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.


  1. Joshua10:20 AM

    A sword with no bonus but the ability to cast light or glow in the presence of orcs is suddenly a lot more attractive if it still counts as a magic weapon for purposes of damaging creatures only affected by magic.

  2. Also: Drown the bastard. I once heard of a barbarian who defeated a were-rat by holding its head under water 'til the bubbles stopped coming up. Where's your "can't be harmed by normal weapons" now?

    All seriousness aside, I like articles like this because this is what role playing/problem solving should be about. All the usual balloon juice about "necessary bonus'" and game balance and "I need a magic weapon to survive." just turns the game into math, not adventure like it should be.

  3. One of my fondest memories as a player, is when my 1st lvl MU had to tackle a were-rat, because no one had a magic sword.

  4. Good points.

    This one has always bugged me, though:
    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.

    While Djinn et al are magically bound to particular containers, most creatures don't lose all of their variable powers upon shape or size shifting. Small containers have little damage resistance and few hit points and would be easily escaped by any monster that can deal any damage at its new size/ in its new form, especially one that requires a magic weapon to hit.

    As a GM I would rule that returning to your natural form/size deals a maximum of damage equivalent to that of smashing through the object - much less if you are vulnerable only to magical attacks.

  5. Your post reminds me of an early D&D 3.0 game, when we managed to kill a devil way too powerful for us by siccing a summoned badger on him -- the Celestial Badger, we thought, had automatic "magic" claws, and it kept the devil distracted while we threw everything we had at it.

    OTOH, if your suggestions come into play too often, the game can turn into pixelbitching:"OK, let's guess the 'clever' way the DM wants us to defeat the monster THIS time.", and that's double-plus ungood.

  6. "Small containers have little damage resistance and few hit points"

    Only if you play 3e or later editions or assume that the rules are a all-encompassing physics engine. I reject both options.

    But I will grant that you can spice up the situation by requiring a specific sort of container. But the way I'd do it would be based upon magical thinking rather than a structural analysis of the bottle.

  7. @ Lizard
    I think the trick is not having a certain "magic bullet" that's the only way to kill the monster, but rather being open to unorthodox wacko crap that desperate players come up with when their pointy sticks aren't working.

    It's the players' job to be clever, the GM's job is to give them something to be clever about and to inflict the ramifications of that cleverness in an even handed manner.

  8. I'm in agreement with BigFella here. This stuff shows up all the time in the Doom & Tea Parties campaign (and largely gave it that name). It's important to not have one clever way to defeat the monster set in stone before the adventure starts. When Oddysey's dwarf tricked the tarantella into charging into a garden full of amber lotus blossoms, I had no idea they'd be put to such use. (Yeah, Oddysey can tell you all about this sort of play.) The key to making this work frequently without turning it into "pixel bitching" is to pair clever players with laid-back DMs who are open to the unexpected.

  9. This post is full of awesomeness, and it helps drive home the point: classic D&D is NOT a combat game. It's an exploration game, and a Braunstein-style one where the options are relatively open and lateral thinking is often better than kicking down the door, killing everything and taking its stuff.

  10. @Wayne: Sadly, no one told us that when we were playing it. :) Except that we learned not to bash down the door because there was usually an exploding door trap on it, or something.

  11. Anonymous3:14 PM

    I think there's something to be said for (e.g.) incorporeal undead only being able to be hit magical attacks of some type. But I never really understood the requirement that a +2/+3 etc weapon would be required to harm something. Anything that has a physical body should have at least one weakness (iron, silver, fire, mistletoe, acetic acid, whatever.

  12. We had a situation like that in our recent game. We're running a west marches like sandbox hexcrawl, and their are often pockets of resistance in dungeons. (Session logs here,

    The players ran across gargoyles. They attacked and found their weapons useless. One of the players said "We'll never beat that unless we get lucky!" and I had to explain that if you didn't have a +1 weapon or better, you could *never* damage your opponent.

    The response?
    "What we need is 9 feet of flowing water, and five hundred years of erosion to beat these things!"

    @Lizard: The DM should never have one specific solution to a problem - just be open to the way the party wants to solve the problem themselves. It should never be 'guess what specific thing I'm thinking'. You might provide a couple three options however. . .

    I didn't really provide any special options, because the point was that they were supposed to be difficult opponents.

  13. Few things beat the combo of a bag containing a humanoid skull, the illusion of a medusa head, and a convincing "turns head and pulls head from bag" maneuver... who needs an actual medusa anyway?

  14. I like to do this instead of the usual "NO, an atomic bomb dont cut it; you MUST use a +2 weapon or better to killer it" method - a method I really hate! I find the unorthodox method way more fun! Hell, Conan and a number of other fictional heroes did things like that a lot! Those munchkins can keep their damn "Golfbag of Plus Whatever Backscratchers", as I like to have the players think more creatively then that!

  15. "If you're brave enough, try talking to the monster to find out what its deal is."

    LOL I actually had a party do this in a Mutant Future game. Traded a case of radiation free Mars bars and alot coin to the king of all Pigmen in exchange for leaving an oasis unmolested, diverting their attention to the next valley over.

    This of course freed the party to deal with the nasty brain lasher problem they had been having.

    Sometimes being an adventurer is all about prioritizing.

  16. @Anonymous
    Regarding incorporeal undead, I think the approach I like the best can be found in the pages of Eric Powell's "The Goon", where he beat the crap out of a bunch of incorporeal ghosts armed with a bracelet of cats eyes strung on cinnamon dental floss.

    In other words, once again don't bother with +whatever weapons, come up with some wackly, quasi-folkloric method for beating such foes.

    Possible candidates for ghost busting enhancements:
    Salt thrown on the floor at the site of the battle(blessed by a cleric or plain)

    Eating or wearing common plants harvested a specific way. (Like wearing a Leek in your cap to fight undead Welshmen...)

    Turning your socks inside out

    Wearing or eating a lock of hair from a relative of the rambunctious deceased

    Filling all your pockets with grave dirt. Or your shoes. Or your ears...

    You could go on and on.

    (Note: Verification word: catsman. Which is also a position played in a variety of cricket frowned on by the ASPCA)

  17. Aw yeah! Great ideas. Turn monsters into puzzles.

  18. Anonymous8:20 PM

    "Find out what the monster wants and give it to them."

    I ran the same beginning adventure for two groups (D&D 3.5 ed. fwiw). One key encounter was a young(ish) black dragon who really didn't want to be in the dungeon.

    The first group talked with it, advanced the plot a bit and ultimately ended up having the opportunity to "foster" a black dragon hatchling (several adventured down the road).

    The second group just attacked on sight and, while not a TPK ending, I decided to relax my own guideline about not allowing parties below level 5 to experience death.

    I was trying to run a grey game (as opposed to black and white Good vs. Evil) and I think my second group of players wasn't as ready to embrace this idea in a D&D world.

    Anyhow, at the risk of encouraging a bit of meta-game thinking, whenever players run into something grossly beyond their power level, they may wish to consider a plan other than frontal assault.