GM: The golem turns from the forge, hands still cherry-red with heat and lurches toward you, a banshee scream of steel-on-steel groaning from its joints. Roll for initiative.
Player: Holy crap, what is that?
GM: (Checks the character’s Arcane skill) It’s an ingot titan. They’re mostly used for crafting other golems, but they can also be fierce defenders. They’re known to be pretty tough and hard-hitting. They can animate some of their smaller helpers to fight with them.
Player: Did you come up with that yourself?
Player: It sounds awesome. (Dice clatter and the fight begins)
To paraphrase Admiral Akbar, “Brutes are a trap” It’s easy to visualize how they’re supposed to perform in an encounter: the big, dumb monster runs up to the character and tries to pummel him into the ground. Characters scatter, afraid of the beast’s might. It’s a simple, satisfying image. Sadly, their actual performance is often nothing of the sort.
The low defenses mean that Brutes are highly vulnerable to attacks that control and debilitate. Unfortunately, they generally lack tools to escape these lockdowns, meaning that they are routinely shunted off to the fringes of the combat while the real threats are dealt with.
Their low accuracy is similarly crippling because the PCs have access to many powers that reduce to-hit rolls or increase defenses. Being able to hit a character for a third of his health means nothing when the hit rate is less than 30%.
Further, once the characters hit the paragon tier they gain access to feats and magic items that reduce or eliminate the bonuses for flanking and combat advantage, closing off the easiest way for a brute to hit more often. It’s not uncommon for a GM to become frustrated that his Brutes cannot hit the defenders and decide to throw them at the other characters. This often leads to resentment among the players, as the defenders feel neutered and the non-defenders feel picked on.
Knowing this is only half the battle, however. It’s that charging in that compounds the problem. Turn it around for a minute. If you had a player whose Rogue was charging in and being clobbered, your first suggestion would probably be that he hang back until the defenders get set. The same is true for the Brute. Once you learn to treat them as melee strikers, they should become much more effective and threatening.
One of the other challenges to using brutes is keeping the combat from becoming stale. The players know they are almost certain to hit and the fight becomes a grinding numbers game. This is especially true of elite and solo Brutes.
Brutes tend to work best where they’re the sideshow, not the main attraction. Overloading an encounter with Brutes often leads to a swingy, chaotic fight. This is fine every once in a while, but can get old quickly.
Attacks and Powers
- Brute attacks tend to be fairly straightforward. Situational damage bonuses are more the province of Skirmishers – Brutes hit hard all the time. They almost always attack AC.
- Brutes do not generally do typed damage unless they are an elemental.
- Many of their attacks trigger off of being or becoming bloodied.
- Most of their limited-use powers give them more attacks, rather than better attacks, often in the form of a melee burst.
- Their attacks do not generally inflict status effects or cause forced movement. When they do, it is usually in the form of prone and push.
- It is rare for brutes to have ranged attacks.
- Powers that allow the Brute to reroll an attack are generally a very bad idea, as rerolls are one of the best ways to increase accuracy. A monster that hits one-third of the time will jump to 55% if it gets a reroll.
- Low defenses are the hallmark of the Brute. Fortitude tends to be their highest non-AC defense.
- It is rare to see any resistances or immunities other than those normal for their race.
- Most Brutes are given high constitution and strength as a way of justifying their role. Similarly, other attributes are normally lowered because brutes are seen as dumb and slow.
- If any monster type is likely to have reduced speed, it is the Brute. Part of the reason for this is that they can really unload on the soft targets in the party’s backfield. Not only are they far more likely to hit, but their damage is going to be a larger percentage of the target’s total. This is why you should “measure twice, cut once” before giving a Brute a movement power, especially one that can be used at will.
It can be very tempting to compensate for the Brute’s low to-hit by grouping them with monsters that apply status effects like Blind, Daze and Stun. You should place a firm limit on how often you do this because making the Brutes more effective comes at the cost of making the encounter more of an uphill slog. It is preferable to pair Brutes with Controllers that move either the monsters or the characters.
Brutes work well with all the other monster types except Lurkers.
That’s Gonna Leave a Mark – While it’s less viable in the Heroic Tier, one way to increase the viability of Brutes in the later stages of the game is to give them damage auras or have their attacks do damage on a miss.
Indomitable – Brutes can very easily have a Terminator sort of vibe. They just keep on coming. You can simulate this by giving them bonuses to saving throws against things like Slowed and Weakened. You can also give them reactive or start of turn saving throws against these effects. Remember to give them training in Athletics if you want them to be able to break grabs.
Caber Tossin’ Fun – What’s the difference between a Brute and an Artillery? Accuracy. While Brutes do not generally have ranged attacks, there’s nothing that says they can’t be throwing rocks, spears or anything else that comes to hand. Giants are an excellent example of this. Players also enjoy sloppy area attacks where the monsters are just as likely to be hit as the characters.
Getting There is Half the Fun! – Increased defenses against opportunity attacks triggered by charging is one of the few times you can get away with the “easy to hit” rule. Make sure that the bonus is large enough to make a difference. If the Brute would normally be hit on a 6, a +2 to AC isn’t going to help much.
Tower Shield – If you’re willing to put up with the record keeping, there are some relatively simple ways to have your Brute carry a big slab of iron in a way that doesn’t increase AC. You can, for example, give it a free action blast 3. Targets in the burst could take a penalty to hit the brute or the brute could gain resist all against those targets.
OMGLAZORSPEWPEWPEW – A corollary to the notion that Brutes can sometimes attack from a distance is the idea that they can sometimes attack with something other than rocks, clubs and fists. The drunken Sorcerer who can barely control the lightning works much better as a Brute than as an Artillery.
Working up a Lather – It’s possible, but complicated, to give Brutes powers that remember how often they’ve missed. Try this on for size:
Growing Rage: Every time this creature misses, it gains a Rage token. It gains +1 to-hit and +1d6 damage on all its attacks for each rage token, but loses all rage tokens whenever it hits.
The limit here is the amount of paperwork you’re willing to do. You probably shouldn’t include more than two monsters with this type of power in a single encounter, though it works just fine as the theme for an arc of encounters. Keep in mind that the longer it takes the Brute to hit, the more likely someone’s going to be licking floor.
Better Living Through Technology – Brutes are often designed to be much simpler than their brethren, but there’s no rule that makes it so. Brutes should have as many powers as other monster types, but those powers should remain within the Brute design space as much as possible.