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D&D Tips 'n' Tricks, volume 1: Non-standard attacks

Way off on the dim periphery of my perception, i've heard some rumblings about what a hard dungeon master i am, and that i'm actually trying to kill the players. If that were true, of course, you'd be seeing a lot more dragons, beholders, land sharks, liches, and mind flayers in my campaign, but somehow the accusations are still out there. Possibly the reason why i am considered hard is that i think straight fights can be boring after a while, so i like to throw in additional challenges within a battle. So i thought i might start a series of tips and tricks to help players get an idea of how to deal with these sorts of challenges.

The appeal of pencil & paper role playing is that you are essentially unrestricted in terms of your choices. The only limitations are your character's abilities and the basic laws of physics. People used to playing video game RPGs may have to get out of the habit of thinking of every fight in terms of Fight/Spell/Item/Run. People who haven't played any kind of RPG may not realize how open-ended it can be. If you approach every fight with the mentality that all you can do is walk up to your opponents and hit them, you are going to find the fights difficult (but not impossible) and start thinking that i'm a jackass or i can't balance my encounters.

So let's look at an example. Let's say your party enters a cavern and finds itself face to face with a big angry ogre wearing a big platemail chestplate. After going a few rounds with him, you find that you've rolled as high as 15 and you haven't hit the guy yet. Meanwhile he is mopping up the floor with you. The "solution" that i've planned to this is that one of your party members needs to get around the ogre and notice that his armor is held on by big leather straps. A well placed sword slash and it falls off, and suddenly he's hittable. The ogre is aware of this and is going to do his best to make sure this isn't going to happen, but a thief can still sneak his way around, a monk could leap over his head, a dwarf or hobbit could dash right between his legs, a wizard could teleport, etc. Or if all that fails, a little coordination between fighters could force the ogre to turn one way or the other, exposing his rear.

So like i said, if that were a scenario i devised to add a little flavor to a fight, that's how i'd figure you'd get out of it. But that doesn't mean it's the only way out. Another possiblity is to have your fighters keep the ogre occupied while an archer patiently makes headshots from the other end of the room. You could also drop your weapons and pile on, having three or more of your group grapple the ogre to the ground, while a character is kept in reserve to slit his throat once he's pinned (or threaten to, forcing a surrender, if you're a goody-goody). If solutions aren't coming quickly to you in the heat of battle, maybe it's time for a strategic withdrawal.

My example had a built-in solution, but that general mentality is the way to approach almost any fight, even if there isn't a "trick". Unless you're a group of 36 level characters, you never want to just attack a dragon head-on, for example. You'll want to start by finding ways to weaken it, tearing holes in its wings, leaving some spears jammed into its body, whatever you can manage. Of course, there will always be times when you're just faced with a room full of orcs, and you can just plow through them. But whenever the brute force method isn't working, it's a good idea to start thinking outside the box.

By fnord12 | August 4, 2006, 4:41 PM | D&D


I think we have generally come up with interesting solutions to the problems we've encountered other than sitting there and attacking nonstop hoping for a 20. I've always thought the problem was healing isn't exactly abundant in D&D. So sure, it's ok to run into an Ogre and spend a few rounds working out its weakness then finally taking it down. But in those few rounds, as you said, it was mopping the floor with us. At the end of the fight, several of us are probably somewhat wounded. A little while later we run into another encounter and we end up moderately wounded. Eventually we're faced with the decision to spend 3 days resting in the dungeon to get back up to fighting strength, or to press on and eventually suffer a serious defeat (i.e., someone dies). I've never liked the idea of setting up camp in a dungeon just for the purpose of healing up. It always seemed the most out of character thing to do.

Regarding your first sentence, no veteran players should take any of these tips and tricks as a criticism of past performance. But i alway encourage people to keep trying new things.

Regarding healing, i agree but i don't know what the solution is. I don't like an abundance of potions of healing as i think it cheapens magic as a concept. Possibly i should try a healing rate of 1 hp * your level per hour instead of one per day. But i'd have to figure out how that would affect the balance and also it might get annoying to keep track of. It's worth thinking about, though.

"If that were true, of course, you'd be seeing a lot more dragons, beholders, land sharks, liches, and mind flayers in my campaign, but somehow the accusations are still out there."

I only stabbed you a thousand times, when I could've stabbed you a million times, therefore I'm a nice guy.

It could be worse. Everyone could have horrible penalties for using vulgar magic like in Mage.

Mmmm... ironic paradoxes.

i've been reading the recaps and the problem is not that rod's a jackass. the problem is he thinks we're somewhat intelligent but we're actually a bunch of idiots. so we always get the crap kicked out of us, eventually succeeding with brute force, never stumbling on the "clever" solution he planned for.

i keep trying to tell him we're idiots, but like chinese parents, he just says we need to study more.

Well, it's easy to present that point of view of "I don't make things difficult, you're just stupid" when you're the one writing the recaps.

Plus, what's obvious to the DM, or in retrospect, is not always obvious in the moment regardless of idiot levels. A DM could think he's stressing a clue to defeating/avoiding/whatever, and the player's will utterly fail to hear/get it because the player's are focused on the legion of wights coming at them.*

Not that we're not idiots.

*Insert bad 'at wights end' joke here.

While we're not necessarily stupid (although to some extent we are ;)), I think, at least in our last campaign, the party make up had something to do with it. I know, at the very least, I wasn't looking for solutions other than hack & slash. Maybe I chose to play a berserker-in-training so I wouldn't have to though.

I remember dragons and beholders in abundance.