Help! I can’t keep my bad guys alive! (Encounter Design Part 2)

No single target survives contact with the players.

In the previous post, I talked about how to think about encounter elements that challenge unstoppable player characters. I mainly focused on abilities and traits that can put a stop to the onslaught of a targeted player character. However, this doesn’t really solve one of the other underlying difficulties in Symbaroum: How do you keep the boss of an encounter alive for more than a turn or two?

Symbaroum is a very deadly system. Almost all characters in the system tend towards being glass cannons with very high damage potential but low survivability. It’s natural to want to feature cool boss characters and important bad guys without their reveals leading to an anticlimactic instant death.

An average mortal enemy in Symbaroum might have 10-13 Toughness and 2-3 Armor. Assuming that the player characters can deal 1D12 damage each (not unreasonable), the average mortal enemy might survive 3-4 hits. If the entire party focuses damage on that target, they will die in one turn. Taking into account that player characters may have armor-ignoring attacks, poison, and mystical tricks up their sleeves, it seems like we’re going to have to work hard to keep our cool enemies alive. So let’s dive into the tool box see what tricks we have available to extend the lifespan of a cool boss for more than a turn or two.

The Reveal

Before the players even have a chance to trade blows with the evil NPC, you control how you initially present the Big Bad Guy. Your first guideline should be to assume that any NPC that is within striking distance of the player party is already dead, and that the NPC knows this.

Symbaroum, like the real world, is a place where a wildly unpopular figure might find themselves assassinated in any number of ways by any single dedicated person that finds them in the streets. That’s why dukes and kings build castles and stay there, and travel surrounded by armed guards. Symbaroum also has plenty of evil magic that a motivated mystic could use to kill someone at a great distance. What sort of precautions will nobles and wealthy figures take when they know that there are individuals out there who can steal the appearance of other people, cast their sight across several miles, and turn into ghastly forms that can pass through walls?

If your players are up against someone with power and forethought, they will probably feel the influence of that character long before they actually lay eyes on them. The approach to the character’s gravity might follow these points:

  • Periphery: The players hear rumors of the character. They find the character mentioned in letters, and run into henchmen employed by the character.
  • Attention: The players have the attention of the character. They may be approached by a servant of the character or been directly targeted by their henchmen and assassins.
  • Encounter: The players have met the character very briefly. They may have had a tense audience under heavy guard, or seen the character flee after siccing their henchmen on the players.
  • Challenge: The players have been in a direct confrontation with the character. The character has featured in a dramatic battle and one side has had a definite triumph.

Of course you don’t need to build up a boss through all of these steps if they’re just a middling encounter. Mal-Rogan from the Promised Land goes from Periphery (Keler mentions his employer) directly to Challenge (Rogan shows up with his robbers), but after being defeated he may rise again to haunt the players as a recurring Challenge or be re-introduced step-by-step once again as he gains power and followers. Here we also see one of the main benefits of undead characters: death is a mere inconvenience.

Surviving the Hits

The first thing you want to do when building an adversary with some staying power is to ask yourself: Should they be hard to hit, able to ignore a lot of damage, soak a lot of hits, or a combination of all three? These are your main difficulty sliders.

Hard to Hit: Give them an ability that makes their best attribute the basis of their defence. This is what the players will be doing, and you simply need to counter them. Initiative is also important, because if the NPC gets to act early in the turn that will mitigate the issue of focus-fire and ensure that they get at least one turn to act. Taken together this means that a high Quick can be an easy fix to give an NPC a chance, but Sixth Sense and Tactician are two other strong options.

If a player has an attacking attribute of 15 and the NPC imposes a -5 defensive penalty, it means that the player has a 50% chance to hit. That is quite fair, because missing is unfun. This can of course be further pushed by giving the NPC Exceptional Attribute to their god-stat. 15 -8 can push the player’s hit chance down to 35%, but for now let’s assume that roughly every other attack against the boss will miss.

Also keep in mind that certain equipment and abilities such as Shield Fighter and Twin Attack can boost a character’s Defence.

Hard to Hurt: Consider how much damage the player characters in your group deal on average. Can this be largely mitigated with decent armor? If the party members deal 1D12 damage on average, then a Man-at-Arms with Plate Armor and one extra armor die (Blessed Shield, Protective Rune, Robust, or Berserker) should be able to ignore their hits roughly half the time.

Hard to Kill: It’s difficult to significantly boost NPC toughness in Symbaroum. Strong 15 with Exceptionally Strong (Master) gives 18 Toughness. Feat of Strength can bring that up to 23 Toughness. There is a Monstrous Trait in one of the Adventure Packs that allows you to grant a multiplier to a monster’s Toughness, which could conceivably bring a creature up to somewhere around 50 Toughness, but then we’re in the range of giant legendary creatures that sleep an uneasy sleep under the soil of Davokar. Other options for making a character Hard to Kill are Regeneration, Steadfast, and Spirit Form. You might even be able to figure out a way to have a Swarm as a notable opponent! In any case, Spirit Form and Swarm halve incoming physical damage, and on higher levels Spirit Form simply ignores non-mystic damage. Henchmen and minions with Bodyguard can also greatly extend a boss’ lifespan in combat.

Unfun to Fight: As challenging as it is to keep bad guys alive, don’t overdo these measures. The players are at the table to hit things and deal damage and make progress; they may even be there to have dramatic failings and heroic deaths – but they’re not at the table to swing and miss three times and then deal no damage when they finally manage to land a blow. Sometimes that’s just the way the dice land, but you should still be designing encounters that are more fun than they are frustrating. Think of the players’ actions as having to go through a number of filters in this fight. First they need to hit. If the opponent has a good enough Defence, they may be looking at a 50% or less hit rate, so half of their actions per round are wasted. Then they need to wound. If the opponent regularly tanks all or most of their damage, the battle might take forever – especially if it also has a large health pool or regeneration.

So take stock of how many actions your players have on a turn (can they attack twice with their Active action? Do they get free attacks from Reactions throughout the round?) and estimate how much damage they deal on average. Then think about how many rounds you want the boss to survive: How many signature moves do you want it to get off? How many evil taunts and monologues do you have in store? How many times will the battlefield shift and change the conditions of the battle?

Then take that number of rounds and multiply it by the number of attacks the players have in a round. That is the threat you need to manage, by tweaking the dials above: Hit chance, damage reduction, and Toughness.

Action Economy

So we have estimated how many actions the players get per turn, but what about the boss? Once the players have mopped up the minions and henchmen, how will their opponent deal with only having a single Active action per round while the players have five or more?

There are a few powers, traits, and abilities that can come in handy already at this time. Polearm Mastery, Staff Fighting, and Wrestling can all give retaliatory hits on the opponent’s turn. Polearm Master and Staff Fighting in particular make for a devastating combination – triggering free attacks when players come into melee range and then again if they miss their attack. Reactive options such as this go a long way to make up for the discrepancy in Action Economy. Acid Blood and Retribution can also balance the situation by adding a penalty to a player action that successfully deals damage.

The other easy fix to the Action Economy is of course to split the boss over several bodies (Two 200 xp-bosses will be much more dangerous than a single 400 xp-boss), and to give them followers and servants ready to die for them. Take abilities that could keep the boss alive and spread them out onto minions. Servants with Bodyguard, Inherit Wound, Wrestling, and Polearm Mastery can go a very long way to extending the drama of a fight.

The Dark Arts

You will probably want to give your big bad evil guys solid Resolute. Maybe even some lesser artefacts to boost their mental fortitude even further. The last thing you want is for your elaborately designed boss to be immediately puppeteered by a character with Bend Will and ordered to take a long walk off a short pier. Bend Will, Maltransformation, Larvae Boil – there are many mystical powers who are basically “save vs suck” and if your boss has poor Resolute it’s definitely going to suck. These sorts of powers are actually more difficult to ward against than pure damage, and it’s going to be very anticlimactic for both you and the players if the end-game boss is turned into a mouse and squished.

So you should use it against the players before they have a chance to do it to you.

Bend Will is the game’s best tool to shift the Action Economy – robbing one side of actions and bringing them to the opponent’s side. Maltransformation, Confusion, Gravely Touch and other save vs suck powers and traits are also very good at reducing incoming damage (see the previous article for more ideas on what powers to grab to counteract tanks and slayers).

Another thing you should consider is to make the boss Thoroughly Corrupt – either Undead or an Abomination. It gives you freedom to pick any abilities and monstrous traits you want without having to explain how an ordinary mortal has them – and it opens up the game’s foremost balance mechanic in the GM’s favour:

Once something is thoroughly corrupted, they don’t suffer any further penalties from taking corruption.

This means that an abomination or undead character can use mystical powers from any tradition without concern for their thresholds or maximum corruption, and they can use artefacts with a wild recklessness that the players could never risk. Look through all the mystical powers and just check their mechanics. Don’t worry too much about the descriptions – you can re-fluff those. What if you had an undead boss with Nature’s Embrace but instead of sinking into the earth they turn into a mist of blood, or slip into a mirror – from which they can step out of another mirror in the room? Suddenly you have a boss that can turn invulnerable and even move around or cast powers while the players deal with their minions.

Mystical Powers can also be used to control the battlefield. Flame Wall can bisect a room and force the melee characters in the party to take damage in the flames, and arrows from ranged characters are immediately destroyed by the fire. Unholy Aura can turn the entire battle into a deadly area-of-effect that also heals abominations – put it on a mystic allied with the undead boss and the players will have to decide how to split their damage.

Artefacts are a perfect opportunity to give bosses crazy abilities while also luring the players with the possibility of cool loot – which they may not be able to exploit to the same extent as the abominable creature they liberate it from. Many of the official artefacts basically pick abilities or monstrous traits and turn them into mystical powers, or give a boost on top of an existing ability. You could design an artefact that allows the user to ignore a failed Resolute check to resist mind control by taking 1 permanent corruption, or restoring 1D8 Toughness for as many points of temporary corruption. These would be risky tools for the players, but for an undead or abominable NPC they’d be free resistance to Bend Will and free regeneration.

Undead and abominations feature as boss creatures in pretty much all of the official adventures, so you should make use of them. They give you tremendous freedom in encounter design and set up a cool and weird threat for the players to face and overcome. And even if they do manage to slay an abomination or undead boss… they’ll be back, hungry for revenge.

GM Tricks and Cheats

Symbaroum puts the dice in the players’ hands, which removes one of the most classic methods for a GM to ‘fudge’ a situation: lying about their dice rolls. Since everything about NPCs are static values, it might seem that it would be impossible to fudge the course of a combat encounter, but there are ways to do it:

Grandmaster Abilities: In Wrath of the Warden, the Eternity Elf Ka’eroan has Exceptional Attribute in Accurate and Resolute on a fourth level above Master: Grandmaster. Take this as inspiration to create new levels of abilities above what is available to the players. Maybe they can be convinced to spare an adversary in exchange for the secrets of this knowledge.

Waves: Unless they have painstakingly surveilled the enemy base, the players will likely have no idea how many enemies could be right around the corner. One of the most reliable ways I have found to balance combat on the fly is to always have a second wave of enemies in reserve, and decide what to do with them depending on how the fight goes. If the players slice through the enemies too quickly, I can have reinforcements arrive. If the players are being too cautious to make progress, I can have the second wave come around and flank them. If the fight proceeds in a good pace and in a dramatic fashion, the second wave might flee or evaporate into non-canon mist. What the players don’t see, never existed.

Fudging abilities: Okay so, despite careful planning, the players are obviously more than a match for the boss and this is going to be over next round… Well, unless the players have taken a gander at the statblock by use of Beast Lore, it’s all in a quantum state. They don’t know that the boss didn’t have Feat of Strength or Exceptionally Strong at the start of the fight, or that you just decided to give the character Regeneration or Blessed Shield on the fly. And it doesn’t have to be a boss. Drop Bodyguard on two of his henchmen and you can effectively body-block at least two player hits and it will still make for a cool scene.

Inventing new abilities and powers: As I touched on in the Dark Arts part, you should feel free to make stuff up to keep the players on their toes. Every official adventure has had a new type of monster with a new type of monstrous trait or power. If you ran your players through that, they’d be seeing new unexpected stuff all the time – so why not have the same for your own adventures? Start out by tweaking existing abilities and traits, or combine them in unexpected ways – and maybe put them on artefacts or in environmental objects and hazards.

New mechanics: Consider introducing new systems to keep important NPCs alive, if you feel that it would make the game more fun. Maybe offer the players an opportunity to forego taking corruption, but giving you Wrath Dice for the trouble and then use the Wrath Dice to add penalties to their attacks or heal the NPCs they are fighting.

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