Is it better to fight a few really tough monsters or a whole bunch of weaker monsters? There’s probably not a right or wrong answer to this question, but I’m going to continue searching for one. Over the past two weeks my gaming group has tried both extremes and there were many lessons learned by the players and the DM.
The players dusted off characters that they haven’t played in almost a year. They just hit level 11 – Paragon Tier. This opened up new powers and new abilities for all of the PCs. It will take them a few sessions for the players to remember what these particular PCs are capable of, and after a few games it’ll be like they never took a break at all.
I finally got a chance to take on the responsibilities of being the DM for this long-term campaign. This is my first opportunity to do so in 4e. Until now I’ve only been the DM for one-off games (mostly dungeon delves and LFR adventures). In each case I used an adventure that was written for me.
Game 1 – A Few Really Tough Monsters
For the first game back I ran the PCs through the level 11 Dungeon Delve. I used the adventure as written. The only adjustment I made was to remove a couple of the monsters since they were only a party of 4 and not a party of 5.
The monsters in the first encounter were levels 10 and 15; in the second encounter levels 11, 13 and 14; and in the third encounter level 14. The PCs were clearly outmatched. The monsters had a lot of hit points and the PCs couldn’t hit with any regularity. The average PC attack score was around +17 and the monsters defenses were in the high 20s and low 30s. Meanwhile the monsters attack scores were so high that they only missed two of the PCs on rolls of 1 or 2.
Lessons Learned – Players
- Work together. Don’t fall into the typical behaviour of going in different directions and engaged different opponents. Focus all of your energy on one monster at a time until it’s neutralized. (This is just one of 10 great tips we’ve suggested in Avoiding Death.)
- Make monster knowledge checks. This party has incredibly high skill scores. The best Aracana, Dungeoneering, Nature and Religion scores are about +17. Even on a really poor roll you’re still going to learn something. Knowing its vulnerabilities may help determine which power to use on your turn.
Lesson’s Learned – DM
- Recognize when monsters are too tough. When you know you’re going to hit the PCs every time it just takes the fun out of it. The PCs cringe when you attack them and you debate fudging rolls to give them a break. This isn’t how the game should work. It’s supposed to be fun.
- Reward creativity. When the PCs want to try something crazy, let them. In this situation the PCs realized that they were outmatched so they tried a lot of unorthodox things. I said yes over and over again. I set the DCs pretty high for some of their outrageous suggestions, but when your Athletics score is high enough you might as well try leaping over the monster to position yourself to flank.
- Fighting one monster is boring. We already focused an entire article on this so I won’t go into too much detail here. In short, when the PCs are down to at-will powers, call the fight.
Game 2 – Many Weaker Monsters
After the shellacking the PCs took during game 1, I decided to be an extra nice DM and allow them to tweak their PCs a little bit. After all they hadn’t played these PCs in a really long time and they couldn’t remember what all of their powers or items did. Since it’s a home game I’m not bound by the RPGA or anyone else. I also threw them a couple of lesser magic items to fill out some of their empty slots.
The PCs began the night with a skill challenge which they knocked out of the park. At level 11 the hard DC is 21. I think the average check came in around 30. We even had a couple of 40s (when the rolls were aided by utility powers or assisted by other PCs).
After the skill challenge, which involved a lot of great role-playing, the PCs ended up in two combat encounters. The monsters in the first encounter were levels 5, 5 and 7; and in the second encounter levels 5 and 10.
This time around the PCs had little difficulty hitting the monsters. I’d say they hit at least 75% of the time (which is what you’d expect when level 11 PCs are fighting level 5 and level 7 monsters). The monsters hit often, but they had to work for it. Because the monsters had numbers on their side, they were better able to flank the PCs and gain combat advantage.
Lessons Learned – Players
- Use the terrain. This party has two PCs who are strictly ranged attackers. One of the other PCs can attack in melee but is better when attacking from range. Knowing this, I provided a lot of easily accessible areas for the ranged attackers to climb up in order to raise themselves above the melee. I also provided a number of areas that acted as chokepoints so that they wouldn’t have to fight a whole mob at once. Unfortunately the PCs stayed in the open and allowed themselves to be surrounded by the monsters.
- Work together. I know I used this one above, but this time they learned a different lesson. The party striker, a Rogue, needed to flank in order to gain combat advantage and thereby the opportunity to use his sneak dice. Because the Rogue went so high in the initiative he acted before everyone else. This was great for the first round, but not so great in subsequent rounds. The Rogue would move in first and attack. Then his ally would move to flank. The flanked monster then moved out of flanking position on his turn. If the Rogue just delayed after the fist round he could have gone after his ally moved into melee and gained the benefits of flanking almost every time.
Lesson’s Learned – DM
- More monsters, less variety. By using weaker monsters I was able to use more of them. And I did. The problem was that I used a lot of different monsters. I chose them specifically because they had complimenting powers. However, it really slowed things down. Every time it was the monsters turn I had to flip between sheets and figure out which power to use. Next time I take this approach I’m only going to use one or two types of monsters and not six like I did during this game.
- Don’t go too weak. During week 1 the PCs couldn’t hit monsters with defenses in the high 20s and low 30s, and monsters with +19 attack scores hit everyone all the time. As I choose weaker monsters or downgraded tougher monsters I tried to find that sweet spot where combat was fun but challenging for the PCs and the DM. I think I missed the mark. This is something that I expect to get better at as I create more encounters.
So after only two weeks of play I feel that it’s better to have the PCs fight lots of weaker monsters rather than just a few tough ones. I discussed it was the players after the game and they agreed. When there are multiple targets they PCs are likely to use a wider variety of powers during the combat.
As our campaign continues we’ll likely revisit this topic, but for now we’ve got some takeaways to consider before we meet again and play next week.
What do you think? By the time you reach Paragon Tier would you rather find yourself in the situation of the PCs in week 1 (a couple of really tough monsters) or week 2 (many weaker monsters)? If you’re the DM where do you stand on this debate? Share your thought and your stories.