Sunday, March 11, 2012

5E Musings: Power = f (Level) ?

A friend once made a comment on the balbal, one of the monsters in the Asuang: Shapechanging Horrors supplement. He said that he found it jarring that a manananggal who has been weakened by the loss of its lower limbs would end up being higher in level than the actual statblock of the manananggal witch found in the same supplement. If something loses power, he argued, then it does not make sense to actually raise its level.  (For those who do not have a copy of the ebook, I ranked the manananggal as a level 11 elite controller, while the balbal was a level 15 brute.)

But a level 15 brute was not, in my opinion, inherently weaker than a level 11 elite controller. At the time, the measure that I primarily used to gauge the power of a 4E monster was through the xp that it gave when it was "defeated." A level 11 elite and a level 15 regular monster both gave 1200 XP, so in my own logic the two statblocks essentially represent the same monster. A manananggal witch, upon losing its lower half, degenerates and goes from cunning manipulator to base demon (hence the shift from controller to brute). The level gap simply means that, combat-wise, the witch interacts better with level 11 PCs while the balbal is something that level 15 PCs are more comfortable fighting against. But there's still a sense of PC growth because a creature that once could take on a party with only a sister-witch now requires 4 such brethren to be an adequate challenge. 

Level is not the only parameter for power in D&D. Aside from the monster example above, players have long been familiar with the linear fighters, quadratic wizards problem. But I won't delve into the PC side of things too much; I would instead like to look into monsters and how their level defines them.

Challenge Ratings are not Created Equal

When designing encounters back in D&D 3.5, one of the most important measures to consider is the Challenge Rating. In theory, a creature of challenge rating X will eat up 25% of the a level X party's combat-related resources. In addition, adding class levels to a monster will increase its CR depending on whether the class in question is associated or nonassociated: a 1-to-1 increase is seen with the former and a 2:1 ratio, up to the monster's original hit dice, after which things proceeded as a 1-to-1 again. It was somewhat a complicated system, especially if you're the type of DM who likes to add class levels to important monster NPCs. But it made sense to many DMs, and for the most part the CR system has been used for gauging fights.

Spamming your caster level to
cast Blasphemy? Not when I
have 50 HD, baby.
There were a lot of issues with the CR system, however. Even among creatures of the same CR, there were variations in power level that are not immediately apparent. A CR 7 succubus will likely cause more trouble than a CR 8 destrachan. Dragons are generally considered strong for their level, and that's before you optimize feat and spell selection. Orcs might be weak for their CR if you use them to build spellcasting classes, due to the weak spell save DCs from their -2 to intelligence, wisdom, and charisma. And don't get me started on the leShay, a 50 hit die, CR 28 monster from the epic level handbook.

In addition, DMs noticed that the CR X = 25% resource depletion did not apply as well to creatures when you start to get up to high to epic levels. Without detailing the intricacies of fights at high-level play, several threats would expend little of the party's resources while others will deplete everything despite being of the appropriate level.

Because of this, many alternative CR computations were adopted by DM's that liked high-level play. Some basic ones included computing CR as 3/4ths of the monster's ECL, while some like Upper_Krust adopted more complicated systems that were a chore to use but felt more accurate in play. (I used to know his golden rule/ silver rule by heart, but now I can't for the life of me understand the system he laid out.) UK computed that the CR of an ancient wyrm red dragon (CR 26 by the book) was actually 71.973!

Whether or not you like tinkering with CR's as written, it seems that monsters of the same challenge rating will not necessarily be of the same difficulty. Some will be easier, such as the CR 8 spellcasting orc, others will be of normal difficulty, such as the destrachan, while a certain squid headed psionic creature and his instagib "eat-your-brains" attack will likely be hard for a CR 8 monster. 

So why are they all level 8, if they provide different challenges to the party? Some would attribute it to bad design and fix the monster CRs. I believe that they are all CR8 becuase they can all reasonably interact with level 8 player characters. Throw even 10 of them at a level 13 party and they won't feel that it's any sort of challenge at all. Throw 1 as a boss fight for level 3 players, on the other hand, and you have a potential TPK.

On Minions and Solos

Lich Vestige:
Ancient spellcaster with centuries
of lore? Check.
Badass crown? Check.
Drops in 1 hit? Check.
Monster Vault
4E, of course, takes the varied difficulties of specific monsters sharing a level and integrates it into the game in the form of minions, elites, and solos. That is, 4-6 minions count as 1 standard monster, 1 elite counts as 2 monsters, and 1 solo counts as five monsters. While it is controversial, particularly for the 1-hp minions and the easy-to-lock solos, I believe that this particular implementation of monsters are a step in the right direction. After all, if you're a level 5 barbarian and you fight a bunch of CR 1/2 orcs, don't they go down in 1 hit anyway? The minion system ensures that they go down quickly and make the level 3 barbarian feel like the god of war, while at the same time keeping the orcs relevant as level 3 minions.

If there were flaws with the monster difficulty tiers in 4th edition, it was with the way they were presented. Like in my example with the manananggal witch above turning into a balbal, the thing to remember about 4E statblocks is that they are not the end-be-all of the monster's capabilities. Yes, for the purposes of combat, the lich vestige has only 1 hit point while simultaneously being a level 26 threat. But that doesn't mean that it has 1 hp while it floats around the highly damaging layer of Thanatos. To me, the vestige is a way to show players that where once liches scared them when it had 268 hp at level 14, they can now slay liches left and right as demigods. The two statblocks have roughly the same amount of xp, after all. (And I stick by that logic no matter what the Monster Manual fluff says about lich vestiges.)

But why do we have more than one statblock to represent the same creature? Essentially, the rigidity of 4E numbers mean that meaningful interactions between a party and a creature 4 or more levels away is very difficult. In combat they will either never hit the party (level - 4), or they will never be hit by the party (level + 4). But if the level 6 solo blue dragon is also the level 11 elite dragon, level 16 standard dragon, and level 21 minion dragon, then the same character can be meaningful without making it feel like the player characters are getting more powerful.

The problem with solos, on the other hand, is that representing 5 monsters at the same time is a tall order, even for dragons. Even with attacking twice on standard actions, minor action attacks, and interrupts here and there, the biggest problem is that as one creature, conditions are spammed onto the solo to make it nigh ineffective. Oftentimes, the fix to solos that I have seen is to give them more actions or turns in a round and to give it ways to mitigate or more easily escape harmful status effects. This is a good fix mechanically. But on a personal note, I prefer multiple turns as the purview of multi-headed monsters; also, I think that escaping a status that the player imposed feels like cheating to the player who scored the hit with his daily power. 

The very term "solo" puts these monsters in a tight spot. Veteran 4E DMs know that solos work best when they are not alone. That way, other monsters soak up status conditions, and the solo is able to move more. And if the party gangs up on the solo anyway, the minions can hurt them in turn. But then, let's state the obvious: That means that the term solo is not strictly representative of what they are in the game anymore.

Perhaps, instead of a monster that represents 5, we can think of a monster that can interact with a party who shares its level, but is inherently more dangerous than comparable creatures. But how can this be done? Well, dragons are big and hard to kill, and their breath can melt metal. The lich can use power word kill. The medusa can petrify. In a nuthsell, difficult monsters are more lethal. They can have save-or-die effects, or other things that can be regarded as "difficulty enhancers."

D&D Next Proposal

Power =/= f(level). Power == f(level, difficulty)

Monster level is a gauge for interacting with PCs. Ideally, a monster or NPC should have the capability to interact with players regardless of level, but if that cannot be achieved then the parties whose levels are arbitrarily close to the monsters can interact with it. 

In addition to their level, monsters have a tag that points out a default difficulty (easy, moderate, difficult).
  • Easy monsters are designed to be taken down by the party with ease, although they must remain threats especially when encountered in numbers. Perhaps their damage is low, or they are simply designed to be henchmen. Perhaps alternate modules exist to turn them into the 1hp, constant damage minions of 4E style.
  • Moderate monsters are the default type of monster.
  • Difficult monsters utilize one or more effects that make them more lethal than your standard monster. Perhaps alternate modules exist to downgrade their powers for those DMs who want to be less lethal.