Friday 11 January 2013

Boring Combat 4: How Boring Are High Levels?

And now to the alleged problem that started all these musings. Do high-level combats really degenerate into boring slog-fests, wading through morasses of hit dice to get to the kill?

Well, let's start out dividing high-level monsters into those who got there by virtue of their enormous size, and those who are a more reasonable size but super specially tough and magic.

Those latter creatures - vampires, beholders, liches, dragons, demons and so on - have loads of spells, powers, and attacks to justify their challenge. Fighting them should be harrowing, not boring. If it's boring, what are you still doing playing the same characters? Are the so tricked out that they make every saving throw, dodge every attack? After the beholder should there come the uber-beholder, in an ever-swelling progression of N+5 hit dice? Maybe in a computer game, or an RPG that needs to sell more and more game books to the power-mad adolescent mentality. But anyway, that's a different topic.

Now, you get the big, big monsters at risk for being boring in the mathematical sense, with lots of hit dice and not a lot of special gimmickry. Not sentient, so they don't come with cool stuff like allies or siege engines or tactical setups. Big lumpy things like ... er ... dinosaurs. And mammoths. Elephants, too. Whales?

Not the only way to add interest value.
You see the problem here - at high levels, you don't run into those creatures a lot. And when you do, it's likely to be outdoors. So running the combat, you'll realize that there's actually a lot going on when a thirty-foot long dinosaur rampages through a jungle forest or a rocky outcropping. It crashes into branches and trunks, sending them flying. It sends boulders rolling. It bites you at the front, stomps you if you get underfoot (and best believe it will be rolling into close combat range to do just that), and if you come around at the back there's a thrashing tail that sends you flying. They don't need fiery breath or magic spells - sheer size and momentum will do the trick.

Those aren't in the rules as written? So what! You're playing old school and it's your game. Later editions sure as hell try to build this kind of special excitement into every monster, calling them special attacks or feats or daily powers or whatever. You, too, at every level of challenge, should be thinking what makes this creature's fight different. A guy with a sword, even the most magical sword, shouldn't be able to bring a dinosaur down even after hacking at its left toe for ten minutes. Make them do something dramatic for the kill, use the climbing-on rules, run and jump into its open mouth. Treat the combat as a living riddle, not an exercise in subtraction, and your players will feel they're working for the kill - not just adding escalation factors.

Okay. My campaign begins again on Saturday (and then immediately goes on hiatus for three weeks as I gallivant about stateside.) I doubt any dinosaurs will come up, but you never know.


  1. I've suggested before, on a RQ forum, that a fight against big monsters, such a dinosaurs, such be treated as an adventure in itself (of course, in RQ you can't have a PC just stand toe-to-toe with a dinosaur and whittle away its HP). I've never actually got anywhere with these ideas, but treating the monster as part of the environment, rather than just another 'token' on a [imaginary] map, seems like a very good idea to me.

  2. There's the old saying to the effect that, "When all you have is a hammer, ever problem starts to look like a nail." I'm wondering if PC hit points are that way.

    There've only been a couple campaigns I've been in where characters actually got to high level. But when we did get there, straight-out fights seemed to be the preferred mode of problem solving.

    This is the sort of thing that makes me think hit points that don't inflate by level might be a good thing (e.g. =CON). Every fight becomes a life-or-death struggle.

    If you want to kill the dino, then your plan better be a little more clever than "hit it a lot of times until dead". Because the thing will take you out with a good swipe or two, and you'll need a lot more to hit it.

    But I don't know. Those lots of hit dice persist in every iteration of the game, so there must be some good thing people see in them.

    1. I guess if you want combat to be dangerous at all levels, the question is, why are you playing D&D instead of Runequest or another of the many systems (some of them genuinely old school) that cast away the buffer of levels and hit points?

      I was thinking of ending the series here but there may be room for a fifth post to answer the existential question of how things can be exciting when everyone is surrounded by a belt of hit points.

    2. A lot of reasons to stick with D&D, though YMMV: Nostalgia, OGL, setting bits, weapon stats, spells and other bits I love to mine, probably other reasons I can't think of at the moment.

      Tried getting into some BRP-type stuff awhile back, but eventually found it didn't do exactly what I wanted (not the biggest fan of % everything, and actually kind of LIKE character levels for distributing advancement rewards).

      Besides fixed hp seems like such a straight-forward patch.

    3. Dragon Warriors does a good job of being D&Dish (class and levels, dungeon delving, etc.) while keeping combat deadly. PCs gain HP very slowly, and while their combat stats increase to heroic levels, they are always at risk, especially from multiple enemies.