One of my favorite tropes in media is the individual face-offs between antagonistic teams. That is, I love it when the good guys meet the bad guys, and the good guys have a genius magician but the bad guys also have one and you know they’re going to fight, while the big guy fights the evil big guy and the comic relief fights the villain’s pet wolf or something. I’ve tried to work it in my campaign several times, sometimes playing it straight like when the half-dragon orc barbarian went toe-to-toe with the eldritch giant, and sometimes subverting it like when I spent a full session establishing a rival party then killed them just off-screen to set up the real big bad. I had something like this in mind when the players in my current campaign met the minions of one of the campaign villains, and the players knew it. When the party finally caught up with those minions during a trip through Hell, they immediately requested (nay, demanded) that they split up to fight their destined battles.
Of course, a one-on-one battle is incredibly boring in Pathfinder. In my experience they’re rarely tense, clever encounters where the combatants continually one-up each other’s power and strategy. It’s far more likely that one person will run roughshod over the other because of one specific part of their build, usually mezzing, defense, or damage, in that order. A single character also loses out on all kinds of combat options, like positioning and flanking. It takes a certain, rare kind of character to make the fights dynamic, and the more you try to force them into a dynamic mold for a set piece battle, the more that battle resembles a skill challenge rather than the fight you advertised. Worst of all, while one player is fighting, the others sit around and watch.
It’s not fun because that’s not what the system is designed to do. The system, Pathfinder especially, is designed for party-on-party rocket-tag violence. If we want destined battles, we have to find a way to make them group affairs.
When we did this in the One Piece campaign in 4E, every player was responsible for coming up with some sort of character or concept for the other players to use. For example, the tentacle-based healer spawned three amorphous tentacle clouds, something she had never done before, and the other players ran them as temporary characters. Each cloud had a different role (striker, defender, and controller, to compliment the healer) and together they formed a valid party, but all in the context of a single character being ludicrously powerful, if only briefly. Other fights were more meta; in one of them, the party’s incredibly fast defender just took four actions per turn, each one controlled by a different aspect of her personality (all the players shared one miniature on the battle field, which was certainly a thing), and in another, one player was the actual environment in which the battle took place. The point is that we found a way for everybody to get involved in a real party encounter.
This only worked because we were playing in a game where it was expected that the characters would pull out crazy powers for major battles. Pathfinder can’t do that; it expects most characters to use the most powerful ability reasonable at all times, so there’s no capacity for escalation unless the players agree to do it beforehand. More importantly, our current setting doesn’t allow it. Our campaign doesn’t have the shounen anime feeling the One Piece campaign had. The mechanic was valid, but we had to find another way to get a bunch of one-shot characters into the room.
So the players stumbled into an encampment of devils, who were also trying to fight the party’s enemies. Each of the players picked one of the opponents they had met before, assembled some allies, and marched off to have their own fight. We did need to come up with some monsters for the players to use during each other’s battles, and I told the players I could do that if they told me roughly what they wanted. I also told them not to bother with trying to balance a party; I would make an encounter that worked with whatever the party was. I did it the other way around too, as the encounter and the characters informed each other for maximum dramatic appeal. For the three players, each running two one-shot monsters, we ended up with this:
- “Somebody who deals one massive hit per turn” — Pathfinder has the Vital Strike tree, which is really good at this. I had to go through a few dozen monsters to find the best one and settled on a rift drake. With Vital Strike feats it dealt 12d6 damage per attack, and with its fly speed and Flyby Attack it would do that while weaving through the fight as long as it didn’t mind the occasional attack of opportunity. It also conveniently had a breath weapon, and I made the enemies vulnerable to it.
- “Somebody huge” — The challenge was finding a huge monster who worked in Hell at the appropriate CR but couldn’t fly or dealt a single massive hit like the previous monster and also didn’t have a million weird powers. I had to steal a lot of the 3.5E warforged titan, then make a few tweaks to get it up to competitive since its CR is six below the party’s. Key on that list was letting it make iterative attacks. Pathfinder really doesn’t like that sort of thing for monsters and it’s easy to see why, but it worked here. The titan also had resistance to every energy type and nigh-unbeatable DR to make it survivable, and the enemies countered that by being illusions and changing their forms at will.
- “Ranged DPS, a Blood War native who’s just thrilled to be there” — This one was easy, an erinyes archer. The challenge was in giving it a low cognitive load because archery tends to involve a lot of feats that usually work together but not always and often apply in different circumstances. At first I was worried about the fly speed, but I knew the opponent would be a transmuter, so I figured she would cast fly on some of the monsters too. Conveniently, erinyes have dispel magic to counter that.
- “A melee defender with a dumb-as-rocks, follow-the-leader outlook” — It took a while because I was looking for a single creature that fit the bill. Instead I went for host devils, who work in concert and relative to devils aren’t that bright. Their low CR didn’t matter much because the enemies were the same illusions as with the titan. Characters made Will saves to disbelieve the illusions and take significantly less damage from them, and I decided the shared perception of the host devils meant the devils got to reroll those Will saves as long as one of them succeeded. Their low attack bonus worked against the lesser illusions, and their low defenses were mitigated by the small damage they took.
- “Legion devils, as many as I can have” — Legion devils are from 3.5E. Their gimmick is that they’re basically one creature spread over multiple bases; legion devils share a single hit point pool, they get massive bonuses to certain rolls based on the number of nearby allies, and they can teleport near each other at will. They were ridiculously weak, but they got nine attacks and it took almost 200 damage to bring them down, so they were an atypical but very interesting set of defenders.
- “Whatever you need for the last one” — This was dangerous, both because it left the player completely unaware of what they were getting and because I don’t do well when I’m given limitless freedom. I need constraints and I quickly applied them to myself here. This became another port from 3.5E, reskinned and re-imagined as a summoner who would only summon one specific creature, a home-brew monster who could sacrifice hit point to dispel enemy buffs. This character helped fight the transmuter, lending both some melee bodies and a way to counter the enemy’s core mechanic.
I could spend a while talking about how I planned the fights themselves and the monsters in them. For example, one of the PCs has an AC of 19. This is very, very bad at L14. But instead of obliterating him, I planned the entire encounter around it. His one-shot allies also had low AC and his enemies had low attack bonuses or did low damage so their guaranteed hits weren’t a game-breaker. It also ramped up the drama when the actual villain appeared and was not subject to this design decision. Every part of all three fights, every monster, every statistic, every piece of terrain, even the mid-combat dialogue worked with each other, with the relevant PC as the centerpiece. But discussing that would make this post too long.
It worked perfectly, and all three fights went off nearly without a hitch. A lot of this was because my players are great, and they immediately took to their one-shot characters, injected personality into them, quickly learned the mechanics they had never seen before, and willingly played them like there was no tomorrow, gladly sacrificing themselves if they thought it would fit the story better. A lot of it was luck, too, let’s be honest: if a few dice rolls had gone the other way, certain dramatic moments would have been considerably less dramatic. But I think the biggest point in its favor was that the fights were different. They had different characters, different team strategies, different stakes, agains enemies who treated the rules differently. They were a subversion of the campaign which is already a bit of a subversion of the system, and they refreshed the play experience to build to a fairly straight battle against a much, much scarier opponent who is absolutely not going to play fair.
It’s a little weird to think of difficult battles with story advancement and character death as breather episodes, but they were. They went so well, I’m going to find ways to do it again, either by doing something to the players and letting them build a backup party to save the original party, or letting the players be the villains for a session or two, or just exploring something from another simultaneous perspective. I don’t know when I’m going to do that because it doesn’t fit anywhere right now, but it’s going to happen.