Wednesday, August 27, 2008

When Good Encounter Planning Goes Bad

The other day I came across this post and a paragraph in the middle of it caught my eye.
When planning encounters, DMs need to make sure that everyone has something to do. If the Big Bad Demon has super-high spell resistance that is sure to stymie the mages, then provide some mooks that the wizard can blast away with chain lightning bolts. If the lich lord has ungodly damage reduction, make sure the fighter has some skeletons to cleave through. It’s not about throwing the players softballs; it’s about making sure that everyone has something to challenge and engage them.
This is good advice probably 99% of the time. However, I had it backfire on me spectacularly once years ago. It bugs me to this day so I thought I'd share the story.

In college we played a lot of GURPS Supers, and our main campaign seemed infested with paramilitary types carrying big guns instead of zapping bad guys with superpowers. For my first time running the game, I wanted a more four-color feel so I had everyone play students irradiated by a science lab accident on campus. The players came to the table with a big metal guy, a super-lucky guy, a speedster, a matter manipulator, and some others I don't remember. Overall, exactly the kinds of characters I was looking for.

Since the radiation accident smacked of the Fantastic Four and their cosmic rays, I ran with it - the first adventure involved a Mole Man clone leading an underground army up out of the campus quad. The PCs eventually battled his minions back to his underground lair, where I had made sure to follow the advice above. There was a big stone guy for the big metal hero, and morlock-style mooks for everyone else to play with.

There was just one problem: the player of the matter manipulator, who I figured would disarm the mooks by turning their axes into tapioca pudding or something, refused to attack them. Instead he focused on the big stone guy, who was too large for his limited power to affect. After one round of no effect and with mooks surrounding him, I thought he'd get a clue. After three rounds of his character attacking the same target and doing nothing effective, the mooks he could have disarmed with a thought carved him into dog food with their axes.

The thing that bugs me to this day is that the player argued with me for an hour that his character had done the tactically correct thing by focusing on the biggest threat. The evidence of the outcome didn't sway him in the slightest. I guess the moral of the story is that if you have a player with the same mindset, you might have to take that into account when adding mooks around a BBEG. Especially if the mooks are dangerous enough to do lots of damage if ignored.


Anonymous said...

That's actually an interesting anecdote and one that can certainly happen to anyone.

If I was one of the players, I might have focused on the unique bad guy first as he appeared to be far more of a threat than the mooks were.

That being said, it might not be completely out of bounds for a GM to suggest other method for the matter manipulator to deal with the stone guy, like turning the ground into quicksand, or making the ceiling collapse on top of the thing, rather than attacking the target directly.

This way the GM now empowers the matter manipulator to be "of use" to his comrades, and won't detract from the fun of the Metal Guy, who still gets to pound the stone bad guy to a pulp after the manipulator does his thing to immobilize him.

Reverend Mike said...

What's tactically correct is certainly something up for debate...

That player certainly sounds like a basic wargamer, where taking out the most powerful opponent first is usually the best tactic...that way the amount of damage done to the party of the course of the encounter is least...

But of course, the player has the fog of war whereas you senor DM had a full view of the probabilities involved in the combat...knowing full well that he couldn't affect the biggest threat, of course it's more logical to go after lesser but more numerous opponents...

As a player though, it always feels good to be able to take credit for bringing down the big guy...ego certainly might have something to do with it...but I dunno...

Gregor LeBlaque said...

Welcome to the blog, pointyman and Rev Mike!

If I recall correctly (and it's been over 15 years since this happened so I might not) the matter manipulator could affect something like 250 lbs of material with his power and it had all kinds of other limitations as well. If he tried to manipulate the environment instead of making a direct attack I'm not sure he could change enough stuff for the big guy to notice.

This weekend I might be visiting the guy who played the big metal hero - I think he still has all the books we were using, so if I remember I might look up how that power worked.

@Reverend Mike:
I don't think the player was a wargamer, but he was fascinated by modern military tactics and hardware. He later GMed Twilight 2000 for us and was in his element there, if that gives you some idea.

Even in the fog of war I thought he'd notice which way his own hit points were going (down, FAST) and try to do something about it.

Plotter said...

"to this day is that the player argued with me for an hour that his character had done the tactically correct thing [...]The evidence of the outcome didn't sway him in the slightest."

Seen that before. It's funny when the GM gives 'em a chance and only takes half their hit points in a round that they do something that's "tactically unsound" instead of splatting them in one shot. ...and then the player continues to do the same thing, arguing all the way.

They're half dead in one round. What did they think would happen in round two?

Gregor LeBlaque said...

My sentiments exactly. I mean, I've been in hopeless situations as a player, but when the ogre barbarian hit our highest-AC PC on a natural 3 and did 3/4 my character's hp in damage I knew we were in trouble...

ChaoticBlackSheep said...

Yeah, yeah. I'm sorry about that. Lack of experience - I misread the encounter level table. :(

In retrospect, we should have had the cops come in and break up the illegal fighting ring you were in (or perhaps they could have arrived solely to arrest certain members of the other team in a less illegal scenario, and you'd have someone on your side). You could have had an adventure dropped in your lap after either being arrested or helping to catch the criminals.

I know it's a cheap out, but it is good to have one in your pocket when you realize that either you have overpowered the characters or your players are too stubborn to save themselves. I don't think that well on the fly, though, and it was a joint effort which makes it more difficult.