Archive for the ‘theoryforplay’ Category


Designing Strategy 5

November 19, 2022

(series links: part 1part 2part 3part 4)

So we’ve got our basics:

  • What do we do? Force players to switch up tactics
  • Enemies have different weaknesses and offensive abilities, players adapt to meet that
  • Terrain adds further modifications to how you choose to fight – close/far, moving/holding the line, etc.

But sometimes you want something completely weird and unique, a spectacle. You want a gimmick.

Now, don’t get me wrong; gimmicks are fun. I love using them to make unique, stand out encounters. But they suffer from the problem we spoke about earlier with terrain; they’re usually used once, or maybe a handful of times and never again, so they’re somewhat a bad prep vs. play ratio – making them best for special boss fights or encounters that are unusual (Fighting in a satellite undergoing orbital re-entry, battling a monster that is a living chamber, etc.) They also tend to go pretty far afield from whatever the usual design of the game is; so you risk weird imbalance situations, so that also requires care.

Dress Up Effects – the Easiest Gimmick

The easiest gimmick is using a mechanic or a condition or status that already exists in the game, and simply reskinning it to appear to be something new. Let’s say your game has a poison mechanic, and the rule is it does 1 point of damage a round for 1d8 rounds.

Memory Ghost

  • When the memory ghost hits you, you forcibly relive traumatic and painful moments of your past for 1d8 rounds, inflicing a -2 to all rolls and 1 point of psychic damage every round.

See how easy that is? It’s almost the same, you just change the type of damage and the description. Dress up effects are less likely to break the system because they’re using close to the same math and ideas the system already gives you, but you can create a lot of cool, weird stuff. If it only shows up for one encounter or a few, the players might not even put together the math that it’s the same mechanics they already know.

Now that’s the mechanics side. The other half is description. For a gimmick you can have a somewhat florid description to use for the first time players encounter it, to set the tone, or, if you’re playing online, your VTT system might automatically post the description when you roll the attack.

Years ago I ran a D&D game and reskinned every attack for a dragon, to make them unique. Here’s the bite attack:

Dress Up Effects are great and you should definitely consider them whenever you want to do a gimmick.

Mode Changes

Videogames and anime often use the mechanics of staged bosses. An enemy takes a certain amount of damage, then changes “mode” and mechanically your opponent has changed in some ways. Mode changes are totally worth considering for tabletop games, though again, remember, this is going to be “prep that gets used once” so you shouldn’t spent too long doing too much for it.

One option is to have the enemy drastically change the terrain – maybe they spew poison or acid and sections of the floor are unsafe to walk on, or maybe they smash the wall and rubble falls from the ceiling, etc. This means the players have to change their tactics in positioning and movement, but they know how the monster still “works” and can have some idea of how to approach it.

If you do mode changes where the enemy’s type of attacks change drastically you may want to have slightly less offensive power in your threat overall (or move it to status effects that impair the player characters) so they have more time to figure out their strategy.

The key thing to watch out for is that combats tend to go faster in tabletop than videogames (not in actual time played, but, attack/counterattack sort of volleys). So bosses in many RPGs don’t last that long, so if you mode change and instantly get stomped out, then the players didn’t get to see anything interesting. So you may want to take that into account when creating these sorts of encounters.

Random Table Attack

Something I’ve done for Tenra Bansho Zero is have a boss encounter where the enemy has something like 3 or 4 attacks or actions and just random roll which one will come out. I always try to put one on there that’s less effective or perhaps even something detrimental to the boss. Players in general get a little anxious when you roll a die “for something” and aren’t sure what effect it’s having. It also means I can avoid doing the thing where “this boss could be perfectly smart and crush everyone by using the right moves exactly at the right time”.

After the encounter or session, I usually share the boss stats/chart with the players so they can see any thing that maybe didn’t come up or if they got unlucky or lucky in some way.

Novel Mechanics

Sometimes you want to do something completely out of the system. A weird novel mechanic for extra gimmick. Sometimes you see stuff like encounters on a chessboard layout where you have to apply some aspects of chess movement to win, or a gambling mechanic as part of the combat.

My basic rule for novel mechanics is that you either want to explain them to players up front or make it clear within 1-2 rounds at most. If it’s a bit of a puzzle, I tend to make the encounter less offensively dangerous to give players more space to learn the mechanics (unlike a videogame, they can’t just reset repeatedly or look up something on the internet to learn how to get through it).

The more fundamental aspect of play that the novel mechanic messes with, the more careful you need to be. For example maybe I’ve got some weird gimmick dungeon where the gravity reverses for you depending on if you move north or south. I would be VERY thoughtful and careful about things just because movement in games is a basic idea that could lead to really strange outcomes. On the other hand, if moving north or south gave you fire or ice element damage on top of a normal attack, it wouldn’t really be that big of a deal since most games that deal with that usually have some way of getting those effects anyway.

One trick you can always add for larger effects/outcomes is some version of Vincent Baker’s Otherkind Dice. Simply declare that certain goals, if met, add bonus dice to the roll being made with the Otherkind dice effect. I used this for a game where players were caught in a massive battle, and the questions where which of their allies would be protected, or who would retain status or be outcast after the battle ended. Let them know what’s at stake and maybe give them some options to get extra dice at a cost – “If you’re willing to lose/risk X, then you can get another die”, etc.

There’s a thing that happens in videogames I absolutely hate, which I call “Last level, new skill” where the game forces you into novel mechanics on the last level or the last boss and you haven’t had time to learn how they work, which adds a cheap layer of difficulty on to play. In tabletop, you really don’t want that to happen, and the only thing which you have in your favor is that RPGs are not real time, so you can take time to explain, give examples, and let players think about what they’re doing to absorb the new ideas and use them with some idea of what’s going on.

These are the core ideas that I use in putting strategy into games I run. I’d like to do a part 6 of examples, but work and everything has been really ridiculous and it’s unclear when I’ll get enough focus for it. Fingers crossed.

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Designing Strategy 4

November 6, 2022

(series links: part 1, part 2, part 3, part 4, part 5, upcoming part 6)

The Terrain Design Problem

A well designed combat encounter has terrain playing a significant part in shaping the flow and feel of a fight. However, terrain is also a “one-off” design in your games – you can use the same types of monsters over and over, but a specific map or map area, will almost always only see one combat in it before you move on to another. Therefore, you have to be very efficient in designing terrain because the prep-to-play time ratio is so poor.

Second, the stuff I’ve mentioned in the past posts tends to have fairly broad equivalents in most combat focused RPGS, but terrain effects can be QUITE different across different games; many having little or no rules beyond cover/concealment and movement rates. The few games that decide to add mechanical levers to terrain are few and far between, so you may have to make custom rules quite often here.

Principle 7: Terrain is 50% of the fight but 5% of your prep. It matters but do it as quickly, simply, as possible. It will be used and thrown away in no time.

Terrain Effects

  • Movement Constraints
  • Cover
  • Forced Movement
  • Pinned/Entangled
  • Status Effect
  • Damage

Many kinds of terrain or hazards apply multiple effects – a dungeon library has bookshelves – they cause movement constraint, cover, and can be knocked over to pin someone and do damage. A rocky beach slows movement and might cause damage everytime someone is knocked prone. A burning waste area has smoke blocking vision and inducing coughing fits every few rounds.

Movement Constraints

Most of the time when people think of terrain this is what they think of; walls, pits, rough terrain. Things that stop you from moving, or slow you down. Constraining movement is a great way to set up chokepoints (sometimes in the party’s favor, sometimes not), demands for special movement (Creep along the ledge, using balance & climbing skills), or dangerous zones (see some other options below to combine together).


The second thing folks usually think of is cover against ranged attacks. This can make a difference, but mostly depending on how much ranged attacks appear in this area, the encounters, and the player group. Basically assume that the more any monster or the group of players relies on ranged attacks, the more important cover becomes. The only thing to add is to realize a lot more natural things provide cover that often are overlooked; heavy brush, a bamboo thicket, a depression in the ground, roots hanging from a cavern ceiling, etc.

Forced Movement

Can the terrain force you to move? Well, loose rocks or mud on a hillside can quickly have you moving downhill, or a swift waist deep stream could take someone off their feet. That’s before more less common things like wind gusts or swinging pendulum traps or pitfalls. These forced movement situations may come with damage or just hassle, but they’re often fun when done with consideration; is the forced movement a problem or guaranteed death? What works in a movie or book (fighting on a rickety bridge) is rarely so great in a game where success is far from guaranteed.


Terrain in enclosed crowded spaces, in places with thickets, tangling brush, places where you can knock over a bookcase or a shelf upon someone… pinned and entangled happens a lot more than you think. These might be heavy or sharp objects that do damage, but even losing mobility and an action or two while being open to attack is bad enough. And all of that is before you get to weird things like animated vines or walls of grabbing hands and such.

Status Effect

Who doesn’t love a good poison swamp? Deep snow & mud might count as a slow effect, stenches and poisonous gas might have weird effects on a person, smoke might cause pain to eyes and half blind you while your lose actions from coughing. Consider the ways in which any given area might cause whatever status effects are built into your game system or can be added in with ease.


Damage, by itself, isn’t interesting, and just like attacks, it’s more interesting for what it pushes players to do to avoid getting damaged, or to push enemies into it. Damage terrain can be broken into a few subcategories:

Avoidance Terrain

Terrain that does a minor amount of damage each turn. Smouldering rubble that’s too hot to stand in, a lightly acidic bubbling pool, and so on. Avoidance Terrain sets up a choice; do you want to go around it and avoid it, or do you want to go through it? Against enemies, it may serve as a way to keep enemies at a distance (“I’d rather take the fire damage standing here than get surrounded”), or as something to force them into. Players who have some immunity to the specific damage type can turn the whole thing into an advantage.

Attack Terrain

Attack Terrain does a solid amount of damage, like an attack. Usually people think of arrow traps and such, but a lot of things could work this way: a large bonfire, an area without cover in a bad hailstorm, furniture being thrown about from a flood, etc. Aside from traps and hazards, this is where I tend to file “all the stuff you would use in a swashbuckling film or Jackie Chan movie to attack enemies” – a chandelier to knock down, a barrel to roll down stairs, that waist deep pile of broken ceramics you really don’t want to fall into, etc.

Aside from it “being cool” you should throw a few other reasons to use this stuff in; maybe it does a type of damage that the enemy is vulnerable to that the players don’t normally have access to, maybe it can affect multiple targets, many of them might pin someone down or at least knock them on their back, etc.

Save or Die Terrain

This is the terrain that will kill you. Long falls to a hard ground, pools of lava, acid, disintegration fields, a horrifying whirring collection of machinery, etc. It shows up a lot in action movies and fiction, but, in RPGs games usually avoid it because it serves to bypass most of the normal defenses both players and enemies might have. It’s cool but probably best used sparingly and allowing players to mostly STAY AWAY from it. Also understand if you do include it, the players can (and honestly should) find ways to push your monsters into the terrain, and they’ll be exceptionally keen to do so with your super badass monsters and kill them instantly. I don’t have a problem when that happens, it’s just I don’t want that easy out to always be available.

A secondary option, which you can use only in the right conditions; is a “save or out” condition which is a little bit different. For example, when I run fights on boats or bridges over water, I tell the players if they fall, they’re not dead or damaged, but they are out of THIS fight. Obviously, this depends on what kind of game you’re running and how much the players are sticklers for the rules within the system for “falling into water” (or whatever feasible “not falling to death” thing it is).

The Monsters & The Terrain

This is really the important part; anything you do with terrain could help the players, the monsters, both or neither, and same with harming them. You can take relatively weak monsters flying monsters in a gusty cave, and make them a reather painful experience when the players realize any normal ranged attack is getting blown off target from the wind. You can take a dragon or other dangerous monster more viable if you give the players sufficient cover to avoid the worst attacks.

Principle 8: The point of terrain is to make the fight with the monsters fun and memorable. Not realistic, not even a “fair” 50/50 fight.

The Place of Battle

In most RPGS, fights are relatively few rounds long, with an equivalent number of skirmish enemies. In contrast, wargames tend to last much longer, and videogames tend to have way more enemies- and as such, both tend to cover more of the terrain in an “encounter” than a tabletop game. That’s before you get to the fact most systems encourage very little movement once battle starts.

For this reason, if you’re going to set up any terrain, you’re probably going to fall into one of these 4 general “shapes”:


A field is a mostly open area, with no real restrictions on going one way or the other, other than enemies. By itself, this is boring and not particularly great, and ideally you should only use this once in a while. In most RPGs, unfortunately, actual play tends to lean towards this a lot, especially for games which do not use maps and minis / “Theater of the Mind”. People are bad at visualizing areas, and also bad at communicating them.

If you are going to use a field (and don’t get me wrong, there are uses for it), consider things like ditches, hills, depressions, rocks, dead logs, tall grass, sand dunes, as natural things to dress it up, and things that might appear based on the situation; wagons, supplies, fences, low rock walls, etc.Generally put the interesting terrain stuff at the center or mid-distant from it.

Chokepoint /Single Lane

Anywhere that there’s a single “easier” path to take; it could be as clean cut as a bridge dungeon corridor, or it could be something like a warn down path surrounded on two sides by hills. Generally, travel gathers at the lane, and combat happens here too. This doesn’t give people a lot of options for flanking so understand this works well for a small group holding off a larger group, but not so great for probing for weaknesses.

If you want to include hazards, put them just on either side of the path to be used. Terrain that is harder to traverse might make up an alternate route.

Two Paths/Circle

This is often my default; there are two paths, they could be about equally sized/convenient, or it might be a main path + a lesser side path. This is used all the time in videogames, including story-shooter games. Sets up a choice, some room for flanking and trickery. Each path should provide some advantage or disadvantage relative to the other one.

For example, you could have a main road and a side path on a hill right next to it. Characters who take the side path have a better position to do ranged attacks against anyone on the main road, but the side path also has some rough terrain.

The other common version is a “circle” – there’s some major terrain feature in the middle, and the two paths go around it. If the main feature in the middle is a hazard, you pretty much guarantee everyone has to deal with the hazard at some point.

Branching Tree

Branching Tree terrain is basically your classic dungeon crawl set up – corridors or paths that split to others and others still. It could also work with a cave system or dense woods with paths scattered throughout, or alleys in a large city.

This kind of design slows down combat drastically as players will often want to explore each path and will be concerned about being ambushed by someone running out from one of the rooms, side doors, or alternate paths they may have gone by. I think branching tree terrain encounters tend to be something that appears as an accident of a map or area rather than something people try to design for. You want a good number of hazards around but the amount of time prepping it probably won’t pay off so you should aim to design these sparingly.

(If you have a dungeon where running battles happen, then collectively all the areas and hazards CAN work as a larger set up in this way, but it’s also understood those individual zones were designed on their own anyway, so it helps balance the time cost a little more).

Putting the Terrain Together

My usual process is:

  1. Concept (What kind of place is this?)
  2. Monster Stats (What kind of monsters? Find/put together stats. Look at how they would interact w/terrain).
  3. Layout (Draw or find a battlemap appropriate to the space. Consider in 4 general shapes.)
  4. Jackie-Chan It (Add hazards that would be fun and cool to use/see show up in a fight.)
  5. Place monsters.

Obviously, this can scale drastically; if it’s a random encounter out in the woods, I just grab a battlemap or scrawl the most basic shape of “path vs. trees, oh here there’s a brook” etc. and drop in the monsters. If it’s a boss lair, I have time to think more about it for the spectacle & fun factor and put it together ahead of time.

Even though I’ve written a lot here, remember; do something, but do it as quickly as possible for terrain, because it won’t get reused 99% of the time, so you don’t want to break yourself over it.

Next time: Gimmicks!

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Maps for Play 1 – Rewards & Endpoints

November 4, 2022

(Don’t worry, the Strategy series is still ongoing. I’m just figuring I should write while my brain is hype to write, so the map series is starting already.)

As far as games go, RPGs have a slightly weird relationship with maps designed to be explored and traversed (as opposed to decorative maps where the issues of distance and travel are mostly handwaved in play). In a boardgame or many videogames, people are fine if the map is quite unrealistic in service of play. However, RPGs generally have a demand, if not to “realism”, at least the versimilitude or a projection of a fictional world that “exists” separate of game needs.

I don’t think these things need to be opposed, but rather, that it’s just a little extra work to tie them together well – take the abstracted needs of game play as the underpinnings, the structure behind the plausible world you paint on top. So, this series is going to provide a framework of how to identify and place your abstract stuff, before you pour on the cool stuff on top.

Map design is level design.

Rewards and Places to Go

A common bit of advice when drawing a maze is to start at the end. Conceptually, this is how I like to think of maps; I want to consider the reward locations first, because these are what serve as flags or signposts for “go here” to the players. Obviously, it’s not like the characters will know “treasure is here” but usually it’s sort of an understood game convention for most action RPGs or dungeon looting things; if there’s monsters, magic, and evil cults, there’s also going to be goodies to pick up.

We’ll talking about the abstract placement on the map next time, but for now, let’s consider WHAT we’d be placing on the map and the roles it would serve. I break rewards into three broad categories for how they get used in play.

The key point of Loot is that it is stuff that you pick up once and it’s done. A pile of treasure, a magic sword, etc. In terms of map placement, naturally you want to place them in areas that are harder to get to, with challenges to overcome.

Aside from whatever your game demands in terms of balance/advancement, a key part of loot and placement is psychological. It feels good to beat a boss or get to a hard to access place and get a big reward. At the same time, it also works best if it’s a place that feels out of the way or not someplace that is everyday or routine for the characters. A little bit of Hero’s Journey to the Underworld plays a part.

However, with that in mind, also understand that most people assume places you grab loot from, aren’t actually places you keep returning to, or stay at, once you’ve gotten the goods. Although it might be more realistic, say, to take over the Bandit King’s keep and use it as a base of operations and get a ton of loot from it, many players will feel less excited by the loot than if it was in a place they don’t visit regularly. But that’s up to you how you want to play it, just good to know it’s what operates in the back of many people’s minds.

When we get to Threat Placement in a later post, the general rule is to make loot proportional to the threat, but I like to vary it up or down a step, just so it’s not 100% predictable.

Sustainment locations provide the historically classic logistical needs; a safe place to rest, food, water, maybe stuff like firewood, etc. In game terms, whatever your characters need to “operate normally” and not suffer penalties. These should be relatively common and might be a good way to space things out. While Loot drives people forward, Sustainment draws people back over and over, and makes a good way to set up hub locations and lesser, but still valuable rewards. The modern example most people think of is FromSoft game’s bonfires, or basically Save Points in videogames.

The need and value of sustainment primarily depends on how your game system makes demands upon them; are we tightly tracking food and water, rest, and staying warm? Or is it like modern D&D with a “rest period” and handwaving most of the other needs?

All that said, common isn’t quite the same as convenient – think of how mountain hikers have regular camp spots – these might be 4-6 hours away from each other and a brutal climb to get there. This is a way to up the difficulty or lower it for an area by how you space these out and how safe they actually are. You can even do this in an relatively urban environment; if you were doing a city campaign, perhaps your places of sustainment are businesses and neighborhoods owned by your crime family or at least groups allied or neutral to them as well.

You can also play with some resources being in one location and others in a different one; the cave is a safe place, but water is where the predator animals hunt…

Harvest locations provide materials you either use up or sell, and presumably might want to come back repeatedly to gather more. Medicinal plants, valuable ores, rare animals, magical components, etc. Harvest resources are typically aimed at things players would want in order to improve their resources – gold or valuable materials translates into gear and hired help, craft materials create better gear, magical components directly translate into power, etc.

Just as much as the value of sustainment locations depends on how much the game leans on the resource cycle, the value of harvest locations depends on what the resources can be used for and their value. If it turns out certain materials are the only way to unlock certain powers, or key spells need components… well, then these spots become a lot more memorable and interesting.

You can use this to create a “breadcrumb” layout to your map; as the characters get more powerful, they need increasingly rare/valuable materials, so what might have been worthwhile at early levels becomes less useful and the better stuff is further afield.

Broad Reward Placement

These tendencies tend to help placement:

  • A sustainment point close to an “entrance” to a region, and one or more further in. If you want players to husband resources, make the ones further in less hospitable (safe, but no food/water, etc.) so they have to return for resupply more often.
  • If you split up sustainment resources (safety here, food there, water another place), more of the game will revolve around logistical chores. That can be either more or less fun depending on your group, so keep that in mind.
  • Harvest points should not be easy to access; they either require a little bit of travel or moderate danger. If you place one in a hard to access place, it should offer rare or valuable resources. Be careful if it provides an advantage/end run around other advancement expectations for your system.
  • Loot points can be all over the map; but it’s good to have one early in an area to encourage folks to go deeper, and the best ones should be the furthest or at least hardest to reach from where ever a point of safety lies.

Next time: Threat and Broad Structure

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Designing Strategy 3

October 27, 2022

(series links: part 1, part 2, part 3, part 4, part 5, upcoming part 6)

Let’s talk monsters and threats.

To recap our principles for tactical play in RPGs:

  1. Force players to change tactics
  2. Make the enemy’s weakness or flaw a central pillar of your design. Plan TO lose.
  3. Look at your game’s mechanical levers to force different strategies, and use them in breadth and variety.
  4. Use negative levers for only 1 or 2 players at a time; at the same time try to have a positive lever available as well. Shift this focus every encounter so everyone is has to adapt, and adapt differently.

The Openings

Repeating Principle 2: Make the enemy’s weakness or flaw a central pillar of your design. Plan TO lose.
What is the monster weak to, or rather, how SHOULD one fight this thing? often the immediate question after I kick a general concept together. What kind of openings and weaknesses does it present?

Note these aren’t the only way to beat them – if players come up with something else that makes sense or would work, give whatever advantage or damage bonus would make sense.

  • Weapon Type (piercing, blunt, slashing, etc.)
  • Timing (“Takes double damage from melee attacks the round after it uses it’s breath weapon”)
  • Condition Effect (“When blinded, the monster will rush straight ahead in a fury, including into walls, hazards or off cliffs.”)
  • Formation Break (“The anti-magic effect only works when 3 SpellShield Guards stand next to each other.”)
  • Elemental (“Takes extra damage from poison”)
  • Serious Injury (“If you do X damage to the wing, they can’t fly anymore”)
  • Bad Tactics (“These things are barely aware, they just rush forward, easy to bait, easy to lure into traps.”)

Remember to give some kind of telltale indication or telegraph as to what weaknesses monsters may have, generally.

The Attacks

These are generally abstracted versions of whatever your game mechanics do, however you should be thinking a bit in these terms as this is what will make attacks more interesting.

  • Set Up / Attack (“This round his hands glow with magical power… /next round/ he fires a spell!”)
  • Forced Movement (“The plant monster’s vines drag you across the floor”)
  • Grappled/Entangled (“The rat swarm overwhelms you, they’re weighing you down, slowing your movements”)
  • Restrictive Effect (“These wind gusts make physical ranged attacks impossible!”)
  • Zone Control (“It’s leaving a trail of slimy poison behind it. You shouldn’t touch that stuff!”)
  • Teamwork Call (“Someone ELSE will have to make the strength check to get you out of the pincer”)
  • New Options (“The ethereal effect means you are in the Ghost Plane, but now you can fly.”)
  • Action Economy (“You can either do half actions or you can do your full action but only if you go last in the turn”)

Now, the point is not to make something “unbeatable”, it’s to make it a pain in the ass in a specific way. That’s more important than doing damage. In fact:

Principle 5: Damage and death are the least interesting options. Incapacitation is right up there with it. Strategy is about making different choices, not having no choice to do anything at all.

Generally, if you do less damage but have more of these pain in the ass effects, players will feel more threatened in ways that have meaning. (There’s times for damage, too, but they’re so much rarer than you think). There’s two qualifiers to this, however. 1) The bigger the restriction/pain in the butt, the shorter the effect should last, 2) Be mindful to yourself as a GM and how many effects you might have to track. If you come up with something very complicated, it might be tough to remember and run in the middle of combat; every monster rule you build, is homework for future you in the middle of an encounter.

An Example – the Star Cultists

These are basically “slightly better zombies” that I came up with for my Errant game. Concept wise I wanted players to consider the positioning of these things and be concerned about breaking up their formations.

HP 15 / Attack 1d6 / Move 1 / Morale 10

  • On a 6+, tentacle crush – Phys DV4 to escape, otherwise you are grappled, your attacks are impaired and attacks against you are enhanced..  If a second cultist also gets a tentacle crush on you, you lose 1 action per turn and the DV6 to escape.
  • Keening damage (range 20 squares) 1d6 – When 3 or more cultists stand adjacent, they can shriek in harmony and do a ranged sonic attack (ignores armor except for large shields).  For every 2 extra cultists in the group, Enhance the die by 1 size (5 – d8, 7 – d10, 9 – d12, 11+ – d20)

Let’s start with the weaknesses, even though they’re not necessarily apparent from just the stat block:

  • Zombie level smarts/senses – simple tactics, easy to trick, lure, and don’t have a large “visual” range
  • Slow – makes it easier to escape them, and harder for them to gather if they get split up
  • Not actually zombies – while they’re basically bodies that are parasitized, all the usual stuff like poison, or asphixiation, will still hurt them. They have a lot of the disadvantages and not really the advantages that zombies get.

The weaknesses by themselves don’t shape the players’ offensive tactics deeply, but they are forgiving, which is what I need these types to be as a contrast to their potential snowballing attack methods.

When it comes to fighting them, you just don’t want them to gather together. Up close they can do the “drag you down” effect and at a distance if there’s enough of them, they do quite a nasty amount of damage. Both suck, just in different ways, but it sets up a number of choices for players – doing area attacks with spells, trying to lure a group to break apart, pushing attacks to move them apart, and so on. The strategy of staying at a distance and hoping to wither them down will only invite their ranged sonic attacks and rushing in without backup will get you swamped.

Now, normally, this is more complex than what you probably want for minion/filler type enemies, but you do want encounters to lean towards this, mostly shaped by 2-3 types of monsters and/or environmental effects playing off each other. Since in this dungeon they’re the only filler types, so I wanted a little more complexity to them. They also form a nasty compliment to any of the boss monsters if the players are unfortunate enough to get involved with both the minions and the major threats at the same time.

Principle 6: Look to build synergy with openings and attacks, and also, the environment, terrain, hazards to force players to consider and alter tactics.

Next time: Terrain and Hazards (Spoiler: consider if the terrain could produce Openings or Attacks upon characters).

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Designing Strategy 2

October 21, 2022

(series links: part 1, part 2, part 3, part 4, part 5, upcoming part 6)

In Designing Strategy 1, we talked about the point is that the designer (and the GM) is creating situations where the players will win, with some effort. The strategy part comes out when they have to think and adapt, which you do by giving a good variety of situations to push them out of their routines.

(Mind you, this isn’t about denying them the opportunity to EVER be in their preferred pattern, just that it is disrupted enough they can’t always fall back to it.)

Mechanical Levers

RPGs built with a tactical core often have a rock-paper-scissors sort of logic built into the mechanics; certain methods and options have benefits, and weaknesses – and the strategy is knowing which ones to use when. This could be realistic things like terrain, range, and weapon type, or it could be fantastical things like elemental damage or holy/unholy magic and so on. This also includes stuff like status effects and temporary conditions like being knocked prone or grappled and such.

I call these “mechanical levers” because they are clearly built into the system, and you can effectively “pull” them to alter how people will engage the situation. If the system is well designed, all you really have to do is go through the variety of existing levers and it will naturally force players to try different tactics. (If your game… doesn’t have these… well. This isn’t really the best system to look to do strategy.

Go with variety!

The rather overly simplified version of this shows up in videogames; “the ice level, full of ice enemies”, “the lava level, with fire enemies”, “the poison swamp, with poison enemies” etc. However, I find it works better to use less fantastic issues 70% of the time and weird fantasy/sci-fi stuff 30% of the time (it grounds the situation and also helps players try to think of ways to engage/utilize it – if it’s all fantastical then they can forget that the rather mundane stuff is an issue too):

  • A tight hallway where swinging weapons suffer great penalties while short weapons do just fine.
  • A sudden rainstorm, rendering fire attacks useless
  • Thigh deep mud, which penalizes any kind of dodging or movement.
  • A cavern that has constant gusts of wind, making physical projectiles useless and area effects like fire, acid, etc. dangerous in terms of what they will target.

Carrots and sticks

You can look at these levers in terms of doing 4 things, tactically:

  • Encourage – encourages more of a given strategy
  • Discourage – discourages a given strategy
  • Forbid – makes something completely useless
  • Addition – gives the player characters a new ability or option they do not normally have

In general, it makes sense to set up situations where the default patterns are Discouraged or Forbidden, and to Encourage less used tactics or set up Additions to open up new things the players may not normally access.

Principle 3: Look at your game’s mechanical levers to force different strategies, and use them in breadth and variety.

All together, but not all at once

Now, here’s the key point; you want to create variety, not constantly BLOCK players from doing the thing they love. You can discourage stuff for one type then set up the next situation or encounter the for a different group, and so on. Likewise, encourage for one type or another each encounter. Everyone gets some encounters where “I have to do something different” and everyone gets some where “this is perfect for me!”.

Of course, when you throw in a few encounters with… nothing extremely favored one way or another, it’ll still feel fresh because everyone will be like “oh wait, yeah, we can ALL use our favored strategy.”

And this is fine even if you’re doing a dungeon or hexcrawl type game; you just alter up enough threats around the map so that it’s impossible to get through any major portion without running into a lot of different situations and conditions.

Principle 4: Use negative levers for only 1 or 2 players at a time; at the same time try to have a positive lever available as well. Shift this focus every encounter so everyone is has to adapt, and adapt differently.

Next time: Monsters, Threats, and synergy!
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