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Pack Tactics! New Advice Column!

Pack Tactics! New Advice Column!

Kobold Press is pleased to announce our new advice column, Pack Tactics! For the next few months, we’ll be taking questions from players and GMs. A crack team of Kobold Press regulars has gathered, bringing their own perspectives to answer questions on how to play and run a better game.

Our roundtable experts this month are Ben Eastman, Basheer Ghouse, Phillip Larwood, Ben McFarland, Brian Suskind, Sebastian Rombach, and Mike Welham. You might recognize some of these names from Kobold Press products like the recently updated Tome of Beasts 1 and the brand-new Campaign Builder: Cities and Towns. Together, they represent more than 100 years of gaming experience and know-how.

Whatever questions you have about running a game, handling tricky metagame traps, and managing inevitable ruling edge cases, they’ve got an answer. Sometimes several!

At a Loss asks . . .

Over the last few sessions of my game, I foreshadowed a lot of detail about an upcoming battle with the campaign’s Big Bad Evil Guy (BBEG). Now the group talks heavily about all the plans they have to fight him. But all their plans involve save or suck spells, dirty tricks, and metagaming that feels outside the spirit of the game.

Every plan the group has sounds super not-fun to GM, and maybe a boring game, since so many of their proposed tactics center on denying the BBEG (i.e. me) from taking turns and having any chance at success. How do I handle this without negating their investment and keeping it fun for both them and me?

Brian Suskind: Speaking as the actor here, just because our plans call for all of those things doesn’t mean they will work. Talking in character to work up these plans is part of the joy of being a player.

But as a GM, you should be taking notes. Because (and here’s the thing) BBEGs aren’t dumb. If the player characters have thought of these plans, the BBEG surely has as well. During the battle, it could be amazing if one of the schemes doesn’t work and the BBEG says to the PCs, “Ha! Did you really think I wouldn’t have seen that coming?”

Ben Eastman: As Brian points out, the BBEG didn’t ascend to their pedestal by being dumb. Let’s say the players are focusing on save or suck tactics. Will they stay so prepared when their favorite professor is about to be thrown into the mouth of a volcano?

One of the best parts of being a GM is exploiting your PCs’ characters, forcing your players to make difficult decisions. That’s how you make a win matter even if they wipe the floor with your BBEG.

Basheer Ghouse: Sure, but a victory only counts if it’s fair. Having a fairly won victory pulled out from under you, or dragged out unnecessarily, because of “narrative convenience” ruins the experience. You might have to tune the fight by giving the boss cool defenses, unique mechanics, and a dynamic or unpredictable arena.

But if a plan works and rips your boss apart in half a round, you disrespect everyone if you just declare “no it didn’t!” with plot armor. Sometimes, the art of the game is the fun of watching the dice slide a well-made plan into place. Or detonating it gloriously, forcing a tactical re-evaluation.

Ben McFarland: I say don’t let their plans ruin the encounter. Consider giving the BBEG something which splits the PCs into multiple instances, such as waves of mooks and environmental effects that occur at the top or bottom of the round, allowing the BBEG’s forces to engage the PCs on a similar action economy. Don’t make this 15 seconds of fistfighting in a cage either; craft a multi-level space with many entry points and plenty of scenery to chew. Give yourself checklists of preferred abilities, spells, and items. Take the investment your players are showing you seriously and reciprocate it with a battle the likes of which the bards and forum posts sing. They’re going big. Go big with them.

Phillip Larwood: You need to let your players have their day in the sun. If they’re going to lengths to plan out their strategies and gathered sufficient knowledge on the BBEG to do so, their plans shouldn’t completely fail or be countered by you at every step. Instead, think about having fun in other ways, like Ben suggests, throwing additional enemies into the mix or including weird environmental effects the PCs weren’t expecting (like a tornado or blizzard).

Mike Welham: My opinion aligns with Phillip’s but as long as I’m having a good time and I feel like I’ve contributed to the fight, I’m happy. Honestly, it doesn’t matter if the combat is a knockdown, drag-out fight with the BBEG or an easy one-shot kill, it’ll make for a good story later on. Hopefully, there will be plenty of snacks to eat while we’re playing.

Sebastian Rombach: Don’t deny your players (and yourself) the fight you’ve all been looking forward to. You never know which way the dice will roll or how the scene will unfold. But you might consider a possible twist that you could introduce if the encounter starts getting unfun. What if you have the BBEG backstabbed by a conniving underling halfway through the big faceoff? Having the PCs react to the new terms of the situation could make for a great time. Just don’t spring the twist too quickly and invalidate all of the player’s work they put into their plotting.

What Do You Think?

How would you handle this situation? Let us know in the comments!

Do you have a question for the pack? Let our pros weigh in on your tough questions. Then check back the first Friday of each month for more Pack Tactics!

about Sebastian Rombach

We can neither confirm nor deny that Sebastian is actually three raccoons in a trenchcoat. His freelance contributions can be found in Tome of Beasts 2, Tome of Heroes, and more. You can roll dice with him at https://startplaying.games/gm/dontbreakthedm or follow him on Twitter and Instagram @dontbreakthedm.

9 thoughts on “Pack Tactics! New Advice Column!”

  1. I believe that the party’s plans should be neither supported nor squashed. What occurs should be dictated primarily by how the BBEG would reasonably react based on his/her knowledge, abilities, and tactics. To the extent that there is any doubt, I would give the benefit of said doubt to the party to reward its efforts and engagement in the game. Let logic rule first, and where there is doubt, give the benefit of it to the party. Them’s my two cents.

  2. Big boss fights should have legendary resistances… I would make sure the boss also has some pretty good saving throw bonuses as well. Other than that, if the party burns through his legendary resistances and he fails the next save, good for them.

    I would also consider adding a couple of dangerous minions that the party would have to deal with so that they can’t focus their sole attention on the boss. Also, if possible, put in some other fights leading up to the boss that will drain the party’s resources.

    Don’t forget to reward your player efforts though, I would lean towards letting their plan mostly work as intended, but just add a few complications that may or may not go their way depending on a dice roll. Maybe you can telegraph the complication ahead of time which will force the players to reconsider their plan.

  3. It seems like the DM here is thinking about the game as being a story, where he engineers what will happen several sessions in advance. The villainous character is defined by the role he’s supposed to play in that story: he’ll lose to the players after a fair but grueling fight.

    Meanwhile the players are thinking of the game more like a wargame. They’re considering how to use their abilities most effectively to defeat an enemy who they consider too dangerous to attack head-on.

    This doesn’t seem like a well-functioning combination. The players and the GM are trying to play different games. Personally I think the players’ approach sounds like more fun, since it leaves room for more surprises and open-ended play. However, to support it, the GM would need to give up on the idea of having a climactic confrontation with a “Big Bad Evil Guy”, and instead run factions in a more simulative manner with defined resources and power levels. Then when the players confront one, they might win or lose and either is an acceptable outcome.

  4. If your players are excitedly planning ahead and collaborating before a big fight, count your lucky stars and congratulations! You created a compelling villain that they care about and really want to defeat. I guess it depends what sort of “dirty tricks” and metagaming they are engaging in, I suppose that could cross a line at some point into bad player behavior, but overall I would say, well done, DM!

  5. Plan well, use solid strategies. Let them come at you with all they’ve got!

    The end of campaign BBEG combat is a risky moment for PCs – the narrative arc suits permanent death and you and your players know that. I’m not saying that in other combats they have been plot armoured or treated with kid gloves but whether it’s in the front of their collective consciousness or not, there is an avoidable reality that this is the end, our character’s deaths is more likely at this point than ever before. Should they not play hard? Don’t we want them to fear death and fight like the stakes are high? I want my players to bring their A-game. A motto of mine is ‘plan fair, fight hard’ and when I sit down behind the screen I am ready to annihilate them. If I’ve done my prep and planning properly then it should be fun but I’m roleplaying too and the BBEG is there to win. So come at me!

    Sure there are some crazy combos and synergies that can tie up a fight – but I’ve planned for them. I sat there with the PHB and put more effort into it than was ever reasonable (because I’m a horrific nerd and I love it). If I decided to ban Force Cage then I told them that before they even decided to play a wizard. I didn’t listen to them and take notes, that’s cheap. I ignored their plans because the BBEG wasn’t there to hear it (unless he was). If the evil dude scried them then I’ve hinted that. I began creating the encounter with the thought ‘what would I do’ and the BBEG planned and so did I. I included environmental features more than just upping damage output and AC because 6 goblins in 20′ room is not the same as 6 goblins in a 20′ tall watch tower with a 360 fire arc over 60′ of clear ground. I leave enough room for them to win that I can think of three ways they could destroy me – if they can come up with such a plan when the fire is raining from the sky then well done them! If they can’t it’s going to be tough but still in their favour – I take no pleasure from winning, only from challenging them.

    It’s not enough for me as a GM to dump enemies on a grid and then add in a tornado if I start losing. With all my power and advance knowledge, if they can wipe my boss encounter then well done them.- now the game is on and I want their best, dirtiest moves! Do they sometimes slaughter my bad guy? Yes! Sometimes their plans are really good and they enjoy knowing that. Me having an answer for everything is not fun.

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