We’ve all been there. You’ve spent 5 hours prepping stats for the big-bad, penned a detailed backstory, practiced Shakespearean dialogue, and commissioned a charcoal portrait of him. Initiative is rolled, combat begins, and the villain…survives 1 round. Lucky rolls, tight teamwork, or some combination of the two lead to a quick demise for our villain. Or worse, the party devises a way to bypass the encounter entirely.
“why don’t we collapse the cave? He’ll starve in there, eventually, and we can high-tail it back to the village?”
The party loves it, high fives & cheering all around – but you sit there fuming. As many ways as there are to adapt to the circumstances, there are twice as many incorrect responses, and it’s important you recognize these impulses as game-harming.
There are DM’s out there who will recognize a predicament like this before it happens, and they’ll quietly sabotage the players, from behind the comfort of their DM screen. Fudging die rolls, to artificially extend the encounter. Adding hitpoints to enemies, on the fly. Or worse, invisibly ret-conning the enemies immunities & resistances. IE., the PC’s make a show of their “wall of Force” spell, and miraculously each wizard has equipped a disintegrate spell (regardless of expended spell slots). Scorching ray is making mincemeat of the villains, and they all materialize “rings of fire resistance.” Now this is different from villains adapting to the PC’s tactics over a longer term. If word on the street is that the party’s Motus Operandi is to set traps around their campsites each night, it makes sense that the assassins would begin to send expendable underlings to scout the area, trigger traps, and drain the magic-users’ spells. I’m talking about invisibly & arbitrarily adjusting the monsters’ stats, resistances, hitpoints, etc., MID-Encounter.
The truth is that the party should be rewarded for cleverness or effectiveness. File their strategy away for later, to draw upon as you build the next encounters, but allow them their victory in the moment. Recall, if you will, the most memorable scene in the Indiana Jones trilogy (quadrilogy?). Faced with a sword-wielding behemoth, Indy rolls his eyes & shoots him. End of encounter. It may interest you to know that the screenwriters had devised a climactic fight scene for that enemy, Indy was intended to do battle with him. Harrison ford shot him as a joke, and the director loved it so much, he ran with it. He could have fought the momentum, remained inflexible and gone ahead with the planned encounter… and lost one of the most iconic moments in cinematic history.
The truth is, the players will recognize, maybe subconsciously, that the encounters are being artificially pumped up in the moment. Each encounter brings the party within an inch of its life, combat is roughly the same length, regardless of the enemy or circumstance. You’ll pay the price, of course, as players begin to check out during combat (figuring it’s all predetermined anyway), they’ll abandon their favorite spells as they tend to lack effectiveness, etc.
Allow me a caveat, here.
If you’re recognizing these instances more and more frequently, then they may be symptoms of a larger game-balance issue. Be prepared to address an overpowered party as a separate issue, as the need arises.
As always, we’re eager to hear your ideas, thoughts & questions in the comments below…