Friday, June 4, 2010

Condition! Save ends

4e has a lot of bullshit. It's not harm-signature spell bullshit. It's not maximized poison bullshit. It's not mystic theurge bullshit, but it's bullshit nonetheless. Here's what happens.

The DM wants to tell a story. The DM write the story first, for his near or just paragon tier party (lower levels there are instances of this, but it's not so bad). The story might go something like this.

The players are going to fight some devils sent by Asmodeus. They are looking for an artifact from the Dawn War that allows a being of sufficient power to siphon off the prayers of deities in order to strengthen their own magic. Devout followers can be sacrificed in order to gain power. This was something the primordials used in order to ramp up their power and weaken a god's power at the same time. For someone like Asmodeus, who loves to sacrifice people, this is a great object of desire.

Obviously, the players aren't going to stand for this and they will fight his minions at every turn before eventually fighting some sort of lieutenant that's in charge of the whole thing in a big, climactic battle.

Easy enough right? That's where the problem starts. The party is 4-6 people and anywhere from 8-11th level. You are getting to the meat of the game, so to speak. You start going over the monster manuals in order to desire some encounters revolving around devils, maybe some undead, maybe some aberrants or something, and you are a little daunted by what you see.

You see an array of monsters that your party might hate you for, if they are at all used. You start seeing condition modifiers all over the place. Most of the time they lead to other condition modifiers or spikes in damage...or both. You start seeing immobilized, save ends (not a big deal. That leads to, if target is immobilized, take a bunch of extra damage and maybe also be dazed or stunned, or even dominated. These start to be damn everywhere you look. Sometimes, it's even worse. Sometimes, you get penalized just for hanging out near the guys. You start off weakened, or you have lowered defenses, encouraging the conditional violating even further.

Here's a typical level 11ish encounter group for a party of 5:
2 Chain Devils (level 11 skirmisher) - at-will, restrained! save ends.
1 Gorechain Devil (level 12 Elite brute) - encounter, refreshes on 5 or 6, dominated, save ends (passive aura that keeps people within 3 squares of him, I might add)
1 Modified Gibbering mother (level 10 controller) - difficult terrain aura, free action 1/turn, burst 5 - dazed until end of next turn, at-will
2 Damned Choir (level 11 soldier) - swarm, immobilizes as a minor, passive damage aura and lowers will by 4

Yes, conditions are a big part of fourth edition. Yes, you should really prepare yourself to make a lot of saving throws. Yes, the party can inflict a lot of conditions on monsters as well.

Yeah, but...

Yeah, but let's talk about what that really means for a second. Monsters fill the field, and you can't really give them a condition, other than marked, every use of an ability. Elites and solos might as well not even worry, as they get bonuses to their saving throws. There are many ways to boost saving throws as well, that's true. Feats are certainly one way, but taking saving throw feats is a mixed bag at best. You give up so much in terms of power and utility in order to, essentially, be able to continue playing your character. Items are another way. That is tricky too, unless you make your own items or try and purchase the specific conditional save items that you want (fear, stun, immobilize, daze etc). Not to mention, if you have a party, that money is going to get split and it's going to take a while for everyone, or even one person to have that specific item.

So how do you handle this? There are a couple of methods I think would work well in this scenario.

1) Give out conditional save items as party treasure, once.
This gives the party a taste of what could be out there, and if nothing else, one person, probably a defender or leader, is going to be very happy. Once the rest of the party sees this in action, watch them all want one.

2) Give them information relating to a powerful named object that is really just a normal conditional save object.
This whets their appetite. They will want to, hopefully, learn about this item and what it can do. After they do, and fight things along the way to maybe find materials to make the item or even find the item that do horrible things to them, they will definitely look into having several.

3) Just have a talk with the party once they hit 9th or 10th, explaining to them how the game is going to work from that point forward. It gets a lot more serious a lot quicker than previous levels to that point, for the most part.

4) Destroy the party first, talk with them second.
I don't normally follow this route, but it depends on the party. They might have to see the awfulness in order to really understand.

5) Look for other monsters.
They are out there, but it's hard to write a good story around picking certain bad guys only. It certainly feels like pulling punches also. Not that there aren't other awful things out there, because there are. Oh yes.

6) As per comment discussion - consumable conditional save items.
Here's the pitch. They give you a temporary bonus to something like, daze, immobilize and restrained. The bonus starts at +4. When you decide to use this bonus, you spend a healing surge and reduce the bonus from +4 to +2. When you use it again, you spend a healing surge and the bonus is entirely consumed. The effect on you is a daily, consumable magic item, so it can't be used more than once a day, even if you make or have a bunch. This assumes responsible governing of the items, but if you want to run a tougher encounter or a one-off with a lot of effects, it's a good option to have.

Regardless, it's something you start having to account for as a DM. I believe that as a DM it's up to you to find a good way to introduce a way for this to appropriately fit the style of your party. The party will probably listen, and you should know them by now.

The big point is that the party should not be surprised about the conditions. The party should be surprised by the monsters and the story, but not the conditions. If they know what they are going to fight, letting them know what to expect isn't out of the question for the first time either. Afterwards, look into one of the points above. It will make for a happier party.

I have been lucky enough as a player to have DMs that mostly understand the big points, and a few of the players do. The rest could use a helping hand to get to the same level. That's player and DM responsibility.


  1. Conditional save items as a consumable treasure are a pretty neat idea, but run the risk of being mass-produced by idle players in the downtime between adventures. Nevertheless, it's a cool possibility assuming you have responsible players.

  2. In this case I was referring to items that specifically help immobilize or daze, for example. There are a lot of items that help a condition or two at a decent advantage (+3 is pretty normal).

    Consumable items that require you to spend a healing surge for a short duration save bonus is pretty neat. Especially if you work it as temporary hit points. The first time you save, the bonus is gone or reduced by some amount. That would hinder the mass production and use to some degree.

  3. Another option that I have used a couple of times (maybe not as often as I should have, though!) is to apply a condition such as vulnerable X whatever (save ends). The benefit here is that you're devouring more hit points, and while this is still bad for the players, they have more ways to respond to that problem than most conditions.