How to put those punk-ass adventurers in their place

I’m writing this essay as a response to a listener question from Walt on episode #144 of the Gaming and BS podcast, as well as a reminder to myself to do these things in my own games. Walt basically asks how he can avoid the PCs mopping the floor with the bad guys in his encounters. I don’t know anything about Walt’s situation, but I was thinking about how I would answer someone if they asked me this in real life. So let me start with this: here’s a YouTube video of a party absolutely destroying the final boss, Chaos, in the original Final Fantasy for the NES (the relevant portion starts at about 1:15):

This fight illustrates an important principle of roleplaying games.

Principle 1. In any task, the PCs’ chance of success is maximized when they can have the right person do the job and manipulate the circumstances to their advantage.

This fight unfolds in a pretty textbook way. There’s some defensive and offensive buffing, protection against common elemental attacks, healing by the white mage, and lots of hitting by the fighters. Everybody is contributing to the fight in the way they’re “supposed to.” The party also has the advantage of this being one monster, and they can basically stand there and whale on the thing until it falls over. With non-combat tasks, things often shake out the same way. If you need to get the scepter from Emperor Kerrin’s private chamber, you most likely have the wizard cast a silence spell, the rogue pick the lock, and the barbarian keep lookout. To change those roles is counterintuitive at best and dangerous at worst, especially if you’re in a game that doesn’t have fail-forward mechanics.

If your combat is Final Fantasy combat, it’s going to be harder for you as a GM to challenge the players, plain and simple. Your only real option is to increase the number or strength of monsters, and as your players gain strength, they will likely come up with ways to nullify that option. They will likely also become better at playing together and availing themselves of tactical and mechanical options in your game.

So what’s a GM to do? Let’s hop on over to the Dungeon World SRD and look at moves that are available to the GM. If you don’t play Dungeon World or other Powered by the Apocalypse games, no problem. These moves are great as general ideas to follow regardless of system:

  • Use a monster, danger, or location move
  • Reveal an unwelcome truth
  • Show signs of an approaching threat
  • Deal damage
  • Use up their resources
  • Turn their move back on them
  • Separate them
  • Give an opportunity that fits a class’ abilities
  • Show a downside to their class, race, or equipment
  • Offer an opportunity, with or without cost
  • Put someone in a spot
  • Tell them the requirements or consequences and ask

This list, while not exhaustive, is a good start for things you can do as the GM to turn combat on its head. As a companion to Principle 1, here’s Principle 2.

Principle 2. If you want to make it harder for your players to succeed in a task, deliberately deprive them of an advantage that they will seek as part of Principle 1.

Using the italicized moves in the list above and the idea of Principle 2, here are some examples of how you can avoid Final Fantasy combat. These are for D&D 5e.

Use up their resources

In a D&D game, this can mean concrete resources, like ammo, or it can mean abstract resources like spells or actions in the action economy. D&D is at least partially a resource-management game. To me, this is actually the fundamental tension of D&D — is what I’m going to do worth the risk it might carry? Players must always make the decisions about whether they should use a limited-use ability now or later, and the decision is especially tough if they know they’re in a hostile area. This tension manifests in everything from using magic items to deciding whether to do something that would provoke an attack of opprtunity.

One example of this from a real-life game would be to have an NPC baddie start off the fight by activating a weird arcane machine in the room that causes harm to the party on a regular basis until it’s deactivated by succeeding on a couple of Arcana checks. Here, you’re using up their resources, because the party must decide who’s going to deactivate it. That character won’t be able to contribute to taking down the bad guy, and if that character is a squishy, they’re going to need protection. You divert the PCs from the main task at hand by introducing a distraction, and that hurts their effectiveness.

Separate them

If the party is routinely mopping the floor with your monsters, change up the terrain so that it’s physically impossible for the party to maintain contact. Instead of a big open battlefield populated with monsters, drop a chasm in the middle, put a rickety bridge over it, and put monsters on both sides. If you’re indoors, put some archers up on a second-floor balcony. This forces the party to devote resources to two places at once and also introduces environmental hazards. Don’t get pushed off the bridge!

You could also do something like activate a trap that puts a wall of force up between the two halves of the party. This can further break Principle 1 if you separate them in a not-optimal way, like putting the two squishies together or trapping a wounded character somewhere with no access to healing.

Show a downside to their race, class, or equipment

If your party is mostly ranged attackers, concealment can do wonders to prolong your monsters’ lives. Got a party of all humans? Darkness is a great weapon. If they can’t defend well against certain types of damage, or have no reliable way to turn undead, then by all means be a dick and lean on that weakness. Sometimes. If you do it all the time, that’s not good GMing, that’s lazy. You can even lean on something for a long time to really press the party and wear them out, as long as you provide a release from that tension later on. There are some great episodes of the Misdirected Mark podcast that talk about this principle of story beats, and they basically say that if you continuously beat the characters down on purpose, that’s not effective storytelling. That principle applies here.

However, I think that it’s good for a party to feel pressed sometimes. Succeeding against the odds or when you’re suffering a handicap can be exhilirating. It can make for tense encounters and great war stories, and even the defeats can be memorable in that sense. Being forced to make do with what you have rather than spamming what you’re “supposed to” do fosters player ingenuity and builds teamwork.

Finally, remember: even kobolds are scary if you run them right.