Overpowered Essentials Players

hammeraxe Overpowered Essentials PlayersI 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.

A Solution?

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.

9 comments for “Overpowered Essentials Players

  1. Gracchus
    February 11, 2011 at 11:28 pm

    Heyo. Gracchus (Josh) here. First off, sorry! I didn’t realize we’d caused quite that much grief! My thoughts in a nutshell — Essentials isn’t your enemy. Encounters is. Specifically…

    The Encounters format over-rewards specialists (folks with a starting 20 in their primary stat). The normal prices you pay for specialization just aren’t there. Lower off-main skills? No big deal – there weren’t enough skill challenges the skill specialists couldn’t handle. Lower off-main defenses? It’s a low level game. AC is king. Inability to qualify for certain feats? You have two, maybe three feats by the end of game. One of those will be an expertise feat.

    In exchange, you get a +1 to hit, damage, and a NAD (and maybe AC and initiative). It’s too easy to take that 20, and that’s unfortunate. Gracchus may have been the only non-specialist at your table, and he compensated by attacking WILL exclusively.

    I think your other two enemies were party optimization and party size. You’re right about how we worked together – we were made to do just that. Good tactics are… well, effective.

    Party *size* was the bigger problem. 4E really shines with five players and scales up very poorly. You were pretty regularly running for seven (or eight!) players, with up to two characters with pets. It’s hard to compensate for that many PCs and still have a challenging battle that ends in less than four hours.

    We really appreciate the work you put in the game. I hope we can make this next go-round quite a bit more entertaining for you!

    • Sunyaku
      February 12, 2011 at 1:24 am

      Haha, it’s not that the group caused me “grief” exactly– I was just concerned that the combat encounters were too easy, and I didn’t want anyone to get bored over the 20 week marathon. Granted, combat isn’t everything, but I was concerned nonetheless. I do agree, party size (especially when coupled with a group that works well together) definitely was an issue on several occasions.
      Sunyaku recently posted..Public Play Improvements- March of the Phantom Brigade

    • Michael
      July 14, 2011 at 9:32 pm

      I was under the impression that Encounters was supposed to only last 1-2 hours. WotC website advertises Encounters for the casual player I assumed. The types that played D&D quite a bit in the past but life style changes disallow them to really spend 4 – 6 hours RPing.

      I have a one year old that’s in bed by 7:30. If I get off work at 4 and play encounters at 6, I not only loose out on father-daughter time, but I also don’t have the option of bringing her along.

      I had to leave a game early last night of Encounters due to this situation.

      In reality I do not think any encounter sequence in a role playing session should comprise the entire session. So in Encounters the 1-2 hour time frame that talk about on the D&D website seems spot on with what a typical encounter should be.

      • Sunyaku
        July 17, 2011 at 1:56 am

        I agree — I do enjoy combat as much as anyone, but in terms of “difficulty” for the group, it was a little sad that a standard skills challenge would be more difficult than just about any combat encounter.

  2. Gracchus
    February 11, 2011 at 11:41 pm

    One specific response – with the exception of the Benwick Intimidation attempt, we really were trying to talk our way past combats. The comment you took as “get out of our way and you won’t get hurt” was meant as “we don’t want to hurt you, and we don’t want to get hurt in return. Just let us past.” Heck, we tried to talk our way past the evil faerie-thing in chapter two!

    I can’t speak for the rest of the table, but we’d have loved the opportunity to skill our way past a fight, or at least to maneuver in to a better position! I know everybody was a fan of the fight outside of the dragon’s lair, where you allowed stealth checks to put the party in a more favorable starting location.

    Okay, two responses. Xandra only had a +9 to hit at level one. +13 once per encounter because she was human. She did 1d10+12 damage at up to 40 squares at level one, mind you. And, yes, Slayers may just be a little over-the-top. :)

    • Sunyaku
      February 12, 2011 at 1:37 am

      I remember Gracchus trying to be diplomatic– but I also remember Vondal being intimidating. In this area you also have a good point– to some degree, encounters itself is the enemy.

      It’s hard to justify a skill challenge in place of combat sometimes. Especially since that module, most of the information was combat related. March of the Phantom Brigade does a much better job with this. With the fairy in particular, it wasn’t an intelligent creature that could really be reasoned with–it was more of a golem following its programming. Perhaps I didn’t make that apparent. But looking back, I could have allowed a skills challenge to deactivate the room’s defenses.

      As I learn and grow as a DM, I will try to be more flexible with improvised skill challenges and rewards. I’ve been consuming a lot of information over the past year to become a better DM, and I think this post was a bit of a vent of the various frustrations I perceived trying to deliver a quality encounters experience. Season 4 is going to be awesome though, for all the reasons described in the link below. :-)
      Sunyaku recently posted..Public Play Improvements- March of the Phantom Brigade

      • Gracchus
        February 14, 2011 at 3:52 pm

        Agreed – I’m very much looking forward to the rest of the current season!

  3. Alton
    February 16, 2011 at 1:22 am

    Hey, just my two cents. I started DMing March of the Phantom Brigade. The Essential characters are insane. I tend to play one day early with one group and Wednesday with my other group. The rogue is insane. Tactical Trick and Tumbling Trick are killer at-wills. This is an example of powers that are rock solid. Unfortunately, I don’t know a lot about essentials; I have not bought the books yet due to budget, but I will end up buying them at some point. Anyways, I do not worry too much about encounters. It is mostly for beginners, so I think it is designed to be relatively easy, and given the ability for adjustments by the DM as they see fit.

    I think it is designed for beginner DMs also. Who knows? Love the season so far though. The roleplaying is more than making up for the weakness of the encounters.

    Alton recently posted..Controllers are the Best Role to Play!

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