Fighting One Monster is Boring

by Ameron (Derek Myers) on June 3, 2009

As a PC, I’d rather face five opponents than one. And, as the DM, I’d rather throw five opponents against the PCs than just one. This has been my take on combat since my earliest days of D&D. As new editions of D&D got released I kept an open mind and explored the possibilities again, but every time I found the outcome the same. It’s better to have the PCs fight a mob rather than one really tough foe.

I’ve encountered very few gamers (DMs or players) who disagree with me on this point. The number one reason I’ve heard is that it’s boring to fight just one monster no matter how powerful it is. So if no one wants to fight just one monster then it sounds to me like something’s not right with the game. And if that’s the case perhaps we can do something to change that. Let’s figure out a way to make fighting one really tough opponent as much fun as fighting five guys.

It’s boring fighting one monster

The following is a summary of an actual encounter from a recent game.

Unable to take a short rest before heading into the next room of the temple, the party faced a new foe with most of their resources depleted. They were out of Daily and Encounter powers before the fight even started, but they entered the fray determined to defeat the demon corrupting the church. The defenders rushed in to keep the monster in place. It tried hitting the defenders, but it missed most of the time. It didn’t take long for the PCs to realize that the only way this monster was going to defeat them was if all their d20s suddenly rolled nothing but 1s. By the end of the encounter all the PCs were still standing and only 1 was bloodied.

This was considered a balanced encounter according to the 4e rules. In fact, with the PCs not getting a short rest before the final fight it gave an edge to the monster. Nevertheless it really felt lop-sided. The melee characters waded into combat, protected by the defenders, and swung away with their at-will attacks over and over again. Meanwhile, the Wizard had very few options. Most of her remaining powers (and the ones that dealt the most damage) affected large areas. With the rest of the party swarming the monster every round the Wizard was forced to use Magic Missile over and over again.

Making single opponents more versatile

The battle described above would have played out very differently if the monster had any of the following.

  • Attack scores capable of hitting the PC with the highest AC.
  • Hit Points equal or greater than the entire party’s hp.
  • Defenses high enough to stand up to the party’s toughest attacker.
  • Special abilities or powers capable of targeting multiple foes.

Usually a balanced foe will only have one or two of these, as was the case in the example above. The monster had high defenses but couldn’t hit the defenders with any regularity. The combat turned into a race to 0 hp. Everyone surrounded the monster and kept doing the same at-will attacks over and over again. The monster was similarly limited in what it could do because it’s only means of attack was its claws.

If we had the opportunity to do this battle over again what might the DM have done differently in order to make it more challenging for the PCs? Here are a few suggestions.

  • Better attack scores
  • Attacks that target more than just AC
  • A burst power capable of affecting multiple melee combatants (possibly rechargeable)
  • Add more monsters or minions

Adding the suggestion above may have made the combat more interesting but it would not have remained balanced according to 4e rules. The easiest way to bring it back to balanced is to reduce the monster’s starting hit points. Lowering the monster’s hp by ¼ would have kept the monster’s power in check. Now if the DM threw in a few other opponents it would have forced the party to handle the small but annoying minions while avoiding the attacks of the brute. It also would have given the monsters opportunities to flank or shepherd the PCs into specific areas of the battlefield, which in this case had rough terrain, a pit and obstacles that provide cover.

Don’t forget to have fun

If you find yourself in a situation similar to the one above there are a few things that the PCs can do to keep it fun. If all you’ve got left are at-will attacks, why not go for style over substance? If you realize that victory was all but a foregone conclusion then start doing things simply for the “cool” factor. Sure, your sword hits more often and does more damage, but how cool is it to take a monster down with your bare hands? Damn cool! Drop your sword and punch it!

Have you encountered similar situations as a player or DM? What did you learn from a lop-sided combat? What did you do to compensate? Share your stories and tell us about your own situation.

{ 14 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Wyatt June 3, 2009 at 9:48 am

If the monster sucks so bad that it can’t do anything unless the PCs have no encounter powers, I don’t run it. I don’t like the “you don’t get a short rest, :P” style of multiple-encounter balance because it’s boring to just use your at-wills. However, I disagree with the assertion that all solos are boring, or that 5-man mobs are more fun. In the example you showed, it seems to me that it was the lack of a short rest which screwed the encounter. If the monster had been able to hold its own without gimping the players like that, it wouldn’t have been so infuriating.

Wyatt’s last blog post..Sargasso Write-Up

2 Shinobicow June 3, 2009 at 10:07 am

I like fighting one monster to be honest. To me, boss fights in a typical video game usually feature one big solo beast. If you listen to the podcast from Wizards this month, it seems that they recognized the problem with solos being a bit boring and now they are trying to fix the problem by making them all more interesting.

To me a solo says one thing: Big Beast, use dailies. I agree that a lot of solos are simply to boring to serve as real solos. I refuse to use a solo unless it is truly awesome and the finale to a big adventure.

Shinobicow’s last blog post..New Character Builder Update

3 Ameron June 3, 2009 at 10:10 am

@Wyatt
Thanks for your comment. I suppose there are going to be the occasional solo monsters that are ok, but for the most part I’ve found them seriously lacking.

Continuing from the example from the article, if the PCs had their encounter powers back then the fight would have been a lot faster and the monster wouldn’t have stood a chance. As it was the fight presented little challenge to the PCs even though all they had was at-will powers.

And for the record, the PCs opted not to take the short rest. This wasn’t a case of the DM trying to make the fight tougher.

@Shinobicow
It sounds like you and I are more or less on the same page with this (as far as finding solos boring). I haven’t listened to the new Wizards podcast yet, but I’m glad I’m not the only one who realized that the solos don’t seem to work.

4 The Last Rogue June 3, 2009 at 2:03 pm

A good post; especially in the face of more dynamic, multi-enemy combats, solo fights can bog down. For this reason, I like Solos with lots of choices and the ability to move or move characters, as this tends to up the ante a bit and the action. Also, I’d not hesitate to use terrain, traps, or hazard features in an ‘epic boss fight’, as often seen in video games.

The Last Rogue’s last blog post..Some Quick Thoughts on Skill Challenges

5 RPG Ike June 3, 2009 at 6:23 pm

Last Rogue’s got it right—the solos I’ve run have been flat without some serious terrain features.

I think it would be more accurate to say that fighting one monster in 4E is probably boring, but we can change all of that, can’t we? Single monsters, as Shinobocow mentioned, can be extremely satisfying to fight, and I always strive for that “videogamey” feel of an epic entrance, a grand fight, and a narrow victory.

With 4E it’s been more difficult for me to do this. I’ve had way more success (and fun) running multi-critter combats in 4E, as the rules seem really to be designed for. Whatever works, I guess.

6 mike June 3, 2009 at 10:55 pm

I think its always tough to put players in a fight when they just have at wills, i think most players would not have much fun with it because the other attacks add to the fun and variety of the 4e game.

now a mix between 1 monster and a mob is i think the ettin.

I love this creature, because its the classic 1 big bad guy, yet it goes twice a round. how freaking sweet is that.

I say if your making your own boss monster, take out a nasty attack to just let the thing go twice a turn and watch as your PC’s shake their heads in awe.

mike’s last blog post..The Two Dollar Game Session

7 Ameron June 5, 2009 at 10:20 am

@The Last Rogue
I think you’ve nailed it. The solo monsters need to use terrain to their advantage and need to have choices. The monsters my DM has used to date haven’t had much variety in their attacks and in the example above, the PCs limited the monster’s ability to use terrain.

@RPG Ike
I’ve always preferred to fight many monsters over just one. But this is especially true with 4e. I think the best solution is to give solo monsters multiple attacks each round. It may not sound balanced, but I think it will add the “danger” that we all seem to expect these tough baddies to have.

@mike
Excellent suggestion. I think the Ettin addresses my biggest problem areas. Good call.

Regarding encounters where PCs have nothing by at-wills left, I think it’s a good experiment that shouldn’t be overlooked. I’m not saying it should be done with any real frequency, but it forces PCs to be creative.

8 Suddry June 6, 2009 at 8:11 am

Ameron, from now on we will only be fighting solos until you learn to like them.

Signed,

Your DM

;)

9 Dungeon June 17, 2009 at 2:50 pm

Personally, i like the ‘Epic Boss’ fights that sometimes happen when there is only one creature or foe. If the PCs have the upper hand in combat, make it memorable. Really role-play it to the extreme!
For example, say the big bad guy is a Giant, have him do something reckless that causes the reason why the PCs can kill/defeat it so easily.
like, as the group enters the room have them see the Giant in fustration knock down a wall on top of himself (making the players think he is weakened) this way, the group still gets the upper hand and it makes it seem like it would have been a tougher fight… if the Giant didn’t screw up.
If this doesn’t help, maybe you can ask your players how to handle such a situation.

10 Ameron June 22, 2009 at 1:14 pm

@Dungeon
I agree that fighting the Epic Boss can be a lot of fun, I’d just like to see them have more variety in their power selection. Some do, but so far the one’s If faced as a PC haven’t.

11 Dean September 7, 2009 at 1:38 pm

One problem with a lot of solos is that they just don’t have enough actions. They may have 4x the hp, but often they don’t have 4x the actions.

12 Ameron September 9, 2009 at 9:27 am

@Dean
My solution is to give them a couple of action points and reduce their hit points to balance it off. It makes things a lot more interesting.

13 skywise November 9, 2009 at 1:57 pm

What about the Beholder? I think that makes a pretty classic fight. All the hitpoints, plus multiple attacks on its round, and an attack on all of your players rounds, with different beams attacking different defenses! Plus, 2 actions points makes for a pretty wild fight, I would say.

14 Grumph February 25, 2011 at 8:39 pm

Exactly skywise. The Beholder, my personal favorite monster, is the perfect solo fight for all those reasons. But add a few minions and it only get’s better :) Good post D’s M.

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