DMing with Intelligence

Except my wife, our first guest DM is probably the person with whom I have spend the most gaming time. He’s the player behind Mikau the Unwitting and Hadarai and the DM behind The Gods are Dead, Long Live the Gods, which I’ve called the Post-Ragnarok campaign a few times on here. He DMs with high amounts of preparation, research, and numerical game balance, and he’s opted to talk about that today:


Today, I’ll be filling in for your normal DM who runs with Charisma to bring you a different perspective and approach on things. I am a DM who runs with Intelligence, which now that I say that out-loud, makes me seem far more pompous and arrogant than I had intended. I guess it’s because I’m implying that DMing with any other stat makes you non-Intelligent, which certainly isn’t the case. Wow, that’s a bit of a loaded word there, then.

I’ve played with your normal DM, on both sides of the table, for over 10 years (my, how time flies), so I’d like to think that we have a good understanding of how each other works. The first conversation I remember having with him was commenting that I was the only “good” (as in alignment) character in the party. He interpreted that as “good” (as in overall quality), and so we’ve been friends ever since. I am also a consistent patron and victim of the Wrath List Wrath List. I started to DM after meeting your normal DM, so my style is heavily influenced by what he did and has done, as well as by certain campaigns that we have mutually suffered through as players.

Anyway, your normal DM did previously talk about DMing with Intelligence a little, but that was almost 4 years ago, so it never hurts to refresh.

He stated that:

Intelligence-based DMs are a step or two more comfortable with the hardest parts of the game. They treat a campaign as a thing to be built by one person more than a thing to be generated by a group, and they stick much closer to official rules and mathematical integrity than Wisdom-based DMs. It’s easy to think of them as uptight and distant, but my Int-based DMs always have a startling amount of internal story consistency, and they make sure that the gameplay is as fair as possible. Intelligence DMs treat the story as the most important thing; bad ones crush player opinion for the sake of the plot, but good ones integrate the players so they’re as involved as the DM is.

Your normal DM is, honestly, one of the smartest people I know, so I think an important thing to do, right off the bat, is to divorce the idea that DMing with Intelligence is about being smart or about actually being intelligent; DMing with Intelligence is about . . . I want to say it’s about the Plan, but I believe that most DMs have some sort of plan, and sometimes I have less of a plan than I let on (a fact that I’m sure does not in any way surprise your normal DM), so that isn’t strictly the difference, either. Everything I think of could be applied to DMing with other stats, so instead, I’ll describe what I do.

For me and how I approach the game, it’s about the details. I always build my world from scratch, because honestly, for me, world-building is the most fun part. I am a Simulationist first (I don’t know whether or to what extent that trait overlaps with my style of DMing), and so I want the players to feel as though they’re in a real place, I want everything to make sense and I want the players to be able to believe that everything is realistically connected to everything else, such that their actions matter and the world responds accordingly when they, say, blow up an important guard tower and its surrounding city wall. To me, the best thing is for my players to approach the world with the knowledge that it doesn’t revolve around them, that it will continue to exist and change (in general) regardless of whether they exist, but that it still does change because of them. There’s a reason that I like Majora’s Mask so much.

I’m at my best when I’ve made plans upon plans, both for the session and the setting, and at my worst when I just wing it. I am the kind of DM who made a small community of less than 100 people, and then used various tables to identify and stat out (loosely) every person in the village (and their relationships to each other), and then spent hours researching era-relevant population-to-acreage ratios so that the community was surrounded by a believable amount of farms. Now, I only did that because I thought every person might be relevant (it was a post-apocalyptic setting with strong survival elements at first), but that doesn’t change the fact that I still did it. That might say something about my time management, but to be fair, I did all of that before the campaign every started, so it never interfered with actual session planning.

So, the other thing mentioned is an approach to rules. I value consistency in the application of rules. I blame a family history of being lawyers, combined with my normal approach to world-building, as stated above. I maintain a WordPad document with house rules, including the date I added the rule (and whether it applies to a given campaign, or to all campaigns that I run), because I want to be fair in that application. Is it too much? Maybe, but it works for me. My extended interaction with my normal group has loosened me up a bit, and I try to be more flexible with allowing my players to do cool or interesting or amusing things, even if Rules as Written, they shouldn’t be allowed to do it. Law 0 is always in effect, after all, and I want them to have fun.

This entry may have gone a bit overboard. I think I’d like to believe that the very character of this post reveals as much as its overall content about the machinery underlying my thought process, and hopefully by proxy, into some of the approaches to DMing with Intelligence.

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Quis dominābit ipsos dominī?

It’s National Novel Writing Month again, and per tradition I’ve signed up. This will be my tenth NaNoWriMo in twelve years, eleventh if you could last year’s focus on writing a new mechanic for Pathfinder, and I’m going for my fourth win. This does mean I won’t have a lot of time to add to this blog, but don’t worry, I’ve got that covered.

In deference to the brave souls who have put up with such a vocal and opinionated player, I’ve asked every DM I’ve had in the last eight years to contribute guest articles to DMing with Charisma in the month of November. Three agreed, conveniently representing DMing with Wisdom, Intelligence, and Constitution. I’m not yet sure what they’ll say; most of the guidance I gave them was that this is a blog about tabletop roleplaying, and I think the most emphatic adult language I’ve used is ‘golly’. Beyond that expect a fairly robust array of topics and opinions. Hopefully it will be at least slightly lighter than my last post.

If you like what you’re reading, let us know. We may make it a thing.

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On D&D as a Brand

As I’ve mentioned before, I follow professional wrestling, and today I want to talk Sunday’s WWE event, “Hell in a Cell”. Its namesake is the Hell in a Cell match, which is the big brother of a steel cage match. It’s intended and expected to be vicious, dangerous, and often bloody. They say that anybody who goes into such a match doesn’t come out the same, assuming they come out at all. In storyline, wrestlers try to avoid it to protect their bodies and careers, and it’s saved for only the most important, feud-culminating matches.

Except that around this time every year, several wrestlers suddenly decide the Cell is the only way to resolve their differences. They don’t do it because they’re actually embroiled in important battles, or because they need to brutalize their current adversaries more than normal, or because they need to protect their matches from outside interference. They do it because it’s October. That’s the time of year when the Hell in a Cell event is, so that means it’s time to have Hell in a Cell matches. There’s no other reason besides “that’s what happens in mid-fall”.

I’m pretty convinced this is dumb. Treating the event like this is sacrificing the story for the sake of the medium. It’s like how television shows all come to a head around the end of a season, except TV shows are designed and written specifically to build their arcs for thirteen episodes and resolve them all at once. Wrestling doesn’t work like that; it’s made of several stories, all at different points and often overlapping, and hitting the “this is a blood feud now” button on multiple storylines at once does a disservice to the narrative, the viewers who expect a logical and interesting show, and the event itself by reducing it from a thing of some importance to just a thing that happens around Halloween.

So why the disconnect between what we expect and what we get? Because WWE’s goal isn’t to create a cohesive narrative, it’s something else. They tell viewers their goal is a story with conflicts expressed through specific athletic contests (“sports entertainment”), but that’s not what their goal actually is.

See, when you’re telling a story, your goal is that story. Everything else you use, from the medium and delivery to the characters and settings all the way down to the pacing and language, should be in service of that goal. If you make choices that actively disrupt the story to prop up one of its constituent parts, you’re not telling a story any more. You’re focusing on that element, and the story is just the catalyst to make that element happen.

That’s fine. But if you’re fully aware of your goal yet presenting a different goal to your audience, you’re either a cunning tactician or you’re in for trouble when that audience figures it out. It’s why so many television shows jump the shark when the male and female leads get together; the creator thinks viewers watch for the characters themselves or the snappy dialog or the actual plot, but the viewers are most interested in the will-they-or-won’t-they tension. Viewers think they’re watching the world’s slowest pre-courtship, and when the creator resolves it to focus on something else, that disenfranchises those viewers. The creator (usually) doesn’t actually tell them they’re wrong for liking the wrong thing, but it feels that way.

Regarding gaming, this disconnect between a game’s intention and the players’ knowledge of it is a running theme throughout this blog. If you’re so focused on making monsters powerful that you sacrifice the player experience, you’re not making a role-playing game about characters, you’re making a battle simulator, and you lose players who want something other than numbers. If you’re so focused on building a unique world that you lock players into prescribed roles, you’re not making a game to be played, you’re writing a script to be followed, and you lose players who want to influence the setting. If you’re so focused on making adventures for everybody, anytime that you limit how, when, and what players can do while preventing them from having any say in the overarching story, you’re not making a gaming system, you’re making a video game (and not even a modern video game, but one where you can only “touch”, “take”, “use”, and “lick” certain background objects), and you lose players who want freedom of choice. I feel very strongly that players deserve to know what a game is before they get into it, because suddenly finding out that a game (or TV show, or poem, or business, or person) isn’t and never has been what you thought is incredibly jarring.

I went through something similar recently with Pathfinder, where I finally realized that what I wanted out of Pathfinder wasn’t something the creators wanted to produce. I’m still trying to reconcile that. So you can imagine what I’m thinking now that I see D&D is doing the same thing.

The impetus for this is a smart but jarring article on Gnome Stew that basically argues D&D isn’t a roleplaying game any more, at least not in the way I want it. Part of the fun in a roleplaying game is playing a character I want to play. Based on the evidence, that doesn’t factor into D&D any more. Wizards (and, as the article says, this is probably more a Hasbro thing) is instead pushing D&D as a brand, with video games, online videos, board games, and an upcoming movie. And that brand isn’t based on letting players do or be who they want, it’s about pulling them into a unified, approachable story.

This is a weird place for me. I cut my teeth on 3E, which had various splatbooks with classes, feats, equipment, monsters, and new rules. 3.5E did the same, and so did 4E, and so does Pathfinder. There was a regular stream of new options to expand what I could do as a player and as a DM. In 5E that’s gone, replaced by the DMs Guild, which is somewhere between “third-party publisher” and “my personal Geocities page” in terms of quality. When I heard about the DMs Guild I was excited for what it meant for the hobby and the direction of future publications, but now I see there aren’t any “future publications”. I didn’t expect the SRD to come at the expense of official content, and I’m incredibly disappointed that I may never hold a D&D book in my hands again.

Wizards is still publishing material, of course. But it’s all adventure paths, per the Paizo model. If you want something you can run in your own game, Wizards is not interested in your interest. And it’s all in Forgotten Realms or Ravenloft, so if you prefer another setting or your own, the same applies. None of it is intended to let players do what they want. As with the WWE, it’s intended to bring players into the story Wizards wants them to want.

I’m not going to go so far as to say D&D isn’t a roleplaying game any more. I’m not that alarmist. It still is, but a far more limited one than it has been in previous versions. It’s more a gateway to a shared multimedia franchise. That’s fine from a business perspective, but it’s not what I want. I don’t want a brand, I want a game that gives me enough freedom to tell the stories I want, and the only way I can do that is by giving up on the system as written and making my own version of it.

Again.

Posted in Commentary, D&D 3.5, D&D 3rd Edition, D&D 4th Edition, D&D 5th Edition, DMing, Game Design, Gaming Systems, Pathfinder | 2 Comments

Making a Puzzle Boss

The steps for building a puzzle boss are pretty much the same as building any kind of encounter, or any kind of story, ever. That is:

  • Goal: The players want something
  • Conflict: The DM puts an obstacle in their way
  • Resolution Mechanic: The players and/or characters overcome the obstacle (or fail)

In most combat encounters this is incredibly simple:

  • Goal: The players want to go to a place or get a thing
  • Conflict: Monsters want to stop the players from going to the place or getting the thing
  • Resolution Mechanic: The party uses violence until there are no more monsters

The party could use diplomacy or stealth or magic or whatever tools they want, but the general structure of an encounter is the same. An encounter even uses the same steps from the perspective of the DM, but that’s another post.

What’s important about this structure is that it’s nested. As you drill down into it, you’ll find the same steps repeated over and over until we get down to a game mechanic. In D&D, that’s usually a d20 roll:

  • Goal: The players want to kill the orcs in the forest
  • Conflict: The orcs do not want to die
  • Resolution Mechanic: Combat
    • Goal: The ranger wants to use her bow
    • Conflict: Bow attacks provoke attacks of opportunity
    • Resolution Mechanic: The ranger goes to a place where the orcs cannot reach her
      • Goal: The ranger wants the high ground
      • Conflict: The high ground is very high
      • Resolution Mechanic: Climb check vs. DC
    • Goal: The fighter wants to hit an orc with his sword
    • Conflict: The orc does not want to be hit
    • Resolution Mechanic: Attack roll vs. AC

Most conflicts have fairly straightforward goals, conflicts and resolutions, and that’s important. The key to a puzzle boss is that it doesn’t:

  • Goal: The fighter wants to hit the orc with a sword
  • Conflict: The orc has a magic barrier around him
  • Resolution Mechanic: Disable the barrier
    • Goal: The party must stop the barrier
    • Conflict: The party does not know how
    • Resolution Mechanic: The party makes skill checks, or tests theories, or thinks really hard, etc.

The puzzle is in figuring out how to resolve the conflict. It’s not a matter of what the best answer is (for example, swords versus clubs versus fire) but how to answer it at all. The simplest way to do that is to make direct, obvious combat either impossible or just a very bad idea, but there are several ways to go about it.

Puzzles are too broad to have a clear set of creation steps. They’re not like a monster or a trap where you can say “this type of puzzle is this difficult, and it takes this long, so it has this Challenge Rating”. It’s more of an art, where you have to balance the combat, the story, the players, the schedule, and the mood at the table as it shifts. But like art, while there aren’t rules there are strongly-worded suggestions:

The party has to discover the puzzle quickly. Combat has certain expectations in D&D, and one of those is that it can be resolved via combat mechanics. Breaking from that is fine, but breaking from it in secret and expecting the players to read your mind is not. You don’t want your players to miss the runes on the floor and spend four rounds trying to hit the invincible necromancer with a sword. They’ll rightly consider it a waste of character resources and real-world time.

The answer can’t be too obvious. Things like “kill the healer first, or he’ll heal his allies”, or “the wizard has terrain advantage” aren’t puzzles, they’re complications. They’re a good way to make fights more interesting and dynamic, but that’s not what we’re talking about here. You have to escalate the difficulty until the players don’t have a evident answer. Consider “kill the healer first, or he’ll heal his allies, but everybody is acting similar so we need to find out who the healer is”, or “the wizard has terrain advantage because she’s on a ledge with no visible access point.”

There should be more than one answer. If the puzzle relies on an arcane leap of logic or an absurdly specific action, there’s too strong a chance the players won’t solve it at all. Continuing the above examples, if the party can only find out who the healer is by remembering that all clerics of the healing god have a small brand on the back of their neck, or if they can only make it to the wizard by throwing paint at the wall to reveal the hidden ladder to the ledge, that’s a bad puzzle. The key word is “only”. Both of those are fine answers, but when you reject other plausible answers because they’re not the one you had in mind, the puzzle you’re actually giving the players is “guess what the DM is thinking”.

You need to accept that the players are going to try something else, like using detect magic to find the telltale signs of a healing or illusion spell. Reward them for ideas that fit with the puzzle you’ve presented. I usually require that an answer have at least two of the following traits: it’s clever, and it shows the players are really thinking about their situation; it’s entertaining, and it gives us joy to see the characters try it; and it’s successful, because the players rolled high or set things up well enough that a roll doesn’t matter. A few examples:

  • A player suspects the enemies all worship the same god, but asks if their holy symbols are the same. With a good Perception check she notices (or declares) that they’re subtly different, and asks to use Knowledge (religion) to recall whether those symbols indicate different religious disciplines. This is clever because she’s considering and manipulating the backstory of the enemies and she rolled well enough to be successful, so she learns that only one enemy has access to healing magic.
  • The fighter can’t get to the wizard’s ledge, but he knows it’s attached to a wall. He starts attacking the wall, trying to bring it down. The party asks him to stop because it might destabilize the architecture of the rest of the room, but he persists and starts rolling damage. This is entertaining because it can add a dynamic element to the combat, and with good damage rolls he can actually break through a wall. It also helps that I have a soft spot for players who hurt themselves to fit their character, so if the fighter is a berserker who loves destruction despite the party’s comedic exasperation, I’d consider that entertaining.
  • The party decides to stack themselves on each other’s shoulders so the rogue can climb them and reach the ledge. That’s a clever use of party resources (time) and mechanics (carrying capacity, height, and weight), and it’s entertaining enough that I want to see it happen. If I’d ask them to make rolls at all the DC would be very low. I might give myself a bonus to attack players at the bottom of the pole, but that’s unlikely to impact the success of their maneuver.

Per the above examples, “entertaining” usually means “funny”. But it can also mean “dramatic”. A player who uses a forbidden spell, sets aside their code of honor to do something underhanded, or sacrifices themselves so their allies have a chance, and who’s willing to accept the narrative fallout of their decision, deserves success as much as somebody who’s trying to pick up an enemy and throw them into another one.

Have a purpose for the puzzle. The puzzle needs to fit in with the pacing of the campaign and the story the campaign is telling. Having a puzzle boss because “it’s time for a puzzle” isn’t a sufficient reason. It should happen during a battle where it makes sense that just hitting the opponent isn’t a complete solution. Often the best way to do that is to telegraph it in some way; if the players find out this group of fighters has never had a single casualty, they won’t be surprised when they see it’s because they have a hidden healer. The party goes in expecting something out of the ordinary and they’re mentally prepared for it.

In addition, the puzzle needs to work with the boss itself. The powerful orc warlord with a reputation for ripping his opponents limb from limb is not going to hide behind his defenders and take potshots with a crossbow. He’s going to wade into battle with supernatural fury, and it’s up to the players to find out why their blows are bouncing off his skin. This is a good place to toss in a plus or a minus; the warlord is all but immune to the barbarian’s axe and it falls to the sorcerer to notice the warlord’s necromantic aura and realize he’s actually a zombie powered by a magic item. A clever player might even swing their role as a minus into a plus, like the barbarian who realizes her axe isn’t working, drops it, and grapples the warlord to mitigate his attacks and buy time for everybody else. That’s a good kind of clever, even if it does mean I have to find my grappling flowchart.

Make it fun. This suggestion overrides everything else. A puzzle can be well-balanced, creative, and narratively meaningful but still be a tedious slog. If the party just has to pull a lever every round to keep poison gas from filling the room, all you’ve done is give them an action tax. There’s a difference between “I can’t believe we did it!” relief and “I’m so glad it’s over!” relief, and that line can move based on your campaign, your players, what happened last week, how tired the players are from work, and so on. One of your roles as a DM is to focus on the right thing: puzzle bosses, like everything else in the game, are a means for having fun. If yours isn’t fun, it’s wrong.

If you’re looking for a detailed breakdown on types of puzzle bosses, you’re out of luck. I don’t have one either. But I can recommend the following works that have some examples I’ve used myself, as further reading:

  • Jojo’s Bizarre Adventure – Starting in the third arc they get into the concept of “Stands”, which allow the main characters to fight with supernatural, usually external entities. Most battles boil down to “Who is my enemy, what is his power, and how do I survive it and punch him in the face?”
  • World of Warcraft – I’ve gotten a lot of ideas from browsing strategies for raid and instance bosses. The numbers don’t really mean anything (I don’t know if “3000 Nature damage” was meaninglessly low or an insta-kill in the relevant expansion) but the general ideas are good for keeping fights dynamic and adding an element the unknown.
  • Final Fantasy – Each game has several bosses that don’t fit the normal “grind and smash” mold. I’m told the single best game for this is the remake of Final Fantasy IV for some recent portable system, where almost every boss is an actual challenge because they each need a different strategy. Games that let you change your party, like Final Fantasy Tactics, may also work for general ideas, but I’m legendarily terrible at strategy games so I don’t have a ton of experience here.
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Puzzle Bosses

In my career I’ve seen the designers of D&D try to approach boss monsters in several ways. In 3E a boss is a monster with a CR higher than the party level, which usually means it has higher defenses, bigger attacks, and powers beyond the party’s scale. In 4E a boss has largely the same combat numbers, but has quadruple hit points and gets more than one offensive action per turn. In 5E it gets even more actions and some ability to ignore player attacks. Pathfinder uses 3E rules, but the conventional wisdom is to make a boss a standard-CR creature with enough allies or minions to ramp up the difficulty and keep the boss from being swarmed.

All of these share a common trait: a boss is a normal monster, but scarier. For the most part they use the same rules as any other creature, sometimes with a template or bonus stacked on to give them different abilities (“solo” in 4E, “legendary” in 5E). An aggressive way of saying it is “a boss is a normal monster who breaks the unwritten social rules of the game by being numerically out of bounds.”

That’s my big issue with them: not the phrase “out of bounds”, but the word “numerically”. A boss is defined by their numbers, and higher numbers challenge the characters rather than challenging the players. A boss who’s a normal creature, except it deals 50% more damage and you have to roll two higher to hit it, isn’t actually a boss. It’s just a longer fight. That can be dramatic if the numbers push it just out of the players’ comfort or competence zones, but it can just as easily be a boring slog or frustrating TPK.

In the Zelda campaign I hit the players with more bosses than I have in any other campaign, and I settled into a rhythm that I think made them more interesting than just being mathematically superior. In most Zelda games, the players gets an item in the middle of a dungeon. They use that item to beat the dungeon, and it’s usually required or helpful for the dungeon boss as well. The campaign worked the same way; every dungeon boss was in some way vulnerable to the item in its dungeon, and the players had to figure out how to leverage that. This included not just learning how the item affected the boss, but also when to use it and which player was best suited to it, in the middle of a standard pitched combat, and the end of an adventure where the players were running on depleted resources. Beating each one felt like more of an actual achievement than rolling slightly higher than normal for significantly longer than normal.

This is a puzzle boss, a boss fight solved by a strategy other than “hit it really hard until it falls down”. Often a puzzle boss works via some weak point the player has to discover and exploit, like an opening in the boss’ defenses after a big attack or a nearby object that can damage the boss when attacks cannot. I think my favorite version of this is the one in Zelda games or Jojo’s Bizarre Adventure: the boss seems unbeatable, but once you figure out their trick you can open them up to one-sided, incredibly satisfying melee combat.

That’s where I find myself as I start to think about my next campaign, which will be in Pathfinder, the land of “if you ain’t doing a hundred damage a round, you ain’t trying”. I spent a good while trying to find published monsters immune to Pathfinder’s rocket-tag gameplay, and when that failed I tried to find monsters resistant to it, then gave up on that and just tried to find monsters that didn’t actively contribute to it. But instead of using the narrow subsection of the game that works with my style of play, I’m probably going to do what I normally do and make something new.

Part of my reluctance is that Pathfinder is still very simulationist. Monster design in 4E is like the Wild West, where you can’t assume that one monster’s swallow whole power works in any way like it does with another monster. Pathfinder doesn’t do that; “swallow whole” is a specific monster ability with a glossary entry and a programmed set of steps and results. The monster creation rules in the Bestiary actively discourage DMs from making something out of whole cloth:

Monsters should use abilities from the Universal Monster Rules whenever possible, instead of creating new yet similar abilities—when you do create new abilities, use the Universal Monster Rules as a template for how to present and create the new abilities.

The rules work on a very “like = like” system. For example, a character can break through nearly any barrier given enough time, and with the right tools they can usually make it trivially easy. Now consider a boss who is physically weak and controls minions or machines from behind a transparent wall. That wall can only be made of two things: a physical material like glass or invisible steel, which a strong character can destroy rapidly; or a magical material like force, which is impossible to break manually but falls immediately to specific spells. There’s no room for a surface that can only be broken by filing minions at it or tricking the machines into hitting it. That material would work unlike everything else in the world, and the rules don’t like that.

So I find myself in a situation where I’m planning encounters that work in a gaming system while deliberately subverting the intent of that system, skirting the line of “it works this way because the DM wants it to and for no other reason” without crossing it. It’s a strange kind of perpendicular design, making encounters with the feel I want by working despite the system rather than within it. That’s not bad per se, and I’m finding it a lot of fun, but it means I’m trying to come up with combats that marry both the existing mechanics and the gameplay I want without just telling the players that a given monster breaks the rules and leave it at that.

I don’t want to just hand-wave away Pathfinder’s simulationism, either. Say I’m committed to that magic wall that can only be destroyed by flinging a minion at it. I have to explain it somehow, so I’m going to say the minions are also magic. They could be magic in a similar way, which disrupts the wall because they overloads it or because they interact with it in a way other objects can’t, or in an opposite way, which damages the walls or exploits its weak points. I have to give the players some way to find out about the minion’s special properties—a previous encounter, a book of notes from their creator, symbols on the wall that match the symbols on the minion’s faces—and trust them to draw appropriate conclusions.

This trust highlights one of the big issues with designing puzzle bosses: they have the downsides of both a puzzle and a boss. If the players don’t figure out that the minions affect the wall, it’s over. If they figure it out but draw an incorrect conclusion, like thinking the minions enhance the wall and trying to drive them away, it’s over. If the get the right answer but fail on their rolls to enforce that answer, it’s over. If the players ignore or circumvent the puzzle entirely, like digging their way through the floor under the magic wall, the battle works but it’s deeply unsatisfying. And the whole time I’m trying to hit them with an exciting, dangerous encounter, so I’m taxing their resources even harder than normal. It’s not easy.

But the results are worth it. If the players succeed in the fight, and I succeed in designing and running it, we get an encounter that stands out from the rest of the campaign. It feels different because it is different, and the party has to adjust its tactics to compensate. If the players solve the puzzle in a way I didn’t expect, like tricking the minions into attacking the wall themselves, that’s even better. The players accomplished something, not the characters, and that feeling of legitimately deserving success lasts a lot longer than winning because your math outpaced the game’s.

I’m still trying to figure out if I have enough to say about making puzzle bosses to fill an entire blog post. I guess we’ll find out soon.

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