[4E] Mercenary platoon vs. iron dragon encounter design.

edited November 2009 in Play Advice
The Crimson Blades and their followers are about to fight an iron dragon! As this will be the first solo encounter I've designed, I wanted to ruminate about it online a bit and seek advice. Anything to avoid? Any tips? Most of all, any suggestions for how to handle the party's followers?

Here's the details:

The Blades average about level 6.5.* All four roles are covered, and they've doubled up in striker. They are backed by ~30 mercenary minions of uncertain morale. Control of the mercs will be split among the players, with suicidal misuse having morale impacts. The mercs will probably be of equivalent level to the dragon, so their to-hits will be in sync with its defenses.

Storywise, the Blades set out to sack the lair of a young iron dragon. But the YID won the approach phase of the encounter and chose to engage away from the lair, in open country where there isn't a lot of cover or elevation, where it can strafe the Blades and stay distant during breath weapon downtimes. This seems like the optimal use of a dragon with hover flying.

By the book, the YID is a 5th level solo, but I'm certain he'll need to be upgunned to face this party. He's from the MM2 and presumably doesn't suffer the design flaws of MM1 solos -- a popgun attack and suffocating defenses. He looks pretty studly to me. When I do upgun him, I won't put his defenses up so high that he gets boring. He'll also probably have some minions of his own, little iron blastlings that he'll airdrop into the fray to harass the party.

I'm thinking this encounter will be mostly about shepherding soldiers through fire. The mercs will have useful ranged attacks, but aren't so sure they want to be there. They may have a special vulnerability to Intimidate attacks, a lower general Will defense to reflect their soggy morale, and they might just break and run at some point.

It's that last 'break and run' bit that vexes me. I want the players to have to consider whether they ought to rally their followers or play with their own powers. Trouble is, 4E doesn't really have a loyalty / morale subsystem, and I don't see anything I can drift into that role, so I have to invent something appropriate.

Inputs to this subsystem are easy to think of:

* fallen mercenary count
* dragon hit point count
* PC actions - skill rolls, critical hits, etc. Diplomacy especially should play a role to influence the mercs during battle. The party Warlord has invested a feat in it, so I want to make it a useful thing. Intimidate could also be useful.

I'm not sure of the ideal outputs of the subsystem. I'm kinda picturing a morale meter that tracks the mercs' general willingness to fight and die. Maybe the morale meter is moved up and down by the subsystem inputs and then whenever a merc gets an odd number on a to-hit roll that misses, the current consequence specified by the meter happens to that merc?

* The Blades are:
Human battlerager fighter 7
Tiefling tactical warlord 7
Dragonborn archer-ranger 6
Human druid 6
Deva isolating avenger 7
Goblin warrior companion character.


  • Sounds like a skill challenge to me! The key skills are definitely Diplomacy and Intimidate. Off the top of my head, I'd also recommend Bluff, Religion, possibly Nature ("there, that tree can hold up to its breath!" "Look, see the missing scale at the belly? We just need to hit that!"), and Insight to focus in on wavering mercs. Athletics to pick up someone who's falling behind and carry them, perhaps. I tend to let people get away with a lot of random skills as long as they describe the action well.

    I would apply +1/-1 modifiers fairly liberally. Perhaps the counter goes up by 1 whenever a PC scores a critical hit or does over 25 points of damage in one shot; it drops by 1 whenever a mercenary is skilled. Put a hard cap of +3/-3 or +4/-4 on it. Secondary skills can give a +2 to the next skill roll with a success, rather than being a success or failure all on their own. (Insight might be a good example of a secondary skill.)

    If it were me, I'd let the players make skill rolls as minor actions for this, but if you want to force the choice on them, standard actions is just fine.

    Failures result in some percentage of the mercs breaking and running. I'd think you could rally half of those back with a success. You could also have the mercs start at a -2 to hit and perhaps with lower defenses, and successes remove that penalty?

    It might be appropriate to demand a group skill check at some point -- the new skill challenge trick is having everyone roll and letting the majority result determine success or failure. I kind of dig the idea of the mercs wanting to see the entire PC group show their stuff.
  • Posted By: BryantSounds like a skill challenge to me!
    Definitely. If there's ever something you don't have a rule for, you can probably cobble together a skill challenge to work.

    If I were doing it, you'd make checks for the challenge as minors, but get a +2 bonus to the check if you made a successful attack on the dragon that round.
  • edited November 2009
    Two main things I can think of:

    Calling dragons 'solos' is a little misleading. They should have some back-up, minions, a few lower-level lackeys, or whatever, to make a playable encounter, otherwise the PCs just surround the solo and pound on it til it dies making a very static fight. Especially if the PCs have access to the mercenaries you describe (and they don't cut and run right away) consider how many extra attacks that's going to be per round! Give the dragon some guards, kobolds or draconians or whatever, maybe a number of traps or terrain hazards in his lair, to keep things from becoming static.

    The other possibility is something they've been talking about recently in the Draconomicon 2 previews: up-level the dragon SIGNIFICANTLY (party lvl +4 or so, maybe even go one sixze category bigger but scale t back a bit, as opposed to juicing up the lv 5 version) but only have it fight until bloodied. You an either make this clear in advance (the dragon essentially calls them out fro a duel and lays out the ground rules, which may include that PCs must withdraw when THEY become bloodied, changing the healing dynamic significantly, another cool twist), or have it decide once it's bloodied that these guys are tough enough that it relents, negotiates a surrender, or simply flees, giving the PCs the victory. They get xp as if they beat a dragon of their level, but the actual fighty-bits have bigger punch in terms of damage and the dragon's abilities.

    I'm going to try this with my group on a stereotypical 'guardian of the book' dragon they'll need to fight to get access to a magical library. Bloodying it causes it to be sucked back into the book to heal. Should be interesting.

    -Jim C.
  • edited November 2009
    Posted By: Jim Crockerotherwise the PCs just surround the solo and pound on it til it dies making a very static fight
    Jim, I might be missing something, but this is a Hover 8 monster with Reach 2 melee attacks operating in a wide open field. The only time it's going to descend below altitude 3 is when it's forced to by 'fall prone' attacks, or when the Blades get creative.

    That sounds like a mean thing to do to the party, but these guys have a knack of rising to the occasion, so I'm sure they'll figure out some way of coping with this. Offhand, I can think of at least a couple of unorthodox tactics the PCs can use to deal with a dragon that likes the sky. Plus they've got the flak from all those ranged mercs. And I do have plans for recovering from a TPK, so if it does go very badly, it won't be the end of the game.

    The idea of having a superpowered lizard that fights only to bloodied is .... compelling.
    Posted By: BryantSounds like a skill challenge to me!
    Yeah, pretty much, though I don't think there'd be a win-after-x-successes or lose-after-y-failures condition. I think it'd be more akin to that Mearls thru-the-city challenge which tracks the current paranoia level of the city and lets the party move it up or down.

    Here's a quick prototype of the idea, without too much thinking about numbers that make sense.
    1. There's a morale track. Each step on the track has a rally DC, an attack / damage bonus, and a panic trigger, like so:
    2. Morale LevelTo-Hit BonusDamage BonusPanic RollRally DCLEMMY +2 0 n/a 28Mastodon +1 0 n/a 27Danzig +1 0 n/a 26Dio 0 0 n/a 25Dimebag 0 0 n/a 24Toki 0 0 n/a 23Lordi 0 0 n/a 22Nuge001 20Crue 0 0 1 23Yngwie0 0 2 or less 24Poison 0 0 2 or less 25Kenny G. 0 +13 or less 26Yanni 0 +13 or less 27Ketchup, the Weakest Sauce 0 +2 4 or less 28St. Anger 0 0 5 or less 29
    3. Morale starts at the Nuge step on the track.
    4. When mercs die or panic, the marker goes down.
    5. When successful skill check are made vs. the current rally DC, the marker goes up.
    6. A critical hit, or a hit with a daily attack power, makes the marker go up faster. Critical hits are fun, and making players agonize over using dailies is fun too.
    7. All mercs share one initiative count. Each merc figure's actions are chosen by the player whose PC is closest to the merc figure.
    8. The panic condition is integrated into the merc's to-hit roll, so there's no extra rolling needed for morale. If a merc doesn't roll to-hit, then they don't risk panic.
    9. Panicking mercs must stumble away from the dragon at speed 2.
    10. Mercs may be de-panicked by a minor action skill roll from a PC. This skill roll will probably have a close burst effect.
    Posted By: BryantIf it were me, I'd let the players make skill rolls as minor actions for this, but if you want to force the choice on them, standard actions is just fine.
    I'm thinking the mercs will be pretty decisive in the encounter, plus there's a bunch of fiction riding on this -- the warlord is a prodigal son of this mercenary company and having him leading a detachment of them against a dragon is pretty juiced-up, storywise. It seems like the rallying bit is important enough to require a standard action. Maybe the warlord gets it as a minor, because that's his line of work, and I'm all about niche celebration. Tho our fighter has also multiclassed into warlord, so I wonder if he should also have this bennie.

    Speaking of those mercs: ~30 attacks x ~50% hit rate x 4 or 5 damage is pretty big flak. These guys should probably be soldier-minions, with decent accuracy, long range, weak damage, and enhanced defenses against area-effect attacks. I want them to have staying power so that they don't just get wasted in the first round and become worthless to the PCs.
    Posted By: Bryant
    It might be appropriate to demand a group skill check at some point -- the new skill challenge trick is having everyone roll and letting the majority result determine success or failure. I kind of dig the idea of the mercs wanting to see the entire PC group show their stuff.
    Oh, this sounds interesting, like a high-stakes sweeps week for the party. Maybe if a certain crisis gets triggered, the mercs are either going to run or stay depending on whether a majority of PCs succeed on their next roll...
  • Hey, Johnzo! When is this going down? I'd like to hear how it turns out.
  • edited November 2009
    Jamey, it's going down tonight! I'll post an AP here.

    I have no idea how this subsystem will perform. It seems okay but I might be missing degenerate / unfun cases where the morale craters and melts the mercenary force instantly, or where it soars and becomes irrelevant.

    The final rally rules make the table taller and narrower. There are ten steps on either side of Nuge, the to-hit bonus is removed and replaced with a damage bonus. All the rally DCs are flat 18s.

    Morale falls one step per dead merc / panicked merc / failed rally roll. It rises one step per successful rally roll.

    Any natural 20 or daily power hit by a PC lifts morale one step, and furthermore restores it up to Nuge if it's below Nuge.

    Rally rolls can be minor or standard actions; minor rally actions suffer a -2 penalty, except when rolled by PCs whose primary class is warlord.

    Mercs panic if they make a to-hit roll that is <= the panic roll number. Panicked mercs are pushed away from the dragon at Speed 4 on their turn. There's a table for determining the fate of mercs who leave the battlemat.

    There'll be twenty mercs on the PCs side; we handwaved their numbers in the last session so I feel okay dictating the size of that force.
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