Chad Perrin: SOB

9 April 2009

high level campaigns: keeping conflict interesting

Filed under: Geek,RPG — Tags: , , — apotheon @ 09:24

This is part of my RPG series of entries here at SOB. See the inaugural entry in the series for more details.

In running high level ROLEplaying games, I said:

Lengthy combat seems largely inevitable, except in cases of combats that look like “failures” (either because of TPK or a too-easy vanquishment of what was supposed to be a dangerous foe), in high level campaigns. Lengthy combats don’t have to be boring, or common, though. Mix in combats with lower level peons, along with other types of challenges, and the occasional lengthy combat will feel epic instead of merely long. It’s the boring sameness of lengthy combat after lengthy combat that really makes combat in high level campaigns dull, and that’s easily avoided by making sure that the game’s about a lot more than “challenging” combat.

As I hinted, high level combats can surely get tedious and dull if they turn into blow-by-blow slugfests where both sides are trading damage and soaking it up by virtue of high hit point totals. This is one of the biggest problems with stat inflation as a means of keeping game play “balanced” at higher levels.

Of course, at higher levels both characters with classes and creatures with Monster Manual stat blocks also develop strange and wondrous abilities, including “save or die” spells, frightening supernatural abilities that (temporarily?) cripple opponents, and other capabilities that basically break the rules of normal hit-and-damage combat resolution. Just a few days ago, a tenth level character of mine came within a hair’s breadth of having his memory erased and getting dumped on the street or worse (thank goodness for the save bonus granted by Conceal Thoughts).

Scary insta-kill abilities can sometimes be more trouble than they’re worth, however, as combat resolution becomes anything but predictable for the GM, whose aim should generally be to challenge the PCs without accidentally achieving TPK. Sometimes, PC death is appropriate, but one hopes it’s because of a dramatic turn of events that adds to the power of the storyline, rather than because of an unexpected series of save failures that ends the storyline prematurely with the universal deaths of the entire group of PCs.

hit points demotivator

The only way I’ve really discovered to deal with this other than to just completely screw around with the basic rules of the game system (which I have been known to do from time to time) is to combine conflict resolution options that avoid the standard toe-to-toe confrontation with the occasional, truly epic battle at a climactic moment that is rare enough to make it fresh and interesting rather than just yet another hit point grind. Lengthy battles of attrition of massive HP totals can be interesting, as long as they’re not commonplace. Break things up with noncombat events that draw the players into the game at least as well as combat encounters, and the variety will help even the most grinding combats become more interesting as well.

In short, there’s a lot more to keeping combat interesting at high levels than merely keeping it challenging.

I guess there’s always the option of just picking monsters that have a lot of insta-kill capabilities and pit them against your PCs, then do all your rolls behind a GM’s screen and fudge the results to keep things fun for the players. I find that saps a lot of the fun from the game for me as a GM, though, and pretty well fails to engage the players in actual roleplaying nearly as much as the kind of approaches I discussed above. Your mileage may vary.

6 Comments

  1. […] Lengthy combat seems largely inevitable, except in cases of combats that look like “failures” (either because of TPK or a too-easy vanquishment of what was supposed to be a dangerous foe), in high level campaigns. Lengthy combats don’t have to be boring, or common, though. Mix in combats with lower level peons, along with other types of challenges, and the occasional lengthy combat will feel epic instead of merely long. It’s the boring sameness of lengthy combat after lengthy combat that really makes combat in high level campaigns dull, and that’s easily avoided by making sure that the game’s about a lot more than “challenging” combat. […]

    Pingback by Chad Perrin: SOB » running high level ROLEplaying games — 9 April 2009 @ 09:25

  2. Heyya! I agree with your posting on the toughness on keeping combat challenging and fun for epic levels… Several things that I have done, among with things that you have suggested is to keep combat fun and interesting. Normally I don’t use insta-kills, except rarely to instill some fear, because botched saves aren’t always the greatest way to see a character end their life.. But I do save insta-kills for boss fights.

    The other thing I do that keeps it from being a “slug-fest” is 2 things. There is my more challenging combat aside from boss style fights, and then mook fighting. The mooks have low HP and do mod damage and have some decent tricks up their sleeves. These allow the group to try new spells, ideas, and strategy and, even though they tend to know there isn’t as much danger from here, they enjoy the freedom to experiment and try to outsmart what I am throwing at them.. Then there is my more challenging fights.. I usually lower the creatures HP, whatever it may be to usually be able to handle one-three hits.. BUT I raise their AC so they don’t just get pawned and maybe boof their saves a tiny bit, for the same reason.. To balance it out.. I up their damage by quite a bit.. Nothing makes a player say “oh Sh@t!!” then when a creature hits em for 25-30 points of their normal damage in the first hit and again (2nd attack) for another 25… They realize that they need to plan, and plan fast.. Especially when they miss a few times.. But my group is 6 strong and they tend to get the enemies down in the end…

    Another thing I like to do, and I got this from another posting, I believe from http://www.youmeetinatavern.com and I apologize for not remembering the poster>.< The suggestion works well and I KICK myself for honestly not really thinking of it before, though I have done it… just rarely.. Using traps, magical or mechanical while in combat.. This is nice because it gives the roguish person to do instead of constantly fighting, or the mage/sorcerer, ect…. IE- Group was in a dungeon and was fighting a ogre mage that summoned a few minor demons by his side.. As the group went in (over-zealous pally leading the way~.<) 2 magical turrets popped up from the groud, each shooting Magic Missle twice a round for 4d4+4 damage a round. The group now needed to mitigate and decide what to do.. The sorcerer and 2 rogues went to each deal with the traps, which then tried to focus on them, and the pally, bard, and druid went after the Ogre and the minor demons.. It went really well and everyone really enjoyed the combat.. It did last a little long 10 rounds- but everyone got to do something new and have a good time.. And that, to me, is what is really important.

    Sorry for rambling…

    Comment by Mike — 9 April 2009 @ 11:29

  3. So how about all the other non-combat conflicts? Any advice on keeping them interesting?

    Comment by Tommi — 9 April 2009 @ 12:16

  4. Mike:

    Sorry for rambling…

    No need to apologize! I appreciate your input. I recall seeing something about using traps in combat too, and (like you) I don’t remember where I saw it. Thanks for bringing it up.

    Tommi:

    I might tackle how to handle noncombat conflicts at some point in the future, but I’ll have to put some thought into what it is about how I manage them that works to be able to say much of interest on the subject.

    Comment by apotheon — 9 April 2009 @ 01:18

  5. You can probably get good mileage in keeping combat encounters interesting and integrating them into a role-playing heavy campaign by putting several secondary goals or phases into the conflict. Integrating traps is one way to do that, stealth goals like rescue the hostage or get to the switch are another option. Magic characters might have to engage a weapon-resistant creature or warrior-types have to hold a stairway while a lengthy spell is cast.

    If you have several things going on, or you have a number of things that have to be accomplished (sequentially or otherwise) in the course of the fight, I imagine it’s easier to use high-level character without it turning into a slugfest, and it would be easier to incorporate a variety of pc levels and class roles.

    You can also use time-sensitive aspects, racing to prevent or protect is a pretty standard narrative structure, and builds excitement. Might be something to use sparingly, though. I’d get pretty fracking sick of being Jack Bauer all the time.

    Comment by wickedmurph — 9 April 2009 @ 07:08

  6. @ apotheon- I like those ideas you possed about making the spell caster cast a lengthy spell and having the rest guard them. I mean it’s used so many times in RTS (Warcraft III comes to mind) and I honestly never thought about putting something like that in a game.. I guess part of the reason I haven’t is I worry about the spell caster becoming bored because he is just sitting there “channeling” a spell… Any suggestions on how to keep the spell caster involved while this is going on? I have a few ideas popping into my brain, but would be interested in your imput.

    Thanks much!

    Comment by Mike — 10 April 2009 @ 05:47

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