Four Tips for Running Solo Creatures

by Mike Shea on 24 August 2009

One of the great improvements of D&D 4th Edition over previous editions is the inclusion of minion, elite, and solo creatures. Finally we have a mechanic for powerful bodyguards and that single big bad evil guy we love to have leading the armies of darkness against our noble adventurers.

These new roles, however, are not as straight forward as they would seem. In particular, designing a solo encounter for is not as easy as picking out the appropriately leveled solo creature and calling it done. Today we will look at four tips for running solo creatures in your own game. Let us begin.

Solo Doesn't Really Mean Solo

This is probably the hardest tip to accept. Though they are called "Solo", solo creatures don't really fight well enough on their own to offer an appropriate challenge. Five D&D characters at any given level have a lot of resources at their disposal. Solo creatures alone simply don't have enough options per round to match up.

The easiest way to make up for this is to include additional creatures. If you are designing an encounter four levels above the party's level, put in a solo creature equal to their level as well as additional brutes or artillery. Your additional creatures should match well with the role of the solo: brutes if your solo is a controller or artillery if your solo is a brute. While the temptation is there to put in a solo creature four levels above your party, you will often find this extends combat without providing the challenge you might hope to find.

These additional creatures don't always need to be creatures at all. Instead add traps such as lightning pillars or flaming jets.

Include Environmental Effects

An empty room with a single solo creature surrounded by five adventurers is far from interesting. Instead, add environmental effects that assist your solo creature and hinder your adventurers. Flaming lakes, cursed statues, falling stalactites; any of these can add some excitement to the environment and add an additional challenge for your players. Ensure you find environmental effects that make sense for the solo creature involved.

Avoid Cheesy Solo Tactics

Some solo creatures have effects that, when used to the most effect, can annoy players or artificially extend the battle. Examples include the black dragon's sustainable cloud of darkness or the dracolich's various stun abilities. Consider reducing how often the solo creature uses effects like this or modify them slightly to ensure your players are still having fun. For example, change the Mesmerizing Glare of the dracolich to a daze instead of a stun.

For some solo creatures like dominating vampires, spread their abilities among the party instead of focusing on one. It might make more sense to pound on a single adventurer, but it isn't much fun for that player unless they're asking for it with something like a mark. For dominate, spread it among the group instead of dominating the same character every time.

The main thing to ensure is that all of your players are having fun and enjoying the battle. If things are grinding, change something up.

Add Boss Monster Houserules

Even with the extra power given to solo creatures, they are still very vulnerable to abilities such as stun and daze. For this reason, consider a house rule for bosses that reduces stuns and dazes. This ability might state the following: "Heroic Solo: When stunned, this creature instead loses its next standard action. When dazed, this creature instead loses its next minor action." This ensures your boss creature remains an appropriate challenge.

Running a good solo creature in an encounter can be a lot more challenging than we might think. Take the time to think it through, learn from your previous battles, and take the time to ensure every battle your players face is challenging and, most importantly, fun.

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