His throat was slit. He was stabbed over and over. He was burned alive. And, finally, he was nearly disintegrated. All within several minutes. He still didn’t die. The barbarian just stood there, and took it all. He’d fall and stand right back up… The horror. THE HORROR!
Your players have finally hit the higher tiers of your game. They have passed mid level and are nearing or at end game. They are hard to kill, nigh impossible to kill. Combat by the book hardly seems to challenge them anymore. They don’t fear death and they want more power than they have even now. As a game master, it gets tough to handle these later tiers of an adventure. As a player, it’s what you’ve been waiting for, you’re on the verge of the strongest you can get. How does a Game Master handle this? You know players will win all combat that you throw at them unless you take it out of proportion and that can be hard too. What is a game master to do? We’ll go over world change and alternate goals to help you out, and the added bonus of epic encounters!
Changes Over Time
In the higher levels of a game, your players can just about go anywhere and do anything that they want. But, their actions are rarely unnoticed or go unchecked. I like to look back at the places they have been and think about how they have effected those places. In one of my adventures, a player had the ability to travel the planes to get nearly anywhere he wanted. When an enemy wizard noticed this, he wanted it for himself. This wizard happened to be part of a powerful House (Guild/Family) in a massive city in the world. He knew he could use this ability to gain power over the other houses. In due time, he organized a way to steal the item required from my player to be able to use that very same spell to begin a war on the other Houses.
My players have picked up ways to teleport throughout the world. In some cases they were not to quiet about it, people began to question how this was happening. With the war on other Houses happening back in the big city, magical protection was becoming a must on most large cities. My players soon learned that magical entrance to large cities was harder than going through the front door.
I don’t use these against the players. Nothing stops them from teleporting close to the city and then gaining access. In fact, the players use this to their advantage even further. They now know that the city is a place they’ll need to be careful in, if it can prevent their magical access, who knows what else is in the city. They know to be careful of old enemies that may lurk around. The key is, think about where they have been, and who they have effected. As the players grow; so does the world they’ve touched.
Another way to up the ante is, don’t worry about killing characters. That’s not the goal of tabletop games anyways, unless you’re running a hack and slash sort of silly thing. The goal is to provide fun, tell a story, and enjoy the game. Instead of just straight up combat, think of goals that the players should be achieving. After a certain point in the game, combat just for the sake of combat is boring. Here is a list of goals I like to use:
- Prevent destruction: Perhaps a person, object, or location is several rounds away from being destroyed. This could have a global impact, or just personal impact. Maybe it is an item that the players are meant to retrieve. In any case, set a hidden amount of rounds that the players must get the item when combat starts; otherwise it’s destroyed by the enemy or what have you. If it’s in the case of a person, perhaps they are destroyed or hauled off. You need to give them clues as to how close the object (or what have you) is to its destruction.
- The distraction: In this case, players are fighting and their attention is needed elsewhere. If the fight goes on too long then perhaps their real enemy gets away; or some item’s power is released. The fight at hand is a mere distraction, if the players fail to realize this, they’re going to fail their mission. You can allude to this being a distraction if you wish, or have players make perception rolls to see if they notice. One common example is a ritual being performed and the players must interrupt it in the heat of combat. (Like having a wizard steal a rare spell component from a player.)
- Escape: The players are in the heat of combat, and now they must face a choice; win the fight and try to get out of a collapsing battleground of sorts. Or forfeit the fight for an easier escape. Each extra round of combat makes it harder to escape until there is a point of no return. Perhaps the combat is overwhelmingly hard and they simply have to run.
These are just three common examples. The point is to think outside the box, what would hurt your player characters the most when death is not an option? What is a mission failure to them? You’ll often find that players aren’t worried about character death, they’re prepared for that. Their gear, their mission, their experience points are what they want. Aim for their loot and experience points and they’ll put up a real fight. They stumble into a dragon’s lair. The dragon doesn’t speak to them.
He spots them and begins to eat the gold that he slumbered on. He melts it in his gut and uses it to fuel an even more powerful fire against the players. Bit by bit, the horde of treasure vanishes forever, in front of the players eyes. Give them a mission to rescue someone. When they get there, it turns out that person escaped and didn’t want to be rescued. What do the players do now? Fail the mission and don’t get the experience for it. Take on a new mission of hiding the person? Take the person back and turn it into kidnap? Changing the goals up allows the players to think differently. This tends to make for a more rewarding experience at the end of the night.
Combat for the sake of combat isn’t terrible, but it tends to just be boring and tedious at later levels.. The players have these crazy powers for a reason. So get creative about your fights. Think of the environment, think of the creatures they’re fighting.
- Large scale: If they’re fighting a monster that is much bigger than them, cutting at his feet doesn’t really do a whole lot for the imagination. I like to make my players have to climb the large beast, find vital spots and weak points. All the while, the monster is shaking them off, flailing around, and creating havoc.
- Environmental hazards: Difficult terrain isn’t the only thing that can slow players down. Sleep spores from large mushrooms require will saves every round. Hitting one on accident requires another. Lava is oozing towards the battlefield at a rate of ten feet per round, it engulfs everything, shrinking their fighting space bit by bit.
- Puzzling combat: Perhaps they fight something they can’t kill, but have to ‘turn off’. The enemy could care less about the amount of damage it takes, and must have a switch found and flipped. Or some sort of magical command may keep it running until spoken again. This combat is designed more as survival than it is dishing damage out. Mix this with distractions from other enemies and it gets downright hard.
This stuff is more easily described when you see it. I pull a lot of my mechanics from games that I have played and movies I’ve watched. Here are two examples to check out.
Shadow of the Collossus, Gaius – Seriously, just look up every boss from this game if you want large scale boss inspiration. This is just the third one from the game, Gaius. It’s like having a skyscraper pick on you for being so inferior. Only that skyscraper has a sword the size of another skyscraper. If you have the time, just watch all of the bosses. Every one of them is awesome.
Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time, Volvagia – Talk about using terrain. You physically cannot deal with the boss head on without taking some real damage. So you have to use its own lair against it. Even then, you still have to be on the constant lookout. Even then, players may find an easy way out; but at least they were forced to think outside the box!
Looking at both of the above examples, they have two major things in common. The first, you’re need to use non combat abilities to help deal with them. The second is that they have various phases throughout the fight. What is a phase? It’s when you spend some amount of time figuring out how the boss works. Once you have, you’re rewarded by being allowed to dish out tons of damage to it. This only works a couple of times though. Then something happens and the boss changes. That is a phase. Once it has changed, you enter a new phase of the fight. You’re stuck figuring something else out before you can wail away once more. Every time, you’re greeted with a clue that “Hey something is happening, what you just did won’t work.” It can draw a fight out a bit longer, but keep it feeling fresh and rewarding once you figure things out. I use this mechanic moderately, not all of my big baddies are phased fights; but when they are, it’s a hell of a fight. Rather than explain just how it works, we’re going to build a phased boss fight. It will be based off of the examples I’ve listed above.
Information: In your notes, you see that the players are overdue to fight a necromancer that escaped their grasp. They’re finally close enough to make the fight happen. By now he’s got 400 hit points, pretty hard to hit, very intelligent, and cruel. The players can’t just teleport to him, he has an antimagic zone around his hidden keep. They’ve trekked through it for some time now, everything is crude construction and spells last for mere seconds where they would last minutes and hours. In any case, they’ve made it to his chamber where the antimagic zone seems to be gone. (This is using change over time, earlier levels and they wouldn’t be facing the zone. As they get stronger, so do their escaped enemies.)
Phase 1: The big reveal is phase one. We want to show off his mastery over the undead and dark arts. We’ve shown his power already with the zone. Now we need to distract and confuse the players. He has 400hp, not a lot for any lone monster at high levels of a game. He knows he’s not able to take many hits. So he locks himself away in a ball of shadow and summons forth a horde of undead from under the ground. The players must use light and positive energy on the shadow ball to dispel it over time. They must heal it 400hp instead of hurt it. This is our alternate goal and puzzle. But, that’s too easy at this level. The undead don’t stay down. Instead, after one round, they reassemble. Any ground where there is a ‘downed’ undead, is hazardous terrain as the bones grapple and claw about, damaging and distracting the players. This requires concentration checks from casters as well. People who stay in the downed zone risk taking damage or being grappled. (This uses terrain and thinking outside the box to deal with an enemy.)
The players finally heal the shadow ball away and it’s time to reveal phase two.
Phase 2: He’s amused at how well they handled the situation. There is a small moment of invulnerability that he has while he may give a small speech to the players, or he just cuts right to the chase as the ball vanishes. He throws up a barrier to defend himself magically and begins to launch dark magic at the players. Clue the players in as they attack him while the shield is up that he takes no damage. His only opening is when he casts the spells. He has to take the shield down for just a split moment. This means the players will have to figure out that they need to ready actions ahead of time… Finally they end up dealing 200 damage over an epic fight. Make sure to use area of effect spells, and damage over time stuff, really give them a good scare before they send him to his grave. (Letting them wail after solving the puzzle.) But, wait… Didn’t he have 400 hp? Yep…
Phase 3: He collapses to the ground, dead. They did 400 damage to a shadow ball, and now 200 to him. Surely a long and epic fight. The players will be celebrating and ready to loot. When we unleash our nastiest surprise. The hissing roar of a Black Dragon can be heard just before it crashes into the chamber. Stone and rock shatter everywhere, and then the undead lord’s voice chuckles, echoing through the room. The dragon spews forth glob of poison, acid, and bile before clutching the body of the necromancer in it’s grasp and beginning to take off.
The players have a choice… Escape… or Fight on… Fight or Flight… Just like I had mentioned above.
You can design the rest of this however you want. Do they decide to focus fire the necromancer while the dragon protects it? Do they go after both? Does the dragon give chase? The possibilities are endless, and should trigger real emotion. You don’t have to do this for every fight, and I wouldn’t recommend it. But, man does it make for a really memorable one when you use phases like this. Something no one would forget, and surely something where the player’s least worry is death.
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