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For example, a Level 14 Elite Monster is worth 2000 XP.

A level 9 Solo is also worth 2000 XP.

Does this mean that these two monsters are of equal difficulty to an average party?

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3 Answers 3

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Sort-of-not-really.

Here are some sample numbers (post-MM3):

Level 9 solo: 384 hp, AC 23, NADs 21, attack +14, damage 2d6+5 four times per round.

Level 14 elite: 272 hp, AC 28, NADs 26, attack +19, damage 2d8+6 twice per round.

These may vary depending on monster's role and flavor, but are a good baseline. As can be seen, and as can be predicted from the rules for adjusting monster levels, a level 14 monster has defenses and attacks that are 5 points higher. Post-MM3 these numbers don't depend on whether the monster is elite or solo.

The way 4e mathematics work, a party shouldn't be facing enemies that differ too much from them in level. That's its sweet spot, when players hit and get hit just often enough. Deviating from it is not fun, as it leads to one side "whiffing" all the time. In addition to that, higher-level monsters tend to have nastier effects, which a lower-level party may not be prepared to handle. As @BESW points out, this is particularly relevant when a monster is of a different tier than the party.

Finally, there is monster complexity to consider. A solo monster is designed to be the only monster in the encounter, to occupy most of GM's attention and provide most of the conditions for the battlefield. A level 14 party facing 2 level 9 solos would result in a slow and unnecessarily complex fight.

So while this may have been the original intent, to use encounter XP budget as the main criteria of encounter composition, there is more nuance to it than that. Instead, you should use tools provided to adjust monster level to within at most 2 of the party, reskin monsters to fit your needs, etc. - particular methods go beyond the scope of this question.

Bottom line: math may work out, but I highly discommend it.

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When a level difference crosses tiers (heroic to paragon, in this case), you'll see a particularly nasty spike in the kind of effects and features a creature brings to the table. –  BESW Nov 6 '13 at 4:33

No, XP cost alone doesn't mean the two monsters are of equal difficulty to an average party.

It comes down to mechanics beyond XP value. Solo monsters are theoretically* built to be able to handle multiple PCs at once, while elites are typically expected to have backup and thus do not have the range of powers which would allow them to stand alone against several PCs.

For example, solos typically have multiple action points, high save bonuses, and a number of immediate actions, all of which allow them to act more often (or prevent them from being locked down). Elites may have one action point, and/or a small save bonus, but typically the PCs will be able to quickly lock down the monster using such effects as daze, stun, slow, etc., and the battle then becomes one-sided.

Further, as Magician mentioned, enemies of a vastly different level than the party will be either impossible to hit, or impossible to miss. This, too, causes battles to become one-sided and either frustrating or boring to the players. In your example, players who would be fighting a level 9 solo would probably be levels 7-9, while players who would be fighting a level 14 elite would likely be levels 13-15. Consider the difference in PC attack bonuses and defenses between level 9 and level 15, and then consider how high they'd have to roll naturally to have a chance of hitting the elite's defenses, and how low it would need to roll naturally to miss theirs.

*[There is much disagreement over the effectiveness of solos in 4e, and a number of questions here on rpg.se discuss ways to fix the problems with solos.]

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In addition to a higher-level enemy being impossible to hit, the enemy might find it impossible to miss the players! –  doppelgreener Nov 6 '13 at 8:58

No. XP in no way equals a relative difficulty similarity in 4e.

Experience budgets, frankly, are just a rough (lousy) starting point in 4e and likely to overwhelm your party if you use them. I would recommend (regardless of prior RPG history), discarding the XP budget idea completely. After discarding budgets, I had fewer total party kills/legendary calkwalks and less adjusting to do under the radar when combat didn't go as planned.

Normally I would be tempted to chalk these changes up to being related to my own DMing style - but after speaking with other new and experienced DMs who mentioned this approach independently (and saw similar results), I am convinced that it is a worthwhile thing to do.

Also, remember budgets can inadvertently affect difficulty depending on party size, how well you use them, etc. But even when budgets work closer to how they are intended to operate, they are often far from exact...

Your focus should be on picking appropriate monsters your party can handle, with little focus on exact XP. 4e has a nasty habit of making players work really hard for tiny amounts of XP compared to the relative difficulty of the creatures that must be defeated. You will also minimize creature repetition - a problem if you haven't gathered a number of Monster Manuals, etc. to draw from. You may get stuck using the same creature(s) because they are the only ones near the parties experience level with the XP to fit your budget requirements.

Unfortunately, this leads to lack of appropriate XP to level in a timely manner (if that is part of your goal). If you want to run additional encounters above the recommended average of 10, feel free to do so. But realize that the majority of play time in your sessions will likely be involved with back-to-back combat/defeating traps, especially if your group meets infrequently.

If you are adding suitable levels of your own non-combat experience points to make sure your players are where you would like them to be, however, you should never have an issue with picking appropriate monsters for your parties abilities. Just figure out where you would like to have your players (or they would like to be) XP wise, and drop in the total amount of missing XP (e.g. not generated by monsters, etc.) into various goals in your campaign (finding items, helping people, accomplishing background goals, good role-playing, quick thinking during game play in combat or outside it, etc.)

Again, I would recommend AGAINST strictly adhering to the 4e guidelines for when you should dole out non-combat experience. They are extremely limited.

I have some other tips to recommend but I will give you (and anyone else who may want it) a TL;DR alternative to scanning the massive chunks of text below - for 4e, if you are short a player or two below 5, consider as a DM either running a tag-a-long NPC primarily to fill out the party or have one of the players do it. That way you will have less adjusting to do out of the box when trying to fit undermanned parties into the the 4e five character box.

Here some tips to remember when forming 4e encounters:

  • Basic 4e Math - You need to remember that all 4e math, powers, monster designations, treasure parcels, etc. are based specifically on a party of 5 players with balanced damage, movement and hit absorption capabilities (it's "tactical").

  • Solo and Elite are titles based off 5-player parties - To clarify:

    • One Solo Level 9 monster is designed to take on a party of 5 balanced Level 9 player characters.

    • One Elite Level 9 monster is designed to take on a party of 5 balanced Level 9 player characters with the addition of 2-4 low-level monster allies.

    Note the word "balanced" (e.g. at least one of each general type of character -- defender, striker, etc.). For example, if you have 5 characters and three of them are strikers, you will have to generally drop down levels (perhaps as much as 2) to get a better fit for Solo and Elite monsters (non-melee centric combat or support classes are generally a bit weaker, so it throws the party off slightly. Be prepared to do some real adjusting if all your players want to be spell casters.)

    Also note that if melee-centric combat or support classes are used by the majority of players, you will have to adjust up a bit, but not that much. However, they may have issues with ranged combat and/or flying opponents.

    Be aware you can play 2 Elites against a party, but unless your players have some good ranged characters (bow, spells) or some good close range attacks (good enchanted melee weapons), you should generally avoid doing it. Never double up Solos for any battle you want the characters to win (unless your party is a huge 7+ characters). Solos, as a rule, are not intended to have other monsters support them.

  • 2, 3, 4 or 6 characters are not 5 - When starting to pick big monsters, you will need to adjust monster difficulty by approximately 20% up or down for each character above or below 5. Note that "PC Level" on the right side of the equals sign is one number, representing average player character level for the party. "Characters" is the number of party members in total (excluding non-combatant NPCs).

    • Adjusted Solo/Elite Level = PC Level - (5 - Characters)(PC Level x .20) <-- For less than 5 players
    • Adjusted Solo/Elite Level = PC Level + (Characters - 5)(PC Level x .20) <-- For more than 5 players

    Alternately :

    • Adjusted Solo/Elite Level = PC Level - 60% <-- 2 Players
    • Adjusted Solo/Elite Level = PC Level - 40% <-- 3 Players
    • Adjusted Solo/Elite Level = PC Level - 20% <-- 4 Players
    • Adjusted Solo/Elite Level = PC Level + 20% <-- 6 Players

    So a two player party that was average Level 9 would have just a little more than twice the difficulty dealing with an Elite or Solo Level 9 monster compared to a five character Level 9 party fighting the same creature (-60% monster level for three missing party members -- 20% + 20% + 20%). To put it in real terms, to comfortably face off against a Solo creature, two Level 9 characters would be looking at something closer to a Level 4 Solo monster. Likewise, for six players characters of Level 9, you might consider your starting point to be one Solo Level 10 or 11 creature (5 players + 20% for the extra party member).

  • 4e Math lies, lies, lies - The above level formulas are just to get you looking in the right spot in the book for big creatures. The next step is to adjust your big monster's level up or down a few notches (1-3 on average) to get a better fit. Adjust Solos less (usually +/- 1 level) and Elites more (+/-2 levels). Don't forget that you will ofter want to have Elites work with other monsters (which adds difficulty) so don't go crazy in adjusting them.

  • Fine tune your encounter - The final step is to look at raw numbers. Forget XP, forget Level/CR, look at how much damage the creature can dish out (damage x # of attacks per round), how much it can take (Total HP, regeneration, healing, etc. per round) and how hard it is to hit (AC and movement speed - also ground vs. air travel).

    Per the comment by @Magician posted here, take a look at these stats -

    Level 9 solo: 384 hp, AC 23, NADs 21, attack +14, damage 2d6+5 four times per round.

    Level 14 elite: 272 hp, AC 28, NADs 26, attack +19, damage 2d8+6 twice per round.

    Discarding level and Solo/Elite designations, what do we know? Creature A can deal up to 68 points of damage per rounds ((12+5)*4)). Creature B only deals max 44 damage a round ((16+6)*2)). Creature A is easier to hit (AC 23) but it's like stabbing it with butter knives (384 HP). Creature B is harder to hit - maybe - with (AC 28) but dies much quicker (272 HP). If we have a hypothetical party of 3 players we know a few things - if their combined HP (going into battle) is roughly equal to our monster's, then they stand a good chance of surviving. Likewise, if they can equal our monsters damage output (44 or 68 HP a turn) between all three of them, they are good there too. If they have between 24 and 29 AC, they will do okay (d20 10 + 14 bonus and d20 10 + 19 bonus -- you have a roughly 50/50 chance to roll 10 on a d20). And finally if the players have total bonuses to hit of +13 or +18 (AC 23 - d20 10 and AC 28 - d20 10) they will be okay.

    • Other monsters break 4e Math rules - Other creatures in your battle (non- Solos/Elites) should be substituted on a 1 to 1 basis based on player level (one Level 9 character vs. one Level 9 non-special creature should equal roughly the same stats). So three Level 9 players means three Level 9 Joe Bro monsters. For creatures significantly below or above the players levels (but still non-Solo/Elite), skip worrying about levels and just go to fine tuning stat comparisons (if 50 goblins or two displacer beasts equal roughly similar HP and damage stats to three of your PCs, feel free to experiment -- just don't forget to take into consideration relative AC numbers, number of attacks/round and to hit bonuses).

Remember that ALL your monsters involved in the encounter (Solo, Elite + friends, that unholy alliance of fairies and hell hounds, whatever) should be - in total - roughly equal to your players in basic stats and capabilities for a well-balanced encounter (not too hard, not too easy). As an example, if your have a five player party versus an equal level Solo plus two regular monsters (don't do this by the way), you are actually looking at the equivalent of roughly five characters vs. seven monsters (remember - Solos count for about five monsters in one based on stats. Elites are closer to two or three to one.)

  • Final thoughts -
    • Do not take monster powers for granted. They can change difficulty significantly even if the base stats are "okay".
    • Beware monsters that can make multiple strikes a round if your players can't.
    • Ranged opponents (characters or monsters) always have an advantage against non-ranged opponents.
    • Opponents with faster movement speeds always have an advantage (quicker retreat, quicker advance to catch enemies off guard). Ditto if one side can fly and the other can't.
    • High damage output on either side can mean less (or more) if there a low to hit bonuses involved and high ACs (or other abilities to mitigate damage, such as protection from X or regeneration).
    • Feel free to alter monsters to suit your needs. Especially in 4e, monsters are more like collections of stats than creatures. See a monster with a cool ability but too high a level? Reduce it's stats to match your party (per the DMG or fine-tuning steps above). Just don't forget to modify its special abilities if they are going to overwhelm your players.
    • Don't hesitate to go easy vs. hard on players as a rule. That is, don't be afraid to select under-powered 4e monsters if you are unsure about how the creatures will perform in combat. Don't chronically select underpowered foes, but you also have nothing to gain by assuming high powered monsters will be more fun (especially of they come in large groups). Players will bitch about a game that is a little too easy but they will leave a game that grinds them constantly into the ground.
    • As a DM, it's simpler to add a little difficulty to a battle (add extra creatures, up a few monster HP, etc.) than to take it away (e.g. get rid or disable dangerous/overpowered beasts in the middle of a fight).
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On what basis do you discard 4e's experience budget outright? That is quite a major thing to do, but I don't see any particular justification for it - and I imagine there should be some. –  doppelgreener Nov 6 '13 at 13:51
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While being true that 4e lies about budgets, it all falls back in line if you fill the budgets with equal-level monsters (equal to the party level, that is). Every thing you say about solo and elite monsters or the 1-on-1 equivalence for normal monster stays true if you do that. Also, 4e math is balanced against a 5-players party, not a 4-players one. I don't get how needing more encounters to level up is a problem, unless you -want- to level up fast (solution: have higher CR encounters, made of more same-level units). –  Zachiel Nov 6 '13 at 14:58

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