As a PC, I’d rather face five opponents than one. And, as the DM, I’d rather throw five opponents against the PCs than just one. This has been my take on combat since my earliest days of D&D. As new editions of D&D got released I kept an open mind and explored the possibilities again, but every time I found the outcome the same. It’s better to have the PCs fight a mob rather than one really tough foe.
I’ve encountered very few gamers (DMs or players) who disagree with me on this point. The number one reason I’ve heard is that it’s boring to fight just one monster no matter how powerful it is. So if no one wants to fight just one monster then it sounds to me like something’s not right with the game. And if that’s the case perhaps we can do something to change that. Let’s figure out a way to make fighting one really tough opponent as much fun as fighting five guys.
It’s boring fighting one monster
The following is a summary of an actual encounter from a recent game.
Unable to take a short rest before heading into the next room of the temple, the party faced a new foe with most of their resources depleted. They were out of Daily and Encounter powers before the fight even started, but they entered the fray determined to defeat the demon corrupting the church. The defenders rushed in to keep the monster in place. It tried hitting the defenders, but it missed most of the time. It didn’t take long for the PCs to realize that the only way this monster was going to defeat them was if all their d20s suddenly rolled nothing but 1s. By the end of the encounter all the PCs were still standing and only 1 was bloodied.
This was considered a balanced encounter according to the 4e rules. In fact, with the PCs not getting a short rest before the final fight it gave an edge to the monster. Nevertheless it really felt lop-sided. The melee characters waded into combat, protected by the defenders, and swung away with their at-will attacks over and over again. Meanwhile, the Wizard had very few options. Most of her remaining powers (and the ones that dealt the most damage) affected large areas. With the rest of the party swarming the monster every round the Wizard was forced to use Magic Missile over and over again.
Making single opponents more versatile
The battle described above would have played out very differently if the monster had any of the following.
- Attack scores capable of hitting the PC with the highest AC.
- Hit Points equal or greater than the entire party’s hp.
- Defenses high enough to stand up to the party’s toughest attacker.
- Special abilities or powers capable of targeting multiple foes.
Usually a balanced foe will only have one or two of these, as was the case in the example above. The monster had high defenses but couldn’t hit the defenders with any regularity. The combat turned into a race to 0 hp. Everyone surrounded the monster and kept doing the same at-will attacks over and over again. The monster was similarly limited in what it could do because it’s only means of attack was its claws.
If we had the opportunity to do this battle over again what might the DM have done differently in order to make it more challenging for the PCs? Here are a few suggestions.
- Better attack scores
- Attacks that target more than just AC
- A burst power capable of affecting multiple melee combatants (possibly rechargeable)
- Add more monsters or minions
Adding the suggestion above may have made the combat more interesting but it would not have remained balanced according to 4e rules. The easiest way to bring it back to balanced is to reduce the monster’s starting hit points. Lowering the monster’s hp by ¼ would have kept the monster’s power in check. Now if the DM threw in a few other opponents it would have forced the party to handle the small but annoying minions while avoiding the attacks of the brute. It also would have given the monsters opportunities to flank or shepherd the PCs into specific areas of the battlefield, which in this case had rough terrain, a pit and obstacles that provide cover.
Don’t forget to have fun
If you find yourself in a situation similar to the one above there are a few things that the PCs can do to keep it fun. If all you’ve got left are at-will attacks, why not go for style over substance? If you realize that victory was all but a foregone conclusion then start doing things simply for the “cool” factor. Sure, your sword hits more often and does more damage, but how cool is it to take a monster down with your bare hands? Damn cool! Drop your sword and punch it!
Have you encountered similar situations as a player or DM? What did you learn from a lop-sided combat? What did you do to compensate? Share your stories and tell us about your own situation.