Tactics and Tips11/15/2005

Sibling Rivalry, Take One

So if I start as a human, take three levels of this and four levels of that and then take a paragon level and this prestige class and make sure I pick up a half-fiend template along the way, this character will be perfect!

Andy Collins: Is that how you approach character creation when you start a new campaign? Have you built a massive menu of matrices to maximize your magical and melee mastery?

Do you drive your Dungeon Master crazy when you do it?

Stay tuned, this column might be for you.

But first, some introductions. I'm Andy Collins, RPG developer for Wizards of the Coast R&D. You might remember me from such products as Magic of Incarnum, Complete Adventurer, or Unearthed Arcana. It turns out that when I'm not getting paid to think about D&D, I'm thinking about it on my own time, and a good portion of that time is spent as the DM of various campaigns. With very few breaks, I've been running one or more campaigns since about 1981, which makes me older than I'd like to think about for very long. (Yes, we had dice back then. Well, eventually we did. Pipe down you whippersnappers!)

In addition to an uncanny ability to cite chapter and verse on rules, these years of experience also give me plenty of insight into the trials and tribulations of DMs. For all those on the text-heavy side of the screen, I got your back. After all, we're already outnumbered by those pesky folks who take such joy in wrecking our perfectly created dungeon or storyline with the crazy concoctions they call their "characters." Yes, I'm talking about players.

Greg Collins: And since 1981, I've been doing the wrecking. I'm Greg Collins, Andy's younger, taller brother (and a producer over at www.magicthegathering.com). That's almost a quarter-century of D&D -- and even though I've killed approximately 97,356 creatures to his few dozen PC kills, I don't feel satisfied. I need to break him.

But don't we know each other's tricks after playing together for so long? Not even close. That's the beauty of a good player-DM relationship, which will be an undercurrent to this column series. With new classes, feats, and spells hitting your gaming store every month, you'll see a constant tinkering of the recipe for a perfect player character-- I'll try to brew up the sweetest revenge possible for that last TPK.

Plus, if I had an axe to grind with Andy because of something he did to my character, that could spill out into unhealthy retributions . . . such as rubbing soap on a toothbrush at age 15. While that might have felt good at the time, what really hits the sweet spot is dreaming up that perfect character niche and NAILING IT.

So how are you gonna beat my psionically expanded half-ogre spike-chain-wielding Combat-Reflexed tripmaster now, Mr. DM?

Andy: First of all, credit where it's due, pal. That was your toothbrush covered in soap, not mine.

As far as your character build, you don't scare me. A big, strong character who likes to trip my precious, precious monsters? Any DM worth his salt has killed a half-dozen of those punks by now -- or are you forgetting all the deaths suffered by a certain Large halberd-wielding paladin from my last campaign?

Greg: No fair bringing up other PCs' weaknesses and throwing them in my face. I found my own unique ways to die, thank you very much. A bard using Bluff to be animated as a zombie when the necromancer meant to turn me into a shadow? C'mon, that deserves a column all by itself. But enough reminiscing; back to the matter at hand!

Andy: Sure, a trip is a nice little trick. A prone monster is more vulnerable to attacks from the rest of the party (-4 AC against melee attacks) and has to spend a move action to stand up (not only provoking attacks of opportunity but also preventing it from making a full attack, which only becomes more costly at higher levels). But here's a handful of countering tactics that, as your DM, I'd keep ready to spring on your tripmaster.

1. The Bigger, Stronger Monster. Your big half-ogre is strong, sure, but my CR 4 brown bear's just as big and he's stronger. Or maybe you'd like to meet Mr. Huge Monstrous Centipede -- a mere CR 2, this bad boy opposes your trip check with a whopping +15 bonus (3 for Strength 17, 8 for Huge, and 4 for having way-more-than-two legs). Huge, Gargantuan, and Colossal vermin come pretty cheap, as far as CR goes, making them easy to use even at relatively low levels.

2. The Untrippable Foe. Sure, the Monster Manual doesn't specifically say that tripping a gray ooze is impossible, but that's one of those no-brainers the game expects the DM and players to pick up on their own. Same for flyers -- what good does it do to knock a flying ogre mage's legs out from under it? No good, that's what. And don't get me started on incorporeal critters. Just a glance through the low CRs in the Monster Manual gives me a bunch of monsters I'd consider effectively "untrippable": air elemental, allip, arrowhawk, assassin vine (need I remind your dead gnoll barbarian Ulveg how effective those are against puny PCs?), cloaker, dire bat, giant eagle, giant wasp, gibbering mouther, ochre jelly, shadow, snake, spider eater, stirge, any swarm, wraith . . . the list goes on and on. (And for those high-level tripmasters, you'll be meeting my good friend the beholder soon enough.)

Greg: It should be clarified that Ulveg's last breath came when his rage ran out as he was crawling away from the assassin vine, not due to any direct damage inflicted by said vine. Barrister, you may continue.

3. Monsters Who Don't Much Care. This is related to #2, but includes monsters that, even if they can be tripped, are perfectly effective when prone. To a monster with an already low AC, the -4 penalty is meaningless. The same is true for a monster with a higher-than-normal attack modifier (such as a giant), or a touch attack (can you say rust monster?), or better yet a grapple check (there's no penalty on grapple checks when prone, bunky) -- it's still quite capable of kicking your character's ass while sitting on its own. Breath weapons and gaze attacks work just fine from the ground, thank you, so my prone medusa or gorgon can still make your lives miserable.

4. Monsters You Don't Want to Touch. Go ahead, use your spiked chain to trip my babau. I double-dog-dare you. You better believe I'll be keeping track of how much damage its protective slime deals to your precious weapon.

5. Monsters Who Can Take It Away: This is something like #4, except that I'm the one in charge of deciding when your weapon goes poof. The rust monster's the obvious one, but remember I can optimize too -- my Power-Attacking, Improved-Sundering frost giant barbarian or my Improved-Disarming swashbuckler can turn your one-trick pony into a, well, no-trick donkey.

Greg: You raise two important issues. The first is how players should expect a good DM to throw all sorts of challenges at his PCs, and the best characters are the ones prepared to face 'em all. Dreaming up the perfect character doesn't go very far if you can't think on your feet to overcome the challenge that negates your strengths.

But even "negating a strength" can go too far if the DM becomes vindictive. Fighting an occasional weapon sunderer or acid-based blob of glup is enough to keep players on their toes (and packing backup weapons). Fighting them constantly because that's how a DM decided to even the playing field is not only dirty pool, but it'll also lead to very disgruntled players.

A player bearing a grudge against a key villain can be vital to storyline immersion, but the DM should never carry a grudge against a character who occasionally foils the best-laid plans of the brain behind the screen. The good DM knows to pick times to play to his characters' strengths, too, which lets that machine of perfection churn through enemies to the delight of a player.

Andy: That's entirely correct. "Moderation in all things" is just as appropriate in DMing as it is in life. If any given player complains from time to time about not contributing to a fight, you're probably doing a good job. It's only when the entire party is complaining in unison (or when one player constantly complains) that you may have a problem -- either with your encounters or with your players.

I love throwing a horde of charging minions at a big tripmaster. The look on the player's face as he takes out three or four before they even get within striking distance is priceless; I know he'll remember that encounter for months. And I know that I didn't expect those minions to survive anyway -- they just bought a round or two for the master villain to put his plan in action.

Greg: So how does my chain-wielding goon deal with some of those exotic threats? He turns to his trusted party. You're not in this alone, so don't make it harder by hanging out with three other exotic weapon masters impressing each other with your fancy tricks. For every rust monster that makes my guy cry like he's back in itty-bitty ogre diapers, there's an SR-toting mind flayer looking to feast on my wizard buddy's juicy spell-soaked brain. Lemme at him and he'll wish he was 100 percent octopus, instead of that trippable biped using his legs like a sucker.

Andy: Remember, the players are ultimately supposed to be victorious. The game's designed to give them an edge. It's no challenge for the DM to kill off the whole party -- the challenge is in creating encounters that are just tough enough to put a scare into the PCs without actually killing them all off.

We hope this column has helped some DMs think about how to deal with the perfect character in their campaigns. Tune in next month, when you're likely to hear even more stories about how I've killed Greg's characters.

Greg: And how each one came back, better than he was before. Better, stronger, faster . . .

Game Resources: To use the material in this article to its fullest, check out the following resources: Dungeon Master's Guide, Monster Manual, Player's Handbook.

About the Author

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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