I recently unleashed the water demon on my unsuspecting PCs. I was unsure how they would react – facing an enormous creature that blots out the sun was outside the box enough that it made them rethink their default response (“kill, kill!”). It was a risk. It could easily have ended in confusion, arguments and accusations that I was designing unkillable monsters. Thankfully, none of that happened (much).
The encounter was, as I had hoped, a learning experience.
What went wrong
Things started going wrong before the encounter even started. Now, that sounds like a bad thing. It probably is most other contexts. But when running a game, it’s business as usual. Players like to behave unpredictably, jumping the gun and doing crazy stuff that isn’t the specific crazy stuff I had in mind.
As such, I had to rejig the conditions leading up to the fight. In terms of the scenario I outlined in the last post, it was like encountering the epic monster far away from Goodville, before meeting Baron von Nefarious, with no one else around for miles. It forced me to rethink everything about how the encounter started and thus how it could end.
The other problem was that I realised he was taking damage too quickly, so I boosted some of his HP by about 30%. But that’s a pretty basic tweak and certainly not the first time I’ve done that.
Oh boy. Oh boy. Where do I begin…
Firstly, I had fun. My players had fun. Not bad, given that I was messing around with the guts of combat mechanics.
I could leave it there because, really, that’s the main consideration. But so much went so well that I just have to brag. The kaiju showed up when the PCs were exploring a mansion (one of their childhood homes). It was clearly huge and powerful. The mere sight of it drove the PCs to race through the mansion, frantically scooping up whatever valuables and information they could. They wanted to bail as soon as possible. Epic monster looked epic: check.
When it arrived and started tearing the mansion to pieces, a frenzied debate emerged: fight or flee. They chose to flee (another point for how intimidating it was). Unfortunately for the PCs, the demon restrained one of the PCs. This tipped the decision the other way, ensuring that they stood and fought. Personally, I’m happy that they chose to fight. But the other possibility – somehow distracting it enough to let the slower people get away – would have made for a great encounter too. Had no one been slowed they could have simply run away – this would have meant not engaging it directly, which would have been disappointing. Still, in that case, I would have made sure it showed up somewhere down the road, threatening something they loved. But that would have meant postponing the fight (and my experiment).
In short, the circumstances encouraged (but didn’t force) the players to engage the threat. Good encounter design: check.
The players figured out how to fight the water demon very quickly. The strong visual clues and a little metagaming (ie, noticing that I was tracking more than one lot of damage) made it pretty obvious. I think the best case would have been if it had taken a bit of thought and experimentation to figure it out, but the worst case being the players giving up, thinking the creature was unstoppable. On that spectrum, this outcome sits strongly on the ‘win’ side. Especially since this was their first kaiju – the next one can afford to be trickier, as they now know they can deal with them.
Another awesome outcome was how creative the players became. Half of the party decided to attack the ‘foot’, which made good tactical sense. The others, though… one realised the head was in range of her Summon Monster spell. One PC climbed the crumbling mansion and leapt onto its shoulder. Another used the image of the water demon to argue that she could swim between the chest rocks and attack from the inside.
So, half the party is hacking away at ground level, frantically leaping out of the way of its rampages. Two heroes were clinging to its shoulders, striking at the head and chest. And one PC was swimming through its body, blasting it with area effect attacks. All while the mansion is crumbling around them. Epic? It sure felt that way. Check!
The party destroyed all the boulders. The water demon is still alive but is outside a protective shell, meaning they have defeated it. For now. But it took a lot of damage, a lot of firepower, to get it to this state. The kaiju absorbed enough damage to kill a dragon and is simply damaged, weakened. So that’s cool.
On the other side, one of the party dropped below zero hitpoints at the end of the fight. The others were in reasonably good health though. The good guys bled a lot, it’s true, but they came much closer to death that time they fought a gang of spiders. They suffered to cripple this epic monster, but they weren’t on the verge of a TPK. I’m not calling this aspect a success, but it was certainly no failure.
What I learned
- I learned that I can pull this off. Everyone had fun and the fight felt properly epic.
- If you want your players to stand and fight, make them invested enough to risk TPKs. A childhood home tugs on the heartstrings… but less than a hulking, evil monstrosity induces terror.
- Overengineering encounters only sets you up for failure, since the PCs will do something unexpected. Guaranteed. At this stage in my game mastering career, I have learned that I tend to overcomplicate matters. On the other hand, I’m pretty good at adjusting things on the fly.
- My party is light on healing abilities but they have powerful tanks and strong damage-dealers. They are tougher than I think they are. They can handle more damage than I think they can.
I’ll be using similar encounters in the future. This worked better than I had hoped. Experiment: success.