Before I get too far into anything, there's a fantastic post over at Ravyn's blog Exchange of Realities. It doesn't have to do with the topic of this post but I just wanted to send a link her way because she's written up some very neat advice about how you can show a character's "skill" without them actually using it. I think her points can easily be applied to the game table and utilized as ways for you to show your character's adeptness at certain skills without actually rolling a die.
Making a thief acrobat? Look up some climbing terms or tumbling techniques! Throw the lingo in game! Talk to your DM about famous acrobats in your game world that you can bring up in conversation with fellow tumblers. This is a great way to expand upon your character and to bring something extra to the game table.
Now then, on to the topic at hand!
There has been a lot of buzz on the interwebs lately about parties being too powerful for their own good, feeling “safe”, and what to do about it from a DM standpoint. Tycho over at Penny Arcade made his point on the topic (not to mention a hilarious comic), while Janna also spoke on the matter over at Dungeon Mastering.
Flashman85 from Exfanding Your Horizons made a guest post here a while back on balancing battles to the party - a great guide for how to plan battles out appropriately for your party’s power level, but following an event with my most recent gaming group, I thought I’d toss my hat in the ring as well on the topic.
In the most recent campaign I ran, I had a group that was so well-crafted with characters built to exploit every strength of their individual classes that I continually found that the battles I threw at them were not challenging - and in many cases, not even the slightest bit scary for them. 95% of the battles were laughable, if not already over before the monsters got to take their first actions (poor flatfooted fools).
So, I decided I wanted to challenge them and give them battles that would make them think, plan, and at least worry about the livelihood of their characters. I photocopied all of their character sheets for my records, made notes of their equipped items, and got updated spell lists from each of the casters.
One of the next battles they fought was against a flying golem. The party was ill-equipped beyond belief to fight flying creatures, and the immunity to magic was an even further crimp in their style. One by one, the golem launched his arrows and carved up the party fairly effectively. After the battle finally ended I looked around the table and what did I see?
No one was having fun.
I have seen many upset gamers in my time, and I've learned that there is a distinct difference between someone being upset about losing and someone who just isn't having fun at the table. All six of them were fitting very uncomfortably into the latter category.
Me: "You guys ok?"
Them: "That battle sucked."
Me: "Well, not every battle can be easy. Challenging is good right? It made you think!"
Here's the kicker.
Them: "There's a difference between a battle being challenging and a battle being set up in such a way that we simply can't do anything to the monster. Four of us couldn't do anything in that fight."
Ouch. I had to give it to them, I'd screwed up. In my attempts to challenge them, I put the party in a situation where they couldn't function. Since the challenge of the battle was purely with the monster they faced - those who couldn't do anything to affect the creature pretty much sat the battle out.
So... how to make a battle challenging in a way powerhouse characters will enjoy?
1. Quantity, Not Quality (well, a little quality)
My first suggestion here has to echo the great point that Janna made over at Dungeon Mastering. Sometimes, number can be more effective then you realize. Given, too many of the same old monster can bog down a battle and make it boring, but sending waves of low-powered enemies at your PC's not only can give them the chance to show up their big muscles (hey goblin, do you have your tickets? TO THE GUN SHOW?!) but it can actually prove a challenge over time.
Rather then do this in one giant simultaneous assault, long multi-staged battles without a chance to rest and refuel can work just as well. Battles with many stages will also give PC's a big sense of accomplishment when they finally do end, so this type of encounter is one I highly suggest.
2. Everyone Has A Job To Do
The main mistake I made in the flying golem battle was that it was the only challenge. There wasn't anything the spellcasters could do to help their combat-based comrades. Given, a large part of this issue was on the fault of the very specialized way my players had designed their characters, since none of them had prepared defensive or buff-based spells, but as the DM my job was to make sure they had fun. I failed. Yeah, I really failed.
So you don't make the same mistake, when you're going for a challenging battle, make there be problems to solve in addition to the nasty opponents. A puzzle boss that the PC's must figure out, a riddle to solve, or a recently triggered trap to deal with that's swiftly filling the room with electrically charged water for example.
This way, your party can essentially separate into teams - all facing the same dangers and "battle" together, though not all of them have to fight. This encourages teamwork, rather then a stadium game where half of the party sits in the bleachers to watch.
3. Your Minions Have Brains!
This is the solution I finally used with the party mentioned above and it really added to the whole campaign. Only truly usable in a long-running adventure, this technique involves the PC's enemies slowly getting smarter.
Understandably, the BBEG will eventually catch on to the fact that some meddlesome kids are trying to thwart his plan. Therefore, it makes sense that he would send spies to watch them (maybe join them for a time), encourage his minions to flee back and report if they seem to be outmatched, and - if pushed to anger - utilize tools such as scrying mirrors and crystal balls to learn their tactics and weaknesses.
Using this method to make battles more challenging allows you to send the same monsters against your PC's that you'd been planning on... just, better prepared.
If your players favor cleave attacks or area spells, the minions begin training in earnest to keep exactly thirty feet apart from each other. Swashbuckler PC's enjoy disarming everything wielded against them? Perhaps the minions start investing in locked gauntlets.
Your minions shouldn't take any overly excessive methods to destroy your PC's, like buying expensive magical items, but intelligently prepared spells and the purchase of some basic resistance potions matching the weapons of choice chosen by your PC's will keep them on their toes. (And of course, throwing in the occasional mercenary or random-encounter monster who has no idea what's going on and allows the PC's to do what they do best never hurts! In fact, I highly suggest it.)
The best part of this increase in challenge is the fact that your parents will LOVE IT! As long as you let them know all this extra effort is all due to them, it will be a healthy boost to their egos. Plus, it encourages them to come up with new strategies, and puts even the most specialized and maximized characters in a position where they have to be creative in order to succeed.
The key to this tactic's success is to have it leak, at least eventually, to the players that their characters are being watched and that NPC's are specifically being trained to fight them. Just making your monsters suddenly know all their tricks with no explanation will upset the PC's.
Having a list of their names and a sentence about their tactics on a note they find as treasure is a good way to solve this problem. Or a simple "It's those adventurers! Spread out! We need three on the barbarian!" warcry will set the record straight and may even lead to a fun torture session where the PC's find out which of their "friendly NPC companions" leaked the infomation to the BBEG three sessions ago. *Insert evil double-crossing laughter here*
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4 hours ago