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Robbing the Player of Satisfaction

Have you ever made a mistake as a dungeon master that robbed the player of satisfaction? I did recently, and it bothered me for a few days afterwards. I made a fight too easy for the whole party because I went about balancing it all wrong. 

The meathead fighter and barbarian had made their way out to the hunting campsite of this episode’s villainous swine. They approached the camp and immediately started a confrontation with the villain, because that’s what fighters and barbarians do.

We called the episode there, and I got to work developing the fight for the next session. It had been a while since they’d done any real tactical combat. Their most recent fight was a boss fight at the climax of the last module, but that module wasn’t very combat heavy so even the boss was more of a puzzle than a fight. The two fights prior to that had been quickly resolved in unconventional ways. These two players were itching for some hardcore tactical combat. 

The encounter that was already set up when they arrived was not going to be enough to satisfy their desire to smash some skulls, so I wondered how I could go about expanding the conflict into something more challenging. That’s when I realized they both have terrible passive perception, so I put a hidden archer at the top of every single nearby tree. The fighter and barbarian are both gods at this point so I was hoping to see if I could make them run for cover when they realized the error of their ways. I wanted to provide a contrast to the type of fight’s they were growing accustomed to. Why was I focusing on that? Read about lesson #9 on my recent post Being a Dungeon Master: 14 Hard Learned Lessons.

Then I found out that the rogue was going to be available to play for the next session. I established with the rogue their story for where they had been and how they had caught up to their companions just as the battle broke out. Once I knew for sure that the rogue was going to be part of this combat encounter I got worried. The archers I had hidden in the trees were minions, so they only had 1 hp. Their entire purpose was to put pressure on the party and die easily to relieve that pressure. Their ability to apply pressure came from their 2d6+3 ranged attack with a +2d6 on their first attack in the combat. This was intended to greet the fighter and barbarian with shock and awe. One moment they would be feeling confident, about to beat the exposed villain to a pulp, the next minute they would be pincushions short a few litres of blood sprinting frantically for the trees. Either that or they would rage out and triumph over their enemies even in this disadvantageous situation. 

Unfortunately my kind heart ruined everything. I was looking at the rogues 27 hitpoints and thinking, “So it’s going to be raining death from the sky and two hits or a crit will end this rogue. I’m all for life being cheap in my campaign. I want characters to die every once and awhile.  I want the players to be afraid. But I never want the player to feel like they died unfairly. I envisioned what that experience would be like for the rogue if he showed up to the fight, exited stealth, and then died immediately. This is a fifth level character that the player has spent a decent amount of time on at this point. When rogue dies it should be meaningful, not some stray arrow fired by a minion in the woods. 

This is where I broke down and did a disservice to the players and the party. I changed the minions to regular bandits. The intention was to give them less damage, but more hp. That way they would not kill the rogue in an unfair manner, but they could possibly survive a hit and be an annoyance

The result was a disaster from my perspective as a GM.

The fight broke out, the rogue came in from the south west. One of the archers fired on the fighter, and the rogue took notice. He shot the bandit, easily killing it outright with his sneak attack damage, and then he used a bonus action to go into stealth in the brush. He did exactly what a rogue would do. He didn’t stand there like an idiot and let people shoot at him. He knows he’s a rogue. It wasn’t my job to protect him from dying in combat. He knows his class is fragile. 

As the long first round progressed the swarm of archers revealed themselves one at a time taking potshots at the fighter and barbarian. Unfortunately the bandit’s chance to hit is too low for the fighter, and the damage threshold is too low for the barbarian. Aside from a couple “Oh shit!” moments early on as the fight unfolded, the fighter and barbarian did not run in fear. By the second round they were laughing off the rain of arrows. 

The rogue continued to play smart for the entire fight, moving from cover to cover and taking out the bandits in the trees. It was satisfying to watch, and it made perfect sense for that character to handle the situation that way. The rogue clearly felt good about what they were doing, and they should have because they were supposed to be saving their friends.

This is where I regret the lost opportunity. If I had just left the archers as deadly minions they would have made the entire party feel fear. The tone of the whole fight would have been one of pain and panic instead of effortless triumph.

The encounter allowed for the rogue to feel satisfaction from taking out the threat in a stealthy, tactical manner. It also allowed for the fighter and barbarian to feel satisfaction from triumphantly smashing skulls. If I had kept the archers as they were then the whole party would have had the opportunity to feel pain, suffering, and fear. They could have worked together to overcome impossible odds. The rogue’s entire experience could have been amplified if only the fighter and barbarian could have felt like they were in real danger. 

My failure meant the difference between the rogue feeling like they saved the party and the everyone knowing that the rogue saved the party.

Encounter – Alistair Enred’s hunting camp

Round 1 of this encounter reflects the high level of danger present before my misguided changes. At this point the archers and the enforcers are all still hidden.

Mountain Folk

  • Armor Class: 11 (Hide Armor)
  • Hit Points: 80
  • Speed: 40 ft.
  • Greatclub: Melee Weapon Attack, +6 to hit, reach 5 ft., one target. Hit: (2d8 + 4) bludgeoning damage.

Enforcer

      • Armor Class: 16 (Chainmail)
      • Hit Points: 35
      • Speed: 30 ft.
      • Multiattack: The enforcer makes two melee attacks. 
      • Spiked Club: Melee Weapon Attack, +5 to hit, reach 5 ft., one target. Hit: (2d6 + 3) piercing damage.
Boris Whoreson - intense 5e encounters

Boris Whoreson

      • Armor Class: 15 (Studded Leather)
      • Hit Points: 80 
      • Speed: 30 ft.
      • Multi-attack: The Boris can make three melee attacks.
      • Dagger: Melee Weapon Attack, +3 to hit, reach 5 ft., one target. Hit: (1d4 + 1) piercing damage.
      • Reaction: If Boris is within 5ft of Alistair Enred he can use his reaction to take the damage for an incoming attack that would otherwise harm Alistair

Jack Baker

      • Armor Class: 15 (Studded Leather)
      • Hit Points: 80
      • Speed: 30 ft.
      • Multiattack: The Jack can make three melee attacks. Two with his rapier and one with his dagger
      • Rapier: Melee Weapon Attack, +5 to hit, reach 5 ft., one target. Hit: (1d8 + 3) piercing damage.
      • Dagger: Melee Weapon Attack, +5 to hit, reach 5 ft., one target. Hit: (1d4 + 1) piercing damage.
      • Reaction: If Jack is within 5ft of someone who is attempting an attack against Alistair Enred he can use his reaction to make a rapier attack against the attacker. Jack deals his damage first.
Alistair Enred - intense 5e encounters

Alistair Enred

      • Armor Class: 8 (Unarmoured)
      • Hit Points: 100
      • Speed: 30 ft.
      • Enred Family Crossbow: Ranged Weapon Attack, +5 to hit, reach 80/320 ft., one target. Hit: (1d8 + 3) piercing damage. 
        • Aim for the head: If the Enred Family Crossbow is about to be fired with advantage against a humanoid, you may instead trade advantage for a guaranteed critical hit. (sneak attack still applies)
Hitpoint Threshold Reactions:

First Blood – “Boys!”: The boys are called. 6x Enforcers appear from the nearby tent.

80% – Protect me you idiots: All allies within 60ft must use a reaction to rush to Alistair’s aid. They use their full movement if possible. They do not avoid attacks of opportunity.

50%I’m not dying in the dirt: If Alistair is within reach of a Jack or Boris when performing this reaction he will touch them and bring them with him, but he can take 1 of them. Alistair pulls a glass orb filled with swirling blue liquid from his pocket and smashes it into his leg. A cloud of thick blue smoke explodes from the orb enveloping him. If he is holding anyone they are instantly yanked into the cloud. The smoke quickly dissipates in the breeze. Alistair is gone. (And whoever he was holding) 

After using “I’m not dying in the dirt” Alistair has been teleported to his office where he has time to set up another defense. He rally’s his gang to defend him, they rush to the old fort in the pass north west of town. 

He hires the other gangs of the local area to destroy the party.

Roll bounty hunter and bandit encounters frequently for the party members and their property until Alistair is dealt with. 

ranged attacker - intense 5e encounters

Bandit Archer

      • Armor Class: 12 (Leather Armor)
      • Hit Points: 11 
      • Speed: 30 ft.
      • Dagger: Melee Weapon Attack, +3 to hit, reach 5 ft., one target. Hit: (1d4 + 1) piercing damage.
      • Light Crossbow: Ranged Weapon Attack, +3 to hit, reach 80/320 ft., one target. Hit: (1d8 + 1) piercing damage.

I strongly regret not using:

Deadly Archer Minion

      • Armor Class: 12 (Leather Armor)
      • Hit Points:
      • Speed: 30 ft.
      • Dagger: Melee Weapon Attack, +3 to hit, reach 5 ft., one target. Hit: (1d4 + 1) piercing damage.
      • Light Crossbow: Ranged Weapon Attack, +5 to hit, reach 80/320 ft., one target. Hit: (2d8 + 3) piercing damage.
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Jade Breed

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