This post is part of a series on cinematic combat in Dungeons & Dragons 4E. You can see the other posts in the series here.
In the last cinematic combat post, I suggested giving monsters goals beyond just killing all of the player characters. The same idea can be applied to the heroes of the story as well. Giving them alternative goals helps make each encounter feel unique and encourages players to use different tactics and powers than they normally use.
One tricky thing about giving the players alternative goals for an encounter is that players will tend to approach a lot of goals with a two step process:
- Kill all of the monsters
- Focus on alternative goal
If that approach isn’t discouraged, then the work to create an alternative goal was wasted since the combat portion will play out normally and then the element of pressure provided by the combat will be missing when the heroes turn their attention to the other goal. Time pressure, overwhelming odds, and combat-altering objectives can be used to avoid this two-phased approach by players.
The cultist is chanting in the other room and soon the portal will open unleashing a horde of undead monsters. Can you make it past the guards and disrupt the ritual in time?
The time pressure approach works by not giving the players enough time to finish an encounter by killing all of the monsters. Instead they need to work to bypass or avoid their opponents in order to accomplish their goals before the timer runs out.
When using a timer, you should give the players a clear indication that they only have a few rounds to accomplish their goals. If it isn’t clear that they are operating under a strict time limit, then they might assume that they have enough time to fight normally rather than rushing.
You should also be prepared for handling what happens when the timer runs out. Don’t assume that the players will always succeed and end up being caught unprepared. For example, if I was building an encounter using the portal example, I’d have some undead monsters picked out to storm through the portal and join the fight and also have a planned way for the heroes to force the portal to close.
Here are some ideas for objectives that could use time pressure:
- Stop an evil cult’s ritual before it opens a portal to the shadowfell
- Disarm a bomb on the lightning rail
- Escape the rising lava within a volcano
Hundreds of orcs are marching towards the southern lands under the banner of Grak Demon-Claw. There’s no way that you can defeat them all, but perhaps you can buy the villages to the south time to prepare by blocking the orcs’ path through the abandoned dwarven tunnels.
Overwhelming odds prevent the players from completing the “kill monsters” phase, so instead the players need to focus on their alternative goal. The best way to accomplish this is to have a steady stream of monsters joining the encounter. Depending on the specifics, accomplishing the alternative goal might stop the flow of new monsters or the heroes might be forced to withdraw once they’ve finished.
For example, in a recent encounter, I added 4 minions to the fight each round until the heroes finished off their goal of killing the encounter’s “boss” monster. At first the players approached the fight using pretty standard tactics, but once it became apparent that the minions would keep coming, they changed their tactics and focused entirely on their main opponent. Even in an encounter that ultimately was still just about killing all of the monsters, using overwhelming odds forced the players to adjust how they fought and helped make it a more interesting fight.
Here are some ideas for objectives that could use overwhelming odds:
- Block the path of an army of orcs through tunnels
- Assassinate an enemy leader in the midst of his or her supporters
- Steal the crown jewels
You look up from your plate and spot a shadow-shrouded figure moving at the back of the room. You follow its eyes and see the king, stuffing his face with a turkey leg. The would-be-assassin pulls a knife and starts moving towards the king’s back – so much for enjoying the party thrown in your honor!
Some alternative goals have a fundamental impact on the way a combat is fought so that there is no way to separately deal with the monsters and the goal. In some cases, the heroes will have to stop the monsters from killing an NPC or destroying an object, while in other encounters, killing the monsters might in and of itself be a failure (see the peasant example below).
Here are some objectives that alter combat:
- Protect the king from assassins
- Subdue the enchanted peasants rampaging in the streets*
- Keep the hobgoblins from destroying the castle’s siege engines
- Stop the thief from escaping through the portal
*: I really dislike the way that nonlethal damage works in 4E. Wanting to subdue rather than kill opponents should drastically alter the way the heroes fight, but instead playing by the rules the fight would be identical except on the last hit, the players would decide “oh, that scorching burst was nonlethal.” Maybe I’ll have to do a post at some point with some alternative ideas for handling non-lethal combat.