We've covered Dynamic Encounters, High Level Encounters, and Mooks in Encounters, but today we're going to cover an infamous and often-thought impossible type of encounter that is thematic but difficult to pull off: The Solo Encounter!
Special shout out to Nicolbolas on the Paizo messageboards for inspiring me to get back to my blog.
Warning: This blog post is ludicrously long. I'd highly advise breaking your reading up into sections if you're not fond of scaling text-walls.
What's a Solo Encounter?A solo-encounter is an encounter where the antagonist confronts the protagonists alone, or in the case of antagonists who can conjure minions, are only drawing from their own resources to get the job done. It is also known as a "boss encounter" due to similarity with many major antagonists in video games fighting whole parties on their own. In ideal circumstances these encounters should be rare, exciting, and memorable. Unfortunately, due to a combination of the nature of the d20 system and some common misconceptions about it, these sorts of encounters are common, boring, and anti-climactic.
So I'm going to try my best to share some tips and tricks to help with building encounters to the former rather than the latter. So let's get started.
|If done right, even single enemies can prove challenging to a hardened party.|
Boss Rules #1 -- Overcoming Action EconomyBack in Part 1, I discussed action economy, which is basically the number of actions taken by one side against another in a conflict. The typical D&D / Pathfinder party assumes 4 protagonists, many of which will have minions of their own (animal companions, familiars, summoned monsters, cohorts, etc). The antagonist is only going to have one turn of actions, his or her own. As a result, the solo-enemy is already at a harsh disadvantage in this regard, and as mentioned in part 1, this can very easily lead to a quick and certain victory for the protagonists leaving them wanting.
There are several methods for combating this disadvantage, but the disadvantage will never be nullified, because everything that the antagonist can do to leverage more action efficiency, the protagonists can as well, which means at the end of the day you'll need to accept that you'll usually just have to survive without lots of actions (see rule #2). In the meantime let's look at some of the ways a solo-enemy can try to reclaim some of the action economy for himself.
Pets & Summoning: As noted earlier, if the minions are coming from the badguy himself, it's still a solo encounter. A wizard who uses spells like summon monster IX is just as much a solo-encounter as a wizard casting meteor swarm, but one is going to get a bit more action economy leverage as players will need to deal with his pets. Animal companions, cohorts, familiars, and similar assistants acquired through class features and/or feats can also fall into this category.
Making the Most of Your Actions: In your typical 3.x or Pathfinder round, a character has 1 standard, 1 move, 1 immediate, and 1 swift action. A full-round action consumes both standard and move actions. Most actions use either standard or move actions, but some characters and creatures can leverage more oomph by using the odd swift-action or immediate actions. In core Pathfinder, feats like Quicken Spell or Quicken Spell-like Ability (see Bestiary, Monster Feats) can help a lot of antagonists slip an extra action in each round.
For core martial oriented antagonists, there is unfortunately little that you can do outside of magic items to improve your action-economy. There's very little that classes like Fighters, Rangers, and/or Paladins can do to really leverage their actions effectively. Most of their swift actions (if any) are usually attack buffs which improve your existing actions but don't give you much else to do. Few can make use of immediate actions. Worse yet, to truly be dangerous, they are generally beholden to the full attack action, which also prevents them from making use of their move-actions effectively. Additional action economy is going to need to come from magic items, or 3rd party options like Dreamscarred Publishing's Psionic's Unleashed or Path of War series (both are great btw, but that's another article for another time).
Magic Items: In currently printed material, there's a few items that can help improve your action economy. For spellcasters, certain metamagic rods such as extend and quicken can help leverage more action economy (extend allows for more buffs to be pre-cast before combat breaks out, while quicken allows you to use more actions during battle itself). For both casters AND martial characters, the quickrunner's shirt provides the ability to trade a swift action for a move action. This is especially critical to martial characters who need to be able to move and get off a full-attack.
Boss Rules #2 -- The Stamina to EndureIf you're planning to have a single enemy fighting an entire party of a fairly even footing, you're generally not going to want to use a normal antagonist strait out of the bestiary or a character built like a player character. Generally speaking, such creatures are often well rounded and offensively based, but the biggest need that a solo-encounter character has is endurance, resistance, and the ability to survive long enough to wear down the party. Fortunately, the GM's toolbox has what we need.
Build Defensively: When prioritizing offense and defense for your big bad, choose defense. Whenever possible, go with options that improve their ability to take or better yet avoid damage entirely. This means prioritizing hit points, armor class, saving throws, and energy resistances. Fortunately, most of these things are relatively inexpensive even for the antagonist on a budget. For warrior-based antagonists, armor and shields will provide the lion's share of inexpensive AC improvements, while spellcasters will generally have access to mitigating buffs such as mirror image or entropic shield or stoneskin.
- The Price of Defense: In Pathfinder and 3.x, the relative expense of defense-boosting items is generally about half the cost of items that boost offense. For example, a +5 sword costs about 50,000 gp more than a normal masterwork sword, while a +5 armor costs about 25,000 gp more than masterwork armor. Notice that the armor gives the same bonus to evasion as the sword grants to attack rolls. So for the price of the sword, you could get an armor and shield for a net +5 gain, and the only way the attacker is making up the difference is with BAB and buffs.
Since NPCs generally have less wealth than a player character, it's important to decide where that wealth is going. You can often a more interesting encounter by spending some of that offensive cash on defensive items, potions, and similar things. So generally stick with magic armors and items that provide cheap resistance bonuses to saves such as the almighty cloak of resistance.
- Feats and/or Spells: When picking feats for solo encounters, you might generally wish to keep a few staples such as Power Attack, but invest more heavily in defensive feats such as Iron Will, Great Fortitude, and Lightning Reflexes. In Pathfinder, Toughness adds an extra +1 HP / HD and might be worth grabbing as well. Feats that make it harder to pin someone down (such as Nimble Moves and Acrobatic Steps) or make it harder for enemies to hurt you while you're doing your thing (Dodge, Mobility,Wind Stance, or Lightning Stance).
Likewise, choosing spells such as blur, displacement, mirror image, shield of faith, barkskin, obscuring mist, false life, death ward, freedom of movement and any other spells that help to keep you alive and/or active are all good ideas for a solo-encounter character.
- Consumables: Things like energy resistances are rather overpriced in the core rulebook in terms of magical armor buffs (they use the proper pricing formulas, but they forgot that resist energy is found as a 1st level spell at caster level 1 on the Ranger's spell list, which means those effects should be cheaper than listed), but even if you don't care to fix the pricing error in your games, you can always rely on potions and oils instead. A 1st level potion of resist energy costs 50 gp, lasts 10 minutes (perfect for pre-battle buffing), and provides 10 points of resistance against an energy type. Meanwhile, a CL 7th potion costs 350 gp, lasts 70 minutes, and provides 20 points of resistance, and a CL 11th potion costs 550 gp, lasts 110 minutes, and provide 30 points of resistance. In general, this sort of investment pays off big for big-bads.
In a similar vein, other cheap potion effects that can stand in for major magic items include potions of shield of faith (which provides a scaling deflection bonus to AC), and delay poison (which makes you immune to poisons for 1 hour / caster level).
For example, let's say you wanted an Ogre that was a tough as nails ogre. A regular Ogre is CR 3. If we added 4 levels of Warrior onto the ogre, the ogre would get 4d10 more HD, +4 BAB, +4 Fortitude, +1 Reflex and Will, and more skill points (and a higher skill point cap). He would also get 2 more feats (or 1 more feat in 3.x D&D) which could be things like Lightning Reflexes and Iron Will to improve his resistances to spells. He would also get some new weapon and armor proficiencies, and his treasure values increase (in this case he gets treasure equal to a 5th level heroic NPC). So let's look at what our ogre will look like when we're done with him.
Ogre Boss, Kuldral the Brute CR 5 (1,600 XP)
|"Now you face the wrath of Kuldral, adventurers!"|
Init -1; Senses darkvision 60 ft.; Perception +9
AC 24, touch 8, flat 24 (+8 armor, -1 dex, +5 natural, +3 shield, -1 size)
Hp 72 (4d8+4d10+32)
Fort +11, Ref +3, Will +4
Speed 30 ft. (40 ft.)
Melee mwk longsword +13/+8 (2d6+5/x3) or club +12/+7 (1d8+5)
Ranged club +6/+1 (1d8+5)
Space 10 ft.; Reach 10 ft.
Str 21, Dex 8, Con 16, Int 6, Wis 10, Cha 7
Base Atk +7, CMB +12, CMD 22
Feats Iron Will, Toughness, Lightning Reflexes, Blind-Fight
Skills Climb +7, Perception +9; Check Penalty -8
Equipment +1 splint mail, +1 heavy wooden shield, mwk longsword, potion of resist energy (fire), potion longstrider, club x10, 316 gp in additional treasures
This is a simple brute boss, but it's surprisingly formidable against a low-level party. At 8 HD, it's out of the woods against spells like sleep. He can take a savage beating for an enemy of his CR with his 72 HP and 24 unbuffed AC (the average CR 5 tends to have around 50-60 HP, and a lower AC). Blind-fight allows him to continue fighting even if hit with something like blindness/deafness or glitterdust, and makes invisibility more difficult to use to get a big opener with. Because of his naturally strong statistics, the party would need to work together to take him down. This means you're intended to use debuffs on him such as the Intimidate skill, or items like tanglefoot bags, or spells to slow him down or hamper him (such as grease, glitterdust, or hideous laughter). All in all, it's very unlikely that such an enemy isn't going to last at least a few rounds on his own even against multiple foes.
Add PC Levels: When dealing with monstrous characters such as our ogre, adding heroic class levels (such as antipaladin, cleric, or sorcerer) can be a great boon to the creature, especially in terms of improving their survivability. Creatures treat many heroic class levels as NPC levels when determining their total CR until the new class levels meet their current CR, so adding a couple of levels of cleric or monk levels onto a creature is a pretty good way to toughen them up in their saving throws, or provide class features to play around with.
Even if the levels are associated, adding a heroic level to the antagonist means they get the heroic ability adjustments which allow you to tweak their ability scores a bit (it's equivalent to 15 point buy for the monstrous character, but the simple method is +4 / +4 / +2 / +2 / -2, applied as desired to the ability scores).
You might also want to include certain classes for things like barbarian rage, or the (Anti)Paladin's divine grace (which is especially useful on outsiders and/or creatures that have naturally strong Charisma scores, such as most outsiders).
Multiclassing: Adding mixed classes to a creature is often one of the best ways to quickly build up a very resilient boss-monster very quickly. Since the base saving throw bonuses of classes stack, our above ogre could have been created with 1 level of monk, 1 level of cleric, and 2 levels of warrior just as easily as with 4 levels of warrior. The end result would have been +2 BAB, +2d8+2d10 HD, +6 Fort, +2 Ref, +4 Will, some bonus feats, some proficiencies, a smattering of spellcasting, and some bonus feats. Our ogre would also have gotten some stat adjustments for being heroic (for the heroic class levels) which would have let us up his saving throws and HP even further (+4 Dex, +4 Wis, +2 Con would have been quite nice).
You can do much the same with NPC levels too. Adding levels of expert or adept can provide a decent bump to Will saving throws, while Warrior levels advance Fortitude the quickest. If we were really concerned about our ogre's terrible Reflex and Will save, adding Monk, Cleric, Expert, and Adept would have netted a massive +4 Fortitude, +2 Reflex, and +8 Will in exchange for significantly less offensive power.
Let's try this again. This time we're going to mix some NPC class levels in with heroic levels on a human.
Warpriestess Brala the Foe Cleaver, CR 9 (6,400 XP)
|"It's not every day that I don't need to hold back!"|
Init +6; Senses Perception +18
AC 25, touch 12, flat 23 (+10 armor, +1 dex, +1 dodge, +3 shield)
Hp 113 (1d12+4d8+8d10+39)
Fort +21, Ref +14, Will +14
Speed 20 ft. (40 ft.)
Melee mwk warhammer +14/+9/+4 (1d8+2/x3)
Ranged mwk longbow +14/+9/+4 (1d8+2/x3)
Cleric Spells Prepared (CL 1st)
1st -- shield of faith, remove fear, magic weapon
Orisons -- create water, stabilize, detect magic
Domains Liberation, War
Special Attacks Favored Enemy (human +2), Rage (7 rounds), Power Attack (-3 hit, +6 dmg; +9 dmg w/ 2 hands), Deadly Aim (-3 hit, +6 dmg)
Str 14, Dex 14, Con 16, Int 8, Wis 14, Cha 9
Base Atk +11; CMB +13, CMD 25
Feats Improved Initiative, Iron Will, Lightning Reflexes, Improved Unarmed Strike(B), Combat Reflexes(B), Dodge(B), Blind-Fight, Power Attack, Deadly Aim
Skills Acrobatics +18, Perception +18, Sense Motive +18, Diplomacy +7, Spellcraft +7; Check Penalty -6
Equipment +1 full plate, +1 heavy wooden shield, +2 cloak of resistance, mwk warhammer, mwk composite (+2) longbow, quick runner's shirt, potion of longstrider, potion of delay poison, potion of resist energy (fire), potion of resist energy (electricity), potion of resist energy (acid), potion of enlarge person, arrows (60), 30 gp of additional treasures
SQ raging drunk, fast movement, redirection,
Here's an example of this sort of thing in action. This particular NPC should generally be able to handle fighting against a group of PCs quite well. She can take a hit and dish a bit out as well. The liberation domain allows her to act as if under freedom of movement for 2 rounds (generally plenty of time to move out of an irritating effect such as wall of thorns or black tentacles or solid fog or entangle). Her AC can hit 30 if she's trying (if she's fighting defensively, due to her ranks in acrobatics she gets +3 to her AC, and she can cast shield of faith for a short duration AC boost), which makes her very resilient vs direct damage attacks.
Again, as with our ogre, the goal here is to make her difficult to just bring down by trading blows with her. A team will generally want to try to debuff her or tag-team her to bring down without suffering unreasonable amounts of punishment or wasting too many resources working on bringing her down.
Extra Hit Dice: Adding additional racial hit dice to a creature can have a big influence on making it much tougher and harder to kill without drastically increasing its lethality. Adding hit dice works in much the same way as adding NPC class levels and can be combined with adding class levels as well. Advancing a creature in racial HD generally means that it'll also get bigger as well. The adjustments to a creature's size from increasing HD generally make a creature more stalwart and dangerous, usually adding about +8 Str, +4 Con, and +2 Natural Armor for most size increases.
The 3.5 SRD had a very handy chart that made adjusting CR for most creatures easier. The same chart is works well in Pathfinder too from what I've seen. It basically treats racial HD similar to NPC levels when it comes to increasing CR, and reads like this. I'd probably drop the animal HD down to +1/4 CR like humanoid levels, and add Commoner to the +1/4 CR list.
This is especially useful if you're trying to build a big fuzzy monster to terrorize the countryside with and you want it to be tougher and ready for a party of PCs.
Boss Rule #3 -- The Field of BattleAfter you've built your antagonist, it's probably a good idea to decide on where you want this scene to take place. If you haven't read Part 1 of my encounter guides, you might want to. It discusses building dynamic and detailed encounters and much of what is contained there ports very nicely to building boss encounters. While a solo-encounter emphasizes a single antagonist, the antagonist using surroundings to his or her advantage is not only perfectly reasonable but should be encouraged. Nobody wants an encounter with Torgan the Skull Collector in a featureless 20 ft. wide room. No, battling it out on a massive bridge in a lightning storm, or in a volcanic chamber with platforms connected with magic doorways or floorplates that dimension door characters to other platforms when they're crossed is far more amusing.
Naturally, traps and other obstacles can add to the sense of epic conflict and give your antagonist support that isn't coming directly from another character. Terrain that suits the antagonist is often a good method of spicing them up as well. Fighting a Ranger or Shadow dancer in a location that they can use their Hide in Plain sight abilities to engage in hit and run tactics is basic but effective and draws attention to the strengths and style of that sort of antagonist.
From a similar standpoint, fighting a massive solo-monster such as a colossal fire elemental inside a volcano, or a white dragon inside of its lair is best served by intense terrain, stage hazards, locations that make moving around tricky can be interesting. For example, fighting inside an ironworks where giant pots pour molten iron (treated as lava) and conveyor belts moved objects and people around on them would be a pretty intense and interesting place to engage in a battle with a big bad. It can even function to settle action economy issues in some cases since you might spend more time being moved around the battle and slapping each other when you come into range, and if the boss throws you off the conveyor belt and then rides it around the room, you might need to catch back up while he's taking pot-shots at you.
Putting it all TogetherLet's try using some of these techniques together to make a powerful boss encounter worthy of a group of 11th level PCs. I'm going to aim for the CR of the enemy to be about CR 13 (which would give you a little breathing room if you wanted to rank it up from an APL+2 to an APL+3 encounter by adding a few traps or minions using some of the tips from the previous articles).
Since I haven't seen one used before, I'm going to make our big bad a fallen hound archon with the half-fiend template, extra racial HD, a size increase, and some class levels. I'm increasing his racial HD by 4 (10HD), which is giving him a size increase and upping his base CR to 6, add the half-fiend template bringing his base CR to 8, then adding 4 nonassociated antipaladin levels, bringing it to CR 10, and 4 nonassociated cleric levels to bring him to CR 12, then another level of cleric to bring him to CR 13.
Seritmon the Betrayer, CR 13 (25,600 XP)
CE Large outsider (archon, extraplanar, good, lawful, native) antipaladin 4 / cleric 5
Init +5; Senses darkvision 60 ft., detect evil, low-light vision, scent; Perception +21
Aura cowardice, menace (DC 22)
AC 37, touch 10, flat 36 (+11 armor, +1 dex, +12 natural, +4 shield, -1 size)
Hp 251 (14d10+5d8+152)
Fort +30, Ref +19, Will +24; Unholy Resilience
DR 5/magic, 10/evil; Immune poison, electricity, petrification; Resist acid 10, cold 10, fire 10; SR 19
Speed 30 ft. (40 ft.), fly 55 ft. (80 ft., good)
Melee +1 spell storing longsword +26/+21/+16/+11 (2d6+10/19-20), bite +21 (1d8+4)
Ranged +1 adaptive composite longbow +18/+13/+8/+3 (1d8+10/x3)
Cleric Spells Prepared (CL 5th, Concentrate +9)
3rd -- blindness/deafness (DC 17), bestow curse (DC 17), remove curse
2nd -- bear's endurance, eagle's splendor, resist energy (2), remove paralysis
1st -- longstrider, entropic shield, remove fear, shield of faith
Orisons -- detect magic, create water, purify food and drink, guidance
Domains: Liberation, Travel
Antipaladin Spells Prepared (CL 1st, Concentrate +6)
1st -- protection from good
Spell-like Abilities (CL 10th, Concentrate +15)
Constant -- detect evil, magic circle against evil (suppressed)
At-will -- aid, continual flame, greater teleport (self plus 50 lbs. of objects only), message
3/day -- poison (DC 19), darkness
1/day -- contagion (DC 19), unholy blight (DC 19), desecrate
Special Attacks Power Attack (-5 hit, +10 damage), Dazing Assault (-5 hit, DC 27), Stunning Assault (-5 hit, DC 27), Deadly Aim (-5 hit, +10 damage); Touch of Corruption (7/day, 2d6 damage, DC 17; cruelties -- fatigue)
Space 10 ft.; Reach 10 ft.
Str 28, Dex 12, Con 26, Int 10, Wis 18, Cha 20
Base Atk +17; CMB +27; CMD 38
Feats Improved Initiative, Iron Will, Power Attack, Lightning Reflexes, Deadly Aim, Flyby Attack, Blind Fight, Dazing Assault, Stunning Assault, Quicken Spell-like Ability (aid)
Skills Acrobatics +14, Fly +20, Intimidate +21, Perception +21, Sense Motive +17, Stealth +14; Racial Modifiers +4 Stealth, +4 Survival, +4 fly from good manueverability; Check Penalty -6
Equipment +2 full plate, +2 heavy steel shield, +2 cloak of resistance, +1 spell storing longsword (inflict serious wounds, CL 6th), +1 adaptive composite longbow, quick runner's shirt, 1,220 gp worth of additional treasures
SQ change shape (beaste shape II)
Seritmon is the progeny of a fallen archon and his dalliances with the succubi of the abyss. This unholy union produced a powerful and twisted creature of evil that undermines the holy energies that still course through his veins. Seritmon is a monster of the highest order. His nature is one of deception and betrayal, for even though he makes no attempt to hide his fiendish nature, he acts with a sort of chivalry, and speaks of honor, loyalty, and fair play. This sense of honor is only skin deep, however, and if things are not going his way he has no qualms with playing dirty or throwing his self-respect away to save his own hide, or attacking his foe indirectly.
Action Economy: Seritmon keeps aid functioning more or less continuously, and if he loses the temporary hit points gained by it during combat, he will generally cast quickened aid to provide a buffer against incoming attacks, especially if he is outnumbered. He also has a quick runner's shirt to get an extra move-action in if he needs to make a hasty retreat or close for a full-attack (one of his favored tactics is to crash down onto enemies from the air and immediately full-attack them).
He will generally target minions, such as animal companions, with his spells like blindness/deafness since they are generally going to be weaker and more susceptible to the spell than their masters.
Tactical Schemes: Seritmon is usually found with a cause serious wounds spell stored in his weapon, which was improved via a death knell sacrifice. He only expends the spell in his weapon when he feels seriously threatened or his hate becomes unbearable. He also is perfectly fine with holding the charge from his poison spell-like ability and delivering it through his bite attack during combat at a later time. Sometimes he can be found with a group of up to 20 HD worth of animated skeletons or zombies that he has animated with his dark priestly spells and improved with his desecrate abilities.
He cuts down on enemies being able to gang-up on him by making use of his Stunning Assault feat to stun enemies who he catches in melee combat, or Dazing Assault if his foes appear immune to stunning. This also forces his enemies to try and extract their team members if he catches them in this cycle of savage beatings.
His liberation and travel domain powers give him a solid tactical advantage if he needs to clear out of a bad area of effect spell that is keeping him down.
He is also fond of using flyby attack to haze enemies.
Location Ideas: Seritmon is immune to poisons and knows it. When encountered in his lair, he has a number of magical traps that seep cloudkill spells into certain chambers. Since creatures not immune to poison suffer at least small amounts of Constitution damage while in the area, this is a favorite dirty trick of the evil knight.
Since he is immune to electricity, he might also attempt to engage in a fight in the center of a thunderstorm, or on a location with massive heights where he can throw enemies from ledges with flyby attack and bull rush combat maneuvers.
Since he is mildly resistant to a variety of other elements, fighting in locations filled with frigid cold, mundane fire (in the 1d6 to 2d6 damage range), or areas with acids (such as a magical labratory with pipes leaking caustic chemicals) would also be interesting locations. Since he's not actually immune to these things, he might be emboldened or act brazenly, but may be at risk of getting burned (literally) if the party activates something that turns up the proverbial heat.
Quirks: Despite being able to see just fine in the dark, Seritmon generally keeps continual flame on some of his clothing as well as his weapon, which makes it appear to be wreathed in a dark fire. He does this because he is proud of his appearance and thinks it makes him more intimidating (and it generally does). It also serves to confuse some enemies who would mistake his fiendish appearance and flame-trappings to suggest that he was unable to be harmed by fire, when in truth, he can be harmed by fire spells and effects as easily as most fiends.
Though he can radiate a magic circle against evil, he generally keeps the ability suppressed because it usually is more of a hindrance for him than his enemies. However, since he has several rivals amongst his demonic peers, he sometimes resumes it if he feels the need to protect himself from the influences of a succubi's charms or the spells of an evil rival. He may also activate it if he wishes to prevent summoned evil outsiders (which can often pierce his damage reduction) from getting too close to him.
Because of his insistence upon carrying and using weapons and armor, he cannot make use of his greater teleport spell-like ability, so he walks and flies while in his normal form, and only uses greater teleport when he's shapechanged into a dire wolf (as his equipment melds into his form), which means this is the form he uses when he is traveling great distances.
|"Your numbers are nothing before my might, mortals!"|
Next Time...It occurs to me that my work here is not yet done. This turned out to be a bigger subject than I originally thought, and so I'm breaking this final big-bad article into two parts. Next time I'm going to talk about using spellcasting focused enemies (such as sorcerers, wizards, and caster druids) as major antagonists. While much of the information here is still valid for them, their strengths and ability to take on a group come in a different package (lots of extra hit dice tends to weaken their overall spellcasting power, for example), so I think that might worth it's own look into how a caster leverages their power against a party of players.
I hope you enjoyed this and had some fun. If there's a subject you'd like to me cover in the future, or to just ask a question, drop me a line. You can reach me at the Paizo messageboards by my handle "Ashiel", or drop me a message at firstname.lastname@example.org and I'll get back to you as soon as possible.