Tactics and Tips
Sibling Rivalry: Ask . . . Someone!
By Andy and Greg Collins

If you've been reading this website much lately, you've become familiar with the Ask Wizards feature at the bottom of the main page. But what about "Ask a Player" or "Ask a DM"? We're your full-service column here at Sibling Rivalry, so here goes . . . the only rule is once one of us answers a question, he immediately gets to ask a new one (no follow-ups, not even if your name is Helen Thomas!).

Dear Mr. DM,

How do you determine monsters' initiatives? And how come it seems like they always know what their allies are going to do?

Kind Player,

The traditional system is simply to roll initiative for each different kind of monster in the fight, just like each PC rolls his own initiative. The four orcs would share the same initiative score, but the ogre tagging along with them would roll separately.

However, the crazy randomness of two opposed d20 rolls -- player initiative versus monster initiative -- makes for pretty unpredictable results, which in turn makes it hard for players to tell the fast monsters from the lucky ones (or the slow ones from the unlucky ones).

Lately, I've been skipping the roll entirely and just having my monsters "take 10" on initiative. This makes the slow monsters more reliably slow and the fast monsters more reliably fast, which helps clarify the players' view of those monsters.

As far as monster coordination goes, I try to run monsters appropriately based on their Intelligence, training, tactics, and behavior, but there's no simple formula to follow. A warband of devils or archons, for instance, should coordinate very effectively, achieving flanks and aiding another as often as possible. A pack of chaotic demons, on the other hand, shouldn't display the same level of organization and cooperation. Wolves try to surround and bring down an enemy, but a troll just throws itself headlong into the fray.

Ultimately, it's just one of those "Art of DMing" issues that every Dungeon Master must figure out for himself.

Speaking of coordination, why is it so hard for a group of players to figure out what to do in a fight? Every time I see players start to argue over tactics, I'm pretty sure one of the PCs is headed for a dirtnap -- it seems like you guys would see the value of cooperation.

To the Super-Coordinated,

Deciding tactics can be the most enjoyable part of the game, or one of the most frustrating. Characters have to face roleplaying challenges when devising plans, so a sub-optimal decision might be made for personality reasons. Also, the PCs potentially have to work with limited knowledge about their environment, and have to take in a large set of variables (Do the monsters have energy resistance? Do we all need to be able to fly? Who gets the bull's strength? Where can the rogue hide to maximize sneak attacks? What should we get Anabela and Prince Duckworth for a wedding present? We're dealing with some serious stuff here . . .)

DM: Y'know, I've heard candlesticks make a great wedding gift.

But that's just the surface layer. Most players at some point in time have wanted to bonk a friend on the back of the head with a two-liter and run that character the way he wants to. If you can stifle that urge to ambush and merely "suggest" a tactic, then your patsy trusted ally suddenly thinks you're trying to run his character and you start a side debate on the merits of direct damage versus character buffing and pretty soon, the cleric's leading the charge, the mage is pouting, and the rogue is in a tree 300 yards away from the fight.

Long story short, cooperation's a fine goal, but let's be realistic. You're dealing with human beings, some of which have strong type-A personalities, and they're often going to be at loggerheads.

Dear Guy in Charge,

All of the run-of-the-mill arcane spellcasters we fight seem to be sorcerers and the toughs are barbarians. Are there no wizards or fighters in your world?

To the Whip-cracking Player:

In your eyes, D&D may be a smorgasbord of options, and character creation renders you aglow with transient nodes of thought, careening through a cosmic vapor of invention.

But to a DM, creating (and running) NPCs is a chore without equal in complexity. Controlling the most spell-like-ability-happy devil or demon is a piker compared to building and running even a mid-level prepared spellcaster, and choosing the high-level fighter's array of feats (not to mention using them effectively in a fight) is serious work.

You players may have time to sit out on the veranda and sip mint juleps while leafing through a shelf of sourcebooks to pick out exactly the right spell or feat, but we DMs have responsibilities, dammit!

Remembering that your archmage has already cast his meteor swarm but not his delayed blast fireball may seem fun to you, but the average DM wants no part of keeping track of the dozens of options at the NPC archmage's fingertips. That's what makes spontaneous spellcasters such as sorcerers or favored souls so appealing. Not only are they simpler to build -- since you're selecting far fewer spells -- but they're insanely easier to run, because you don't need to remember nearly as many effects.

As to why "barbarian" instead of "fighter," it's a little bit of the same (try choosing and using feats for a high-level fighter), but also a power-level issue. Without effective (read: slow and methodical) feat selection, the NPC fighter has a hard time meriting his Challenge Rating. The barbarian's rage, though, provides a simple boost both to offense and defense that helps keep the encounter meaningful.

It's true: Fewer options means less versatility, but versatility in the hands of an NPC is overrated. The average NPC isn't there to deal with a dozen different situations -- he's there to fight for a few rounds and then be dead.

(Which, come to think of it, also describes some player characters I've met . . . but that's another column.)

Dear Mr. Monkeywrench,

Why do you players go to such lengths to avoid (or worse yet, to sabotage) the adventures I've created for the group? At first I just thought my stuff was too boring, but now I'm wondering if you're all just a bunch of insensitive jerks who get your jollies by wrecking my hard work.

To the Near-Sighted Mechanic,

Seems to me your job is both to create the adventure and to adjust it on the fly. If you wanted the PCs to do exactly what you wanted, why not run a Choose Your Own Adventure (who did kill Harlowe Thrombey, anyway)?

If you want to assault the keep directly, turn to page 23.

If you want to get an off-duty guard drunk in the hopes that he'll tell you about a secret entrance, turn to page 26.

If you want to wait until market economies change and the evil warlord's hoard of gold is no longer sufficient to make his monthly payroll, turn to page 77.

A great story doesn't unfold as you thought it would, so why should an adventure? You're dealing with some of the finest problem-solving minds and giving them a clear challenge, so of course they're going to come up with creative, out-of-the-wall-of-force solutions.

Now, I can't speak much about sabotage -- if your PCs are actively wrecking your plans by killing off a key NPC three chapters too early because they think it'll be fun, you have bigger problems. But avoidance is part of the game. Your encounters will have alternate victory conditions even you can't think of, and some smart player is going to come along and break your pretty little kill machine.

Dear Mr. Killjoy,

Why don't you let us kill a villain once in a while? I mean, they're always teleporting away, or shifting consciousness to an unsuspecting guard who calmly walks out the door, or whatnot.

Hey Sore Winner,

So now I'm not supposed to have any fun? Have you ever considered what a blow to my ego it is to lose every single game of D&D I've played since I was ten years old? Instead of whining about an occasional getaway, shouldn't all of you be thanking me for graciously putting up with decades of one-sided results?

Think about it: How many of my lovingly crafted villains have you defeated over the years. Dozens? Hundreds? Thousands? Is it so hard to accept that, every now and then, I want one of them to survive your ruthless, mindless slaughter in order to plague you and your little friends another day?

(Or from a more cynical viewpoint, so that I don't have to spend another four hours crafting a new NPC?)

But no, one measly villain escapes your savage rampage through the dungeon and all of a sudden it's me who's being unfair because you haven't quite been able to slake your thirst for blood. I mean, the gall, the absolute gall of it just floors me.

Have you no shame, sir?

Dear Misguided Foil,

I'm a player. I cherry-pick that level of barbarian for the rage and fast movement even though it's completely outside my character concept, then rig my advancement so that I get a feat or crucial special ability each level until I qualify for that boffo prestige class. Of course I have no shame.

Sibling Rivalry sez "Increase Your Wordiness!"

Loggerheads

Etymology: probably from English dialect logger block of wood + English head

1 chiefly dialect a : BLOCKHEAD b : HEAD; especially: a disproportionately large head (like that noggin sitting behind the DM screen!)

2 a : a very large chiefly carnivorous sea turtle (Caretta caretta) of subtropical and temperate waters b : ALLIGATOR SNAPPING TURTLE

3 : an iron tool consisting of a long handle terminating in a ball or bulb that is heated and used to melt tar or to heat liquids (or wallop annoying players)

- at loggerheads : in or into a state of quarrelsome disagreement

Smorgasbord

Etymology: Swedish smorgasbord, from smorgas open sandwich + bord table

1 : a luncheon or supper buffet offering a variety of foods and dishes (as hors d'oeuvres, hot and cold meats, smoked and pickled fish, cheeses, salads, and relishes; not your typical spread at a D&D game)

2 : an often large heterogeneous mixture

Slake

Etymology: Middle English, from Old English slacian, from sleac slack

intransitive verb

1 archaic : SUBSIDE, ABATE

2 : to become slaked : CRUMBLE <lime may slake spontaneously in moist air>

transitive verb

1 archaic : to lessen the force of : MODERATE

2 : SATISFY, QUENCH <slake your thirst (mmmm, Do the Dew)><will slake your curiosity>

3 : to cause (as lime) to heat and crumble by treatment with water : HYDRATE

Gall

Etymology: Middle English, from Old English gealla; akin to Greek cholE, cholos gall, wrath, Old English geolu yellow

1 a : BILE; especially : bile obtained from an animal and used in the arts or medicine b : something bitter to endure c : bitterness of spirit (see, dead PC): RANCOR

2 : brazen boldness coupled with impudent assurance and insolence

Boffo

Etymology: perhaps from box office

1 : a hearty laugh

2 : a gag or line that produces a hearty laugh

3 : something that is conspicuously successful (like this column): HIT

Discuss this article here: Have questions of your own? Feel free to ask them on the boards. Also, help out your fellow players and DMs -- shout out an answer if you have one!

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.


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