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by Mike on 21 March 2022
Ginny Di has an excellent YouTube video discussing the dangers of ruining the players' good time by counteracting powerful character abilities. Her tip? Instead of counteracting powerful abilities, showcase them.
This is a concept I've pondered since the end of my Rime of the Frostmaiden campaign. Certain spells and abilities are tremendously effective in certain situations. Spells like banish, polymorph, hypnotic pattern, and abilities like turn undead can remove one or more monsters from play with a single failed saving throw. Other spells like fireball hit way above their spell level in the right circumstances.
The first few times DMs see these abilities in action, the abilities feel broken. Huge monsters disappear with a single bad charisma saving throw. Large groups of monsters get blown away with a single spell or become completely helpless. This can frustrate DMs when we had an expectation for how a battle might play out only to see it end before it barely began.
The reaction to this is to fight back. We might put in monsters that counterspell or have resistances to these abilities. We might set up situations where a fireball only hits a few monsters by spacing them out. A common piece of advice is to wear characters down with lots of battles ahead of time so they blow their abilities on earlier fights and can't use those big removers because they're simply out of slots.
What if there's another way? What if, instead of fighting back against these abilities, we leaned into them. What if we designed combat encounters to showcase these abilities?
When we look at most of these super-powerful spells and abilities, they often do two things: incapacitate big brutes or incapacitate (or kill) hordes. This means, in general, we only need to worry about two types of monsters to showcase these abilities: big brutes and small hordes.
Big brutes are any non-legendary monster with lots of hit points inflicting lots of damage. Giants are fantastic brutes. They hit hard, have lots of hit points, and yet can be taken out with a single good use of a control spell like banish or polymorph.
Instead of choosing big brutes who might withstand spells like polymorph or banish, choose monsters particularly vulnerable to these spells. They're lighting rods for those spells. When players see them, they can't help but see how useful it'll be to get rid of them.
Small hordes consist of any large group of weaker monsters all funneled in together. Imagine thirty skeletons pouring in a doorway or a vanguard of hobgoblins charging in from the characters' flank. Instead carefully placing these monsters in a wide spread to avoid area attacks, they charge in in a perfect 20 foot radius circle begging to be fireballed. We want them to be fireballed. What player doesn't want to watch a fireball explode in a horde of baddies and watch them all flying through the air, Wilhelm-screaming in a beautiful fireworks display of carnage?
What cleric doesn't want to see themselves atop a hill as their turn undead sends waves of radiant energy through forty ghouls screaming and burning to ash?
We can use lighting rods to showcase character abilities early on, but it really takes off around 7th level when characters get a lot of "save or suck" spells like polymorph and banish. Monks get stunning strike at 5th level and wizards get hypnotic pattern as early as 5th but most of the time it's 7th level and above where this really kicks in.
Lightning rods aren't useful if players don't actually target them. You certainly don't want to tip your hand too much, but don't shy away from a little shove. Overplaying the situation "a hoard of hobgoblins run in in a perfect fireball formation!" can get a laugh like it's a bad Bollywood movie and still get the point across. Sometimes we need to project the lightning rod.
Lean in to those big powerful character abilities. Use big brutes and small hordes to showcase those abilities.
Make the characters look awesome.
Each week I record an episode of the Lazy D&D Talk Show in which I talk about all things D&D. Here are last week's topics with timestamped links to the YouTube video:
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