When it comes to tabletop roleplaying games, encounters are the meat-and potatoes. Usually this means combat.
There are a few things to keep in mind about combat. First of all, it’s easy to overdo. Combat is a blast, and it’s one of the most fun things about games like Pathfinder. But if the games feels like a grind of fight after fight, or if it feels like a meaningless pastiche, it’s easy for players to become bored and disengaged. On the other hand, when it isn’t overdone, it’s one of your most powerful tools for getting players awake and engaged. Finally, it’s one of the best ways to start a session. One of the best first sentences to kick off a session is “Roll for initiative.”
There’s infinite possible encounters you can throw at your players, but generally the most important categories fall into a couple categories:
1. Horde fight
2. Middle-tier fight
3. Boss fight
4. Throw-away fight
1.: Horde fights
Horde fights are usually the most fun fights, and are extremely convenient. As GM, throwing waves of small monsters at the players does several things. One, it makes everyone feel powerful. Even the weaker combatants will be able to enjoy smashing the little guys. Two, everyone can contribute—even characters with sub-optimal or unfocused builds will be able to incrementally help the team somehow. Three, it gives people with Fireball type area spells or multiple-enemy attacks like Cleave return on their investment. And fourth, it’s the easiest to fine-tune. You can adjust the amount of enemies you use on the fly based on how many players are present, and by releasing successive waves, you can monitor the players tension and excitement, keeping the battle going as long or short as is appropriate. You can also include some somewhat strong monsters in the mix to vary it up, and give the particularly strong characters a challenge.
2. Middle-tier fights
Middle-tier fights are where the party faces a group of monsters of roughly the same power and number of the entire party. Ironically, Middle-tier fights are the ones that GMs tend to use the most, because they equate “middle” with average and then think they should mostly do the average—yet they are one you should probably be careful not to do too often. The problem with these fights is several-fold.
–They are boring if you do them more than the others, because the fights all feel the same
–Constantly putting the players against exactly their challenge level often makes the players who have spread-out abilities feel like none of their abilities are working, which is frustrating.
–It’s difficult to fine-tune these fights
–These fights are difficult to make into long fights, or short fights, for that matter, which I’ll get to in a moment.
–GMs use these constantly, and so often when players level up, they don’t feel like they’re any stronger—it just feels like the same fight, but with higher numbers all around, which is monotonous, disappointing, and frustrating. This is fantasy, not a full time job.
The advantage these fights bring is that you can pair off one monster per player, which is cool for setting up rival-group scenarios, which can be fun sometimes. Having some way to separate the players and have them match up one-on-one against the enemies, and running the fights in one initiative order, can be an interesting change of pace to use sparingly. Or, you can set up a duo of monsters that work well together against the party, and that dynamic can be really interesting.
3. Boss Fight
This is one of the quintessential fights. Generally, you have one big monster that is either as strong as or slightly stronger than the entire party. Obviously these should be done sparingly, but they can be extremely exciting. Also, “sub-Boss” fights, where one monster is as strong as or slightly weaker than the entire party can be very exciting too. However, they should be done about as sparingly as Boss fights, because otherwise “sub-Boss” fights face the same problem as middle-tier fights.
The things that sets Boss Fights apart from Sub-Boss fights is that often it’s effective to combine one big monster with a Horde fight. This increases the challenge and excitement, keep the four-on-one dynamic from making the fight whimper out, and will ensure everyone contributes somehow.
4. Throw away Fight
This is what it sounds like. You can send one or a few really weak monsters at the party, to be absolutely slaughtered. This is primarily a tool. If you want to foreshadow a larger fight, or build up tension or suspense, you can do this. Or, if one or more players is bored and needs a quick shot of excitement, this can do the job. It’s especially helpful for combat-oriented characters/players who aren’t very engaged with the story at the moment to maintain attention and fun.
Generally, it’s better to have one larger fight per session, and a shorter fight to kick off the meeting, or a long fight to kick it off and no fight or a short fight depending on the length of the meeting. Many new GMs will send too many fights at the players, diminishing the experience.
This is why Horde fights are so effective—sending a multitude of enemies at the players can give them the sense of doing a lot of fighting without the stop/start of restarting initiative or getting all the players together. In video games, it’s fine to subject the players to a lot of smaller fights, but without a computer to automate the statistics part it just doesn’t tend to work as well.
The best place, in my experience, for traps, and occasionally puzzles, is during combat. This makes combat more dynamic and interesting, and it keeps the traps from bogging down play. In general, it’s better to add some sort of point of interesting to fights—either traps, interesting terrain, things to climb on, turrets, or whatever else to combat encounters, to give the players a way to use their skill, and to give the clever, strategic, or swashbuckling characters something to play with. This adds depth and interest to combat, and makes combat feel different and memorable each time.
One major tip I can give to new GMs is that you don’t need to use the descriptions or names of monsters as-is. Just because the statistic block says riding Dog doesn’t mean you can’t use those statistics for a tree demon, and just because the statistics block says Dryad doesn’t mean that you can’t use that stat block for a human elf NPC. If you don’t have time to create an npc character from scratch, you can just use a monster stat block and not say anything.
Next time we’ll give some examples.
The latest version of Legend of Luth is available for download here.
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