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I'm running up on the tail end of a year-and-a-half 4e campaign, and epic levels are exhausting to GM. Everyone has more weird powers than you can shake a dragon at, and that includes the NPCs --particularly elites and solos.

There's gotta be a way to make an encounter interesting and challenging at epic levels without using five different monsters with 30 different powers to track and recharge, terrain effects that require an additional set of active monitoring, and a liberal amount of "just say no" mechanics to squelch the party's abilities that would render the fight trivial.

How can I simplify epic combat without trivializing it or making it boring? This is about making it actually less complicated to run, not about asking the players to take up some of the mechanical load; we're doing that already.

Things I've tried that help a little:

  • Level 1 Equivalent damage to make fights shorter but still brutal (this reduces complication because we don't need so many powers to keep long fights interesting).

  • NPC actions that trigger at the start or end of each enemy's turn (reduces the need for Weird Immediate Reactions whose triggers must be tracked).

  • Giving a boss a handful of basic attack powers and a standard-action utility power that grants the NPC multiple basic attacks (replaces unusual multi-attack powers with brand-new effects).

  • Removing dice-based recharge mechanics entirely.

  • Making a monster change its power set entirely at bloodied, almost as if it were a new monster (adds more powers to a fight, but not adding to the number of powers I have to keep track of at any given time).

  • Boss powers that let them slough an effect onto an ally (rather than removing or ignoring effects entirely or making an interminable number of saves).

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Reset everyone to level 1 and just reskin level 1 monsters as demons and ancient wyrms? –  SevenSidedDie Feb 19 '13 at 1:41
    
I do these things: Cheat on recharge rolls, and just use those powers sparingly; Cheat on saves in the same way, often not expiring them at all; Generally not worry too damn much about it. –  DampeS8N Feb 19 '13 at 16:06
    
I make "recharge" powers reset on bloodied most of the time. Use twice - simple to track. –  F. Randall Farmer Feb 19 '13 at 19:16
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4 Answers

up vote 9 down vote accepted

One thing my last DM did that helped at high levels (also low levels, but especially high) was to split solos into, effectively, three monsters. So a dragon might become the head, the body, and the tail; while a demon might be head, body, and arms, depending on the powers. He would divide the solo's actions up and give each piece hitpoints so that two of the pieces were equivalent to an elite monster and the third was equivalent to a standard monster. Each piece gets its own initiative and set of standard/move/minor actions, and players target pieces separately (so, for example, an assassin could shroud the head, but wouldn't get shroud damage if he then attacked the body).

You would want to adjust the specific mechanics for your own game - we tended to address issues like whether "slowed" affects one piece or the whole creature on the spot and depending on how the creature was split up - but if your aim is to reduce complexity, it would be worth figuring out satisfactory answers to common effects up front. Then once play starts you already know the answer.

It ends up being significantly simpler for the DM since you have the strength and threat of three monsters, but the abilities and powers of only one to keep track of. It also requires fewer additional monsters/terrain/whatever to build out the encounter, again reducing the complexity of any given combat. You also get the advantage that a combat against a solo becomes much more interesting, because you've got three parts of the monster moving and acting independently (preventing the solo from being pinned down and focus-fired), which again increases the fun without increasing complexity.

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I saw an article about that here –  Dakeyras Feb 19 '13 at 16:00
    
Interesting article! The concept is a little different - three stages of a solo acting one at a time, rather than three pieces acting simultaneously - but it looks like the purpose is similar. –  thatgirldm Feb 19 '13 at 20:18
    
Nice idea! What happens if you kill the head first? –  Scrollmaster Feb 20 '13 at 15:34
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It was generally treated as "the creature protects its badly-injured head from further damage and no longer makes attacks with its teeth/breath weapon/horns". So the monster didn't actually die, but that body part was "removed" from combat; i.e., it no longer got a turn. –  thatgirldm Feb 20 '13 at 16:35
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Some other good suggestions here. I hate to pimp my own work but I specifically wrote "Running Epic Tier D&D Games" to address a lot of the questions and ideas you have:

http://slyflourish.com/epic/

It's hard to keep battles going fast. You might experiment with effects that limit player choices. For example, maybe some sort of psychic front prevents them from using anything but at-will powers for a shorter battle. Maybe some strange temporal rift removes all minor actions.

I found that environmental effects and associated skill challenges worked well to keep the threat high in a battle without increasing a lot of time. When in doubt, add a 50 damage aura =)

In March, I have an article coming out on D&D Insider outlining the elemental prince Cryonax. I believe it might be the most dangerous officially-published 4e monster ever created. It uses a lot of the ideas you mention including limiting status effects, very high damage output, a big dangerous aura, and other interesting effects.

Good luck!

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Welcome to RPG.SE! Glad to see you here. Please feel free to pimp your own stuff, just make it clear (as you gracefully have done) that it's yours. –  wax eagle Feb 20 '13 at 15:20
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I am a fan of stringing combats together with only short rests in-between. I am also a fan of staggering enemies entering the battlefields. So you can start out with 4 enemies and then a wave of minions and then a group of 3 ranged guys thereafter, etc. The stuff will die quick but it mixes it up and burns through healing surges...

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Mike Shea at slyflourish.com has a number of recommendations that can be see in his article on Orcus: http://slyflourish.com/pimp_my_orcus.html, and also in other articles on his site

Tools that I particularly like, and examples from the linked article, are:

  • Damage auras (and automatic damage environmental effects)
  • Echoing damage back at players

Aura of Death; Aura 20

Enemies that enter or start their turns in the aura take 20 necrotic damage (40 necrotic damage while Orcus is bloodied).

Aura of Imix

While active, any time Orcus takes damage from an attack, the attacker takes 30 fire damage. This damage penetrates 10 fire resistance.

I'm not as big a fan of damage resistance and healing as those are liable to make the fight drag longer than I'd like, but he also uses those to good effect.

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It is worth noting that taking this to extremes is bad. When you have 6 different auras in effect, and the map looks like a candy store spilt its stock onto the floor, you know you have a problem. –  Glen Nelson Feb 19 '13 at 10:40
    
I think there's a support group for that. But, yeah, rather than going down that route consider having a single encounter wide environment (or one that is easy to see like "all squares on the mat that are difficult terrain") and give it one big effect (perhaps that weakens as enemies are killed) –  Simon Withers Feb 21 '13 at 2:34
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