** SPOILER ALERT**
This is a series of articles dedicated to redesigning the monsters for the adventure P1: King of the Trollhaunt Warrens. As such, they will reveal which monsters you’ll encounter in that module, so you may want to stop reading, if you intend to play it anytime soon. Apart from that, there will be no plot spoilers.
It shouldn’t come off as a surprise that King of the Trollhaunt Warrens has an abundance of troll monsters. I mean, they turn up in the title, there’s one in the cover, the frakking adventuring zone is named after them... yeah, expect to kill a lot of these fat, smelly, regenerating, flammable buggers. So we’d better get the race template right, the first time around. As could be expected, I am taking the most recent Monster Vault versions as a reference. Monster Vault brought some interesting changes to the troll race and its main traits, Troll Regeneration, and Troll Healing.
Troll regeneration has been rebalanced so that the monster doesn’t depend so heavily on it - previously, trolls had relatively low starting HP, and made up for them by regenerating an impressive 10 points per turn. This sounds good in theory, but it led to trolls swinging wildly in effectiveness depending on player optimization and coordination. For efficient groups of PC that hit hard and were good at focusing fire (or were well equipped to deal with troll vulnerabilities), they could be significantly easier than a regular monster. On the other hand, a more casual party that didn’t happen to bring enough fire or acid attacks could find encounters dragging on forever. By reducing the regeneration but increasing the troll HP to that of a normal creature of its role, their average power level remains more or less intact, but these extreme scenarios are smoothed. This is a good design philosophy, and I believe it makes the monsters far more enjoyable.
In addition, Troll Healing got a minor boost by bringing back the dead monster with 15 HP rather than 10, making it slightly more difficult to knock the monster down again with a single blow - particularly if it is left one or two turns to regenerate. This brings me to the most significant revision I introduced in our campaign, for trolls as a race. Interestingly, it came up by an error on my part: I misread the new rules text for Troll Healing in Monster Vault, interpreting that any kind of damage (not just fire or acid) on an unconscious troll would kill it for good... and thought it was an awesome idea. No, it doesn’t really work like that, but bear with me for a moment.
As originally written, Troll Healing meant that these creatures would always keep rising again, unless you put them to fire (or acid). Which, once again, wasn’t that much of a problem for a well prepared group, but could randomly screw you the first time a troll came up in the campaign! There was still some room for improvisation to save the day (did the PCs carry flint and steel? Were they familiar with the Coup de Grace rule, and how it applied to this scenario?), but it was a messy deal in general.
I decided to use the following rule text, instead:
Troll Healing: Whenever an attack that doesn't deal acid or fire damage reduces the troll to 0 hit points, the troll does not die and instead falls unconscious until the start of its next turn, when it returns to life with 15 hit points. If an attack hits the troll and deals any damage while the troll is unconscious, it does not return to life in this way.
This is basically the same text as the Monster Vault version, with one crucial difference: any kind of damage to the unconscious troll will kill it for good. With this, fire and acid are no longer mandatory to defeat a troll, just extremely helpful. I’d say that spending an additional attack to make sure the monster is dead (and most of the times that will imply using a standard action, since auras and other sources of damage that don’t involve a hit, like Flurry of Blows, won’t work here) is a harsh enough penalty to unprepared adventurers, particularly when you have a limited timeframe for it. Having encounters that become more challenging when you lack the right tools is fine - making them unwinnable is just mean, and while it may have been fashionable for older versions of the game, in 4E it feels completely out of place.
As we are on it, I’ll give some DM advice on the use of Troll Healing: whether you use my version or the original, read the trait carefully. Twice. And use some kind of reminder to remember triggering it in-game. I am a rather meticulous player, and even more as a DM, and still I managed to forget about this rule the first time my group dropped a troll. Sure, I realized the following turn, but at that point bringing it back would have felt unfair. Not only that, but I also misread how it interacted with stuff like Flurry of Blows (basically I allowed FoB to kill unconscious trolls, which isn’t really allowed by the rules and mostly trivializes the trait), up until the point I started to write this article.
Finally, you should have a clear information policy between DM and PCs. Stuff like Troll Healing is fairly complex, and having your players not understand exactly how it works can lead to frustrating battles. Sure, take them by surprise the first time a troll gets back on its feet, and maybe let them experiment once or twice with ways to slay the creatures. I am highly in favor of letting players know the exact rule text of this kind of monster traits after one try or two - if you think it breaks immersion, offer the information through some ancient tome, or a sage, or knowledge checks.
Next: Encounters 1 and T2