Get Resourceful - Part II
Specifically, the next post will cover structuring encounters to target specific resources, and more importantly how to threaten PCs outside of combat. - From Part One available here.
Engagement and Interest
Players (including the Dungeon Master) in a game of Dungeons and Dragons are collaboratively telling a story to which they do not know the end. When we play, our story is dynamic, we're reacting to each other, and that creates a flow of engagement that is unlike any other medium. This is not just interactive play (as with games, video games etc), but inter-reactive play. The designer (of both gameplay and story, the DM) is reacting to the players as much as the players are reacting to the designer. Which means the amount of dramatic investment in any given moment of the gameplay is a product of what we create at the table. A scene matters as much as we at the table decide it matters.
DMs often have problems with generating investment in an encounter, but that's now how they express the problem. Instead they'll make complaints like "my party is bored," or "they're steamrolling content," or "my players aren't listening to my descriptions". In reality these are (most likely) all questions of investment. And while there are many, many ways to engage players in a scene, this is a focus on the Four Key Resources
The Four Key Resources are, again, HP, Ability Slots, Gold, and Time, and the economy between them is intricate and liquid (convertible back-and-forth). And, as discussed in the previous post, they matter to the PCs only insofar as they can use them to create change.
The Threat Axis
The Threat Axis is a term used to describe from which direction an attack will come. In terms of encounter design, I use this both literally and metaphorically. This is the fighter jet coming out of the sun undetected, it's the sappers tunneling underneath a defensive bunker, it's the rogue sneaking into the castle grounds and poisoning the guards' water. Less literally, it's the moment when the Fighter steps forward with full plate armour and a squillion AC and is forced to instead make a dexterity save. It's when the players have all the HP in the world but are poor and in a rush, and you present a speedy carriage, but it'll cost them.
The alternative to the off-axis threat is the on-axis threat, attacking where the PCs are strongest. In relation to the interest curve, an on-axis attack will make the PCs feel stronger, and off-axis attack will make the PCs feel weaker. Both have their place, and managing them to balance the feeling of power and the feeling of challenge is one of your main roles.
Moments of Excellence
I've said before that we're doing things well at our tables. That I believe the real goal of most DMs shouldn't be to raise our best work up to the level of professional excellence (and leave the rest of our work at mediocre), but to more consistently achieve those moments of excellence that we already attain when we are at our peak.
Combat is one of those moments in which you've seen this hum! We discussed in the economy section how spell slots and hp can be traded for each other during combat: by giving the Baddies more or less opportunities in which to deal damage to the PCs. A standard combat, designed by the rules of the DMG using XP budget ("Yip Yip"), or that you'll find in most printed adventures, will focus on this method of engaging PCs' HP. Enemies are threatening enough to the PCs' lives that they'll either spend their other resources to heal, or to exceed the Baddies' action economy and kill them quickly. The system has assisted you to engage the entire economy of resources. Which helps you to ensure that you have an upwards curve in player interest, both because they get to use their cool abilities that let them make changes to the world, and because as they make that impact, they will start running low on cool abilities increasing the world's ability to make changes upon them. Because it's balancing their power and the challenge.
However some players will find some of these fights more boring than other fights. This isn't (wholly) a psychographics issue, either. Any given player may find one fight interesting and the next a snooze. One reason for that lack of engagement is that players suddenly don't find themselves (ie their resources) threatened. This can come from repetition, where players know the flow of One-Boss-Three-Bodyguards combat and can estimate the amount of resources they'll be forced to spend, and know they have enough (a later article on complicity will reveal more). Alternatively, and more usually, this comes because the fight is focused on primarily HP and secondarily Ability Slots, when it shouldn't: the fight is an on-axis threat.
PCs may build their characters for HP, or they may spend all their healing proactively, driving themselves down to the barest of spell slots and burning through Lay on Hands and potions in order to prepare themselves for a fight they know is coming. And prepared they are. The One-Boss-Three-Bodyguards combat excels at attacking HP, and with some lucky rolls and good positioning can be whittled down without much fear. In fact, for a high AC character at early levels, the extra HP will be worth more than extra damage. This is an on-axis Combat Encounter.
If we wanted to create an increase in the interest curve at this point, the worst thing we can do is just make it harder. Do more damage, add more of the same Baddies. Instead, we need to shift the axis of the whole encounter. We could redesign our foes, instead of picking monsters that do HP damage, we can choose monsters that target other resources (that are individually off-axis). The threat posed by a group of 5 hobgoblins is drastically different to the threat posed by a group of 5 rust-monsters, even though they have the exact same CRs and XP totals! Hobgobbos team up, they do 1d10+2d6+3 damage on each successful hit (with some smart tactics), that's huge. However, our rust-monsters threaten the PCs weapons! That requires a dynamically different approach from the party, and engages them anew. If the Cleric is left without slots for Lesser Restoration, every enemy with the ability to inflict Disease becomes drastically more interesting.
For an excellent example of this, look to D&D 4e's monster design. Monsters were divided into pseudo-classes based on what resources they attacked. Worth reading the entire 4e DMG chapter on building combat encounters just to see different axes of threat in action.
Alternatively, we can shift the stakes of the combat. Instead of the Encounter Question being "will the PCs survive the attack?" (which targets HP) we can change the question to "will the PCs get past the hobgoblins in time to stop the Dark Ritual?" (which targets time). HP trades for time much less efficiently than Ability Slots trade for time, so our PCs will require a different tactic again, which keeps them on their toes, and engaged.
The most popular form of trap is the Indy Trap (yet more evidence for my "best design conversations involve Indiana Jones" theory): Step on a trigger or snap a tripwire, blowdarts shoot out of the walls (or axes swing from the ceilings or a giant boulder etc), player to roll Dexterity Save or DM to make an attack roll vs AC, do damage. That is a trap that targets HP. Again, sometimes this will be okay, and sometimes you can rely on the economy built into the system to force your players to trade those slots out, but you could be so much better than that! It also will only target Ability Slots of healing-type casters, this trap will never drain a spell from your wizard.
Instead what if we design a glyph that's been cast into the floor's stonework, and covered with dust over time. When a caster steps over it they make an Intelligence Save or lose a Spell Slot? What if the trap in a confined space ejects a calming mist that causes the Barbarian to lose a use of rage? What if the trap is modeled after a Gray Ooze that targets gear? What if the spell is a mist that puts the PCs to sleep for 1d4 hours, in a situation in which time is of the essence?
Tools To Take Away
For an Encounter to target HP:
- Enemies must do a non-negligible amount of damage. I usually calculate this as an average 1d10+AveragePCLevel per round, increasing by 1d10 for each 5 PC levels (at 5th, 10th, 15th, etc). For example, a party of 2nd Level PCs need about 1d10+2 per round, while 7th level PCs need about 2d10+7 per round. As an example, a 2nd level party's XP budget will equal about 4 Baddies that can do 1d6+2 damage each, of which about 1, probably 2 of 4 will hit each round. This can be as spread out on the group or focused on individuals as you desire. Spread damage tends to sneak up on the PCs though, while focused feels bigger.
- Enemies must survive for a non-negligible amount of time. I look to 3 rounds, personally. I have no math behind this, I've just found players find a combat that lasts one round to feel like a flash, and combat that lasts 6 to feel like a slog. This also give the PCs the opportunity to miss once or twice and still feel like they did something in a fight.
- The Encounter's Question must be something like "will the Baddies die before the PCs die?"
For an Encounter to target Ability Slots:
- For Healing Slots: Enemies must reduce PCs to less than 8 health per 5 character levels. Because of the damage scaling, at 8hp a 1st-4th level character can be dropped to zero in a single round (before they can react). That's when players start looking left and right.
- For non-Healing Slots: Depends on the selection of spells. A caster with Sleep and Fireball has an axis that involves grouped targets with low hp. A caster with inflict wounds wants has an axis of a single heavily armoured enemy that they can touch. You will need to apply some analysis to determine your foe composition and tactics in either case.
- For non-combat Encounters: You must fictionally position the world to target those slots. A castle of goblins won't set up a magical glyph that absorbs your magic missiles in the main entrance, they'll use pit traps and rigged crossbows. If it's your first time attacking this axis with your wizard expect resistance, some complaints or questions. That's okay, it means they're interested, engaged. Listen carefully then answer honestly and fairly.
- The Encounter's Question must be "What will the PCs lose in achieving their goal?"
For an Encounter to target Gold:
- Gold is really too liquid to target with any specificity unless you go direct: Ask the PCs for gold. Demand things of value. Play the NPC that needs a bribe, play the hobgoblins that have established the toll road, play the Deep Maw that is hungry and will only be sated by gold and finery.
- Target gear through oozes and puddings. Gear is the most expensive goldsink as it's usually permanent. Give them the opportunity to convert their gold to consumables then target the resources those consumables represent.
- The Encounters Question must be "What will the PCs give up to achieve their goal?"
For an Encounter to target Time:
- There must be a ticking clock, and its progress (or the results of that progress) must be shown to the players.
- There must be clear stakes behind the clock. The players must be aware of what happens when it runs out.
- The Encounter's Question must be "Will the PCs achieve their goal before[...]?"
Of course, well designed Encounters may mix many of these. Variety is an excellent way to keep your players engaged.
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