WARNING: If you are in The Middle-Aged GM’s campaign, read no further!!!
I am often asked why I chose the moniker “The Evil GM”. To my chagrin, a fair number of people assume that it is because I enjoy torturing my players, when nothing could be farther from the truth. A GM is God Almighty, making it easy to destroy characters. It’s like playing chess with an infinite number of pieces. No, the truly evil GM is a deliberate craftsman, seeking to find the sublime intersection between story and rules. There’s nothing I enjoy more than helping people make their game more fun and run more smoothly. That’s why I was genuinely excited by The Middle-Aged GM’s request that I help him craft an encounter. Here, then, is my process
Know Your Players
The Middle-Aged GM gave us the basic structure of what he wanted: A fight that included an sneaky rogue/assassin, a lich with arcane shielding and a zone that hampered healing. Witchknight and I tossed around some ideas, but we quickly came to realize that we needed to see the characters before we went any further. The Middle-Aged GM sent them to us and we scoured through them, not to optimize them, but so that we could see what the players were looking for from the game. We then asked The Middle-Aged GM to confab with us on Skype so that we could confirm our impressions (most of which were correct) and get a feel for his GM style.
We saw that the players don’t think in terms of synergy. None of the characters were optimized, but they were all functional. They don’t seem all that concerned about missing, as several of them had taken powers that use off-brand attack stats. We also discovered that the characters lack any meaningful area of effect powers, but they all are stacked for damage, even the cleric and the paladin. I’ll touch on this more in a second, but it’s relevant here because it speaks to how they perceive the game: they like straightforward, smash-mouth fights.
This leads to the most important rule of encounter design: You have to tune to the players and the characters you have, rather than to the system.
One of the drawbacks to the CR/EXP budget system is that it doesn’t teach the nuances of encounter design. It would have been very easy for The Middle-Aged GM to simply say, “I have four or five 8th level characters, giving me a budget of 2,000 or 2,500” and plop down some mostly-stock monsters. The RPG hasn’t been written where you can do that and routinely churn out balanced, interesting encounters. Some people will try to convince you that this bug is actually a feature that adds realism. Hogswallow. That’s like buying a car and expecting it to drive itself.
When The Middle-Aged GM says that I pair monsters “like a master sommelier picking wine for a tasting menu” – thank you for the fine compliment, by the way – he’s referring to my belief that there’s more to monster design than the monster itself. Encounter design is much like cooking. You have to balance textures and flavors. The way the monsters interact and support each other is important and knowing what the characters and players can – and cannot – do is the foundation for understanding what types of synergy and mechanics will work at your table.
The best example of this is The Middle-Aged GM’s interest in a zone or aura that reduces healing. While such mechanics are perfectly viable, when we looked at the PCs, we realized that they don’t have enough healing powers to make this a good idea, so we switched to something else.
The N-Body Problem
4e’s game mechanics work best when the number of monsters is within one of the number of PCs (N). As a joke, we sometimes refer to this as M = N±1. Where did we get that? Well, it has to do with roamers.
As a general rule, the defenders (or the characters who are intended/expected to take damage if you’re playing something other than 4e) can only wrangle so many enemies. The best tuning will take into account how many monsters the party can control and how badly they want to be in control. If the number of monsters is much lower than the number of PCs, then the PCs are likely to surround the enemies and the fight will be fairly static. The PCs will also be able to focus very cleanly and will generally have to worry about fewer random factors. This is one of the reasons why 4e solo fights tend to underperform.
If the number of monsters is significantly greater than the party’s ability to tank, then you have monsters running free. This swings the fight difficulty the other way, as you will suddenly have characters that don’t expect to take damage struggling to get away from the roamers. This is also true of fights where the monsters have movement abilities that allow them to ignore marks. This type of encounter design is perfectly viable and can be a lot of fun, but it is also more stressful.
The Wednesday Rule
This term came about because I ran a 4e game on Wednesdays where the players had a written policy that “There shall be no more than one bloodied monster on the field at any time.” It might have been simpler to refer to the principle by the MMO term “target discipline.” One of the things that The Middle-Aged GM told us was that they don’t have strong target discipline. This is helpful to know.
The important takeaway from the Wednesday rule is understanding the speed with which the party simplifies the combat. If they tend to scatter the damage over several targets, fights will last longer, consume more resources and generally be more dangerous. If they are more conscientious, the monsters will need to be more effective on their own to maintain challenge. Also, if the party is good at picking a pony and riding it into the ground, you have to be more careful with the signature monsters in a fight. This is especially true in fights that don’t include a boss-type, as regular monsters tend to blow up pretty quickly if the party is determined.
… and on to the show!
We start with a level+3 encounter, which gives us 2,500 EXP if all five of his players are present (The Middle-Aged GM indicated that it was possible that one of the players would not be able to attend). Torrin Stormclaw was built earlier and seems okay, if potentially a bit strong.
We simplify the fight from the start so that the players are not overwhelmed. We do this by having Torrin and a couple of flunkies in an outer chamber waiting for the PCs. This allows The Middle-Aged GM to tune the fight at will. If the PCs are doing well, Torrin retreats into the inner sanctum where the lich is performing its ritual. We make sure that our mooks are simple so that the PCs can concentrate on the bad guy, but not so much that they can just have their way with him.
Now we come to the lich. I think that the arcane shielding mechanic is very flavorful, especially since as many as three of the PCs (paladin, warlock and cleric) can make trained checks to reduce it. I tried to accomodate his desire for a mechanic that makes the players have second thoughts about healing. (Note: yeah, I based this strongly off of one of my other monsters and forgot to change one of the references. Oops.)
And finally we have his minions…