Sunday, November 30, 2008

Minion Balancing

I have previously discussed good and bad points of the minion rules in D&D (here, here, then here). Now I will mention the scale I am currently using to estimate how powerful a minion should be (in response to a blog post here).

Here are the basic statistics I am using for a heroic level melee-only minion:

AC: 14 + level
Fort/Ref/Will: total = 34 + 3*level
Attack Bonus: 5 + level
Initiative: ¾ * level
Damage: 3 + level/2

These stats are mainly based on a combination of looking at the DMG and looking at how minions are actually designed in the monster manual. The first three values are just what I use for the typical normal monster, and the initiative is just 2 lower (minions have low initiative). Damage is half that of a normal monster.

How minions scale with level is tricky, since I’ve noticed they become weaker as you gain levels and have more minion-killing abilities. I’ve been giving a 5% bonus to the minions for every level over 3 (meaning they have some special power or other perk that gives them that much greater offense or defense than otherwise calculated). I’m not sure that isn’t too weak of a bonus, given the trouble minions seem to have staying alive against high level characters.

As for the XP value, I’m currently estimating that a minion should cost 1/6 as much as a normal character, due to their extreme vulnerability to area effect attacks.

Heroic-level minions are fun. I haven’t tried a lot of minions at Paragon and Epic levels. I’m afraid the players will gain so many anti-minion powers that minions don’t work well any more.

Note, however, that ranged minions are much more powerful and less vulnerable than melee minions, since they can try to disperse as much as possible and avoid mass death from area effect attacks and a lot of minion-killing powers.

Saturday, November 29, 2008

Sphinx race writeup

Continuing previous Sphinx posts, here is the writeup:

Ability Scores: +2 Strength, +2 Wisdom
Size: Large
Speed: 6 squares
Vision: Low-light

Languages: Common, choice of one other
Skill Bonuses: +2 Arcana, +2 History, +2 Religion
Nonhumanoid Monster: You have no hands and use the rules for nonhumanoid monsters.
Natural Weaponry: +2 proficiency, 1d10 damage, Hammer group. Gains an additional +1 to hit when using two-handed fighting style.
Riddle Master: You gain training in Arcana, Religion, or History (your choice).
Immortal Origin: You are consider an immortal for effects relating to creature origin.
Sphinx Recuperation: When you take a second wind as a standard action, you may spend two healing surges instead of one.

Frightful Roar, Sphinx Racial Power
Encounter: Fear
Minor Action. Close Burst 3.
Targets: All enemies on the burst.
Attack: Highest of (Int, Wis, Cha) +1 vs. Will
Increases +1 every 5 levels above 1st
Hit: Target suffers -2 on attack rolls (save ends)


Darkvision: The Sphinx gains darkvision.

Flexible Fighting Style: When attacking with sphinx natural weaponry, the Sphinx may treat the attack as belonging to any melee weapon group, instead of the Hammer group. This does not change the accuracy or damage, but it allows use of abilities like Sneak Attack and weapon-specific Fighter feats.

Leaping Flight: As an encounter power, the Sphinx can move for one round with a flight speed equal to her speed + 2. If she does not end the turn on a solid surface, she falls. Note that this is normal flight, not clumsy flight.

Mighty Roar: The Frightful Roar power gains a +1 feat bonus to hit and is Close Burst 5.


Sustained Flight: The Sphinx gains a base flight (clumsy) speed of 8 and a base overland flight speed of 10. This is affected by speed modifiers as usual.

Tremendous Roar (requirement: Might Roar): The Frightful Roar power gains a +2 feat bonus to hit and is Close Burst 10.

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Making the Sphinx, continued

Back to my posts on making the Sphinx D&D race:

To make a race, first we need to pick the 2 primary statistics. This was easy, I just looked at the highest statistics of the Sphinx monster and decided the statistics would be Strength and Wisdom, which make a lot of sense. Next, we need to pick the skill bonuses. The description of the Sphinx mentions that Arcana, History, and Religion are the most common skills for telling riddles. Since a Sphinx is of course supposed to be a master of that, I think a bonus in all 3 as appropriate. This is one more skill than usual, but we will just count that as one of the Sphinx advantages.

Next, the special powers. I will assume that the marking ability and the pounce ability are "class" abilities of the monster rather than racial abilities. The ability to tell powerful riddles appears to be more appropriate for a monster than for a player character. The roaring ability seems perfect for a once per encounter special ability. Close Burst 10 seems excessive, but I realize I can allow high-level feats to increase the area and start it at only Close Burst 3. How effective is it? Well, giving an opponent -2 on attack rolls until they make us save is clearly less good than giving them - 4 on attack rolls for his single turn but perhaps a bit better than – 3. The close burst is very effective, I'll estimate it catches about 3 monsters on average. So we have about -10 to hit, which creates a 50% chance of a hit becoming a miss. We can compare this to the halfling power Second Chance, which also has about a 40% chance of turning a hit into a miss. But the roar has to hit to be effective, which it only does about 60% of the time, so it really only creates a 30% chance of a monster missing. Of course there are many small differences, the roar takes a minor action and has a limited range and can be affected by vulnerabilities, but you don't have to wait for an enemy to attack before using it and it can affect multiple attacks in a turn. But they are at least reasonably similar.

The Sphinx also has the special power to take a second wind, which monsters normally can’t do. So maybe I’ll give the Sphinx a better second wind. I tend to think taking a Second Wind on your own action is of very little use, since it costs an attack action, doesn’t get any healing bonus, and takes away your ability to get revived with the Heal skill. So I might as well make it much better, like the dwarf ability does. I’ll do something different and say that it still costs a standard action, but you can spend two surges instead of one.

The Sphinx can also fly, of course. But flight is a very dangerous power which is generally not available at low level. So this should become available only through paragon or epic feats, or for a limited duration. Conveniently, the Sphinx isn’t a very good flyer. The tricky question is how stingy to be on giving away flight. I think a feat to give flight for one round each encounter is no problem (sort of a variant on teleport). But what about perpetual flight? Magic items that give permanent flight are epic level, but flying mounts are much lower level. Since a Sphinx is a clumsy flyer, I guess I’ll assume paragon level is OK.

The darkvision can also be a feat, we’ll start the Sphinx with low-light vision.

Now let’s see how balanced we are. We’ll compare the Sphinx to the halfling. They both have two useful stat bonuses. The Sphinx has a slight bonus in having +2 to a third skill, the halfling has a slight bonus in having +5 on fear saves. The Sphinx has fearsome roar, the halfling has Second Chance. The Sphinx has stronger healing surges, the halfing has the opportunity attack AC bonus. Similar so far, probably edge to halfling. But the Sphinx has Low-Light vision. The Sphinx can’t use superior weapons, but halfling is worse off in being forced to use inferior weapons. However, the Sphinx is Large, which is a real nuisance so still advantage halfling. And the Sphinx has no hands! So the Sphinx needs some help. I’ll give the Sphinx a free mental skill (to help them be lore masters), and assume that the availability of cool feats makes up the difference.

I’ll write up the feats and a prettier description next post.

Saturday, November 22, 2008

Minion House Rules - Option E

Pausing my Sphinx entries for a moment to respond to an interesting comment by Neubert on Minion House Rules, suggesting that minions should get a saving throw to avoid being killed. Since I'm now extending the suggestions in that post, I thought I'd write a new entry that extends the earlier post.

Giving minions a saving throw against automatic attacks only is a very reasonable idea. I'll consider it option E. In terms of underlying game design, it is essentially the same as option D, in that it gives automatic damage a roll to destroy the minion, just like any other damage. The only difference is that the roll is completely fixed, rather than being an attack vs. defense roll. The big advantage over option D is that it doesn't require stretching D&D to invent rules about making attack rolls in situations where characters aren't making direct attacks. That is a very nice property. The disadvantage compared to methods B-D is that the roll has nothing to do with the amount of damage, the skill of the attack, or the defenses of the minion. Overall, though, a good option.

Giving all minions a saving throw wouldn't really address the issue of automatic damage very well, as it wouldn't change the fact that it was much more effective than a normal attack. This would be a rule with a different purpose, to make all minions harder to kill while still leaving them stateless. I've considered and analyzed rules of this sort in the past, for other purposes. This is in general a very workable rule for making things tough but stateless, though not without disadvantages. It could be used as a way to make a specific minion tougher. If you apply it to all minions, it certainly does make them more dangerous. But unfortunately it magnifies the underlying problem. Trying to kill minions with normal attacks would become so difficult as to be totally impractical; you would have no choice but to abuse your minion-killing powers to the maximum extent in order to get rid of them.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Designer's Notes for non-humanoid monster rules

My last blog entry was in the form of a new rule. In this entry, I shall attempt to give designer’s notes for the rule, explaining why exactly I made it the way I did, to bring out the game design and game balance behind the rule.

The issue is that in D&D, magic items are an integral part of the system and the game balance. 4th edition D&D puts tight controls on various types and slots of magic items, and it has a defined system for how you gain magic items with levels. The expected strength of magic items is tied into the expected strength of the characters and tied into the game balance. In addition to gaining powers from class and race, characters are expected to gain powers from magic items, and a substantial amount of power at that.

However, the magic item rules assume humanoid characters. A Sphinx is a quadruped without hands. She clearly cannot use a sword or a shield. It is possible to imagine a Sphinx wearing a belt or a helm, but it seems distastefully comical. A noble Sphinx should not have to festoon herself with out-of-place humanoid clothing implements.

However, if a Sphinx cannot use magic items, she clearly needs to compensate in some way. This brings up an interesting difference between fourth edition D&D and earlier versions. In earlier editions, the emphasis was on different characters having totally different powers which worked totally different from one another; you couldn’t really compare or balance 2 classes except by comparing them to very similar existing classes or just guessing. But a fourth edition D&D, the emphasis is on an underlying game balance, where at a low level characters work in the same way even though there are many higher-level differences.

So when I did this sort of thing in third edition, I would make a monster class and compensate for the lack of magic items by giving totally different “monster powers”. But for the fourth edition Sphinx, I felt it would be much more in keeping with the game to make them as similar as possible to other types of characters in terms of using magic items.

So my idea for an elegant solution to this is to allow them to absorb the properties of magic items without having to physically wear those magic items. Not only does this give them the right amount of magic item powers, but it has an additional advantage. If I were to simply give the Sphinx powers to compensate for not having magic items, this would mess up the treasure distribution for the party. The GM would have to give out less treasure to make sure that the Sphinx doesn’t give away her share of the magic items and treasure to other characters and make them more powerful than they should be. Requiring the Sphinx to actually use the items discovered or bought makes her fit nicely into an ordinary party.

Once I made this decision, it was immediately obvious that slots would work in the normal way. The only question was how a Sphinx would duplicate the ability of characters to swap items. For worn items, I normally would only swap between encounters (and very rarely at that). So however the Sphinx does the swap, it should have to be done out of combat. I chose the 10 minute imprinting ritual because it felt similar to the fourth edition idea of rituals. This is not the only way to do it; an alternate (equally good?) way would be to be able to change magic item selections after any short rest.

Now the tricky part is how to deal with items that require hands, and with weapons and armor. I could have given the Sphinx a fixed armor bonus, but I felt this would really limit the ability of the Sphinx to feel like a real member of its actual class. So I just went with the most “game balanced” approach and gave the Sphinx the exact same armor and shield modifiers as if it were a humanoid member of its class. One might argue that giving a – 4 armor check penalty to a Sphinx paladin is strange, but I figure she is just a fat, slow, tough Sphinx.

You could give this same freedom of choice for weapons, and I still think giving them some choice wouldn’t necessarily be unreasonable. But clearly, a Sphinx fighting style cannot imitate all weapons – reach and range don’t make sense. So I decided to go with the idea that the basic claw attack is just like a Warhammer. There is precedent for a race being specialized with a single weapon, such as the eladrin affinity for the long sword. To make sure I wasn’t too inflexible, though, I allow the Sphinx fighting styles to duplicate two-weapon fighter and two-handed weapon fighter (stats are like using a greatsword). Actually I pondered some other small game balance details between them that I don’t have time to write here. I will give a feat to allow limited imitation of other weapon types so that Sphinx rogues are possible.

Now back to the question of hands. A humanoid character has the ability to switch which weapons and implements it is carrying during combat. I decided that this ability, while useful, was not strictly essential for game balance. After all, if you have a heavy shield and don’t have Quick Draw, and you need your minor actions for your features and powers, switching weapons can be so inconvenient that you rarely actually do it during combat. So I decided to classify this as a disadvantage of non-humanoid monsters, that they cannot change what is in their “hands” during combat.

However, they still need some way to use consumable magic items which require hands. So I came up with the rule that they can do this once per combat. Note that this is actually a little trade-off. In return for only being able to draw one item per combat, she gets the advantage of being able to draw it as a free action instead of one or more minor actions. Since one of the normal drawbacks of a heavy shield is that drawing and switching weapons can be incredibly time-consuming due to the inability to free up that hand, I gave a penalty in that situation that you need to have a feat to use this power.

My new rules may look lengthy, but that is really because they are reiterating a core feature of the D&D rules in a slightly different way. You can consider them “advanced” rules as far as reading them is concerned. As far as playing the character is concerned, though, they should be extremely easy. The party obtains magic items, divvies them up, records them on their character sheets, and uses their powers in exactly the same way they would normally. The choice of a Sphinx choosing armor and a fighting style is no different from the identical choice that a normal character makes when selecting what armor and weapons to use and what will be held in the hands at the start of combat. The only difference is that the Sphinx is a little bit easier to control because she doesn’t have to worry about all of that finicky manipulation of items in the hands, which I always find difficult to keep track of. She just has a fixed selection and a very convenient encounter power to use one additional item for combat.

Monday, November 17, 2008

Non-Humanoid Monster Racial Rules (Sphinx part 1)

Since D&D is still new, I have generally been in the mode of analyzing D&D rather than improving or expanding upon the rules. However, my wife insisted that I allow her to play a Sphinx character, so I came up with rules for doing so.

First, rules on how non-humanoid monsters work:

A Sphinx cannot use, wear, or activate magic items in the normal fashion. Instead, she must imprint the item. This takes 10 minutes, as if it were a ritual (but has no cost or chance of failing). Once the item is imprinted, the Sphinx can use the power of the item as if it were in the appropriate slot, and the item does not work for anyone else. At this point the location of the physical item no longer matters (the Sphinx can leave it at home in her treasure horde if she wants to). A Sphinx only has the normal number of slots; when an item is imprinted in a given slot, the Sphinx loses the imprint on the previous item in that slot.

Example: A Sphinx can imprint a magical amulet, and will gain the enhancement bonus and properties of the amulet, and can use the daily power of the amulet as with the normal rules. If the Sphinx imprints a different amulet, she gains the powers of the new amulet, she loses the powers of the old amulet, and the old amulet can now be used by someone else. The Sphinx can still imprint a head item, two rings, and any number of wondrous items and consumables (but see more below).

A Sphinx chooses what kind of armor her hide will act as; she must have the appropriate armor proficiency (in reality, the Sphinx just has different degrees of toughness and fighting mobility, but for game purposes this is equivalent to armor proficiency). The Sphinx is treated exactly as a humanoid wearing armor of this type, and she has one armor slot which can be imprinted. The choice of which armor type to emulate can be changed only between levels. The Sphinx can only imprint armor of the type she is currently emulating.

Example: A Sphinx Cleric can emulate chain armor, and then has a +6 AC bonus, a -1 speed penalty, a -1 penalty to physical skills. She cannot emulate scale armor unless she takes the feat Armor Proficiency (Scale).

The Sphinx must choose what is being held in her two “item wielding” slots; this choice can be changed after any short rest. A wielding slot can be used for a wielded implement or another item which requires a free hand to use; this allows the Sphinx to imprint an item of that type. A Sphinx with shield proficiency can use a wielding slot to gain the benefits and penalties of a shield of the appropriate type, and the Sphinx can then imprint a shield in that slot.

If a slot is not used for any other purpose, it can be used for melee combat. A Sphinx must use at least one slot for this purpose. A Sphinx cannot use normal weapons, but automatically has proficiency with its natural weaponry, Sphinx claws. A Sphinx claw is treated as a Warhammer in combat, and can be imprinted with any magic weapon whose enchantment is valid for a hammer, and can use feats and powers meant for hammers. If a Sphinx has two free wielding slots, it is treated as if it were wielding a Warhammer in each hand, and had the Ranger ability to wield both at the same time. Each claw could then be imprinted separately, and the Sphinx could choose to take the two weapon fighting proficiencies. Alternately, the Sphinx can use both wielding slots for a “Sphinx rake”. This counts as a separate martial weapon which the Sphinx does not have automatic racial proficiency in. A Sphinx with the “rake” style can only imprint one weapon, but it counts as using a 2-handed weapon with d10 damage and a +3 proficiency bonus.

Example: A Sphinx wizard can choose “orb” in one wielding slot, and can then imprint a magic orb in that slot, and can use the orb implement mastery class feature. A Sphinx fighter can choose “melee” in one hand and “heavy shield” in the other, and can then imprint magic hammers in one slot and magic shields in the other. A Sphinx is somewhat limited, however, in that unlike a humanoid character she cannot choose “orb” in one slot and “shield” in the other, she must have at least one melee slot.

In addition, once per encounter, a Sphinx can use any imprinted magic item power which would normally require a free hand to use, such as a consumable or an extra wand. This power cannot be used if this Sphinx is using a slot to gain the benefits of a heavy shield, unless the Sphinx has the quick draw feat. Unlike a normal character, the Sphinx is otherwise rather limited in that it has no way to otherwise move magic items into or out of its virtual "hands", the only way to use a magic item power that requires a free hand is to choose it for a wielding slot or use this encounter power.

Example: The Sphinx can choose to use her imprinted Potion of Clarity. This costs a minor action, and consumes a healing surge as per the magic item description. The potion is now “used up” and this power is gone. The Sphinx won’t be able to use any other imprinted consumables in that combat (unless, before the combat, she chose “melee” and “Elixir of Dragon Breath” as her two wielding slots).

Wondrous Items which are purely physical in nature, rather than granting powers to the user, do not use the imprinting rule. They can be mentally commanded if that is specified in the description, but they cannot be imprinted and cannot be used if they really require hands. So a silent crowbar won’t be useful to a Sphinx and Pouches of Shared Acquisition are doubtful. However, a Golden Spade or a Skeleton Key can still be imprinted normally (the physical action is just a “special effect” of using the power).

Hmm, that took a while to write, I guess this is only part 1 of 2. And I would clearly need to write quite a bit more if I were writing this rule officially.

Friday, November 14, 2008

Why I write a lot of critical comments

You may notice that I write a lot more negative things than positive things. Why? Well, I guess I like to try to make games better rather than just accept them the way they are. And analyzing negative points is more interesting than analyzing positive points. The positive points often boil down to “this feature was done correctly”, which isn’t too exciting to write. And the positive points are often fairly obvious, as they are the selling point of the game, while the negative points have to been hunted down and exposed. And the bad points need to be analyzed so I can determine how to fix them; the good points don’t need changing. Also, if I like the basic design of a game, I see it as “basically good with bad points” rather than “basically bad with good points”, so I want to enumerate the bad points. So I write more about the bad points of games I basically like. If I dislike the game, I don’t play it very often!

Sunday, November 9, 2008

Minion House Rules

To follow up on my post from last week, I thought it would make sense to analyze some possible house rules to improve the D&D minion rules. By house rules, I mean trying to adjust the rule to fix problems while remaining as true as possible to the original rule and the spirit of the fourth edition D&D game, rather than trying to rewrite the rule from the ground up.

A. The simplest and most obvious rule is to make minions immune to automatic damage just like they are immune to miss damage. This would probably be best stated as "minions are only vulnerable to damage from attacks that hit"; that would make sure they can still be killed by cleave, which is one of the few powers that really, really should work well against minions.

Though simple, this rule would not work well. Minions would be totally immune to all sorts of things which they clearly should not be immune to. They could dance through walls of fire and so on. The other rules which follow are more practical.

B. Minions could actually have hit points like real monsters, but any damage coming from an actual hit still kills them automatically. Maybe they have ¼ as many points as a real monster, but this is only used against automatic damage. This rule is fair and solves the problem, and retains most of the simplicity of the original minion rules. The main disadvantage is that it also loses one of the big benefits of the minion rules, that you never have to keep track of hit points for minions. It also has the strange effect that softening up minions with automatic damage not only wouldn't kill them, it wouldn't even make them easier to kill with normal attacks. That is, whether a minion is healthy or damaged, it still takes only one real hit to kill it. Whereas against a normal foe, causing a small amount of damage early on makes it takes fewer attacks to kill later.

C. Minions could ignore automatic damage below a certain amount, as if they had “resist damage”. This would not require any bookkeeping, and would give minions a certain amount of dignity. The disadvantage is if the amount of damage ignored is low, such as level/2, a lot of things will still automatically kill the minion. While at the amount of damage ignored is high, such as level +2, they may become immune to some effects which are pretty powerful and which they should not be immune to. In either case, it doesn't do a very good job of solving the problem that many attacks will either always kill the minion or never kill the minion. But it does make the minions seem less pathetically puny.

In this case and the previous one, it would make sense that attacks which miss should be considered identical to automatic hits - they can still kill if they cause enough damage.

D. Minions can only be killed by a successful hit, and damage that does not normally require a hit roll is allowed to make a hit roll for the purpose of killing the minion. This is probably the best solution in terms of solving the underlying problem that automatic killing is boring. One disadvantage is that it requires extra dice rolling. The bigger disadvantage is that it strays much farther from the normal rules than the other options. In particular, automatic damage is often somewhat disconnected from the character who creates it, so would not always be clear what hit roll is being made and what the bonuses are. It would essentially open a "can of worms" where the DM would have to make quite a few house rules to support it.

All of these solutions have definite problems, none of them is an obvious replacement for the current rule and there is definitely room for argument over whether any of them are actually better than the current rule. However, if you wanted to make a house rule, B, C, and D all sound quite plausible.

Friday, November 7, 2008


I love the minion rule in 4th edition D&D. I think it is an absolutely fantastic idea to have low level mooks which are useful, but which don’t have any hit points or other wound statistics to keep track of – a single die roll determines their fate. This seems like a wonderful improvement over the agents in Champions, which were super-easy to hit but often took two attacks to defeat. I’ve seen the minion idea in other games, but they were either less simplified (as in Torg) or they were worthless cannon fodder. D&D minions are useful cannon fodder that can fit in to a challenging tactical combat. I plan to use some variation of the minion concept when I next work on new RPG rules.

However, while I think the concept is fantastic, in playing D&D I’ve noticed some flaws in the execution. The stated idea behind a D&D minion is that it is worth the same XP as a much lower level monster, but is designed to be much more fun to play. In effect, the monster has been “game adjusted” to replace much of his offensive powers with a higher attack bonus, and to replace his hit points with higher defenses. A level 12 minion isn’t really some frail, sickly creature that can be killed by one bite from the neighbor’s poodle. It is just that one good, solid hit from a paragon-level adventurer is enough to put him down. To make sure that this is the case, there is even a special rule that damage from missed attacks can’t kill a minions. This prevents attacks from instantly auto-killing minions.

Unfortunately, this rule is totally inadequate because there are so many other methods of causing damage, often in very small quantitites, without needing an attack roll, and there is no rule to prevent these from auto-killing minions. These powers really take away the flavor of minions. Minions are no longer real creatures that require one good hit to bring down. Instead they become some sort of infestation, to be dealt with using your “pest control” powers. Once the players have enough of these powers, minions start dropping like flies. For game balance, you can try to compensate by adding more minions, but flavor-wise, this only makes the problem worse; it really emphasizes the idea that minions are so numerous and puny, they aren’t worth wasting a “real” attack on. Also, the rule that that misses cannot damage minions begins to seem rather arbitary and unfair; why is it that 7 points of damage from my missed fireball has no effect, but the same damage from a flaming sphere is an automatic minion vacuum cleaner?

Looking for better software

I halted posting for a while, hoping to find better software. I'm not really happy with the format of this blog, it is too focussed on "blog entry of the day". I want it to be easier to see comments and old posts. I'm thinking of moving to a forum-style for my blog, but it is time-consuming trying to find and set up a forum.