April 19, 2009

Avoiding grind in D&D4

Stalker0 on EN World posted a guide to avoid grindy combats in D&D4. All credit to him (and to Skallgrim who added some points).

(This is pretty much a "note to self", but maybe it helps someone else.)

Stalker0’s Guide to Anti-grind

A common complaint of 4e is the notion of “grind”. From the majority of discussions, grind seems to be widely defined as the point in combat where the party has effectively “won”, but have not yet beaten the monsters. Bereft of encounter powers, the players begin beating the remaining creatures down with an endless series of at will powers while the monsters continue to attacks. The monsters at this point have little chance of harming the party past anything a short rest can’t fix. In other words, it’s combat with no purpose.

I have now played and dmed in a party from 3rd to 11th, and I have seen a lot of what causes grind, and what leads to exciting combats. Here are my findings for those who are interested.

Note: My group has always had one striker. Further, we have not yet played past 11th level. If you feel your grind is due to no strikers or to very high level play, this guide may not be as much help to you.

Higher level Monsters – The Source of Grind

In some ways, 4e combat works exactly the opposite way of 3rd edition. In 3rd edition, when you threw high level encounters at your party, you often risked the chance of quickly killing some or all of your party (offense scaled quicker than defense). Such combats were often the source of great drama and excitement coupled with poignant loss and sometimes outright anger when a character was defeated.

In 4e, it works the opposite way (defense scales faster than offense). In 4e, fighting high level monsters usually doesn’t kill your party quickly as their damage doesn’t scale that fast. But the monsters have very high defenses and hit points making them hard to hit and very hard to kill…which leads to the concept of grind.

So my first piece of advice….focus your combat designs at the same level as your party. Use monsters of the party’s level (and scale other monsters into that range to accomplish the same). Your goal is to generate as much challenge to your party as you can with a standard monster group, and the rest of the guide is designed to help you do that.

Also, you may find some other pleasant side effects to sticking with standard monster encounters. My group has been steadily changing their opinion on maximizing their attack stats and damage, because the reality is 4e combats are decently quick when they are put at the party’s level, and you don’t have to be optimized to fight such encounters.

Know thy Monsters

The first tool in the DMs toolbox is his large variety of monsters and monster types. Knowing how to utilize these types can go a long way towards helping you create fun and challenging encounters…right at the party’s level.

1) Artillery – Artillery is my favorite monster type from an anti-grind perspective. They combine high attack bonuses and damage with weak defense, the perfect way to challenge your party without them having to go through hell and back to kill the creature.
a. Lower level Artillery – Artillery is the best monster type for monsters that are lower than your party’s level. Their attack bonuses are high and they often hit defenses other than AC. I often use artillery 2 levels lower than my party and they still back a punch!
b. Use focus fire with Artillery – If you think your party seems nearly invincible at times, show them fear with focused fired artillery. Two or three artillery monsters hitting the same party member can drain them quickly. Also switch targets to bloodied creatures to create a sense of excitement and fear in your players.
c. Protect your Artillery! – Artillery is frail, so give them some front line support or terrain to cover them. I find artillery so effective, that often my players will take OAs and use skills to cross terrain to take out the artillery first. It creates a great sense of accomplishment and helps to shake up the standard routine of some combats.

2) Brutes – Even though they have exceptional amounts of hitpoints, brutes have low defenses, and so often aren’t as grindy as soldiers.
a. Check your errata – The Monster Manual’s errata increased the damage of many of the brutes. Make sure you are giving your brutes their correct damage.
b. Combine with minions – Brutes have good damage but often suffer from low attack bonuses. Use minions to aid another and flank, providing +4 to your attack rolls!
c. Combine with auto damage and auras – Brutes excel in areas where everyone is taking autodamage. They can take the pain far long than anything else. Use terrain that hurts everyone to give brutes an edge and to speed up combats.

3) Controllers – Controllers can be a tricky monster type to use properly, but are very good at taking a low level group of monsters and making them more effective against the party. Anti-grind requires using control, without using too much control.
a. Watch your action denying effects – Controllers with action denying effects (daze, stun, immobilize, slow) can be fun to use and help to challenge a party, but used too often and they can create boredom at the table. (try using a well protected gibbering mouther and watch the grind begin!) Rarely use two controllers that deny actions together.
b. Spread the control around. Players might hate getting controlled once, but you can really make a player bored by controlling him the entire fight. Feel free when possible to spread your heinous effects to the rest of your party, sharing is caring after all
c. Use terrain. Controllers, more than other monster types, tend to benefit a lot from terrain. Using terrain can help make a controller effective, but also provide your party a way to use the terrain against them.

4) Lurkers – I have found lurkers to be a quirky monster types, with a lot of grab bag abilities. I don’t recommend them as a common monster, but they can be useful for their surprise factor.
a. Lurkers are mid combat fighters – There’s always an urge to get all of your monsters out on the table as quickly as possible, but many lurkers have the ability to remain undetected for large portions of the fight. Use that to surprise your players.
b. Cull the weak – Lurkers are excellent foes to take an unsuspecting party member down quickly. Wait for a player to get down to bloodied or below, and right before his cleric buddy can give him that heal, your lurker comes out and hits him hard. This can be great for shaking up a fight that the party sees as completely in their favor, and suddenly bring the drama right back to the combat.
c. Get in, and get gone. Lurkers are masters of retreat and often shouldn’t be “killed”. Use them to provide surprise damage, but don’t require your players to kill them to move on. Have them retreat, perhaps to be used again later.

5) Skirmishers – These are probably your mainstay in most fights. They have decent but not high defenses, and can provide solid damage when used properly.
a. Use other monsters to gain combat advantage – A lot of skirmishers gain their big damages from combat advantage. Combine skirmishers with minions to set up flanks, or use brutes to really provide some damage focus. Many controllers are also good at providing combat advantage.
b. Know when to fold them – Skirmishers are designed for hit and run attacks, so hit….and then run! If the fight is going badly, feel free to have skirmishers start escaping….only to join up with another encounter and fight again! This prevents the late combat grind people complain about, and hey it makes sense…skirmishers are cowards!

6) Soldiers – Soldiers are the most grindy monster type. They have exceptionally high defenses and hitpoints, and don’t have that much offense. In short….grind city. While the occasional solider is good to take hits of your brute or to protect your artillery, don’t use soldiers on mass or the fight will end in a slug fest.

7) Minions – Some love minions, others hate them, but they can be used to great effect to increase the challenge of your combats without really increasing the grind.
a. Sprinkle to taste – As many have noted on the boards, once you’re near paragon level 4 minions doesn’t normally offer the same challenge as a monster. With that in mind, feel free to just throw in some minions to a fight to bump up the challenge a bit.
b. Use flanking, and aid another to increase offense. This is my golden rule of minions…never actually attack with them. Why attack for 6-8 damage when I can flank, and then use aid another (which quickly becomes nearly automatic around level 5) to give my awesome brute a +4 to attack? If you have never appreciated the offensive power of minions…try this out, you’ll be amazed what a difference it makes.
c. Spread your minions out – Minions bunched together is just asking to get killed quickly. Attack from multiple sides and spread your minions out to keep them alive long enough to do some good (or evil as the case may be).
d. Charge the back line. Minions can often get past the party’s front line defenders more easily than a single big monster. Use that to start aiding your ranged attacks against the party’s backline.

8) Elites – Elites do get some cries of grind but generally I find them a solid monster type if you don’t overuse them.
a. 1 Elite with Party vs 2 Elites – 2 Elites often feel more grindy to a party than 1 elite with a group of monsters because it takes so long for the first bloodied and dead condition to hit the combat. 1 Elite is good as a corner piece of a group of monsters that the party can kill more easily. I often love to use brutish elites wading into the front of combat with artillery backing it up. If you are going to use 2 elites, I recommend one frontline and one ranged (artillery) type as it balances greater offensive with weaker defense. Two solider or brute elites can take a long time to beat up.
b. Save your AP for the finishing move – An elite often doesn’t have the offense of two regular monsters which can give the players a sense of security and lead to feelings of grind. Use action points to change this mindset. Instead of using your action point at the beginning of the combat (where the party’s leader can easily fix the damage), use it right after the attack that just bloodied a party member to try and knock him out. 4e characters can usually take the heat, but it emphasizes how strong an elite can be and that the party should never be too comfortable fighting one even as the fight draws to a close.

9) Solos – This creature is the hallmark of the “4e is grindy” movement. Everyone seems to have a story about the solo combat that took 4 hours and was less fun than watching grass grow (and yes, I’ve got one too). Solos more than any other monster require special handling to avoid grind, but they can be a very memorable fight when used well.
a. Never use a solo higher level than the party – This may seem like blasphemy but I think it is the greatest cause of solo grind that people experience. As I mentioned in the start of the article, higher level monsters gain a lot of defense and only a little offense. For the solo, that’s even more so. You’ll actually be amazed how quick (without being too quick) and fun a solo fight can be with a solo of your party’s level.
b. Solos don’t have to be solo. These guys are often your heinous bad guys, its okay to give them minions and other things to bump up the challenge of the combat for that epic fight.
c. Terrain and Gimmicks – Think about this, how often in fantasy when the hero encounters the final bad guy do they stand on a flat plain and just hammer away for 2 minutes? Solo fights really benefit from good use of terrain. Often your solo will have a lair, use it! Have terrain that changes as the combat goes on to keep it fresh. Also, feel free to use a few gimmicks... a ritual that the party must stop, a skill challenge that will help the party against the solo that they can perform during the combat, etc.
d. Monologue/Roleplay – It doesn’t work with all solos, but many of them are intelligent, an important plot piece, and utterly arrogant (I mean if you could take on 5 other people of your same power level wouldn’t you be?). If you don’t do it commonly, solo fights are a great time to have the villain start talking and roleplay with the party. Even if the combat lasts a long time, for the party its tempered because they are fighting and roleplaying at the same time and that can really make the fight memorable.
e. Use your AP for true destruction, or to get away – Just like elites, solos shouldn’t just blow their AP, as at the start of the fight the party has plenty of resources to take care of things. It’s at the moment when one of your players is at its weakest that using an AP can drive home a solos power. However, consider an alternate use for a solo fight that is not intended to be the last. I call this the “Recurring Villain” power. Save both AP until the solo is bloodied, and then do a full run with 2 AP worth of extra movement to leave the fight. The solo fight lasts only lasts half as long as normal, and the party now has a hated foe to finish later. This is probably the best method of avoiding grind with solos that are a higher level than the party. You can have the solo run to avoid massive grind, and eventually when its time for the final fight the party can face the solo, now having gained enough levels to be his equal.

Using Terrain and Events

There are times when I wish WOTC had put terrain as an entry in the monster’s manual. In 4e, where you fight is just as important as what you fight that if you aren’t using terrain you are cutting off one of the major tools in the DM’s arsenal. For anti-grind purposes, terrain is absolutely wonderful because it doesn’t have hitpoints. Terrain can be as heinous as you want, but its effects tend to die down the second the monsters are defeated. I could go on and on about terrain, but since this is a guide for avoiding grind and not for terrain, I will focus on effects you can use to avoid grind in your combats.

Increasing Damage
One way to avoid grind is to have things die faster, through a terrain or event effect that either boosts offense or just does damage. This category is for boosters that players (and monsters) can take some measure of control over. Some examples:
1) Square of Doom – Whether it’s a pit, a black crystal plant that attacks people and immobilizes them, or a house on fire, basically if a monster or player goes into the square, they take damage.
2) Damaging Aura – An altar giving off necrotic energy, a combat near lava, swimming in scalding water, etc. Make part or all of the combat in the aura to increase damage done. Use energy types your monsters or your players have resistance to to give one of the sides an edge.
3) Attack bonuses/Defense Penalty: A holy site that gives attack bonuses to powers with the radiant keyword, a damning curse that gives all fey creatures a -2 to defenses, or simply a +1 attack bonus to ranged attacks for higher ground.

Increasing Unpredictability
Another option is to add some surprise to your combat, so that even as the fight rounds add up, the players are always on their toes for that next effect. Or you add effects harsh enough that no one can assume the combat is over until it’s over. Once again, it’s generally useful to use damaging effects as that speed up combat.

1) Random terrain effect – A geyser that goes off every random number of rounds, lava that bubbles up in random place, a broken artifact that pulses with power and damages all around it.
2) Increase the power of crits – A black mist that does 5 necrotic damage per round, but when it infects a deep wound (person took a crit) the person starts taking 15 damage per round. Or a powerful site of heroes, crits add +2d6 extra damage.

Adding a Clock
The ticking clock can add a sense of suspense and drama to a combat, and forces players to think of ways to end fights quick.
1) The longer we fight, the more we die – A large scale damaging aura that affects the whole fight, a monster that gets stronger that longer the fight continues (offense of course, not defense)
2) Nasty effect in three, two, one… - A pit that will unleash damned souls in 10 rounds, a guardian statue that is animating and will attack.
3) We must stop the ritual! – A dark ritual will be completed in 5 rounds, a strong demon beast is being summoned and must be stopped.

Tactics to Avoid Grind
In many cases, you don’t need to change what you put in combats, but how you have your monsters act can reduce grind.

Focus Fire, even if it kills you
Characters in 4e are pretty tough, but even the most stalwart fighter can be taken down when everyone starts concentrating on him. Now its easy to do with ranged characters, but feel free to have your monsters move in to swarm a character….even provoking OA’s. It both kills your monsters faster, and puts more pressure on the party. Also, it lets defenders use some of their marking tricks. Just don’t do it to the same character every time!

Trade OA’s for Flanking
By a similar token, don’t be afraid to have a monster take an OA once in a while in order to get into flanking. That +2 makes a difference, and it helps grind. Of course, choose monsters that this makes sense for. Its unlikely that kobolds would be so reckless, but a bloodthirsty orc might.

Allies and Enemies – Kill them all!
When you have area effect users, let them attack their own comrades if it means getting more pain on the party.

Master is dead! I surrender!
In many cases, some of the monsters may work for or be slaves of the other monsters. If the party kills the leader, have the other monsters surrender.

Whoa we are getting slaughtered, I’m outta here!
Unless your monsters are set up to fight until killed (ie many undead), it’s very reasonable to have them get out of the fight if things are going badly for them.

Putting it Together

Using the guide, the goal is to create standard level encounters that are unique and challenging to the party through use of monsters and terrain. As you get better at this, you will need less and less higher level effects to hurt your party, and I have found once you get to that point grind starts magically disappearing.

I hope the guide was of use, good luck in your games!

And as I mentioned, Skallgrim spake thusly:

Really good article. I'd like to offer a few ideas which are compatible with yours, but rather different in emphasis.

The grind seems to be widely defined as the point in combat where the party has effectively “won”, but have not yet beaten the monsters.

One way of "avoiding the grind" is not to avoid this point, but to reveal, at this point, that the party is WRONG. What the party had previously thought to be "the grind" is actually the "intermission".

This can be accomplished in several ways. One of the easiest is the "wave". Simply introduce more opposition at this point. Of course, it is best if this opposition makes sense (enemy reserves, monsters attracted to the commotion). It is also important to factor these enemies into the overall encounter level. Don't add so many monsters that the encounter becomes impossibly hard for the party.

Two good options (at least) exist here. You can add Minions, which do not add substantial challenge or XP to the encounter, but can certainly spice up what had seemed to be a boring grind. This is a very good option for enemy reserves and the like. In addition, minions are a good opposition for parties which have already spend many of their encounter or daily powers, and are reduced to basic attacks and at-will powers.

The other option is the "Godzilla" theme. Add a powerful monster which attacks the party and the opposition indiscriminately. This can allow you to remove pesky "straggler" monsters more quickly (and also prevent the party from interrogating them) and lets you show off the damage potential of the elite (or solo) without wiping a party member. This is a better option when the party has husbanded their resources, and still has a substantial amount of daily and encounter powers to work with. Envision, if you will, a battle in a dank, subterranean cavern. The party has defeated the troglodytes, and is engaged in "cleaning up" the last few of the opposition. Suddenly, a giant lizard (cave drake, purple worm, whatever) crashes through a cavern wall, and devours a trodlodyte whole, pushing its bulk through the opening.

Another option, distinct from the "wave" in many ways, is the "power-up". Perhaps the last bandit is succumbing to Lycanthropy, and "wolfs out" under pressure. Perhaps the cultist has bound a demon into his own body. Perhaps the ritual the adventurers interrupted simply needed ANY sacrifices, and the slain enemies are just as good as the rescued hostages. This is similar to the "Godzilla" idea, but ideally, it should be possible for the adventurers to either avert the threat, or, at least, have some foreshadowing of the threat, so that they can see it coming and possibly postion themselves for it, or reserve some powers to deal with it. Ideally, this should basically be a much more challenging encounter than it originally appeared to the adventurers, but should still be more of a "culmination" encounter than the suprise value of a Godzilla encounter. I can just hear the party saying "Hey, this fight against the Evil High Priest is going pretty well.....Aaaaaaaaah!".

I realize this is much less intelligently written, and much less elegantly structured than your very nice article, but I do think that "re-imagining" the grind can also be a valid tactic too.

Both excellent advice. Again, not written by me, but by Stalker0 and Skallgrim.
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