Another 4e skirmish & Pulling Punches

May 25, 2008 at 12:11 pm
filed under Roleplaying
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Although I wrote the previous post first, it was this scenario that made me realize I have a problem. When I run D&D, and it looks like the fight is going against the PCs, I find myself pulling punches.

What brought this to mind? Well, let me tell you about a little skirmish game I ran on Sunday.

See, in 4th Edition, supposedly the difference between level 1 and level 3 isn’t so much that, say, the wizard now has Scorching Ray, which is a huge acquisition in terms of power level. Instead, the math is slightly different: enemies hit slightly harder and are more difficult to hit in turn.

I wanted to see how that played out in practice. Is it obvious to the players that they are overmatched? or does the fight degenerate into a frustrating slog as the PCs are killed off slowly? I wanted to get a little bit of data on that and also have some fun on a boring Sunday afternoon.

The players used the five level 1 PCs from Keep on the Shadowfell. The encounter was on a road through light woods (i.e. some trees were around) with five level 3 hobgoblins: two Soldiers, two Archers, and a Warcaster, with the stats from Monsters & More (4th Edition). (EN World is down at the moment, so no link yet.) My goal? See how easy it is to kill the PCs when playing ruthlessly with monsters above their level.

The fight had some interesting highlights. The archers were very effective, dropping at least one character. I believe the warcaster got in his close blast 5 ability, which dropped someone else and was pretty devastating overall. The rogue was very effective in dishing out ridiculous amounts of damage.

But I was talking about how I pulled punches. The archers did not, in fact, keep the wizard and rogue down as they might have if I were playing as ruthlessly as I intended. Arguably, this made the biggest difference. The paladin and fighter were doing respectable damage, but the rogue was ultimately the finisher.

The soldiers did not stick together in order to form a unit with better AC, and I kept forgetting that they slowed their target on hit, although I am not sure it would’ve mattered. The former allowed the soldiers to survive longer. AC 22 is a nice advantage when the rogue has +10 to hit when flanking.

The warcaster, well, I actually didn’t pull any punches with him. He used his abilities pretty effectively and consistently. I probably should’ve used his melee ability to daze a target rather than trying to withdraw him from combat.

So, if I sat down with the intent to kill PCs, why did I pull my punches?

I hate killing PCs. I don’t feeling like an asshole. This is a problem because we’re all adults, which means we should all be good sports, and it’s the possibility of losing big that makes winning so much fun.

I’ve been pretty keen on trying to nurture the Asshole DM, who can perhaps best be summarized as a DM who loves his PCs but has a really screwed up way of showing it. Trouble is, I’m not sure I actually have the stomach for it. It may be that I have to explicitly declare that I am running a “Death happens” game and isolate the part of me that wants to nudge things in favor of the PCs from the part of me that’s running the horrible monsters bent on murdering the PCs.

There is one data point that I took away from this. Monsters do not appear to be designed to pull punches. They’re designed to be played the way they are, and the PCs can almost certainly take it when it comes to equivalent level monsters. For higher level monsters, the math does turn out to be slightly nastier, but it’s not insurmountable.

To some extent, I have more questions than before. How much does this depend on the monster? Are there some monsters that turn out to have a glass jaw if the PCs know how to hit it? What about solo monsters? Do they turn out to be a slog? How about a group of mixed-level monsters?

Once again, these questions have to wait until the game comes out. 13 goddamn days! Does anyone have any suggestions? Do you think cocaine or possibly heroin would help?

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