I volunteer at my Friendly Local Game Shop (FLGS) running games for Dungeons and Dragons Public Play Encounters. We’re almost finished with a 20 week season, the first season with Essentials, and let me tell you, it’s been rough.
It’s not the pre-generated characters, it’s not the adventure, nor is it the Essentials line in general… it’s a very experienced group of min/max players abusing every aspect of Essentials that they can.
Confront the Power Table
I’ve been trying my best from week to week to find creative solutions to the challenges these players provide. It’s too easy to fall into a mechanical repetition of set the monsters up, then knock down. Set up, knock down. Wash, rinse, repeat. The table makeup may vary slightly from week to week, but it is always composed of experienced players who max out their character abilities and play with a balanced, ranged-striker heavy party.
Operating within the confines of the adventure provided (Keep on the Borderlands: A Season of Serpents), I’ve done everything from sending in extra waves, boosting hit points or defenses, and adding lots and lots more enemies. Last week I even added additional traits to the terrain, knowing that it would impede the group’s normal tactics. And with two wizards, I often double or triple the number of minions in a given fight.
Player Character Opponents
If the table has 5 players, I scale it for 8. If it has 7, I scale for 12. The Dwarven Fighter Vondal is maxed out on hit points and defenses, keeping the front line locked down with his defender aura. The Human Wizard Grockus uses Beguiling Strands, and the character is optimized to push enemies within close blast 5 up to 6 squares. He also uses Charm of Misplaced Wrath just to be an extra effective/irritating controller. Then there’s the strikers. The other Wizard, Cinderwillow, spams ranged fire and lightning attacks, and the two Rogue thieves, Titanus and Davin, that generally show up to sneak attack all day long. Then there’s a Druid, Aroka who normally shows up, providing healing, a little extra damage, and perhaps most importantly, his wolf lowers all the enemy defenses by providing combat advantage. When Aroka isn’t around, there’s also another player who plays the pregen Sun Priest Cleric Sola to heal the group. Then perhaps the worst of all, is Xandra, the d10 slayer with a +12 to hit AT LEVEL ONE. Now that Xandra is level 3, and has picked up a few magic items along the way, I think she generally only misses on a natural 1 (and human resolve has her back when she rolls a two).
The recipe is fairly simply. The Dwarven defender locks down the front line, and if enemies come too close, Grockus blasts them back with Beguiling Strands. If there is hazardous terrain, well, then Grockus has even more incentive to beguile almost every round. Meanwhile, the other players all focus fire, consistently dealing 80-100 damage EVERY ROUND. Monsters don’t generally survive very long in this kind of an environment. If they don’t use encounter powers on their first initiative, there’s a good chance they’ll never have an opportunity.
The Quest for Balance
Personally, I always like a challenge, and I have to assume that these players don’t really want to waltz through every encounter without that component of worry, fear, or despair. There have been few emotional up and downs– they normally enter battle with an air of overconfidence, and finish with “yep, we told you we were awesome, and don’t you forget it”. I was half-tempted to turn one week’s combat encounter into a skills challenge simply because one of the characters led with a “get out of our way and you won’t get hurt” line of commentary. In a way, it’s sad to think that a skills challenge might prove to be more difficult than a combat encounter. Next time I might have to use that bravado as a queue for the enemies to call for additional reinforcements… and increase the number of monsters to an absurd level… at least for dramatic effect… the extras could flee after seeing a few of their friends drop.
After trying a variety of different strategies, only one has worked. Make sure the situation will significantly damage the party, and do it as quickly as possible. Perhaps even focus fire and try to knock one or two of them unconscious in the first round. If that means adding a lot of extra monsters and having them surrender or run away later, that’s fine, so long as the players actually feel threatened by the opponents their characters face.
In my mind, there have been two encounters where the party went through the clear ebb and flow of bravado, fear, despair, hope, triumph and afterward, the sweet satisfaction of success. In both situations, there was an element of surprise that caught everyone off guard, and also resulted in players taking gobs of damage.
In one encounter, it was a dragon wyrmling who popped out of the shadows, used dragon breath on the party, and then, because of the party’s high damage output, used dragon breath on most of the party again only a couple turns later. In the other encounter, waves of minions continued to pour onto the field every round, while two giant beasts and two lizard mystics assaulted the gate the characters were trying to defend. Because I increased the minions per round from 6 to 12, even the uber players were not able to stop the castle walls and gate from being overrun.
Fight Fire with Fire
I’m not convinced that high damage from the monster is the the only way, nor the best way to deal with a group like this… but I have made the observation that it has proven more effective than several other methods I’ve tried. Have you had similar problems with at home play with the Essentials line, or at your Public Play table? How are you coping?
This experience, has, however made me a little concerned about allowing Essentials products in my home campaign. Granted, my private group consists of many new players who are not so focused on min/maxing, but it concerns me nonetheless.