Encounter Design: Pluses and Minuses

I’ve been told that I have an antagonistic relationship with my players, and I think that’s mostly true. I like making my players work for rewards, I like challenging them as much as their characters, and I like making them feel that there’s a real chance of failure. I don’t have a Gygax-like resentment of player success and a desire to see them suffer (well, not a strong desire), but I’ve found that players have the best memories of sessions where they survived by the skin of their teeth.

However, there are situations where some characters are simply more relevant than others, which is part of game design. If there’s a character who’s as good as every other character in every situation, then there’s a problem somewhere, but most systems disallow this somewhat explicitly. A character who’s great as punching probably won’t be great at tea functions, and if they’re good at both then fixing a car engine is likely not their scene. This is why most systems tell GMs to mix things up in their sessions, with a little bit of everything that the system can handle and that players enjoy, to give everybody a chance to shine.

D&D 4th Edition has made this a bit harder with a clear understanding that all characters are combat characters and perform non-combat activities only tangentially. There’s no expert in diplomacy unless they’re also using Charisma to shoot lasers at people, there’s no expert in knowledge unless it provides a damage bonus, and so on. I’ve had a few players try to create non-combat characters, and they just get lost in the shuffle, especially as combats drag longer at higher levels. The characters who are best at combat end up being far and away the members of the party with the most screentime, feeling the best about their characters, and those characters tend to be strikers. All systems have a similar issue for characters who are good at too many things, but I feel like 4th Edition gives the strongest impression that combat is the most important function a character can perform, and strikers are designed to do the most in combat.

In order to get around this scenario, I started thinking about encounter design in a new way. Whenever I write a combat encounter, I try to pick two characters out of the party. For one character (a “Plus”), I design some part of the encounter to compliment their abilities, and for another (a “Minus”), I try to limit their usefulness.

I feel like making an encounter that involves a Plus is pretty basic design. Every time you make a social situation with a diplomat in the party or build a trap with a rogue in the party, you’ve built something where one character is supposed to star, and doing this to combat isn’t terribly difficult. The Minus is a bit harder to explain, but I do have a few reasons for it. One is that, as previously explained, I’m antagonistic, and I like seeing players suffer occasionally. More relevantly, though, I feel like there’s no reason one character or build should be able to walk through all encounters. Decreasing the importance of a particularly good character is sometimes important for others to shine. And third, a character who’s too good isn’t really trying in most combats, and I feel like a character that doesn’t have to think or try is a player that isn’t having fun.

For example, let’s say I have a bow expert in the party who does ridiculous damage and debilitating effects from a ridiculous range. If that character is the Plus, I make sure the encounter has something that’s good to shoot, or something that’s harmed more than normal by the effects the character can cause. I know the character is good, but having a situation that validates their particular build can make sense in-story and show the player that I’m not always out to get them. If they’re the Minus, then I give the encounter a lot of cover that interferes with line of sight or include monsters that can close to melee range without a problem. This means that the archer doesn’t unduly control the match, and it gives the defender a good chance to protect them or the melee striker a good chance to block a choke point.

I started using this idea this spring, and I quickly realized that I was gravitating to determining Pluses and Minuses based on the amount of damage dealt in combat. That is, I would build encounters to limit the power of strikers and increase the power of controllers and low-damage defenders and leaders. I know that I designed the system to occasionally subvert strikers, but subverting them in every battle wasn’t fun, logical, or intended. Realizing this was half the battle, but I also decided to only let a character be a Plus or be a Minus only once every few sessions, to spread both the wealth and the undeserved wrath.

If nothing else, I really like this system because it’s prompted me to design some interesting mechanics. There are only so many ways to deal with a character who can teleport four squares as a free action every turn or gets threatening reach, and few of them exist in the standard ruleset. Coming up with a power that stops it isn’t difficult, but making it believable in terms of the encounter is often hilarious. Ever design a creature with no standard, move, or minor actions? Because it’s awesome.

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2 Responses to Encounter Design: Pluses and Minuses

  1. Dave Fried says:

    I don’t tend to be an antagonistic DM, but I think your advice works for all GMs (and all games). I didn’t think about this nearly enough when I ran my D&D campaign a while back. And it’s something I’m trying really hard to do in my current Dresden campaign.

    I have a notion that it’s easier to do plus and minus in 4E than 3.x because of the way the game mechanics work. In 4E you can play to a particular character’s primary damage type, whether they do ranged, melee, or area attacks, what skills they have, or even the stat they key off of. In 3E, it seems like there were fewer variables to tweak. Was it hard to build a monster in Pathfinder that “plussed” one character and “minused” another without having a serious impact on the rest of the party? Or was backporting 4E monster design principles sufficient?

  2. MssngrDeath says:

    Backporting was a big part of it. For example, giving a creature DR 10/light put a significant hit on the dual-wielding fighter, put a minor hit on the rending summoned creature, and made the sorcerer do that much more damage by comparison. But Pathfinder also had weapon damage types and weapon materials, distinctions that don’t exist in 4th, which made it easier to parse things into “hit this with a sword” versus “shoot this with a gun” or even “this guy is radioactive, so don’t use natural weapons.”

    I guess the biggest part of it was that we had fairly specific characters. Our magic-user wasn’t a generalist, they were all fire all the time, so giving a creature fire resistance made for a real easy Minus. As I said before, we had a dual-weapon fighter who was great at doing many hits (if a creature took some extra damage per hit, a character who attacked six times for 15 damage per hit was aces) and a summoned creature with rend (his damage tended to be 10 / 9 / 51, so if a creature actually had DR, he could still punch through a ton of hurt). This made it pretty easy to target strengths and weaknesses, and I’m wondering if it isn’t real similar for most parties.

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