Many thanks to my good friend Nathaniel who has written up a wonderful guest post in my temporary absence. Enjoy! ~Storyteller
[Initiating overly verbose guest post in 3… 2… 1…]
It was to be a beautiful start to the campaign. There was no exposition, not even so much as character introductions; there were just three words: “Roll for initiative.”
My players had recently returned from summer break; all of them either had new characters, or else they had characters who had advanced to level 15 in the five years that had passed between the previous campaign and the current one. I wanted to kick things off with a hefty challenge.
I had what I thought to be a clever plan: toss my players into a battle with a particularly tough and nasty hydra (twelve heads, breath weapons, lots of hurt) before they had a chance to determine each other’s strengths, weaknesses, and roles in battle.
Once the battle was over, they would discover that they were actually watching a play of people pretending to be them, celebrating (though inaccurately) their historic deeds from the previous campaign, and that the hydra battle was really a performance on stage and was strictly for dramatic effect.
The details are a little fuzzy, perhaps because I blocked them out of my memory, but I’m fairly certain that my hydra never got a chance to attack before going down.
I was devastated. It was supposed to be a balanced battle, and there were the heads… so many heads… Hydra, how could you let me down???
Sometimes battles are intended to be too easy or too hard for players to handle, but when a battle is not of the difficulty you were anticipating, it can spoil the fun and lead to enormous disappointment and/or frustration. Unfortunately, I’ve had my fair share of battles that didn’t end up how I planned them. Fortunately, I’ve learned many things from those experiences.
Submitted for the approval of the Midnight Society, I dedicate this post to exploring what you can do before and during a battle to ensure that it ends up being the challenge it’s supposed to be. These suggestions assume that you’re playing regular old 3.5, but most of them should hopefully be applicable to some extent beyond 3.5.
Wait… I have to come up with the plan?
The two greatest mistakes I made with the hydra battle were: (1) I didn’t fully understand how to effectively use a hydra, and (2) I was unprepared for how powerful level 15 characters are.
My D&D experience at that point was pretty limited: long story short, I played for about a month under 3.0 rules and then was the DM for the next several months using 3.5 rules, and that was it.
It took me a while to get comfortable with level 15 characters, and by the end of the quest I had figured out some things that might have helped that hydra battle, as well as numerous other battles, to be a balanced challenge for my players:
Know the level: If you’re launching a new campaign, set the starting level as one you’re familiar with, whether through DMing or through playing (preferably both).
If you only have experience with very low-level campaigns and are sick of never getting past level 3, don’t just start a new campaign at level 16; start somewhere close to what you’re used to and gradually work your way up from there.
Think of it this way: if you had only ever seen Star Wars: Episode I, skipping Episode II and watching Episode III would make almost enough sense for you to get away with it, but watching Episode I followed by Empire Strikes Back would be totally nonsensical.
Slowly progressing up from levels you’re familiar with (or progressing down, if you’re one of those strange folk who’s never played a character lower than level 8) gives you the opportunity to gradually get a feel for new feats, spells, etc. by having them slowly trickle into your campaign instead of needing to suddenly deal with new magic items, three attacks per round, obscenely high skill checks, etc. all at the same time.
Know the PCs: Ask for your characters’ backstories. Read your players’ character sheets. Look at HP, AC, saves, skills, feats, class features, equipment… you don’t need to memorize everything, but you should be familiar enough with them to know the characters' strengths and weaknesses. Know the basics about each race and class represented in your campaign.
I allowed a shadowdancer to join in the middle of one of my campaigns before I had much of a chance to review what a shadowdancer can do, and my ignorance of his character put me and my monsters at his mercy. Knowing the PCs puts them at your mercy (as it should be): in the same campaign, the players were strong in every department except for long-range offense, so any time I wanted to guarantee a tough battle, I threw in some enemies that attacked from a distance and were difficult to reach for melee combat.
At the very least, know your PCs well enough so that you aren’t surprised when the villain around which your entire campaign revolves, Lord Karthlor the Terrifying, Destroyer of Worlds, is suddenly polymorphed into a banana.
Know the enemies: Check challenge ratings and encounter levels. Understand everything your monsters and NPCs are capable of; don’t gloss over that stat block! Make sure your attack bonuses and save DCs are high enough to present a challenge to the party. Consider damage reduction, flight capabilities, AC, etc. and think about whether or not the party can overcome them. Anticipate any tactics or dirty tricks the party might try.
Look over the stats before the session or before the battle to ensure that nothing gets forgotten (I’m looking at you, fast healing!). If necessary, make notes to yourself about tactics and special abilities; concise and often incoherent notes such as “Ranger - bad!” and “Use electricity!” and “DODGE!!!” are effective and also double as suggestions for buying a new vehicle.
Know your place: Choose the right location for your battle, and know all of the specific terrain rules and hazards that go along with it, plus the weather conditions. An open road in broad daylight with some suspicious-looking bushes is a perfectly acceptable location for a battle between a few kobolds and a party of first-level yahoos, but it’s hardly ideal for a battle between epic-level heroes and the stealth-reliant assassins that have been following them.
On the other hand, having those assassins surprise the epic-level heroes at midnight amongst boulders and large piles of rubble next to a river of lava at the base of an active volcano is perfectly acceptable, but bear in mind that pitting yahoos vs. kobolds in such a place will not likely end well for your players or for your flammable kobolds.
Make sure you know whether the environment will help or hinder those involved in the battle, and to what extent; a fight between a party and their evil clones should theoretically be even on a level playing field, but put the bad guys on a tiny raft approaching the good guys on the shore or put the good guys at the bottom of a tiny well with the bad guys looking down at them (and probably spitting on them), and the dynamic of the battle changes and the difficulty shifts.
Status report: Consider the party’s condition at the beginning of the battle. Will this battle be the first one of the day when everybody’s rested and at full health, or will it be the last of a long string of battles when the players are worn down and have no more spells left?
Assuming that the battles are of about average difficulty, lower-level characters can handle very few battles before needing to rest, mid-level characters can handle a good number of battles before needing to rest, and higher-level characters can almost go on indefinitely thanks to special abilities and lots of items. Think about the shape the party will be in before and after each battle to help you gauge whether or not you should adjust the difficulty.
Put it all together: So, to sum up this section, consider how the PCs, enemies, location, and previous and future fighting will all interact in a battle. Could fully-rested PCs defeat the enemies in an empty, open field? (If they are facing a pair of dire sperm whales, my guess would be “yes.”)
What if they’re injured and running out of spells? Will the location give an advantage or disadvantage to anyone involved in the battle? (And, by extension, does the location make it possible or impossible for one side to defeat the other when it wouldn’t be that way otherwise?) How long could the PCs and enemies survive in the chosen location if they were exploring there without fighting anything—that is, is the location suitable for a long battle, and is it suitable for a battle at all?
Proper preparation goes a long way in making a battle the challenge you want it to be, and a battle that is thoughtfully crafted is almost always more satisfying and memorable than a battle against a random critter from the Monster Manual thrown at the party in a hurry. Unless the party demands a tavern fight and you have the Tarrasque come in to eat the tavern.
Perhaps we made a tactical mistake…
So you’ve memorized everybody’s character sheet. You can recite the stats for every monster in the Monster Manual. You know every square inch of the battleground for the fight to come. You’re ready. This is going to be the most awesome battle ever. The poet Homer would come back from the dead just to write an epic about it.
Yet, planning is only the recipe… you still need to bake the cake. And if the cake falls apart and burns up as it bakes, not even Homer Simpson will write an epic about it. But, if it melts in the rain, Donna Summer might sing about it.
…But I digress.
I threw a campaign where a city was under siege, and a few arrow demons (four arms, two big longbows, lots of hurt) had taken up sniping positions in the buildings surrounding a small city square. The party arrived on the scene, spotted one of the demons, shot at it once or twice, missed, and assumed it was just an illusion or something of that nature when it didn’t shoot back; they proceeded without too much caution into the center of the square.
The remainder of this story involves a dead vigilante who never got to roll for initiative, panic, disorganized execution of a nonexistent plan to kill the demons, and me remembering halfway through that the demons had damage reduction. If the survivors’ HPs were added together, the total would be roughly equal with the number of players. Oof.
What happened there? Aside from forgetting about the demons’ damage reduction (because I failed to write a note to myself saying “DR DEMON!!!”) everything I did went exactly as planned. It was the right challenge rating for the group, but there were the arms… so many arms… and the amount of damage I could dish out with multiple bows in an ambush was staggering, especially when all the arrows were directed at the one person that had gone ahead just a little too far.
I wasn’t expecting anybody to die before the battle started, and I really expected them to go into each building together and systematically wipe out the demons rather than split up and have one or two people mucking about in the square where all the demons could shoot at them.
I even anticipated that the battle might be a bit too difficult and worked in the fact that these demons were all mercenaries, and a few of them could have been convinced to leave or fight for the good guys for enough money or with a good Diplomacy check… if anybody would have rolled higher than a 7 on a Sense Motive check.
Shame on me, I underestimated the power of the arrow demons and expected my players to show a little more common sense. Perhaps we’re all equally to blame for the fiasco that was this massac—er… battle. Maybe it was just bad luck; if the person who initially shot at the one demon had hit the target and figured out the demon wasn’t an illusion, or if the players would have rolled higher on their Sense Motive checks, things might have turned out better for them.
Regardless of the causes, when a battle falls apart because of an unexpectedly high difficulty, steps need to be taken to get things back on track, both for the enjoyment of the players and for the success of the quest… provided that you’re interested in seeing them succeed at all and aren’t constantly trying your darndest to kill them off. Drew.
In the event that you’d prefer not to annihilate or nearly decimate your players’ party, there are some steps you can take during a battle if you see things starting to go sour:
Retreat: If the situation permits, remind the players that they can run away. During one quest I ran that I had reused from the previous year, the party encountered some girallons (four arms, rending, lots of hurt… hm… I’m seeing a pattern…) in the woods.
The quest was originally written for a group of six people who found the girallons to be a solid challenge, but the current party only consisted of five people; I figured that the extra XP they would gain by not having a sixth member would help to make up for their reduced number, but apparently that wasn’t the case.
The party’s barbarian pulled off a phenomenal critical hit against the first girallon and felled it, leading everyone to believe that these were big, fuzzy bags of easy XP they were fighting. Oh, how wrong they were.
One person after another was ripped apart, and the cleric ended up running in and out of the fray to drag bodies away and do some healing. Astoundingly, they managed to survive and moved on to nearly get slaughtered by minotaurs at a later date under similar circumstances, but there’s a lesson in here somewhere about the value of retreating from time to time.
Drop clues: If your players are finding the battle to be too difficult because they are doing something futile without realizing it, it’s OK to let them know. Dropping a hint like, “You’ve been slashing away with that sword and the monster doesn’t even have a scratch on it,” suggests to the player that the monster has damage reduction of some kind instead of a huge HP total like the player might mistakenly believe. You might have your players make a Wisdom roll to realize a better battle strategy if it’s obvious that they really don’t understand what to do.
Remember that it’s technically the characters who are fighting, not the players, so there’s always the chance that the character will pick up on something that the player does not.
Hold back: If the enemies have any attacks or abilities of any kind that haven’t yet come into play, ignore them. Don’t rend, swallow whole, constrict, trip, etc.
Move around so you can’t use your full attack. Rely on spells and abilities with low save DCs. Don’t try to flank anyone; only attack the characters with the most HP or highest saves.
Line up or cluster together to become easier targets for spellcasters; don’t use cover; provoke attacks of opportunity, perhaps by leaving one target to pursue another; charge whenever possible for the -2 to AC if the +2 to attack isn’t going to make a difference (that is, if your attack bonus is already through the roof); etc.
Doing all of these at once will make it obvious that you’re not trying, but using a few of them can make a big difference for the players.
The fewer, the merrier: If there are any enemies who haven’t yet joined the battle but are going to join in soon, forget about them; unless they’re somehow a threat to the enemies who are already engaging the party, they’ll only cause more trouble.
The more, the merrier: Add things that will work in the players’ favor:
“Hey, look! That bugbear just kicked over a mound of fire ants we didn’t notice!”
“Hey, look! There are two potions of Cure Light Wounds on this dead guard (instead of the none you had planned)!”
“Hey, look! It’s a purple worm! Wow, our whole party just got swallowed whole and we’re all going to die! Double wow! There’s another fighter in here who probably got eaten just before we did and will probably help us to fight our way out!”
“Hey, look! There’s a band of elves marching over the ridge! Maybe they can reattach Sir Malroc’s head and vital organs!”
The more plausible the addition is (for example, if you had heard rumors about a wandering band of elf surgeons who specialize in head and vital organ reattachment), the less your players will feel like you’re getting soft on them.
Fudge the numbers: Pretend that dragon started out with fewer hit points than you gave her. Pretend that the brutal critical hit you just confirmed was actually just a regular hit. Change the damage you’re about to give to a number that’ll knock a player to -9 instead of -14.
If fudging individual rolls rubs you the wrong way, consider applying a -2 penalty to everything your bad guys do, and maybe write it off as sloppiness caused by overconfidence from wiping the floor so far with the good guys.
Alternatives to death: This can be tricky to pull off, especially on the fly, but certain enemies might be willing to negotiate with the party: “We’ll let you live if you hand over all your gold,” or, “Scrag want goat. Bring Scrag goat and he not eat you.” Heck, maybe even one of the enemies might pipe up and just talk through the conflict, depending on how it started.
Some enemies might demand that the party surrender and be thrown into some musty prison somewhere, be made into slaves, or be brought elsewhere for a proper execution, thus keeping them alive long enough to find a way out of their new predicament, perhaps in a battle that’s more evenly balanced.
Even with animals and monsters who can’t talk and only seem to want the party dead, you might be able to develop a peaceful way out, like removing the thorn from the lion’s paw.
Even if there is no way to avoid death as a final outcome and the entire party is slain, you might have an evil cleric revive them and command them to do his bidding as his servants, or you might send them on a quest in the afterlife to gain enough favor with the gods to be restored to life. This isn’t Final Fantasy; losing a battle doesn’t necessarily mean it’s game over.
Bottom line: No matter what you do, try to make it plausible, and give your players as much of a chance as possible to fix the situation before you start interfering. Add things to the battle that could possibly have been there the whole time; take things away from the battle that the players never realized were there; and give your monsters and NPCs a logical reason for the actions they take.
Create the illusion that you had planned it all along, and an atrociously failed battle saved only by the grace of the DM can be transformed into a heart-pounding but successful close call.
That’s it? I was just getting started!
In my experience, battles that are too hard are easy to fix. Battles that are too easy, however, are hard to fix. I ran a campaign where the characters became epic along the way, and even before they made the transition to epic it was difficult to create battles that were anywhere near being challenging enough. Everyone had become so powerful that only the most complex enemies and the most sophisticated battle strategies could challenge them.
Also, the list of monsters with an appropriate CR for those characters is shorter than a legless gnome, so I ended up doing a hefty amount of NPC creation.
Due to time constraints, I basically had to ignore almost all of the advice I gave about proper battle preparation, and most of my battles suffered for it. They were almost always too easy; most battles were over quickly, and I often had trouble threatening the party at all. I felt powerless to do anything about it without putting in the kind of extra planning that requires failing out of school or switching from sleep to caffeine delivered intravenously.
I ended up falling back on the following tricks to increase the challenge of my battles after they had started:
Threat assessment: Is your battle too easy because you can’t hit one player’s AC? Is your battle too easy because everyone keeps succeeding on their Will saves against your enchantments?
If there’s anything obvious that is allowing the players to fare so well, start targeting only the players you can harm, and/or take away whatever it is that’s causing your players to kick your butt. Disarm the dude with the vorpal sword. Shine some light on the area so that blasted rogue can’t sneak attack from the shadows. If you find that a player is using the same tactic in every battle to take your monsters down, use that tactic against him or her, or keep that tactic from being effective.
One player in my epic-level campaign dual-wielded swords with Wounding, and thanks to Haste, had something like 17,000 attacks per round. Give or take. Having all of my bad guys die of Constitution loss after about three rounds is bad enough, but constantly recalculating HP and Fortitude saves was truly vexing.
My solution was to start introducing enemies with an immunity to ability score damage, and also to start striking back with characters with Wounding weapons of their own. *WHAM!* A dire flail to the face! *WHAM!* Look, your face is bleeding! *WHAM!* Look, I’m wounding you! *WHAM!*
And, if that doesn’t work, just house-rule the problem out of existence. (“Sorry, man, each sword can only do 1 Constitution damage per round, even though you have 17,000 attacks. My villains are not anime characters and do not contain 12 gallons of blood for you to drain them of. Tough noogies.”)
Call in reinforcements: If one monster isn’t strong enough, have another one join the fray. There might be an endless supply of kobolds behind those suspicious-looking bushes, so keep them coming until there are enough to make your players sweat. If that isn’t an option, pick any monster or any stock NPC that might fit the situation, regardless of CR, and add as many as you think is reasonable.
If Xandor Soulbane, leader of the Army of Hextor, is totally surrounded by the good guys and is taking a beating, send in a few soldiers to distract the party. They might not pose much of a threat, but they cost you nothing to add and can draw one or two characters away long enough for Xandor to make an escape or to have more of a chance to dish out some heavy-duty damage before he falls.
Perhaps the greatest stroke of spontaneous genius I ever had was during a final battle where the evil NPCs were putting up a great fight, but didn’t have enough hit points to last for more than a few rounds. I had a flesh golem come crashing through the wall, as if the villains had been impatiently expecting him, and I also threw in two invisible lackeys who each fed a potion of Cure Moderate Wounds to the main villain every round, baffling the players about how he could “drink air and gain hit points.” I can’t speak for anyone else, but I love how the battle turned out.
If all else fails, make up a monster on the spot and arbitrarily choose its HP, AC, attack bonus, damage potential, and one or two special qualities like spell resistance or an immunity to fire; mutant skeletons and funny-colored oozes can fit in almost anywhere for this purpose.
Fudge the numbers: Basically, do the opposite of everything I suggested for when a battle is too hard:
Pretend the dragon had the maximum possible amount of hit points when starting the battle. Automatically confirm any possible criticals. Add +2 to everything the enemies do. Re-roll any 1s on your damage dice. Forget the 1d4-turn wait for breath weapons; make it 1 turn. Increase damage reduction, elemental resistance, or spell resistance if they haven’t come into play yet.
The element of surprise: Suddenly reveal that the villains tied up a character’s loved one and threw her into the lake behind them. Have the enemies start to burn down the town or try to collapse the tunnel you’re in. Have an enemy pull out an item that suddenly teleports everybody to a random location on the battlefield. Have an enemy keep whispering over his shoulder and trick your players into believing that there’s another monster in hiding for them to go after.
Along the same lines of calling in reinforcements, have an ethereal filcher pop into the middle of the battle and steal the players’ healing potions. Allow a poisonous insect to land on a player’s neck undetected and bite him or her for a high-DC Fortitude save. When a monster dies, have it explode. That is, explode like a bomb, not explode like the pig-lizard in Galaxy Quest; the biggest challenge to come out of that would be getting the stains out of your clothes.
Things that come completely out of left field, when used sparingly and reasonably, can panic, confuse, and distract players enough to squeeze more of a challenge out of a battle than there really should be. Just look at how much chaos I caused by having that arrow demon sniper unexpectedly wait for the party to enter the square before retaliating.
Desperation attacks: Some video games feature enemies who use “desperation attacks” once they take a certain amount of damage, attacks that are more powerful than or very different from the attacks they’ve been using; that concept can be applied to enemies in D&D as well.
Perhaps the monster being fought is wearing a small magical item that no one noticed that casts Mage Armor on the wearer or grants the wearer an extra attack after they receive enough damage; to discourage the player from wearing it after defeating the monster, perhaps the item only works on a specific creature type or crumbles into dust after being used, etc. Players can generally spot that this is also a desperation attack for the DM, though, so be careful if you use this.
Bottom line: Add stuff if it’s plausible, but be ready to explain to your players why they are not allowed to explode when they die. Surprise, panic, distract, and confuse your players. If you pull it off properly, you might just convince your players that your lame-o excuse for a battle was really a clever ploy to catch them off-guard… if your Bluff check is high enough.
Don’t Overdo It
If you have the time and energy to plan thoroughly in advance, if you or your players are dissatisfied with the level of difficulty of a battle, or even if you want to draw out or cut short a battle for some reason, consider these suggestions. However, don’t forget that players sometimes enjoy a battle that’s too easy or two hard, whether you planned it that way or not.
Just don’t go crazy with trying to salvage every battle that doesn’t go as planned; if your players are sharp, they might be able to tell you’re making stuff up when they start seeing elves who reattach heads and vital organs on every hilltop and street corner.
4 hours ago