Saturday, October 14, 2017

When It Comes To The Rules, Turnabout Is Fair Play (With Some Caveats)

We've all had that one character who, through luck, planning, or just a once-in-a-lifetime permission slip, got our hands on an ideal trick. Something that, when used properly, was almost a plot resolution device all on its own. Maybe it was the combination of metamagic feats that let your wizard build the magical equivalent of a pocket nuke. Perhaps it was that feat combination that gave you immunity to the enemy's element of choice. It might even have been that multiclass combo that let you deal damage way outside your CR, letting you chop enemies at your level in half with a single swing.

What did you say the save DC on that ability was?
On the one hand, these are always fun discoveries for players to make. They can lead to some memorable encounters when the abilities are first deployed, and they might even be the basis for character reputations in the world. Things that earn you nicknames like Aren "Firestorm" Breakwater, or Darius "The Ax" Woods.

However, don't get too involved in your end zone dance. Because it's important to remember that turnabout is fair play, and any tools you have access to, the DM also has access to.

The Anti-Party?

Let me be clear, here. If you, as a DM, immediately take all your party's best parlor tricks and give them to your NPC villains, that is a dick move. Part of what makes effective rules combinations so much fun as part of a campaign is that they are special. If a player figured out how to do something cool, don't Xerox their success until every Tom, Dick, and Frodo can do what they do. Not only that, but players use classes which tend to be less common when slapped onto antagonists (even though the DM technically has access to everything in the game world).

On the other hand, take notes. Check to make sure the ability works the way the player says it works, and file it away for later use.

What page did you say that feat was on? Oh, no particular reason...
Now, later might mean, "the next campaign, when I've got a different group," or it might mean, "a few levels from now, when they've gotten complacent."

As a very basic example, take the ranger. Dave put together a solid ranger, with all the proper feats to turn his bow into a gatling gun. The main enemy of the campaign tends to be the one he favors, so even when the rest of the party is struggling, the ranger is plinking bullseye after bullseye against his foes.

The obvious thing to do here is to change-up the villain roster so that the ranger doesn't constantly get his full bonuses against every enemy, every time. And a DM should totally do that. However, a DM could also create an NPC villain ranger whose favored enemy is at least one race in the party. He has the same fighting style, and many of the same bonuses, as Dave's PC. He might even favor the same kind of terrain, meaning that hunting him in the forest could be suicide for a party who doesn't know what they're up against.

Is this lazy DMing? Some say yes, but if your players have already done your homework for you, why wouldn't you use some of what they found?

With that said, it's important to put your own spin on the tricks you take from PCs (past or present), and to make it relevant to the plot. For example, while Dave's ranger tends to stand in the middle of battle, firing in all directions, the NPC ranger you've made tends to shoot from cover, and uses feats like Vital Strike to make one shot extremely dangerous. He also prefers ambushes, and always runs when the fight stops going his way. The opposite of Dave's character, who never draws first blood, but who will fight to the bitter end if required.

The next thing you need to figure out is who is this NPC antagonist? Is he someone Dave's character has tangled with before, the two of them circling each other on different battlefields but never quite coming to blows? Is he a former comrade-in-arms, or even a mentor, who now finds their interests in opposition to Dave's ranger? Is he an infamous mercenary, marked by his signature arrow fletching as much as by his fighting style?

Do Not Punish Your Players For Succeeding

I feel the need to re-iterate this point. If your players found a way to do something cool, like get immunity to electricity, get potent spell-like abilities, or cut projectile weapons out of the air, do not punish them for it. If they aren't breaking the rules, and you okay'd this character, then they are coloring within the lines. Don't wad up their paper and tell them they were doing it wrong because they're using a color you don't like, or which is inconvenient for your campaign.

Most importantly, do not have abilities work one way for PCs, and another way for your NPCs. A rule must always work the same way, whether it's a PC or NPC making use of it.

With that said, turnabout is fair play. If you have a player who always uses Intimidate to demoralize foes, don't be afraid to bring out your own Thug who leaves PCs shaken using Cornugon Smash whenever he rings their bell. If you have a mounted paladin who rides roughshod over the battlefield, don't be afraid to field your own black knight with dark powers of his own. Just because the monk is a champion wrestler, that's no reason not to field an NPC who has also specialized in grappling.

As I said earlier, though, you're much better off copying strategies than just lifting power sets straight from the party. And if you are going to copy stuff directly from PCs, make sure you change it up enough that you aren't just holding up a mirror and going, "Okay, now you're going to fight yourselves!"

Even if you are going to make an anti-party for the players to oppose, they need to be unique and individual... even if they have similar skill sets.

Lastly, if you're looking for more solid DM advice, the Dungeon Keeper recently did a list of 5 tips for DMs considering a horror game. I'd recommend it highly... after all, tis the season!

That's all for this week's Crunch topic. It's a little rambly, but I felt it was important to shine a light both on the fact that anything players can field, the DM can also field, while at the same time cautioning DMs not to make too much of a habit of that strategy. If you'd like even more gaming content from yours truly, check out my growing archive at Gamers. If you want to stay on top of all my latest releases, follow me on Facebook, Tumblr, and Twitter. Lastly, consider supporting Improved Initiative by dropping a donation on The Literary Mercenary's Patreon page. $1 a month gets you some sweet swag, and my eternal gratitude.

1 comment:

  1. I would add one caveat- if you do copy your PC party to make adversaries and that's part of the story- then it can be okay to lift them lock-stock-and-barrel. I somewhat recently did that in a Supers campaign, and the players fairly quickly realized they were dealing with some sort of literal clone or doppelganger, but that was also an important element of the story as it helped lead them back to who was the actual "big bad" behind the evil.