Sunday, September 17, 2017

Use Tactics, Not Raw Numbers, To Challenge Your Players

I see a lot of DM cries for help online, and most of them pretty much go the same way.

"Help! I keep putting my players up against creatures that should be on their level, but my encounters are getting mowed down. How do I give them a challenge without just bashing them over the head with encounters five levels above what they should be dealing with?!"

And how the hell do I put an interrobang on this forum?
Every table is unique, and every DM is going to face their own set of challenges. With that said, a lot of the time the easiest way to challenge your players is to look at the monsters you have facing them, and to have them fight smarter, not harder.

Tucker's Kobolds

If you've never heard the tale of Tucker's Kobolds, you can check out the details in the write-up. The short version is that these kobolds are the baddest asses out of Fort Bragg, and the DM who created them played some serious hardball. Not by beefing up their stats, or giving them some kind of crazy nova beam breath weapon, either. Every member of the group was a standard kobold, with no more than a few hit points. A single hit with a big rock would have taken them out.

What Tucker's Kobolds lacked in BAB and hit points, though, they made up for in tactics, gear, and preparation. To the point that a high-level party's plan was to book it through the kobolds' stronghold, hoping to hit the elevators before the little bastards knew they were there. They just wanted to get down to the tenth level to fight some enemies they thought they could beat... you know, fifteen-foot tall fire demons.

There... that's a much more reasonable encounter.
When was the last time you saw a party over fourth level running scared from kobolds? Or goblins? Or orcs? Probably never. But you don't have to go through basic training to make monsters a challenge. You just have to look at their stats, and ask how a creature like this would win against a superior foe.

The Art of War

Now, you don't have to get crazy here. Let's take your basic orc. It's a CR 1/3 challenge. You don't need to give a squad of orcs a slew of character levels and high-powered enchanted weapons to make them a viable threat (though if that fits your campaign, more power to you). What you need to do is look at their special abilities, and what would make that creature a threat to your party.

Well, you'll note that greenskin orcs tend to have a few hunting wargs with them, according to their write-up. What if those wargs were wrapped with suicide belts, and trained to rush in among the party? So the dog runs in from an unexpected position, the greenskin leader flicks a switch or bellows the command word (or worse, you kill the warg as the trigger), and BOOM! Everyone's got to make an unexpected Reflex save for half damage. Even if the rogue and the monk make it, the wizard might be hurting if he doesn't have energy resistance up. You don't have to use the crazy 10d6 of the ring of retribution either... just a few d6 can be a problem for low-HP characters who don't make the save.

The same trick might be used by the orcs themselves, and they could pop their exploding belts as soon as their Ferocity kicks in when they're in melee. Perhaps after bellowing, "Witness me!" And if you use their darkvision so they're attacking the party when they're blind, or you give your orcs launchers for alchemical items (just your usual, 1d6 fire or acid flasks), your party might soon be on the receiving end of a decent amount of hurt. Especially if they're in a kill box, with the orcs behind cover at the top of the hill, and the party exposed in the open.

Can the party fight free of this situation, charging the pillbox and taking out the orcs? Or using magic to blast the area and hoping to hit the right targets? Sure, they can, but the point is you just took a CR 1/3 creature, and made the party burn 3rd and 4th-level spells to come out victorious. That's a challenge. Especially if the party can't just run away, and come back later with full health and spells, because now there's a fresh company with even nastier tricks just ready to get revenge for their dead comrades.

Remember, You Can Mix Things Up

There's nothing more boring than a bad guy who does nothing but claw, claw, bite every turn, without fail. So mix it up. Use pack tactics with dire wolves. Have a horde of summoned demons charge in from one direction as a distraction, so the assassin can sneak up from behind and go for the kill. Give your giants the Deflect Arrows feat. Force the players to fight in a cramped, squeezed space against small-sized enemies, taking environmental negatives and moving through difficult terrain while getting hacked, slashed, and burned.

Most importantly, though, don't get repetitive. One encounter with suicide bomber orcs will shake up the status quo, but if every low-level enemy suddenly detonates upon death, your players are going to get bored all over again. Just like how you can get away with a plot-important villain taking a 5-foot step and teleporting away from one fight, but if they do that every, single time the players encounter them, their victories are going to feel pretty hollow after a while. And if every named bad guy uses this tactic, then players are going to start coming up with reasons to cease attending your game.

So, while you should do the unexpected and use smart strategy, don't use the same strategy every time. Because not only will your players lose interest, but they'll crack the code, and find a way to counter that specific thing, and then the steamroller has started back up again. So keep them on their back foot, and remember that you don't always need bigger, badder beasties and pumped-up spells to challenge your party. Sometimes you just need a kobold with a grenade launcher.

For more great ideas, take a look at 3 Ways To Spice Up Combat in RPGs.

That's all for this week's Crunch topic. It's a little more general than most, but I'll have something with more numbers in it next time. If you want more content from yours truly, then why not check out my Gamers archive? It's growing a little bit every month, so check back often. If you want to make sure you don't miss any of my updates, then follow me on Facebook, Tumblr, and Twitter. Lastly, if you want to help support Improved Initiative, then why not head over to The Literary Mercenary's Patreon page? All it takes is $1 a month to help me keep creating content just for you, and to get some sweet gaming swag as a thank you.


  1. Ahh, Tucker's Kobolds. The template to nearly all of my Kobold encounters since I first read it.

    I like to use something similar when I run a "real-time" campaign where the problem isn't some world ending catastrophe, but simply too many threats, too little time, and they're all holding each other partially in check.

    In those cases I usually have Kobolds take over a mine that's important to trade, and if the players choose to deal with them last, they've entranched to the point of literally hollowing out the walls and cielings to serve as arrow slits and murder holes.

    I could make not very many Kobolds go so far that way.

  2. There's a really good blog called The Monsters Know What They're Doing which follows the premise of monsters innately understanding their own abilities and their utility in combat. He also makes mention of their stats, with high Strength being aggressive monsters, high Dexterity being ambushers, high Intelligence coordinating tactics or planning ahead, high Wisdom knowing when and whom to engage and when to flee.

    His advice was invaluable to my DMing, and not only makes combat more interesting, but also makes the monsters feel unique. Goblins are different from Kobolds, but how? (selfish ambushers vs. cunning pack fighters). Hobgoblins are different from Orcs, but how? (roman style armies vs. barbarian hordes).

    Your advice above is excellent. Keith Ammann has taken that idea and written it out for a ton of monsters, and it's my go-to when I need to build an encounter.