Redesigning Encounters: Ambush!

War of the Burning Sky’s conversion from 3rd Edition came at a time before Wizards of the Coast had perfected monster design. Because of this, every creature in The Scouring of Gate Pass is built using the original Monster Manual’s design philosophy. When the Monster Manual 3 was released, things changed drastically: damage went up, defenses went down, and hit points were reduced across the board. Additionally, power design noticeably improved, creating monsters that were a pleasure to run. All of these variables amounted to shorter, exciting, and more varied combats.

In the great scheme of things, there’s nothing wrong with the original MM’s design philosophy per se; games will still run adequately if War of the Burning Sky encounters are left as they are. However, my experiences with MM creatures have been less than stellar. Personally, I prefer the way monsters are designed now.

Lastly, when some of the creatures were updated from 3rd Edition to 4th Edition, a few strange artifacts remained. For example, more than a few powers seemed to have been converted from feats, and those stood out to me.

A Note to the Designers

Please understand, my intention isn’t to lambaste the War of the Burning Sky’s designers or to point out any perceived foibles. In fact, just the opposite is true: War of the Burning Sky encounters are exciting and a blast to run. The designers found and used the perfect combination of monsters, traps, hazards, and terrain. My goal is to simply update the monsters so that they fall in line with Wizards of the Coast’s current monster design philosophy.

Getting Started

I first thought to myself, “What would be the easiest way of getting a MM3 feel with these MM monsters?” Sure, I could sit down with the errata and painstakingly adjust each creature, taking care to look at other monsters of the same type and level in order to keep things consistently powered. But that would take a long time, ruining the benefit of running a pre-made adventure path. No, I wanted to keep preparation time as short as possible.

That’s when I realized, if I could use MM3 monsters as a benchmark for power, why not just take those monsters and reflavor the descriptions? I’ve been known to file the serial numbers off more than a few 4th Edition concepts for reflavoring—why not do it en masse here? Of course, instead of using the MM3, my choices came from Essentials’ Monster Vault. It uses the same design philosophy as the MM3; however, where the MM3 is filled with strange and fantastic beasts, the MV is stocked with more of the standard fair that I would need.

The process was simple. First, I opened up my copy of The Scouring of Gate Pass and turned to the first combat: Ambush!, on page 39. The encounter consists of:

  • Kathor, Level 4 Soldier
  • 2 Black Horse Scouts, Level 1 Skirmishers
  • 2 Black Horse Thugs, Level 1 Brutes
  • 4 Black Horse Recruits, Level 1 Minion Soldiers
  • 3 Attack Dogs, Level 1 Minion Soldiers
  • 3 Collapsing Ceiling Hazards, Level 1 Lurkers

(For reasons listed here, I removed Kathor and the Attack Dogs from this encounter.)

Next, I headed straight for the level and role. Theoretically, one Level 1 Skirmisher is going to be balanced against another Level 1 Skirmisher, even though in play they may feel very different due to their powers. With that in mind, I flipped open the MV and turned to the Monsters By Level chart on page 313.

The Good, the Bad, and the Fluffed

Beginning with the Black Horse Scout—a Level 1 Skirmisher—I looked at the chart and saw five Level 1 Skirmishers listed. From this point forward, it was more finesse than anything else. Basically, I looked at the powers given to the Black Horse Scout in the adventure, and checked to see which of the five MV Level 1 Skirmishers had an array of abilities that would be easy to reskin. In the end, I felt the Kobold Quickblade worked the best. I ignored all of the Black Horse Scout’s defenses, movement, and traits, and used only those listed for the Kobold Quickblade. I removed some of the stuff that didn’t make sense (like Darkvision) and my “kobold” lost the reptile keyword. Next came the powers.

The Kobold Quickblade’s melee attack become a longsword. In the adventure, the Black Horse Scout uses a morningstar; however, the miniature I was using had a very prominent longsword. It’s important to remember that what the weapon looks like does not affect the creature’s power. Divorcing monster rules from player rules lets a monster attack with whatever he wants, as long as he does an appropriate amount of damage for his level. Maybe next time I’ll give him a frozen fish?

To round out the Black Horse Scout’s powers, I added a ranged attack and the thunderstone attack from his adventure stat block. Since the Kobold Quickblade had neither of these attacks, I looked up another Level 1 creature that had a ranged attack and copied it over; in this case, the Kobold Slinger’s sling attack became a longbow—again, to match the miniature.

For the thunderstone, I opened up the online D&D Compendium to see what thunderstone stats looked like these days. As written, the damage and effects looked pretty similar to the Black Horse Scout’s stat block, although it seems Level 5 Thunderstones don’t daze. Whatever, I tossed a daze effect in. Did I increase the power of the monster? Only by a little. However, there are only two scouts in the encounter and they only have a couple thunderstones each. By the time they get their first volley off, chances are the PC’s will close in and engage with melee weapons. Really, the daze effect—if it even hits—will only be a one- or two-time thing.

The Kobold Quickblade’s fleet feet action stayed exactly the same, but his shifty ability was renamed Black Horse tactics. The Black Horse Scout had the ability to shift a square in the adventure, so this worked out perfectly.

I kept the ability scores and skills from the adventure, not worrying about what affect that would have on the creature’s powers. And that was it! I now had a brand new Black Horse Scout, all shiny and majestic with his new MM3 design philosophy. The whole process took me about 5 minutes.

For the Black Horse Thug, I chose the Grasping Zombie. The zombie’s slam attack became a dagger attack (to match the miniature) and the zombie grasp power was fluffed into headlock. Deathless hunger changed into narrow escape, suggesting a creature that is able to cheat death at the last moment; certainly something I’ve seen over and over again in movies and television.

The Black Horse Recruit was a little more challenging because there aren’t any Level 1 Minion Soldier’s in the MV. I could have opened up the online D&D Compendium, but since I was already turned to page 313 in the MV, I thought I’d see what was available: two Minion Artillery and two Minion Skirmishers. Since the mini I was going to use had a prominent ranged weapon, I went with the Artillery. Between the Dwarf Warrior and the Goblin Sniper, I liked the dwarf best. Most of his abilities stayed the same, though I renamed dwarf solidarity into Black Horse solidarity. Lastly, the melee and ranged attacks got flavored to match the miniature.

That took care of the monsters! Last was the hazard.

Early 4th Edition traps and hazards had huge stat blocks. This is easily experienced by turning to the Collapsing Ceiling hazard that is listed in the Ambush! section of The Scouring of Gate Pass. It’s been a while since I’ve used a trap or hazard in 4th Edition, so I thought a quick look at the new Essentials Dungeon Master’s Book might shed some light on current trap and hazard design.

Level 1 traps and hazards begin on page 216. Unfortunately, the list is pretty sparse. Again, I could have used the online D&D Compendium to expand my list, but I noticed a level 1 hazard listed that would work perfectly: the Rockslide. The skill to detect changed from Nature or Dungeoneering to Perception and the skill to avoid became Acrobatics. And that was it! As written, it made a perfect replacement for the Collapsing Ceiling hazard.

So there’s the first encounter! In the end, it was pretty easy. However, I found later encounters to be more challenging…

Keeping Things Balanced

The encounter level for Ambush! is listed as 2 (700 XP) if Kathor doesn’t join the fight; this is a misprint. Actually, without Kathor, there is a total of 875 XP to be gained—an encounter level 4 encounter. After my adjustments, the encounter level dropped to 3. In order to lower the encounter level to 2, simply remove one of the Collapsing Ceiling Hazards and either one Black Horse Scout or one Black Horse Thug.