Sometimes being a Game master feels like being in a five on one bar fight, with every other person in the fight having had time to workout and prepare for it for the last 3 months. Games are often weighted towards the players, providing many more options and possibilities for the players than there are for Game Masters. Most splatbooks and setting books provide new powers and skills for players, and when it comes to new combat options for Game Masters, the scales are fairly often tipped against the Game Master. This all leads up to one important thought: Players have it good if they want to build a combat haus * character. Characters that are geared totally for combat can sometimes make it hard for GMs to provide adequate challenges, especially when other characters aren’t as combat oriented. Well, to help with this all too common conundrum, here are five tips for dealing with Combat Haus characters.
- Attack The Scenery – Big monsters can take out terrain. Certain effects can take out terrain. A high defensive ability or great armor is rarely good against a 500 foot fall or losing your turn and becoming prone because the ground you were standing on has catapulted 20 feet into the air. If you can’t manage to damage a character just from an enemy, try moving the ground around. In one game I was a player in, a Wyvern (with rider) spent its time attacking the train we were on instead of attacking us. It made the combat 10 times worse, trying to deal with constant rolls to maintain balance and take penalties to our rolls. Doing interesting things with terrain also provides some really interesting game options and action scenes. Dynamic terrain means dynamic action scenes.
- Most Systems Allow Options For Customizing Enemies, Use Them – If there are highly combat capable creatures or enemies statted up in your game’s enemies section, use them to their fullest advantage. If there aren’t combat capable enemies, roll your own instead of using stock options. The more detailed your enemies the better. Stock enemies are almost always fodder against combat optimized characters. If enemies in your preferred game system can have the same options as characters, you need to find the few feats/focuses/powers/edges/ etc. that provide that a combat edge and implement them. Just a few of these combat cinchers thrown in can increase the challenge in a big way. But wait John, how will I know what ones get best mileage? Look at the characters who are your current combat hauses. If they can do it, likely so can you. Go to the internet and look up NPCs or combat builds for NPCs. The more detailed the characte,r the better.
- Multiple Weak Or Medium Attacks Pale In Comparison To One Big Devastating Attack – There comes a point when multiple low level enemies just aren’t a threat anymore. Even using them slows down the game. If you use them, make them the fodder that they are. If you really want to do some damage, include a big bruiser who can make multiple hits AND take the damage. That levels the playing field against a combat haus in a big way. There are two factors to this. The enemy has to stick around long enough to deal enough good hits to feel threatening and their hits need to be felt.
- Defense, Defense, Defense, Offense, Offense, Offense & Describe, Describe, Describe – An enemy that can take the damage will definitely be a challenge to take down. As stated above, it needs to be able to dish it out as well in order to challenge the players and not just be hard to take down. Ok, common sense, but you need to make it not boring as well. Whittling down an enemy that constantly “swipes its claws and deals 40 damage” can get boring. Vary up the descriptions of the attacks, or add quick one or two word flavor elements to keep a combat against a tough enemy feeling worthwhile.
- Explosives, Bombs, Traps, AOE Attacks, i.e. Dirty Combat – Use them if the game has rules for them. They spice up the combat and take things out of the direct attack/defend/response paradigm that combat straight against enemies has. Razjah  mentioned that his homebrew orcs had acid blood. Things like this provide unexpected effects that the PCs have to creatively work around.
- Bonus – Target The Haus Most Of The Time, It’s Fair – Arrayed before the Grindy, Nashy, Teeth Of Doom Dragon are a man in a robe, a girl in leather armor, a knight in tough steel armor, and a big barbarian with a huge sword. Even based on mere instinct, the dragon should and would go for the barbarian and the knight, especially when they start dealing damage. Attacking the combat hauses provides combat challenge for the combat oriented characters AND allows the non-combat characters to feel effective in combat by using their abilities (spells, healing, sneak attacks, etc.) without being knocked out by two overpowered hits. Don’t level all attacks against the combat worthy of course, but it is often ok to level most attacks against them. They would present the biggest threat and would often be the most liable target.
Ok, final thoughts. Creative thinking in combat is the moral of this story. Combat should be fun, not one sided on either end.Victory after a challenge always feels better than realizing there was never any threat. At the same time, just kicking butt against enemies far too weak doesn’t provide any real sense of worthwhileness to a character’s build.
What techniques do you have for dealing with overpowered combat oriented characters? Do you treat them any differently than regular powered characters? How does their presence in a party affect the party balance in your eyes?
*Why do we call it a haus anyways? Doing a bit of basic research, I can only guess that the slang term is derivative from the German Haus, which means house, but I can’t really trace the etymology. Can anyone shed any light on this?