First, some good bits:
- Lori really enjoyed the game, and Monica said "that was a fun combat!" That's a big win.
- If nothing else, the combat was novel. The PCs were fighting PCs to whom they were friendly, but the PCs were geased to attack them. It was an interesting and distinctive situation.
- Even if the combat turned out to be a pushover, the players seemed to generally feel it was challenging and potentially threatening. That's at least as good as actually being threatening, and possibly better.
- Prolix's illusion spell was extremely effective, and I regard that as a plus. He doesn't get many opportunities to have really effective illusions, and I felt that I played well with him on making that effective and a good story.
- I got in one of the pieces of characterization that I'd wanted, of tears coursing down Viggo's face as he shot at Liandra. I liked that bit.
- I also liked Tobin's prayers. I felt they added some nice flavor.
- The PCs used very good tactics, and that should probably count as a plus for the game too.
Now, a probably longer list of things I would have liked to go differently:
Luck of the Dice
- The NPCs had a lot of bad dice luck, and the PCs had good luck. In particular:
- The PCs all did very well on initiative, and the NPC wizard did not; had he been faster, he might have gotten off two fireballs instead of just one.
- The archer-focused ranger, with all the archery boosts I could give him, didn't manage to hit a single target in the whole combat.
- The NPCs had lousy saving throws--the only saving throws they ever succeeded at were those against the illusion, and even then they took a while to do so.
Tactically, I made several errors as well:
- I wasted multiple actions. In particular, I had Tobin readying to counterspell with dispel magic, and neglected to have him do so when the opportunity arose. He should also have cast silence into the vicinity of the spellcasters (which would not have voided his invisibility, IMHO), but I neglected to have him do so.
- Viggo should have started off by aiming at Larissa, under the old principle of 'get the spellcasters first'.
- the worst one was that I didn't realize that the attack of opportunity for standing upright had changed--I had been working from the 3.5 SRD, in which standing up triggered an AoO, and Kevin pointed out that it didn't trigger in 3.0. This put a cramp in my plan for Karameikos to keep tripping Turok. I feel reasonably satisfied with the snap ruling I made; in the heat of the moment I'll always reconcile ambiguities in favor of the PCs, in order to minimize arguments. But it messed up my plans. (Though, really, not nearly as much as the languor did.)
- We hadn't noticed previously that Liandra's languor drains 4d6-4 Str per round. That's brutal. (Though, I suppose, not much more so than hold person.)
- I was not clear on whether a spell cast from a scroll can be counterspelled.
- I wasn't sure whether Kyle, invisible, could make a full set of sneak attacks against Viggo. I ruled that he could, since Viggo was effectively flatfooted with regard to Kyle, but perhaps at least a Listen check would have been in order.
- I really regret that I didn't express much of the personalities (or even physical descriptions) of Karameikos and Olver. I had ideas of how I intended to do so; Karameikos would be a dashing olive-skinned swashbuckler, Olver a dour-but-passionate Russian. But I left those aspects out of the fight, and I left those two characters completely out of the discussion the next day. I have a really strong tendency to underplay NPCs, and I regret that--I think that my players respond to that and roleplay their characters less because of that.
- Dani suggested that it would have made for a better story if the PCs had had something to do after the fight, if it turned out as easy as it did. I think he's right--it would have been better if I'd been prepared with a contingency plan, even something as simple as their trying to defend their prisoners from other monster attacks as they left.
Another line of thought that I've had about all this is that I think my players have an easier time of their combats than they're "supposed" to. There are several reasons for this:
- I've been very PC-favorable in my rules interpretations. In general, I've chosen the more PC-favorable alternative in any conflict between 3.0 and 3.5 rules, and I've made some rulings that are even more favorable, such as adding healing spells to the druid spell list so that the PCs aren't left completely high and dry by not having a cleric.
- As a special case of the above, when a rules issue comes up during the game, my general policy is to rule in favor of the PCs.
- Also, I have trouble justifying the four or five level-equivalent encounters per game day that D&D expects. The PCs are 9th level--but a single CR 9 monster has a good chance of eliminating a town solo, and most of the random monsters that are springing up tend not to be very willing to share territory. I do have the advantage of having set up my campaign to have the World's Biggest Excuse for influxes of dangerous monsters, but it can still be tricky to rationalize having several town-destroying encounters in a single day. (Another factor leading to this: we're in a zone where opponents need much more prep than they used to, which nudges me to have fewer opponents.)
So, I often build up to a single big encounter in a day, which means that the PCs get more chances to rest and recover spells.
- Also, for my own convenience and because of the nature of the threats that are appearing, I tend to have battles with a single big opponent, like the recent fiendish tyrannosaurus battle. This also tends to favor the PCs, because they've got a variety of powers that can eliminate one enemy, and that enemy is likely to fail a saving throw before too long.
- Also, the players together are better tacticians than I am. This clearly multiplies their effectiveness.
- Another obvious power advantage, now that I think about it: there are 5 PCs, which makes a level-equivalent encounter that much easier.
So, what to do about this? I fear that being over-powerful for their level may be a self-perpetuating condition; the PCs beat over-powerful opponents, get more-than-usual XP and treasure, and thus maintain the cycle.
- One approach is to use multiple lower-level opponents instead of one big one. Four CR5 creatures are more likely to have one member make a saving throw than a single CR 9 monster.
- Also, I think I can rationalize many of the opponents being a bit smarter tactically. Even an animal-intelligence beast like a dire tiger may have strange corrupt urges within it that suggest that it should attack the soft squishy mages instead of the impenetrable armor-clad Turok.
- There are some adventures coming up where I really can provide plenty of encounters. I should do so. It's even more challenging if the PCs don't get good opportunities to rest and recover.
- There are going to be some times that I'm really going to want to have a boss monster. If I can justify it, the boss monster should have minions adding the smoothing effect of numbers. And if I can possibly justify it, the boss should have ways of escaping and recovering.
- However, that will only go so far to the problem that the players are collectively better tacticians than I am. Given that, perhaps I could be allowed a little fudging, to avoid a simple one-shot instakill. If I do fudge like that, though, I should give the players plenty of reward, if not quite all the gravy a strict use of the rules might give them.
I hope to have a better handle on these issues by the next time my PCs fight a boss monster, at least.