Hope and Fear

Copyright Wizards of the Cost and the artistRecently 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?


  1. M Alexander Jurkat says:

    Great subject and nice overview, Ms. Darkmagic.

    When deciding how to structure the emotional threads when building an encounter, I try to constantly keep in mind the storyline and where it is going. For example: The party is traveling through a maze of tunnels, not sure where they are going. They encounter a burning mining cart in a large chamber and immediately notice a matching patch of fire on the ceiling. It’s an easy reveal that fire bats nest above, but the numbers are unclear (latent threat). The party will be able to plan its approach and get a few clues from the burning wreckage, all while the bats hang far above (rising tension). At some point (most likely a PC action, but if not, DM fiat), the bats become riled and descend in far-greater-than-thought numbers (big down note). The party fights desperately, perhaps begins a retreat (despair rises). Suddenly, the bats break off (big relief). Many leave the chamber; a few return to the ceiling (latent threat returns). The party now has time to investigate again and they find that the only way out is across the chamber past the burning wreckage, where they get the remaining clues and can secure some supplies. All of this occurs in service of a storyline that unwinds from the burning cart and its clues.

  2. Excellent article. I must confess that I tend to fall into the “show em your cards at the outset” mentality, though I’ve been toying with ways to do waves for a more climatic battle. One of my groups is just about to close out the Heroic Tier and I have a large scale – 3-way fight planned but to make things even more tense I’m looking at having more enemies teleport in (for one side) while another side continues to animate dead. Both additional waves will be stoppable through either a skill challenge or by destroying the reanimator, but I’m still toying with exactly how hard I can hit ’em.

  3. Dixon Trimline says:

    Brilliant article! I like the idea of playing with expectation and beats, and introducing other sense clues (sounds, scents, etc.) during combat to enhance the whole experience. What a perfect way of avoiding the repetition.

    One very effective approach to heightening interaction (verbal or combat) is to introduce opposing goals to the party. For example, a good-aligned party agrees to protect a child, who just happens to be the source to a coming evil.

  4. Fine analysis. I often try (though I don’t always succeed) to think about an encounter the same way I think about a story: in three acts. In Act 1 the players discover what they’re up against. Not everything is revealed; some things might just be hinted at (like Alex’s fire bats example). The meat of the action takes place in Act 2. What separates that from the conclusion in Act 3 is some sort of turning point–some element the heroes (probably) foresee that changes the conditions of the battle. Usually something that seems to give the bad guys a critical advantage, but also reveals a weakness for the heroes to exploit if they’re clever or daring enough to go for it.

  5. One thing I did a few months back was to make a long list of things to throw in that will spice up combat encounters. Moving terrain features are really helpful, but I also like the idea of the entire fight having a theme that increases suspense (a cloud filling the room that deals ongoing necrotic damage that can’t be saved, or the party begins the fight weaponless, that sort of thing). They lend an entirely unique feel to the battle. I find that if I make at least every other encounter with a crazy spin like these, combat stays interesting and doesn’t become rote. The longer the list, the more options I have.

    Another thing that I like to do is to set up triggered events within the encounter, kind of like you mentioned. It has to be something with an engaging image that will stick with the players. Earlier tonight, I ran a one-shot adventure involving Spirit Vampires possessing a variety of people on a ship. The combat began with PCs waiting up for the vampires to launch their assault. The lead villain floated in and hovered eighty feet above the action, encircled by six corpses, who soon dropped onto the deck of the ship, and were possessed by Vampire Spirits to begin the combat. Once half of them were dead, the villain levitated down and started Blood Draining. I tried to make it dramatic and evocative. That sort of thing sticks out in your mind at the end of the night.

  6. This is an issue I’ve been dealing with in Public Play Encounters. It’s too easy to fall into a mechanical repetition of set the monsters up, then knock down. Set up, knock down. Wash, rinse, repeat. In addition to this, the table is always composed of experienced players who max out their character abilities and play with a balanced, but striker heavy party. Operating within the confines of the adventures provided, I’ve done everything from sending in waves, boosting hit points or defenses, adding lots and lots more enemies (with two wizards I often have to double or triple the number of minions in a given fight). Last week I even added additional traits to the terrain, knowing that it would impede the group’s normal tactics.

    Personally, I always like a challenge, and I have to assume that these players don’t really want to waltz through every encounter without that component of worry, fear, or despair. There have been few emotional up and downs– they normally enter battle with an air of overconfidence, and finish with “yep, we told you we were awesome, and don’t you forget it”. I was half-tempted to turn last week’s combat encounter into a skills challenge simply because one of the characters led with a “get out of our way and you won’t get hurt” line of commentary. Next time I might have to use that bravado as a queue for the enemies to call for additional reinforcements… and increase the number of monsters to an absurd level… at least for dramatic effect… the extras could flee after seeing a few of their friends drop.

    But enough of my frustrated ramblings. Thank you for stimulating some additional ideas. 🙂


  1. I have a new post on Critical Hits: Hope and Fear http://bit.ly/fiZjgS Changing the normal emotional pattern of 4e combats. #dnd

  2. RT @SarahDarkmagic: I have a new post on Critical Hits: Hope and Fear http://bit.ly/fiZjgS Changing the emotional pattern of 4e combats.

  3. Hope and Fear : Critical Hits http://t.co/nwZkMBx Good article on changing the pace of a combat encounter.

  4. Hope and Fear from Critical Hits » RPG http://goo.gl/fb/8zLPC #RPG

  5. Hope and Fear: drama in combat encounters. http://t.co/gmBheiV via @SarahDarkmagic

  6. Nice post by @SarahDarkmagic that ties into some of the same cinematic combat ideas I’ve been thinking about http://bit.ly/hylCiY

  7. […] by WP Greet Box WordPress PluginSarah Darkmagic has written a great post at Critical Hits, “Hope and Fear,” about how to use Hamlet’s Hit Points story beats inside an unfolding combat. She […]

  8. […] in an encounter if they provide the necessary help to empower the standard monsters to introduce the first beat of the […]