Wednesday, August 11, 2010

plus items vs. plus something or better critters

In a comment to yesterday's post about magic items, Gameblog reader Lizard brings up a good point:
I think there's game balance issues with doing away with magic items altogether, between expected "to hit" rolls and things like "+2 or better weapon to hit"
There's an obvious push/pull dynamic at work here.  If you include fewer +1 swords in your game then critters hit only by magic weapons suddenly become a lot harder to kill.  But on the other hand, if every PC is packing +5 crap then that defense doesn't matter much.  Personally, I think the ideal situation is a lot closer to the former situation than I've seen in many modules and campaigns.  Life becomes a crapload more interesting for the PCs if their swords can't hurt the monster of the week.  Of course the point of such an exercise is not to make the monster invincible, the PCs just have to come up with another way to vince it.  Here are a few ideas:

  • Drop something big and heavy on the monster, like when Luke kills the Rancor in Return of the Jedi.
  • Trap the monster.  Shapechanging/sizechanging beings can be tricked into shrinking down and entering a bottle or box or something.  Slap on the lid and Bob's your father's brother.  I hear crap like that happens to arrogant efreet all the time.  Or maybe the PCs discover that the wight haunting the downs can be trapped in his own barrow by putting that stone slab back over the entrance and having a Lawful cleric bless the seal.
  • Push/trip the monster so it falls into a bottomless pit.  Hopefully "bottomless" doesn't turn out to actually mean "two levels down".
  • Carry more poison, acid, flasks of oil.  Just don't be surprised when you stumble down a staircase and simultaneously melt, burst into flame and die.
  • Find the MacGuffin that sustains the monster's existence in this world.  Maybe a daemonic guardian will return to its home plane if you deface the magic runes carved into the stone plinth in room 32b.  Or maybe all those undead on levels 4 and 5 will deactivate if you cast dispel magic on the necromantic orb on level 6.
  • Find out what the monster wants and give it to them.  That rampaging roc may be a mother hen looking for a stolen egg.  The giant who lives on Hangman's Hill would probably be a crapload less grumpy if you helped it woo the giantess in the next duchy over.
  • Turns out the spectre in the castle is the spirit of the king who died there.  He'll bother the living no more if one of his descendants lays claim to the place.  Otherwise the PCs could get by with wearing his livery and pretending to be his servants whenever he appears.  Of course folks loyal to the current dynasty might not take a liking to that.
  • Stop being such a tightwad and drop some money on spell research.  You may only use the spell Dismiss Grotoblonx, Third Cousin of Demogorgon Twice Removed once in the campaign, but if you whip up a spell that specific you know it's gonna get the job done.
  • Do what good Call of Cthulhu investigators and try to find the monster's hidden weakness.  Hit up sages, bards and local know-it-alls for rumors, legends and advice.  Maybe the monster is allergic to zinc for some reason.  Or maybe old wive's tales say the ghost can be killed with the same sword that killed him the first time.  Maybe the clay golem can be destroyed by erasing one of the glyphs written across its forehead.
  • If you're brave enough, try talking to the monster to find out what its deal is.  Maybe the dragon is just looking for his missing cup and might be talked into accepting a substitute treasure (of much greater value, of course) in exchange for not burning down the town.  And some parties will gladly trade a local virgin for a less belligerent wyrm.
  • And while I'm always for killing monsters as a key component of a good D&D game, sometimes you need to step back and ask yourself how badly do you need to overcome this particular critter.  Maybe the best course is to let sleeping tarrasques lie.  Maybe the Plot Point treasure can be retrieved without a confrontation via stealth or magic.  Maybe you just need to get over this particular encounter and get on with your lives.
I don't think every session needs to hang on navigating these issues, but they certainly make a nice switch-up from swording orcs.  Some players will never consider any of these options unless you make the critters obviously and completely immune to their weapons.