When was the last time you participated in an encounter without your weapons or armor? I’m not talking about characters like Monks that are designed for unarmed combat; I’m talking about characters like Paladins, Rangers, Wizards and Warlords that find themselves in situations where they have to fight monsters without the gear that they normally have equipped on their character sheet. It doesn’t happen very often.
Since we became dependent upon character builder and started printing out character sheets rather than writing them out by hand, any scenario that requires numbers to change becomes a lot more difficult to run on the fly than it ever was in previous editions of D&D. But that shouldn’t mean that such encounters are eliminated from the game all together. There are a ways to make combat without equipment work, and today we present four options.
Option 1 – Advanced Notice
If the DM knows that he’s planning an encounter where the PCs are going to be denied their normal equipment then he can inform the players ahead of time. You don’t have to give them specifics but you do need to tell them to have appropriate characters created. Since most players use character builder the work required to make these changes is minimal, however, they need to know to do it before they show up so that they can have two different character sheets ready.
The biggest downside to taking this approach is that the players know something up. Any surprise or spontaneity that might accompany a bare knuckle boxing match or prison stint is lost. A clever DM may simply ask the players to have two versions of their characters with them all the time or at least during certain arcs of the adventure. This gives the players a heads up that something might be coming but they won’t know if it’s this week, next week or three months from now.
Option 2 – Reactionary Manual Adjustments
Going this route brings surprise back into the equation. The players won’t have any advanced notice that they’ll need to fight without armor or weapons. When the danger happens the DM takes inventory. Everyone figures out who’s wearing what and who’s equipped with their weapons and other miscellaneous items.
Where this approach really has potential are encounters that happen during the middle of the night. Imagine the party camped out in the wilderness. They are confident that there is minimal threat so they’ve pitched tents and stripped out of that heavy metal armor in order to get a good night’s rest. However, during the dead of night they have to deal with some kind of threat.
By springing this kind of encounter on the players they have to stop and figure out their modified attack scores and defenses. Be sure to double check the math because there’s a greater chance for errors if players have to do the calculations manually.
Any encounter where the PCs need to step out of their comfort zone (like fighting without their sword) makes for interesting role-playing. Players have to decide what’s more important, taking three rounds to put on armor or getting into the fight and helping you allies? Is stepping away from the fight in order to grab a magic implement a fair exchange when other PCs are taking damage? What would the character do when presented with this scenario?
What I do like about a nighttime encounter like the one described here is it rewards players who choose certain races. Warforged, for example don’t sleep so they would have no reason to remove any of their gear while the rest of the party is sleeping. Elves only require four hours of rest while most other races require six. So it’s possible that if the party is attacked during the middle of the night the Warforged, Elf and Eladrin will be fully equipped while the Dwarf, Human and Dragonborn all end up fighting in their small clothes.
Option 3 – Make the Monsters Tougher
Any changes to the character sheets take time, whether it’s the time the players take before the game begins to create alternative versions of their PCs or whether it’s the time spent at the table doing the math by hand and writing out the new numbers. So why not leave the character sheets alone? Let the players run their PCs exactly as they’re printed on the sheet. Even though the defenses on the character sheet say chain mail +3 and the power card says flaming sword, let the role-playing describe the scene and have the PCs fight in flannel pajamas or attacking with their fists? Keep things moving and keep the players happy, just let them use the numbers they have in front of them and correct the details in the narrative.
In order to represent the fact that the PCs should actually be without key equipment, the DM can use monsters that are a higher level then would be appropriate or increase the stats of the level-appropriate monsters. If the defenses of the average PC are improved by 4 because of armor and neck items, then give all the monsters +4 to hit to offset it. Using higher level monsters will accomplish the same thing.
In order for this to really work, the players need to have some fun with it. They have to understand that just because the character sheet says they’re wearing their +3 Scale Mail doesn’t mean that they wear it 24/7. If they were awakened by the sounds of combat happening all around them it’s a good chance that they’ll be fighting without it.
Have the players describe the way their characters feels being unequipped. Are they scared or exhilarated by the challenge. Are they angry that they didn’t have time to get dressed or are they embarrassed to be fighting in their underwear? DMs should likewise have fun if the attackers are capable of communicating with the heroes.
Option 4 – Forget About It
The final option is, regrettably, the one I think most DMs go with. They realize that creating any encounter in which the PCs are not fully equipped is going to create too much grief and be too much work for the players, the DM or both. In order to keep things moving the DM foregoes his awesome idea. I have to admit that I’ve defaulted to this option on multiple occasions.
The mechanics of 4e D&D expect that PCs are always fully equipped with items suitable for their level (or that the PCs will have inherent bonuses applied). The monsters are designed with his in mind. Therefore encounters where the PCs are at less than their best are not something that can be easily incorporated into an adventure. In a way the rigidity of the mechanics can limit the story the DM wants to tell. Even though the DM might have an idea for a great encounter that takes place in the middle of the night when the party is unaware, he’s likely to give the PCs ample notice to gear-up before beginning the combat because it’s easier.
Weighing the Options
Experienced players and DMs are always looking for something to spice up their adventure. Combat in which the PCs are denied some or all of their usual equipment will certainly add some excitement. Regardless of which approach is used this is not something that I’d recommend doing with any regularity. As described above, PCs are at a significant disadvantage when unequipped. However, the potentially great role-playing that might come about from naked combat could be worth the head aches and will likely be a lot of fun.
Since the release of 4e have you ever run or played in an encounter where the party was without their gear? Did you use one of the options described above or did you come up with a totally different way to run the encounter? As a player what are your thoughts on the occasional encounter where the party is unable to get fully equipped before the combat begins?
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