My latest D&D game ended with the defeat of Auntie Mengybone, the Elite Briar Hag that has been causing the PCs trouble for a while now. One of my players looked down at the carnage on the map. “That was really touch and go for a while there. I honestly wondered if we were going to win.”
In truth, so did I. Or at least, that was my worry the week prior.
The truth is, my players seem to think I have an uncanny ability to judge exactly how much they can take to make it seem like all is lost…but not so much as to overwhelm them completely. And I have some skill in that direction, it’s true, but part of it is that I’ve learned when to adjust my plans, when to insert a secret bonus, and when to make a monster do something stupid. And I’d like to share what I’ve learned with you. Hopefully, it’ll help you make the battles in your games seem that much more intense…the kind of battles that players feel like they succeeded by the skin of their teeth.
It’s not shocking that the first thing I do when planning out an adventure is to look at the battles I expect to take place. While my games aren’t inherently battle-oriented, battles add tension and drama to an adventure, and they give the players a chance to show off their tactical skills. Let’s face it…when they’re exciting, battles are fun, so they get a lot of my attention as I plan an adventure.
As I’ve said in previous articles, I take the basic encounter concepts of 4E, try to make sure there’s an interesting twist or mechanic in any given battle, and pick monsters I think will be fun and interesting to fight. Once I have that framework, I might think about which monsters might go after specific characters, or special actions they might take. Will a goblin guard break from the battle to sound an alarm? Since the owlbear has so many dang hit points, will I let it run around in something of a frenzy, provoking attacks of opportunity (and giving PCs with special powers triggered by that a chance to use them?) Are there any dialogue bits or character quirks I might want to bring in? I jot some notes as I plan.
But I also prepare to throw it all out the window. As much as I want battles to be exciting and interesting, I also want them to further my storyline. I’m not a fan of battles as filler. I want them to tell the PCs something about my world, or move the story forward. And if abandoning a concept I had seems like it will further those ends, then I’m prepared to do it. I can always use the idea in another storyline down the road. The key to keeping things going is a level of flexibility.
Upping the Ante
Sometimes, as a story progresses, I find that the players are cake-walking through what I thought would be difficult encounters. Maybe I misjudged how effective their attacks would be, or how well they’d work together in a given encounter, or maybe the dice just fall a certain way.
Well, the nice thing about playing a game with a human gamemaster (as opposed to a computer) is that a gamemaster can make adjustments on the fly, deciding to change the difficulty of the situation. This can really mean the difference between a fight being memorable and being just another notch in the players’ belts.
One of the saddest things that’s ever happened in my game is when the Colossal Red Dragon I threw at my players towards the end of my 3.5 game was taken out in round 3 of a fight by a cleric with the Implosion spell and the roll of a 1 on its saving throw. Kind of sucked the challenge out of that fight, I can tell you. Thankfully, 4E doesn’t have the sort of “instant kill” attacks that earlier editions had, but it’s still sad to watch a monster meant to inspire fear and awe going down in a blaze of attacks.
Now, I don’t like to fudge dice that much. I might, however, occasionally give a monster a “nudge”. Are all their attacks hitting my ogre nightstalker? Well, when he gets bloodied, I might give his defenses a boost. My players know some monsters have special effects when they become bloodied, so this isn’t much of a stretch. It doesn’t break the game, but it keeps an important monster in the fight longer and gives them (and the players) a chance to show off all those nifty abilities they have.
Other on-the-fly adjustments I’ve made have included bringing in reinforcements, either more of the same coming in from open corridors, or even “summoned creatures” or “raised undead”. This works best if you have something set up in your notes, like giving a necromancer an ability as a standard action to create undead. That way, if you never need it, you can ignore it, but if you do need it, you can bring it into play.
It’s important to note that, whenever I do put in something like this, I give the players a way to take it away. If the necromancer is summoning undead every round, and the PCs kill the necromancer, then no more undead come into play. Auntie Mengybone had a way to heal herself through power she was stealing from her captive Archfey. Once the players realized this, they split their energies between fighting her and running a skill challenge to free the Archfey. Once the Archfey was free, they were able to quickly turn the tide of battle and overcome their foe. But until they did, it was, as previously mentioned, rather touch and go.
Toning It Down
Sometimes, despite good planning, good resource management, and good playing, fate just seems to want to kick your adventuring party where it counts. Most commonly, the dice fall the wrong way, and things just generally go wrong.
In instances like this, I’ll look for ways to help the party along. Maybe I’ll decide not to roll to recharge a specific power this particular round. Or maybe I let the monsters get a little cocky. They’re winning, aren’t they? Why not ignore the paladin’s mark? They have hit points to spare, and they can strut the fact that they can take it.
If I had reinforcements planned, maybe I’ll decide not to bring them in, or maybe I’ll make it easy for the party to prevent it from happening. Maybe the necromancer needs to make an Arcana check to summon those undead, and the party’s warlock can make an arcana check to counter-magic it.
Sometimes, you realize that it’s not the players or the dice causing the problem…it’s you. I recently realized that, although I’d converted some monsters from elites to normal, they still had elite damage listed on their sheets. This caused the players to burn through far more of their healing resources than they should’ve needed to and left them very weak against a very tough foe that was still fresh.
In a case like this, I find a way to give the PCs an unexpected way to heal or regain abilities. Maybe there’s a healing potion on the alchemist’s table, or a magic circle in a temple fight allows them to draw on the help of the gods for some aid. I hadn’t planned on this initially, but it helps make up for my earlier mistake.
Putting It Together – A Concrete Example
The final battle with Auntie Mengybone was set. Besides the elite briar hag herself, I put in 3 bone golems that I’d dropped from elite to normal, representing that they were simply bone constructs, rather than full-fledged golems. I also added a displacer beast which Auntie referred to as “Fluffy.” It was a tough, but balanced battle for a group of 6 level 8 PCs.
In the middle of the fight, I realized that the bone golems were doing way too much damage. Although their hit points and defenses had dropped properly, their damage was still elite level. I hadn’t spotted this, however, until I’d hit the PCs with a few of their attacks. “That seems high,” I thought to myself, and then I realized the error.
Luckily, the session ended mid-fight, with all monsters but Auntie Mengybone slain, but the PCs in dire straits…almost all encounter and daily powers spent, and several PCs with either 1 or 0 healing surges left. If this had kept up, it would almost certainly have been a complete party wipe, due to my error.
In between sessions, I pondered how to fix this. I wanted Auntie Mengybone to be a memorable villain, so I didn’t want to depower her. I had given her a healing power representing drawing on the power of the Archfey she held captive. While I didn’t want to take this away (the PCs hate nothing more than a villain that can heal itself), I wanted to give the players something to draw on, too.
I expanded the skill challenge to free the Archfey. Now, if they made a hard success on certain skills, the captive Archfey would aid them. I allowed them to choose between giving 2 healing surges to members of the party, using a healing surge, or recovering an encounter power. This gave a concrete reward to those who chose to step out of combat to aid the Archfey, and gave the PCs a way to stay in the fight, even though their foe was still in good shape.
Because I didn’t want them to simply all jump into the skill challenge and overwhelm it in two turns, I gave Auntie a new attack, a little less damaging than her old ones, but one that would negate one of their successes. That made it a more back and forth affair.
Finally, I gave Auntie conditions under which she would flee. I would give the PCs plenty of chances to catch her, but I knew this would change the tactical landscape of the fight.
So the rhythm of the fight went something like this. The PCs waded in against Auntie Mengybone and discovered that she could heal herself using her connection to the Archfey. At that point, half of them broke off to free the Archfey, engaging in the skill challenge while the other half held her in place. Their Controller was particularly helpful in that situation, using his powers to keep moving her away from the skill challenge.
Once the skill challenge was complete, it become another “dogpile on Auntie Mengybone” situation, until she hit her retreat conditions. She used a power to move out of the fight and began to flee, causing the players to switch tactics to catch her and hold her in place, and then defeat her. When it was all over, the players let out a sigh of relief and admitted that they hadn’t been sure they were going to win.
Do you have any tried and true guidelines for making a fight tough but not impossible? Do you make adjustments on the fly, or let the chips fall where they may? Do you think I’m off-base in the way I handle these situations? Let us all know.