Fear the GM
When I surveyed readers last year about what kinds of adventure design challenges you all faced, one thing that came up was how to solve the PCs rampaging through your encounters without a care in the world. The characters don’t plan, never retreat, and don’t parley.
This topic is salient because I’m planning out Season 3 of my Hobos of the Apocalypse campaign. The party will be 10th level when the season starts, and I want them wary of the main foe, demons. But, who’s afraid of imps and dretches at such high level?
Here’s one way to solve the problem. I’m stealing a page from Alexis Smolensk’s blog, Be Capable of Harm.
Scare PCs with the threat of failure, death, and worse. Do this by making something too big for them to possibly tackle head-on and alone.
When players know character mortality is on the table (ba dum bum) the game intensifies. Unless suicidal or bored, they’ll take on a more cautious stance.
In addition, presenting an obstacle or threat too big to just roll initiative against means the party will need to plan instead of charge.
Combo threat of death with threat too big and player behaviour should change.
They’ll want to explore different options out of self-preservation.
They’ll put on their thinking caps to solve the puzzle of Too Big To Fight.
And when you offer up factions, roleplay, and alternate quests as possible solutions, you’ll finally have an audience ready to listen.
For example, my friend Mike said to me the other day, “What if the threat to the realm is so great that the Hobos must ally with former faction enemies to be victorious over the demon hordes?”
I’m taking that idea straight to the XP bank. A demon army would indeed be Capable of Harm and too big for the Hobos to tackle head-on and alone.
I have the first encounter planned when the party finally emerges from the elemental dungeons to begin Season 3.
As the dungeon door opens and the party breathes in sunlight for the first time in weeks, before them will be a large plain of dretches. Thousands of them. Twisted, limping, crawling, and lurching. A thousand cries of pain a piercing thunder. And as the PCs peer around, they’ll recognise a few faces. Some of the dretches are former villagers from Phandalin!
In fact, the closer they look the more they’ll recognise people. And they’ll also notice the dretches are all deformed. Some have no skin, others have missing limbs and jaws and other bones, others have their guts hanging inside out. A terrifying scene. And unimaginable pain. With some of that pain being suffered by former friends.
As the PCs try to take all this in, a murder of 1,000 flying imps will wheel overhead. Some descend to torture the dretches further, then return to the flock. The imps seem to be headed north, travelling in a rough chaotic formation. A great opener (sorry, another bad pun). But also a mystery and a clear threat. The actual demon armies will reveal themselves later. But speaking to Alexis’ great post, I’m building up the story with this encounter. I’m providing visceral signs of a danger too big to fight head-on. The PCs should start thinking about the immensity of an enemy so big and feeling pressure to take a different approach this time.