This column provides advice for DMs whose campaigns are in trouble. Do your players constantly bicker or complain about issues both inside and outside of the main campaign action? Do your best ideas fall flat? Have you set up a situation that you now wish you hadn't? Worry no more, because Jason Nelson-Brown has the answers to save your game!
Problem: Players Who Are Too Smart
Recently, one of the players in my game came up with an interesting strategy. An army of 300 orcs was gathered around a bonfire, trying to keep warm. This player's character was a Psion, possessing a hat of disguise, and his plan was to look like an orc (using the hat), waltz into the center of the camp, and repeatedly blast the surrounding orcs using his Energy Blast power. In order to throw suspecting orcs off his trail, he said he was going to imitate the other orcs' actions to make them believe he had been hit, too. This would no doubt devastate a massive number of orcs, unbalancing the threat that they are meant to impose. What would happen in this case? Is there anything (fair and reasonable) that I can do?
-- Bo, from AskWizards.com
You're asking a pair of questions here. Your explicit question is whether this plan should work. The subtextual question is whether you should let players use unexpectedly clever plans to circumvent what is meant to be the challenge of a scenario.
Let me address the second question first. You're right, this is a much easier way of dealing with the problem than what you expected. It reminds me of a story a friend told about a campaign in which the DM created the dire, deadly, and dangerous Forest of Pitch, into which the party had to pursue the bad guys. Upon asking the DM for more information, he was told that the forest was entirely peopled with dangerous monsters and unnatural vegetation and that it was dripping with pitch. He quickly came upon the simple expedient of tossing a lit torch into the Forest of Pitch and letting nature take its course. The flabbergasted DM had evidently not considered the idea that someone would simply burn it down. The goal of the mission was accomplished without a hint of danger.
Should the DM have let it happen? Should you let it happen? That depends. One of the first rules of good DMing is that you must realize that it's not a crime for PCs to be really good at something. It's also not a crime for the PCs to 'win'. The difference between a tabletop RPG and a computer game is that players frequently come up with unexpected, even surprising, solutions, and the DM must judge those actions in a fair and reasonable way 'on the fly'. As a DM, you must be able to roll with the punches. Instead of thinking, "What can I do to stop this from happening?" you should be thinking, "How can I figure out what happens next and keep the adventure going?"
There are times, especially during climactic encounters and situations, when you have carefully built up a high level of dramatic tension -- and then a sudden end-run by the players lets all the air out of your balloon, so to speak. That doesn't need to be a let-down, however. Sometimes, the surprise action by a PC might be just the memorable moment you are hoping to create. It's not the ending you planned, but it can still be a terrific ending. Remember that the PCs are not just driving down a road you laid out for them -- all of you are traveling together. Sometimes the PCs get to take the wheel, and they might steer the story in a direction you never expected, but might be better than what you imagined.
Back to your orc situation -- you ask what's fair and reasonable. Your psion's plan is a good one, but it's not foolproof. It is only reasonable and fair for you to enforce the game's rules on the plan, such as the following --
1. A hat of disguise grants a +10 bonus on Disguise checks, but Disguise must still be opposed by Spot checks. If the psion has a good Disguise skill modifier, this may be pretty easy, but if he has low Charisma and no ranks in Disguise, it is anything but certain. Even with high modifiers, you could potentially make dozens of Spot checks for orcs who see the psion up close (all 300 would not get a good look at the psion at once, but many would). It takes only one to raise the alarm. With so many, you could arbitrarily rule on a statistical spread -- say, of the 60 orcs close to the psion, three ought to roll 20s on their Spot checks, three roll 19s, and so on down the list.
2. A hat of disguise emulates the disguise self spell, which is a purely visual illusion. Any creatures in the orc camp with the scent ability, such as trained wolves or worgs, will immediately notice the psion if they are close enough (which depends on the direction of the wind).
3. Again, a hat of disguise doesn't help if you need to talk your way past anyone. Bluff checks will be needed as well as fluency in Orcish. Just because you look like an orc doesn't mean you can walk through the camp, especially close to the center of it, without being challenged or addressed by someone.
4. Even if your psion gets to the exact center of the orc horde and positions his energy burst for maximum effect, he gets 172 squares worth of targets with a 40-foot radius energy burst. Even assuming every square except his own contains an orc, which is unlikely, he still gets only a bit over half the army. Depending on how you described the scene, a player might argue that the orcs were packed together like sardines around one bonfire and should all be within the area of effect, but that's your call as the DM. If this army of 300 orcs is capable of building only one fire and is dumb enough to cluster everyone into a tightly-packed mob (which also denies them their dex bonus and imposes a –4 penalty on AC and attacks) AND to put out no sentries, then they are probably the ones that have Darwin knocking on their door to get selected out. If that describes your orcs, then this entire question is pointless. Just let them die and move on.
If, on the other hand, your orcs are actually an army which, while not too bright, has enough sense to realize that they'll get warmer with smaller groups around multiple fires instead of 300 trying to pack around one, they will be spread out with no more than orc per square, and probably with lanes between the bonfire clusters for people to walk through without inciting fights ("Thak step on Ruk's foot! Die Thak, die!!!").
But let's assume they are packed fairly tight, one orc per square with no gaps except for a few bonfires or smaller campfires. Even after the psion works to the center (which will be difficult without stepping on Ruk's foot) and lets fly, the survivors, who are presumably spread out around the fringes of the blast zone, are free to return fire (literally and figuratively) against the only figure left standing at the center of the devastation. This exposed position also makes it difficult for the psion to get amongst the survivors for a second blast unless you as DM have them all conveniently charge into close proximity. It's perfectly reasonable for some of the orcs to charge, but they aren't completely mindless. Most are going to whip out their bows or javelins, and it's Pincushion City for the psion.
5. So the psion is going to pretend to react like the other orcs to the energy blast? You mean by pretending to be dead? Unless these orcs are much tougher than normal, they will all die regardless of their saving throw (average orc hit points=5, average fire or cold energy blast damage=22.5, halved to 11). He might pull it off … if he had an action to spend. He could try a Bluff check to act like a corpse, or perhaps a Hide check to blend into an unmoving crowd. The psion could argue that the sudden blast of energy creates a sufficient distraction to allow hiding. It's an instantaneous effect, however, so you could just as easily counter that it's over so quickly it's no help. Either option is opposed by Spot, so with all those orcs, someone has a good chance to pick out the perpetrator unless he has good skills. Remember, it only takes one.
6. The orcs aren't going to just sit there and let someone blast them. They may be dumb, but they are warriors with a self-preservation instinct. Some will probably run -- some will charge to attack -- others will get their missiles ready. They may not know much about magic, but they know what spellcasters are and that against them, it's kill or be killed.
"But energy blast only has an auditory manifestation," you say, "how will they know it's me casting it?" Suspend logic for a second. In D&D, good, bad, or indifferent, people can tell when you are casting a spell or using a power, unless it specifically states otherwise (e.g., a feat such as Disguise Spell lets you camouflage your casting as a performance). They can't tell what you're casting without a Spellcraft check, but they can notice your casting and, sensing your distraction, can make AoOs on you. The ability to make AoOs is predicated on being aware of the target (which the orcs are, unless the psion beats all their Spot checks with his Hide) and being able to attack the target.
7. Let's assume that everything goes well -- the psion slinks undetected into the orc camp and gets a surprise round, which he uses to energy blast. Fair enough, orcs are blasted limb from limb. The psion still gets only one action in a surprise round. He can't blast and Hide in a surprise round. He can fall prone as a free action after blasting in the surprise round, and that would protect him from ranged attacks (-4 to hit). The player might argue for a Bluff check to pretend that his character is dead, but orcs saw this blast of fire (or whatever) come from him, heard its auditory manifestation come from him, and saw him drop to the ground. They may not know why that figure, Mr. Generic Orc, suddenly erupted in a fountain of magical death ("He's cursed! Burn the witch!"), but there's no mistaking that you did. That alone is reason enough to chop you into little pieces and make sure you don't do it again. Orcs, after all, are often chaotic evil, so they would think nothing of turning on one of their own if it furthers their chance to survive. "Looks like meat's back on the menu, boys!"
If the psion wins initiative after the surprise round, he can run toward another cluster of orcs and blast again or play dead (Hide as a move action, or use Improved Diversion to Bluff and Hide) and ready another energy blast for when the rest of the orcs cluster around to investigate. But what if the orcs don't cooperate? What if they mill around the edges of the circle of death, hesitant to enter what is obviously a dangerous space? Worse, what if the orcs win initiative? The psion is a sitting duck. The orcs might close to attack, ready a barrage of missiles, or both. The psion had better have some other options besides energy blast if he wants to get out with his skin intact (a potion of protection from arrows would go a long way toward his survival).
As you can see, there are any number of complications that can occur with this plan (or any plan that involves strolling into the enemy's midst). Some of them are in the setup and some in the execution, but your psion's expectations of how the plan should go, while cinematic, assume that the orcs will play along. As the axiom goes, "No plan survives contact with the enemy." It's the DM's job not only to lay out a story but to enforce the mechanics of the rules, play hard, and keep the adventure alive. Never just stomp on a good plan. Instead, exploit its loopholes and find ways to turn it into more exciting action.
About the Author
Jason Nelson-Brown lives in Seattle with his wife Kelle, daughters Meshia and Indigo, son Allen, and dog Bear. He is an active and committed born-again Christian who began playing D&D in 1981 and currently runs one weekly campaign while playing intermittently in two others.