Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Five Type V Lessons for Running Type IV Combat

I had been thinking about writing a post about how running Apocalypse World has inspired me to run all of my games with as little preparation before the game and as much prep done during the game as possible, but that hasn't quite come together in my head.  What I did realize, while thinking about some of it and the D&D Type IV game that I played in last Saturday, is that running Type V D&D aka D&D Next aka 5th Edition has given me some ideas about running combat in Type IV D&D aka 4E aka 4th Edition.

Type V, Fool!

I had thought that after my last time running the Ginger Giant's First D&D group last month that I'd have Type IV out of my system for a while, but now I'm curious to run a short session to try some of these techniques out.

  • Increase Hit Points, not Defenses.  
    • The bestiary for the Next playtest hadn't been noticeably updated for the last four or five big redevelops to the character classes, which meant that the monsters were built for a much earlier design of player damage and powers.  
    • Early on in running Type V, this meant that encounters were not very challenging,especially running published adventures.  I tried several different fixes, using higher level monsters, upping monster defenses, upping the number of monsters per encounter and increasing hit points.
    • In the end, I found increasing monster hit point totals worked the best.  When monster defenses are high and players are constantly (or feel as though they are constantly) missing, they don't know if the monster is tough or just hard to hit or they're just rolling poorly.  When monster defense are lower and players are hitting 66-75% of the time, seeing the monster they're landing blow after blow on take all those hits sells a monster as terrifying or tough just as much or more than if they just couldn't manage to land a blow.
    • Another advantage of increasing HP rather than defenses is that it's easier to flub and adjust on the fly.
  • After that increase the Quantity of Monstrosities
    • One nice thing about Type V is that the flattened math makes low level monsters a threat for much longer, meaning I can toss together a room of 2 hp kobolds on the fly and still have it be dangerous, but Minions can serve much the same purpose in Type IV.
    • When Players have a single enemy to fight, they can concentrate all their fire on that one enemy and no matter how bad-ass and full of reactions, counters or additional actions that monster is, it's going down.  Toss in a few lower level monsters and suddenly the party can't ignore the little guys, even if it only takes them a few turns to wipe out all the goblins, that will give the ogre time to batter the fighters for a few turns before the party gets the triumph they deserve.
    • If I ran Type IV again, I'd re-use something I used in my second to last Type IV combat, where I had monsters who died after a certain number of hits instead of tracking HP.  Basically beefed-up minions, who, instead of dying after a single hit, could take 2-5 so that I knew how long they'd be a threat to the party.
  • Interesting Terrain Is Better than Fancy
    • For a long time I ran Type IV with the fancy, detailed Dungeon Tiles, carefully picking out a set of tiles for each encounter, but then all I'd use from the tiles was the grid and maybe, maybe some rough terrain.  Running Type V with minimal prep and drawing my maps with wet erase markers on the fly has taught me what a difference interesting terrain makes.
    • An example, my last Shattered Lands session, the players came into a basically rectangular room that had a stream of ooze running through the middle and a large, ornate, brass reinforced dressing screen on the other side of the stream.  There were only 4 monsters in the room, one level 2 giant lizard and three level 1 kobolds, which shouldn't have posed a problem to the six 2nd level characters, but having the strange stream they had to cross and the screen for the kobolds to hide behind it became a much more interesting, and I hope, enjoyable combat.  Certainly, it made for a cinematic moment when the dwarven fighter got behind the screen and kicked it down to allow his allies to finally attack the kobolds. Plus then I had the fun of watching the players drag the 15' wide, 8' tall dressing screen through several more rooms of the dungeon and finding more and more uses for it. 
  • Up the Monsters, not the Types of Monsters and "Oh shit, there's more" -  Reinforcements
    • In the three sessions of my Shattered lands campaign I've run approximately 12-13 combats but only used 7-8 monster stat blocks, but I'd bet that the combats feel different to the players because the terrains helped make each one unique.
    • Having 2-3 different monster types in a fight feels like the sweet spot for me, once you have 4-5 different monster stat blocks that you're working with then you're spending a lot of your time shuffling back and forth for monster HP, defense and special abilities.
    • Another great trick I've been using a lot is reinforcements.  It keeps the players on their toes to not be sure that all the adversaries on the board at the start of encounter are all they face.  Whether it's plain ol' reinforcements arriving, hidden foes, enemies rising as zombies or creatures summoned by the big bad, having additional foes show up mid-fight provides a jolt to a fight and lets a GM adjust the balance part-way through an encounter.
    • Players stomping on monsters who were supposed to be a challenge, up the reinforcements.  Players struggling, then decrease the number of reinforcements or skip them all together.
    • Reinforcements can also be used to provide a combat goal, like kill the evil priest so the portal to hell stops vomiting up demons each turn or barricade the door to keep the zombies from flooding through.
  • Let Character’s Shine and then Challenge them instead of focusing on Thwarting them
    • This is one thing I know I struggled with as a GM during my waning months running Type IV before I gave up running my own Type IV games... The feeling that you have to thwart all the combo moves and powers that players, especially experienced or savvy players craft.  Yeah, it sucks when the Swordmage is a damage sink, constantly and consistently negating, 5, 10 or even 25 points of damage from your attacks.  But is it really any more fun for anyone if you, as a GM, just scheme for ways to punish the players for liking their characters and finding cool things for them to do?  
    • Instead I've been slowly working the player characters strengths into my plans.  The Half-Orc Paladin can use a reaction to impose Disadvantage on an attack per round?  Just make sure that I have him swarmed by enemies so that he has to choose.  The Gnome mage is fond of finding groups of enemies to knock unconscious with her Sleep spell?  It'd be a dick move to just have the party run into monsters immune to sleep, instead I'm building in rooms that I know will be easy or easier for the party because the Mage will use sleep and then putting in other challenges, like once the kobolds in the room are asleep, the Ettin that was hidden under the tarp jumps out to clobber them.  
    • It's part of that great Apocalypse World/Dungeon World principle that I've been blabbering on about so much lately, "Be a Fan of the Characters".  If you know that the characters are going to knock all your monsters prone, don't be afraid of rewarding that.  Let them knock all the orcs prone and then, bam! Hit them with some kind of burrowing creature that will swallow that orc as it bursts from the ground to attack them.  You and the players are both going to have more fun if you make sure that the game caters to the strengths of their characters in addition to challenging them.
So that's what I've got Five things I'd try to take from what I've been doing in Type V D&D and apply to Type IV if'n I ever ran it again.

1 comment:

  1. Interesting ideas, I'll have to implement some of them. Last session gave me some serious Encounter building ideas out of what was a 'meh' final battle do to 'STUN'. Hopefully it'll pay off in a loose and crazy Gamma World game on the 1st.

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