A Walk in the Dark A look in to the mind of an RPG designer



Creating a Non-Lethal Solo Monster

WARNING: This post contains some serious spoilers for the end of Act One of my campaign, The Coming Dark. If you are currently one of my players on the WotC forums, I would prefer you stop reading now.

Almost every "solo" monster I've seen in the world of D&D has one specific purpose: kill the party. There's no question about it, a solo's objective is to inflict as much pain and misery as possible. It even says so in the Dungeon Master's Guide on page 55:

They have more hit points in order to absorb the damage output of multiple PCs, and they deal more damage in order to approximate the damage output of a group of monsters.

But does it really have to be that way? For that matter, do they have to deal any damage at all?

Scene Description

At the end of Act One in my campaign, there is a distinct possibility that one of the enemy will surrender and be taken alive. He will beg and plead that the party protect him from "it", and if they do he'll tell them anything they want to know. He never says what "it" is... But the party finds out soon enough: a creature has been sent to get him.

This creature is called a "Shadow Retriever". It has one specific purpose: recover the prisoner before he talks. And, for whatever reason it may be, they don't just want to silence him; they want him alive. So rather than send an army to get him, they send one creature. And it's a big one.

For the record, this creature is a Level 3 Solo Controller, going up against five level 1 PCs and an NPC ally (a Level 2 Soldier). Most people would consider that a TPK in the making, but that's assuming the Shadow Retriever actually attacks the party.

By design, the Shadow Retriever advances directly towards its intended target, effectively avoiding the rest of the party that gets in its way, until it accomplishes its mission. And only then does that it turns in to a no holds barred killing machine, but it should be considerably weakened by then.

The Retriever was an exercise to see how the party handles a creature that doesn't actually want them dead. In the original design it was meant to drop a boatload of detrimental effects on the party, leaving them to wonder how exactly they were going to kill this thing, only to realize there may not be a reason to take it on in the first place. The Retriever turns in to more of an annoyance than a threat.

Differing Tactics

In order to define the tactics of this creature, I made the creature have two different modes: a "recovery mode" and an "assault mode".

"Recovery mode" is its not-so-threatening version, when it has to complete its mission by targeting a single individual. In this mode it's not a destructive killing machine of chaos and hate, but rather it has tunnel vision and zeroes in on a single target until it has it. It honestly doesn't care about anyone else.

"Assault mode" is just what it sounds like: the destructive killing machine that everyone expects a solo to be. But, by the time it gets to this mode, it should have taken a fair share of damage while moving towards its intended target. Where most solo monsters have special powers that takes over when they become bloodied, this creature radically changes tactics by then and uses the powers it had since the beginning. It is now a credible threat.

There is one problem with the above: if the party leaves no prisoners, the retriever has no reason to go in to "recovery mode". Fine then... that's what the party gets for being so mean, I guess.

If a DM sees the stat block and uses that only, it will most definitely be a TPK. This creature can do a ton of damage while being rather resistant itself (since it's insubstantial) if played straight up according to the stat block and not taking its mode and related tactics in to consideration. It has destructive attacks just waiting to be used, but the DM must be aware that the creature wouldn't use them in whatever mode it's in. For this reason I considered making two separate stat blocks, but I thought that may be even more confusing.

A History of Revisions

This monster has gone through at least four major revisions. The first time I ran this monster in a playtest it was significantly weaker and the party plowed through it without any problem. So when I beefed it up a little, it became overly dangerous.

Here are some of the recent changes:

  • The Retriever is a controller, so it has the ability to drop a truckload of effects on the party: it spawns wisps that restrain their targets (-2 to attacks, grant CA), it created a cloud (as a sustainable effect) that reduced lighting condition in an Aura 3 (so creatures with normal vision have to fight it as if it was partially concealed), and it had a rechargable power that could potentially blind the entire party (everything gets total concealment). With all those attack penalties, despite it having fairly low defenses the party could barely hit it.
  • Originally, powers like Cloud Drift and Obscuring Cloud were rechargable powers. I made them both encounter powers now.
  • The Retriever was originally "insubstantial", and that wasn't the modern day "insubstantial" (force damage doesn't get reduced, radiant damage removes trait until end of next turn)... It was "insubstantial" all the time. That effectively doubled its hit points to close to 300, which is comparable to solos many levels higher.
  • The Smoke Wisps it generated now immobilize instead of restrain. Restraining had too many detrimental effects to be imposed by a Level 2 Minion.

In my current playtest (on the Wizards of the Coast online forums), almost the entire party is blind and one of them is restrained. They can't hit the broad side of the barn at this point, so the retriever happily waded through them and grabbed its target.

I've had one player already say that he "expects this to be a TPK" for the reasons I describe above: they can't hit the thing, are suffering through a ton of effects, and the creature seems to be able to do whatever the hell it wants.

In a manner of speaking, this monster becomes something closer to a trap/hazard or skill challenge: the creature has its intended target and is slowly lumbering away... How do you stop it? How do you free the captive prisoner? Do you even want to? Do you care that the guy that tried to kill you twenty minutes ago is being dragged off by something rather evil looking?


Even though this is a major spoiler for my campaign, I'm posting this so that others can see it and comment on it.

What do you think? Is this creature too lethal, too weak or just right?

Download PDF: The Coming Dark, Scene 1-8: The Shadow Retriever

(EDIT: Sorry... Corrected link. I'm having some issues with my hosting provider right now, and had a hard time uploading the PDF in the first place)

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  1. Honestly, it sounds like you are trying to put stats on a plot device. The only reason I can see for the Shadow Retriever to have stats is if you want the PCs to have a chance of stopping it. That doesn’t feel like it’s supposed to fail in _this_ encounter. If you use them again later and failure is an option, you can tweak the monster stats for that encounter instead of this one and see how it balances.