Oct 20 2020

Massive Damage in D&D

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Conan Double Header, art by Mahmud Asrar and Matthew Wilson

A player in my Tomb of Annihilation game has a bugbear barbarian (bugbearian?), who has one purpose: kill stuff. He’s tricked out to attack as many times as possible for as much damage as possible and be useless for anything else other than foraging and carrying stuff. Every fight he just turns on frenzy and reckless attack and flings himself at the monsters, then seems a little deflated when they all die too fast.

Which, y’know, is fine. They’re crawling around a jungle full of zombies, dinosaurs, and zombie dinosaurs. This is somebody you definitely want around in a situation like that.

Meanwhile, a player in my Storm King’s Thunder game has an elf paladin who leaps out of airships onto the backs of cloud giants, pouring multiple smites onto each attack, while another player’s rogue has nearly single-shotted more boss fights than I can keep track of.

Long story short, these characters do a TON of damage, and other than the rogue, can take as good as they give. Other characters in the group certainly participate, but these are the ones who blow up badguys, and these are the ones, when I’m choosing monsters for encounters, I have to take into account. Something that can make the bugbearian actually stop yawning and pay attention, will one-punch the halfling wizard. If I want something to have at least one round and preferably two, it needs to have hit points to spare.

I don’t begrudge these characters their victories, but I do worry about their domination of the spotlight. Other players at the table who are not so tricked out may begin to wonder “Why am I here?” Especially if they either don’t have the system mastery to take full advantage of their character’s abilities, have opted for flavorful-but-suboptimal abilities, or in the case of one player, just keep having bad dice nights. (I feel your pain, Blitzy!)

My general solution for this is to go for multiple monsters rather than single bosses, and to vary my environments as much as possible. Usually I’ll try to include one or two big bruisers as the baseline, a wildcard spellcaster or terrain effect, and then throw in as many smaller support troops as needed to keep things exciting. The Usual Suspects almost always make a beeline for the big scary things, but the rest of the party still has something to do dealing with either the wildcard or the troops. I don’t generally fudge die rolls at the table—especially in Roll20, where I have the monster attack rolls and damage visible to the group chat—but I may alter monster tactics on the fly, on the grounds that fog of war may cause confusion or distraction in battle. Very rarely, I will decide a monster has “one more hit point” so they can live one more round—the DM equivalent of spending a point of inspiration. ;)

But more often than that, I just pre-buff the monsters from their stats in the book, especially named foes. Since the book defaults to monsters having “exactly average” hp, for a baddie I want to be a little more durable I’ll give them 75% of their maximum or so. One fun thing I’ve taken to doing is “rolling monster hit points with advantage.” For instance, if a creature has 10d8 hit dice, I’ll roll 20d8 and drop the ten lowest.

This tends to result in encounters that, on paper, seem crazy, but at the table, work out. In my last session, the party of six 4th-level characters faced off against a pair of girallons (CR 4 each) and six “girallon whelps” (CR 1/2 apes reskinned) on a bridge over a waterfall—which should have been a “deadly” encounter going by the math. They got a bit chewed up, and had to use some of their resources, but it was eminently survivable. The actual girallons didn’t last very long against the bugbearian. Again, the monsters weren’t necessarily following the most optimized tactics—I tried to play them as instinctive feral beasts. If I’d been metagaming “to win” I would have had them mostly ignore the bugbearian and swarm the wizard and pummel her, then swarm the rogue and pummel him, then fling the warlock and the druid off the bridge, and so on.

Does this make me a softie? I don’t think so. I’ve run fights where the monsters were both smart and intent on killing the characters. What I’d like to think is this makes me impartial: I played the monsters according to their mindset. Unfortunately, the CR system just looks at the math and doesn’t account for roleplaying the monsters or having a crazy party comp. (Really, how could it?) This has meant that I have to stop thinking of CR 4 as “a balanced fight for a 4th level party” and start thinking of it as “this is about the ceiling for how tough any single monster in the fight should be.”

-The Gneech

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