Does your archer always shoot an arrow at the enemy furthest away thinking that monster is the leader? Does your defender always attack the first monster he sees? Do your players constantly scan the battle map for hidden pit traps? Have you noticed that your players always use the same powers in the same order during every combat?
If you’ve answered yes to one of these questions or questions just like them then you have an incredible opportunity before you. Your players have presented you with the opportunity to design encounters based on their expectations and behaviour. As a DM you are about to have a great deal of fun designing and executing these encounters.
Designing an encounter around or against your players expectations can be a lot of fun. Players, like DMs, can get into a routine. Often the way we design our encounters remains the same and our players pick up on this. As a result they become familiar with how quickly they should be using resources like daily powers and healing surges. In short your encounters are getting boring.
Designing encounters that play against expectation is a great way to keep players on their toes. The formula for creating encounters that work against expectations is simple. Look at what you normally do during an encounter and change it up. If you enjoy using a multitude of minions, don’t use minions. If you place multiple traps in your encounters, don’t place any traps. Keep the players on their toes from encounter to encounter.
One way to use player expectations for and against them during a campaign is to string together some similar encounters. Then another set of similar encounters different from the first set. This changes things up week to week. By the end of a series of encounters the players are clued in to what is happening and are able to handily defeat the encounter.
At the finale of the adventure introduce encounters that have elements from each of the previous sections of the adventure. When your players realize what is happening they will feel a sense of reward as they will know how to handle the tactics of the monsters. What they won’t know is what is going to happen next.
Designing encounters based on player behaviour is simple. Examine how your players typically react to certain situations and design accordingly. Perhaps one player likes to locate an enemy who attacks from range and then engage them in melee. Simply find a monster that can attack from range, but is more deadly in melee. Suddenly your player has gotten into more than he bargained for. Most design decisions around player behaviour in combat occur within the first round or two of combat. Below are two examples that I experience week to week with the party defender and ranger.
All things being equal the defender in the party always attacks the closest enemy or the first enemy he sees. If this opponent is a minion and separated from the other opponents I have taken the defender out of the combat for one round. If this opponent is a tough monster who is separated from his allies I have taken the defender out of the fight for several rounds, perhaps the majority of the combat.
This allows me to create an encounter that on the surface, based on monster selection and experience, is balanced. However, by isolating the defender I put increased pressure on the remainder of the party. Forcing them to use more resources than they would like. The party will still defeat the encounter, I’m not out to kill any characters. However, because of the depleted resources the next encounters will hold a higher threat level for the party.
On the other hand if I design an encounter where the initial monster has plenty of surrounding allies I reward the typical behaviour of the defender in the party. He, like all defenders, loves to be surrounded.
The Ranger in our party uses the archer build. He always goes first. The Rogue competes with him, but I’ve yet to run a combat where our ranger doesn’t place first in the initiative order. He gets to roll 2 d20s for his check, so the odds are stacked in his favour. The Ranger, similar to our defender, attacks the first opponent he sees. He usually uses a basic attack or at-will, he doesn’t want to open fire in a big way on a minion.
If the first opponent he sees is a minions he’s satisfied, though he’d be happier if it was a regular mob who is now down some hit points. From my perspective if I make the closest enemy or the first enemy the Ranger sees a minion I have just wasted that minion. As the Ranger has an effective attack range that covers almost any size battle map I can’t separate him from the combat the way I can with the defender.
If I want to reward the behaviour of the Ranger I’ll place a minion close to him. He’ll most likely use twin strike which will remove a minion from play. This allows the ranger to remove a threat that could close to melee range. It allows the player to feel special and tough. However, from a design perspective it is a waste of a minion. Because the Ranger always goes first my minion doesn’t have the opportunity to attack.
I have to decide as a DM is do I reward the player by allowing him to eliminate a minion or do I place a tougher foe within range for him to attack. The flip side of the equation is also true, perhaps I place two minions as the closest opponents hoping the Ranger will attack them. Then I send in my Ranger-killer monster to lock him down.
Knowing how my players typically react to situations allows me to create encounters that either reward or punish that behaviour. I prefer to reward more than I punish. Perhaps I should say that I prefer not to punish the same player in every encounter.
Encounters require a balance of reward and challenge. Some encounters by design will be easier than others, allowing your players to feel heroic about their accomplishments. In my mind the best challenges allow some players to excel and others to overcome challenges. In the next encounter you mix up who is rewarded and who is challenged. It keeps your players on their toes, wondering what might happen next.
One word of warning about designing encounters based on player behaviour is to be careful not to mix your knowledge with monster knowledge. Most opponents your players face will not know their tactics, habits, strengths and weaknesses. Be mindful not to mix this information up as your players will resent it. Of course it is always nice to have them face a foe who does know all of this information and who uses it against them. Like when Superman fights Lex Luthor.
Have you ever used the behaviour of your players against them? What was the result? Did the player resent your actions or did it result in a memorable encounter?
- Designing Encounters That Can’t Be Beat (Part 1)
- My Love Affair With Minions
- The Party That Prepares Survives