Alright, so I'm thinking up a stealth based mission that involves sneaking into a guarded manor and stealing an artifact. Needless to say, it would be best if this was a quiet affair. I have most of it worked out except for the guards. I'd like a stealthy player to be able to incapacitate them but I still want them to be tough enough to be a threat should the player fail to do so. I know the usual rules for knocking out a PC, but almost any challenging enemy would have more than enough health to withstand a sneak attack from a PC. So, how do I make KO-able guards that are still a threat if not taken care of properly?
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Use a skill challenge for the entire sneak-and-grab. Use skill checks to knock out guards, tie them up, put them to sleep, etc. Switch to combat if they fail the skill challenge.
Basically, the guards' hp doesn't matter unless they fail at their stealthing about. Once they screw up, a shout from any guard will bring the pain. They might be able to kill their way out, but unless they've planned this carefully, the manor's entire defenses are going to come down on them.
Minions who pull the alarm.
A minion has only 1 hp, so is disgustingly easy to take out. But a simple shout (or a loud whistle, pulling an alarm, whatever you like) to alert the building that something's going down is more than enough threat. Even if the guard in question goes down in the next round without doing any damage, the mission perameters have changed drastically.
This is an interesting question, because the scenario of sneaking into a dangerous place without being stopped, and disabling the odd sentry, is quite a common chapter in action stories. Yet D&D 4E doesn't have an immediate go-to game mechanic for this.
Running the guards as standard combat, even with surprise round, would be overblown, and probably not give satisfactory results. The 4E combat rules are very geared to skirmishing, and there is no balanced threat in a single Standard monster.
The best immediate fit in the 4E rules is to use a Skill Challenge, focussing on Stealth, Athletics, Acrobatics, Thievery, Perception, Insight etc, and any ideas the players have based on the scenario. In a pure skill challenge, PCs combat abilities are either ignored, or you could require a Basic Attack roll to represent the attack - a failure would immediately fail the attempt to neutralise the guard unless rescued with a hard DC "rescue" skill roll (plus quick thinking from a player as to how their PC could help recover the group from the botched attack)
However, I would personally prefer to have a little more use of combat powers and the combat rules in this scenario. So here is a suggestion based on a simple combination of Skill Challenge and Combat:
This works well in a lot of combinations (e.g. two guards), allows the PCs to use their (hopefully silent) combat powers to finish off opponents, and can be fleshed out with variations to make an extended adventure with several such encounters variable enough to remain interesting. It is not my idea originally, but one I really liked and stole!
If you do go for something like my suggestion, it is worth spending some time practicing how it will play out, since it needs to not be seen as an easy option to be rolled out in all scenarios. Also remember as DM, it is your perogative to decide when specific mechanics apply, such as combat rules, skill challenges, or stuff like this you have added in the name of fun.
Manors are small, so maybe there's only one guard on watch at a time.
I think you should let the players plan it, not you; but one possibility is that the PC's sneak in at night, head to the barracks and kill the off-duty guards in their sleep, then circle back to finish off the one on duty. If he sounds the alarm, who will come?
But you should be open to other ideas they come up with. Maybe they disable the alarm bell, so if the guard tries to sound the alarm no one will hear. Or perhaps they bribe a servant to give them a map, or disguise themselves as a noble to get past the guards. Or maybe they use a wheel barrow and a holocaust cloak to scare them off.
[Edited to remove references to D&D 3.5]