After several weeks of illness and travel, my first D&D 5E campaign has finally wrapped up. But in the long stretch of time between last two sessions, I realized a normal campaign post-mortem wouldn’t really cover the things I wanted to say. I think it’s more helpful to discuss each issue separately so it has the space it needs, and I’d like to begin by telling you about a pro wrestling match I saw right after the penultimate session.
It featured two popular, skilled men in a match that had minor implications in their storyline but was more an excuse to give both of them something to do. It was a gripping, back-and-forth affair where both competitors pulled out surprising, athletic maneuvers, and they kept the action moving quickly and constantly. Commentary covered it well, the crowd stayed interested, there were no ridiculous shenanigans to take away from the match or the result, and both wrestlers came out looking like beasts, one for his skill and the other for his determination against great odds. It was fun, it was entertaining, it was excellently performed, and I hated it.
See, in this match, the villain showed his in-ring canniness by targeting the hero’s arm. Whenever he had an opportunity to attack, he focused on that arm, until the hero was cradling and protecting it whenever he moved. Despite this, the hero managed to use that arm to pull off the same impressive moves he always did. Even though it looks like he was in great pain, and the commentary team told us he was in great pain, and I was in great pain just watching, when it came time to show off how much pain he was in, he didn’t. He didn’t work around his pain by using his other arm, he didn’t fail on anything important because his arm gave out on him, and he didn’t dig deep to pull out any new or interesting moves that kept his arm safe. He just used the same arm the same way he always did and winced a bit afterward.
Once I realized what was happening, I lost interest in the match as a story. The athleticism was still great, but I knew the hero was going to win, and I knew exactly and when how he was going to do it. Sure enough, at the end of the match he use his hurt arm to lift his opponent so he could perform one of his signature moves, and shortly thereafter he used that arm to deliver his finisher. All that work, all that story put into “his arm doesn’t work” meant nothing because his grit, his determination, his raw physical power was stronger than any effort put into limiting it. And after that, what’s left? What poses a threat to our conquering hero if a smart, strong opponent targeting the hero’s greatest weakness can only manage to delay his victory slightly? What can stop him from winning his matches the same way, over and over, every time? Why should I be worried about him if I know he’s going to win anyway because he’s just better than the best his opponent can do?
This is the Superman problem (and not just because both of the wrestlers in the match use Superman references in their gimmicks): the more powerful a character is, the harder it is to challenge him or her, and thus the harder it is to create a meaningful conflict featuring the character. If a wrestler is so strong and so determined to win that he can ignore pain or injury, and if most wrestling comes down to winning by inflicting pain or injury, there’s no risk that the wrestler will lose a match and thus I can’t get invested in the result. Generally you address this by presenting a conflict the character has to resolve in a creative way; either an opponent is as powerful as the character or resistant to the character’s normal methods of conflict resolution, or he challenges the character in a way that plays against the character’s strengths*. Per the Superman analogy you might consider these the Darkseid solution and the Mr. Mxyzptlk solution respectively, but I cut my teeth on anime, so I like to think of them as the Dragonball solution and the JoJo solution. The point is to make the character seem vulnerable enough that he has to go outside his comfort zone to win.
This doesn’t apply simply to punching. It applies to any form of conflict resolution. If a character is too smart, it’s hard to challenge him with anything that requires thinking. If a character is too charming, it’s hard to challenge him with anything that allows him to banter with his opponent. A character doesn’t need to be good at everything, like the actual Silver-Age Superman, to hit the Superman problem. Any sufficiently competent character can run into it.
The application to D&D is obvious. Characters designed, explicitly or unintentionally, to shine in a given area can present a problem for the DM. A character whose damage is too high slaughters opponents in a single round, a character whose defenses are too high largely ignores even the stronger monsters, and a character whose Diplomacy is too good resolves fights in a single roll of the dice. One of the DM’s many jobs is to give players entertaining conflicts, and these characters make that job harder by making conflicts moot. Luckily, D&D has ways to solve it: the system is varied enough that the DM can generally find some sort of conflict at which a given character does not excel, and higher-level monsters can present a meaningful threat almost regardless of a character’s competency.
This is where I hit a problem. 5E compresses power growth, allowing lower-level monsters to challenge higher-level players and vice versa. Level-by-level growth occurs mostly via hit points, damage, and new tricks while attack bonus, defenses, skills, etc. barely change. I love this idea, but it makes things harder when you’re trying to challenge a character who seems too good for a given level.
Take, for example, our monk. He had the highest AC, the highest attack bonus, and the highest average damage in the party. He could (and did) defeat certain late-campaign monsters in a single round. Normally I would try a higher-CR monster against him, but CR doesn’t mean as much in 5E as it does in other editions. A higher-CR monster still has pretty much the same defenses and attack bonus, so I have the same trouble hitting and keeping myself from being hit. My monster does more damage, but that’s more of a concern for the party healers than the monk I’m trying to challenge, and he stays alive longer, but that just means he gets more of a chance to be impotent. In practice, higher-level monsters just swung the combat more, so a lucky or unlucky streak was even more devastating than I’d expected. I’ll talk more about that next post. The point is that the Dragonball solution didn’t really work; I couldn’t throw numbers at the problem because there weren’t enough numbers to throw.
So I wanted to I fall back on the Jojo solution and hit the monk where he was weakest. Yes, he had the best combat capability and the best mobility and the best perception skills, but everybody is weak somewhere. That’s where the campaign itself became the problem: the general narrative structure prevented me from using most of the ways I have to challenge parties in new ways. It took place in the dream version of a specific, mapped-out city, so there wasn’t a lot of opportunity for exploration or natural hazards. Few NPCs existed, so there wasn’t a lot of character interaction. The story was more compressed than I’d intended, so we didn’t have time for side arcs that let us try things from different directions. As I eventually realized, it was more like an instance in World of Warcraft than a proper campaign: small and tightly-focused, with some limited choice, and full of encounters that felt distinct but still expected to be solved in much the same way as all the others. No matter what the challenge was, the monk could pretty much handle it by either walking up to something and punching it or sitting back and letting somebody else do the heavy lifting until an opportunity for punching arose.
This is not to say the monk ruined the campaign or anything. As characters go the monk is fine. I’m just using him as my example because I feel his situation is the easiest to explain. Really, I could pick any other character, like the one who hit almost as hard as the monk but did it from range, or the one with a huge stack of hit points who loved knocking enemies around so they either wasted their turn getting back into the fight or fell off platforms and outright died. The characters were not the problem, nor were the players who designed them. The problem is that 5E removed half the tools I use to challenge the players and the campaign’s setting removed the other half, so by the last session I was just throwing numerically impossible encounters at the party hoping one of them would encourage the characters to try something new. None did.
As a result, every attempt I made to build an encounter for the party was an exercise in frustration. Until the very end I wasn’t confident enough to give the players something really scary and trust them to sort it out, and I had inadvertently locked myself out of any solution that didn’t involve a scary monster. I mostly spent a lot of time coming up with unique monsters with unique powers, then watched the players ignore them because those powers weren’t memorable enough to avoid or taxing enough to mitigate. Is the lesson that custom monsters are a waste of time? Should I be relying on (even less interesting) published low-level monsters? Should I be ignoring monsters entirely and trying to make interesting terrain or objectives? Is there something the players should have done differently? Or am I looking at this the wrong way entirely, and should I accept that monster design in 5E is boring and that’s somehow part of its charm? I don’t know what I should be learning from this, so I don’t know how to avoid it next time.
It’s possible this was just a bad confluence of events: this system and this setting and these players running these characters with this DM isn’t going to give us something good. But then I recall after my last campaign I said exactly the same thing, and clearly I either don’t know how to solve this problem or I don’t even know what the problem is.
* — I suppose you can also address the Superman problem by ignoring it. Some people like an all-conquering hero. I don’t.