Your party is doing very well, overcoming amazing challenges and responding to monsters’ onslaughts with ease and now the thing you fear has come to pass; your players are bored. Most DMs respond to player boredom or apathy with increased CR monsters; if the 5 level 6 players are sweeping through the Hobgoblin band led by one Hobgoblin Captain, then maybe two or three, or maybe all the hobgoblins should be captains? While it may be tempting to throw overwhelming odds at the players in the mistaken belief that tough fights make better gaming, you might want to re-examine the ways that your monsters act; how do they think? What are their strengths and weaknesses? Are they aware of those strengths and weaknesses? And will every monster stay to fight even when the battle is going badly? Thinking about the nature of your monsters, not just the number or CR of them, can make encounters more challenging, interesting, or memorable.
In most published encounters, the general scenery of encounters are set individually and without context. For example, as the players assault a castle, there might have been five guards in an outpost, or seven kobolds in the caves, or fifteen giant boars in any given forest. The result is a slug-fest between the players and the monsters which, nearly invariably, will wind up with the players on top. With repeated cycles of this kind of encounter paradigm, it is no wonder players get bored or arrogant: walk into the room, battle the monsters, win, and repeat. Numerically, the players get way more actions and attacks than the monsters and thus more damage is done to the monsters. Add to this the fact that monsters rarely have “balanced party roles” (healer, tank, etc.), leading them to throw themselves at the party like so many rain drops against a stone wall, and you have a recipe for disaster for the monsters and many players wind up dismissing the enemy. If kobolds, goblins, or spiders were so easy to dispatch, why were the villagers being terrorized in the first place?
That’s because the DM has failed to make the monsters living creatures who are familiar with their home. Think about it; human villages, elf outposts, dwarven strongholds, and even halfling villages have residents who are not only familiar with the lay of the land, but also know the secrets of the place; what areas make the best defensive spots, where to set ambushes, how to funnel attackers into choke points, and so on. While kobolds and goblins might not be as smart as humand and halflings, they are cunning and clever little hunters; you’d have to be when you’re 2′ tall lizard critters in a world of giants, trolls, and dragons. This is where the ‘ecology’ of the creatures come into play; will they use terrain, spies, and magic to their advantage? For example, if in our hypothetical kobold warren we have seven kobolds and a kobold shaman in a room down the corridor, it is possible that the party might have snuck up on the room and surprised, or at least caught the kobolds before they’re prepared for the “tall folk.” But most likely, the kobolds are aware of the adventurers at some point and will make preparations; setting up hit-and-run tactics or ambushes to whittle down the HPs or resolve of their attackers, then fleeing the first chance they get. They might use deadfall traps, poison, use the darkness against human, halfling, or Dragonborn characters, or lob the occasional flask of oil to slow the party. Remember, the creatures want to live as much as the party does and will pull out all the sneaky stops to delay and frustrate the party. When the party does eventually catch up to the kobolds (and they will, let’s face it), imagine how worked up the party will be and how satisfying the final encounter with the Kobolds will be. Maybe next time the party will think twice about accepting a commission to root out some kobolds, goblins, or orcs for a village?
A word of warning, however. It is important to balance the nature of these encounters with the party’s preparations. It is unfair, frustrating, and alienating for the DM to act as omnipotent informant for the monsters providing perfect foilf for the PCs careful scouting, scrying, planning and preparation. If the party is engaged and taking the threat seriously, let them have a good chance at executing their plans. For example, having learned from the near death experience of fighting kobolds in their warrens, maybe the party will use silence spells to prevent other rooms from hearing the fighting. This makes the assault on a castle, warren, or forest much easier as the party takes down the enemy in smaller chunks. Don’t worry that the party is steamrolling enemies at this point; they’re thinking in-game about the repercussions of their actions and how that may affect the ultimate goal. That is the kind of party you want at your table; thinking, engaged, and satisfied.
Of course, not all players like having to problem solve; riddles, cowardly opponents, or moving goal posts can frustrate certain types of players which will result in the opposite of what you intended; players that quit. Be sure to gauge your players style and proclivities before thinking about using the creatures’ brains against the party. Some people just want to smash things, kill imaginary fiends, and win the epic battle. And that’s okay. But for some players, such play style quickly becomes empty and devoid of any lasting meaning. Knowing the players at your table, and knowing the monsters they will face, will help you mater the game even more.
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