Recently I read the excellent book Hamlet’s Hit Points by Robin D Laws. The book provides game masters with tools to analyze the narrative structure of their games, most importantly, how the different scenes or beats within a game affect the emotions of the players. Most stories provide us with a mixture of emotions, leading us to worry about the protagonists in one scene only to provide us with hope for them in the next. These emotions cement our connection to the characters of the story. However, in 4e D&D, such analysis isn’t limited just to the overall narrative. Within a combat encounter this same cycle of hope and despair occurs, investing us further in the outcome of the battle.
First, let’s analyze a typical 4e combat encounter. To prepare, the DM uses the XP budget appropriate for the PCs’ current level and group size. All of the monsters appear at the beginning of the encounter. Since the DM has no idea how long the monsters will last, he comes out swinging, using their encounter and recharge powers as soon as possible. Between monster death and PCs’ debuffs, the longer he waits, the less like it becomes that the standard monster’s powers will be effective. The antagonists’ early victories translate into down beats, causing concern amongst the players, especially if any of them are bloodied or knocked out early in the contest.
Over the first round or two, the PCs’ advantages kick in. The defender makes it difficult for the brutes and soldiers to attack the defensively weaker party members. The leader heals the hurt members of the party or provides buffs to break through the monsters’ defenses or debuffs to protect against their offenses. The controller wipes out large swaths of minion. In turn, the ranged strikers take out the ranged threats. The monster damage numbers also decline as they use their recharge powers. The tone changes from abject fear to hope to surety of success.
Players love this range of emotions, but having every combat follow the same trajectory gets a bit boring. The grind feeling results from recognizing the pattern and the corresponding desire to just fast forward to the end. Who wants to sit through round after round of monster at-will attacks especially when we “know” that the PCs are likely to win?
So, what can we do? By changing our monster selection and encounter building practices, we alter the beat pattern of an encounter. For instance, let’s say we want to lull the players into a false sense of security at the beginning of an encounter. We have two tools available to us. If we introduce the monsters in waves, we slowly build the tension of the encounter. Each time a new group arrives, the players wonder how many more there are. The players replace their Initial high hopes with deep despair until they turn the tide of battle.
Our other tool is to choose monsters with powers triggered by being bloodied. If we reserve our strongest attacks or defenses for later in the battle, the players initially feel hope, often reinforced by a second round of combat, only to feel a sense of despair later in the battle. Unlike other battles, success doesn’t feel guaranteed in this scenario. Of course, we must remember to give the monsters tools to deal with combat conditions. Some of the new solos, especially the ones in Monster Manual 3 deal well with this. Monsters with leader abilities often have ways of combating PC debuffs and providing buffs of their own.
However, we have more than generic up and down beats to work with. Start off a combat scene with the gnome pulling a lever to build anticipation of the trap. Introduce a question during battle. Describe the creaking sounds made as kobolds wind the winch of an unseen ballista or the sweet smell of perfume that wafts through the keep, with its notes of cinnamon and vanilla. During a particularly heavy fight scene, provide a bit of hope through a reveal. If the PCs seek to rescue the princess, provide evidence that she is there. Have the master of disguise drop his guard in the middle of battle and use his true voice. We have a number of beat types to work with and they are just as useful within a combat scene as they are outside of them. Just don’t use too many in one combat or their power will be reduced.
By working these elements into our combats, these encounters feel like they are more incorporated into the larger story rather than alien elements we introduce just to appease some players or to provide XP. In addition, by providing different patterns of hope and fear, we break up the repetitiveness of 4e combat. How about you? Do you find patterns of hope and fear useful at your table? What tricks do you have for introducing both?