How to Kick Mad Max’s Ass

Roleplaying Tips Newsletter #0594

How to Kick Mad Max’s Ass

(Challenging Players Who Have Optimized Characters)

From Johnn Four, with tips from Telas, Al Beddow, Garry Stahl and Mark of the Pixie

Don’t you love players who scour the rules looking for every angle to make their characters’ stats better? I once had a player like this. Let’s call him Mad Max.

Mad Max foregoes roleplaying and story-based character creation decisions. You know, the “boring” stuff that makes PCs special, distinct and part of a cool story. Max instead quests for +1s to his attack rolls, damage and armor class.

Max goes online to min/max forums and looks for ways to make his PC bulletproof. Now it’s every Mad Max out there teaming up against my little old campaign.

He even switches characters mid-campaign when they under-perform. If a build doesn’t match the damage output of his last PC, he gets disappointed and loses interest. So out comes another PC freak in leather and rivets with every rule in the book straining to eke out just one more bennie.

Pisses me off. 🙂

Terry M. via the GM Mastery Yahoo Group is afflicted the same way. He writes:

“I play Pathfinder almost exclusively and have been since it came out. I DM twice a week for two different groups of players. The first group has a mix of optimized and average characters. The second group is 80% optimized and it is hard for me to create challenging encounters for them. I run Paizo’s Adventure Paths and beef up the encounters using the same point buy the characters use and some of their tricks as well. By no means do I want them to change as it would make the game less fun for them, but I was wondering what your thoughts were on making it more challenging.”

To Terry, and you if you have a Mad Max or two in your group, here’s how to GM such players and challenge optimized PCs.

Obligatory Tip #1 and #2

These types of situations always generate the same two pieces of advice. So let’s get them out of the way first, because they are good tips, but usually not practical for many GMs.

Switch Games

First, play a different rule set, something less crunchy. I heartily encourage you to try new games. There’s no better way to keep RPG fresh and interesting, and to encourage innovation in your GMing.

Try new games at conventions, as one-shots, or as pick-up games when some players bail at the last minute. This will inspire you to try new things in your games. You might also get inspired to create great House Rules for your ongoing game, or just get a new perspective on some aspect of your game.

Heck, your group might like a new game so much they do switch.

But this advice isn’t applicable to many of us because:

  • We like our current system and it just has a couple things that irk us – but no system is perfect
  • We’ve got a game everybody likes – finding a new system will likely take a lot of trial and error
  • Our schedules are full and we don’t have time to learn new systems
  • We’re in a phase right now where reading rules puts us to sleep – it’s procedural documentation and memorization
  • We’ve invested in the game books and game aides and not ready to spend on a new game yet

I love the idea of trying new games, especially if a player wants to take up the reigns and introduce the group to a new system, indie RPG, free RPG, classic/retro system and whatnot. Support game developers, I say.

But I also think it’s worth sticking with a game you like and making it work. And Mad Max is a solvable problem.

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Master the Rules

This is excellent advice too. Once you become deft with the rules you can wield them with laser precision to make games challenging for Max.

There are several ways to become a Rules Master:

  • Study the books
  • Prepare for games
  • GM more often (this gets my vote!)
  • Play more often (great for working with PC oriented rules)
  • Research and answer rules questions GMs post online
  • Write game material for others

All great stuff. But it all takes time. And you have a session to GM next week. So, while you work on mastering the rules in the long-term, you need help with Mad Max in two nights.

Another couple of standard tips are firing the player (extreme, and you might not have any possible replacements) and changing the player’s style or game approach (not realistic or within your control).

So, with the obligatory tips out of the way, let’s get into some GM techniques you can apply right away to make Mad Max sweat next game.

Use Smart Villains

Have Mad Max meet Wile E. Coyote and make foes more challenging by giving them a smarter boss.

This approach sets up the tips below, and gives you great story-based reasons why foes always seem to be one step ahead of the PCs.

A smart villain uses several tactics to prepare your NPCs for Max and his friends.

Scout The Opposition

Smart villains want to know what they are up against. Have them use scouts to learn PC abilities and tactics.

My favourite scouts are magic item merchants. As they make a mint selling items marked up 200% to greedy PCs, they turn around and give, sell or surrender to the villain information about the PCs’ new equipment.

(For extra fun, give your magic items minor quirks and curses. Who says every piece of magic has to be perfect?)

Ranger-types make great scouts too, because they follow the PCs. They can learn a lot from campsites, battle scenes and observing the PCs from a distance. This is passive scouting, so as long as the ranger stays out of perception range, you can hand-wave this activity and manage it between sessions.

Spies are awesome. Plant one in the PC party as a guide, henchman or follower.

For a special twist, make the spy the PCs’ employer. They’ve been a spy (and trap) the entire time, or mid-way through the campaign they get corrupted or coerced into betrayal. Great plots ahead!

Once the villain starts learning about Mad Max, he can plot and plan with deliberateness and effectiveness. Which leads us to the next tip.

Change The Game

Nobody says you have to meet Mad Max toe-to-toe. When he stocks up on bullets, you use artillery. When he gets artillery, you take to the air.

Mad Max has tuned and trained himself to play one specific kind of game. That’s his big weakness. When you change the rules of engagement, he’s no longer optimized.

For example, how can the character that always hits for a million points of damage fight an idea? Instead of making the campaign about killing the villain, it’s about defeating the Dark Side or stopping an infection. Whacking foes will help, but it won’t solve the problem.

Create Interesting CombatScapes

Coined in, CombatScapes involve designing interesting and dangerous encounter environments. With a smart villain at the helm, customize these dangers to target Max’s weakness.

One type of CombatScape might be hazardous and weird terrain. Special effects caused by terrain are fun if designed well.

Another type would be supernatural weather. For example, fire-rain will cause havoc and damage as PCs, mounts, equipment and the battlefield burns.

Another example is metaphorically throwing sand in Max’s eyes. What’s his weakest defense? Surprise him with exploding mushrooms foes can throw or use as mines that work against Max’s worst defense. Make the mushrooms an infestation afflicting the campaign region. Maybe smart foes harvest them.

Storms neutralize archers and fliers. Antimagic and wild magic pockets challenge spellcasters. Chaos pools challenge everybody.

Use Combat Missions

Another tip from Faster Combat, run mission-style play instead of making combat about the last hit point. This is another game-changer to get Mad Max out of his optimization zone.

Give PCs a goal. For example, find and retrieve a delicate item from their foe or protect the client.

Combat Missions work because PCs are usually optimized for aspects of combat, like damage, attacks and offensive spells. But Combat Missions turn combats into conundrums and pugilists into puzzlers.

For bonus points, combo with CombatScapes to make Combat Mission objectives even trickier.

Focus On Offence

As far as foes go, I advise against increasing foe defenses. That’ll just cause grind by making it hard to hit and damage combatants. It stretches out the number of rounds it takes to drop foes.

Instead, buff up foe attacks and damage (especially with temporary effects from disposable equipment and magic so PCs can’t use it later). While Mad Max will still chew through NPCs, he will get a bigger thrill from the drama of getting wounded more often. Much more dramatic than missing all the time or having foes always make their resistance checks from defensive buffs.

Also, have foes use good tactics, such as aiding another so the one guy gets a big hit. Scouting helps here. For example, the villain’s minions might get instructed to attack soft targets first, like wizards and rogues, forcing Mad Max to chase foes around the battlefield thus dislodging him from his ideal stance.

Further, try to plan decent tactics for the first three rounds of combat in advance. Often, improved tactics alone makes foes more dangerous. And the best time to think is between sessions, when you don’t have a table full of players battling for your attention.

Expand The Battlefield

We get stuck thinking the size of the battlefield is the size of our battlemat. Go bigger.

Switch to small graph paper and push pins or board game pieces for minis until you get to close range and regular battlemat size.

And while in macro mode, use more ranged attacks and ambushes. Set more cunning traps. Have foes use battlefield movements and positioning to put Mad Max at a disadvantage.

He can’t be everywhere at once. Does he move a quarter mile down the road and attack the oncoming lizard riders? Scale the cliffs to hit the fireball lobbers? Use his ring of flying to chase the acid bombers?


As an alternative to the smart villain who targets Mad Max, using fame against him. PCs of high enough level or with great enough deeds will be famous. Their abilities and weaknesses will be known or suspected.

Intelligent opponents will exploit the stories and rumours they hear to prepare defenses and special attacks for Max.

Clone Mad Max

Make Max beat himself. At the least, the scenario helps you learn more about Max’s abilities and tactics by playing Max yourself.

Some monsters literally impersonate PCs, like the Aleax from AD&D’s Fiend Folio. This creature is a curse from the gods, sent to teach unruly servants a lesson. He has all the equipment and abilities of the targeted PC.

You can also copy Mad Max’s character sheet, make a few distinctive tweaks, and turn him into an NPC.

One of the most powerful things in the game is a combined arms team, like a well-balanced adventuring party or something similar. Hit Mr. Max and friends with another party designed to exploit each of their weaknesses (using rivals as the storytelling device). Turn the tables X-Men style.

Discover Player Weaknesses & Tendencies

Study Mad Max’s player and character sheet.

What tactics does the player tend to favour? Also, pay attention to the player’s play style and session behaviours. Use these traits as arrows in your quiver.

Does he often bite on NPC challenges or tricks? Does he like to wander off when bored and can be divided and conquered? Does he always charge first?

Familiarize yourself with the capabilities of the PC by studying his character sheet. Now you don’t need to master the whole rule set at once. Instead, learn the ins and outs of the rules just related to Mad Max.

Do they search a room first before they walk into it? Does the party wizard like to summon? What is a Factotum anyway?

These are important considerations because they help you determine what kinds of monsters and foes Max might enjoy fighting, where Max’s strengths and weaknesses are, and how you can challenge Max without automatically throwing him into the killing pit.

A PC might also be capable of doing something they have not yet tried. Studying the character sheet not only helps you plan for Max’s current tactics, but shows you his untapped capabilities to keep in mind to counter or teach your player how to use to speed up combat.

Focus On Scaring One Player At A Time

Ask yourself about the ultimate end result of challenging PCs.

My answer? I want my players excited and thrilled at the prospect of danger.

If players believe their characters can die or suffer great losses, then it heightens the excitement, makes heroic actions even more heroic and gets player pulses racing.

You can accomplish this by giving players regular scares. But here’s the trick. You do not have to scare them all at once.

One player feels like their PC is in grave danger in one encounter, and then another players gasps when their PC loses hit points suddenly in the next encounter, and in a third encounter another player’s PC barely escapes. You’ve got one hell of an adventure on your hands.

Because even though each player felt fear in separate encounters, they’ll feel excited about the whole adventure. “I came this close to croaking. Me too! I was gripping my d20 hard in that last one!”

Do not try to challenge every character every encounter. It’s easier to focus on challenging one PC per encounter in a big way while keeping the other PCS occupied and giving them chances to participate meaningfully.

This is why I try to run the fastest possible combats and encounters. It lets me run more encounters per session, which means more opportunities to give each PC their own encounter spotlight.

Doing this means you can target Max specifically, every few encounters. And it means other players get the spotlight for a change, putting Max on the back burner.

For example, Mad Max is often a warrior type. Spread hard core combat encounters apart with great roleplaying encounters, stealthy encounters and magical encounters for the other PCs.

Make It The Best Campaign Ever For Mad Max

Though I’ve taken a GM vs. Player stance in these tips, harness all this advice to make your current campaign the best ever for Max.

Mad Max can be a pain in the ass when he throws party balance askew, munches through your monsters and favours numbers over story. But it’s just his way of having fun. Other styles can be just as problematic.

And we GMs are no better with our faults and bugaboos. Last campaign, for example, I never took the time to study Mad Max to try to make the game more fun and challenging for him.

I’ll consider myself a Master GM when I can take diverse player and character types and make sessions exciting for everyone, and everyone can’t wait to play again. So with this goal, though I take on a Player vs. GM persona with Mad Max, I’m aiming to give him the freedom to have the best damn campaign of his life (short though it will be, heh).