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.
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.
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
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!
- 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.”