Monday, May 13, 2019

Encounter Design: Multiple Objectives

Salutations, my curious congregation. Today, we're going to talk about a cool bit of encounter design a dear friend of mine put us through last night and why it worked so well. So Faith and Mimi, brace yourselves, I'm gonna be singing your praises for the next while, and everybody else break out your notebooks.

Note that this was a play-by-post game and there were 9 PCs involved, so it was not an easy encounter to DM by any stretch. Which only increases how impressive this was.

Content Warnings: Irreverence and swearing as usual, and a 9 PC encounter with no discernible initiative. The horror.

Okay so, let me lay this out for you. First of all, this was a play by post game. Chat-based, rules lite. Everybody gets a turn behind the screen. There was no initiative, it was basically just 'how fast you can type', which can get these things a little bit clustered, but in spite of that (or perhaps because of it) I feel like this is something those of us running tabletop can learn a lot from.

Here's the situation:

The player characters went into this underground tunnel system to rescue a hostage. Faith was the DM, and the hostage was one of Mimi's PCs, but being played as an NPC for the sake of the objective here. There was some plot brilliance in that too, and a little bit of a twist there at the end; long story short the bad guy wasn't there for the people we thought he was but because of the way they set it up everyone they needed to be there showed up and we never saw the twist coming.

There was a mini-dungeon on the way there with basic traps that we didn't think too much about (saving throws, some people took damage, no big deal run of the mill stuff) and we finally arrive in this final encounter and there stands the bad guy. He's got his hostage levitating on an enchanted floating rock with spell tags attached to it that stop us from moving him or getting him off of said rock without it throwing him into this spiked pit he's levitating above. Meanwhile, the bad guy has a fuckton of AoE (Area of Effect) attacks and crowd control.

Right out of the gate this was fucking brilliant, because we had the usual crowd charging the bad guy, and then a couple of the others of us picking at this hostage situation. Yes, it split the group. It had about half of us fighting the bad guy and half of us working on the puzzle the hostage was pinned under.

The tags were set up so if you moved one it destabilized the rock and would send it flipping over and throwing the hostage onto the spikes below. So like if you moved the top one the bottom one would flip and vice versa. Same with left and right. Meaning we had to take them at the same time, top and bottom, left and right, and it took us a little while to figure that out while this fight was going on.

This is one of the only situations I have ever seen a single bad guy hang in there for so long against 9 PCs. If you've ever DMed for a big group you know how difficult it is to have the bad guys last as long as you need them to. So let's break this down.

The Split Objectives

The first thing Faith did here was split the party. Usually that's a bad idea. In this case, it bought her villain some time. It was a really simple puzzle with a really simple solution but the combat going on while we were trying to figure it out put the pressure on us hard core. The stakes were high; there was a hostage's life hanging in the balance.

And let me clarify something here. I had a character whose whole shtick is changing someone's perspective and making it harder for them to hit things, and she was doing absolute fuck all against the bad guy. Because he didn't have to aim with his AoE attacks. But that puzzle on the other side of the room, as I realized about halfway through the fight, was practically made for her.

Literally everyone involved in this encounter had something to do. And putting half of us on the hostage and half of us in the combat split the focus of the encounter and made it more reasonable both for her to DM and so we weren't falling all over each other trying to do one thing.

She took the big group she had and split us into two smaller groups. That was good decision number one.

The AoEs

So these AoE spells she kept throwing off were good decision number two. Half the party went to help the hostage and there were still five fucking people on that bad guy. Which is about a normal ratio for a tabletop. And if you've ever tried to DM an encounter that was just one bad guy, you know they tend to end way too fast, right?

Well, these AoEs were part damage and part gravity manipulation. So people were losing actions left and right and taking damage and still managing to get in there and hit him often enough that no one was getting pissed by it. He represented danger, yes; his spells did hurt. But not enough danger that we ever thought there was a chance of him winning. That was fine, that's not what he was in the encounter for. He was there to give the straight up fighters something to do and add pressure while we tried to retrieve the hostage.

The Hostage Situation

This, on the other hand, was a real and clear threat. There was no doubt in my mind that if we'd done this wrong she totally would have flipped that rock and impaled the guy on the sticks below. We had every incentive to go careful. And because of the gravity and stability manipulation of the rock the guy was pinned to, when we finally got him off, the rock became a danger as well. One little nudge and it went flying into the ceiling and it was only by the grace of a die roll that it didn't hit anybody.

Praise be to RNJesus.

So at that point, the bad guy is knocked out, we have the hostage, everyone is  hurt to varying degrees, and we realize the cavern we're in is also being held up by those gravity spell tags. So we need to get the fuck out and fast.

The Escape

That mini-dungeon I told you about? It didn't feel like much of a threat on the way in. We weren't being rushed. On the way out though, it felt like a disasteriffic mine of problems. Because we were being rushed and all the traps from the beginning were still there. Meanwhile trying to disarm them stood a good chance of caving this whole complex in on us.

Basically, there was nothing extraneous about this. All of it was necessary, and all of it pushed together to hone this situation into a fine point. And that point was dramatic as all hell.

How this Applies to You

What you can learn from this is that sometimes the best way to make a single enemy encounter memorable and worth doing is to give the party a primary objective that isn't the fight. They're here for something else. Rescue someone. Retrieve an object. Stop a balloon from touching the floor. If you want a villain to look like a real threat, but they are still only one person, come up with an objective that will keep some of the PCs busy every round  to stretch for time.

Because that's what my friend did here and damn, but it felt amazing when we finally beat it.

Instead of blinding or stunning characters with repeated saving throws, give them something else to spend their turns on so it feels like they are actually doing something productive. You get the combat you want, and your PCs get to feel like they've accomplished something big while simultaneously being taken out of the fight, and everyone comes out feeling good about it.

Fortune Favors,
Megan R. Miller

P.S. Torchlighters is still over here and available for purchase and you should totally go check it out. Demon-powered city, zeitgeist of the 1920's, and crime. It's only 99 cents, cheaper than a cup of coffee, if you don't already have it. /salespitch

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