Critical Overload

I am discovering a growing “problem” in my campaign. The number of critical hits leveled against monsters during any given combat encounter in our Dungeons & Dragons 4th Edition campaign is getting out of hand and it is effecting my ability to balance encounters. For example, I built up a villain over the past two months in my home campaign. The party was informed the leader of Ghost Talon was a murderous criminal set to rid Gloomwrought (and Beyond) of all but shadar-kai. Last week, the party finally took him on in battle . . . and absolutely crushed him and his guards.

My monsters are turned into puddles of blood much too quickly these days.

I imagine the players enjoyed the session much like one might enjoy lazily reading a good book on a beach while the sounds of the ocean massage his or her ears. The question I have asked myself and others since the session is, “How do I respond to the critical overload happening in our sessions?” Below, I describe the growth of critical hits I’m witnessing in our games and discuss a variety of methods to cope with the problem.

Crits Are A Player’s Best Friend

I want to start by overtly stating that my players (all Level 14) are not doing anything against the rules to increase their Crit range. They have chosen a combination of powers that has simply resulted in more critical hits during each encounter, and I do not begrudge them for those choices.

“I crit, you die.”

For example, our Rogue took the Daggermaster Paragon Path, which is a popular choice as one of the great features is that it expands the critical hit range to 18-20. As a result, the Rogue’s chances of landing a critical hit during any given attack increases from 5% to 15%. In addition, the Daggermaster can use Critical Opportunity once per encounter, which allows the Rogue to make a secondary attack after a critical hit and deal an additional 3[W] damage. The Rogue also has the Knockout Daily power, which creates another auto-crit Coup de Grace opportunity for someone in the party; I play a Rogue and I have this power to for that exact reason. Again, the “problem” has nothing to do with the players skirting the rules.

There is also a new combination in our party between the Cleric and Barbarian. The Cleric chose the Divine Oracle Paragon Path, which gives him the Prophecy of Doom encounter power. This power allows the Cleric or an ally who hits the target with an attack to automatically make it a critical hit. This power has been used at the table for several months but there was not a Barbarian in the party. Now Prophecy of Doom sets up the Barbarian (outfitted with a High Crit weapon) to obliterate just about any monster with an auto-crit attack that levels 80-100+ points of damage. And this combination can and will (and should) be used in every encounter by my players moving forward in the campaign.

These powers create new opportunities for critical hits in every encounter in addition to the 5% chance each player has already of landing a critical hit and inflicting great damage on a monster. Critical hits are no longer a rare treat for players during combat, they are expected and quickly becoming mundane. Meanwhile, my monsters are getting steamrolled.

There are a variety of options for available to address this critical issue.

One House Rule to Rule Them All

A variety of voices (including @Hzurr) have advocated for a simple houserule to eliminate the number of artificial critical hits in combat – a player character can only land a critical hit on a natural roll of 20. I will let Mike Shea explain:

Under no circumstances except for perhaps an environmental effect should PCs be able to critically hit on anything but a natural 20. I saw no circumstance get more abused than extended critical hits combined with a great number of attacks combined with triggers that trigger off of critical hits. This mainly took place above level 25 but the damage boost due to higher crit ranges is visible as early as level 11 . . . The problem is, critting goes from something really fun to a simple battle tactic . . . Players can choose weapons based on the bonus effects on crits knowing they will see them often. This is certainly not a change players will like so you likely can’t implement it after they started to enjoy critting three times a battle.

I read Mike’s column around the time in was released in 2010, but my party was still in the Heroic Tier and I did not notice it as a problem that required handling. Plus, I was also playing in a campaign and was eagerly looking forward to my own opportunities to increase the probability that my Rogue could land critical hits. So while I was aware of the Only Natural 20 Critical Hits (ON20CH) houserule, I did not implement it. Now the party is in mid-Paragon Tier and I believe it would be too difficult to introduce ON20CH into the game.

At least two players would change their Paragon Paths, not to mention numerous Feat and Power selections. At this point, introducing ON20CH would cause too much disruption and likely leave players feeling disgruntled and resentful. (By the way, did you know gruntled is a legitimate word?) Again, as a player, I would not want to have my character artificially nerfed, and got annoyed in the past when my Rogue ran into a villain who did not allow anyone to gain combat advantage against him under any circumstance. That removed my primary ability – dealing Sneak Attack damage - from the combat encounter. It was frustrating, and I do not want players to feel that way.

So if I’m not going to implement the ON20CH houserule – even though the Lead Designer of 4th Edition, Mike Mearls, stated auto-crits are overpowered and a poor design choice – what can I do?

Increase Encounter Level

Bring in the Big Guns!

A simple solution would be to increase the difficulty of some (or all) encounters through the use of additional monsters. A related quick fix would be to increase the level of some (or all) monsters used in encounters. For example, my Level 14 party breezed through an encounter with Level 15 and Level 16 monsters, but Level 18 monsters will likely provide a bigger challenge. While increasing the difficulty of some monsters (or some encounters) is an option, it will result in an outcome that I try to avoid at all costs - lengthening the time of combat. Combat in 4th Edition already takes a long time, so doing anything to increase the difficulty level will extend combat encounters.

A related solution is to increase the damage output by monsters to pose more of a threat; it is often advocated to decrease the hit points of a monster but increase their damage output so combat is more swift and potentially deadly. However, a poor Initiative roll can result in a monster only getting one or two attacks before being cleared from the battle. It strikes me as a very “swingy” solution that could increase excitement, but also produce unexpected results.

The party has grown in power, and that is their job. It’s my job to keep them feeling challenged and entertained. Increasing the encounter level is just one option, which I plan to use sparingly to avoid lengthy combat grinds that take hours to resolve.

Design Better Monsters

A suggestion I received from numerous people (including @Reg06, @bandofmisfits and @Alphastream) was to design abilities for monsters to respond to the artificial increase in critical hits. For example, my Dwarven Fighter in the party has the Stonebones ability granted from the Firstborn of Moradin Paragon Path, which gives him a saving throw to reduce any critical hit landed on him to a normal hit. My Halfling Rogue has the Second Chance encounter power, which forces me to reroll an attack of his choosing, and this is most-commonly used when a monster lands a critical hit against him. There is no reason why a monster could not have a similar ability to avoid natural critical hits.

While this type of protection is useful, the problem with critical hits seems to be the automatic nature of them in every encounter. For example, the Cleric’s Prophecy of Doom guarantees a critical hit and a monster knocked unconscious from Knockout is set up for an automatic critical hit through a Coup De Grace – no amount of forcing a character to reroll is going to change the crit outcome in those circumstances. Thankfully, other design options are available to allow monsters to react to critical hits.

First, monsters can be given abilities that trigger when they suffer a critical hit. The simplest ability to add would be an immediate reaction basic attack. Whenever the monster is whacked by a critical hit, that monster can make a basic attack against a target. This does not limit the players’ use of critical hits, but it does give the monster another opportunity to be a threat during the encounter. Monsters can be designed in any number of creative ways with these triggers in mind.

Perhaps a critical hit triggers an immediate reaction, high damage attack that pushes enemies away and knocks them prone. Consider a brute who gets overrun by attackers only to get angry and shrug them off while screaming in fury. The monster still suffers the critical hit, but the players pay a price for such a strike. Another option would be to grant the monster an Action Point any time a critical hit is landed against them, which could be a clean option if the monster actually survives long enough to use the Action Point!

Second, monsters can be designed to negate critical hits entirely. Halflings have the Nimble Dodge Feat, which is triggered by the use of Second Chance and forces an enemy to reroll the attack with a -5 penalty and inability to score a critical hit. Instead of the monster suffering a critical hit with high damage, the monster would possibly be untouched because the player’s strike could miss completely during the second roll. Another option is to simply make some monsters immune to critical hits, much like a monster would be immune to fire or poison damage. As a player, these abilities would drive me crazy! I doubt I would use them often, but there are certainly circumstances when I think it would be appropriate to design monsters to negate critical hits.

I believe Elite and Solo monsters should definitely have some built-in critical hit defenses. If the party wants to smash away on standard monsters and rip through them quickly, then I can live with that outcome. There are times when the players should feel like rock stars. But important and powerful monsters should not be made to suffer the same auto-crit combinations without a proper defense and response. For select Boss monsters, I think an immunity to critical hits is certainly acceptable especially in Epic Tier.

At the very least, Boss monsters should have an ability to force a player to reroll a critical hit or a saving throw to turn the critical hit into a normal hit. But consider adding immediate actions to Boss monsters that trigger when suffering critical hits. The PCs want to take their best shot at the big, bad Dragon? Fine, but that Dragon is coming back with an immediate breath weapon attack that does high damage because – well, quite franky – the PCs have pissed her off!

Summary

  • Players gain many abilities as early as Level 11 from Paragon Paths that significantly increase the number of attacks that result in critical hits. I can only imagine the problem becomes that much worse when the party reaches Epic Tier.
  • Institute the Only Natural 20 Critical Hits (ON20CH) houserule if possible. Certainly do this if you are starting a new campaign or running a campaign that has yet to reach Paragon Tier. But understand that players will be most unhappy if you try to take away their crits and powers if they have already built their characters to capitalize on the legal options. (Toothpaste, say goodbye to tube).
  • While challenging the party with encounters of higher level is one method to respond to the increase of critical hits, another option is to add monster powers that either defend against critical hits or trigger off of critical hits. Protect your major villains with these options, but do not use on all monsters. The party should still be able to steamroll through some monster groups with their auto-crit abilities.
  • When using anti-crit powers for monsters, ensure adequate descriptions for players during the encounter. It’s not fun when a player lands a critical hit and hears, “The [monster] reduces your critical hit to a normal hit. Instead of maximum damage, you need to roll for damage as normal. In addition, it now makes an immediate melee basic attack.” However, sell the drama of the monster’s actions, “You land a massive blow, but the [monster's] defenses are so strong, your attack – one that has devastated so many other foes before today – does not produce the same effects. The [monster] is not as overwhelmed by your strike as lesser foes, and is enraged because it has never been injured like this before. The [monster] responds immediately as it senses you are a true threat and unleashes another attack to defend itself.”
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About The Id DM

The Id DM is a psychologist during the weekdays. He DMs for a group of fairly loyal and responsible PCs every other Friday night. In the approximate 330 hours between sessions, he is likely anxious about how to ensure the next game he runs doesn't suck.
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35 Responses to Critical Overload

  1. Sam says:

    Perhaps this should be aimed at Mike Shea/Sly Flourish, but the ON20CH rule could be modified slightly so player’s builds are not totally nerfed (using the rogue example for crits on 18-20 as the primary example). 20′s still do the regular HP-destroying crit-hit thing (max damage + magic weapon crit damage + high-crit + face-smashing + etc.), but ‘artificial’ crits under a 20 only do max damage – no other damage die.

    This still makes high-crit % builds legitimate (though it does nerf high-crit weapon builds), while also giving monsters a better chance of survival.

    In any case, I am glad you brought this issue to my attention. My players aren’t at a crit-happy level yet, so I could get the house-rule in before I get any frowns/sad-faces from them.

    • The Id DM says:

      Thanks for writing. I would suggest you seriously consider introducing the ON20CH (heh, I just think that abbreviation looks funny) sooner rather than later. At this point, I don’t want to do that in my campaign for the reasons above. But the increase in critical will definitely change the flow of combat in future levels. At the very least, it’s a good issue to be aware of so you can prevent it or prepare for it.

  2. alphastream says:

    There is an option you didn’t cover, and it’s the only one I think works: the social contract. In my experience, only the social contract works long term for a campaign. For short bursts, things like the Warlock power I mentioned work great. But for a campaign you really need to address the longer term issue. And, while crits may be today’s issue, they won’t be the only one. Maybe one PC dies and the player now makes a lazy warlord with tons of interrupts and granting basic attacks. Maybe they decide Radiant Mafia would be awesome. Maybe they want to push a foe 15 with a hammer and slow them (if not worse). Who knows? It’s an endless possibility, and it happens in every edition (and in practically all rules-heavy RPGs).

    What the social contract does is put the real issue front and center and makes everyone responsible. As DM, you want to easily make cool encounters. You want your estimate of challenge to be accurate most of the time, such that you can create a fun campaign. On the player side, they want to have thrilling challenges periodically, but also to feel smart about their choices and to rock the house from time to time. An open and frank discussion about this is the start of the social contract. Most players will understand the issues if you approach the topic in a positive and open way. Sometimes the conversation is easiest if you first design an encounter that nerfs their strengths: it shows them that cat-and-mouse is time-consuming and more frustrating than rewarding. With most groups you can probably just discuss the issue up front.

    The solution is restraint by the PCs and ensuring awesomeness on the DM side. Players should want to make some optimal choices, but also to assess their builds honestly and remove abusive things. A good houserule is “you can always trade away any PC build choice that we find to be broken”. Congrats, you are critting 10+ times an encounter… now let’s back that down to reasonable. Or, congrats, you are taking an action on every PCs’ turn. Now, let’s make that reasonable. The social contract for PCs is that promise that they will accept when something is broken and take actions to mend it.

    On the DM side, it is the recognition that breaking stuff feels awesome. Ruling what should have been a hard encounter is often intensely rewarding. A surprisingly easy encounter can be surprisingly enjoyable. The DM should recognize that. Discuss the tone of the campaign (for example, a lot of DMs want most combats to be at least a moderate challenge) and establish what difficulty is desirable for the players. While most DMs want a moderate challenge, many players enjoy an easy challenge at least a quarter of the time. That’s something a DM can build for, while keeping those combats interesting.

    Put together, the social contract creates an understanding that both sides will tweak constantly to get a proper balance. The game is shared and is about fantasy, story, and awesomeness.. but not about critting 20 times an encounter or your DM having to tweak monsters for hours.

    • Michael Lee says:

      This is the best advice that one GM can give to another. If a game mechanic is causing a problem at your table, the simplest thing to do is go to the players, explain how you feel and see what you can work out. As much as we talk about becoming a better GM, it’s also possible to be a better player.

    • The Id DM says:

      Thank you for the thoughtful comment. I’ve been meaning to reply but I didn’t want to shortchange the response. I think you bring up excellent points and I am a huge endorser of open and honest communication between the players (including the DM).

      However, I think there is a grey area when some actions (or builds, or whatever) by the players create complications for the game. I don’t think *everything* has to be a major discussion between the entire group. I wrote the article with what you’re calling the “social contract” as a given already the norm for a gaming group.

      As I mentioned, I thought about the option of houseruling to only natural crits, but feel it’ll cause more disruption than it’s worth.The players are obviously enjoying the new mechanics (and I would too as a player), so I can either take those toys aways or adapt. For now, I’m choosing to adapt, and since I know most of my players read this blog, we continue to have an open conversation about game-related issues.

      If the crits (or whatever other mechanic comes down the road) gets in the way of me preparing a fun game for myself and the players, then it will certainly become a topic of conversation!

  3. Joe a. says:

    Regarding your crit frenzy, I would simplify. I found Pc’s enjoy fights with creatures they constantly hit and just take lots of damage to kill vs critters they can’t hit. One fight gives crits the ability to speed up a fight, the other makes fights drag. Current campaign has everyone at 21, I capped Ac or other defenses at 35 for npcs and monsters. Doubled or tripled mob hp, Ramped up damage and to hit bonuses. Fights are faster and more exciting, and crits don’t swing the fights now. Some of these ideas came from sly flourish, I appropriated them and refined them for this campaign. Another theory at any rate. Nice article :)

    • The Id DM says:

      Interesting ideas. At some point, it almost seems like attack rolls become irrelevant but if monsters are protected with greater hit points, then I suppose it evens out. It *is* frustrating to constantly miss a monster, and it extends combat for a longer period of time. That is why I think the balance is so tough to find – keeping things challenging without making the encounter plodding.

      • 4E did something no other edition did, it set a norm of being able to hit roughly 50% of the time. In previous editions it was uncommon to only hit 10-25% on a “Big Bad”. Personaally I think that is fine as well, but I think some of my players might freak out if I did that. =)

      • I meant to say it wasn’t uncommon to hit…..

      • Wayne says:

        Actually, the Players’ Strategy Guide says un-optimized players should be hitting on 8s and 9s most of the time (missing on 7′s means hitting 65% of the time).
        Add a few extra precision boost feats, some precision gear, and a PP/ED that gives bonuses to hit and this number quickly drops below 5, and even to 2 or 3 with CA…

        Just sayin. :)

      • All I can say is…. Dayum…. Make sme shake my head. I recall needing 18-20′s to hit mobs in first edition… Wussification of America!

      • Wayne says:

        Either that or we were just doing Thac0 wrong. :D

  4. You said, ” (I) got annoyed in the past when my Rogue ran into a villain who did not allow anyone to gain combat advantage against him under any circumstance. That removed my primary ability – dealing Sneak Attack damage – from the combat encounter. It was frustrating, and I do not want players to feel that way.”

    & then said “A suggestion I received from numerous people (including @Reg06, @bandofmisfits and @Alphastream) was to design abilities for monsters to respond to the artificial increase in critical hits.”

    “another option is to add monster powers that either defend against critical hits or trigger off of critical hits. Protect your major villains with these options, but do not use on all monsters.”

    Irony???

    I think you are beginning to see how sometimes it’s O.K. to design a bad guy that challenges/disrupts/circumvents or otherwise avoids a parties common tactics.

    Actually there may be a higher level stance which removes the ability to be Critically hit, much like there is a stance that grants the ability to NOT grant combat advantage (under any circumstance); and a lower level feat which eliminates flanking.

    As a player, it’s usually a surprise. But all the more tasty when the baddy falls.

    • The Id DM says:

      It certainly helps that I get the opportunity to be on both sides of the DM screen. I have experienced the point of few of the player who feels nerfed and the DM that feels overwhelmed as the party is rolling through monsters. My goal – and part of the reason why I wrote the article – is to figure out a balance between those two places.

      I think part of my frustration with the “no Sneak Attack” fight was 1) I was exahausted, 2) it was going into hour 8 or so of the session and 3) it didn’t seem [or I didn't hear] a very good rationale for *why* I couldn’t apply Sneak Attack damage. The first is on me, the second is just a circumstance of the session and the third is a combination of the DM communicating and me listening! :)

      The communicate issue was actually another part of the post above, but I decided to split it into another column. Stay tuned as I’ll post it tomorrow!

    • I also think your mobs have very low HP for their level too. At least it seems that way. Not being privy to your bad guys HP, in the campaign yer in, the major baddies can have 500 + HP, and thats a published module. I know you dont want long combats, but thats how 4E is built. Personally I wouldn’t mind at all as a player.

      Secondly, big baddies should have powers that are unique, challenging and rare. To me this is what makes their defeat memorable. This is what makes them the “Big Bad” in the first place. I personally don’t have any issues with unique powers. I say bring em on!

      I dont recall if 4E has items of fortification or not, but in 3.5 those magic items could limit crits as well.

      • The Id DM says:

        I tend to increase the damage output by mobs and either decrease or stay with their proposed hit points. I also realize that the encounters leading up to the Ghost Talon’s leader were not very difficult. Plus, the group talked their way past an encounter planned that was of moderate difficulty. Instead of forcing you all into the combat, I went with your decisions and that probably made the final battle (or is it?!?) easier. But I’d rather reward that type of thing than force you into fights *I* think you should fight.

  5. deliriumend says:

    Another option you can do is just make the NPC villain along the same lines as the players. Nothing says they can’t crit right back. The problem then becomes that one side slaughters the other with crits, but it can bring things back around.

    I’ve always been a fan of the big sack of HP to help mitigate things. Alternatively, set up encounters in other ways like how some MMOs have their raid bosses set up. Before you can wail on the villain you first have to destroy the magic crystals encasing him in a magical barrier, or they become vulnerable after the players set things up a certain way.

    • The Id DM says:

      That is a good idea, and I have actively avoided it in the past because of our session lengths. We typically have four to five hours for our sessions and I like to do a bit of everything in each session. Something I have to be willing to do in the future is plan for a long combat and be “okay” with stopping it in the middle to end the session and later picking it back up two weeks later. I just worry that people will forget what is going on, etc.

      But I should even do things that protect the monster even for a round a two.

  6. Sentack says:

    I think the issue is not just criticals but higher damage over all period. Players obliterate encounters far more quickly then I think the designers expected. So while criticals might be the Id DM’s issue, I think all DM’s have this issue in one form or other. Damage scales very quickly and monsters don’t scale as well at all.

    Thinking about this, I think the issue could be better resolved in two ways. Reactionary attacks and defender monsters for the big bad evil boss.

    I think Id DM is on to something with more reactionary attacks but it needs to go one step further. Players kill monsters fast, so why not use reactionary attacks to make up for the lost attacks each creature should have delivered. Starting in Paragon as a way to compensate for players locking down your monsters, they help provide more threat to the PCs. In the case of elites and solos, I even suggest the idea that creatures have multiple off turn attack options, one common (i.e. like on hit) and one rare (i.e. like when bloodied) to help make up for the inevitable action denial.

    Secondly, there is the idea of defender soldier monsters that spend opportunity actions to intercept attacks for the boss, completely changing the target of the attack. Of course, this would only work on single target attacks, area/burst/blast attacks would work as normal, so it’s not fool-proof but it should help allow the DM to eek out an extra round or two out of their encounters.

    All in all, there is a problem for D&D in that all the options available to players help hedge the game in their favor, makes it more difficult for the DM to balance his encounters in the hopes of making some very memorable moments for his/her game.

    • The Id DM says:

      There was a blog post somewhere by an individual that produced a damage-by-level table with monster damage *properly* scaled with what the math *should* be, and it was insane. The damage expressions in the Paragon and Epic Tiers should be much higher. I cannot seem to find that post now though.

      Ah, I think this is it!

      http://dmg42.blogspot.com/2012/02/boot-on-face-of-level-1-damage-forever.html

      • Wayne says:

        MM3 errata keeps a mob’s average damage around mob level +9. So level 11 mobs should do about 20 damage with an at-will or such. Then you add or subtract 25% increments based on other factors.
        Most pc classes gain 5 HP per level, so adding a point of damage per level keeps the average attack balanced to about 20% of their hp’s.

        Pc’s HP’s will eventually outscale this, but a mob’s attack roll bonus will outscale the pc’s AC at the same rate. All in all, this means that in epic tier you have pc’s getting hit more often, but they are better able to soak the hits. The balance shifts a little, but it is still there,,,

  7. alphastream says:

    Reactionary attacks bog down combat. They mean everyone has lots of turns and a round takes a long time to complete. This also interrupts the narrative. Players want their turn to largely be about them (they are, after all, the stars of the movie). A reactionary attack every now and then is great. Or, even one combat that has a number of fun gotchas that create a tough challenge (I’m really proud of the first combat in AOA3-2, for example). But you can’t do these things for a campaign. If every combat involves creatures hitting you every time you crit, or canceling your crit, etc. that will bog down the game and invalidate player choice.

    The problem with D&D and similar RPGs is a feature. There are many interlocking parts, and choosing well is engaging/rewarding. It is great to have it be awesome to make a PC. It is great for the player to feel awesome about their paragon path, their power choice, their magic weapon. It just isn’t great to then have it damage the game every encounter. That’s where you either have to nerf things (sorry, Daggermaster’s crit range actually does x damage rather than being an actual crit… only a 20 is a normal crit) on the PC side (in my mind, better than compensating on each and every encounter) or work with players to tone things down as needed (sure, get that crit range, but please don’t choose other things that pile on top of that, and don’t also use Prophecy of Doom). An option is for PCs to self-regulate. For example, Prophecy of Doom is an awesome “crawl out from the jaws of defeat” power that the PC can have in their back pocket, rather than their alpha strike when they win initiative (which ends a foe before they can even show the fun element they bring to the encounter).

    • Sentack says:

      When it comes to reactionary powers, what’s good for the goose, is good for the gander. Plus, monster side reactionary powers can be very fast. You don’t have as many fiddly bits like you do with players. Roll to attack, roll for damage (or use static average damage) and be done. When the players will deny your creatures actions, you don’t have a lot of rounds to make your monsters work. So reactionary powers it is.

      I honstly have my doubts about the “Social Contract” and that’s because players I know, will no see a problem with really powerful combinations. They rather you, the DM, compensate to them, then they have to compensate to YOU. There are flat out broken combinations you can ban or reword (i.e. No, you and your identical friend can’t teleport around the world instantly.) but a lot of the options are things a lot of people would argue aren’t broken (i.e. the Daggermaster Rogue in my game says nothing is wrong with his build, period), so no, they won’t accept this “Social Contract”. So you as the DM have to respond in a different way.

      Banning and altering classes/game features is the fastest way to cause arguements at the table and foster a lot of bad will. I say, don’t be tempted to do it.

      • alphastream says:

        Different gamers like a different game, and that’s fine. At large conventions I see a lot of tables struggle with reactions on the player side alone. A common joke at LFR tables can be “will this monster get to actually go”, because player after player interrupts the DM to explain what happens when the monster starts to do something. More times than not the monster never gets to even attack, and 3-4 PCs are in different places, attacked, etc. My players are very good about being reasonable power-wise, but if they weren’t I would probably institute a house rule of only one encounter and one daily reaction power per PC to prevent the issues I see at these tables.

        If you like reactionary powers, that’s totally cool. I would then indeed work to make them really fast so they don’t end up taking time, drawing away from the player’s spotlight, or confusing initiative order. Keeping the powers really succinct helps: especially the trigger (because that’s what often bogs down DMs).

        A lot of this depends on the type of game you want. For a crunch-heavy game, and especially if the DM likes to tinker, playing strategic cat-and-mouse could be fun. One encounter might cancel crits, another redirect them, a third retaliate, a fourth reflect them, a fifth emulate the PCs with high crit monsters, a sixth punish crits with an environmental effect, a seventh bring in a story angle (each crit hurts the prisoner), etc. 4E is a very adaptable system and you can certainly engineer responses. If the DM does not enjoy this, however, then it becomes a burden. Also, if the PCs feel punished (critting should be good, now it is bad… you’ve nerfed me/picked on me), then it isn’t healthy or fun for the gaming group. So, it is a delicate balance based on what everyone enjoys.

        What I’ve found across tables and gaming groups is that DMs that don’t mind tweaking a lot just don’t see this as a problem (for them it isn’t). But, the DMs that bring it up are usually really struggling. They don’t want to compete with PCs – they want the game to work as-is. For that kind of situation I believe the social contract is the only possible long-term solution (other than constantly resetting the campaign or changing players). My gaming group includes the Going Last guys. If those guys wanted, they could bring builds that did any of the more insane optimization things, every encounter. How does a game run when every melee foe can’t act for two rounds? How does the game run when every attack deals 10-30 more points of damage each round than expected? How does the game run when at the start of combat the most important monster either dies or vanishes or can’t act? For me, it doesn’t. That’s because I want a more balanced game. Sure, I can compensate. But I want to put my energy into story, role-playing, and creative encounters. I want to work on monster powers that enhance the plot and the story, not ones that nerf.

  8. Ian says:

    Another option is to give the monsters buffs after crits are scored. If a PC scores a critical hit, give every monster +1 to hit and +2, or more, to damage (this stacks). This represents the monsters getting hulked out as they see their end coming, and seeking swift vengeance against the heroes who just beheaded their buddy.
    It’s an easy houserule that doesn’t require figuring out a power for all of your monsters. It doesn’t take up game time, bog down the combat, or screw over your players. As the threat level from the PCs rises, so to shall the monsters increase their fervor to match the deadliness of the heroes.

    • The Id DM says:

      That is an option, although it’s more record keeping on my part and not easy to adjust on the fly in a program like Masterplan, which is how I currently run combat encounters. If I didn’t use that program, I could see it working in some situations.

  9. Interesting approach to the issues. I think I personally would shy away from monster powers that do damage back when the PC crits them because it’s essentially punishing the player for 1) doing something that’s normally considered awesome, and 2) something they have no control over (you generally can’t opt out of critting something, and normally why would you?)

    Although it doesn’t necessarily address the problem, is there any value in also upping the crit threat ranges of monsters the PCs face? If monster defenses and hitpoints scale with the PCs, why not their ability to crit as well?

    • The Id DM says:

      I thought about that, like Epic Tier bosses critting on 15-20, although that robs the specialness from a crit even further. I don’t think there is a “perfect” solution. One option is to make natural 20s MUCH MORE devastating when a monster achieves the result. In addition to max damage, maybe something else that kicks in whether it be a power or a group of minions or something else.

  10. Wayne says:

    Just a random suggestion…

    Rather than overload your mobs with tons of HP’s, or use increasingly higher mobs, you could um, just use more of them.

    Minions exist in this game for a reason, and adding a bunch of one-hit wonders here and there will help weed out some of the ‘naturally’ occurring crits.

    Also, i don’t really see a huge need to nerf Daggermaster, after all, jsut look at the Mastery Feats at Epic teir, they let everyone crit on a 21 as long as they did a little planning ahead in the stat department.
    And also remember (unless i missed some errata somewhere) you do still need to confirm expanded crit range criticals in 4e. True, this won’t help the DM against a Knockout, but it will against a daggermaster…

    • Sentack says:

      Can you point out where in the Rules Compendium where it says that you need to confirm expanded criticals in 4e? You don’t have to confirm crits in 4e to begin with, I’ve never heard of confirming expanded criticals. But it doesn’t matter, since most Daggermaster Rogues tend to hit on a 3+, if built even moderately well.

      Adding extra monsters has the problem of slowing down encounters more then reactionary powers and extra hit points. When you have to tactically move, target with powers and manage status effects on additional monsters, then that slows down combats more. Still, it’s not a bad idea because extra monsters mean extra attacks, and more things to absorb a few more extra encounter powers. Still, it’s not the best option.

      Over all, I don’t see reactionary powers and HP bumps as much of a punishment as changing the rules under the players or trying to enforce some ‘gentleman’s agreement’. Honestly, I think 4e monsters are overvalued in terms of experience reward because they don’t have powers anywhere nearly as cool as players do. So I think it would serve the game better if the monsters pool of ‘cool powers’ grew to match that of players.

    • The Id DM says:

      Hmm, I don’t think I’ve read anywhere in 4e about confirming expanded crits. Certainly adding more monsters (or more challenging monsters) is an option. That will be something I experiment with in the coming months. I think my players out-perform the suggested encounter levels. So kudos to them!

      Or I’m too nice, which is *entirely* possible!

  11. Wayne says:

    @Sentak – i think you misunderstood, I didn’t suggest adding more big monsters, i suggested adding more minions. Simply replacing one mob with the suggested number of minions (usually 4-6) will go a long way to dilute the effectiveness of crits. There is something sad about rolling a nat 20 (or 18 for daggermasters) against a dude with 5-10 total HPs.

    But really, let’s assume some fair statistics:
    If our Daggermaster crits on 3 out of 20 rolls, that’s roughly once every 6 or 7 rolls. Assuming an action point and Low Slash, that’s probably every 5 rounds – so, um once in a typical encounter. The Cleric/Barb combo happens exactly 1x every encounter.
    So Iddy can pretty much count on the fact that there will be two crits in every encounter. One will be planned and it will be against a boss mob, the other will be random. Adding a few minions to each encounter will increase the chances that the random one occurs on a mob that isn’t the boss.
    Also adding a few minions means that a minion has a chance to do something like an untrained heal check (1/2 his level + wis mod) to grant a saving throw to a dazed or sleeping or somehow affected boss. Hell, it could poke him with a Coup de Grace doing a whole 10 (or whatever damage) and waking him up before the barbarian’s turn…

    • Wayne says:

      And yeah, you guys are right.
      Rules compendium is pretty clear about not needing to confirm crits.

      The very first group i played with made players confirm expanded crits (nat 20′s were ruled as normal) on a few of the low level ranger powers. It comes up so infrequently before Epic tier i never really bothered to double check it.
      But now i’m intrigued…

  12. Pingback: Curse With Purpose | The Id DM

  13. Emmis says:

    I know it’s an old article, but I just found the site and did a bit of trawling thought the archives, and I wanted to comment on one of the boss mechanisms I’ve used in my game. The villainous group has access to armor of Non-Newtonian properties. Like how corn starch+water make a substance that’s liquid but firms to a solid when a force hits it. I have crits, bonus dice and all, do half damage. So the heroes can still do a good chunk of damage, and any boons are still in play, but it doesn’t destroy, and makes good damage dice on regular hits more important than good d20s

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