Wednesday, February 21, 2018

Combat Expansion

Not your ordinary, every day duel
I've been watching a lot of Dice, Camera, Action lately. It goes without saying that it's a great show - the players are amazing and the DM is Chris Perkins, a masterful storyteller (oh and he also writes the official D&D modules).

One thing I noticed is that Chris tends to run these long, expansive combats that cover large amounts of terrain, feature dozens of combatants (not all of them enemies of the players), and take a long time to play through.

Though I prefer shorter combats (or at least more efficient ones), I do like the "mass combat" feeling for epic battles and uncertain struggles. But this involves making small adjustments on the fly to guide the combat to an appropriate difficulty. If you know the players still have to defeat the Dragon King, they shouldn't be totally exhausted after fighting a horde of minions.

So, let's talk about ways to make combat harder or easier in the middle of a combat!

Pump It Up: Making Combat Harder

In the middle of a combat, you find that your puny little monsters are falling left and right. That's no good - this is their only combat today, and hey, these cultists are supposed to be dangerous! Time to give your monsters an upgrade.

DRAGON. D-R-A-G-ow! Stop that!
The easiest way to make a combat harder is to add more hit points to the monster side. More hit points means the monsters are alive longer, which means they get those extra attacks in on the players. Here's some easy ways to do this:
  1. Have a monster drink a healing potion or use healing magic. The players do it, why shouldn't you?
    • Remember that drinking healing potions is an action. For quicker healing, try Healing Word.
    • A basic healing potion will only keep a monster alive through one more attack. Try Greater or Superior potions!
    • If you use this method, make sure to include the potions as loot after the combat.
  2. Have some new monsters join the fray! It's still more hit points, just in new bodies!
    • If you can include different kinds of monsters, you could add minions or masters of the original combatants to change to enemy's tactical dynamic
  3. Have a bigger, beefier version of a monster join the combat. This is a time-honored fantasy tradition.
    • Monsters in the Manual usually use their average hit points. Just bump that up to the maximum!
    • Orcs normally have 15 (2d8+6) hit points. But the big beefy boy that just rolled in has the full 22!
    • Make sure you don't use this on a monster you've already described. The players will feel the difference in HP and need to have some way for it to make sense in-world.
  4. Are these cultists of a death god? Servants of the Raven Queen? Heralds of an Angel? Well, then they don't just die! Get some resurrection magic going and bring them back for round two!
    • The basic spell for this is Revivify. It's only 3rd level, so most evil clerics should have it prepared.

If you can't easily add hit points, then there are ways to subtract hit points from the players to get a similar effect. This is a little trickier to do, since a lot of these methods will feel unfair to the players.

Here's a simple rule to follow: If you're adding something to the world to hurt the players, it's unfair. If you're using something that's already in the world to hurt the players, it's fair game!

With that in mind, here's some ways to bring the pain.
  1. Give a monster a magic sword or wand
    • Again, try to pick a monster that hasn't had a chance to do much yet, so them using the item feels justified.
    • Or, make the monster seem like they are using this item out of desperation!
    • If you use this method, make sure to include the magic item as loot after the combat!
  2. Trigger a trap or terrain effect that damages the players
    • This must have been previously established in the combat setting. Otherwise, your players will assume you're just trying to kill them, instead of challenge them.
    • Example: Random rocks falling from the ceiling is bad. A goblin pushing a stone pillar onto the players? Perfectly fine.
    • You can make this even more fair if some monsters are affected as well
  3. Trigger a terrain effect that divides the players
    • Players rely on combat roles to work as a party
    • Once the wizard is facing enemies without a fighter's protection, things get more complicated
    • Think about the Darth Maul fight in Star Wars: The Phantom Menace. Once Obi-Wan was behind a laser door, the fight tilted in Maul's favor.
  4. Add a condition, disadvantage, or penalty
    • Doesn't affect hit points, but does allow the monsters to deal more damage!

Finally, if none of these methods are really working, there's one last cop out:

Let it go.

So they killed your cultists in a single round? Well, how many Fireball spells can the wizard really cast today? D&D is a game of resource attrition, and your combat reduced the amount of resources your players had available. In that sense, it was a success!

So, instead of making a single combat more difficult... just add another one between them and their goal. Until they reach it, the players don't know it's coming. Play the long con. You are the DM, you have the power.

Now that we're done with that...

Slow Your Roll: Making Combat Easier

No fear here!
On the flip side of things, you might suddenly realize that these back-alley thugs are about to execute your players, and you only started your adventure 5 minutes ago! It's not their fault - the dice have been rolling terribly. You have to figure out how to ease up a bit, but you can't just say these bloodthirsty killers aren't bloodthirsty killers!

Well, we have similar methods here. Let's start with changing around hit points.
  1. Hurt the monsters with a trap, terrain effect, or by dividing them up
    • Again, try to use something already established in the setting
    • You can also play this as a "divine intervention" moment if you have religious characters
    • The key here is: take out some of the bad guys for the players, so they take less attacks through the remainder of the fight
  2. Have allies show up
    • Just like reinforcements, this adds hit points to the player's side
    • Make sure your monsters direct some attacks at the allies, to take the heat off of the PCs.
  3. Slight monster adjustments
    • If there's a monster you haven't described well, bring it up as "the sickly one" and lower its hit points. Like the opposite of "the beefy one".
    • If a monster is a few hit points away from death, just let the thing die
  4. Heal the players
    • Could be anything from a God's intervention to finding a healing potion on the ground
    • Don't use this too often - players need to feel like they control their own hit points

For making combat easier, there's another method that is extremely useful: non-combat solutions!
  1. The monsters run away
    • It's can't be due to the players, though
    • Maybe a new, bigger monster just showed up?
  2. The monsters are taking hostages
    • Thus, even a "Total Party Kill" becomes just a stepping stone to the next scene: escaping capture!
  3. The monsters stop combat for some reason
    • They could be interesting in negotiating, now that they have the upper hand
    • Perhaps the monster is guarding treasure, or its eggs, or something, only attacks creatures within a certain distance
  4. Run!
    • Obviously, sneaking away in combat is very difficult, but possible
    • I like to use a home-brewed retreat rule
    • This might lead to a chase scene, which requires its own rules, but is less dangerous to hit points than combat

Here's my retreat rule:
Retreat. On your turn, you can use your action to call a retreat. Each ally that can hear you may immediately use their reaction (if available) to move up to their speed away from hostile monsters in combat. This movement provokes opportunity attacks. Creatures that are incapacitated or have a speed of 0 feet cannot take this reaction.

This simply allows me to set up a chase scene where the party is already at least 30 feet away from their pursuers. If you decided to do a chase in initiative, there's this weird game of catch-up where some party members keep getting attacked because they moved after the monsters did.

Again, if none of these methods are really working, there is another cop out method you can go for.

Stop the game, admit you messed up, and start the combat over with less monsters.

This is really difficult for some people to do. There's a feeling that D&D is supposed to be "dangerous", and the DM is supposed to have mastered the game before the players sit down to play.

But D&D isn't supposed to be dangerous. It's supposed to be fun.

And if your players are getting slaughtered by goblins, that might not be their idea of fun. So stop the game, admit you messed up, and start the combat over with less monsters. I promise they will be okay with it.

Building Narrative Combats

The ultimate goal of D&D is to tell the story of the characters. Whether it's an epic, world-saving story or just the tale of a few dungeon delvers out to make some gold and kill some gobbos, the narrative is the key thread that ties the game together.

Combat is an important part of that thread. In fact, if you don't want a combat-driven game, you're better off going for something other than D&D. D&D is about Dungeons and Dragons. Exploration and combat. It's the backbone of the game.

In the same way that you can build a compelling narrative, you can build a compelling combat. A lot of DMs complain that "Boss Fights" in 5e don't feel epic enough. That's because they aren't treating them like epic confrontations. If you just plop a dragon in front of the players, it's not going to feel much different than a ton of goblins with a similar challenge rating. Unless you make your combats feel unique, they will all feel the same. Stats and abilities can only take you so far.

So when you're setting up that epic dragon combat, think of it like a movie's action scene. First, they have to fortify their position.
Then, they fight off some minions.
Reinforcements! A bigger bad guy is coming! He's nasty.
Uh oh, looks like a PC nearly died... and we're not even to the dragon yet. Hm.
Things are looking bad. Let's change the enemy dynamic a bit. They aren't the dragon's minions, they're his slaves, and they know better than to get in his way!
Here he comes...
Looks like one player sounding the retreat to save his allies - epic!
And that's how you make a fight feel like a story.

Thanks for reading!

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