Monday, December 2, 2013

Come at Them from the Side

Yesterday I ran across a post over on Google+ where a Game Master was attempting to create a house rule to deal with powerful armor. I lost interest in the actual post as he was playing a version of the game that I, frankly, have no interest in and was laboring through the rules; however, the kernel of his problem got me thinking about it in relation to the Dungeons and Dragons game.

The Problem

Some of your players have been given armor that is far too powerful for regular people to harm them. Seriously, that guard at the gate couldn't hurt them if they were getting blown in the street and had their pants around their ankles. So what's a Dungeon Master to do? If you throw an enemy who's powerful enough to harm those with the most powerful armor then you run the risk of instantly killing the rest of the party; and how do you explain that they avoid the characters with weaker armor?

Two caveats: (1.) rust monsters, oozes, and the like are considered "band-aid" tactics rather than permanent solutions - after all, you can't just throw one at the party every time one of your players gets some cool gear; (2.) threatening the player's gear instead of dealing damage to them directly through their hit points is also lame. This solution should be something you're able to do when you want and not just because you're forced to do so against highly armored player characters!

Pulling Punches

By the time that one of your players has gotten the sort of impressive gear that would result in the thorny problem above we have to assume that they have either achieved a middle to high level within their chosen character class or you're an incompetent Dungeon Master. Now if your group of players have worked their way up through the difficult slog of character progression then as a Dungeon Master you have to respect their efforts and steadily increase the difficulty of the monsters they're encountering; and by increasing the difficulty I mean not only through the use of more powerful solo encounters but through the tactics that your players' opponents use.

You can still use kobolds when your players are at level 15, you just have to make them more challenging. So how do you make a 1/2 Challenge Rating (CR) creature a viable challenge for a fifteenth level character sporting more magical gear than you can shake a stick at? The answer is quite simply tactics. 

Let's look at the scenario that I recently used against some 12th level players in my own campaign:


K = Kobold warrior
Ks = Kobold Shaman (sorcerer)
Kc= Kobold Shaman (cleric)
Og = Ogre warrior
Nec = Necromancer

In this scenario the players were going to have to cross a bridge to traverse the gorge. When the Ogre saw them he bellowed a challenge out and told them that they were not allowed on this side of the gorge. Of course they ignored him because why would you ever listen to a lowly Ogre when you're twelfth level? Anyway, in their haste to kill the Ogre they didn't check the "rock slide" on the right of the map and missed the Kobolds waiting there with their poisoned arrows and short bows. They only noticed the Kobold Shamans once they had gotten within 30' of the Ogre and by then they were committed to the attack (again, who cares about a lowly Kobold shaman when you're twelfth level). 

So when the first fighter engaged with the Ogre, the Kobolds on the right of the map opened up with their ambush while one Kobold Shaman healed the Ogre and the other launched a fireball on the party. The wizard died there and the thief would drop to the poisoned arrows two rounds later. One of the two fighters would be level drained to death while the other was left at only half his life. A quick retreat was called and seconded as the party fled the battle.

The whole point of describing this scenario is to demonstrate that you can make even powerful characters fear lowly kobolds or the town guards by creating combat encounters that benefit your monsters innate abilities and talents rather than the players. As Dungeon Masters it is our job to challenge our players abilities and gaming acumen. As they gain more powerful armaments and magical protections we have to create situations where the players opponents take into consideration their increased abilities. Not every encounter has to be to this tactical level or beyond it - after all, a good plan with solid follow through on your players' part should be rewarded - but each encounter should be tailored to your players increased abilities in such a manner that it challenges them. It's all part of the gaming cycle, or as Gary Gygax put it:
“. . . the players begin at a point beneath the ability of the GM and gradually meet and surpass the game master’s apparent level, only to be outfoxed again by the wily GM, more time and effort are called for. GMs can be thankful that there are published materials to assist them in the never-ending search for new ideas, and the game group itself is a marvelous source of inspiration to the game master . . .” (Gary Gygax, Role-Playing Mastery pg. 50)
This cycle of play does not require the creation of house rules or contrived magical solutions to the players' increased abilities but for the Dungeon Master to be better at his job. Study the game and look at the situations you're creating for your players. Are all your fights one dimensional slogs where the players can quickly overcome their opponents? Are you allowing one tactic to work time and time again instead of having your monsters learn from the players' actions?

Stop pussy footing around and challenge them. The game will only continue to be fun if you do.

On the other hand, if you're an incompetent Dungeon Master and you're giving away the house: embrace it. Not only do your players have that over powered gear but so do your monsters. Level the playing field and watch the world burn. By doing so you're going to have a wild campaign that jumps dimensions, kills gods, and spits in the face of everything you're reading on the internet as the "right way" to run the game. But who the fuck cares as long as you guys are all having fun.

Before I move on I'd like to state that I do not understand why you would ever not hit someone because their character is less protected than the others. Those characters are supposed to get hit and die if you're running the game with a tactical mindset. Seriously, why are you avoiding the obvious move?

Dealing with the Caveats 

Those two caveats up there are the sort of thing that you hear more often from spoiled players than from Dungeon Masters as they tie your hands and prevent you from using legitimate game tactics. Rust Monsters, Oozes and the item killer monsters are all legitimate monsters than can be put into the appropriate environments without being a "rocks fall, everyone dies" sort of power play that your players will resent you for using. As for destroying the players' gear being out as well, I can not more strongly disagree with this policy. Destroying a character's favorite piece of armor or weaponry has a long standing tradition in both the game and in literature.

The removal of each of these elements form your bag of Dungeon Master tricks and the effort to create house rules that limit the players' is to announce to the world, "The game I run is devoid of challenging elements and is run with house rules that are designed to benefit the house alone. Play here is without fun for anyone but me!"

Fuck that noise.

Stop limiting your ability to be great by creating artificial boundaries that prevent you from using everything at your disposal. Be creative to the problems that your players orchestrate and enjoy making the game more fun by making it legitimately challenging. And if you're going to create a house rule, for God's sake, make sure everyone playing in the game is on board with it and not just your internet buddies.


  1. Don't Kobolds also like to capture Rust monsters and lead them into conflict as if they were war dogs?
    "Why are all these wooden cages laying around?" The fighter asked.
    "I don't know, but I think I see something moving down that corridor to our left, probly just more stupid Kobolds.."

    1. I hadn't thought about that but my god that's glorious!

  2. Best AC in the game still doesn't protect against Area Effect spells, grappling, drowning, smoke inhalation, quicksand or falls from great heights.