We had our in-person D&D game yesterday, where my wife Barbara and I went to our friends Nate and Bree’s house to play D&D with the two of them and with our friend Kyle. Kyle couldn’t make it, so I ended up running his character for him. This was an interesting experience. My character is an eladrin wizard, and Kyle’s is a tiefling bard. Making matters a little more interesting, we only had Kyle’s original level 1 character sheet, and we’re now at level 3. I leveled the character up based on my best recollection of the choices Kyle had made (though I’ll admit that I did change the level 2 feat to suit my own preferences) and ran with it.
Our characters started off in a rebel camp in a forest outside of a huge city. Our party had decided to help the resistance against the overlords of the city, and we were getting ready to head off to a tunnel that the rebels were building to get in and out of the city to rid it of a cave troll. Before we could leave the camp, however, we were invaded by two trolls and three ogres. These guys were coming after us because of some run-ins we had with the authorities in the city before we got out to the rebel camp. We later figured out (thanks to some fantastic intuition on Barbara’s part) that they were able to find us by tracking an enchantment on an item that we had stolen from them (oops, our bad).
The battle in the camp was pretty interesting. The lead troll was clearly the guy we needed to focus on. He started off by grabbing my bard (well, Kyle’s bard) by the head in the first round and hanging onto him throughout the whole battle. The bard had a tough time escaping a grab, but he fought pretty well for a guy with his head being squeezed by a troll! The rest of the party battled well and was ultimately helped by some of the other rebels joining the fray to finish off the bad guys. We took down the lead troll and the three ogres, but the second troll – a druid of some sort – escaped into the woods. Despite the fact that we had spent our daily powers and were not in the best shape in terms of hit points, we decided that letting him get away to warn other giantfolk would be a bad idea. So, we chased him into the woods.
The chase was handled as a skill challenge, which we just barely succeeded on, and we found the troll druid in the woods. Here’s where things got ugly. This particular guy was a Troll Vinespeaker (from Monster Manual 2), which is normally a Level 14 creature but which Nate had scaled down to Level 6. I think this means that he lowered the hit points, attack bonuses, defenses and damage output, but he didn’t fundamentally change any of the powers. I think this was a mistake. During the battle in the camp, the Vinespeaker had buffed his allies with some temporary hit points (fair enough), backed out of melee to shoot vine attacks at individual PCs (no problem) and then, just before he ran away, shot an area attack at a few of us. The area attack created a nine-square area of vines that:
- attacked each PC in the area when it was created
- dealt 1d10+2 damage to each PC that was hit
- IMMOBILIZED each PC that was hit (save ends)
- dealt 1d8 damage to each PC that began its turn in the area or entered the area
- served as difficult terrain (you move through it at half speed)
- and the area persisted until the end of the encounter
Okay, a few things here. First, I know that Nate scaled down the bonus to hit with this attack (at level 14, it was +18 versus Reflex, and I know that this troll’s bonus to hit was way lower). So that’s good. Second, I don’t believe he altered the damage dealt by the beginning of turn / enter the zone attack. That’s not so good. Even with all of that, though, we only saw this druid use the ability once in the camp, so we assumed it was an encounter power – once per battle.
Nope – it was at-will.
Think about that for a minute. Every single turn, this troll (who started the battle in the woods about 10 squares away from us, with the PCs clustered together) can create an area of thorns around several PCs that, if it hits (which it usually did), deals a bunch of damage right there, then immobilizes the character until the end of their next turn at best (if they make their first saving throw), then deals additional damage at the beginning of the character’s next turn – and the one after that if they miss their save, and then the one after that if they miss that save… It was ugly, ugly, ugly.
The troll quickly created four of these zones that pinned down most of the party. The other party members were trying to pull the immobilized creatures out, but it wasn’t happening. My wizard and my bard both went unconscious, still sitting in thorns (so taking 1d8 every turn until the end of the encounter). Bree’s warden pulled the wizard out, but getting the bard out looked hopeless. Barbara’s ranger then had the bright idea to try to scare off the troll by shooting some fire arrows at it. The arrows missed, but the troll was scared of the fire and ran. Now that he wasn’t generating new zones, the warden and ranger were able to pull the bard out, barely. The unconscious characters were carried back to the rebel camp and healed, and we took an extended rest and chased after the troll druid the next morning, where we found him and finished him off (though Kyle’s bard almost died again to some stupid little plant creatures – sorry Kyle!).
The battles were intense and draining. I’m glad we prevailed, and almost everything was great – except, in my humble opinion, the way the Troll Vinespeaker was converted from level 14 to level 6. The Dungeon Master’s Guide (DMG) has some advice on changing the level of a monster. It says that, to lower the monster’s level you should decrease its attack rolls and defenses by 1 per level and decrease the damage it deals with its attacks by 1 per every two levels. You also adjust its hit points according to its role. However, it also says that this process really only works for changing a monster’s level by 5 or less, and that beyond that you should pick a different monster to work from.
In this case, the Vinespeaker needed to be bumped down by 8 levels. This means that its attack roll and defenses should all be lowered by 8, and its hit points should be lowered by 64 – and I think Nate did this exactly. Its damage should be reduced by 4 – and I think Nate did this, but only for attacks that dealt dice damage plus static damage. So, the damage from being hit by the thorny area attack was originally 1d10+6, and I think Nate lowered it to 1d10+2, which is reasonable. He did not, however, change the damage dealt by the thorn area each turn or whenever a character entered the zone. It was 1d8, the same as it would have been at 14th level. This should have been no more than 1d4 (reducing the maximum damage by 4), although that’s only reducing the average damage by 2 rather than 4 (1d8 averages 4.5, whereas 1d4 averages 2.5). I guess it really should have been reduced to a fictional die that rolls either a 0 or a 1 (average of 0.5). So, that’s a big problem – we took a lot of damage from those thorns!
Furthermore, I think the point in the DMG about just abandoning this idea for monsters that are more than 5 levels away from what you’re seeking is important here. A monster 8 levels above another monster is going to have mightier powers – not just in terms of the attack bonus or damage dealt, but also in terms of special abilities. In this case, there’s no way a 6th level monster should have an at-will ability that creates a zone that deals damage and immobilizes when it hits, deals damage each turn that you stand in it or whenever you enter it, serves as difficult terrain and lasts until the end of the encounter. If that were an encounter power, that would be fine. Maybe even a power that recharges on a 6. Alternatively, it could be an at will that creates a zone that persists for one turn. But all of that together is just too much for a 6th level monster.
Let me be clear on something – I like Nate a lot. I think he’s actually a fantastic DM. And I think that the troll druid was a way cool enemy. But I don’t think the troll druid ended up being what Nate intended him to be – a tough supporting character in an encounter led by a bigger, nastier troll and backed by some smaller ogres. He ended up being nearly a solo monster. If we had fought him one on one after an extended rest, with our daily powers charged, it would have been a fair fight (thanks in part to the wizard having access to Flaming Sphere). So, that’s a lesson for us as players – charging after a bad guy when you’re exhausted from a tough battle may be a bad idea. But if that thorny area attack had been an encounter power (as we thought) rather than at will, I think we would have handled him pretty easily, even when exhausted. I think Nate chose to have the troll flee from the ranger’s fire arrows out of pity, honestly. By that point in the battle we had given up on attacking the troll and were just trying to flee, but we couldn’t get our fallen comrades out of the thorns without the troll just creating more. The troll couldn’t really have been that afraid of a couple of fire arrows (especially when they both missed him).
What have I learned?
- As a player, I’ve learned not to make assumptions about what is an at-will power and what’s an encounter power!
- I’ve also learned that chasing a fleeing baddie when you’re exhausted can be a bad idea – although, as I said, had the thorn zone been an encounter power I think we would have been fine mopping up a lone troll druid. I think you should pursue the weakling before he can alert his big friends. This guy, as it turned out, was no weakling.
- As a DM, I’ve learned that you have to be very careful when adjusting monster levels. I think that I’ll start by sticking to the DMG’s advice when I do this sort of thing, and not try to re-level a monster by more than 5 levels (and probably not even that much).
- Rewarding players for being clever is extremely important and satisfying for everyone. The fire arrows were smart, as was the discovery that the stolen item let the authorities track the party, and we were rewarded for both of those and felt good about it.
- You have to be open to the possibility that you’ve made a mistake. As a player, I realized that I made a huge mistake in assuming that the thorny area power was at will. When I did, I changed my thinking to, “Let’s get out of here!” but it was too late. As a DM, I think I should be open to the possibility that one of my ideas isn’t working, as with the power level of the troll druid in this case. When that happens, I think I would want to fix it on the fly rather than let the consequences play out as written. This is absolutely a situation I could see myself getting into as a DM, and I think I’ve learned something important about how to handle it.
I’ve heard it said that people learn more from failures than successes, and I think that’s true here, too. Our party’s decision to go after this monster was a mistake, and I think I’ve learned from it. The power level of the troll was a mistake, too, and I’ve learned from that as well. The good news is that despite everything, our party pulled through and had a good time doing it.
One other note: It looks like schedule conflicts and upcoming travel plans are going to make it so that I won’t be able to play my online D&D game with my friends until late June (it’s mid May as I write this). That’s disappointing, but it’s not the end of the world. We may get the small group together (four of us) once or twice for a quick-hit adventure, but we’ll probably just put things on hold. Hey, that give me more time to get some challenges ready for everyone! I can live with that.