Thursday, March 28, 2013

Re-cap: When Things go Really Right

What could possibly go wrong?

Warning to my players! This post contains spoilers! Not about the story, but about my techniques for crafting encounters and heightening engagement. If you don't want to be overanalyzing my future motives, approach with caution.

Monday night's game was one of the best sessions I've run in a long time, and I've been mulling over what went right since the dice stopped rolling that evening. The session focused on a very complex situation involving a ton of moving parts, which had plenty of opportunity to fly off the rails or get seriously bogged down. GM's often spend a great deal of time navel-gazin', soul searchin' and introspectin' when they have a problem at the game table, but I feel like when things go right, we often follow up with a "that was awesome!" without looking at the "why" in the same way.

Here's a brief summary of what the session was all about. The party had just arrived at a massive chamber deep within a Hobgoblin mining operation. The terrain was complex, with lots of elevation changes and moving parts. There were crowds of NPCs, including a mini-boss (the hobgoblin leader) and a big bad end guy (the dwarven cultist they have been chasing for some time). In all, there were well over 20 characters involved in the encounter, not including the PCs. The PCs had devised a complex plan that involved splitting the party and sending in just the sneaky characters to plant charges around the room in order to collapse it in on itself. The rest would wait in reserve in the event something went wrong.

This is a session fraught with peril for GM and player alike.

  • The large number of NPCs could slow any combat rotations to a crawl.
  • The split party threatened to leave half of the players completely out of the action for the night.
  • The complex terrain could become confusing if not represented adequately.
  • The players' cunning plan could have bypassed a potentially climactic encounter in 5 minutes of play if everything went according to plan.
  • The players' cunning plan could leave them accusing the GM of railroading if everything went wrong.

Here are the conscious (and subconscious) steps I took to mitigate the risks posed by these various pitfalls and why I think things turned out as well as they did.

I knew my tools and kept my notes streamlined.

I have been running my games from my Microsoft Surface RT for several sessions now and have just about worked out the kinks needed to operate it smoothly. Because things were going to be so complex, I limited my notes on hand to the DCs for anticipated skill checks (planting explosives, dealing with falling or crushing damage, etc.) and mini stat blocks for the important NPCs. This meant that I had everything I would need to reference in one spot without a bunch of clutter obscuring my vision.

Interesting terrain but clearly defined

I went overboard on the set. I'll admit it. Most GM's, myself included cannot build something so complex for every game, nor should you. However, I knew that, while my players' plan would allow them to bypass the need for a set if everything went right, if something went wrong, I wouldn't want to have to stop everything and draw things out on the battle mat. Also, because I was dealing with a room with many levels, interior walls and other line of sight/effect blockers, I felt like it really warranted a 3D representation in order to avoid confusion. "Wait, does that cliff go all the way to the ceiling?" Taking the time to have the set ready in advance allowed me to utilize it even before the players entered combat.

Let the players have their fun, but don't make it too easy

My players came up with a brilliant scheme involving some very high disguise checks and invisibility. If everything went according to plan, they would be able to get in, plant their explosives and get out without any actual challenge. Fortunately, I stuck a couple twists in to make even a non-combat version of the encounter worthwhile.

First, I had three towers with hoses that hobgoblin guards used to tamp down the blighted dust stirred up by their activities. I set up a mechanic whereby I would roll a d8 each round to determine which direction they were spraying the hoses. Any invisible character caught in the spray would have to save to avoid it. This had the added effect of complicating the invisible, flying players' route.

I also planted a former PC who had been kidnapped by the cultists sometime back as a raving NPC slave near one of the points where I knew they would want to place a charge. No reason that a blighted looney wouldn't be seeing ghosts, or invisible characters. This added a bonus objective to the encounter that the players didn't know about and forced them to rethink their priorities on the fly.

The players also added in their own curveball when they went through their usual procedure of hasting everyone before the potentially dangerous encounter. For the two PCs disguised as (assumedly) un-hasted hobgoblin guards, trying to act un-hasted made their bluff attempts a bit more challenging.

In general, my approach was to let the players' plan progress with legitimate complications thrown in, rather than shut things down pre-emptively by DM fiat. I could, for example, have done something like add guards with permanent True Seeing spells deployed. I didn't. However, once things started to get complicated and the guards got suspicious, you can be damn sure that True Seeing was the first thing they cast!

Edition mashing for fun and profit

To be believable as the busy hub of a slave mining operation, this encounter needed a lot of activity in the room. Most GM recommendations tell you to limit stat blocks to 3 or 4 different types of character and no more than 12 individuals controlled by the GM. Anymore than that and a game is bound to bog down. It will turn into the GM resolving rolls for an hour while the players watch and wait to play for 10 minutes before repeating the cycle.

We play 3.5 edition D&D, and we really like it. However, I think that 4e has a number of valuable things to offer, one of them being minions. A minion is an enemy that is powerful enough to threaten the heroes, but which automatically dies after the first hit. Because I knew I was going to have a lot of enemies in this fight, I decided to borrow that basic 1 hit kill minion mechanic from 4e and apply it to this 3.5e encounter. It worked brilliantly. My players felt legitimately threatened by the number of enemies in the room. The minions presented a true danger because they could potentially discover the sneaky heroes at the beginning, and could hit and damage them once fighting started, but they dropped like flies when attacked. I'm pretty sure my players felt like Rambo dropping a base full of commies once hostilities got into full swing.

Death pogs everywhere!

Close, but no Cigar

My players have been on the trail of a particular big bad end guy for some time now, but had yet to encounter him directly. I decided to insert him into the opening of this scene, viewed from across the room, going about his business. As the players began their infiltration, he began his exit. When things went south, however, he paused just long enough to absorb a really powerful attack from the heroes' cleric before returning fire once with an equally devastating attack. He then turned and stalked from the room, ordering the mini-boss and his minions to "deal with the intruders." Hearing one of my players exclaim, "Dangit! We just can't kill that guy!" was perhaps one of the most organically satisfying moments I have experienced as a GM. In that moment, I knew they were invested in the quest and that I had done a villain up right.

I used a bit of douchebag dating psychology in the character's reveal to help encourage this reaction. The movie, The Tao of Steve presents three rules for gaining the interest of a woman. 1.) be desireless 2.) be excellent 3.) be gone. In the context of the movie, if a guy acts like he doesn't care about a girl off the bat, then does something impressive and worthy of love, and then disappears so it can sink in to her subconscious, it will cause her to like him more. Well, I took these rules and applied them to the appearance of a badguy. I presented a villain on his way out of the room (desireless) who pauses to withstand a magical blast from a PC, only to return fire with equal fury (be excellent). Then, rather than sticking around for the fight, he leaves his minions with instructions to deal with the nuisance (be gone). The result? My players loathing and desire to take out this baddie once and for all became that much more intense.

Keep things moving

Let us pause to recognize the irony of this statement near the end of such a long post... 
Because my players chose to split the party, I knew I needed to either wrap up the encounter quickly, or get the rest of the players back into the game. I did not want half the group twiddling their thumbs all night. Having a time-sensitive encounter helped me move things along. The spells that kept the players hidden had a limited duration, and once they set the first timed charge, they had just 10 rounds to get out of the room. I did my best to drive the infiltration group forward, not worrying about the enemies unless they were interacting directly with the PCs. When the opportunity presented itself, I made sure to head upstairs to the other group to give them the opportunity to intervene in the situation. I wanted to keep them in the loop as much as possible. Once things went south and they did intervene, I again only focused on those enemies who were directly interacting with the PCs. The rest could easily be assumed to be dealing with frightened or unruly slaves. As such, a fight with 20 enemies flowed more like a fight with 7 or 8... at least from my point of view.

Get out!

Finally, I made sure this encounter had an out. (Charges are planted, the room's gonna blow!) with a couple alternate outs that will remain secret. One of the things that can bog down an encounter faster than anything else is a determination to fight to the last. While this makes sense under certain circumstances, most enemies tend to disengage once they realize they are outmatched. Because the players had their own out (see above) it made it much easier to bring the fight to a close without having to deal with every last enemy. The heroes went about their business, killed those who got in their way and got the heck out.

Monday's game session was one of the funnest that I have run in a long time. As a GM, who spends a lot of time analyzing ways to fix the stuff that goes wrong, it is a refreshing change to take the time to really examine what went right and to appreciate a game well done. If you run a game yourself, I suggest you do the same next time something amazing happens. It really feels good.


  1. That's an amazing setup, and I may adopt the minion idea for parts of my game.

    One technique I used during my gaming session this week for a larger group of enemies (in this case, 8 goblins) was to give "sets" of goblins initiative instead of rolling it for all 8 goblins and attempting to keep things moving. I separated them into three groups based on distance from the PCs at the start of the encounter, then then rolled init for each group.

    It worked really well, and kept things moving at a good pace.

  2. Yeah, I typically group my initiative counts. I may do an individual roll for the main bad guy, but groups of support baddies almost always get clumped together. In this fight, I had the main hobgoblin, the hob shamans and the hob slavers/guards as my three enemy initiative counts.

    Another trick that I haven't used in a while that works really well for big groups is something I call the rule of 5. It's great for simplifying the mental math of calculating HP if you need to have a lot of tougher enemies, and/or npc v npc violence.


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