. Category Two effects are reasonably rare at low levels, but eventually PCs come to wear them like old shoes.

“Go to *&@#ing hell, DM”: Category Three status effects make players want to punch something in the face for real because they completely take the PC out of the combat for a short time in some way. These include dominated, stunned, petrified, removed from play, unconscious, and the ever-popular dead. These effects are usually a good cue to players that they are facing serious monsters, or that something climactic is happening in the story.

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Besides types, DMs also need to account for how often the monster can dish out the status effect in any particular combat. The DMG lists damage expressions for two different types of powers: normal/ at-will, and limited. Status effects generally work the same way. By at-will, I mean the monster’s basic powers as well as easily triggered actions, like Trigger: the PC hits me; Reaction: I hit him back, and eat some ongoing damage, too! At higher levels, at-will also includes auras or miss effects.

Monsters can also inflict worse status effects, but less often in a fight, through limited powers. That refers to any recharge or encounter powers a monster may get, or to actions with uncommon triggers, like a soldier laying down an effect only when a PC violates its mark. I’ve also added a third type – “highly limited,” which refers to status effects that are either very rare or usually require multiple rolls to pull off. For example, most Beholders can inflict stun, petrify, or a bunch of other stuff that can ruin a PC’s day, but each of these effects are highly limited in that they require a random roll to determine the eye stalk, an attack roll, and some failed saves.

By high heroic and into paragon, all monsters become able to deal Category One status effects all of the time, without too many issues. For the more vicious debuffs, monsters (and eager DMs) have to wait a few levels in order to be able to use them more often. Happily, controllers and lurkers are usually a step or two ahead of other monsters in terms of how frequently they use these effects. Lurkers usually specialize in one or two debuffs (like blinded) and affect one target, while controllers tend to have more variety in their power lists and can deal out different status effects to multiple PCs at a time.

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Finally, how long a status effect lasts usually depends on whether it is an end of next turn power (which I usually shorten to EoNT) or a save ends power. Low level monsters are more likely to dish out EoNT versions of any status effect. Depending on the debuff, save ends effects tend to have some sort of requirement attached to it, such as the lvl 5 Carrion Crawler who can daze PCs, but requires that they be prone first. Other monsters might inflict a save ends effect with their secondary attack, or as the effect of a failed save. To catch all of these various strings that are often attached to monster status effects, I’m calling all of those “save ends with requirements” powers.

Looking at immobilization powers across levels shows the difference between EoNT, save ends with requirements, and pure save ends versions. From levels 1-5, if a monster immobilizes a PC at-will, it will almost always be until EoNT. Of all the surveyed monsters that could immobilize, 55% of them inflict a save ends version. However, those powers are either limited or they have some kind of requirement. The Kobold Slinger has to hit his random roll for it, the Greenscale Trapper has to have a net handy (he only has three!), and other monsters have to use recharge powers for it. By high paragon, though, monsters skip past that end of next turn nonsense and deal out save ends immobilize 73% of the time. Further, less than half of those powers have any requirements or are limited in any way. When a paragon level Basilisk rolls up, the party should probably avoid standing in burst formation with one another, unless they really want to eat save ends immobilized (that gets progressively worse) every round.

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Alright, enough of the technical discussion. Let’s see where the rubber hits the road – how all of these elements work in actual play! It must be noted, through, that every last word of this comes with a huge Rule Zero asterisk attached. I call it the Giant Frog rule. This whole system of guidelines is all well and good, but then a lvl 3 Giant Frog hops into view, pulls this chart in with his minor action tongue attack, swallows and stuns it, and finally hops away like the chart was never there. At the end of the day, the DM can have his/ her monsters deal out whichever status effects at any time, as long as the group has fun. All I can offer in reply is that you should always feel free to break the rules, but everyone has more fun when you break them properly.

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The Status Effect Tree – Without further ado, here is the chart. You’ll notice that it doesn’t extend to epic level. That is because monsters generally don’t deal new debuffs at epic, nor do they deal them more often. At no point is at-will petrify a good idea. Epic level monsters simply combine effects more often, and also deal tons of damage, so a chart to high paragon is about all you need.

The Status Effect Tree – Comments – If you want the really, really thorough explanation of what each monster can do and how they do it, complete with lots of examples, here’s the same chart with some comments.

Frequency of Monster Status Effects Across Levels – Here are some statistics that show how often monsters inflict status effects.

Monster Status Effects that are Save Ends – These are some next level statistics that show how often monsters deals out effects that a save can end. Also included are statistics on how often monsters can deal effects freely (at-will) or if they have to resort to limited powers and/ or to jump through a few requirement hoops for it.

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