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Dark Souls: The D&D Video Game that Isn’t Actually D&D

If somebody asked me “what video game today best represents old school D&D,” Legend of Grimrock comes to mind, but ultimately I think Dark Souls would be a more interesting and equally qualified answer. Given the raft of actual D&D games, branded with D&D on the box and everything, why on Earth would I think this? Hopefully I’m convincing.

Megadungeon Format

Dark Souls very much takes place in a megadungeon, and a well-made one at that. If you strip away the visual properties and various idiosyncrasies of the game and focus only on the fundamental design tropes of megadungeons you’ll find this to be the case.

Branching, Looping, Linear Pathways

Megadungeons consist of corridors with walls, meaning you are generally on a linear pathway. Sometimes these are broken into larger areas (rooms) filled with content, but the rooms only have a low number of exits (usually no more than 4 and often as few as 1 or 2). Dark Souls, perhaps simply because games are limited in this way but also probably due to design intention, is similarly made up of linear pathways punctuated by expansive “rooms” or, more video-game-appropriately, “arenas”, in the parlance of the Half Life 2 developers at Valve.

At the same time, though, these linear pathways tend to branch and loop. For more analysis of the types of exploratory pathways in games you can see this post on ENWorld. Further writing on the merits of designing good layouts of linear pathways is this piece by The Alexandrian. These are together probably two of the best examples of analyses on how to design combinations of arenas and linear pathways as far as it concerns roleplaying games, so they make good reading and say basically everything I ever could regarding background.

In summary, Dark Souls doesn’t offer an open world like Skyrim – you don’t have 360 degrees of motion between most locations – but it does offer multiple paths, shortcuts, secret passages, and the like. In Dark Souls, like in most good megadungeons, arenas are connected to each other in multiple discrete linear ways, and those connecting paths themselves are often interconnected.

Re-Stocking Enemies and Re-Treading Terrain

Megadungeons do it every time you leave (or in some cases even when you roll a random encounter, to some extent), while Dark Souls does it every time you rest at a bonfire (or die). While Dark Souls’ enemies don’t change the way a megadungeon’s might, they do still come back, and that means that just like a D&D megadungeon the megadungeon of Dark Souls is designed to not be permanently “clearable”. In Dark Souls, just like in megadungeons like the labyrinth under Castle Greyhawk, you also unlock shortcuts between areas (mentioned above) meaning what begins as re-treading dangerous ground over and over eventually becomes a much more streamlined adventure, much like higher level PCs skip straight to the lower levels of a megadungeon via some shortcut or direct access they have found, thereby reducing the amount of time the players spend re-treading familiar terrain and dealing with re-stocking enemies. Additionally, in both cases, as you level up you will find re-treading the same ground to be much easier than it originally was, but also providing much less reward. These two factors combine to encourage you to push forward outside of any story motivation – mechanically you are drawn to areas that are of appropriate difficulty, since these areas will provide reward commensurate with your out-of-game skill and in-game power level.

Subtle Narrative

There are a few ways that narrative happens in a megadungeon, and most of them aren’t what we think of when we think about exposition in modern RPGs. In a D&D megadungeon you can only reliably get information in a few ways. You can ask NPCs (most creatures wouldn’t be willing to help, though) if you manage to find any (or rarely you can ask NPCs outside of the megadungeon, but their chances of possessing significant knowledge is much less), you can look around for messages, writings, maps, and that sort of thing left behind by some precursor to yourself, you can learn by personal experience (you walk in the room and there are orcs? You know there are orcs in the room now, congratulations), or you can learn by some method of divination of non-language artifacts (either literally by using magic or more like an archaeologist by piecing together what you find laying around into a coherent story).

Dark Souls does all of these things in a very similar framework. You learn about the lore of the Dark Souls world in a few ways –

  • A short introductory cut-scene.
  • Rare, stilted, dialog with non-hostile NPCs.
  • Messages left by other players that fit a purposefully limited format (“[thing] ahead”, or “beware of trap”, for instance).
  • Non-contextual item descriptions of loot you find (you’ll get the story of the item in a few sentences, but no explanation of how it fits into the larger picture).
  • Seeing something for yourself (“oh, shit, there’s a hydra in the lake!”)

All of these are distinctly limited and present to you sufficiently less than the whole picture (and, often, aren’t even entirely accurate, as in the case of player messages). They’re generally lacking in overall context, and have a direct 1 for 1 with how you learn things in a traditional D&D megadungeon. Messages on walls, messages attached to items, observation of the environment… all of these are regular elements of what modern D&D designers term the “exploratory pillar” of D&D – finding out new stuff without it all being dumped on you at once by McLecturePants the Plot-Giving Elf.

People have eventually compiled histories of Dark Souls’ lore, just like players can eventually piece together the history of a megadungeon, but it took significant effort and there are still gaps that need the interpretation of these game-world historians, just as in a megadungeon environment.

A Land Where Stuff Is Weird

As one would be informed by the entry under W in The Dungeon Alphabet, megadungeons are all about being weird. They often (though not always) represent a mythic underworld (see page 22), where things have a sort of internal sense that defies complete scientific classification no matter how hard you try. It’s a brutal landscape for no apparent reason. In OD&D monsters can pass through doors without a care in the world but those same doors are stuck for the players a full third of the time, and even if the players get them open they have a habit of closing themselves and becoming stuck again unless spiked. In OD&D monsters can see in pitch black, unless they’re in the PCs’ service, and then they miraculously lose this method of vision. It’s designed to make the game challenging, sure, but the realistic repercussions of these game design decisions is that the world is seriously weird and seriously hostile in the narrative as well.

Dark Souls is no exception here, either. It’s designed to be difficult compared to most modern games. This game design decision (difficulty) needs justification in the world’s fiction, however, and so by playing as an undead monstrosity yourself you can’t truly die permanently no matter how many times you get sent back to the last checkpoint. The brilliance of this associated mechanic that explains “restart at checkpoint” in game-world terms aside, when’s the last time you played as an undead monster in a game? Probably never if you’re most people. When’s the last time you fought a huge wolf with a sword in its mouth or a giant magic butterfly or a flaming spider-centaur with a pyromancer witch as the torso? This kind of unique strangeness, generated partially by strictly game-centric design decisions being reflected in the narrative, is paramount to enhancing the feeling of exploration made possible by the previous section.

Level & Sublevel Theming

A common thing to find in most megadungeons are highly thematic “sub-levels” (smaller areas bound within a close proximity), or slightly less thematic (but still differently themed) whole levels. Put at its simplest, Dark Souls does the same, and is even kind enough to label them for you (Valley of Drakes, Blight Town, Sen’s Fortress, Anor Londo, and so on and so forth). At its most basic, this is just about creating differently themed “zones” so that things don’t become monotonous.

Under a Big Tent

The concept of the “big tent” campaign comes from the very early days of D&D with Gygax at the helm. Since he knew many people interested in playing games of this sort, they invariably all hounded him to run them – and the games grew truly to unwieldy proportions. Perhaps some 20-odd players inhabited his home campaign, even sometimes sitting at the same table! But, more generally, they drifted in and out as the mood suited them, and the more prolific players whose characters’ names live on in infamy were just the ones who played more often and were thus more successful.

This drifting in and out of players, and the discussions the players would’ve had about what they found in the dungeons beneath Castle Greyhawk, mimics the multiplayer aspect of Dark Souls (or perhaps I should say Dark Souls mimics it, chronologically speaking) almost perfectly. The fact that Dark Souls encourages you to come together to solve the problems of a shared environment (via cooperative summoning or messages, or in the meta aspect by simply talking to other people who play the game on regular internet message boards or otherwise) is extraordinarily similar in concept to how a giant rotating cast D&D game worked back then. Some days some people went into the dungeon, other days different people went in, and sometimes they compared notes, and mixed and matched companionship of their characters as the situation warranted.

This sort of individual shared experience (you were never guaranteed to play with the same people consistently, but you all played in the same world) is a quirky similarity, but one nonetheless.

A Land Where Danger is Everywhere

The final point here is that megadungeons are not amusement park rides with fake scares and cheap thrills – they’re designed in large part to be a game and therefore a test of skill. Not only this, but their early-D&D rulesets were pretty unforgiving of mistakes or even of bad luck. Dark Souls is no exception here, either: it is to most games what gutter bowling is to bumper bowling – in some cases literally, as bottomless pits with no safety rail will regularly attest; it’s a fair, but punishing, alternative. It embraces the war-game-like feel of early megadungeon play, where the trick is for the players to outsmart the environment and progress towards a distant point of actual distinct victory (name level and making a fortress in the wilderness, enabled by their earlier successes in the megadungeon).


As I’ve demonstrated here, Dark Souls is simply the video game that gets megadungeons, and by getting megadungeons it is probably the best representation of “old school” D&D that I can think of in video game format. It has some other elements that it shares with D&D, like leveling up and weapons and armor with plusses on them, but those aren’t what makes it like D&D; they’re just superficial similarities. It has things like PvP combat, too, and that makes it no less D&D all the same. The trappings – the PvP additions of Dark Souls or the weapons with plusses – aren’t what makes the games what they are. I think that reasoning belongs to the framework of play itself: the environment.

If you care about seeing and experiencing a representation of the design aesthetics all those OSR(Old School Renaissance)-types are constantly going on about, therefore, Dark Souls is probably just about the best and clearest alternate version of that experience (complete with moving pictures and sound effects) available in a box, period.

Until Next Time,
The Hydra DM


May of the Dead – Run away, run away!

Let’s face it, guys; when you’re fighting undead, sooner or later you’re going to want to run away screaming like a little girl. Well, alright, maybe “want” is the wrong word – “must” is perhaps more fitting. For a long time in D&D there hasn’t been anything approaching a robust system of fight or flight – only fight. No more! I present to you now, officially, my Spirit of the Century Chase Hack for D&D 4th edition.

What makes a chase good?

Foot chases, especially, all have some very common themes:

  1. They don’t last long in the game. A terror-induced sprint can only last for a short while, especially when you’re burdened by adventuring gear, armor, and weapons. Beyond this timer, generally the terrain and actions of the chaser and chasee result in one side catching or losing the other in short order.
  2. They shouldn’t last long at the table. A chase is fast, and it should therefore be mechanically simple so that you can keep up excitement at the table. There’s not a LOT of strategy here compared to something like a fight, but there is a lot of involvement.
  3. Speed helps, but it isn’t the MOST important thing. Relying on speed alone might simply make you run into the cart of cabbages the heroes flipped behind them.
  4. Innovation is key. A good chase scene is driven by actions besides “I run some more”, like parkouring over rooftops, throwing down caltrops, or swinging across a chasm on a rope.

So, what mechanics can we use?

As mentioned, these mechanics are lifted as closely as possible from Spirit of the Century, since they got chase scenes (admittedly for vehicles) pretty much correct from the get-go. Adapting it to the generally-on-foot nature of dungeoneers is surprisingly not very difficult. Here are the rules of the chase scene in handy bullet point format.

  1. Select a Trailblazer for both the PCs and their enemies (in the case of the PCs, let them choose their own). The Trailblazer of team monster will probably change over the course of the chase, but so far I haven’t had much luck with re-arranging who gets to lead on team PC (once you select a PC Trailblazer for a given chase scene you should probably just keep them unless you know the terrain is going to change drastically). Those of you shooting for irony can ask for a Pathfinder instead, but be warned that players generally react aversely to bad puns.
  2. The Trailblazer for the team being chased selects a primary skill. A common choice is athletics, but alternatives that also often come up are acrobatics and endurance, or sometimes even stealth. It is possible to switch primary skills between exchanges, but I haven’t seen it come up very often. Remember that skill rolls in a chase scene are predicated on good roleplaying of what the skill roll entails from a character perspective. The roleplaying drives the mechanics of the chase scene and vice versa – neither functions without the other.
  3. The party of the Trailblazer on the side of the PCs (the monsters do not do this, they’re not heroic enough and since they’re all played by you anyway there’s no need to enforce teamwork) can select one of their members besides the Trailblazer, who will be able to designate another skill as the secondary skill. The Trailblazer cannot be aided by the same person two exchanges in a row. They will, same as the primary skill, give a snippet of roleplaying for why this skill applies to the situation and how their character is using it.

At this point the rules diverge slightly based on whom is being chased and who is doing the chasing. If the PCs are being chased –

  1. The Trailblazer sets a single DC that applies to both skill rolls, then both he and the party member contributing the secondary skill roll make their skill checks. Remember, if they describe great success and the rolls come up as flubs, the opposition was just that much better and your description should match that fact. If either of these checks beats the DC then the PCs experience success, otherwise they experience failure (described below). Remember to apply any miscellaneous modifiers (described below).
  2. The monster Trailblazer (generally the monster with the highest bonus to the skill still in the chase since most monsters have low bonuses to most skills and will provide little challenge otherwise) attempts to roll against the DC using the primary skill. Remember this isn’t a one way street – you have to give a description, too! Again, below the DC results in some degree of failure, while above the DC results in some degree of success.
  3. Repeat.

If the PCs are the ones chasing –

  1. The monster Trailblazer sets a DC and selects a primary skill. Again, remember that your skill check requires a description to work. Make a check against this DC, with matching or above being some degree of success, and below being some degree of failure.
  2. The Trailblazer and the secondary skill contributing member of the PC team will make checks, with the Trailblazer using the primary skill as designated by the monster team and the aiding PC using a secondary skill designated by himself (again, this needs a good description – don’t be afraid to say “that makes no sense”). The usual successes and failures apply.
  3. Repeat.

These are some recommended values and methods for handling successes and failures. To wit I have used these in my West Marches sandbox campaign, which features generally only one or two combat encounters per session (if that), which means the penalties are a bit harsh in order to have a challenging game. If you want a longer chase scene, or you want to adjust it so that the penalties to the PCs aren’t as bad so they don’t need to take an extended rest as soon afterwards, you can easily do that by simply adjusting the number values.

  • If the PCs are being chased and equal or exceed the DC they set with at least one of their two checks they take no immediate penalty and (probably, see getting caught below) continue to flee at top speed. Top speed is assumed to be five times overland speed (speed 6 characters would be running at slightly over 15 miles an hour – something that I think is suitable for heroes at a dead sprint with gear, but you can adjust this to suit your own personal preferences), and a single exchange takes one minute. If you are in a small area and are afraid the chase might go outside of the area, you can reduce the amount of time an exchange takes to a matter of seconds rather than the full game minute, or alternatively you can reduce the movement rate due to it being a confined space.
  • If the PCs are being chased and both checks are below the DC, the higher check result is used. All PCs in the group lose a number of healing surges equal to the difference divided by 2 rounded down to a minimum of 1 surge. Adjusting this divisor to be higher can make chases less punishing on PCs, or lower can make them more punishing.
  • If the PCs are being chased and the monsters equal or exceed the DC with their one check, PCs each lose healing surges equal to the difference divided by 2 rounded down to a minimum of 1 surge. Again, adjusting this divisor to be higher can make chases less punishing on PCs.
  • If the PCs are being chased and the monsters do not equal or exceed the DC, they will take damage on their stress track (see The Stress Track below) equal to the difference divided by 4 rounded down to a minimum of 1.  Adjusting this divisor can make monsters easier to catch or escape as you please, and will have much the same effect as changing the divisor on lost healing surges.
  • If the PCs are chasing, and the monsters equal or exceed their own DC, the monsters will continue to flee at top speed (probably, see getting caught below) where top speed is determined the same way it is for the PCs.
  • If the PCs are chasing, and they equal or exceed the DC with either or both checks, the monsters take damage to their stress track equal to the difference of the larger result and the DC divided by 4 rounded down to a minimum of 1.
  • If the PCs are chasing, and both of their checks do not equal or exceed the DC, the PCs will lose healing surges equal to the difference of the larger result and the DC divided by 2 rounded down to a minimum of 1.
  • If the PCs are chasing, and the monsters do not equal or exceed their own DC, the monsters will take on their stress track equal to the difference between the result and the DC divided by 4 rounded down to a minimum of 1.

The Stress Track

Monsters, unfortunately, do not REALLY have healing surges. I mean they technically have one per tier, but that’s a pretty lousy amount of surges to use as a progress bar. Therefore I have lifted the concept of the Stress Track directly from Spirit of the Century. Each 4 minions contributes one box, each standard monster contributes one box, each elite monster contributes two boxes, and each solo monster contributes five boxes. Each box is sequentially numbered left to right starting with 1. When a monster team takes damage to a stress box, that number box is filled in. If the box is already filled in, the empty box with the next highest number is filled in. When the “box” above the highest actual box on the track is “filled in” the monster team is defeated (see below). As an example, if they take damage to the 1 box, the leftmost box is filled in. If they take damage to the 1 box again, the leftmost EMPTY box (2 box) is filled in. If they take damage to the five box, but their stress track is only four boxes long, the monsters are considered defeated. Additionally, if all of the boxes are filled in the monsters are considered defeated (since each box correlates to a remaining monster, with no boxes left there should be no monsters left). If you want to be really involved mechanically you can have monsters give fewer boxes if they’re injured, but I’ve never found that to be necessary.

Getting Caught

The PC team is considered “caught” if any of their members takes at least surge value HP damage from losing surges with no healing surges remaining (contrary to normal surge loss, losing surges in a chase will eventually result in losing surge value hit points if you have no surges to lose). Running yourself ragged like this is obviously a measure of desperation, and it is often advisable, if it looks like you will be caught, to simply end the chase as a PC. You can stop fleeing at any time, and begin to fight. Whenever you are caught or choose to stop and fight, you must complete a full round of combat before deciding to attempt to flee again. Aside from this stipulation of a necessary round of combat, the PCs may choose to flee at ANY TIME it is a PC’s turn (and so the same for monsters respectively). You may flee at zero surges remaining, but if you take surge value or more damage from losing surges with none remaining you are once again caught. Monsters are considered completely caught when their stress track overflows or is full (as described in the last section). It is recommended that for inconsequential monsters (i.e. not solo monsters, or named villains) that when their contributing stress box is filled they are overtaken and defeated in a manner you allow the PCs to describe to you, or, if the monsters are chasing rather than being chased, that they fall too far behind or otherwise give up or are taken out. If powerful monsters or named villains are overtaken it is advisable that you use personal discretion in figuring out a reasonable impairment to their combat ability, similar to how PCs would need to engage in combat with fewer or no healing surges remaining. Spending their “big punch” powers such as recharges, encounters, or dailies and having those unavailable, or else having them take automatic damage (like bloodied value as an example) or suffer some other disabling condition like weakened or dazed (until short rest) is what I’d recommend, but really it’s up to you and your best judgment for what would make the best dramatic conclusion to the chase scene in such a case.

Miscellaneous Modifiers

It is highly recommended that you include some miscellaneous modifiers in your chase scenes. If the minimum speed of one group exceeds that of the other, the faster group should get a +1 to all checks for each unit of speed they are faster. A speed 7 group entirely made of elves, therefore, against a speed 5 group made of plate armored fighters would give the elves a +2 to all checks. Alternatively, you can match the average speed of the groups together instead of the minimum speeds, although I find minimum speeds to be easier. If you want speed to be more of a factor, such as in open terrain like a field, you can increase the potency of speed, but I wouldn’t put it above +5 per unit no matter what the terrain is like. Speed is important in a chase scene, but not the MOST important. Heroes escape guard dogs all the time, after all, and dogs are pretty fast compared to humans!

Other modifiers include the familiarity with terrain type, and perhaps even plusses or minuses depending on the primary skill selected and how well it suits the terrain. Miscellaneous modifiers is your way to adjust the basic framework presented here to fit whatever situation it’s placed into.

Using the Spirit of the Century modifiers for group size (2-3 = +1, 4-6 = +2, 7-9 = +3, 10-12 = +4, etc.) for the monsters seems to work well, too, since monsters are usually only trained in one or two skills and tend to have lower modifiers than the PCs at that. In the event of solo or elite monsters you could consider giving them modifiers based on number of boxes contributed to the group (so an elite counts as two for purposes of group size, or a solo as five). Whether minions grant bonuses for size based on the individual number of them or based on the amount of standards they are worth/boxes they contribute is up to you, but I generally base it on the amount of standard monsters they should be worth, same as elites/solos.

I recommend, further, that the spending of a daily power should allow the person expending it to make a check of a skill related to that power even if it doesn’t make a lot of sense in the chase scene. A good example would be a wizard who wants to use Arcane Whirlwind, his level 1 daily power, to roll an arcana check as a secondary skill check. Consider giving better modifiers, such as +1 per level of the power, for higher level expenditures. I also considered allowing encounter powers for this, but there were simply too many encounter powers versus the length of the chase so I wouldn’t recommend it unless you want your players to go hog-wild with checks that don’t make a lot of sense.

Chases using Mounts or Vehicles

These will function in an identical manner to the above framework, although the skills used will probably be different, or at least the roleplayed descriptions. Athletics can be used to adjust the main mast, acrobatics to avoid falling off the rigging as you climb to the crow’s nest to get a better view, or nature to coax your horse into jumping across a pit.

Example of Play

Eravan the Eladrin Wizard, Rhovan the Human Warlock, and Lilac Sear the Human Blackguard are adventuring together when they’re set upon by a handful (3) of Maydeath Ghouls. Knowing that they are unable to combat such terrible foes without the divine protection of a Cleric or Paladin they immediately turn and flee the cliffside temple they had been exploring.

Eravan: Oh, hell.
Lilac: Right, we run away. I’ll be Trailblazer.
(The DM doesn’t have much of a choice here since all of the ghouls are the same; he selects one at random to be the Trailblazer for the monsters).
Rhovan: I’ve got a killer Arcana check, I’m going to shoot my Flame of Phlegethos daily power at the Ghouls to help cover our retreat.
Lilac: Alright, well, since this is a caldera I’m just going to say that we run as fast as we can across the overgrown garden and back to the entrance hallway, where we can start climbing back down the ropes we left from the ascent. DC 21.
DM: Go ahead and roll, guys.
Lilac and Rhovan (simultaneously): I got a 23!
DM: Haha, alright, the Ghouls come after you with their supernatural speed hungering for your flesh! (Knowing the Ghouls are speed 6 and Lilac’s armor slows her down to speed 5, the Ghouls get a +1 bonus to their check, and since they are a group size of three they get another +1 bonus). 16! Ah, looks like the Ghouls take a hit to the (21-17=4/4=1) 1 box. (This DM is being transparent about the mechanics, you don’t need to announce which box is struck if you don’t want to). The flames of Phlegethos carve into one of the Ghouls and it’s too busy being on fire to chase any further, but the other two are right behind you! Your minute long sprint takes you across the garden and back into the entrance tunnel full of graffiti – you can see the door out to the cliffside from here. (If the Trailblazer was the one that was removed from the chase, the DM will need to select a new one).

End of First Exchange, beginning of Second Exchange
Lilac: Hm, well, we’re going to have to climb down the ropes; athletics is generally the skill used for climbing and I’m not good at much else that will be useful so I say that we’ll descend the ropes as fast as we can, hoping that the Ghouls don’t know how to climb. DC 22.
Eravan: Is there any way I could maybe use Perception to find the quickest way down? (Eravan has a very high modifier to perception and wants to try to use it in a reasonable way).
DM: No, the ropes are anchored where you left them – you’ll have to just use them as they are unless you fancy a free-climb down the cliff-face.
Eravan: Well, that is definitely not something I fancy. Hrm. Alright, I’d like to use Nature to try to figure out if Ghouls can climb after us so we’re ready to jam when we hit the bottom if they can?
DM: That seems reasonable to me. Roll ’em guys.
Lilac: 21, drat!
Eravan: 20, not really any better.
DM: Alright, you guys each lose 1 healing surge (22-21=1/2=.5, minimum 1). When you reach the bottom of the cliff, however, it seems as though the Ghouls aren’t interested in pursuing you outside of their lair (they decided to stop chasing, which they can do at any time just like the PCs). You’ve escaped… for now, at least.

Closing Thoughts

I find that the above framework tends to work very well, and so do my players. It’s very fast since it only involves a small handful of rolls, it’s roleplaying rich since roleplaying is required to make a check, and unlike a skill challenge there is no contrived “X before Y” designated ending point with the heroes instead in full control of how much effort they want to devote to running or chasing. Speed is a factor, but not the most important one, with innovation (roleplaying your checks) being at the forefront. The chases don’t last too long at the table (generally only about ten minutes in my experience), and they get everyone involved due to secondary skills. They let the dumb muscle character get his chance to shine – a fighter only gets three trained skills, but chances are two of them are Athletics and Endurance, which are both perfectly suited for a chase scene and use either his primary ability score or a secondary one. What’s more, the use of secondary skills allows the PCs to not just follow the villain’s footsteps, but to employ their smarts to cut him off at the pass using a different skill. And, not only that, but the seemingly useless monster skills are finally relevant! Hooray! Finally, they don’t penalize characters who are naturally bad at running, like a wizard, since the wizard doesn’t need to be the one rolling Athletics as Trailblazer.

That’s it from me, but I’d love to hear how people use and adapt this framework to their own games when chases occur. I had to use it about a half dozen times to narrow in on the divisor values that worked for me in terms of Stress Track and Surges lost, though, so I’d recommend the first time you use the system you keep in mind that you may need to step in as the DM and say “alright, these values aren’t correct, I’m just going to narratively end this chase scene and we’ll adjust them after the session to something we like better.”

This post is part of the May of the Dead Blog Carnival. For more great content regarding Halloween in May, head over there ASAP!

May your undead have the PCs flee in terror,
The Hydra DM

Power Options, Status Effects, and Mutual Assured Destruction – Second World Edition, Part 1

While the majority of D&D players, statistically speaking, live in nations that are known as the First World (a term invented during the cold war to mean “the major industrialized non-Communist nations”), there’s another set of critters with power options and status effects running around. They are, of course, the players’ major opposition, and to keep our cold war analogy running, they would clearly be analagous to the Second World (a term you don’t hear much these days, meaning, obviously, the major industrialized Communist nations). They’re more numerous, scary, and they’re going to slippery slope all of southeast Asia into the Communist regime! Well, alright, maybe the monsters are a bit more innocent than that.

If anyone is confused about this extended metaphor, I’d suggest taking the time to read The Id DM’s latest article: Power Options, Status Effects & Mutual Assured Destruction, not only because it’s an amazing piece of statistical game analysis, but also because if you don’t read it first you’ll probably find this article somewhat confusing. Not least of all because that introduction was a play off of his use of Mutual Assured Destruction. Go ahead, I’ll wait.

Done already? Man, you read pretty fast! Careful you don’t light your screen on fire from your laser scanner eyes!

Alright, alright. Jokes aside, let’s get into it.

We’ll begin with our core assumptions, or hypotheses if we want to get scientific about it. They are:

Hypothesis 1

  • Combat includes too many moving parts, and this is the monsters’ fault.
  • Premise 1: As level increases monsters get more Power Options.
  • Premise 2: As level increase monsters get more powerful Power Options.
  • Premise 3: The above increase in Power Options is at least equal to that players experience.

I expect this hypothesis will be proven false on account of premise 3, but true on premises 1 and 2. We shall see if the expected result matches the statistical one, and if so (or not) by how much.

Hypothesis 2

  • Very few Power Options are intrinsically tied to the different monster classes.
  • Premise 1: Assuming “intrinsically tied” is equivalent to appearing 50% more often than the average both per power and per monster, and that the Power Option appears at least 10% of the time overall both per power and per monster.
  • Premise 2: Assuming that the monster classes are Controller, Soldier, Brute, Lurker, Artillery, and Skirmisher irrespective of their Minion, Standard, Elite, or Solo status.

I expect this hypothesis will prove true for monsters as we see a similar result from the analysis of player characters. The reasoning behind premise 1 is pretty simple (albeit potentially arbitrary) – a signature power should reasonably appear 50% more often in a class of monster that has it as a signature than it would in a class of monster that does not. Why 50%? Well, if only half the defender classes had ways to punish some sort of mark you’d be a bit suspect about the mark being core to a Defender, no? I hold this principle true for monsters as well. Similarly, a feature that is a trend should be appearing more than 10% of the time overall. If less than 1 in 10 controllers blinds you, blinding may be a thing controllers do more often, but it is probably not a controller’s “thing” that controllers just do. Why the 10%? It seemed like a reasonable cut-off as I was gathering the data.

General Questions

While this is obviously not a formally given hypothesis, I would like to know a couple of things personally. Most importantly of those: how the common conception of “anti-grind” monster usage (that is, not to use soldiers or controllers and to instead focus on artillery and brutes) fits into the sorts of Power Options monsters have. 





My method here is pretty much as identical to The Id DM’s as possible primarily because I want my results to be compatible with his for purpose of cross-analysis between both the players and the monsters (whom all too often in 4th edition are treated under different sets of rules and assumptions). For this week’s analysis I decided to start at the very beginning, a very good place to start, and use monsters only from the original Monster Manual 1. Next week I will use Monster Vault and see how the two compare given approximately 2.5 years of design innovation (which should be especially apt considering they have many of the same monsters).

The status data is collected on the following premises (basically the same as the way The Id DM did it for reasons of compatibility) –

If a power inflicts two different conditions (example: prone and dazed) I record both. If a power inflicts one condition or another condition (example: prone or dazed) I record both. If a power inflicts two different kinds of ongoing damage I record both. I have attached at the end of the article a link to the notes for what the “other effect” row recorded. I have not counted powers that read along the lines of “this creature makes two Claw attacks”, unless it adds a new qualifier, such as “this creature makes two Claw attacks, and if both hit the target is grabbed”, in which case I recorded the new effect, in that example grabbed. Similar to the original table, this means that not only is it possible that the number of Power Options (things a power does that isn’t just damage) exceeds the number of powers, but also it is likely that this is the case.

During the collecting of the data I tried my best to use the same categories that were used to form the charts for the players’ options, however over the course of collection I found that there were some Power Options that did not fit in the categories selected. Not only that, but I found that some effects were not used at all. Furthermore, I found that there were some things that fell outside the criteria I had selected for recordable powers that needed their own category, although I refrained from adding it partway through. I will discuss these more at the end of the article and make the necessary changes when collecting the data from the Monster Vault.

Finally, it should be noted that for powers, much as The Id DM only selected At-Will, Encounter, and Daily powers (with no Utility, Item, Paragon, or Epic powers), I have decided to only select Standard action powers. I made this decision figuring that a monster is as likely to have a “schtick” in its standard powers as a player is likely to find their “schtick” in their At-Will, Encounter, and Daily powers. While I did find some notable examples of powers (notably minor actions) that had interesting and powerful effects on them, I figured that certain Utility powers would mirror this fairly well and, again, I wanted the charts to be as compatible as possible.

Results (and Discussion)

I will present the majority of the data I acquired (although not all of it, as that would be far too many charts) in this section. If you want access to the excel spreadsheet and rough notes I took while making the excel spreadsheet then you can find links to those at the bottom.

Also, you’ll have to forgive my tables for not being nearly as pretty as the players’ companion tables were.

For your convenience, this first table is highlighted with a dark purple in categories where no monsters had any of that particular Power Option, and in blue where a certain role has none of that Power Option across all tiers.

 (click the image for a larger version)

Whew, that’s a lot of data huh? Let’s try to make something intellegible out of this.

So, to do my best to mirror the analysis of the players’ options, I’m going to start with the same thing my colleague did – I’m going to see how many powers (as a percent of all powers) have no effect besides damage. These numbers will be rounded to the nearest whole percent in terms of significant digits, because it’s entirely possible I made a couple minor math boo-boos on the way here.

  • Controller: 25%
  • Soldier: 32%
  • Artillery: 53%
  • Lurker: 27%
  • Brute: 46%
  • Skirmisher: 41%

As compared to the 2% of the Druid, the Controller monster type has 25%. Similarly, instead of the 6% of the Fighter the Soldier has 32%. The Rogue has 7%, at the peak of the PC roles, while the monster equivalent is Artillery with 53%. Finally, the Leader has 3%, and none of the remaining monster types come even remotely close to that low. It’s a fact: monsters have a lot of powers that just deal damage compared to PCs.

Next up, we’ll follow the course of the model article once again and take a look at Power Options and Effects, not only per power, but per monster
(another useful statistic in my opinion). This chart (cleverly using the exact same page layout that the last article used) shows the power options per power
in what is frankly too many significant digits. Still, I’m no statistician, and if Excel’s formula functions want to give me way too many significant digits I’m not about to say no. (Yes I know you can fix that in the options menu somewhere). The point here is, as expected, the power options that each power has goes up per tier, as should’ve been expected (with a few outliers, notably the Skirmisher’s options decreasing in paragon tier and the Artillery monsters’ options decreasing epic tier). The more interesting notion, however, is the comparison between the weighted averages of monster powers and those of the players. While the monster powers have only .75 options per power in heroic tier, the player powers have 1.375. While the monster powers have approximately 1 power option per power in paragon tier the players have approximately 1.6. In epic tier this trend continues, with the monsters peaking at around 1.17 power options per power and the players peaking at 1.635. The interesting thing here is that the ratio of monster options to player options decreases as we rise in tier. In other words, while the players become more complicated, the monsters become more complicated at a faster rate than the players! Perhaps this is a symptom of not including item, utility, and paragon path and epic destiny powers in the player study, but this holds interesting implications for one of our hypotheses. Still, let’s take a look at one more table before we call this one case closed.

The first thing you may notice is that I have revised my chart’s color scheme. I think this one looks a bit snazzier than the last one. At any rate, my professionalism of presentation aside, this chart shows interesting results as well – they are notably similar, in fact, and that’s a good thing. What this tells is that while the powers are becoming more complicated (notably they go from .75 power options to 1.17 per power, as per the last chart, which is a ~56% increase) the monsters are getting more powers, too. If they were not getting more powers, the increase in complexity here, too, would be ~56% (going from 1.58 to 2.46). However, this is distinctly not the case, and in fact we have an approximately 120% increase! While at an average options per power of .75, and average options per monster of 1.58, the monsters of heroic tier have an average of only two powers (roughly), in epic tier with an average options per power of 1.17 and an average options per monster of 3.48 the monsters have, in essence, an average of approximately 3 powers (that have power options). Remember, these are only standard action powers. We can probably assume that move, minor, immediate, etc. powers increase in complexity similarly.

How can we apply this to our hypothesis?

  • Combat includes too many moving parts, and this is the monsters’ fault.
  • Premise 1: As level increases monsters get more Power Options.
  • Premise 2: As level increase monsters get more powerful Power Options.
  • Premise 3: The above increase in Power Options is at least equal to that players experience.

Regarding premise 1, it is definitely true. Monsters get more power options as they level up, this much is clear. However, not only do they get more power options, but they also get more powers! Monsters get more complex by an increase of approximately 120% all told, so this is definitely clear support for the premise that as monsters increase in level they become more complex – a revised premise from the original to take advantage of new information we have uncovered since the prediction.

As for premise 3, this is false so far (in terms of the volume of increase, if not the quality), but not as false as I had predicted. While players do have more options, and that their increase is larger, it becomes less large with each tier. The monsters basically play catch-up, which is not something I expected to see. Still, the increase in power options, in terms of sheer volume, favors the players, so premise 3 is on shakey footing at best so far.

What about premise 2? Well, let’s look at the quality of conditions, starting with the “Big Three” – the hard action deniers. Hard because when subjected to these conditions you cannot somehow ignore them and continue to use your action (for instance, Dazed reduces you to one action no matter what, while with Prone you can ignore the temptation to stand up and retain your move action for something else), and action deniers because they, well, deny actions by literally not allowing the player to use some or all of the actions their turn normally entitles them to. In other words, we are going to look at charts with Dazed, Stunned, and Dominated.

Firstly, I’d like to note that this chart is in percent, not a straight X over Y decimal. This is because the numbers start to get too tiny to really mean anything without having to think about it, and I’m all about aproachability (I say in the article with a squillion pieces of data that had to use excel formulae to achieve anything resembling success). The first thing to note is how there is an apparent outlier in the amount of Daze as tiers go on. First it increases, substantially in fact, and then it sort of decreases back between the first two numbers. This is in clear contrast to the way things work for our four player classes, which have an increasing quantity of daze as the tiers go on. The other thing to note is how few powers actually daze, especially as compared to the player classes. Referencing the charts from our player companion article, we can find that the player powers of those four classes have powers that daze 5.2% of the time in heroic tier, monsters have powers that daze only 4.1% of the time. This difference exaggerates as the tiers increase, with players having 10.9% chance of a daze in one of their powers selected at random, while the monsters only have 7.9% in paragon tier, and in epic tier it gets even wider, with a 12.3% chance of a daze in any given power for the players and only a measly 6% chance for daze to be in any given monster power.  Since I don’t think we’d get a lot out of a “Dazes per Monster” chart in this instance, let’s move on to the next of the Big Three, Stun.

The stunned % per power chart basically tells the story you’d expect. Not only do stuns increase with each tier, but they increase faster with each tier, too. In other words, the rate of stunning is accelerating. One possible reason for this is that the number of dragons (notably still with their stunning dragon fear power in Monster Manual 1) increases in density as tiers increase, but that alone probably doesn’t explain it. At any rate, the story of increase here is different from that of the story of increasing daze when you compare the results to the players. While for daze the players started with more, then accelerated away to create an enormous daze gap by epic tier, in this case it begins with a gap of 0% players to 2.5% in favor of the monsters in heroic tier, slightly closing (player acceleration) 3.4% to 5.7%, and then 6.6% to 10.6%, with the monsters pulling away into a clear lead by a wide margin. Why so many stunning powers in epic tier? Besides the dragon density theory I don’t know, but there they are. The final of the big three, we’ll next look at Dominated.


Now then, Dominated is interesting because it seems to exhibit characteristics shared by the dazed chart. The amount of the dominated condition per power basically doubles between heroic and paragon, then in epic dips down to a figure between the first two – just like in the dazed chart. Meanwhile, the fluctuations in the amount of domination that PCs get per power goes from .65% to .75% to 1.2% – higher than the monsters overall, and specifically in both heroic and epic tier. That being said, dominated is an extremely rare condition, not only for the monsters, but also for the players.

Now I’ll share some charts detailing similar progressions for other powerful conditions (blinded, removed, restrained, unconscious, and weakened), as well as how they compare to the players’ options of the same.

Here’s the chart for blinded, and it, too, exhibits that sort of strange dazed progression, where it peaks in paragon tier. The comparative percentages per power per tier between the players and monsters are 1.7% to 1.1%, 2.3% to 1.3%, and 5.8% to 1% respectively. In other words, the players’ blinded options per power increases tier (and accelerates), while the monsters’ just sort of hangs out around 1.1%-ish.




Meanwhile, removed as a condition exhibits a growth similar to that of the stunned condition, increasing in prevalence per tier. When compared to the progression that the PCs get, it is, PCs first, .22% to .23%, 0% to .44%, and 1.2% to 1.0% per tier respectively. There seems to be a bit of an outlier in paragon tier, but otherwise the PCs and monsters get a similar amount of restrained and also a similar amount of increase (again with the exception of paragon tier).





Next up there’s restrained, which displays another one of those quirky paragon tier maximums, with epic tier falling between paragon and heroic. Compared to the PCs, again with the PCs first and respectively by tier, are .87% to 1.4%, 1.1% to 2.9%, and 2.9% to 1.5%. The monsters begin ahead, then stay ahead, until finally the PCs take first place in epic tier.




Penultimately there’s the unconscious per power chart, with the monsters displaying, again, their epic tier not progressing reasonably onward, but instead peaking at paragon tier. However, this time at least, it also displays another curious behavior – namely that for the first time epic tier is not only less than paragon tier, but also less than heroic tier. Hmm, curious. We’ll discuss that momentarily, however, and for now I’ll just note that the player vs. monster comparison is .22% to .23%, .38% to .88%, and 0% to 0%.



 The final chart of serious effect per power in percent (always avoid alliteration) is, as mentioned, weakened. This one seems to increase as one would expect, unlike several notable exceptions, and additionally the PC vs monster per tier comparisons are .87% to 1.6%, 1.9% to 4.1%, and 5.3% to 5.0%. While the monsters had the PCs on the ropes for a while, it seems that team PC pulls ahead in the end once again.




Now, what does all of this mean? Well, it could mean a lot of things, but the first thing I noticed is that neither side really has a decisive advantage in terms of the big status effects – ones that cause large penalties or the like. The monsters’ effects where they have a slight advantage seem to be the slightly more dangerous ones (removed, stunned, and weakened), but the PCs aren’t exactly far behind, and to boot have an advantage in dazed and blinded. In other words –

  • Premise 3: The above increase in Power Options is at least equal to that players experience.

Premise 3 is looking fairly supported in terms of rate of increase regarding powerful effects. The monsters and players both get increases to their effects at roughly the same rate, with perhaps a very slight edge going to the players in terms of rate of increase, but the edge going to the monsters in terms of the power of the condition inflicted. Of course, just a little while ago I was saying how premise 3 was unsupported since the players get more options at a more rapid rate overall, so what gives? Obviously the players must be getting options that are not the effects I just listed in much higher quantities than the monsters are, and, on the whole, this is true. You can see it most clearly in the case that monsters get many powers that deal only damage, while players get very few of those powers – the powers that, were they monsters, would deal only damage must, therefore, be acquiring lesser power options (like bonuses or movement) that are not major status conditions, while the monsters have many powers that deal only damage. In other words, while the sheer power of the options, and the amount of the powerful options, aren’t in either party’s favor, the less powerful options are distinctly giving the edge to the party, and therefore overall premise 3 seems to be unsupported in regards to quantity.

As for –

  • Premise 2: As level increase monsters get more powerful Power Options.

Well, frankly that one looks kind of supported and kind of busted. Of the eight status effects listed, the monsters had a peak in their relative quantity in paragon for five of them (dazed, dominated, blinded, restrained, unconscious), while they had a peak for three (stunned, removed, and weakened) in epic tier. The trend is definitely there as the monsters roll into paragon tier, but premise 2 seems to be weak as the monsters reach epic. In fact, the difference in percentage points between heroic tier in these eight status effects is, all together, 14.59. On the other hand, the difference between paragon tier and epic tier is, net, only 1.28. The premise is still supported so far, but only barely. Meanwhile, the players have a difference in percentage points between heroic and paragon tier for these eight effects of 11, and paragon and epic tier of 14.57. In other words, while the players get more acceleratively powerful (that is, their power increases, and increases at a more rapid rate than heroic) in paragon tier, and continue this acceleration through epic tier, where they gain power at a faster rate than paragon tier, the monsters… well, they don’t. The monsters start to slow down again as they reach epic tier. This brings us back to –

  • Premise 3: The above increase in Power Options is at least equal to that players experience.

which is now definitely busted. The players gain power at a much faster rate as the game goes on than the monsters, with rough parity in paragon tier, then the players pulling away like the first place horse at the kentucky derby once they reach epic tier, not only overall, but also for the eight most powerful (debateable I know) status effects.

Therefore, hypothesis 1 is, primarily, false. While the monsters do have a lot of complexity to them, and this complexity is comparable up until paragon tier, at the end of the day the players pull ahead far and away. Epic tier combat is most definitely more complex on the player end by a wide margin in terms of status effects and other power options within the limited At-Will, Encounter, Daily / Standard Action scope of this study.


Now to begin on hypothesis 2 – that certain kinds of power options are intrinsically tied to certain kinds of monsters. This is useful to see if the roles are really different, and if so, how they are different in terms of the power options they possess. The player study showed that this was less the case than one could imagine, so it’ll be interesting to see how monsters work out. To this end, I have created two charts. They are both color coded for convenience, with associative power options labelled in red (>50% increase in prevalence compared to average), dissociative power options labelled in blue (>50% decrease in prevalence compared to average), and null options (those that do not appear at all) labelled in purple. All other boxes (results that fall within +-50% of the average) are gray. The first chart is the percent of monsters that have a certain power option, and the second chart is the percent of powers that have a certain power option, both charts broken down by role.

Basically, we’ve got a lot of results here and we need a way to cull from the herd. A good place to start, or so I think, are where the associative results line up. In other words, where both a lot of the monsters have powers with that result, and a lot of the powers the monsters possess have that result. For instance, the Controller role has several that line up: Blinded, Dazed, Dominated, Immobilized, Removed, Slowed, Stunned, Combat Advantage, Healing, and Penalty. A rough theme here are heavy action denying effects and numerical penalties (dazed, dominated, removed, and stunned denying actions hard, immobilized, combat advantage, slowed, and other penalties denying softly). The controllers exert control, who would’ve thought? They are also defined by being above average in the most effects and power options overall (both individually and together). However, what truly defines a trend? Is it a power option appearing 5% of the time? 10% of the time? 20% of the time? I decided to arbitrarily make a cut off at 10%, because in my mind if every other encounter made entirely of that role doesn’t necessitate showing a power option, then the power option is probably too rare to truly define the class of monster with. Do you think that another percentage should be used? Feel free to comment below and justify your response! However, using my arbitrary cutoff for now, we can see that a controller is “truly” defined by only a few power options: Slowed and Penalty on a per-power basis (with Dazed and Immobilized coming close), and Bonus, Penalty, Healing, Movement, Weakened, Stunned, Slowed, Immobilized and Dazed on a per-monster basis. Therefore, a rough “most defined by” to “least defined by” for controllers might look something like this (using only associative results):

  • Controller – Defined by: Slowed and Penalty, Dazed and Immobilized, Movement, Stunned and Healing, Weakened and Bonus

The other roles are defined a lot more tightly by their power options than are the Controllers, with the possible exception of Lurkers who come close. Therefore, let’s just work from top to bottom. Lurkers have as associative on the first chart: Blinded, Grabbed, Removed, Unconscious, Weakened, Penalty, Bonus, and Other Effect. Other Effect? Well, that’s not good. Let’s find out what that effect tends to be. According to the notes I took while creating the charts of data, Other Effect for Lurkers fell into approximately 3 major categories: caster becomes Insubstantial, caster becomes Invisible, and far behind those two, caster creates Line of Sight blocking Zone. Since Other Effect covers a wide range of effects in this case we’ll ignore it, but make a note that Lurkers are prominently able to become Insubstantial and Invisible. From the second chart the associative results are Blinded, Grabbed, Removed, Unconscious, and Weakened, as well as Penalty, Bonus, and Other Effect. The options that meet the 10% cutoff are Penalty and Other Effect on chart 2, as well as Blinded, Grabbed, Weakened, Penalty, Bonus, and Other Effect on chart 1. As a result of this, a Lurker defined by power options might look something like this (as above):

  • Lurker – Defined by: The ability to become Insubstantial or Intangible, Penalty, Bonus, Weakened and Grabbed and Blinded, and (barely) Removed and Unconscious

To continue on to the next most defined by its power options in terms of quantity is the Artillery role but with a distinctive dip in the amount. Artillery is defined on chart 1 by being associated with Dazed, Dominated, Petrified, and Unconscious as well as No Effect, and on chart 2 with Dazed and Dominated. In terms of the 10% cutoff, on chart 1 the most prominent associative options are Dazed and No Effect, and on chart 2 there are no options that meet the cutoff, although Dazed is close. When defining artillery, normally I would put Dazed first, as it meets the cutoff on one chart and is also associative on both charts, but the No Effect power option on chart 1 is so far and away above 10% occurance (in fact, rather than occuring once in every 10 monsters as 10% indicates, it occurs approximately 1.5 times per monster) that it only seems prudent to use it as Artillery’s defining aspect. Therefore, Artillery is most clearly defined like so –

  • Artillery – Defined by: No Effect, Dazed, Dominated, Petrified, and Unconscious

Next is Soldier, again with many fewer defining options than Controller or Lurker. In the Soldier’s case, it is associative on chart 1 with Grabbed, Marked, and Petrified, and on chart 2 also with Grabbed, Marked, and Petrified. In terms of the 10% cutoff it has Marked on both charts and Grabbed on the first. Therefore –

  • Soldier – Defined by: Marked and Grabbed

 I’ll skip boring you to tears by listing out the remainder and simply present them in their abridged, bolded, bullet-pointed format (together with the ones that are already done). They were done in the same manner.

  • Controller – Defined by: Slowed and Penalty, Dazed and Immobilized, Movement, Stunned and Healing, Weakened and Bonus
  • Lurker – Defined by: The ability to become Insubstantial or Intangible, Penalty, Bonus, Weakened and Grabbed and Blinded, and (barely) Removed and Unconscious
  • Artillery – Defined by: No Effect, Dazed, Dominated, Petrified, and Unconscious
  • Soldier – Defined by: Marked and Grabbed
  • Skirmisher – Defined by: Movement, Combat Advantage
  • Brute – Defined by: Prone

So, in essence, what are we looking at here? Well, contrary to the players, it seems that the monster classes are usually all pretty clearly defined. The controller slows and imposes penalties, as well as restricting movemement and action in other ways, while the lurker can become insubstantial or intangible and inflict wicked penalties. Artillery is primarily about the damage, soldier about marking, skirmishers about movement, and Brutes about prone. However, associative power options only tell one half of the story. What about the dissociative power options? Well, here are those, listed again for your convenience (and determined in much the same way, this time ordered from most anti-definitive to least) –

  • Controller – Anti-Defined by: Marked
  • Lurker – Anti-Defined by: Marked and Petrified and Combat Advantage, Immobilized,  Movement
  • Artillery – Anti-Defined by: Grabbed and Marked and Removed and Combat Advantage,  Bonus, Healing, Prone
  • Soldier – Anti-Defined by: Dominated and Unconscious and Combat Advantage, Blinded, Penalty
  • Skirmisher – Anti-Defined by: Blinded and Dominated and Immobilized and Marked and Removed, Grabbed, Dazed, Penalty, Stunned
  • Brute – Anti-Defined by: Blinded and Dominated and Marked and Petrified and Removed and Unconscious and Combat Advantage, Immobilized, Bonus, and Slowed

So, regarding what makes a monster class unique, what can we learn from all of that? Basically, that Controllers are defined by their ability to detain enemies from doing as they please (movement penalties and action penalties, as well as just regular old penalties) as well as able to do a lot of different things overall – the only condition they cannot inflict at least some of the time, besides those that no monster in this study can inflict, is Marked. The Lurker, too, is defined by its penalty infliction, but in a different way – it inflicts primarily numerical penalties (and bonuses to itself), as well as having the ability to become invisible and/or insubstantial very frequently. The Artillery monster is defined by its ability to … have very few abilities. It primarily just deals damage, but it has a touch of control in there as well (most notably Dazed). Meanwhile, it has quite a few things it can’t do without any real solid theme it seems. The Soldier, on the other hand, has very few things it can do that define it: basically just Marked and Grabbed. In contrast, it also doesn’t have many things it can’t do, with the majority of its options being gray rather than red or blue. Skirmishers are clearly defined by movement, as one would expect, as well as combat advantage (although much less clearly defined in terms of inflicting it as a condition), also as one would expect. Meanwhile they have very little ability to impede the movement or action of others. Finally, Brutes knock things prone a lot, but otherwise are fairly limited in what they can accomplish. Their rate of No Effect powers, while not as prominent as Artillery, is basically tied for second with the Skirmisher. How does this all affect Hypothesis 2? –

  • Very few Power Options are intrinsically tied to the different monster classes.
  • Premise 1: Assuming “intrinsically tied” is equivalent to appearing 50% more often than the average both per power and per monster, and that the Power Option appears at least 10% of the time overall both per power and per monster.
  • Premise 2: Assuming that the monster classes are Controller, Soldier, Brute, Lurker, Artillery, and Skirmisher irrespective of their Minion, Standard, Elite, or Solo status.

Well, using premise 1 we created those charts and analyzed what they were all about, and also using premise 2 we ignored the monsters’ relative worth to their same-levelled comrades. In terms of the hypothesis itself, I would say that, contrary to my expectations, monsters are fairly well defined by, and tied to, their power options on a role basis. Controllers clearly use action and movement denying effects much more often than any other role, Lurkers are the only role that really has any consistency in its ability to become insubstantial or intangible from a power, Artillery has tons of powers that are just damage and sometimes daze, Soldiers are defined by their mark and grabbing (and also by their relative ability to do anything), and Brutes and Skirmishers both have a schtick to (prone and movement/taking advantage of CA respectively), as well as being very clearly planted in the second place spot of No Effect. The answers aren’t as definitive as I might’ve liked to see, but on the whole the trend of these monsters seems to point towards certain power options being tied heavily to certain classes. In fact, at no point do any of the red (>50% more prevalent) power options go to more than two of the monster classes at a time. I’d say that’s a pretty big success on the part of the design team for the monsters in terms of making them distinct from one another based on role.

That leaves only one point of discussion, namely how the concept of anti-grind monsters fits into this general scheme alongside the relative strengths and weaknesses of various power options to that end, and how that relates to the existing data.

The most common advice for using monsters that “don’t cause combat to be a grind” basically runs along the following lines: Whatever you do, don’t use soldiers or controllers, and instead use artillery, skirmishers, and brutes. Lurkers are kind of a wild card that are situationally useful, primarily because they will often be the first to run away thereby not lengthening combats needlessly.

So, do I see any statistical trend that might support this qualitative analysis? In fact, I do. Artillery, skirmishers, and brutes are all very high on the No Effect category. To pull some numbers from earlier in the article, the artillery role has a full 53% of its powers not inflicting any kind of status effect or power option of any kind. Similarly, brutes take second place at 46%, and skirmishers a close third at 41%. In contrast, soldiers only have 32%, and controllers only 25%. Ouch! Lurkers, the “wild card” are sitting at only 27%! But that’s just in terms of powers, let’s take a look at it in terms of monsters, which may paint an even more damning picture. Across all three tiers an artillery monster will average 1.64 powers each that do not inflict any power options, with skirmisher taking second this time at .96 (only 4 monsters in a hundred do not have a power with No Effect), and brutes at .88 (12 monsters in 100 don’t have a No Effect power). In sharp contrast stands the controller at .78 (22 monsters in 100 don’t have a No Effect power), the soldier at .69 (31 monsters in 100 don’t have a No Effect power), and the “wild card” lurker at .67! If you want to select a controller, soldier, or lurker monster they are sabotaging your efforts to avoid effects in comparison!

Furthermore, when analyzing the stunned effect in the same manner, it can be clearly seen that so many controller monsters have one or more powers that stun it pulls the average up such that the average amount of stuns is higher than the amount of stuns on any other class of monster. Removed? Controller and Lurker. Unconscious? Lurker. Marked? Soldier. Immobilized? Controller and Soldier. Each of these conditions that denies or heavily suppresses actions has one of the “no-no” classes linked directly to it such that it pulls the average up so far it is greater than the individual statistics of any other class. The link between the “grindy” classes and power options is clear and irrevocable, not only in the direction of certain classes of monsters having fewer power options in general, and more powers that have no effect, but also in the direction of certain other classes having many different power options feature prominently, many of those being the most powerful at denying actions. Similarly, the Lurker only has its wild card status precisely because of the fact that it is commonly the monster that runs away. If it stayed it would prolong combat immensely with its insubstantial conditions, ability to hide due to invisible, and a plethora of action denying effects that commonly appear.

So, why then do these status effects increase so heavily? Well, the monsters themselves are getting more complicated, it’s true, but, perhaps more importantly, something else is changing besides the powers’ complexity. Specifically, the kinds of monsters available is changing. Observe –


As this chart clearly illustrates, one potential reason that monsters become more complicated at higher tiers is simply because the kinds of monsters with the No Effect powers go away, and in their place we are given monsters with tons of power options. While of course epic tier has fewer monsters overall, the majority of those monsters are soldiers, brutes, and controllers. Notice how there are brutes there, though. This gap is particularly large in paragon tier, where brutes are at an all-time lowest percent of the monster make-up, and in fact is probably the most likely explanation for why some power options seem to peak in paragon tier and decrease in epic tier – the kinds of monsters that have them, controllers and soldiers, are most prevalent in paragon tier and therefore so are their conditions!


Hypothesis 1

  • Combat includes too many moving parts, and this is the monsters’ fault.
  • Premise 1: As level increases monsters get more Power Options.
  • Premise 2: As level increase monsters get more powerful Power Options.
  • Premise 3: The above increase in Power Options is at least equal to that players experience.

Neither proved nor disproved, although with fairly clear results to each premise.

Premise 1: Monsters become more complex by acquiring more power options as they level up on the whole. This is true. Additionally, they acquire more powers in general (although the rate of power options per power still goes up). The rate of power option increase (overall) is approximately linear as evidenced by this graph –

Premise 2: Monsters do get more powerful Power Options on the whole as they level up, but not by a lot in epic tier. Monsters mostly only get non-standard action non-power option bonuses as they enter epic tier, with their standard action power option related statistics remaining fairly close to their paragon tier assets.

Premise 3: This premise is false, as I predicted, thereby invalidating any total conclusion that could be made about the first hypothesis. Looking at a graph of player power versus monster power (by role), we can see some pretty clear trends here –

and also clearly see that monsters are all over the place while players are not. While this bodes well for monsters being definitive and iconic (and players having a crapload of power options at their disposal), it bodes poorly for any average comparison. Still, using the previous chart showing the linear increase of average monster power options, we can take a look at the player chart and see that –

Power Options Per Tier (1, 2, 3) (Player)

it is quite different looking, and definitely not linear. While at first it might appear exponential, were you to analyze only the rise from Heroic and Paragon tiers, taking all three tiers together the graph appears very much to be logarithmic. So, while it’s fun to yell about how “monster progression is linear and player progression is exponential!”, it turns out that, in fact, monster progression is linear and player progression is logarithmic. What does that mean for premise 3? Basically that player power options per power increase faster than they do for monsters, most noticeably in heroic and paragon tiers, while over the course of epic tier player and monster progression is roughly similar in terms of quantity, although by then the damage has already been done, and both gaining a between 2 and 2.7% increase just serves to further exacerbate things to the breaking point.

Hypothesis 2

  • Very few Power Options are intrinsically tied to the different monster classes.
  • Premise 1: Assuming “intrinsically tied” is equivalent to appearing 50% more often than the average both per power and per monster, and that the Power Option appears at least 10% of the time overall both per power and per monster.
  • Premise 2: Assuming that the monster classes are Controller, Soldier, Brute, Lurker, Artillery, and Skirmisher irrespective of their Minion, Standard, Elite, or Solo status.

This hypothesis, surprisingly, was proven false. While the four player classes in The Id DM’s study did not experience a significant divergence in the amount of power options they had available to them the monster classes most certainly did and, indeed, several of them are practically defined by their relative lack (or relative frequency) of power options, and still further many of the classes of monster are defined by the amplitude of certain key power options. (While the same can be said for the players in terms of amplitudes of specific power options, it is not quite so exaggerated).

General Questions

What, then, does this mean for us? Well, a lot of things. Firstly, that basically any player class can do complicated things but that monsters are much more often defined by a lack of power options. Similarly, the anecdotal evidence from experienced dungeon masters seems to tell us the same story that the statistics do – if you don’t want to slow down combat then stay away from the monsters with tons of power options and especially the power options that deny or suppress actions.

And now, to ask and answer the same discussion questions that The Id DM posed (they’re still applicable to this article, after all, and while good DMs borrow, great DMs steal!) –

  • Should status effects be tied to specific classes and roles to increase identity?

In the case of monsters, I think that definitely yes. My experience with monsters tells me that having each monster have a clearly defined role on the battlefield not only helps me plan ahead, but also gives the players clearer information. If that monster attacks at a range and is doing a lot of stunning, it’s probably a controller, and therefore it’s probably a priority target. If it’s attacking up close but isn’t marking? It’s probably a brute. For the player classes, however, I’m not quite so sure. While one would suspect some iconic powers to make clear appearances in certain classes, like the marked condition for defenders, a lot of the power options available aren’t particularly tied to the ideal of any one class or role. This is a very delicate in large part, I think, because it’s important to give players the option to play the game the way they want to. If they want to be the defender, do they want to mark? Or do they want to spam prone and immobilized? Both are effective ways to defend your fellow party members, but they both work very differently. I think, maybe, that following the Essentials idea moving forward is probably the best way to handle it, and by that I mean that an essentials class is, in essence, a focused build. The mage isn’t very focused, aside from its school encouraging you, that’s true, but a controller’s thing is having access to tons of different options, right? Meanwhile the Slayer’s schtick is No Effect, No Effect, No Effect, and the Cavalier has two very clear choices to make: either you’re Virtue of Sacrifice and get Healing and Bonus (to defense), or you’re Virtue of Valor, which gets primarily just Bonus to offense. In short, I’m in favor of tightening up the looseness of the power spread, and making controllers feel like they’ve got the run of the gamut while their friends probably don’t.

  • How special do you view Status Effects as a DM and as a player?

Well, this one really depends for me, at least, on the status effect (or other power option). It also depends on the way I’m playing the game, which these days is most often online over Map Tool. One thing I’ve noticed, for instance, is that while every other power option was definitively belonging to a monster role in my analysis, ongoing damage and restrained weren’t. That’s a problem in my book. If it’s too muddied to be iconic it needs sprucing up, especially if it’s a prevalent as ongoing damage is. What is the point of ongoing damage, anyway? It’s backloaded damage, so that takes a bit of planning, and I like that in terms of how it can increase depth and reliability, but it relies on a saving throw to go away, so it’s still totally random when you get to the point in the game where every other leader power is suddenly granting saving throws. Will the ongoing damage go away? Won’t it? How can we know for sure? There went reliability and predictability, and as a result there went depth. It’s still adding complexity to the gameplay, but it’s a bad kind of complexity, the kind that can’t be predicted or accounted for with any certainty. Similarly, while Stunned is a ridiculously overbearing effect (it removes your entire turn!) it never felt that menacing to me, just annoying. My players have never said “oh shit, he can stun!” What they have said is “it rolled HOW MUCH DAMAGE?” I think a lot of this stems from the fact that unlike in some other games, most notably Star Wars: Saga Edition or even Spirit of the Century, you cannot control somebody to death in 4th edition. It’s all about the damage. If you stun somebody six times in a row, they are still at full hit points, which means the instant they roll their 55% chance of success saving throw, they’re right back into the fight like nothing ever happened. In other words, being stunned has unintuitive consequences. In SWSE you can stun somebody two or three times, and suddenly their condition track hits bottom and they’re unconscious. That’s a fight winner. Similarly, in Spirit of the Century, if you hit somebody with knockout gas a couple times and their composure bar fills up past a major consequence? They’re taken out just the same as if you shot them with a gun. So why does control not have a cumulative effect in 4th edition? I’ve heard people say “oh, well, SWSE’s control track is a death spiral, and that’s not very heroic,” but what about Spirit of the Century? It’s a game about pulp action where solving problems with your fists is just as viable as with your wit and that has cumulative control effects out the wazoo. I think that’s a major problem with 4th edition right now, actually, the more I think about it. If being Stunned twice suddenly turns you unconscious, Stunned is a lot more scary and a lot less annoying. “Oh no I cannot act whatever will I do” is a lot less enthralling than “if he stuns me one more time I’m done for!”

  • Should the majority of powers have additional benefits or simply cause damage?

This one, for me at least, is the trickiest to answer. Simply causing damage seems to work just fine for the monsters and the slayers of the world, so why not? On the other hand, lots of players complain that things like the slayer feel too boring or simple (and since they have to/get to play the same character for weeks on end while as DMs we constantly change our oppositional cast to new things, I can see why this complaint comes up). I think that, probably, my ideal balance here would be somewhere between the essentials material and the core material (pre-essentials). Basically I think that maybe they went a little overboard with the new essentials material to make it more distinct than it necessarily needed to be, and the real sweet spot would be toned back just a little bit.

  • What did you find interesting or surprising in the results above?

At slightly over 8,000 words, I’m going to have to take the cop-out answer on this one. Chalk one up for “all of it” from The Id DM’s article, and in terms of my own? I’m most surprised by how, while the players continue to increase in power options at a rapid rate among the most powerful of the options (the so-called top eight I listed earlier) the monsters really slow down to an absolutely glacial pace. They get more power options in epic tier, and more powerful power options in epic tier, but the former is less than what the players get and the latter is less than what the players get by a LOT.

Also, whoever designed the Bodaks somehow managed to sneak the most crazy overpowered creatures to ever exist into a folio of fiends most would call underwhelming in the danger department at best.

How about you, dear reader? What do you think of those questions? Do you have any other thoughts to share? Do you want to contribute to the ongoing call to arms to acquire statistics started by The Id DM and maybe even help with figuring out how the game is designed, why it’s designed that way, and how it could be designed better? Please leave a comment below!

As promised, here is the original excel spreadsheet with the data I have collected, and here is the “glossary” for the excel spreadsheet with my notes I took as I was taking down the data. Both are very helter-skelter, I’m afraid.

Tune in sometime next week when I analyze the changes that slightly over two years of design innovation and revision have brought to our beloved monsters when I do a follow-up article on the D&D Essentials Monster Vault.


The Hydra DM