I’m Killing Pcs and The Fun Doing This

Roleplaying Tips Newsletter #0718

Another bad habit I’ve gotten into is being arbitrary with encounter difficulty. This undermines player thinking and creativity and makes for a poorer gameplay experience.

In my group, we don’t typically do long dungeon crawls. Encounters are a mix of wilderness, town, and dungeon, and of plot, puzzle, combat, and roleplay. So encounters are non-linear in the sense that one could be a roleplay with a seer, the next could be an alley ambush, and the next could be an animal lair.

My problem is each could have a wildly different challenge rating. It’s less about the encounters being arbitrary and more about the players feeling like the challenge levels are random and unpredictable. The seer could be a pushover for gleaning information from. The ambush could be near TPK. And the lair might be near TPK. Or not. The players never know.

Instead, I need to do a better job of build-up. I need to take my own advice from Faster Combat and provide hints, details, and transitions to difficult encounters to get players engaged. Anticipation increases. Fun increases.

Put yourself in their shoes for a moment. You are walking along and suddenly the GM calls for initiative. After several rounds, half your party members are down and you’re almost out of hit points too. It’s fun combat, but you just got “Johnnbushed.”

Consider the alternative:

You are walking along. The GM tells you you’re entering the bad part of town. Beggars seem to fade away, replaced by steely-eyed thugs leaning against the buildings, glaring at you, assessing your loot value. You walk a couple blocks further and individual thugs become small groups of gangs. Several call out to you while others make threatening gestures.

Assuming your PC is low to mid level here, the transition has you leaning forward, imagining this scene, worried what might happen next, alert for direct threats. And when you hear a scream and spot thugs kidnapping a woman carrying a bundle that looks like a baby and then dragging the pair into a dark alley, you hesitate. Is it a trap?

The party erupts into debate and quick planning. And when it does turn out to be an ambush, and the thugs brutal and tough, you feel rewarded for being cautious and prepared, and the difficult battle does not seem to be GM whim or random lethality at all.

I feel transitions are important. I used to build up to difficult encounters all the time. But stopped for whatever reason.

It’s time to get back into the practice. When the next tough encounter approaches, I’ll put on my storyteller’s hat and build up to it.