Moderating Encounter Difficulty and Tension

Tension/Difficulty and Some Differences

Wednesday Night, April 13 (Episode 4)

Our heroes rested after their fight with the werewolves as they knew time healed all things. Yet, sleep was bittersweet. Only two days were left before the full moon and Shump was cursed with lycanthropy. Learning of an old remedy, Shump, Val, Strass and Tyrash set out to collect a vampire’s fang and wolf’s bane.

Welcome back to the table. In this session, my focus was on tailoring encounter difficulties, inserting tension and balancing all of it while running the game. The adventurers accidentally found their way into a nest of six vampire spawn that I had prepared for later in the story. This is a weighty challenge for any group. The adventurers were all level 3, each vampire was level 5. My players were destined to lose.

What do you do when an encounter is too hard? How can you adjust in the middle of combat to scale the scene down to more reasonable odds? Is there a limit to how often this should happen?

Following clues given to them by the local priest and his servant, the adventurers found themselves standing before a ramshackle house. Every window was sealed tight and the door looked well maintained compared to the rest of the building. Forcing their way in, Val and Strass interrogated the shop keep, a coffin maker by trade, until he explained that six vampires and the ingredients the heroes needed were upstairs.

One of the first rules about difficult encounters is this: Give your players warning. It may not seem like much, but letting your players think before they do something foolish both builds tension and also lets your players feel more in control, even if they die. In this scene, my players stood at the edge. Their objective was upstairs as was the danger so I gave them a moment to prepare.

Val lead the way up the stairs, each step creaking loudly. An ominous silence pervaded the room above our heroes. Val placed his hand upon the door and at the same moment, the coffin maker began to sob downstairs.

Alright, so there are a thousand ways that this fight can go, but I want to touch on three. Each has a different level of difficulty and each carries its own form of tension. Let’s take a look at three possibilities for this fight:

  1. Rumors around the town tell of a group of adventurers that were found dead and dismembered. They say six attackers laid in wait and brutally executed them.

You could outright battle your players, using the full might of your vampires to crush the adventurers. This encounter is too hard. In doing this, you teach the players that they can die, that the world is difficult and sometimes the players are way out of their league. But you also leave the players no other choice than to flee. There is nothing wrong in doing this. You kill off most of or all of the party, and players learn a real lesson about running away. The encounter reminds players that they are not immortal.

Now let’s look at the tension. In this scenario, the tension comes at the beginning of the fight. The players know that the vampires will be hard. When the fighting starts, the players realize that they don’t stand a chance – the vampires are REALLY hard. The tension builds as players begin to die. This tension, while fun, tends to quickly become despair and frustration when the players realize that they likely will not win.

  1. Storming into the room, Val and his companions search through the numerous coffins, uncovering each slumbering vampire. In quick succession, they plunge a stake into each monster’s heart and watch as they whither and die. Leaving successfully, our heroes return back to their rooms in the inn.

Option number 2 allows the players to feel powerful. They walk in, kill the vampires and leave with little more than splinters in their hands. This encounter is too easy. In doing this, you teach the players that they can overcome difficult enemies without much effort. Unless your players distinctly waited until day, the players had to do almost nothing for this victory. This experience does teach players that even strong monsters are weak at times.

Now let’s look at the tension. There isn’t much. After the initial worry of the challenge the players might face, the rest of the scene falls to the wayside. There may be residual fear that the vampires will wake up but after a staking or two, the scene devolves into the players having no challenge.

A happy medium does exist. There are a lot of possibilities, but this is the one I chose.

  1. Storming through the door, Val and his companions count twelve coffins in the quiet room. From below, the coffin maker’s quiet sob calls out, “the sun is setting….” The adventurers act quickly, prying open the closest two coffins. One is empty; the other is occupied by a stirring figure. Plunging a stake through its heart, our heroes hear the sounds of other coffins shaking nearby.

This third option is where I found my balance. A single vampire was more than a match for the four adventurer’s and six would have outright slaughtered them. My players knew nothing of the true difficulties that come from fighting vampires so I wanted them to get a taste, but not overdose on the challenges they face.

I told my players that they had four rounds to kill the sleeping vampires before they began breaking free. After killing three of the six, I had one of the vampires free itself and attack the players with all its might. Now the players were given two objectives: fight the vampire’s onslaught or defend while trying to kill the other sleeping vampires. Complicating matters, some of the coffins were empty, costing the players a valuable turn if they happened to pick the wrong one.

In doing all of this, I managed to scale down the threat to the players drastically from what it originally was going to be. I did this because I wanted the encounter to be a teaching moment. The players would learn that one vampire was hard and six definitely would have been impossible. If the players were having too easy of a time with the first vampire, then there was room available for scaling up the encounter, releasing more vampires into the fray.

Now let’s look at the tension. In this scene, the tension increased as each new conflict was applied. The players enter into the room and, like in option 2, they realize that the vampires are asleep. By applying a timer, counting down the time until they awake, the players are then forced to separate out their actions and try to beat the clock. When the vampire began fighting them, two conflicts emerge: defend and hunt sleeping vampires or focus on the awake vampire.

For my players, the encounter concluded with one of them unconscious, the others badly wounded. A single vampire was more than a match for them and they took to calling it a “vampire demon.” The outcome couldn’t have gone better as now my players are fearful of facing a vampire head on and presumably, will plan better for future confrontations .

The final screams of the vampire still rang, “You will all be devoured,” as Strass pulled his axe from the beast’s back. The sounds of running guards and the sobs of the coffin maker clashed and our heroes took a moment to acquire their much sought after prize. Ripping the two fangs from the vampire, the adventurers made their way from the building and slipped off into the night.

            Let’s sum up:

  • Encounter adjustments come in all different forms. From objective changes, to already wounded monsters, to puzzles, you have a number of different devices to scale your combat.
  • There is never a wrong way to have an encounter play out. If you kill players, be ready for it. If your players kill everything, have a plan. No matter the case, keep in mind what is “fun” and needed in your session.
  • Crafting encounters can be easy, managing them can be hard. Keep in mind the desires of your players and how you can create dynamic, exciting opportunities.

See you at the table.

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