In Throwaway Encounters, Chris Chinn examines one reason it can be tough for GMs to come up with good tactical encounters: because they only see them once.
Other than through product support, there are only two approaches I’ve found to address this problem. One is to reuse encounters from past games (adjusted for current circumstances, of course).
The other is to use similar encounters (some distance apart) in the same campaign, which gives you a chance to test out some elements the first time around. GMing experience also plays a role, as it gives you some baseline assumptions to work with.
Particularly in games like D&D, how do you go about creating solid, fun tactical encounters?
I create them with a well marked map. Making sure that items are placed or that any modifiers terrain might have are marked. Barring this prep or for impropmptu battle sessions I state “you’re in a bar, anything you might find in a bar would be there and is available for use” and then the players usually ask “is there a poker by or in the fireplace, cause I’d like to smash the guy with a hot poker to the face”
The other thing I do in a game where it warrants it is give them some type of shared planning focus. Like my current game has them as military. I gave them a Teamsmanship/Playbook focus. It lets them pause before the battle, do some planning and go at it from there. The idea is that they’ve trained together, worked out some battle plans, are familiar with everyones specialties and plan accordingly, or they can shout out “Plan 14b” and execute something they might have set up previously.
I find some players are skittish about sharing information since it would be out of game knowledge as how good the archer is with his bow.
I agree with the problem with out of char in tactical games. I recently had almost a TPK and most of the people rolled up new chars and they continued to play as normal even though the really shouldn’t have know how good the ranger was with a bow or what kind of spells the mage had memorized. But, eh, they were having fun so I dropped it.
As far as what I do. It really helps to have a really good map and possibly a list of what is available for cover / impromptu weapons etc.. handy. Make for a bit more prep but defently shocks them when you have an answer for everything they come up with. 🙂
One thing that is good to be aware of- particularly in D&D- changing one element of the party’s resources/abilities can drastically change the nature of the challenge you put against them, which is why when you bring a similar challenge against them later (assuming they’ve leveled up, got new gear, etc.), it is a completely different experience.
This is why I point to the difficulty of being able to learn what a good encounter is for a given power level, because you will never bet to see it run through under the same conditions more than once, and, likely, “similar” conditions no more than a few times overall. That similarity especially changes if you’re dealing with both different players and a different party make up.
I think this is part of why I’m not totally comfortable with D&D, especially in it’s recent form. With advancement so fast, it really is like you’re playing a brand new game every session.
My more favored games, Cold Iron and RuneQuest feature slower advancement. Also, they have less swingy magic and special abilities for PCs, so I think it’s easier to get a handle on what will be a good challenge. With RQ though, my aim is a bit more at simulationism than gamism though, so challenge isn’t so important (though my current RQ campaign is probably gamist not simulationist).
For my Arcana Unearthed and Arcana Evolved campaigns, I did find that the D&D Challenge Ratings were good enough to reliably set up challenging encounters, at least through 8th or 9th level.
One strategy I use is to try and lowball things the first time around, and then slowly ramp up the challenge. As long as the PCs aren’t advancing so fast the ramp never catches up with them, this is a good way to get to a decent challenge.
I’ve also come to worry a little less about over-doing it since we started considering writing TPKs (or nearly so) off to “bad dreams.” As long as the next encounter is a reasonable chance, and the bad dreams don’t happen too often, the players don’t mind (and in fact, the one we had in Cold Iron where they re-tried the same encounter, with better planning and knowledge, was quite satisfying).
But there is a fair question: I’ve got more than 25 years of GMing experience behind me, and I know when I first ran Cold Iron, I had constant problems with overly tough encounters and deus ex machinas to pull the PCs through. Is there a less frustrating way to get this experience?
One thing that helps tatical combat was briefly mentioned above – make sure your combat environment is interesting. Give places to crouch, crawl through, hide in, jump over, swing on, shoot through, compensate for, etc. Adding interesting terrain adds a strong logistical element to tatics.
Make sure you have a plan for the encounter. The creatures/people/robots/mutants you are controlling might be completely wild and ad hoc, but the encounter doesn’t need to be from your end. As if you where playing chess, play out the first few rounds in your head. Where would opponent A be? What would opponent B do? What would your players do in reaction to it? Come up with a small paragraph (AT MOST) about each encounter and the opponent’s motivation and style.
Lastly, make sure there is some sort of synergy between each opponent. Let there be some combo that they can pull off that would make the PCs re-evaluate their preconcieved tatic of run in and bash. A simple example of a synergy would be a quadraped creature with horns or a toothy maw that is used as a mount by a rider with a sword/gun. Stepping it up, the quadapred is englufed in flame that damages opponents, but the rider is immune through it’s own merit.
Good suggestions so far. I got this issue mostly out of the way running Fantasy Hero, where there really is no substitute for experience (though typically with the slower advancement benefits that Frank mentioned.) In that sense, the d20 CR/EL “guideline” is a bit of a trap for the novice. It never crossed my mind that it was anything but a guideline, and thus the responsiblity was still on my shoulders.
Curiously, not pulling any punches actually makes this balancing act easier. You *need* to provide interesting environments, scouting opportunities, and the like for the characters to have any chance in such a game. The players *expect* you to sometimes throw something tougher than they can handle at them. The players *expect* to have bad luck on occasion. Thus they develop fallback plans, retreat options, keep something in reserve, etc.
Also, as I’ve said many times, running that way means that what would be an “easy” encounter in some games can turn into a “tough” encounter via luck, but with little chance of going too far.
When you run that style, experience at providing challenging encounters becomes less about the game system (beyond a certain minimal competency and knowledge of probability) and more about knowing your players and keeping a few tactical points in mind. Nothing earthshaking about these points, but you can forget them when focusing on CR too much. For example:
A. If the opponents can substantially out maneuver the party, and the party has no tricks to obscure vision or otherwise cover a retreat, then a losing battle will turn into a route. Solution–don’t use such opponents unless you know the party can take them (boring except as a warning for a similar but tougher encounter later) or the party has some way to counter.
B. Things the party can barely hurt will take a long time to kill. Solution – make sure such opponents can’t dish out much, or provide a way for the party to counter the defense.
John, maikeru: Good point about having a solid map. John, yours sounds like the kind of map you’d use with Iron Heroes — do you play IH at all?
Chris: That’s certainly true. I just think that having run the encounter before removes at least a couple of elements from the equation — notably, you’ve had at least one chance to tune it.
I hadn’t thought about how dramatically small changes affect D&D encounters, though. That’s an excellent point.
Frank: Yep, the slow levelling curve is one thing I miss from 2e. My sweet spot is somewhere between the two, erring towards 3e if the game isn’t going to run for years.
As for your question, wouldn’t running some sample encounters help? You’d get a chance to throw a few encounters at the PCs, and the players would get to see how everything worked. Then you could move on to the real game.
Patrick: Those kinds of maps are a blast to play and run, but they take ages to create — at least for me.
Do you have any tricks for making tactically interesting maps quickly, and for keeping track of all of the details you mentioned?
Crazy Jerome: A short PDF of tips like your points A and B would rock. 🙂
As for your question, wouldnâ€™t running some sample encounters help? Youâ€™d get a chance to throw a few encounters at the PCs, and the players would get to see how everything worked. Then you could move on to the real game.
The problem is that it took me several years to get enough experience to avoid overwhelming encounters on a regular basis. Of course some of that experience was more in the realm of coming to understand how wrong it was to be constantly bailing out the players.
But still, this is obviously something GMs constantly struggle with.
But as I’m finding, it is something that experience can teach you how to avoid presenting overwhelming encounters. And I don’t think it’s a bad thing at all that gaming has enough complexities to require experience to master. There’s a reason chess is a respected game. People enjoyt the challenges of learning.
Comment for old topic, I know, but there was the perfect exchange of words for this last night.
New GM: How do I make encounters that won’t cause total party kills?
Old GM: You throw the dice behind your hands like this and fudge the results..
Why to pretend using the rules at all if you can’t get results you want with them?
I have three suggestions for creating tactically interesting combats without risking total party kills.
The first is to have victory conditions that are not life or death for the party. For example, victory for the opponents is to assassinate an NPC and escape, or to prevent the party from stealing the mcguffin.
The second (appropriate for D&D especially) is to give the party one-use or expensive “get out of trouble” items or abilities. If they win the battle by using up their ring of limited wishes, it will feel like a loss. (So in some sense, it is reducing the win-or-die struggle to a different victory condition, win-or-pay.) Raise Dead in D&D basically converts “die” into “pay 5000 gp and lose a level”. Some systems make this solution a game artifact rather than having a game-world explanation by giving players luck points or drama points that can be used to avoid death.
A third solution that I use, but which would probably offend those that don’t like dice fudging for the same reason, is the “potential reserves”. If the PC’s are winning too easily, the enemy reserves can show up. If they are about to die, for some reason, the reserve forces never make it.
( Actually, the reason the reserves don’t always make it to the fight in my games has less to do with TPK avoidance than my realizing that I’ve reached my limit in being able to remember and control all the enemy forces. If I’m already forgetting exactly what is where, it’s not a good time to introduce new critters. Or we’re near the time limit for the game, so an encounter room becomes an unguarded empty room.)
“New GM: How do I make encounters that wonâ€™t cause total party kills?”
Thoughtful GM: Learn what in an encounter kills the party.
New GM: How do I learn that?
Thoughtful GM: Kill the party.
… with apologies to the old proverb about success, failure, and experience. 🙂
As humans, of course, we want to not only learn from our mistakes, but productively generalize from them. That is, you’d like to start identifying mistake categories at some point, instead of having to make every mistake yourself. Likewise, you’d like to learn from other peoples’ mistakes–one of the reasons being a player can be (but isn’t always) good training for learning to be a GM.
“A third solution that I use, but which would probably offend those that donâ€™t like dice fudging for the same reason, is the â€œpotential reserves’â€™. If the PCâ€™s are winning too easily, the enemy reserves can show up. If they are about to die, for some reason, the reserve forces never make it.”
I like the first two ideas, but want to expand on the third. I’m not offended even as a zero fudge proponent, but I will point out that there is nearly always an alternate way to use a technique in a zero fudge game. In this case, I’d recommend something like–Have those potential reserves there, but make whether they show up or not less dependant on luck and more dependant on things that the party can control. To wit (using extreme d20 example):
Mostly luck – Room A has a force of orcs. GM makes a Listen check to determine if backup orcs arrive from deeper in the dungeon. The orcs will arrive in 1d10 rounds, through a secret door that goes into a dead-end section of the caverns. That is, there is no way the party can get to it short of going through Room A. The orcs will not leave Room A for any reason, not even to go get the backup orcs. The party has no background information on the orcs.
More Player Control – Same physical setup, except now there is another secret passage from an earlier section that connects to the backups. A gong hangs near the secret door, with an obvious orc guard standing near. If the gong rings, the backups are highly likely to hear. If the gong doesn’t ring, it will depend on how loud the fight is. The orcs in the complex are in three factions, loosely allied but with somewhat different plans. (Exactly how can be slowly gleaned from information before entering the complex and thoughtful play in earlier parts of the complex.)
All I did was fix a few dull parts of that setup and replace the 1d10 (which is simulating uncertainty about how the orcs will react) with some actual things that the party can manipulate. For example, the obvious gong tells the smart party not only to take out the erstwhile gong ringer, but to fight as quiet as they can. An inspired or intuitive player might guess that the gong would be positioned where it can be heard by the backups (true in this case, but not necessarily so). A group that bothered to gather info before and during the exploration may have some insight into how to discourage the backups. Less obviously, a group that created a diversion in an attempt to get through Room A wouldn’t necessarily find their idea working but might learn of the reinforcements and decide to retreat.
I submit that this modification turns the third idea into a tatically interesting idea compatible with the first two. Heck, I’d say it’s even useful in a fudge game, since presumably it’s more interesting, and the GM would rather not fudge if he can help it.
As it happens, I think this is one of the hidden correlations between zero (and minimal) fudge with “tactically interesting”.
Rule of No Fudge: Never allow a roll if you can’t live with the result. Corollary: Replace roll with something that the players can affect through informed choices, even if only an earlier decision.
Rule of Tactically Interesting: Players can affect results through informed choices: Corollary: Never replace a chance for players to make an informed decision with a die roll.
If characters are perpetually walking around 90 degree turns to find encounters 20-70 feet away, one is ultimately leaving party safety up to the vagaries of the d20. Of course, a party that *won’t* run often deserves a TPK or two, in the way of an object lesson. A party that *can’t* learn whether to run or not until it’s too late better be lucky.
CJ, do you mind if I make part of your comment into a mini-guest post? Specifically, your next-to-last paragraph and the one before it?
You put two great concepts (four, really) well and succinctly, and I think they’d be a great spur for discussion on their own.
(With guest posts, all I ask is the unlimited, non-exclusive right to leave it up as a guest post. IE, it can’t go away but you’re free to sell it to someone else.)
Let me know. 🙂
I should also say, regarding Russell’s last paragraph, that I understand the motivation is less about luck and more about GM fiat as a tactical safeguard. It still reduces the “tactically interesting” quality of the encounter, though. At least as far as a current fight is concerned.
The “empty room” idea towards the end of the session is not about tactics but about pacing, which I’m 100% behind. (If encounter D sounded like a great idea when writing notes, but now at 10:30 PM your GM instincts tell you it will bog down the game–then taking it out isn’t fudging at all in my book.)