The dark passageway opens into a wide room that narrows to a single doorway opposite from the side you entered. From the shadows comes an all-too-familiar sight -- bulbous eyes catching a glint from your torches and four writhing tentacles where the creature's mouth should be. You hear a voice in your heads…
Greg: Stop, stop, stop. Another mind flayer? That makes, like, eight today, and I'm downright tired of rolling Will saves. Isn't there anything else in the Underdark? Where are the drow? Kuo-toa? I'd settle for some duergar -- c'mon, we're desperate here.
Andy: But mind flayers are the key villains in my campaign! It wouldn't make sense for you to fight something else at this point of the story. It'd be like Captain America fighting something other than Nazis during World War II. C'mon, just roll some Will saves. You know the drill …
Greg: If I liked re-runs, I'd be happy sitting at home this summer, watching network TV. But I'd rather be playing D&D. Can't you stray from your master plan a little in the name of fun? Not every little detail has to make perfect, logical sense in your campaign world. If I can have 300 channels at home, you can have a few more monsters behind that screen to throw at us.
Sure, mind flayers are scary, but once we figured out how to fight them, the challenge wore off and the encounters got monotonous. I've upped my touch AC a bunch to avoid the initial grapple check from the tentacles, and that Iron Will feat is getting good use. But it sure seems like we solved this problem about two levels ago.
Andy: Well, I guess I could come up with some alternatives to mind flayers. Maybe they have a mind-controlled warlock working for them, or they've bargained for help from a pack of yugoloths.
But you've spent so much effort building your characters to be good against them. Wouldn't you feel like you'd wasted those feat slots, etc.?
Greg: I made a point to be as general as I could in tailoring my character to fight mind flayers. Even when we aren't facing mind-blasting illithids, making Will saves never goes out of style, so Iron Will is hardly a wasted feat. And even if it were, I could swap it for a different feat next time I gain a level (because we're using the retraining rules from Player's Handbook II).
I can sell off my obsolete equipment (maybe we'll meet a merchant looking for a good deal, hint hint), or just replace it with other, cooler stuff we take off the bodies of our new, non-tentacled enemies. So, do you have any new beasties in store for us?
Andy: OK, I hear you loud and clear. (Flips through Monster Manual for another CR 8 monster for the encounter.) Let's rewind:
The dark passageway opens into a wide room that narrows to a single doorway opposite from the side you entered. From the shadows comes an unfamiliar, slithering sound, then you see a snakelike creature with a deep purple body covered in fine scales and with a barbed stinger for a tail. It begins murmuring the syllables of an arcane spell …
Greg: As we've pointed out several times in this series, we view a successful player as one who has fun at the gaming table. Fighting the same creatures over and over rarely leads to an increasing level of enjoyment. The player gets the short-term boost of figuring out the best way to defeat the monster, but many of the rank-and-file creatures from the Monster Manual aren't that tactically challenging after a few encounters.
Andy: Populating your campaign with a small subset of creatures may seem like part of creating a 'realistic' world, but the ultimate goal of a DM shouldn't be simulating reality. It should be crafting an environment that contributes to an enjoyable gaming experience. Remember, D&D is first and foremost a fantasy game. Your players are willing to put up with a lot of strangeness in order to have fun.
Greg: And fighting lots of different monsters is fun!
Of course, sometimes you should be careful what you wish for …
Three sessions later …
Greg: OK, anybody have any idea what that thing was we just fought? Was it a giant dog? A zombie pooch made up of human skeletons? It didn't seem to have anything in common with that quaraphon that Stannis said we fought a few hours ago, and we only know that thing's name because of a lucky Knowledge check. I've been sitting on a protection from energy spell for the entire day -- any suggestions on what type of energy I should pick for the next encounter?
Andy: Hey, you said you wanted new monsters. I just gave you what you said you wanted, and now you're complaining about it? Make up your minds already, willya?
Greg: As Emerson said, "foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds." Consistency is fine, just don't be slavish about it. In the same way, variety is good, but you don't see me ordering a different flavor at Baskin Robbins every time. Find a balance, man! (Note that my erudite quote is not a hidden request to fight more hobgoblins.)
I want to be challenged, but I also want encounters to mean something down the road. If I learned a monster's weakness through hard work and good tactics, give me another shot sometime to exploit it.
Andy: Now I get it. It's like the second time you fight a troll -- you know right away to get out the alchemist's fire and the scroll of fireball. That second fight still isn't easy. After all, the troll can still rend you, and unless you brought a whole barrel of flammables, you still have to smack it around a bit first to bring it down, but you sure feel smart when you do.
(Speaking of hobgoblins, am I the only one who has trouble typing that word correctly? Every time it comes out "hogboblin." That was particularly frustrating back when I worked on Red Hand of Doom, which has more than a couple of those guys running around. Just me? OK, moving on …)
Greg: Not to cross the streams on you and blow your mind, but be mindful of the Gobhobbler Rats in Magic: The Gathering. Why the name? They're rats with razor-lined collars that run around the back alleys of Ravnica hobbling goblins. Pretty sweet, eh?
Back to the task at hand. Yes, I want to feel that my character is getting smarter, and I can't do that facing a new monster each time. If I had a photographic memory, I'd read all the monster books and know what to do right off the bat. That might infringe on the 'fun quotient ' of the rest of the party when I rattle off every trait, special ability, and average weight of each creature (not to mention cheese off the DM). So I take a step back, separating my player knowledge from my character knowledge just a bit. When I fight something again, I build up a mastery of combat tactics and tricks that makes me feel like I've achieved something outside of the story arc.
Andy: So what you're saying is "moderation in all things," eh? (I see your Emerson and raise you one Publius Terentius Afer, a.k.a. Terence, the Roman dramatist. Do not try to out-Bartlett me, youngster!) You want to see some common foes or combat tactics but not a steady stream of the same old thing. I can get on board with that.
Greg: Nice work, team. That hydra didn't chew us up nearly as badly as the first time we fought one. Produce flame was just the right trick to keep those heads from growing back, allowing us to meticulously whittle it down to just a few heads before starting to work on the body. And good job remembering how the sunder rules work, Dennis.
Andy: That sure looked like fun from my side of the screen. Guess it wasn't such a waste of time listening to you complain!
Andy: It's not hard to craft fun encounters, but you can't do it without figuring out what makes an encounter fun. Even after you've figured out some of the answers to that question -- and there are more answers than those covered here -- you must remember to apply them over and over again. One might even go so far as saying that the price of good gaming is eternal vigilance (to coin a phrase).
About the Authors
By day, Andy Collins works as an RPG developer in Wizards of the Coast R&D. His development credits include the Player's Handbook v.3.5, Races of Eberron, and Dungeon Master's Guide II. By night, however, he fights crime as a masked vigilante. Or does he?
As a D&D player, Greg Collins has been taking whatever older brother Andy can dish out for more than 20 years. Recently he took a seat behind the screen to exact his revenge upon his brother for killing his first character by washing him down a flight of stairs. In his time spent away from D&D, Greg is the events producer for magicthegathering.com.