I don’t really have the time or the resources to playtest my D&D encounters beforehand. The game session is the playtest – a rehearsal without a performance. I try to make things interesting and at the same balanced, based on general stat trends in the Monster Manual and my own previous experience, but I would say my focus most of the time is more on “interesting.” I’ve come up with a lot of crazy and/or ridiculous ideas over the years, and sometimes I was not up to the task of translating said ideas into a balanced encounter.

And what really sucks is when I come up with something interesting, but it is so unbalanced that the gameplay becomes muddled, and it falls back into uninteresting territory, playing worse than an uninspired draw from the encounters in the Monster Manual.

After the unsuccessful encounters, or even encounters that were successful, I have plenty ideas on how to make them better, but the encounter is over and will never see the light of day again. I only DM one group and who wants to run through the same encounter again when it wasn’t that great the first time? That’s just ridiculous.

So I guess one of the reasons I write these blogs is the hope that somebody else will pick up the encounters I describe and my thoughts on how to make them better, and use them in their own campaign, giving them a second, hopefully much-improved life. The idea of my ideas living on past my own little table brings joy to my heart.

Anyway, last time my group met, they got into a fight with an angry dwarven spirit. I thought the mechanics of the fight were going to be great, and I think initially my players were entertained, but a few rounds into the fight when my players had only done a paltry about of damage to the boss because they were so busy killing adds, I realized I had failed on a fundamental level. I had failed at basic math. Full embarrassing explanation to follow fight description:

Dwarven Specter of Tenacity

Lvl 11 Controller Boss
200 HP, insubstantial
Spd 6, Init +7
AC 25, Fort 24, Ref 22, Will 24

Unrelenting aura – aura 3
    All allies in aura gain +2 to damage

Unstable phasing – free action, trigger: spirit takes damage from an attack
    The spirit teleports to a random location within 5 squares and leaves a Vestige in its place.

Possess – standard, at-will, range 10, must have 4 Vestiges out
    +14 vs Will, Xd6+X, where X is the number of Vestiges out, and target is possessed (save-X ends). The specter and Vestiges disappear.
    The specter now acts on the possessed targets turn, using a minor, move and 2 standards for at-will powers and retains the specter’s Summon Zombie Dwarf ability. Target’s damage is increased by X while possessed. Every 5 damage done to the target destroys a Vestige, making it easier to save. When the target does save, the spectre and all remaining Vestiges are returned to spaces adjacent to the target.

Summon Zombie Dwarf – minor (1/round), close burst 5
    Summons 1 zombie dwarf in unoccupied space

Spirit Hammer – stnd, at-will (MBA), melee 1 and each Vestige makes the same melee 1 attack
    +16 vs AC, 2d8+4 and target is slowed

Spirit Link – stnd, at-will, range 10
    +14 vs Fort (make an extra attack roll for every Vestige and take the highest), 1d20 and target takes 7 damage every time the spirit takes damage (save ends).

Vestiges have the same defenses as the specter and 1 hit point. They also grant the (stacking) aura to zombie allies and can make Spirit Hammer opportunity attacks, but otherwise only act through the spirit’s abilities.

Zombie dwarf
Lvl 11 brute super-minion
30 HP (crits instantly kill)
AC 23, Fort 24, Ref 20, Will 22
Spd 5, act directly before specter

Unwavering – Zombie is immune to all forced movement

Hunger – Zombie does 1d10 extra damage to bloodied targets

Smash – stnd., at-will (MBA), melee 1
    +16 vs AC, 2d10+4 and push 2

Tremor Slam – stnd., recharge 456, close burst 2
    +14 vs. Fort, 2d6+5 and target is knocked prone

You see? I just went a little add-crazy. Not only does the boss summon a 30 HP mob every round (that they need to get rid of because it hurts a lot), but every time they actually hit the boss, it spawns a minion.

Okay, so now lets do basic math: There are six people in the party, and let’s be generous and say they hit about 2/3 of the time. That’s 4 hits going through any given round. It takes 2 hits to kill a zombie and one hit to kill a minion, so if they are successfully managing the adds, they are only actually hitting the boss once every round. Even with striker damage, that’s maybe 15 HP because of insubstantial. So that’s 13 rounds to bring down the boss. And that’s just dumb. Plus it didn’t help that the striker couldn’t roll double-digits to save his life. I wasn’t actually counting rounds during the actual fight, but it had to have been at least a dozen…

Alright, so how do we fix it? Bring down the number of adds, duh. And maybe lower the boss’ HP to 150. But it’s still hard to see how to lower the number of adds, because I still love the central idea of the fight. I want the adds to be out of control and causing trouble for the players. So I would make the zombie summon a recharge 456 ability. If they’re only dealing with zombies half the time, that’s actually a 50% increase in the damage on the boss, and with the HP reduction, that brings us to a 7-round fight right there. I thought about having the phasing as a 1/round thing, but then it would be next to impossible for 4 or even 3 vestiges to be around at a single time, especially with a Hand of Radiance invoker. But, as they are minions, they should have had lower defenses (probably -2 for all) than the boss so they would be easier to hit and get rid of. And maybe not have them respawn after a possessed player saves, but make possession legal with 3 vestiges. That would actually make it viable to ignore attacking them completely and just deal with the occasional possession as a means of wrangling them.

What ended up being interesting, though, is that after 12 rounds, I had actually brought my players to a dangerous place HP-wise. They had burned through the 2 leaders’ heals and most of their second winds, and most of them were bloodied, as well. If nothing else, that made me happy. So if we’re shortening the fight by half, we should probably have the attacks do significantly more damage, because it’s good to bring your players to that scary place every once in a while.