Wednesday, October 1, 2014

Encounter Design, Pt. 4: The Solo Encounter Part 1

Okay, it's been...months? Yes, months since my last post on this subject. In short, I've been busy, so apologies all around to those who have been waiting! So far in the encounter design theme, we've covered three things that people often find to be difficult bits when designing encounters.

We've covered Dynamic Encounters, High Level Encounters, and Mooks in Encounters, but today we're going to cover an infamous and often-thought impossible type of encounter that is thematic but difficult to pull off: The Solo Encounter!

Special shout out to Nicolbolas on the Paizo messageboards for inspiring me to get back to my blog.

Warning: This blog post is ludicrously long. I'd highly advise breaking your reading up into sections if you're not fond of scaling text-walls.

What's a Solo Encounter?

A solo-encounter is an encounter where the antagonist confronts the protagonists alone, or in the case of antagonists who can conjure minions, are only drawing from their own resources to get the job done. It is also known as a "boss encounter" due to similarity with many major antagonists in video games fighting whole parties on their own. In ideal circumstances these encounters should be rare, exciting, and memorable. Unfortunately, due to a combination of the nature of the d20 system and some common misconceptions about it, these sorts of encounters are common, boring, and anti-climactic.

So I'm going to try my best to share some tips and tricks to help with building encounters to the former rather than the latter. So let's get started.

If done right, even single enemies can prove challenging to a hardened party.

Boss Rules #1 -- Overcoming Action Economy

Back in Part 1, I discussed action economy, which is basically the number of actions taken by one side against another in a conflict. The typical D&D / Pathfinder party assumes 4 protagonists, many of which will have minions of their own (animal companions, familiars, summoned monsters, cohorts, etc). The antagonist is only going to have one turn of actions, his or her own. As a result, the solo-enemy is already at a harsh disadvantage in this regard, and as mentioned in part 1, this can very easily lead to a quick and certain victory for the protagonists leaving them wanting.

There are several methods for combating this disadvantage, but the disadvantage will never be nullified, because everything that the antagonist can do to leverage more action efficiency, the protagonists can as well, which means at the end of the day you'll need to accept that you'll usually just have to survive without lots of actions (see rule #2). In the meantime let's look at some of the ways a solo-enemy can try to reclaim some of the action economy for himself.

Pets & Summoning: As noted earlier, if the minions are coming from the badguy himself, it's still a solo encounter. A wizard who uses spells like summon monster IX is just as much a solo-encounter as a wizard casting meteor swarm, but one is going to get a bit more action economy leverage as players will need to deal with his pets. Animal companions, cohorts, familiars, and similar assistants acquired through class features and/or feats can also fall into this category.

Making the Most of Your Actions: In your typical 3.x or Pathfinder round, a character has 1 standard, 1 move, 1 immediate, and 1 swift action. A full-round action consumes both standard and move actions. Most actions use either standard or move actions, but some characters and creatures can leverage more oomph by using the odd swift-action or immediate actions. In core Pathfinder, feats like Quicken Spell or Quicken Spell-like Ability (see Bestiary, Monster Feats) can help a lot of antagonists slip an extra action in each round.

For core martial oriented antagonists, there is unfortunately little that you can do outside of magic items to improve your action-economy. There's very little that classes like Fighters, Rangers, and/or Paladins can do to really leverage their actions effectively. Most of their swift actions (if any) are usually attack buffs which improve your existing actions but don't give you much else to do. Few can make use of immediate actions. Worse yet, to truly be dangerous, they are generally beholden to the full attack action, which also prevents them from making use of their move-actions effectively. Additional action economy is going to need to come from magic items, or 3rd party options like Dreamscarred Publishing's Psionic's Unleashed or Path of War series (both are great btw, but that's another article for another time).

Magic Items: In currently printed material, there's a few items that can help improve your action economy. For spellcasters, certain metamagic rods such as extend and quicken can help leverage more action economy (extend allows for more buffs to be pre-cast before combat breaks out, while quicken allows you to use more actions during battle itself). For both casters AND martial characters, the quickrunner's shirt provides the ability to trade a swift action for a move action. This is especially critical to martial characters who need to be able to move and get off a full-attack.

Boss Rules #2 -- The Stamina to Endure

If you're planning to have a single enemy fighting an entire party of a fairly even footing, you're generally not going to want to use a normal antagonist strait out of the bestiary or a character built like a player character. Generally speaking, such creatures are often well rounded and offensively based, but the biggest need that a solo-encounter character has is endurance, resistance, and the ability to survive long enough to wear down the party. Fortunately, the GM's toolbox has what we need.

Build Defensively: When prioritizing offense and defense for your big bad, choose defense. Whenever possible, go with options that improve their ability to take or better yet avoid damage entirely. This means prioritizing hit points, armor class, saving throws, and energy resistances. Fortunately, most of these things are relatively inexpensive even for the antagonist on a budget. For warrior-based antagonists, armor and shields will provide the lion's share of inexpensive AC improvements, while spellcasters will generally have access to mitigating buffs such as mirror image or entropic shield or stoneskin.

  • The Price of Defense: In Pathfinder and 3.x, the relative expense of defense-boosting items is generally about half the cost of items that boost offense. For example, a +5 sword costs about 50,000 gp more than a normal masterwork sword, while a +5 armor costs about 25,000 gp more than masterwork armor. Notice that the armor gives the same bonus to evasion as the sword grants to attack rolls. So for the price of the sword, you could get an armor and shield for a net +5 gain, and the only way the attacker is making up the difference is with BAB and buffs.

    Since NPCs generally have less wealth than a player character, it's important to decide where that wealth is going. You can often a more interesting encounter by spending some of that offensive cash on defensive items, potions, and similar things. So generally stick with magic armors and items that provide cheap resistance bonuses to saves such as the almighty cloak of resistance.
  • Feats and/or Spells: When picking feats for solo encounters, you might generally wish to keep a few staples such as Power Attack, but invest more heavily in defensive feats such as Iron Will, Great Fortitude, and Lightning Reflexes. In Pathfinder, Toughness adds an extra +1 HP / HD and might be worth grabbing as well. Feats that make it harder to pin someone down (such as Nimble Moves and Acrobatic Steps) or make it harder for enemies to hurt you while you're doing your thing (Dodge, Mobility,Wind Stance, or Lightning Stance).

    Likewise, choosing spells such as blur, displacement, mirror image, shield of faith, barkskin, obscuring mist, false life, death ward, freedom of movement and any other spells that help to keep you alive and/or active are all good ideas for a solo-encounter character.
  • Consumables: Things like energy resistances are rather overpriced in the core rulebook in terms of magical armor buffs (they use the proper pricing formulas, but they forgot that resist energy is found as a 1st level spell at caster level 1 on the Ranger's spell list, which means those effects should be cheaper than listed), but even if you don't care to fix the pricing error in your games, you can always rely on potions and oils instead. A 1st level potion of resist energy costs 50 gp, lasts 10 minutes (perfect for pre-battle buffing), and provides 10 points of resistance against an energy type. Meanwhile, a CL 7th potion costs 350 gp, lasts 70 minutes, and provides 20 points of resistance, and a CL 11th potion costs 550 gp, lasts 110 minutes, and provide 30 points of resistance. In general, this sort of investment pays off big for big-bads.

    In a similar vein, other cheap potion effects that can stand in for major magic items include potions of shield of faith (which provides a scaling deflection bonus to AC), and delay poison (which makes you immune to poisons for 1 hour / caster level).
Adding NPC Levels: In the core rulebook (or Dungeon Master's Guide for 3.x DMG) you will find NPC classes such as adepts, aristocrats, experts, and warriors. The Bestiary rules for advancing NPCs generally gives the most accurate/usable rules for advancing NPCs vs their new CRs (as a result, I use them instead of the very swingy Level-2 = CR of NPC class found in the Gamemastering section of the core rulebook). Here you'll find the standard conversion rate of NPC levels to CR is +1 CR per 2 NPC levels. So if you add +2 levels of warrior onto a creature, you'll generally get +1 CR out of it. This is a pretty decent conversion rate for most levels, at least for just plumping up the antagonist's defensive (and offensive) potential.

For example, let's say you wanted an Ogre that was a tough as nails ogre. A regular Ogre is CR 3. If we added 4 levels of Warrior onto the ogre, the ogre would get 4d10 more HD, +4 BAB, +4 Fortitude, +1 Reflex and Will, and more skill points (and a higher skill point cap). He would also get 2 more feats (or 1 more feat in 3.x D&D) which could be things like Lightning Reflexes and Iron Will to improve his resistances to spells. He would also get some new weapon and armor proficiencies, and his treasure values increase (in this case he gets treasure equal to a 5th level heroic NPC). So let's look at what our ogre will look like when we're done with him.

Ogre Boss, Kuldral the Brute CR 5 (1,600 XP)
"Now you face the wrath of Kuldral, adventurers!"
Large humanoid (giant) warrior 4
Init -1; Senses darkvision 60 ft.; Perception +9
AC 24, touch 8, flat 24 (+8 armor, -1 dex, +5 natural, +3 shield, -1 size)
Hp 72 (4d8+4d10+32)
Fort +11, Ref +3, Will +4
Speed 30 ft. (40 ft.)
Melee mwk longsword +13/+8 (2d6+5/x3) or club +12/+7 (1d8+5)
Ranged club +6/+1 (1d8+5)
Space 10 ft.; Reach 10 ft.
Str 21, Dex 8, Con 16, Int 6, Wis 10, Cha 7
Base Atk +7, CMB +12, CMD 22
Feats Iron Will, Toughness, Lightning Reflexes, Blind-Fight
Skills Climb +7, Perception +9; Check Penalty -8
Equipment +1 splint mail, +1 heavy wooden shield, mwk longsword, potion of resist energy (fire), potion longstrider, club x10, 316 gp in additional treasures

This is a simple brute boss, but it's surprisingly formidable against a low-level party. At 8 HD, it's out of the woods against spells like sleep. He can take a savage beating for an enemy of his CR with his 72 HP and 24 unbuffed AC (the average CR 5 tends to have around 50-60 HP, and a lower AC). Blind-fight allows him to continue fighting even if hit with something like blindness/deafness or glitterdust, and makes invisibility more difficult to use to get a big opener with. Because of his naturally strong statistics, the party would need to work together to take him down. This means you're intended to use debuffs on him such as the Intimidate skill, or items like tanglefoot bags, or spells to slow him down or hamper him (such as grease, glitterdust, or hideous laughter). All in all, it's very unlikely that such an enemy isn't going to last at least a few rounds on his own even against multiple foes.

Add PC Levels: When dealing with monstrous characters such as our ogre, adding heroic class levels (such as antipaladin, cleric, or sorcerer) can be a great boon to the creature, especially in terms of improving their survivability. Creatures treat many heroic class levels as NPC levels when determining their total CR until the new class levels meet their current CR, so adding a couple of levels of cleric or monk levels onto a creature is a pretty good way to toughen them up in their saving throws, or provide class features to play around with.

Even if the levels are associated, adding a heroic level to the antagonist means they get the heroic ability adjustments which allow you to tweak their ability scores a bit (it's equivalent to 15 point buy for the monstrous character, but the simple method is +4 / +4 / +2 / +2 / -2, applied as desired to the ability scores).

You might also want to include certain classes for things like barbarian rage, or the (Anti)Paladin's divine grace (which is especially useful on outsiders and/or creatures that have naturally strong Charisma scores, such as most outsiders).

Multiclassing: Adding mixed classes to a creature is often one of the best ways to quickly build up a very resilient boss-monster very quickly. Since the base saving throw bonuses of classes stack, our above ogre could have been created with 1 level of monk, 1 level of cleric, and 2 levels of warrior just as easily as with 4 levels of warrior. The end result would have been +2 BAB, +2d8+2d10 HD, +6 Fort, +2 Ref, +4 Will, some bonus feats, some proficiencies, a smattering of spellcasting, and some bonus feats. Our ogre would also have gotten some stat adjustments for being heroic (for the heroic class levels) which would have let us up his saving throws and HP even further (+4 Dex, +4 Wis, +2 Con would have been quite nice).

You can do much the same with NPC levels too. Adding levels of expert or adept can provide a decent bump to Will saving throws, while Warrior levels advance Fortitude the quickest. If we were really concerned about our ogre's terrible Reflex and Will save, adding Monk, Cleric, Expert, and Adept would have netted a massive +4 Fortitude, +2 Reflex, and +8 Will in exchange for significantly less offensive power.

Let's try this again. This time we're going to mix some NPC class levels in with heroic levels on a human.

Warpriestess Brala the Foe Cleaver, CR 9 (6,400 XP)
"It's not every day that I don't need to hold back!"
Female human barbarian 1 / cleric 2 / monk 2 / ranger 2 / warrior 6
Init +6; Senses Perception +18
AC 25, touch 12, flat 23 (+10 armor, +1 dex, +1 dodge, +3 shield)
Hp 113 (1d12+4d8+8d10+39)
Fort +21, Ref +14, Will +14
Speed 20 ft. (40 ft.)
Melee mwk warhammer +14/+9/+4 (1d8+2/x3)
Ranged mwk longbow +14/+9/+4 (1d8+2/x3)
Cleric Spells Prepared (CL 1st)
1st -- shield of faith, remove fear, magic weapon
Orisons -- create water, stabilize, detect magic
Domains Liberation, War
Special Attacks Favored Enemy (human +2), Rage (7 rounds), Power Attack (-3 hit, +6 dmg; +9 dmg w/ 2 hands), Deadly Aim (-3 hit, +6 dmg)
Str 14, Dex 14, Con 16, Int 8, Wis 14, Cha 9
Base Atk +11; CMB +13, CMD 25
Feats Improved Initiative, Iron Will, Lightning Reflexes, Improved Unarmed Strike(B), Combat Reflexes(B), Dodge(B), Blind-Fight, Power Attack, Deadly Aim
Skills Acrobatics +18, Perception +18, Sense Motive +18, Diplomacy +7, Spellcraft +7; Check Penalty -6
Equipment +1 full plate, +1 heavy wooden shield, +2 cloak of resistance, mwk warhammer, mwk composite (+2) longbow, quick runner's shirt, potion of longstrider, potion of delay poison, potion of resist energy (fire), potion of resist energy (electricity), potion of resist energy (acid), potion of enlarge person, arrows (60), 30 gp of additional treasures
SQ raging drunk, fast movement, redirection,

Here's an example of this sort of thing in action. This particular NPC should generally be able to handle fighting against a group of PCs quite well. She can take a hit and dish a bit out as well. The liberation domain allows her to act as if under freedom of movement for 2 rounds (generally plenty of time to move out of an irritating effect such as wall of thorns or black tentacles or solid fog or entangle). Her AC can hit 30 if she's trying (if she's fighting defensively, due to her ranks in acrobatics she gets +3 to her AC, and she can cast shield of faith for a short duration AC boost), which makes her very resilient vs direct damage attacks.

Again, as with our ogre, the goal here is to make her difficult to just bring down by trading blows with her. A team will generally want to try to debuff her or tag-team her to bring down without suffering unreasonable amounts of punishment or wasting too many resources working on bringing her down.

Extra Hit Dice: Adding additional racial hit dice to a creature can have a big influence on making it much tougher and harder to kill without drastically increasing its lethality. Adding hit dice works in much the same way as adding NPC class levels and can be combined with adding class levels as well. Advancing a creature in racial HD generally means that it'll also get bigger as well. The adjustments to a creature's size from increasing HD generally make a creature more stalwart and dangerous, usually adding about +8 Str, +4 Con, and +2 Natural Armor for most size increases.

The 3.5 SRD had a very handy chart that made adjusting CR for most creatures easier. The same chart is works well in Pathfinder too from what I've seen. It basically treats racial HD similar to NPC levels when it comes to increasing CR, and reads like this. I'd probably drop the animal HD down to +1/4 CR like humanoid levels, and add Commoner to the +1/4 CR list.

This is especially useful if you're trying to build a big fuzzy monster to terrorize the countryside with and you want it to be tougher and ready for a party of PCs.

Boss Rule #3 -- The Field of Battle

After you've built your antagonist, it's probably a good idea to decide on where you want this scene to take place. If you haven't read Part 1 of my encounter guides, you might want to. It discusses building dynamic and detailed encounters and much of what is contained there ports very nicely to building boss encounters. While a solo-encounter emphasizes a single antagonist, the antagonist using surroundings to his or her advantage is not only perfectly reasonable but should be encouraged. Nobody wants an encounter with Torgan the Skull Collector in a featureless 20 ft. wide room. No, battling it out on a massive bridge in a lightning storm, or in a volcanic chamber with platforms connected with magic doorways or floorplates that dimension door characters to other platforms when they're crossed is far more amusing.

Naturally, traps and other obstacles can add to the sense of epic conflict and give your antagonist support that isn't coming directly from another character. Terrain that suits the antagonist is often a good method of spicing them up as well. Fighting a Ranger or Shadow dancer in a location that they can use their Hide in Plain sight abilities to engage in hit and run tactics is basic but effective and draws attention to the strengths and style of that sort of antagonist.

From a similar standpoint, fighting a massive solo-monster such as a colossal fire elemental inside a volcano, or a white dragon inside of its lair is best served by intense terrain, stage hazards, locations that make moving around tricky can be interesting. For example, fighting inside an ironworks where giant pots pour molten iron (treated as lava) and conveyor belts moved objects and people around on them would be a pretty intense and interesting place to engage in a battle with a big bad. It can even function to settle action economy issues in some cases since you might spend more time being moved around the battle and slapping each other when you come into range, and if the boss throws you off the conveyor belt and then rides it around the room, you might need to catch back up while he's taking pot-shots at you.

Putting it all Together

Let's try using some of these techniques together to make a powerful boss encounter worthy of a group of 11th level PCs. I'm going to aim for the CR of the enemy to be about CR 13 (which would give you a little breathing room if you wanted to rank it up from an APL+2 to an APL+3 encounter by adding a few traps or minions using some of the tips from the previous articles).

Since I haven't seen one used before, I'm going to make our big bad a fallen hound archon with the half-fiend template, extra racial HD, a size increase, and some class levels. I'm increasing his racial HD by 4 (10HD), which is giving him a size increase and upping his base CR to 6, add the half-fiend template bringing his base CR to 8, then adding 4 nonassociated antipaladin levels, bringing it to CR 10, and 4 nonassociated cleric levels to bring him to CR 12, then another level of cleric to bring him to CR 13.

Seritmon the Betrayer, CR 13 (25,600 XP)
CE Large outsider (archon, extraplanar, good, lawful, native) antipaladin 4 / cleric 5
Init +5; Senses darkvision 60 ft., detect evil, low-light vision, scent; Perception +21
Aura cowardice, menace (DC 22)
AC 37, touch 10, flat 36 (+11 armor, +1 dex, +12 natural, +4 shield, -1 size)
Hp 251 (14d10+5d8+152)
Fort +30, Ref +19, Will +24; Unholy Resilience
DR 5/magic, 10/evil; Immune poison, electricity, petrification; Resist acid 10, cold 10, fire 10; SR 19
Speed 30 ft. (40 ft.), fly 55 ft. (80 ft., good)
Melee +1 spell storing longsword +26/+21/+16/+11 (2d6+10/19-20), bite +21 (1d8+4)
Ranged +1 adaptive composite longbow +18/+13/+8/+3 (1d8+10/x3)
Cleric Spells Prepared (CL 5th, Concentrate +9)
3rd -- blindness/deafness (DC 17), bestow curse (DC 17), remove curse
2nd -- bear's endurance, eagle's splendor, resist energy (2), remove paralysis
1st -- longstrider, entropic shield, remove fear, shield of faith
Orisons -- detect magic, create water, purify food and drink, guidance
Domains: Liberation, Travel
Antipaladin Spells Prepared (CL 1st, Concentrate +6)
1st -- protection from good
Spell-like Abilities (CL 10th, Concentrate +15)
Constant -- detect evil, magic circle against evil (suppressed)
At-will -- aid, continual flame, greater teleport (self plus 50 lbs. of objects only), message
3/day -- poison (DC 19), darkness
1/day -- contagion (DC 19), unholy blight (DC 19), desecrate
Special Attacks Power Attack (-5 hit, +10 damage), Dazing Assault (-5 hit, DC 27), Stunning Assault (-5 hit, DC 27), Deadly Aim (-5 hit, +10 damage); Touch of Corruption (7/day, 2d6 damage, DC 17; cruelties -- fatigue)
Space 10 ft.; Reach 10 ft.
Str 28, Dex 12, Con 26, Int 10, Wis 18, Cha 20
Base Atk +17; CMB +27; CMD 38
Feats Improved Initiative, Iron Will, Power Attack, Lightning Reflexes, Deadly Aim, Flyby Attack, Blind Fight, Dazing Assault, Stunning Assault, Quicken Spell-like Ability (aid)
Skills Acrobatics +14, Fly +20, Intimidate +21, Perception +21, Sense Motive +17, Stealth +14; Racial Modifiers +4 Stealth, +4 Survival, +4 fly from good manueverability; Check Penalty -6
Equipment  +2 full plate, +2 heavy steel shield, +2 cloak of resistance, +1 spell storing longsword (inflict serious wounds, CL 6th), +1 adaptive composite longbow, quick runner's shirt, 1,220 gp worth of additional treasures
SQ change shape (beaste shape II)

Seritmon is the progeny of a fallen archon and his dalliances with the succubi of the abyss. This unholy union produced a powerful and twisted creature of evil that undermines the holy energies that still course through his veins. Seritmon is a monster of the highest order. His nature is one of deception and betrayal, for even though he makes no attempt to hide his fiendish nature, he acts with a sort of chivalry, and speaks of honor, loyalty, and fair play. This sense of honor is only skin deep, however, and if things are not going his way he has no qualms with playing dirty or throwing his self-respect away to save his own hide, or attacking his foe indirectly.

Action Economy: Seritmon keeps aid functioning more or less continuously, and if he loses the temporary hit points gained by it during combat, he will generally cast quickened aid to provide a buffer against incoming attacks, especially if he is outnumbered. He also has a quick runner's shirt to get an extra move-action in if he needs to make a hasty retreat or close for a full-attack (one of his favored tactics is to crash down onto enemies from the air and immediately full-attack them).

He will generally target minions, such as animal companions, with his spells like blindness/deafness since they are generally going to be weaker and more susceptible to the spell than their masters.

Tactical Schemes: Seritmon is usually found with a cause serious wounds spell stored in his weapon, which was improved via a death knell sacrifice. He only expends the spell in his weapon when he feels seriously threatened or his hate becomes unbearable. He also is perfectly fine with holding the charge from his poison spell-like ability and delivering it through his bite attack during combat at a later time. Sometimes he can be found with a group of up to 20 HD worth of animated skeletons or zombies that he has animated with his dark priestly spells and improved with his desecrate abilities.

He cuts down on enemies being able to gang-up on him by making use of his Stunning Assault feat to stun enemies who he catches in melee combat, or Dazing Assault if his foes appear immune to stunning. This also forces his enemies to try and extract their team members if he catches them in this cycle of savage beatings.

His liberation and travel domain powers give him a solid tactical advantage if he needs to clear out of a bad area of effect spell that is keeping him down.

He is also fond of using flyby attack to haze enemies.

Location Ideas: Seritmon is immune to poisons and knows it. When encountered in his lair, he has a number of magical traps that seep cloudkill spells into certain chambers. Since creatures not immune to poison suffer at least small amounts of Constitution damage while in the area, this is a favorite dirty trick of the evil knight.

Since he is immune to electricity, he might also attempt to engage in a fight in the center of a thunderstorm, or on a location with massive heights where he can throw enemies from ledges with flyby attack and bull rush combat maneuvers.

Since he is mildly resistant to a variety of other elements, fighting in locations filled with frigid cold, mundane fire (in the 1d6 to 2d6 damage range), or areas with acids (such as a magical labratory with pipes leaking caustic chemicals) would also be interesting locations. Since he's not actually immune to these things, he might be emboldened or act brazenly, but may be at risk of getting burned (literally) if the party activates something that turns up the proverbial heat.

Quirks: Despite being able to see just fine in the dark, Seritmon generally keeps continual flame on some of his clothing as well as his weapon, which makes it appear to be wreathed in a dark fire. He does this because he is proud of his appearance and thinks it makes him more intimidating (and it generally does). It also serves to confuse some enemies who would mistake his fiendish appearance and flame-trappings to suggest that he was unable to be harmed by fire, when in truth, he can be harmed by fire spells and effects as easily as most fiends.

Though he can radiate a magic circle against evil, he generally keeps the ability suppressed because it usually is more of a hindrance for him than his enemies. However, since he has several rivals amongst his demonic peers, he sometimes resumes it if he feels the need to protect himself from the influences of a succubi's charms or the spells of an evil rival. He may also activate it if he wishes to prevent summoned evil outsiders (which can often pierce his damage reduction) from getting too close to him.

Because of his insistence upon carrying and using weapons and armor, he cannot make use of his greater teleport spell-like ability, so he walks and flies while in his normal form, and only uses greater teleport when he's shapechanged into a dire wolf (as his equipment melds into his form), which means this is the form he uses when he is traveling great distances.

"Your numbers are nothing before my might, mortals!"

Next Time...

It occurs to me that my work here is not yet done. This turned out to be a bigger subject than I originally thought, and so I'm breaking this final big-bad article into two parts. Next time I'm going to talk about using spellcasting focused enemies (such as sorcerers, wizards, and caster druids) as major antagonists. While much of the information here is still valid for them, their strengths and ability to take on a group come in a different package (lots of extra hit dice tends to weaken their overall spellcasting power, for example), so I think that might worth it's own look into how a caster leverages their power against a party of players.

I hope you enjoyed this and had some fun. If there's a subject you'd like to me cover in the future, or to just ask a question, drop me a line. You can reach me at the Paizo messageboards by my handle "Ashiel", or drop me a message at and I'll get back to you as soon as possible.

Friday, June 6, 2014

A Memorial to My Mother

Roughly a week ago, my mother passed away unexpectedly. I had been in the garden with my father, and I cut my foot on a tool and went to the house to get some peroxide and say hi to my mom and see if my brother had gotten up, as he'd been sick and was sleeping in. To my surprise, my mother was on the couch looking quite bad, and my brother was on the phone with 911 talking to the operator. I ran to my dad and told him Mom was in trouble, and in that moment everything else vanished from thought.

I was there as my father, a former volunteer firefighter administered CPR while the paramedics were on their way. He had never had to use that before, but in the end it wasn't enough. I held the IV bag as the paramedics worked on her, and I watched, as I prayed, pleading in my mind for anything but this. For all the death in media, there was no desensitization, nothing that could have prepared me for that moment as I knew she was gone, and I had just spoke to her only a few minutes before re-entering the house for my cut. By all accounts she was fine, save for a cold.

The autopsy report concluded that it was an asthma attack, in a woman who's never had asthma a day in her life. At the all too young age of 52, my mother transcended this world and all I could do about it was be thankful that I was there with her when she died. Since then, so much has changed in such a short time. I've tried to go on much as I always have. The entirety of the next day I spent in deep thought and meditation as I tried to work out what has happened to us, my family, my father, sister, and brother. Not wanting to forget the things I thought, I wrote them down and shared them with people at the small service that we had for her. I'm going to post what I wrote at the end of this post, but there is something more I want to say here today.

This is a gaming blog, about fantasy gaming. I spend a lot of time at the Paizo forums, and a heck of a lot of time playing and working on games of all sorts. My mother wasn't much of a gamer, and she never cared to try playing D&D or Pathfinder with us because she thought it just seemed a bit too complicated and not her thing, but if not for my mother none of this would have ever been possible.

When I was a little child she read to me, and she taught me to color with crayons, and play with play-dough. She nurtured my imagination and even if she didn't understand it she did everything that she could to fulfill my wishes and interests. I was two when I first started playing my parent's NES system, and that was that. What followed was a lifetime of imagination, comics, video games, and fantasies, that she rarely understood but still she supported in her own ways (even if sometimes it didn't feel like it). She was one of those parents that was out all night trying to get those damned Power Ranger toys when they came in to the Walmart, which is an often unappreciated fact of parenting (the desire for your child's happiness).

So to all my fellow gamers, to anyone who has ever enjoyed anything I've written, and to everyone who can still hug their mothers goodmorning and kiss their mothers goodnight, I say to you "Cherish those moments". Your entire life can change in a simple moment, so remember to make the most of your time, and think about what really matters in life.

There is nothing I can ever do to honor my mother enough, but this is my attempt to honor her in my circles, in the gaming community. Her name was Daisie Taylor Mohn, but her name could have been your mother's name, or may be your name one day for your children. Names aren't as important as the oft-simple legacies that we leave behind.

My Mother, My Teacher
At first I was going to try to list all of the things that my mom taught me in my life, but I realized that could potentially go on forever, as even now she is still teaching me things like I never would have expected.
However, I realized the most important things that she has taught me thus far, and while she may one day top them still, I'd like to take the time to share them with you, what they mean, and why they matter to me and maybe to others. Please bear this lesson with me, for I will need moments of pause as I go.

Before I go on, it's important to understand that my mother was a unique woman, and many of the things she taught me were indirectly, through not her words but her actions and attitude in life. It's as important to understand the teacher as it is to learn the lessons taught.

I could talk about where she was born, where she lived, where she worked, what her profession was, and so forth, but those are simply facts of her life, and while they say many things about her lifetime circumstances, they will not teach you who I knew her as. So I will do my best to tell you now, and leave the rest to everyone else.

We never really went to church, but through her I learned everything I will ever need to understand about God. Her life was a lesson that will forever transcend the written word in any form of any language, for she lived what others only preach.

I've never seen my mother look down on another human soul. She tried to extend kindness and respect to others even when she received only the opposite. She respected the beliefs of others, and hated no one.

My mother cared for everyone freely, without promise of reward or return. It was often jested that the reason we never had our life in perfect order was because we, or I should say she, spent so much time worrying about everyone else. On many occasions our home, both humble and often patched, stood as a haven away from home for those both with and without one of their own.

Now I say to you again, we have never been ones to go to church much, but I want to share some passages from the bible with you that mean a lot to me, because these passages remind me of my mother, and what she has taught me in my life thus far.

Luke 17:21 says: “Neither shall they say lo here, lo there, for behold the kingdom of god is within you”.

The 77th proverb in the gospel of Thomas, God said: “I am the light that presides over all. It is I that am the entirety, and it is from me that all comes, and it is to me that all goes. Split a piece of wood and I am there. Lift a stone and there you will find me”.

God is inside you, and all around you. Not in a house made of wood or stone. Look around you, look within you, and find him. That is what I have learned from my mother. It is why I feel her even now, standing with us today, returned to all that is. The kingdom of God resided in my mother, as it resides in each of us, and it is now where she resides. She was a champion of that kingdom. Not with sword, banner, or steed, but with grace, love, and laughter.

Like everyone past, present, or future, my mother was not without her imperfections from time to time. However, even her failings worked to teach me the truth of everything. Foremost, that reality is filled with mistakes. We all make them. We all have our moments where we lapse and are not our ideal selves, even within our own sight. I will say that my mothers lapses were far fewer than my own, and that she demanded more from herself than from others.

Now that you know the teacher a little better, let me tell you what she taught me in my admittedly short lifetime.

When I was angry, she taught me to forgive.
When I was spiteful, she taught me to be amiable.
When I was selfish, she taught me to give.
When I was furious, she taught me to be calm.
When I was afraid, she taught me to be brave.
When I was weak, she taught me to be strong.
When I was lost, she inspired me to be found.

My mother taught me to dream, and one day I will make those dreams come true. She taught me to create, and so with that led to a lifetime of thoughts depicted with pictures and words. She has taught me to be a parent, and to love children. She has taught me what it means to love your own family and others.

But the most important lesson, was simply that she taught me to love.

      • J. Scott Mohn,
        in living memories of Daisie Mohn.

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Encounter Design, Pt. 3: Effective Use of Mooks

It's been a while since last time (sorry, I've been busy)! Last time we looked at how to deal with lots of enemies with lots of abilities in high level encounters. Today I'm going to discuss using lots of weak enemies in higher level games.

When used creatively, mooks can challenge and inspire players.
Due to the way scaling in d20 games such as D&D or Pathfinder works, a lot of people think that using low challenge-rating creatures quickly becomes pointless in challenging or entertaining players. Today I'm going to challenge that idea during our encounter design. Let's get started!

Defining a Mook
Before we go any further, I'm going to be using the term "mook" a lot in this article so it's important that I explain what I mean when I say "mook". In this context a mook is any antagonist who offers little to no threat to the party on their own. Specifically, a mook is an enemy who's much lower in level/CR than the protagonists. Mook is a relative term. A 1st level orc warrior may be a formidable opponent in its own right to a 1st level party, but it's likely well into mook territory by the time the party is 5th level, and little more than a speed-bump in the path of an 11th level character. Suffice to say that mooks rarely pose much of a danger to the protagonists on their own.

Mook Misconceptions
It's commonly believed that mooks are not good tools for the GM to use to challenge his or her players in most d20 games like D&D 3.x or Pathfinder. This belief isn't entirely unjustified. The basic theory is that as player characters advance in experience and power their statistics reach a point where low level enemies pose less of a threat. An orc who threatened to injure a character 50% of the time may have no more than a 5% chance to injure the same character several levels from now (as characters improve their armor and wear magic items like amulets of natural armor or rings of protection), so when the enemies are dispatched easily and no longer seem to offer a threat with simple attacks it can seem like they are no longer useful.

In a sense, this is true. An orc that has a +4 to hit is a great danger to a low level character, but once their AC is 24 or better, the orc can barely injure them on its own, and will probably be effectively brushed aside by the character it's fighting.

But what's important to remember is that this lone orc is not meant to be the same kind of challenge that it was at low levels. What kind of challenge it is varies depending on its role in the scene you want to present and the level of the characters that it is meant to challenge, and who it is working with.

The Strengths of the Mook
By its very definition a mook cannot be very strong individually. However the mook is a strong tool in the GM's arsenal. Mooks work best when used in groups, often when they can support one or more stronger lead antagonists, though encounters consisting entirely of mooks can be both challenging and rewarding if played right. Mooks are also very good at setting a scene or making your players feel and rejoice in their advancement as they see enemies who were once dangerous falling to the might of their newfound strength and skill, which can make mooks a useful tool for encounters where you want the players to feel awesome.

Mooks function as excellent filler enemies for encounters. Since they are worth relatively little experience points to parties they can be used as a sort of action-prop for encounters. You can often throw mooks into the mix to spice up an encounter without overloading the difficulty or experience point rewards for the event.

Mooks are expendable. Players are intended to be able to dispatch mooks quickly and efficiently. They can be used to "soak" attacks and spells of the players. When an individual mook drops in combat there is no great loss on the side of the antagonists (though you can feel free to ham it up, especially if the mook is still somehow significant to one of the more powerful antagonists, such with Au'hare and his daughters from the previous article).

Mooks can be dangerous in numbers. The thing about mooks is they can often take advantage of some tactics that are especially effective in large numbers, including using actions like Aid Another, or "dog piling" enemies with alchemical weapons, nets, flanking, and so forth. Since the addition of Teamwork Feats like Allied Spellcaster and Precise Strike the tactical options available to mooks are now much stronger and in some cases can cause them to be dangerous in their own right.

Mooks are great at supporting more serious threats. In a high level encounter, mooks can support more powerful antagonists by slowing down the protagonists, covering the big bad, or in some cases forcing the party to make tough decisions about whether to take out the mooks first (giving the big bad more time for his or her machinations) or go for the big bad first (which may give the mooks free passes to antagonize, pester, or even threaten the lives of the party themselves). In some encounters, that choice is a lot harder than most would expect!

It looked smaller in the distance...
Making Mountains out of Molehills
One of the objectives when using mooks is to use their numbers and surroundings to their advantage. Mooks are excellent targets for consumable magic items, wide-reaching buffing spells, and just throwing lots of enemies at the group at one time. Even in small packages, these little guys can pack a punch!

Let's look at a few low CR groups of mooks and their tactics. These basics, once learned, can be applied to all kinds of encounters.

Madam Elsa and her Cats (CR 1): Madam Elsa is a creepy old lady at the edge of a village. A widow whose husband died mysteriously, she now keeps lots of stray cats from the neighborhood. She seems the kindly sort, especially to strangers, though she keeps to herself. She has eight cats that stick around her house and herself. Little does the party realize she's actually an evil hedgewitch that preys on the unsuspecting travelers whom she offers a warm bed to. She uses the bodies of her victims for some dark rituals to some evil hag goddesses, and keeps their eyes on a pickle jar in her downstairs study (which remains locked).

Madam Elsa is a venerable 1st level Adept with twenty cats. However, the crazy witch has used her Handle Animal skill to train all of the housecats to be vicious killers (no really, the cats are trained to kill people) and guard her home for her. When the reveal is made, Madam Elsa commands her cats to attack her victims. During the encounter she casts bless to grant herself and her kitties granting each a +1 bonus on attacks. She then casts spells such as cause fear on key enemies.
Something like this, but angrier!

When Madam Elsa gives her command, the cats rush the party. Each cat tries to enter the space of a PC to begin scratching them. Any cat that takes 1 or more points of damage becomes spooked and flees the encounter for its life (the cats only have about 2-3 hp). Using alchemical splash weapons or spells like burning hands can be handy in this encounter.

In this encounter, the cats are the mooks. Each cat is something of a joke combatant. However, each has a +4 bonus to hit (+5 with bless), a decent AC, and three attacks per round (each dealing 1 nonlethal damage if they hit with an attack). In large enough numbers, these cats can actually be dangerous to some unsuspecting players, especially if a surprise round begins with the cats dog-piling a victim (no joke intended). Each cat is expendable, and the party must defeat no less than twenty one opponents which means that even counting opportunity attacks taking out the kitties, the encounter will probably result in more than a little catscratch fever.

Notice: The key thing to learn from this encounter is that numbers can matter. Even if every member of a four person party drops an enemy on their turn, they're still outnumbered and taking fire. Further, though it might seem mild, the simple act if casting bless can make these weenies land far more attacks.

Update: I was recently made aware that Cats actually have a monetary value in Pathfinder, which can be found here. Apparently they were listed in the Adventurer's Armory. As a result I updated the CR to being only 1, for Madam Elsa plus three cats and included the rest of her cats as part of her NPC gear. The encounter is better this way I think because CR 3 was a bit much for an old lady and her eight cats. Now there's more cats (which means more fun during the encounter) and you can assume the Madam has a few trinkets lying about her house in which to pester the PCs with (using the remainder of her 1st level NPC gear to account for them). For a gold piece Madam Elsa could own up to 33 cats, so you can feel free to add more in if you like. It won't even scratch her NPC wealth.

Orc Shaman and Goons (CR 1): A simple trio of orcs on patrol, this group consists of a single orc adept and two orc warriors. The adept has the bless spell prepared and a few cantrips, carries a longspear, wears studded leather armor, and keeps a sling handy. The adept also has a few flasks of alchemist fire the orcs call "dragon piss". The orc warriors are wearing splint mail, and wielding glaives, and each carries a flask containing a potion of enlarge person or "og'jog juice" as they call it.

Their tactics are simple. The adept casts bless on them, the orcs drink their potions, and the two big ones fight everything with their expanded reach and massive strength (when under the effects of enlarge person and bless the orcs have a 19 Strength, a +6 to hit, 20 ft. of reach with their polearms, and deal 2d8+6 damage per swing with a x3 critical damage multiplier), and can flank with each other in many cases due to their extended reach (giving them a net +8 to hit when flanking). The adept after casting his spell can use his own longspear to poke and prod at enemies while the bigger orcs protect him, or he can use Aid Another actions to give the bigger orcs another +2 bonus to hit against an enemy, or try to help line up flanking attempts.

This is a simple CR 1 encounter. The whole thing could be easily dealt with with a sleep spell or with ranged weapons (or by running long enough for the potions to wear off), but we can see that with their shared tactics and good use of consumables they would probably be taken seriously even by 5th or 6th level player characters, or should be, since they can still hurt you really bad.

Notice: The key thing to learn here is teamwork and choice in tactics can greatly influence an enemy's threat potential. By using such synergistic tactics (buffing their already impressive strength and reach, as well as improving their chances to hit with spells and actions) they are demanding the fight be fought on their terms.

Kobold Commandoes (CR 1): A quartet of kobold insurgents scurry about the small tunnels of their lair, having arrived to deal with some pesky adventurers invading their home. These kobolds are used to guerrilla-warfare style combat and skirmishing, so each has the feat Point Blank Shot instead of Skill Focus (Perception), and each carries a few flasks of alchemist fire as part of their arsenal of NPC gear.

Let's not get carried away now...
Using Stealth to its fullest potential, when combat breaks out the kobolds attempt to dogpile an enemy within 30 ft. with their alchemical bombs. Thanks to Point Blank Shot, each flask has a +1 to hit and +1 to damage, and they're throwing them at the victim's touch-armor class (so armor and shields are not helpful). The four kobolds together can inflict up to 4d6+4 fire damage to a single victim, who will burn for another 4d6 fire damage on the following turn.

Notice: The key thing to learn here is that using dogpile tactics can make things that would hurt a little bit hurt a lot. Having multiple mooks use attacks that are easy to hit with, or deal some damage regardless of the success of their hit (such as with spells like burning hands or fireball or even alchemical splash damage), or can hinder their foes (weapons such as Nets which entangle foes or tools such as tanglefoot bags or caltrops), can all be very potent in large numbers.

Using Mooks In High Level Games
The basic tools of the mooks are the same. However, smart players will all but immunize themselves to low level mook strategies by high levels (which is a good thing, because the mooks could easily kill them if they didn't). For example, the kobolds throwing alchemist fire would be deadly, except the party has equipment granting them fire resistance 10, making them harmless. Throwing nets and tanglefoot bags may be pretty pointless when your party's ranger has freedom of movement keeping him going. All the potions in the world might not help against a party filled with superheroes.

But that's okay, because like I said before, mooks are relative. At 17th level, a party could easily consider an erinyes to be a mook (she's about 10 Challenge Ratings beneath the party's level, and by herself wouldn't even be worth experience points), but she can be excellent support to a large big bad and very dangerous in large numbers (she can cast unholy blight every round for 5d8 nonelemental damage, save for half, which can hurt if you get pelted with enough of them, and could make concentrating on spells very difficult).

Once parties have gotten to high enough levels, the very low level mooks (such as orcs and goblins) can still be used as narrative tools or even in encounters, just not as true combatants. Instead, they can be used as support, using Aid Another for their masters, or preferably by giving players objectives and choices in combat. For example, when the 11th level party is fighting the big bad, perhaps the villain shouts "Release the Kraken!" or something equally terrible, and then lots of goblins begin making their way up a long staircase to reach a lever to release a big monster from a pen. Now the party has to decide whether or not to split their attention trying to pick off goblins moving up the stone stairway in single file or deal with the current threat and hope that they're ready for whatever comes out next!

Putting it All Together

So let's take everything we've been reading here and put it all together into a high level encounter utilizing mooks. In today's plot, we're going to have a powerful drow priestess  and an entourage of drow adept acolytes who use dogpile tactics, and an assortment of drow warriors who pester and hinder the party until they are dealt with.

CR 14 Encounter (38,400 XP Budget)
  • CR 12 x1: Level 13 Drow Cleric priestess x1 (19,200 XP)
  • CR 4 x12: Level 9 Drow Adept acolyte x12 (14,400 XP)
  • CR 2 Trap x1: Intelligent magic trap that casts a random 2nd level spell chosen from a list each round x1 (600 XP)
  • CR 1/3 x 30: Drow warriors x30 (4,050 XP)
Total XP: 38,250 XP (150 XP floating)

The Scene
The party storms the underground temple to the spider goddess where the high priestess and her handmaidens carry forth their dark rituals in an attempt to call forth a champion of their goddess to bring ruin to their enemies. When the party arrives the portal is already being opened and dangerous magic spurts and sputters from the opening gateway. Now the party must attempt to close the portal before it is too late!

Enemy Tactics
The Priestess and her Handmaidens: The high priestess leads the ceremonial ritual along with her hand maidens. As a 13th level cleric she is a formidable foe on her own and relishes engaging her enemies with the unholy power of her goddess. She is going to use spells like divine power and righteous might to take the fight to her enemies, while bolstering her forces with spells like animate objects cast on a huge stone statue of the spider goddess herself that stands within the room. If she gets into trouble, she will also cast heal on herself if she falls below half her hit points (or if her foe is dealing enough damage that she might die if she doesn't).

"You're too late adventurers. The ritual is complete."
Her handmaidens or acolytes are 9th level adepts. While not necessarily powerful spellcasters in their own right they are more than capable of supporting their mistress. Each of them has a pair of lightning bolt spells prepared, as well as having several scorching ray spells prepared. Most of them ready actions to cast these spells at enemy spellcasters to interrupt their casting. So if a non-allied caster begins to cast a spell they can easily expect to see a few lightning bolts or scorching rays coming their way. At 9d6 damage per lightning bolt or up to 8d6 per scorching ray it can be near impossible to not lose your spell unless you're warded against lightning and fire with spells like resist energy or protection from energy or through items like a ring of energy resistance. The adepts could also (at your discretion and depending on the environment you want to run the encounter in) have web prepared instead of a scorching ray to hinder enemies.

The Portal "Trap": The "trap" is actually the portal that the drow have opened and it is steadily growing. The dark forces on the other side of the portal are channeling magic across the planar border to throw spells around. For the purposes of mechanics were are treating it as a chaotic evil-aligned Intelligent resetting magical trap (and we'll give 5.5 HP per caster level or  71 HP, AC 5, hardness 10, and a +8 saving throw bonus) that can cast the following spells once per round at a 13th caster level: acid arrow, blindness/deafness (DC 13), enlarge/reduce person (DC 11), magic missile, or summon swarm. Each round the portal attempts to open itself further as a move-action, while spurting magic out at anyone who would seek to stop it as a standard action (1 round casting time spells like summon swarm or enlarge/reduce person can be seen charging one round prior as the portal charges up, though they cannot normally be interrupted like spells can). When the portal has opened itself ten times (taking a minumum of 10 rounds) then it opens and the ritual is complete, starting a CR 17 encounter with a Marilith with spider-like features like multiple eyes, dressed in webbing).

The portal can be disabled or slowed in several ways. Firstly it's treated as a magic trap, so spells like dispel magic can suppress it for 1d4 rounds which forces it dormant and causes it to reset when it comes back up, meaning it must start its expansion over again. Mage's disjunction eliminates the threat and causes the portal to become dormant for several minutes and may destroy it outright. Alternatively the portal may be damaged enough that it can no longer hold its form and collapses in on itself. If reduces to 1/2 HP it gains the broken condition and must use a full-round action to expand itself, which means it cannot unleash magic on those rounds. A character with the Trapfinding class feature (such as a Rogue) may even be able to disable it with a DC 27 Disable Device check.

While the trap effects (the 2nd level spell once per round) is only a CR 2 encounter, preventing the ritual that is attached to the effect should award a CR 10 story-award in addition to the XP value of the trap. Failing to stop the portal may result in a total party wipe if the party cannot dispense with the priestess and her mooks before the Marilith joins the encounter. Especially if they refuse to flee if the encounter turns against them.

We're here to do more than look pretty.
The Drow Warriors: The priestess keeps a retinue of thirty drow warriors within her complex. When the encounter begins there are a group of ten of them guarding the priestess and her handmaidens (though this assistance is for little more than protocol as individually these soldiers could scarcely guard themselves from their master). However, they are loyal out of a combination of fear and religious upbringing, and so they are apt to fight for their masters even against overwhelming odds.

Each of the warriors is lightly armored (studded leather) and carries a few spidersilk nets (just treat as normal nets) and some alchemical weapons (each has a single tanglefoot bag, and a pair of alchemist fires). Their weapons are serviceable rapiers but they are more decorative than mastercraft (their weapons are mundane).

When the battle breaks out, the drow warriors attempt to use their nets on any enemy up to large size that they can, inflicting the entangled condition on their foe. Since it takes a full-round action to escape a single net, characters who are hit with multiple nets may very easily end up entangled for the entire encounter unless they are willing to spend several rounds trying to escape all of them.

They will also take turns hitting enemies with their alchemical weapons whenever they can. Their objective is to slow, hinder, or harass enemies as much as possible. Dog piling alchemist fire on enemies is a favorite tactic against enemies with particularly high armor classes (such as those in plate mail) or against enemy casters (particularly clerics and druids who may have difficulty casting through all the continuous damage).

As the battle progresses, 4 more soldiers arrive on the scene from deeper in the complex each round until all 30 warriors have arrived or have been dealt with. Since the mooks are spread out, it makes it more difficult to crowd-control or kill all of them with area of effect spells such as black tentacles or fireball. This keeps them flowing.

They'll also not hesitate to be living shields, since allies behind them gain soft cover (+4 to AC), which can mean that a pawn can be sacrificed to avoid an enlarged barbarian's opportunity attack (you can't make opportunity attacks against creatures with cover). They can also use Aid Another and flanking to grant their priestess some really goofy attack and armor class bonuses as well. They can also cover the priestess or their adept sisters, forcing martials to bull-rush through them to reach the chewy spellcasting center.

It's an animated object, honest!

My next encounter design blogpost is going to fly in the face of everything I've mentioned up until now (okay, maybe not everything). Why? Because, it's going to be about using single big bad evil guys, and is going to take a look at what makes for a great solo-encounter enemy and examine what kinds of creatures or tactics to avoid when making a solo-boss.

Look forward to seeing you next time. Until then, game on Alvenians.

Sunday, September 22, 2013

Encounter Design, Pt. 2: High Level Encounters

In the first article of this series, I went over using multiple NPCs, and drawing players into encounters using terrain, skills, and their surroundings. Today I will be discussing some of the nuances of higher level play. High level encounters are some of the most complex and bewildering of encounters for many GMs, both new and veteran alike, so let's try to tackle some of that today.

Today I'd like to give another shout out to Umbriere, Icyshadow, and Magnuskn of the Paizo Messageboards for getting me to start these articles, and a shout out to my gaming group for all the horrors I put them through with my encounters. ^_^

You may want to split the reading into multiple portions if you can't handle reading a lot at once.

Player Characters From Low to High Levels
Pathfinder (and D&D 3.x) changes dramatically as characters advance in level. Characters become inhumanly tough, capable of doing god-like things, and have a much wider array of options open to them when deciding how to solve problems. This is true for both sides of the fence (both PCs and NPCs) and as a result combat changes at high levels into something deeper and more tactical (but very rewarding I think).

The one on the left, is the dangerous one.
Characters move faster or have new ways to move. Most characters by high levels can afford things like boots of speed, but many will also have steady access to flight in some form or another (magic items like celestial armor, carpets of flying, or spells like overland flight spring to mind), or even more exotic ways to move about (there are methods to obtain swim or even burrow speeds, where even the earth itself is no obstacle), or even shed their bodies entirely with effects like gaseous form or ethereal jaunt. Or characters may forgo moving entirely and simply be where they wish to be with spells like dimension door or greater teleport, allowing them to move around virtually any obstacle and often at great distances.

Meanwhile, characters are much more durable. Assuming players have not neglected their defenses, they should have statistics like Armor Class and Saving Throw bonuses in abundance, lots of hit points, and likely resistances or outright immunities to several attack forms (such as poison, diseases, or various types of energy damage such as electricity or fire). Attacks that would have outright killed or ended their existence at lower levels can be absolved in an instant (if a gorgon turns one of your characters to stone, likely your party can cast stone to flesh on the character, possibly even during the same combat, allowing the player to resume their activities)!

Finally, characters have much greater offense. Not merely in the scale or amounts of their damaging abilities, but also in the wealth of options they have for being offensive. Characters can deal damage, stun, daze, paralyze, petrify, hold, confuse, throw, drain life force, or even banish enemies from existence! Chances are if one method of attack isn't working, a high level party can try several more until the opponent cries uncle.

In pretty much every way, characters are bigger, badder, and more potent.

High Level Encounter Basics
For the most part, the advice given in part one of this guide applies more or less directly to high level combat. Like at low levels, we want our encounters to be dynamic, full of energy, with lots of stuff going on, and with many antagonists to interact with the party. That much is the same. The biggest hurdle is just learning to think with some creative flair and take into account the wealth of options that high level monsters and NPCs have.

Dealing With Lots of NPCs and their Abilities
As an example, let's look at the Succubus. The succubus is a CR 7 creature and one of the first things you'll notice is that it has a lot of unique abilities. Besides her resistances, natural flight, shapeshifting, and special perks like profane gift and energy drain, she also has a wide variety of spell like abilities which allow her to do things like accurately teleport, turn ethereal, or control the minds of others. She even has an offensive option with her vampiric touch spell-like ability (which can be delivered through a claw attack by the way).

By herself she has a lot of tricks, but what if there were several of them and a Rakshasa? When you start getting into multiple creatures at once you don't want to stop and have to decide what each creature is going to do individually. That takes time that should generally be spent progressing the flow of your game. So how do we handle this?

1. Assign Roles. When dealing with lots of NPCs, you will want to get a basic idea as to what that character should do during an encounter. Assuming the succubi + rakshasa combo above, we decide that the succubi will flutter about the encounter with their flight or teleportation and try to harass the party while being as hard as possible to pin down (and by harass I mean constantly trying to charm cohorts, animal companions, and PCs, while occasionally sucker-punching casters with vampiric touch delivered through a claw attack). Meanwhile the Rakshasa can engage the party more directly with melee or ranged weapon combat while supporting the group with whatever sorcerer spells he knows.
You'll be running encounters like this in no time!

By getting an idea of what each creature's role will be during the combat it allows you to condense all those cool abilities down into a sort of manageable goal.

2. Plan Ahead. When I say plan ahead, I'm not talking about GM prep-time in the traditional sense. I mean have an idea as to what each creature is going to do on their turn before their turn comes around. Don't wait until it's succubus #3's turn to know what she's going to do. This can be done tactically a few turns in advance, generally a few rounds in advance, or even conceptually before the fight ever begins. For example, we did some of this when deciding their role (when we decided they would harass the party's minions with charms and/or try to sneak up on the party casters while they are dealing with the rakshasa). So when her turn comes up you can have her act and move on to the next character.

This is good advice for dealing with summoned creatures, familiars, animal companions, or even player characters. With a little practice, even large encounters with lots of NPCs and player henchmen (including cohorts, animal companions, familiars, and undead) can move along really quickly.

3. Have an Initiative Strategy. One thing that's important when running lots of NPCs is deciding how to handle their initiatives. If you have a digital initiative tracker (as with some online tabletop programs) this can be less of an issue. If you're running a traditional tabletop game or lack such a digital tool, you have a lot of options available to you.
  • Roll initiative before combats. You can roll and mark initiatives for NPCs at any time before the combat begins. If you're using statblocks you can mark the NPC's initiative roll on their sheet.
  • Use average initiative. The original D&D 3E basic game used average initiative for everyone, which is where you assume the NPCs rolled a 10 + their initiative bonuses (so a +2 Init becomes a 12, and you can roll a d20 to break ties). This can be useful for dealing with large numbers of mooks but some might complain that you can't take 10 on initiative. Still, my players have never complained when I've used this method (in fact, we have played games where we dispensed with rolling initiative entirely using this method).
  • Use grouped initiative. If you're using groups of enemies you can roll for the group instead of the individual. For example, in our sample encounter of succubi plus a rakshasa you might roll 1 initiative for all of the succubi and one initiative for the rakshasa. This is especially good for big combats where you'd like groups of enemies or mooks to all act as kind of a horde or unit.
Any of these methods can greatly cut down on dealing with initiatives during combat and keep the game progressing smoothly.

Putting It All Together
Now let's build a high level encounter. I'm going to progress on with the Rakshasa and the succubi because it sounds like a fun encounter. Drawing on what we learned in part one, we're going to try and make an exciting and dynamic encounter.

XP Budget
We're going to aim for a CR 16 encounter with approximately 76,800 XP worth of enemies. We spread our budget like this:
  • 16 CR 1/2 Enemies: 16 Tieflings (3,200 XP)
  • 7 CR 7 Enemies: 7 Succubi (19,200 XP)
  • 1 CR 15 Enemy: 1 rakshasa eldritch knight* (51,200 XP)
Total XP Value: 76,800 XP

The Location
We set our scene in an underground throne room in a complex beneath the streets of a major city, with an entrance from the "Beautiful Sins" nightclub owned by the Rakshasa. A truly terrible creature named Kili the Auburn Hare or "Master Au'hare" as he is identified in his human guise. Beneath his club is a living compound best described as a den of absolute inequity where he sees to his dear "family". A master manipulator and powerful even by the standards of Rakshasa, he is supported by an entourage of succubus concubines who serve as his lovers, spies, and assassins. He has a hand in many forms of vice and illegal dealings in the city, especially in the area of trading slaves.

At the center of this complex is a long room filled with burning incense, lavish black and white roses, and erotic paintings and tapestries adorning the walls. This beauty is contrasted by small chimes and sculptures made of humanoid bones, with bead-like strings of teeth hanging like curtains. Doors line the walls of each side, presumably leading to other areas of the underground mansion. At the end of this seemingly impossibly long room sits a silk-padded throne studded in the bones of monsters. Atop the throne, a very well-dressed human man (our Rakshasa Au'hare in his human form) who could be described only as physically beautiful sits drinking from a gem-studded goblet made from a goblin's skull. Surrounding him are a pair of beautiful women with clearly demonic features that only seem to enhance their appearance in a strangely exotic way.

The entire area is lit with nothing more than lots of candles and burning incense. This leaves the entire complex lit with little more than dim light, which imposes no penalties on Au'hare and his family who all possess darkvision.

Wandering the hallway and other portions of the complex are female tieflings that would seem physically attractive to most humanoids if not for strange and creepy features like elongated teeth, strange animalistic eyes, rabbit-like ears of various colors, and fur-like hair. These tieflings are Au'hare's daughters and lovers, born from the coupling of Au'hare and his special "guests" that he finds in his nightclub (which he eventually sells off as slaves when he grows bored with them if they don't succumb to the hunger of him or his succubus concubines). Au'hare's daughters are fiercely loyal to their father as he has raised them to practically worship him and takes great pleasure in spoiling them by showering them with gifts and attention. Au'hare has sired many more children by his indulgences but he kills all the male children born so as to prevent any rivals for power or attention from his daughters.

Au'hare's Family
  • Daughters: Angel, Beauty, Compassion, Dignity, Emotion, Freedom, Holiness, Integrity, Justice, Love, Mercy, Parish, Righteous, Salvation, Truth, and Virtue
  • Succubi: Varilexa, Violencia, Sixtixa, Loss, D'Philia, Marotep, Harvexa
The Scene
"Daddy, I want to play with this one!"
When the party arrives, Au'hare in his usual confidence welcomes them to his home. Inside his throne room are his daughters Dignity and Virtue who are playing violins in an upbeat tone which has Au'hare nodding his head in rhythm. When the party arrives, there is an eerie semblance of family life going on at first glance. Au'hare insists on introducing his family, telling the party that their business can wait. "Oh please, put your weapons down and meet the family, Dignity, Virtue, say hello to our guests." he insists when the party arrives. Dignity and Virtue are especially fascinated with the strangers and smile warmly, revealing rows of sharp teeth as they curtsy with dancer-like form. Virtue takes a special interest in one of the party members (chosen for whichever the GM thinks would be the most creepy) and remarks "Oh, I like you. Daddy, can I have this one?" she comments.

Thanks to the telepathy of the succubi, his other daughters emerge from doors around the compound to meet the party. Au'hare introduces each. Each one with similar twisted features. After he introduces his daughters, he then introduces the succubi as his wives.

Au'hare is soft-spoken with his daughters and enjoys spoiling them. When Virtue asks to have one of the party members, he responds with something like "Maybe sweetest, we'll see." which can allow the party to simultaneously feel objectified by these strangers and imply the level of arrogance present in Au'hare.

Au'hare is not particularly fond of combat and enjoys playing with his guests instead. If given the opportunity he'll flirt with female members of the party, which will draw obvious jealousy from his daughters who get noticeably angry and try to draw his attention back to them by making passive-aggressive comments about their appearances such as "But her hair isn't as pretty as mine, right daddy?" or "Her skin can't be as soft as mine daddy, and I know you love soft skin". Au'hare continues displaying his pride for his home, and will even do strange things like invite the party for dinner as though they were somehow friends (though he's just toying with the party as long as they will go along with his little games).

The objective in this scene is to draw attention to the twisted mockery of a family. It is in this that his Rakshasa taboos can be found, and it is in this that ingrains the scene into the memories of the players.

The Plan
Au'hare is an overconfident bastard, and he knows that he is nearly untouchable in his dark sanctum here. His entire complex is guarded by permanent mage's private sanctum which prevents people from spying on his affairs with spells like scrying. He usually has his favorite succubi (Varilexa and Violencia) close at hand with him at his throne and the others reside elsewhere in the complex. Each of them can alert the others to the presence of intruders and give them play-by-plays of what they're perceiving with their Telepathy, and all of them willingly fail their saving throws to resist Au'hare's constant detect thoughts which allows them all to do organize their nightmarish activities in perfect synchronization if they are near each other.

If combat breaks out, the succubi immediately alert the other five succubi who begin using their summon spell-like ability to summon as many Babau demons to join in the fight as possible (statistically speaking all the succubus combined should summon around 3-4 babau). After that, they use their greater teleport to join the fight, flying out of reach of melee characters when possible and using charm monster to harass players or henchmen (such as cohorts, animal companions, familiars, etc) and attempt to use their strong Charisma scores to force their victims to turn on their friends. If they see any spellcasters left unguarded they will cast vampiric touch and charge them on the following round to deliver the spell with their claw attack (see holding the charge) to inflict some heavy burst-damage and put them in position to harass the casters.

Any summoned Babau will simply attempt rush into combat as fast as possible, relying on their damage reduction and acidic slime to protect them, and using their longspears to set up flanking positions where they can sneak-attack. When the tieflings or they use their darkness spell-like abilities, they take great glee in ambushing anyone who cannot see in the darkness (leaving them blind and very vulnerable to their sneak-attacks).

Au'hare's daughters are not very strong but they are very loyal to their father both out of adoration and fear. Though they pose little threat on their own, they each can cast darkness as a spell-like ability and will blanket the area in this darkness, and will try to fight with the party until they realize it's hopeless (likely after one or two of them has been effortlessly dealt with, either by being injured, disabled, thrown aside, or slain) at which point they try to keep their distance out of fear. They don't wear armor but each carries a bag with alchemical items like tanglefoot bags, acid, and alchemist fire, as well as a single masterwork melee weapon gifted to them by their father (usually a dagger, rapier, short sword, or other light or finesse weapon). If Au'hare begins taking excessive damage, his daughters betray their love for their father and attempt to throw themselves in the way of incoming attacks using Aid Another to grant him bonuses on armor class or saving throws, shouting things like "Leave my daddy alone!" or "Remember me daddy!".

Au'hare himself prefers to begin combats with mind fog to soften up enemies for his many enchantment spells like mass hold person. He takes a special fondness of using terrible save-or-die spells as finishing moves when he gets a successful critical hit (his favorites are mass hold person, persistent flesh to stone, persistent baleful polymorph, persistent hold monster and persistent slow) in addition to blinding his foe with Blinding Critical. He will not hesitate to activate his boots of speed to haste himself, and if given the opportunity he prefers to buff himself with improved invisibility and greater heroism in that order.

Au'hare is flamboyant and egotistical. He enjoys toying with enemies he feel are weaker than himself, but his mood turns excessively sour if someone strikes his daughters or insults the appearance of himself or his girls. If one of his daughters is slain he immediately targets her killer with as much hatred and reprisal as he and his succubi can muster. Au'hare is too self-centered to fight to the death however and will attempt to escape if the battle turns against him by using teleport or shadow walk to flee to the countryside with the intention of seeking terrible vengeance in the future.

Au'hare / Kili the Auburn Hare
NE Medium outsider (native, shapechanger) eldritch knight 10
"It looks like we have company, ladies."
Init +12; Senses darkvision 60 ft.; Perception +24
AC 30, touch 18, flat 23 (+4 armor, +8 dex, +9 natural)
Hp 330 (20d10+220); Fort +21, Ref +21, Will +14;
DR 15/good and piercing; SR 25; Immune mind blank
Speed 40 ft., Fly 40 ft. (good manueverability)
Melee +1 rapier +22/+18/+13/+8 (1d6+23/15-20), bite +9 (1d6+8)
*: Includes a -6 to hit and +18 to damage from Power Attack)
Special Attacks detect thoughts, spell critical
Sorcerer Spells Known (CL 16th, Concentration +27)
8th (3/day) -- mind blank*

7th (6/day) -- insanity (DC 26), mass hold person (DC 26)
6th (7/day) -- flesh to stone (DC 24), greater heroism, shadow walk
5th (7/day) -- baleful polymorph (DC 23), overland flight*, hold monster (DC 24), teleport
4th (8/day) -- lesser globe of invulnerability, dimension door, greater invisibility, bestow curse (DC 22)
3rd (8/day) -- haste, slow (DC 21), vampiric touch, dispel magic
2nd (8/day) -- mirror image, blindness/deafness (DC 19), ghoul touch (DC 19), hideous laughter (DC 21), see invisibility
1st (8/day) -- charm person (DC 20), mage armor*, shield touch of gracelessness (DC 18), corrosive touch
Cantrips -- detect magic, detect poison, light, mage hand, prestidigitation
*: Already cast (included in statblock).
Str 18, Dex 26, Con 30, Int 13, Wis 12, Cha 24
BAB +20, CMB +24, CMD 42
Feats Power Attack, Weapon Finesse, Combat Casting,  Improved Initiative, Improved Critical (rapier), Heighten Spell, Spell Focus (Enchantment), Greater Spell Focus (Enchantment), Persistent Spell, Toughness
Bonus Feats Critical Focus, Blinding Critical, Blind-Fight
Skills Bluff +34, Diplomacy +13, Disguise +28, Perception +24, Perform +20, Sense Motive +24, Stealth +21; Racial Modifiers +4 Bluff, +8 Disguise
Equipment +3 cloak of resistance, +2 gloves of dexterity, +2 vest of constitution, +1 called adamantine rapier "Black Phantom", boots of speed, 1,670 gp worth of additional items.
Languages Common, Abyssal, Infernal
SQ change shape (any humanoid, alter self)
Detect Thoughts (Su) A rakshasa can detect thoughts as per the spell of the same name (CL 18th). It can suppress or resume this ability as a free action. When a rakshasa uses this ability, it always functions as if it had spent three rounds concentrating and thus gains the maximum amount of information possible. A creature can resist this effect with a DC 22 Will save. The save DC is Charisma-based.
Profane Gift (Su) Au'hare is the beneficiary of a +2 profane bonus to his Constitution score due to his relationship with his succubus lovers. A profane gift is removed by dispel evil or dispel chaos. The succubus can remove it as well as a free action (causing 2d6 Charisma drain to the victim, no save), but will not willingly do this to unless magically compelled.

I hope you enjoyed today's blogpost and the creepy kinks of the Auburn Hare! Next time I'm going to talk about using low level creatures in encounters with high level players (you didn't think those orcs were going to just disappear when you hit 11th level, did you?)!

See you next time Alvenians. Until then, game on!