Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Every monster SHOULD be beatable

Thinking about one of my answers to Brendan's 20 questions on my DMing style.

The question of should we run, or can we defeat every monster.

I think my answer firmly puts me in the "combat as war" camp, but also perfectly shows off one of the things that I love about RPGs.  Something that keeps me coming back.

For those too lazy to follow the link, here's the question and my response:

Will we need to run from some encounters, or will we be able to kill everything?  You don't NEED to run.  But see questions 1 and 2 above if you don't when you should.  If you're clever, though, yes, you CAN kill everything.  It's up to you to figure out how in some cases.
 Questions 1 and 2 being about character generation and character death (for me, at 0 hit points, no "death and dying" rules).

Should every encounter be one where the players can just attack and expect to win?  Absolutely not.

Should there be a way that even a single level 1 PC could destroy the toughest of dragons, giants or balrogs?  Yes, there absolutely should...

...if the player is clever enough to think of one, that is. 

If I throw a super tough monster in an encounter, or a force of lesser monsters that can overwhelm the PCs, it's not the time to run in and roll initiative, roll to hit, roll damage, rinse and repeat.

Running is likely the best option (surrender is also on the table, but I don't think that's often happening in most RPGs).

But just like Spider-Man, who gets whipped up on by the Hobgoblin in the first few pages of the comic, if the players can come up with some clever stratagem to defeat the overpowered foes, there should be decent odds for it to actually work. 

Players need to realize, though, that even when they have that foolproof plan to lure the dragon into wasting its breath weapons on illusions, quaffing the potion of diminution that it thinks is a potion of invisibility, and then stuffing it into the bag of holding and tossing it into the bottomless pit, that plan might not be as foolproof as they would like.  Things may go wrong, and likely there will be a TPK or near TPK if something does go wrong. 

Nothing ventured, nothing gained.

Think it's not worth the risk?  Then stick to the orc warrens and sewers chock full of giant rats until you feel tough enough, by all means.

Again, I'm reminded of the bear cave in my Board Game Group sandbox game from 2 years ago.   For a party of low level characters, two bears were a dangerous encounter, but one they could have won with more luck or the right tactics.  Dave had suggested the correct tactics (going back to town for boar spears to keep the bears at bay), and if they had followed through, they could have defeated the bears without suffering the lost characters. 

The stuffing the diminutive dragon into a bag of holding was something Killing Machine came up with back when we were kids.

Next time you find yourself up against a foe that you can't defeat toe to toe, try to think of some way to flood the Augean stables, keep the trolls arguing until the sun rises, go forth and bring back a shrubbery, or take off  and nuke the entire site from orbit. 

And as old Jack Burton says, "It's all in the [mental] reflexes."


  1. This is a really tricky subject.

    All too often I think players come up with "this plan is so awesome, the DM will be a total dick if he doesn't let it work" ideas.

    Ideas which almost always completely depend on the monster or bad guy being completely blindsided. What's that, you're going to trick a thousand year old dragon into drinking the wrong potion? Yeah, right. That's only been tried on him like, a dozen times. See that scorched skull sitting over there? that's the last jerk who tried it.

    Don't get me wrong; when you're punching way above your weight class, sometimes you need to fight dirty, and think with your head, not your fists. But players also need to realize that the A-Team had scriptwriters, and "so crazy it just might work" is usually just a long version of "crazy".

  2. When strength, brains, and steel aren't enough, get yourself a wheelbarrow and a holocaust cloak.

  3. I agree that no monster should be simply defined as "unkillable" because that's just dumb. But Jack is right that players seem to feel entitled to have their weird plans work. It's a double standard that's exemplified in Charm Person.

    Charm a PC and ask him to attack his friends. He will bend over backwards to attack them in the most ineffectual way possible. He'll draw two weapons he doesn't know how to use and dual-wield them backwards against the highest-AC party member. He'll grapple the pack mule. He'll cast Sleep on people he knows are too high level to be affected or against the Elves.

    When a PC Charms an NPC, if the NPC doesn't immediately backstab his old friends and explain in great detail the location and amounts of every treasure in the dungeon level the players get miffed and think the DM is being shitty.

    The "easy" slaying of the dragon example has so many flaws it's crazy. First, dragons in many games are immune to illusions. No wasted breath weapon. To swap out a diminution potion for invisibility requires sneaking in, and if you can sneak up to the dragon you could just surprise it and attack for a round or two. Why would the dragon drink an invisibility potion, and why wouldn't he smell the grotesque stench of halfling burglar on the vial? Failing that, would the dragon diminish small enough to fit past the opening of the Bag of Holding? Did enough people scamper forth to wrestle it to the ground to get it in there? This assumes the dragon isn't flying!

    Finally, the PCs evidently got into the dragon's lair and managed to approach without altering it. There were no noisy guards or traps leading up to the lair?

    Also this plan ruins a Bag of Holding as the dragon's claws and spines tear it apart from the inside and strew the contents into the Astral. No more dragon, but you also just trashed a maximum-size Bag of Holding which might represent a large portion of the hoard you planned to steal.

    I'm firmly in the "combat as war" camp, and I love it when players come up with cool plans. When I referee I try to be neutral and if that fails I side with the players. I cheer their successes and I don't consider it a loss if they beat a monster I thought would kill them or get a treasure I thought was beyond them. But I'm not going to play along with a lame plan to overcome an incredible obstacle.

    A good plan, yes. Illusions and sneaking with a dragon? Not so much.

  4. The illusions/potion vs. dragon thing was when we were 12. It was novel at the time, and there's nothing in BECMI that indicates that dragons are immune to anything but their breath weapon.

    Sure, AD&D spells a lot of that out. 2E even moreso than 1E, IIRC. But when we were kids, that was a brilliant and novel way to dispose of a dragon. :D