Our house roles are the kinds of things that pop up organically. We don’t sit down at the beginning of the campaign and say “rolling a 20 on your critical confirmation roll has a chance to kill an enemy outright, because I want that to be a thing and the game doesn’t do it by default”. Instead we see something happen, decide it would be neat if the rules reacted to it, and over time reinforce that expectation. Most of the time these fall into two categories: rewarding the players for doing something neat (my players know rolling all sevens on something is a big deal, and we’ve used the charge rules in several ways that were clearly not intended) or adding something to fill a perceived gap (like our secondary skills). Very rarely do we create a house rule to take something away. Normally we prefer to resolve that by talking with the players, instead of outright banning something overpowered, or reskinning, instead of banning something that violates the feel of the campaign.
So it’s interesting that we’ve been removing something essential from our monsters in 4E: hit points. Starting in the One Piece campaign our group has cut three hit points plus three per level from every standard (non-elite, non-solo) monster. That is:
|Skirmisher||8 + Con + (level x 8)||5 + Con + (level x 5)|
|Brute||10 + Con + (level x 10)||7 + Con + (level x 7)|
|Soldier||8 + Con + (level x 8)||5 + Con + (level x 5)|
|Lurker||6 + Con + (level x 6)||3 + Con + (level x 3)|
|Controller||8 + Con + (level x 8)||5 + Con + (level x 5)|
|Artillery||6 + Con + (level x 6)||3 + Con + (level x 3)|
There are several reasons for this, applicable both to our specific meta and to the meta of 4E in general. The biggest reason is how it changes the pacing of a day. Major arcs in the One Piece campaign involved several fights without long rests in a single location, usually punctuated by one or more boss fights. 4E has a pretty hard limit on how much punishment a party can take in a day: all other expendable resources aside, when a party is out of healing surges they largely can’t fight any more. Encounters are expected to consume slightly less than one-fifth of a party’s resources, so a party can fight five times a day but probably not six. That meant we could have three standard encounters, a miniboss, and a boss. It’s fine for a normal dungeon, but not for an arc-ending, four-session-long climax.
The books don’t really cover how to deal with long days because they rarely discuss and barely acknowledge a world outside the game’s design and testing scope. By extrapolating from their advice on long fights, we can say they expect long days to work via intermediate rests, longer than short but shorter than long. Maybe the party can hole up in a storage closet, catch their breath for an hour or two, and gain back two healing surges and one daily power but no more. That’s fine, but it encourages the player to take several of these rests, engineering them whenever possible, instead of splitting them up narratively. It also only works for certain situations. The Zelda campaign’s long days were in the middle of dungeons where “sit and wait for a while” wasn’t an acceptable solution.
We went about it the other way; instead of making the players’ resources deeper, we made encounters easier. The simplest way to do this is by lowering monster hit points. We could have lowered attack, damage, or defenses, but that leads to DM frustration and makes individual creatures feel less dangerous. A lower hit point value makes the monster just as scary, but for less time. The players can kill it quickly so it doesn’t spend eight rounds assaulting them, then move on. It also let us keep the same number of monsters in an encounter so our fight design wasn’t limited by an artificial head count, and it let us be more clever with those monsters because we knew the players could focus-fire truly perilous creatures more effectively.
Consider the end of this campaign, when the players and most monsters were L19-20. That meant each creature had about 60 fewer hit points than typical monsters. That’s two hits from the party’s blackguard, or three to four from the swordmage, and anywhere in that range from the ranger with multiple attacks, assuming all attacks hit. That’s two fewer rounds the blackguard had to spend in pitched solo combat against the enemy brute, which is two fewer rounds of attacks she had to take, which is two fewer rounds of healing she needs after the battle, and two more rounds crossing the battlefield and assisting with other monsters. In making the fights faster and easier we accidentally made them more dynamic; like players, monsters spent more time using their big guns and less on at-wills, and the battlefield changed more often as they disappeared.
This had a pronounced effect on table feel. Fights went so fast we frequently had two per session and occasionally three on top of our typical talking, exploration, and puzzles. Players used encounter powers more often, so they got more value out of those frequent, signature attacks and spent less time in the “nothing left but at-wills” state. They used daily powers less, often only once in three or four sessions, which made them feel more significant without changing a thing about them and let the players have bigger spikes by changing the average around them. And since we left elites and solos alone, they felt even more significant than before, closer to the climactic battles we wanted.
One reason this worked is because we already have a healthy disrespect for D&D as written. I haven’t awarded a point of experience in almost eight years. Instead we usually award level gains at the ends of arcs (or, in this campaign, whenever the party beat a boss or collected four Heart Pieces). Because of this we don’t know or care how our changes affected the XP budget. It’s why there’s no XP amount in a monster’s header in my Monster Manual.
In the Zelda campaign I also often gave the party fewer enemies in a combat, which made them faster still and gave them that feeling of “always fighting” you can in the games but can’t manage in D&D. Like in a video game the monsters’ job wasn’t to be a serious, life-or-death struggle in every room. They were there to give the feel of a Zelda game, to explain the theme of the dungeon, and to whittle away at party resources so the players didn’t notice they were running low until the boss music started. Further, it meant I could have monsters as simple as their source material warranted. Players notice when a monster has spent six rounds using just one attack. They’re a lot more forgiving of a monster with only two powers when that monster isn’t around for very long, especially if those powers are both instantly recognizable.
All told this change has been great for our sessions, our DMing, and our story pacing. It is, however, a 4E-specific change. In order to make things a little easier on myself in my next campaign, I’m going to have to approach monster design in a different way, which I’ll talk about soon.