The Tiefling and the Gnome


Elite Bulette

The earth quivers. The ground furrows. Turning earth knocks heroes from their feet, and a mated pair of mighty bulettes bursts into their midst.

All granite-hard hide, characteristic fins, and below-ground tactics, the bulette has been a staple of D&D since the early days. Fourth Edition continues to do it honor by making it an elite monster.

Elite Monsters

Elite monsters represent a greater challenge: They count as two monsters of their level for encounter building and rewards. Elite monsters have the word “elite” preceding their level and role.

Here’s how a fight against a pair of such beasts might go:

The bulettes are underground using their burrowing movement. Even though the PCs can hear the creatures (a bulette isn’t exactly stealthy), they can’t attack until the bulettes rise to the surface.
When the bulettes go, they go mean. The first burrows shallowly through the earth under the fighter and rogue – the fighter keep his feet, but the rogue falls down and makes a good target. The bulette leaves the ground to take advantage of this and bites the poor fellow, doing some serious damage.
Bulette number two uses the same opening gambit but knocks over both the cleric and the wizard, who were next to each other. It opts to burst from the ground in a spray of packed dirt and stone. The prone heroes are easier to hit and take more damage from the wave of rocks. The fighter is also in range of the burst, but he brushes the soil aside with his shield.
The party gets to act. The rogue rises. He’s not in a position to flank, but he can still try to do some damage. He doesn’t like the look of the bulette’s heavy armor, so he tries to slip his short sword between two stony plates before the bulette can react and he draws blood.
The wizard’s in a bad spot. He probably can’t lay down an attack without provoking an opportunity attack or burning his allies, so he delays. Good thing, because the cleric places fear in the bulette’s tiny mind, which doesn’t offer much resistance. The bulette burrows away, taking an opportunity attack from the cleric before he gets underground (avoiding like attacks from the fighter and the rogue.
This gives the wizard the chance to stand and cover the bulette’s space with crackling lightning -- the monster’s bulk means it doesn’t have much chance to evade the blast and it doesn’t. The fighter follows with a good, old-fashioned heavy sword swing and gets lucky: a critical hit. The bulette isn’t looking good (it’s bloodied), but now it gets to act.
Bulette number one dives into the earth so rapidly that the heroes around it don’t get opportunity attacks. Safely in the ground, it heals some damage and then burrows under the heroes, who are now clustered close enough that the bulette can affect them all. Bulette number two follows by burrowing back into the action and bursting from the ground to rain more rocks down on the party, reminding them all that it’s time for some healing.
The battle goes on. Even though there are four heroes, it only takes two bulettes to give them a run for their money. Fourth Edition has such elite monsters because you don’t always want a straight one-on-one fight -- sometimes a monster should just be bigger, tougher, and scarier than the norm.


Magic Item Levels

The Magic Item Compendium introduced the concept of levels for magic items. This primarily served to help DMs determine what magic items to place in a treasure hoard (or to give to his NPCs). Since we built that level system around the existing magic item prices, it was an imperfect solution (for instance, a few non-epic magic items exceeded the pricing scheme for level 1-20 items).

Fourth Edition D&D improves that useful tool by explicitly linking a magic item's level to its price. For example, all 9th-level magic items now cost the same number of gp to craft or to purchase. This makes it even easier to gauge a magic item's appropriateness for your game at a glance. Don't know if it's OK to drop a flying carpet into the hands of your 9th-level PCs? Well, the fact that the carpet's listed as an 18th-level item should clue you in that it'd have an enormous impact on your 9th-level game.

Does that mean that all magic items of the same level will be equal in power? Well, yes and no.

It's true that the designer of two different 9th-level magic items imagines that they'd have a roughly equivalent impact on gameplay. A +2 thundering mace and a +2 staff of the war mage, if designed and developed properly, should be equally useful in combat. That comparison generally isn't too hard, since the basic functions and utility of combat-based effects remain relative regardless of the weapon or implement. How much extra damage does the mace deal compared to the staff? If damage isn't involved, how useful and potent are the items' effects against foes? And so on.

However, that comparison quickly becomes more art than science when comparing magic items of different purposes. (This, by the way, is why relying on hard-and-fast pricing rules for magic items is troublesome at best, and actively bad for your game at worst.) After all, most magic items only "compete" with other items in a narrow category for a character's attention, so comparing their values can be quite tricky.

For example, if a rope of climbing and a +2 flaming longsword are both 10th-level magic items (and thus both cost the same number of gold pieces), that's not quite the same thing as saying that a rope of climbing is as powerful as that weapon. After all, it's unlikely that a character has to decide between those two items -- they serve fundamentally different purposes.

It's much more likely that a character interested in a rope of climbing will compare its price to other items that let him overcome similar obstacles (such as the 7th-level slippers of spider climbing or the 13th-level boots of levitation).

Alternatively, if he's in the market for a new weapon, he would compare the value of that +2 flaming sword with the more expensive +3 vicious sword (12th level), or the slightly cheaper +2 lightning sword (9th level).

What the designer is saying, rather, is that he imagines that the effect of both the rope of climbing and the +2 flaming sword are appropriate for characters around 10th level. A few levels before that, either item would have a much more significant impact on gameplay (possibly by making certain spells or powers of the characters obsolete). More than a few levels after that, either item will have lost a lot of its luster -- maybe because more characters have easy access to levitation, flight, or even short-range teleportation effects, in the case of the rope of climbing, or because they're all toting around +3 or better weapons, making the flaming sword seem underpowered.

Ultimately, assigning levels to magic items sends a message to players and DMs: Here's when this item is most appropriate for your game. Once that information is in your hands, of course, it's up to you to use it as best befits your game!