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!

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