The Problem with Solos

If you play 4th Edition Dungeons & Dragons, you’ve probably noticed a problem with a lot of the solo monsters in the game. Solos are supposed to be a challenge equal to multiple monsters, but they often fall short of that challenge. There are several reasons for this:

– Solos can be hamstrung by defenders’ marks. This can easily prevent them from being a threat to anyone else in the party, and it’s important that an encounter give all party members something to worry about.

– Solos can be dismantled by stun effects, or even slow effects that reduce their ability to move around. Stun or daze can ruin a solo’s day. Slowing or restraining might mean the solo remains a danger to melee characters, but ranged characters will yawn and fire away.

– Solos can sometimes stake their game on a single attack roll, and don’t do squat when they miss.

In fact, the only times I’ve ever seen a solo really challenge a party – both as a player and a DM – is when the solo is at least a few levels higher than the party.

How do I think this problem can be addressed? It’s a tough thing to make solos appropriately threatening without making them too powerful. Let’s consider the following points about solos versus a four monster encounter.

– The monsters can attack four times, or attack three times and buff once, et cetera. The solo probably doesn’t get to attack four times, or if it does, it’s on recharge or once per encounter.

– One or two of the monsters might be marked, but the others are free to harass healers, ranged attackers and flank the defender. The solo can’t flank with himself, he can’t be everywhere at once and, if he’s marked, he only screws himself by attacking anyone who isn’t the defender.

– The monsters can be spread throughout the initiative track, giving the characters something to think about when their turn comes up. Most solos only get one initiative, so players can really put them in the worst positions before their turn.

With each of these disadvantages, there are some abilities solos get to counter them, but usually it’s not enough. I do have some ideas to make things a little more effective.

For instance, solos’ attacks could be modified slightly. They could be mostly bursts and blasts, with the occasional attack power that lets them hit attack multiple people. Most importantly, if an attack is only going to hit a single target, it should do damage on a miss or have an effect.

However, while that might make the solo more effective, it doesn’t go far to make the fight more interesting.

Perhaps a solo fight could involve a big monster who can generate or empower minions. The minions could basically be an extension of the solo, representing the attacks and actions he should otherwise be getting. The minions don’t have to be zombies or guards – they could be mirror images or shadow doubles. Perhaps the wizard has mastered time and space and can appear in multiple places at once.

To make a solo much more interesting, though, I suggest a more active solo. The Dragon of Tyr has a nifty ability – he acts on four initiatives each turn. I think this is a really good way to make solos interesting. A big, brutish solo can act on multiple initiatives, perhaps only getting a standard on each of his initiatives. A quick assassin can have an opportunity action (triggered by being attacked, or an enemy moving adjacent) that gives her a chance to counterattack, or dodge an attack and shift away. In this way, the solo replicates the multiple attacks, multiple initiatives and multiple threats of the four monsters it replaced. It can also avoid stuns and dazes by losing only one of its multiple turns instead of all of them. I’m not sure whether or not it gets a save at the end of each of these turns, as that might make things too powerful. Honestly, I am currently in favor of getting multiple saves, just like multiple monsters get multiple saves, but remove the +5 bonus that solos normally get.

I think another piece of the puzzle for the “multiple action” solo is an ability that removes marks. It should not be automatic, as that is a sure way to frustrate the Hell out of the defender’s player. But, for instance, if the solo hits a target, the solo removes any mark from the target. Or, the solo gets a save at the beginning of its turn to remove any mark. In this way, the defender does not feel that marking is useless, but rather it’s just occasionally ineffective.

Solos can offer such an awesome encounter for the heroes to face down a villain, for the Big Bad to finally be confronted, and for the big dragon to be slain. However, the solos that exist, especially in the early books, make it a little too easy for that villain to be skunked by the player-characters. But with a little work, they can make for truly epic encounters.