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.