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Front-load Your Encounters

Posted By Kurt "Telas" Schneider On May 5, 2011 @ 2:08 am In GMing Advice | 8 Comments

Gripe all you want about 4E, but I’ve learned more than a few things from everyone’s favorite whipping-boy RPG. As a player, I spent more than a few tense moments at the beginning of many encounters, wondering how the party was going to survive this onslaught. Once I recognized the pattern (thanks to a comment by Martin), it all made sense.

A number of factors contribute to the feeling of impending doom at the start of a 4E encounter, but the one that can be most easily drifted into another system is front-loading. No, I’m not talking about a high efficiency washing machine, but about maximizing the effect the obstacles (bad guys, tactics, terrain, etc) have on the player characters early in the encounter.

  • Fire your most powerful weapons early, whether powerful area-effect attacks like a barrage of grenades or a dragon using her breath weapon, or more targeted weapons like blowing through a magazine on full-auto or a phased plasma rifle in the 40-watt range. Those attacks may not be available again, or may take a while to recharge, but the effect will be instantaneous.
  • Less obvious is to use debilitating effects on your PCs at the start of combat. Every magic system has spells that negatively affect their targets without doing actual damage. Most sci-fi settings will have something similar. Even modern ‘realistic’ systems should model flash-bangs, varieties of gas, and even really loud rock music.
  • Tactics are another way to front-load an encounter. The classic example is an ambush, where the ambushers gain a huge initial advantage. Simple terrain effects like barriers for cover and concealment, or simply using the high ground can make the initial round or two much more “interesting” for the players.

Whatever you use, the net effect will be players who are surprised and concerned at how difficult the combat initially seems, but who aren’t in much danger of suffering a TPK. If your players are anything like me (and my players), they’ll be more engaged in the combat, and more satisfied that they survived.

Agree? Disagree? Got something to add? Sound off in the comments and let us know!

About  Kurt "Telas" Schneider

Kurt Schneider played D&D in 1979 at summer camp, and was hooked. He lives with his wife, daughters, and dog in Austin TX, where he writes stuff, and tries to stay get fit. Look for his rants under the nom de web Telas or TelasTX. Quote: “A game is only as balanced – or as good – as the GM."




8 Comments (Open | Close)

8 Comments To "Front-load Your Encounters"

#1 Comment By EgoPoisoning On May 5, 2011 @ 2:24 am

I definitely agree with the first point, since players are likely to be doing the same thing and they’ll take out your hitters before they make a swing.

Of course, there’s a constant evolution on both ends, since my response in encounter construction is to layer the mobs PCs face. That way, if they blow their encounters in the first round I’ll still have a second force rolling in to make things difficult.

And since I know that I’m altering my approach to encounters in that way, I’ve also altered my playstyle as a PC. I tend to hold onto my encounters until the middle of the battle just in case some sneaky business is unleashed on me.

#2 Comment By Clawfoot On May 5, 2011 @ 5:09 am

Yep, that’s how things usually go in my 4e encounters, too, although I notice sometimes the initial impression doesn’t go away, even if the combat thereafter went extremely well for them. When that happens, my players will sit back and exclaim about how difficult it was, and I feel like pointing out that nobody was reduced to 0 hp at any point, they didn’t use any of their dailies, and one of their party didn’t even take any damage at all. But I refrain, because it’s as you said: if they thought it was really difficult, they feel better and more satisfied for having won.

#3 Comment By jtone On May 5, 2011 @ 7:04 am

My players are high on combat, low on RP so I love this feature of 4e. In 3.5 it was too easy to kill PCs by mistake – in 4e, I’ve had no problem tuning encounters so they get that initial burst of “We’re all going to die” and end up with “That was tough but we did it!” for most fights.

#4 Comment By Troy E. Taylor On May 5, 2011 @ 9:48 am

That’s the way it’s supposed to go. I think this is where TV/movies/video games does GMs a service, because for the sake a dramatic effect, the big bad ugly dude who opposes the protagonists keeps bringing out bigger and bigger guns to thwart them. But really, that doesn’t work in gaming, unless you purposefully segment these actions into separate encounters. Hit em hard and fast — that’s the way to go.

#5 Comment By Troy E. Taylor On May 5, 2011 @ 9:49 am

I think I meant to say disservice ….

#6 Comment By Razjah On May 5, 2011 @ 4:33 pm

I use this a lot. I have been getting a reputation in my gaming club for gaming in “hardcore mode”. If the PCs are a threat, the BBEG tries to kill them- not James Bond stupid kill them. Jabba the Hutt try to kill them- feed them to the rancor.

Aside from front-loading the fight I have been using the terrain a lot more with narrative combat. I let the players add details and then the enemies interact with them. Fight in a dinning hall? Tables get flipped for cover. Curtains are pulled down and lit on fire and the silverware is gathered and dumped to make a difficult terrain area that slows down the pursuing PCS.

Now the enemy has a cover and made one path dangerous (fire) and another hard to move through (debris). I know this can happen with minis, but my group has been much more inventive once I stopped laying out a mat.

#7 Comment By Kurt “Telas” Schneider On May 5, 2011 @ 5:39 pm

Thanks for the replies.

I should clarify – These are good tactics at any point in a fight. The point here is that a GM can make a straightforward fight seem much more epic by throwing everything into that first round or two. Taking a few heroes down to 50% hit points in the first round can really put them on edge for the rest of the fight, even if you don’t really touch them after the first round.

#8 Comment By NeoProxy On May 5, 2011 @ 10:15 pm

I disagree with this. I don’t like the idea of ‘front loading’ every encounter. I prefer to have NPC with personalities. Some may be overly cautious and unload at the beginning. Some may be more reserved and only unleash their big spells if things aren’t going their way. Just because the party comes in all flash and lasers does not mean that there won’t be another group coming right behind them. If your players are doing this, then setting an encounter where the stronger opponent comes in half-way through combat is sure to spell their downfall as their BFG 9000 won’t be recharged in time for the new threat.

I like good tactics, but not based on mechanics. I also like follies, when you catch your own people on the edge of your fireball because you’re ‘eye balling’ it is hilarious. This causes a front-load action, but for all the right reasons “OK, Imaginarious is gonna unload his fireball before we charge in, I don’t want to be caught in one of those things again…”


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