by Mike Shea on 14 May 2018
A band of powerful adventurers explores the mausoleum of a powerful dracolich. The adventurers enter a large chamber and with sparks of unnatural energy, five slaads appear, three red and two blue. "Stand back", says the wizard and begins chanting a spell. The two blue slaads look at him and then begin to chuckle. Then they laugh. Then they roar, falling to the ground and rolling around uncontrollably. The wizard smiles, continuing his chant. "The other three are your problem", he says to his companions.
Written out as fiction, the casting Tasha's Hideous Laughter on a pair of blue slaads sounds pretty cool. If we Dungeon Masters are invested in these slaads, however, this result might frustrate us. That wizard just inflicted the equivalent of 240 damage with a single spell. The slaad's terrible wisdom saving throw, even with advantage from magic resistance, and the wizard's ability to stay out of reach of the red slaads ensures the hideous laughter will continue as long as the characters need.
If we had hopes for a big five-on-five battle, this single spell dashed those hopes. This battle didn't go the way we expected and that can leave us feeling like things went wrong or the system is broken.
Players are invested in their characters. They want to see their characters do interesting things. They want to discover the world. They want to disarm devious traps. They want to uncover deep secrets. They want to swing from ropes and push over carts. They want to do awesome things. In particular, they want to kick monster ass in battles. Can they completely paralyze a monster that might have looked threatening? That's pretty cool! Like Indiana Jones shooting the swordsman cool.
Think how pissed a player would be if his character got banished or stuck behind a wall of force for a whole battle. Sometimes, that's how we DMs feel when our monsters face the same fate. If we have a villain we really liked destroyed or incapacitated in a single round, that can suck. It's the reason we need to be careful when putting villains like Strahd or Iymrith in front of the characters. We don't want to see them put down too easily.
DMs can't be invested in the game the same way players are invested. For most games, players only have characters die every so often. For DMs, monsters and villains die all the time. The job of our monsters is to threaten the PCs and then fall. How can we invest emotional energy into such doomed creatures?
There are a lot of ways to deal with these feelings. First of all, as Dungeon World teaches us, we should, first and foremost, be fans of the characters, not the monsters. We play to find out what happens not to make sure a battle goes the way we want it to go and not to enjoy how awesome the monsters are at killing the heroes.
One way we can ensure we don't care is to not spend a lot of time on them. The less time we spend building and preparing our monsters or planning a battle, the less we will worry about what happens if the monsters get screwed by a save-or-suck spell. We can get just as excited about it as the players were. Just like the swordsman scene in Raiders of the Lost Ark, a surprise like that can be pretty bad-ass.
Running narrative "theater of the mind" combat makes this even easier. We don't have to worry about drawing a map or putting down a gridded battle space that might only get used for a few minutes before the characters steamroll an encounter or sneak past with a great stealth check. One of the big problems with the tyranny of the grid is that we DMs put emotional investment into the battle spaces we build out. If we take the time to build something nice, we want the battle to be a solid challenge that doesn't get short circuited by a single good casting of hypnotic pattern.
But if we don't spend time planning some of our encounters, they can get boring either in the environment or in the tactics of the monsters. How many times have you played out a battle only to discover too late that the monster had some effect you forgot to use? How many times did you roll up a treasure hoard and wonder why the monster wasn't using that Flametongue sword she was sitting on? A little time prepping a combat encounter isn't a bad thing.
It really helps to know the capabilities of the characters. What are they particularly good at? What save or suck spells do they enjoy using? We don't learn these capabilities just to counteract them with monsters that resist or exploit them. We learn what the characters can do to ensure we're giving them a good chance to use those cool abilities.
If you have a character you know can remove monsters easily, you might consider this when choosing the number of monsters. Does the enchanter always have a good way to "mass suggest" groups of foes? Add in a couple of more to increase the likelihood of a save. Do the characters dish out huge amounts of damage? Maybe max out the hit points of a few highly challenging creatures. The key isn't to hose the PCs who have this stuff but to ensure they don't get bored as they circumvent battles too regularly.
So if we DMs shouldn't invest our emotional capital (a fancy marketing word for giving a shit) in our poor monsters, where should we invest it? What's fun for us DMs? What do we enjoy in a good game?
As mentioned, we can become fans of the characters. We can enjoy their growth, their depth, and their desires. We can enjoy watching them kick ass, struggle, and figure things out. We can review the characters any time we feel like we're spending too much time thinking about combat encounters.
When we are thinking about the bad guys, instead of focusing on their combat powers, we might think about the long game of the villain. If the villain is a hag, how might the hag harass and torture the characters without putting herself in harms way? How can Strahd tug his strings and squeeze his hand around the characters without leaving Castle Ravenloft? What long-term plans do the villains have?
We can invest our time in the fronts of our villains. What are they doing right now? What do they want? What plans are they moving forward? This gets into Mike Mearls's statement about getting away from thinking tactically and thinking more about the overarching story being told. This is a huge shift for many DMs and one I think encapsulates the changing nature of D&D games these days.
Shifting the direction of our emotional investment in our D&D games isn't easy. It requires careful thought and self analysis to put our heads around the right parts of our game, the parts we and our players enjoy together. When we aim our emotional investment the right way, we can build even more fantastic stories with our groups and all share in the joy these stories bring us as they unfold.