RPG Musings from Johnn

Part 2: What To Do If It’s Too Easy?

I received an interesting tip request from RPT GM Kristen:

What do you think about things like adding 50 HP because the baddies go down too quickly?

One of my players actually said I should have done that rather than letting the encounter flop.

A tricky situation.

I refrain from doing this. I feel it becomes a crutch or habit that prevents me from exploring other, better options.

For example, you boost hit points one time and it works great. So, why not do it every time now instead of challenging yourself to come up with alternative solutions?

It’s a slippery slope, is all I’m saying. Take this route as little as possible.

What to do instead?

As I mentioned at the tail end of part one, there are many factors feeding into encounter difficulty we can’t control.

What we want to do is create an environment or structure so that we minimize potential impact such variables might introduce.

Here are some ways to do that.

Think Milieu, Not Encounters

You hit the ogre and chop its hand off.

Too easy?

Nope. Because the rest of the ogre is still fighting, and now it’s wounded and angry!

If we lose the forest for the trees, then gameplay does indeed hinge on every encounter.

But we GMs play the long game, the Infinite Game.

We play to keep the game going. If one encounter fails, we don’t care because we’ve got an entire campaign at our fingertips to draw from.

The rest of the tips in this article expand on this concept.

For if we fall into the shortsighted trap of keeping our thoughts, designs, and play at the encounter level, then we would indeed see an easy or deadly scene as a failure.

Instead, keep your eye on the horizon.

Any easy victory this time? Sure. But next time? Heh.

So lift your head up and don’t fret over your game encounter by encounter. Play the Infinite Game and respond with your Milieu.

Create Consequences

Before major encounters like boss fights, we can ask ourselves how we’ll react if the encounter becomes too hard or easy.

A little forethought here goes a long way.

Changing a game piece mid-encounter is one approach and great if not used much (e.g. upping a monster’s hit points mid-battle).

A more interesting response would be gaming out the consequences. And if you have an idea or two what those consequences might be before the encounter triggers, you’ll set yourself up for success.

A reader tip from long ago (sorry, I can’t find reference to it right now for attribution) advised to think the game like it’s an onion. Players peel one layer off to discover a deeper one each time. Behind Darth Vader waits the Emperor.

Therefore, a baddie goes down easily, but that just makes the power behind the baddies angry.

If you GM this way, players will also learn to celebrate easy wins instead of criticizing you. This round was easy, sure. But it just means more challenges ahead.

And at the meta level, you can ripple out the consequences of the easy victory to set Milieu response.

For example, in one adventure the first level PCs clobbered ambushing bandits due to luck. I rolled poorly, the players rolled well. The bandits even had an ogre.

Well, the players were tickled pink. Easy victory, easy loot, easy game.

But they realized soon after this was bad. They regretted the easy victory.

Because other denizens, including the power behind the bandits, over-estimated the PCs’ power. Rather than retribution via subsequent “balanced” encounter, the villain hit the PCs with much more force than was needed to beat the party. Cue jailbreak side quest.

I roleplayed this out. “You are the ones who defeated Jacques and his men so easily, eh? Well it’s payback time!”

The players figured out the overwhelming response was because it appeared to the villain they were more powerful due to their easy prior victory.

Fingers were pointed at the situation instead of me. I was playing the Milieu.

Long term, this offers much richer gameplay. Be consistent with it, and players will cheer at easy victories and then fearfully look over their shoulders.

Use Combat Missions

What if the baddie possessed key information for the mission?

Players blame you for an easy victory, but then realize their mistake. Now it’s off to pay for a shaman to speak with the departed soul and get the information.

Like consequences, Combat Missions also require good set up from behind the screen. If no clue or hint that the enemy has important intel gets proffered, players have no reason to become strategic.

Switch mode from survival stakes to adventure and campaign stakes, and you add an interesting layer to your fights. Easy has a new definition greater than lucky shot. And maybe it’s not so easy now, after all.

Layer In Complications

If an encounter seems too easy, intensify it.

What I like about this tool in our GM Toolbox is you can turn it on or off, and you can amp it up or taper it off.

This gives you options when an encounter goes sideways.

Here are 5 Ways to Intensify Your Encounters.

Create Dilemmas

Akin to Combat Missions and Consequences, we design a situation where there’s no easy outcome, even if your game gets swingy.

For example, kill the baddie and get denied intel. Save the baddie and earn a recurring enemy. Get the intel, then kill the baddie, and earn the wrath of a power they’re not yet ready to tackle.

Telegraph these options so they factor into gameplay.

And then watch as even easy combats get complicated.

Foes That Learn

This one speaks to Milieu.

If the first fight goes down too easy, shame on you the baddies.

If the second fight is a handwave, shame on you the baddies.

If the third fight ends too fast, shame on you the baddies.

Foes gotta fight their own battles. They’ve made it this long in the world because they’ve learned to survive.

Behind the screen, this means:

  • Learn and practice combat strategy and tactics
  • Observe smart player tactics and have foes copy them
  • Repeat encounters should involve different foe actions based on lessons learned
  • He who fights and runs today lives to fight another way

Ensure you have an in-game way to portray ever-smarter foes as you challenge yourself to master combat tactics.

Do this at the Milieu and encounter levels.

For encounters, challenge yourself to learn how to have foes escape. Survivors spread the word.

For Milieu, structure it so dumber versions of foes hit PCs in the early days. As the party encounters smarter opponents you have a fair and easy way to explain why foes become smarter.

Recurring factions also make explaining foes’ improved tactics easy.

Choose Your Weapon

I encourage you to try each of these approaches out and use hit point buffs as a last resort.

Doing so will teach you other ways to make gameplay fun and challenging so you aren’t a one-trick GM.

  • Think Milieu, not encounters
  • Create Consequences
  • Use Combat Missions
  • Layer in complications
  • Create dilemmas
  • Use foes that learn

I hope this helps a bit, Kristen. If not, let me know.