PDA

View Full Version : Making balanced and engaging cinematic encounters



Totema
2014-12-08, 04:29 PM
Hi all, I'm currently working out an idea for one of my upcoming D&D sessions. Here's the scenario:


In the last session, my players decided they want to enter a ruined temple in a particularly swampy area of the kingdom. They have no flying capabilities, and hiring a mage to teleport them isn't feasible, so their only option is to get there by foot. There's only one foot path through the swamp, a board walk over the marsh surface. If they walk directly on the surface, their body heat will attract a powerful monstrosity that will come up through the mud and very likely devour whoever stepped in. At some places the board walk is poorly maintained, and is liable to break if it supports too much weight, or the PCs could lose their balance and fall.

Now, I see this going in one of two ways. Either:

1. Since I'm not fond of killing PCs (especially when it feels like an arbitrary crapshoot) I can thematically build up suspense in the players' minds, while mechanically letting them pass automatically. I can portray the illusion of danger where there actually isn't any. However, this doesn't seem acceptable. I'd like it more if my players knew, rather than were just told, that it's a dangerous prospect.

2. I can enforce every check with the full consequences. Bingo, there's the danger. However we've had a lot of bad luck with vital rolls before (balance and climb checks are always the worst) and I don't want anyone to die just because the d20 decided to land on a 1.

So, I have a conundrum. Do I play it by the book or do I use the old deus ex machina? Ideally I want something in between. Can anyone help out?

Jay R
2014-12-08, 06:36 PM
You have a monster that will very likely devour them. There is no way for them to avoid it, and no likely way for them to defeat it? Is that correct?

At present, they can't avoid the path, they can't survive the path, and they have no way to know about it.

You've designed a more-or-less unpassable path to the temple. If you don't want them to die, re-design it.

Either
1. there is a way to avoid the path, or
2. there is a likely way to survive the path, or
3. there is some way in which they will learn about the path, or
4. they will die.

If you don't like 4, enable 1, 2, or 3.

Perhaps they meet the remnants of a party on the way out, who figured out that the body heat was bringing the monster as most of their party was eaten, so they have a chance to make a plan. Perhaps it can be distracted, or sated) with food.

Perhaps there's another path, that they can only see when they climb a tree avoiding the monstrosity.

Perhaps you keep your options open, and some plan they come up with actually works.

It's easy to build a situation that they can't, or won't, survive. The trick is to choose not to do so.

Totema
2014-12-08, 07:02 PM
...they can't survive the path, and they have no way to know about it.

That's not quite it, though. For one, it's not *impossible*, strictly speaking. However, I can perfectly picture the party cleric fumbling his balance check and getting gobbled up. Also, the players are aware that there's a beast that will attack if they fall off the walkway (they were warned by the ever-present mysterious old man).

One thing I wanted to implement was allowing other players to help a player to get back up if they fall, before they touch the surface and attract the beast. I'm not entirely sure how to work this in but that's not entirely important. I was also considering having a redshirt *ahem* NPC lackey tag along and have him fall in to summon the monster. That way the players get a thrill from the encounter without getting munched themselves. Again, I'm still on the fence with that one. I do like the idea of meeting another party that had a less-fortunate journey as well.

Solaris
2014-12-08, 08:27 PM
Why not scale the monster down to something that they can beat? Just because someone tumbles into the mud doesn't mean he should be automatically eaten, after all. Give 'em a fighting chance to kill the beastie.

jedipotter
2014-12-08, 08:57 PM
So, I have a conundrum. Do I play it by the book or do I use the old deus ex machina? Ideally I want something in between. Can anyone help out?

Hope your sitting down......but there is no ''in between''. You have a real ''dice fall where they may'' encounter or you have a ''fake and false encounter''. That is it.

The same way a football team can't ''get that awesome victory feeling'' unless they win the game. Period.

You can win. You can loose. Or you can choose not to play. But that is all you can do.


Now I recommended the full out ''let the dice fall'' and ''try to kill the characters''. For the simple reason: it's more fun. A player in one of my games knows that most foes will go all out to kill the character. This makes them careful and smart. My players don't just ''get in a fight and hope for the best''. And my players know that if they win an encounter, that there was no ''DM ex machina''.

Talakeal
2014-12-08, 09:11 PM
Hope your sitting down......but there is no ''in between''. You have a real ''dice fall where they may'' encounter or you have a ''fake and false encounter''. That is it.

The same way a football team can't ''get that awesome victory feeling'' unless they win the game. Period.

You can win. You can loose. Or you can choose not to play. But that is all you can do.


Now I recommended the full out ''let the dice fall'' and ''try to kill the characters''. For the simple reason: it's more fun. A player in one of my games knows that most foes will go all out to kill the character. This makes them careful and smart. My players don't just ''get in a fight and hope for the best''. And my players know that if they win an encounter, that there was no ''DM ex machina''.

Agreed, but you can put in fail safes that give the illusion of such. Make your deus ex machina saves sublte and make it so they dont show up at all if not needed. Heck, maybe do something mathematical behind the scenes like give the enemies a cumulative penalty to all future rolls each time they succeed or vice versa.

In your particular case. Aybe give them a second chance should they fail. Hopefully they wont fail, but play up the possibility. Give them as many chances as neded, but always act like each try is their last.

Raine_Sage
2014-12-08, 09:29 PM
You have a couple options here.

1. Have each party member have one "get out of jail free" save that only works once per character. That way they won't die due to one failed roll, but they will die if they make two.

2. Don't make it an auto-death situation. Have them take damage and need healing but give them two or three rounds to drag themselves back onto the walkway before being consumed. I assume they'll probably be wearing some kind of protection so it's reasonable the monster might need to chew through their armor.

3. Make it a proper combat encounter, the monster emerges from the muck to devour the player, initiative is rolled, the other PCs get a chance to drive it back into the swamp before it eats anyone. They don't have to kill it, they just have to force it back into hiding, this way if someone fumbles another roll it can pop back up for another go at the party.

4. Maybe allow some skill checks to find ways to circumvent the more broken or treacherus parts of the path, or just lower the DC needed to succeed in some way. i.e. the ranger uses his grappling hook to pull down a rotten log to fill in a gap in the path.

Knaight
2014-12-08, 09:39 PM
I'd be inclined to have a delay before the creature shows up - presumably they are some distance away, and it would take them some time to get to the PCs, which gives them time to run for a better location. Once said creature is alerted, they are much more likely to stay closer, and likely be visible from the surface to at least some extent (if only through the movement of the water around them).

Though I will say that it looks like the entire problem could be bypassed with a boat, some alternate food (tossing a sheep into the swamp to satiate the beast), some poles for stabilization and weight distribution (think of ski poles), or a number of other options. Just walking over the precarious planks with no tools is the dumb way to cross the swamp.

Jay R
2014-12-09, 08:49 AM
If they're swallowed whole, then they might carve themselves out later, in the monster's lair, where all the loot from its former victims are.

lytokk
2014-12-09, 09:04 AM
I'd vote for changing the creature. Keep the swallow whole ability, but make it some sort of a countdown. Remember the sarlaac pit? It had those tendrils that latched onto anything within reach to pull them in. Or there's always the graboids from the tremors movies. Those may work better. Latch on with the tendrils, and then pull the person into the mouth. It gives the party a chance to help their buddy out. Honestly the whole scenario reminds me of the tremors movies, except in a swamp.

Darcand
2014-12-09, 07:25 PM
I don't know what game you're playing, but in PF the Acrobatics DC for a 12" wide plank is only 5 and no check at all is required unless the DC is 10 or higher, so you can control the circumstances and increase/decrease the danger to control the tension level. I would incorporate degrees of failure to add the illusion of risk, such as failing a check by 5 or less causes the PC to fall prone on the plank, rather then into the water. Or better still they fall off the plank, but manage to catch themselves, just not before getting a leg into the marsh. Enough to draw attention, but within reach enough to be pulled to safety by friends.

Vitruviansquid
2014-12-09, 07:40 PM
What you have created is a dangerous terrain, not a combat encounter.

Dangerous terrains are good when the players have to make a check to traverse them or lose something, like supplies, stats temporarily (being dehydrated in a desert, for example), and so on. They are not good places for a player to die, as you've said, it'd suck to fail a check and just get instantly killed.

So how do we make this dangerous terrain fun? One way is to allow the players to avoid the powerful water monster if they roll well, but have to fight it if they do not. Scale back the monster to just be powerful, but not instantly deadly.

Another way is to have an encounter with a third party on this dangerous terrain. Have the party be attacked by whatever generic baddies exist in your campaign on top of this rickety bridge with the monster underneath it. Scrap the idea of body heat attracting the monster, and instead have the monster gobble up whoever gets thrown into the water and can't get back on the walkways fast enough.

Quellian-dyrae
2014-12-09, 09:50 PM
The delay is the big thing, but also, I'd say to set up certain specific and varying obstacles/threats/difficulties. So for example...

The creature is in the vicinity. It's moving around the general area. It begins with a one minute delay to arrival.

Any time at least one PC is in the swamp, it senses their body heat and approaches, shaving rounds off their general delay. Additionally, roll, say, 2d4-4 to represent variances in the monster's proximity (do a new roll each time at least one PC ends up in the swamp). If their current delay is equal to the proximity roll or less, the monster's upon them!

Moving through the swamp itself is equivalent to swimming. Pulling yourself out of the swamp and back onto the boardwalk is a DC 20 Climb check as a full-round action (the base "pull yourself up", made more difficult by the clinging quicksand and stuff. Allies can assist with Aid Another of course.

Then you have the challenges that come up. Maybe you start off, everything is quiet, they're walking along no problem...and after several minutes they hear the monster roar. It's loud and unnervingly close. Everyone makes a Will save vs. Fear; those who fail are startled and might lose their footing (Balance check), ending up in the swamp until they can pull themselves out. The monster's closer than normal for this one, so add four to its proximity die roll (chances are they can scramble free before it arrives regardless, but it makes it just a bit harrier for the opening thing).

They travel on a bit more, and they encounter a weakened area of the boardwalk. A Spot or Knowledge (Architecture and Engineering) check might let them notice as they approach. Figure it's about a ten foot stretch of the boardwalk, and as soon as, eh, let's say 300 pounds of weight are on it simultaneously (Knowledge A&E could tell them this), it collapses. Everyone on it has to make a Reflex save to get to safety (Trap Sense applies, let the rogues and barbarians pretend it's a meaningful class feature :smalltongue:). Anyone hitting the weakened area with greater force (such as running or jumping) will collapse it as well.

Later they come to an area of reasonably solid ground, but as they pass through it they might disturb an insect hive of some sort (Spot or Listen might alert them, and if they notice they can use Survival to get by). If they disturb it, they're dealing with a Swarm of some kind. An easy Survival or Knowledge (Nature) tells them that they could throw off the swarm...by covering themselves in the swamp muck. Fortunately, getting back up to the solid ground is easier than the boardwalk since its sloping and such, so only DC 15.

At one point, maybe they see like, I dunno, a frog by their boardwalk. Or some fish swimming around. Whatever. And the monster bursts up and eats it! It smashes through a portion of the boardwalk, like fifteen feet or so (I assume the thing's Huge at least), and maybe damaging it for five or ten feet on either side. They just have to get across that hole, but if they land in the swamp, the monster is there, so it's more tense.

And finally, the final stretch of the boardwalk got destroyed somehow. But this is a much bigger gap (and may, its size should be based somewhat on how much delay they have remaining, just to make sure the last challenge has some teeth if they've done well so far). Definitely too wide for the party to easily jump across, though they might jump past a good portion of it. But yeah, chances are, they'll have to swim at least part of it.

Final thing. If the monster does attack, it shouldn't be instant death. Definitely make the monster beefy enough that fighting it is a bad idea. But in an average round, the monster should probably be able to take off somewhere around half the hit points of a front-liner, and take a squishy from full to near-death, with decent rolls. So they can probably survive a chomping (a squishy might not, if the monster rolls well, but they should at least have a fair chance to), but if they don't escape fast they could easily die. Alternately, you could make it less immediately deadly, but use things like grapples and bull rushes to force the PCs away from the boardwalk, separating them, taking them further from safety, and forcing them to deal with it in the water. This would give them more time to enact a daring plan, but also make their situation get generally worse as time goes on. If people on the boardwalk actually attack the monster, it'll actually notice them and start smashing the boardwalk and stuff, so that's a desperation move at best.

Basically, the risk is real, and the monster is deadly enough that it's not just another combat encounter (if they're smart, anyway). But it doesn't just come down to one die roll. If they fail enough die rolls, they'll eat their delay to nothing and have to deal with the monster pretty much as soon as they fall into the swamp. If they do attract the monster, they can still get out as long as they're quick about it, but it'll cause heavy damage. Death is possible, but as long as they're smart and not too unlucky, they should be able to get through. Just like any other encounter.

Totema
2014-12-09, 10:58 PM
Thanks for all the helpful words, everyone. I think I'm going to implement an actual monster encounter instead (which would be rather deadly but still beatable if my players play smart) as well as a more complex check system, which can effectively build the danger without offing my PCs too quickly.

Also, holy crap Quellian-dyrae, you practically wrote the whole scene for me! O_O I hope you won't mind if I borrow from it when I actually run the session. :smallbiggrin:

Seto
2014-12-10, 04:13 AM
Well, if the monster attacks them when they fall, he engages them in battle. So it seems like your encounter is already engaging. But if they need to involuntarily fall off a boardwalk for the battle to start, the "balanced" part is where I'm having an issue. Balance is lost even before the encounter starts. What you ask is impossible, as shown by this simple syllogism :

If the encounter is, it's engaging
If balance is, then there's no encounter
Therefore the encounter cannot be balanced.

Sorry man :smallfrown:


I originally set out to help you, but IMO the other posters have covered everything you need x)

Quellian-dyrae
2014-12-10, 04:29 AM
Thanks for all the helpful words, everyone. I think I'm going to implement an actual monster encounter instead (which would be rather deadly but still beatable if my players play smart) as well as a more complex check system, which can effectively build the danger without offing my PCs too quickly.

Also, holy crap Quellian-dyrae, you practically wrote the whole scene for me! O_O I hope you won't mind if I borrow from it when I actually run the session. :smallbiggrin:

Please do! Hope it helps!

nedz
2014-12-14, 12:30 PM
Several other poster have almost said this but what you need is suspense. So: there is a big monster out there they may even grasp glimpses of it, or hear it, or smell it, ... and it closes in when they fall off the walkway. But it doesn't actually close to attack unless they spend several rounds wallowing around in the mud, ..., or will it ? I think you know how this goes.

Doorhandle
2014-12-15, 05:26 AM
Rather than offering anything myself, I'm going to point you to this essay(s).

While it's a long, sweary, self-important read, the angry dm has some really good advice here (http://angrydm.com/2013/07/how-to-build-awesome-encounters/) and here. (http://angrydm.com/2014/10/the-angry-guide-to-kickass-combats-part-3-lets-make-some-fing-fights-already/comment-page-1/#comment-44884)

In summary, the process is as follows:

1. Find the seed: what inspired the encounter, whether it's a monster a location or even a concept.
2. Find creatures that fit the seed. just the idea of their tactics will do.
3. Put everything else aside.
4. Concept
5. Run the fight over in your head with a generic example party
6. Tweak the fight: Block some of the normal P.C strategies if it's too easy/generic, Place weaknesses in the monster strategies if it's too strong.
7. Get the actual creature statistics/houserules together.
8. Map, starting positions.

Season with dramatic questions, calls to action, ect as needed.