Self-defeating strategy

The previous post was, in essence, about letting combat influence story. But, as a friend pointed out while discussing it, there’s another side to this issue: letting story influence combat. I can’t think of any other RPG where this comes up regularly, but it is definitely a problem in 4e. What happens when players outwit their enemies,  leading to their easy defeat? In most other games, this is a perfectly valid, often the preferable and only way to win. However, in 4e the tactical wargame part is its own distinct source of fun, around which much of characters’ capabilities are concentrated. Fighting only half of the enemy force because the other half has been engaged by allies elsewhere is not actually fun if the full force made up a proper encounter. When players find a hole in the plot which lets them circumvent 3/4s of it, they are left wondering: “is that it?” Likewise, if they devise a clever strategy to beat their enemies before the swords are drawn, they win the conflict, yet lose the fun they would have had otherwise.

Consider the following example: the party is hired to find and get rid of a dragon terrorizing a major trade route. On their quest, they will have to discover how the dragon knows which caravans to rob, encounter the orcs serving the dragon and finally confront the beast in its lair, which it has outfitted with various magical traps to make fighting it even harder. The DM has spent some time and effort making sure traps work well with the dragon’s abilities, giggling as they imagined characters being thrown into spinning blades, doused in flammable oil and set on fire by the dragon’s breath weapon, and so on. It is a big, hard, fun combat encounter at the end of a fairly straightforward adventure. What could possibly go wrong?

As the adventure progresses, the players find out where the dragon’s lair is, but instead of just charging in, they do research. They find out about the dragon using some of the loot it got from the caravans it robbed to order magic traps while in its human guise (the same human guise it uses to spy on the merchants). Putting things together, they decide to lure out the dragon with tales of a rich caravan, and disable the traps in its lair while it’s away. Awesome, right? They explored the world, made the DM come up with the way the dragon got those traps thus enriching the story, and engaged the dragon socially, something the DM never anticipated. And here comes trouble: what should the DM do next? The characters are standing at the dragon lair’s entrance, having already dealt with the orcs guarding it. The dragon is away for at least an hour. There are a few options the DM has:

1. Simulationist approach. Written in front of the DM is the encounter he thought the PC would have in the cave. Leave it unchanged, minus the dragon. Let the PCs fight the dragon on its own later.

Advantages: “Fair”. Which would matter if it was a competition between the players and the DM. Not applicable. Least amount of effort required.

Disadvantages: boring cakewalk of an encounter with the traps. Plain encounter with the dragon.

2. Adjust the lair encounter on the fly. Add a couple of golems, hoard scarab swarms or… something. Hope it actually works together.

Advantages: lair encounter becomes appropriately challenging.

Disadvantages: These monsters may not actually work well together. Players’ suspension of disbelief is challenged, as it is clear the world has rippled and changed in front of them. This could be offset with some sleight of hand: lie about losing notes to the encounter if you have to; encourage them into thinking you went with the first option, and how screwed they would have been had they just blundered in. Alternatively, come clean. “Yes, this was unexpected. Here, have a fun encounter.” Depends on your group.

3. Replace the encounter. Instead of treating it as combat, turn it into a skill challenge. Nature of the traps suggests which skills should be used against each one. Each success (or a couple of successes) is a trap disabled. Each failure leads to a healing surge loss. The party has 3 “rounds” until the dragon returns.

Advantages: boring combat turned into exciting skill challenge.

Disadvantages: none, if you can come up with suitable replacement. It was easy with this example, but may not always be so.

4. Resolve the question the encounter would have answered. As my previous post suggests, combat should have more at stake than just victory, because we know the PCs will win. Perhaps in this case, the dragon would have triggered lair’s collapse when bloodied, leaving the party with only a few rounds to finish it off and carry out any particularly valuable loot – not necessarily in that order! Since the PCs have outwitted the dragon, they get a chance to safely carry out its treasure. This could even be coupled with the previous option, making “drag loot out” a possible action in the skill challenge which doesn’t actually advance it.

Advantages: the PCs are presented with a meaningful choice: their reward (loot) or their hides. You may still get your awesome dragon+traps encounter.

Disadvantages: again, none if you can make the story work.

5. Twist in the tale. The lair PCs find does indeed have some traps, and some loot in it. But it is clearly a temporary base, and the dragon is too smart to return to it now that it’s been compromised. This could be the end of the quest, but lets the dragon retaliate, starting a new story.

Advantages: you keep the set-piece encounter for later.

Disadvantages: be careful not to strain credibility, and doubly so not to negate players’ success. This is where “some loot” comes in.

Having written up this scenario and possible solutions to it, here are the important points which should apply to similar situations that I have come up with:

1. Characters should be rewarded for their ingenuity. An easier victory is the obvious option, but there are others: extra loot/information/influence they gain through their astounding victory. Allowing them to succeed at the objective of the combat before combat begins is also a very good reward.

2. Likewise, players should also be rewarded. Keep whatever combat happens fun; let players enjoy the better-than-expected outcome; have the villain shout: “No, it can’t be!” as their plan fails spectacularly.

3. The story should reflect the fact the characters have outsmarted their adversaries. Find the best way to represent that. Change your plans entirely if need be. It doesn’t matter what your notes say, only what actually happens at the table is important.

Next week, gods willing, I’ll cover less story-changing, but still disruptive changes the players can wreak on your encounters. Your poor, poor encounters.

2 thoughts on “Self-defeating strategy

  1. I think the dilemma you’re talking about is well described in the popular new article “Combat as Art vs. Combat as Sport” on ENWorld… We’re a Combat as War group, and spent time executing a strategy today that let us take down the enemy boss without him getting a single shot in return. And everyone’s happy…

    1. Great article, thanks for the link!
      Borrowing the definitions from it, I believe 4e is strongly biased towards Combat as Sport. And the purpose of my post was to offer some advice on how to deal with players unexpectedly treating combat as war. It, therefore, applies to any system where the DM expected a Sport event, and got War.
      If the preferences of the group towards Combat as War are known beforehand, the DM can and should prepare adventures with that in mind, making the story and fun about preparation for the fight. 4e is not the best system for that play style, both due to its reliance on balanced encounters and to its relative lack of tactical preparation it’s possible to make – see upcoming post :).

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