Apparently, to paraphrase, they felt that archers were too powerful because they can just wipe an encounter before the monsters ever have a chance to get close to the party.
My guess is this DM had never heard of tower shields.
Sarcasm aside, though, this is something that I see DMs run into time and time again. They always complain that this class, or that spell, totally destroys any challenge and lets players walk right through every fight... but when I ask about what kinds of fights they're presenting they miss the obvious solution.
In short, don't have every combat take place in a well-lit meadow with no cover and smooth terrain underfoot. Alter the environment, and you change the fight completely in many cases.
Change The Arena, Change The Game
A majority of combats in a lot of RPGs I've played/ran take place either in open rooms, or outside in open fields. Sometimes there are hallways, or an occasional nighttime ambush, but a lot of DMs just figure that if they throw enough monsters (or big enough monsters) into the arena then challenge will just happen.
|Well, they wiped one of them... so I guess I'll throw THREE of them in this time!|
While what you're fighting is important, there's no doubt about that, a lot of DMs forget that where you're fighting can make a huge difference in just how much of a challenge it is. I talked about this back in 3 Ways To Spice Up Combat in RPGs, but I feel like it might be helpful to expand the concept into areas that a lot of dungeon masters don't seem to consider.
To get started, let's use an example I just mentioned a little bit ago; the nighttime ambush. The party has bedded down for their rest, taken off their armor (in some cases, at least), and they're as vulnerable as heroes get. Sure, someone is on watch, but if they don't make the proper checks then they're going to be just as surprised as everyone else. In situations like this the darkness becomes a major asset to the ambushers. They can actually sneak up unseen, in many cases, and they can stand beyond the firelight to sling spells and shoot arrows at the party, making the attackers a much bigger threat because the party can't see them in the darkness (unless, of course, everyone in the party actually brought PCs with darkvision, which is not as common as some folks seem to think).
The difference that single environmental penalty makes can be stunning, and if you haven't tried it you should give it a whirl. The amount of actions it takes to create light, or to reveal enemies (the faerie fire spell was basically made for this) adds a whole new aspect to the challenge, and favors some strategies and characters (the half-orc with the crossbow can basically shoot back with impunity, while the human archer can barely pick out a target, for example) over others.
But that's just one example of a potential environmental penalty that players have to deal with. So ask what else you can do to change up the arena, and alter the challenge instead of just putting more, or bigger, monsters into play.
Who Has The High Ground?
The battlefield is about more than just whether or not there's darkness, mist, or smoke concealing enemies, and the fog of war is something that can go both ways. Everything, from whether the crumbling walls throughout this stretch of woods can be used for cover, to whether there are snipers up in the trees where the bruisers can't reach them, alters the challenge of a battle. Difficult or damaging terrain (in case you want to have fires blazing to control people's movements), slick ice, or even temperature that's hot or cold enough to exhaust those who aren't tough enough to take it are options you have at your disposal.
|All right... I don't think they've seen us yet. Twenty more yards, and they're ours!|
The key thing to remember, as the DM, is that terrain should be neutral a majority of the time, and favoring the monsters only if they're preparing for something. Obviously the orcs defending a stronghold from invasion are going to have walls to duck behind for cover, snipers behind arrow slits, etc., but those kinds of encounters should be stand-outs, not the norm. A fight in the forest should allow the party to duck behind the trees for cover just as easily as the bandits they're fighting, for example, turning it into a game of tactics and movement instead of a head-to-head fight where they line up and quote numbers until someone dies.
You also shouldn't be afraid to toss the party an advantage with the environment every now and again. Because yeah, they're fighting a dragon, but the rubble strewn around the cavern is big enough to give them a cover bonus against its breath weapon, and if they properly utilize the area they can surround it rather than all getting crushed in a narrow hallway. And perhaps the biggest gimme in this scenario, the cavern is too small for the dragon to take to the air and strafe the party with fire, ensuring that the fight is contained to a ground-level battle... assuming that would be more of an even match (as well as more fun) for the style of party your group is running.
Use All The Rules, and Stuff Tends To Get Tougher
I mentioned this back in No That Class Isn't "Broken" (You're Just Throwing The Wrong Challenges At It), but it bears repeating. If you play right into the strengths of your party every, single time, then of course they're going to crush whatever threat is standing in front of them. You put a Pathfinder paladin up against a mummy? He's immune to its disease, you can't make him afraid, and it takes all the damage from his smite and holy weapon... that lawful neutral mercenary, on the other hand, is going to give him a run for his money, because none of his holy powers come into play. You clustered your enemies together in a hallway, and then put them in front of the sorcerer who specialized in lightning bolt? Of course they got fried... but in a place with some cover and mobility, it would have been a lot harder to get that straight line of kills.
And so on, and so forth.
|It takes extra damage from piercing weapons, you say? Hoo buddy, this will be over fast.|
While you shouldn't be actively nullifying your players' abilities, you should be throwing in occasional challenges for them to deal with. Have them brawl in a theater where there are archers up in the box seats that have to be taken out, for example. Put an enemy at the top of the hill, and force your party to make tactical decisions about movement, cover, and range. When a fight breaks out in the bar, flip some of the tables over to block spells and crossbow bolts while the enemies return fire... at least until the barbarian sunders the table with her battle ax.
Lastly, remember that this is a two-way street. With all of the spells and alchemical items out there, it's possible for players to change up the environment as well as your monsters. Whether it's a tiefling lowering the lighting in the room with his darkness spell-like ability so he can get a miss chance on attacks coming his way, or the fighter hucking a smoke stick into the doorway so he can enter the room without presenting a clear target to the waiting enemies, don't get mad at them for using the rules and tactics available to them. Instead, take notes, because they might do something you didn't think of.
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That's all for this week's Moon Pope Monday. Hopefully you enjoyed, and if you've used run these kinds of games before, leave us a comment to let us know what worked for you!
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