When I can see the nerves of one of my fellow GMs starting to fray, I generally remind them that running a table is like being a big brother… forever. At its simplest, our job is to let the players win without rubbing their noses in it. It’s not difficult to see how this can get old rather quickly. The GMs that survive learn to draw sustenance from things other than winning. Given that we have access to a limitless supply of monsters and our winning usually means a battlefield strewn with their shattered corpses, the players are probably grateful for this. The other side to this is, because we’re always sublimating our deeper competitive urges, denying us the thing we’ve chosen as a replacement tends to make us cranky. Really, really cranky.
Even the everyday encounters can get out of hand. Last night one of my players was helping me take a break by running the fights. I made a Wizard to temporarily replace his Invoker because I find that running other people’s characters comes with burdens that dampen my enjoyment. While it was an at-level encounter, I was able to use Evil Eye of the Vistani and Icy Rays to keep a Hill Giant out of the fight for two full rounds. Admittedly, things would have been a little rough if I had missed, but it wasn’t as though I had hung myself out to dry. By the time the giant was able to actually do anything, the fight was functionally over.
After the session, one of my players commented, “I get your design concept now. You nerf encounters.” While that’s not entirely fair, – the purpose of a controller is to control, after all – there’s a grain of truth in the notion that there’s a double standard with regard to denial. When it comes to PCs, it’s okay to beat the crap out of them, but preventing them from playing is viewed as unfun and bad form. Monsters, by contrast, are generally viewed as fair game for a chain of stun, blind, daze, immobilize in the corner… This is especially true of elites and solos, as they tend to be big, heavy-hitting monsters with nasty powers.
Now try to imagine Darth Vader stun locked.
Tips for fixing this problem:
- The big guy should almost never be alone. Avoid the temptation to go all-in on boss design. Including two to four henchmen can help prevent excessive focusing.
- There should be hazards (or at least terrain complications) and the boss should be (nearly) immune to them.
- Prepare for rain. It’s naïve and stupid to think that the PCs are going to hold their dailies in reserve. They’re going to hit the boss with everything they have and you should be ready for it.
- If you look at the monster manuals, nearly every signature monster has some form of multi-attack and/or a mechanism for clearing debuffs. Make sure you include them in your design.
- If the encounter is floundering, don’t be afraid to adjust. In other editions, it was easier to “go big” and dial it back if there was a problem, but 4e has a powerful tool in the form of the Bloodied mechanic. The boss might suddenly recharge, boost its powers or even gain new ones. Obviously, we’d prefer not to have to resort to these methods, but sometimes they’re necessary to salvaging a bad situation.
- Adapt to the party. For special encounters, it’s okay to use something that’s not quite stock. While you have to avoid hard counters and neutering specific characters, there’s nothing wrong with engineering a boss that defies the party’s standard tactics.
To the non-GMs sneaking in here:
It isn’t a nuclear war until someone launches a missile. The Invoker in my campaign originally took Word of Ruin as a panic button. It wasn’t a problem until other players started pointing out “hey, you could Word of Ruin from right here and it’d be amazing,” opening a phase in which the power was used in more than 70% of the combats.
Now, while that may seem to be like nothing more than strong play, it ignores the idea that the GM is allowed to have fun too. GMs may be more constrained than the players, but that shouldn’t mean they’re consigned to eating a shit sandwich over and over again. An excellent rule of thumb for when you might be crossing a line is to “flip the table,” considering how it would feel if the situation was reversed. I think table behavior would change dramatically if more players followed this practice.
Put another way, there’s a limit to how much fun you can have at the GM’s expense. The less fun he’s having, the more likely he is to burn out and do something stupid. That’s how games break up and friendships end. Just as we teach GMs to look for the “sweet spot” where all the players feel effective and engaged, so too should the players be aware of the GM’s enjoyment. It may be crass to say it, but contented cows make better milk.
Think about it.