Capabilities assessment as a foundation of tactics and party design, and a guide for defeating "cheap" threats


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In discussions with players new and old, I have noticed what I regard as a basic misconception or wrong focus with respect to pursuing supremacy in the tactical aspects (or crunch aspects) of DnD. Because the game--especially Pathfinder--is heavy with statistics, players tend to become focused on them. Because the game, as life, rewards specialization, players tend also to become focused on specialization--specifically, the optimization of a particular build and its method of combat. Neither of these foci is inherently wrong, but I encounter a common phenomenon as a result: The build that can counter my build is "broken" or "overpowered" or "an exploit."

Experienced gamers will recognize this fallacy well. "That's just part of the game, man. You can't be strong against everything. There's always a build out there that'll counter you. It's like rock-paper-scissors." But for those who are new to the game, or those who have not thought about it at a fundamental level, allow me to describe the dynamic at work:

Foundational to all tactics, all military science, is the notion of capabilities assessment. The heart of any military brief on an enemy force is the "capes brief," the capabilities brief. In these assessments, you learn what tools the enemy has at their disposal, how far their radars can see, how far their missiles can reach, how many troops they have, what command and control (C2) structures they have in place, how long they can fight at a stretch before they must rest or resupply, etc. This is the work of military intelligence: what are the enemy's capabilities right now, in this operating environment?

Warfare, then, can be to a large extent boiled down to capabilities arithmetic. For each enemy capability, you provide a counter-capability, and a counter-counter-counter-capability to their counter-counter-capability. You attempt to match your capabilities to theirs, canceling one another out, such that yours is the force with offensive capabilities left over when all the arithmetic is done.

In DnD, you see this immediately. At its essence DnD is a small-scale tactics game with custom configurable units, each built from a menu of abilities which combine to create capabilities. The enemy has the capability of making attack rolls. I’ll neutralize that by combining proficiencies, gear, and stats to create a high armor class and HP. They have armor too, so I need a high attack bonus to overcome it. The right proficiencies, gear, and stats will give me that. The notion of capabilities arithmetic is not foreign to any player; the issue is that players who don’t realize they’re performing capability balancing will only answer the obvious capabilities, and will find themselves surprised and frustrated by unusual capabilities. Moreover, this is to some extent inevitable due to the need for specialization.

Again, in DnD as in life, specialization pays dividends through efficiency. Specialization produces surpluses. A generalist character will never achieve as high an attack bonus or damage output with any particular weapon as fighter with a given weapon specialization. As such, a party of four generalist meleers may theoretically have far greater damage output than a single specialized swordsman, but the day they run into an armor class they can only hit on a natural 20, they are useless, while the lone specialist still hits and does damage reliably. Put that sword specialist in a party with other specialists—a crowd control specialist (wizard), an environmental threats specialist (rogue), a healing specialist (cleric), all of whom can also do some damage when needed, or who can help to keep that swordsman alive for a longer period, and now you have the same general damage output as the party of generalist fighters, but you also have capability answers to specific high-end foes. This is the classic adventuring party.

Essentially, the game rewards and indeed requires the building of a small team of highly specialized units designed to be very elite against the most common threat capability profiles. You must have a tank, you really need a crowd controller or area damager, you can’t survive without good healing, etc. If these capabilities are not well built, then the party will not survive even the common and typical encounters.

However, having built this party of specialists—having built the party the game demands, if the players then encounter a threat capability for which they have no answers, it feels cheap, or exploitative. It feels “OP.”

“Spring attack is OP.” Why? “Because it’s cheap and there’s no good counter for it. The enemy jumps in and jumps out, doesn’t even provoke AOOs. He can whittle down even my well-constructed fighter from a distance and I never even get a chance to fight back.” Well, you could just use a ranged weapon. “Yeah, but ranged combat sucks unless you sink a bunch of feats into it.” Same as melee combat. “Well, sure, but melee is more commonly useful than ranged. If you’ve got to pick one, you have to pick melee, and then there’s nothing you can do about kiting enemies. And that’s just Spring Attack. Don’t even get me started on Fly-By attack.”

Here, now, dear reader, is the true heart of the matter: This is the game. This is the central challenge of DnD, even more than maneuver/position, problem solving, or even min-maxing. Capability balancing is the core gameplay mechanic. So, you can either respond weakly to it, or you can embrace it and see if in fact solutions exist, and if in fact those solutions are not quite so costly as they may at first appear.

The weak response is all too common. “House rule, the DM doesn’t use Fly-By attack.” “Gentleman’s agreement, we don’t use Grapple.” “No mind control in this campaign.” “I don’t attack my players with archers because they’ll rage-quit.”

A lot of players are risk averse. They want to win by eliminating any chance that they might lose, so that they may play without anxiety. If the only response you can tolerate to a given threat capability is overmatch--the notion of complete dominance, the complete negation of it as a threat--you will have to cut portions of the game out, because character generation does not allow for one character or even one party neutralize completely all threats. Furthermore, if you do choose to play this way, eliminating from the game's rules any threats which your extant characters are not specifically designed to counter, then you’ve eliminated much of the tactical gameplay and reduced a potentially complex game into a simple numbers game, in which whoever has the higher stats (in the few remaining gameplay dimensions) is virtually guaranteed to win. You move the game away from Chess toward Tic Tac Toe, and in the process you excise much of the fun and reward that comes from playing and winning a complex tactics board game.

Proceeding on the supposition that you would prefer to win the game by playing better rather than by eliminating all the parts for which you don’t immediately and automatically have easy answers, let me propose that to you that the notion of capabilities assessment, once recognized and consciously engaged, offers a key to successfully battling those “cheap” builds and tactics.

Do you know what “covering fire” is? It’s a form of “suppression fire.” Do you know what “suppression fire” is?

At the operational level, suppression fire is fire which reduces a specific enemy unit's effectiveness below that necessary to interfere in a friendly movement or operation. The blue force commander might call for artillery bombardment of a red force surface-to-air missile emplacement with no strict intention of destroying it, but simply to lay upon it such violence that enemy missileer crews cannot effectively target and engage blue aircraft. The bombardment lasts just long enough for blue helos to insert ground forces on an objective. Are some of the red force missions batteries destroyed or neutralized? Perhaps. But that’s a bonus. The blue commander was not actually targeting them yet; he doesn’t need to. All he needs to do is prevent them from interfering in one specific step of his current maneuver, and the suppressive bombardment accomplishes that. Using a suppressive fire mission has some advantages for him. He does not need precise targeting coordinates for the red anti-air assets. He does not need a laser designator painting them for precision strike. He does not need elite, highly specialized strike aircraft (Wild Weasels or heavy bombers supported by sophisticated electronic warfare). Precisely targeting the missile batteries, or delivering such widespread devastation as to ensure they are destroyed without having target coordinates down to the meter, would be a complex and sophisticated operation of its own, requiring many expensive resources. If all he needs is to insert a Ranger or Recon unit, a battery of 155mm Howitzers firing a suppression mission is sufficient. The ground unit captures their objective, and then as a bonus captures and destroys the missile batteries as well, because why not? The anti-aircraft missiles aren’t hardened against a ground attack from behind red lines.

Similarly, if a fire team needs to retrieve a wounded member from a road, and are taking fire from a building a couple hundred meters away, they could employ close air support to obliterate the building, but need they? Would it be sufficient just to deliver such a hailstorm of suppressive small arms fire against the enemy’s position as to prevent the red force from firing effectively on the two men who then dash out to retrieve the casualty? In most cases, this is absolutely sufficient. It is not risk free. Obviously, a JDAM into the enemy’s building would destroy the threat and allow the blue fire team to retrieve their casualty entirely (or as good as entirely) unthreatened. But this sort of close air support is expensive in terms of precious battlefield resources. Is the air asset available? Is there a higher priority mission for that JDAM? Are there threats that would put the CAS aircraft at risk? Does the team have a JTAC qualified to call in an air strike danger close to blue forces? How long will it take? Does the casualty have that long? In the time it takes even to answer these questions, to determine that a CAS mission is feasible, could the casualty have been retrieved with comparatively little risk with a simple execution of covering fire? “Cover” is a barrier which places a potential target in defilade, i.e. prevents enemy weapons from reaching their potential target. “Covering fire” is suppressive fire at the tactical level, fire that serves in place of cover, preventing effective hostile fire against exposed personnel by making enemy weapons employment excessively dangerous for a short period. Covering fire might not be as good as actual cover, and certainly not as good as the complete negation of the enemy’s capabilities, but it might be sufficient to accomplish the task at hand. And what does it cost but ammunition? No one had to learn a new skill or carry an additional tool. The cost in resources is relatively small.

These are examples of neutralizing an enemy capability not by overmatching it, not by having some friendly capability that completely cancels it out, but simply by disrupting it to the point where it becomes ineffective or too inefficient. Often, like covering fire, this level of effect, this suppressive approach to an enemy capability, can be bought relatively cheaply.

For instance, many players worry about grappling enemies and Grabbing monsters. Pathfinder has an excellent grappling system incorporated into its excellent Combat Maneuvers system, and because of this, grappling is very accessible to players and DMs alike. Fighters hate it because it bypasses their carefully crafted AC and hampers their ability to maneuver and use both hands. Spellcasters hate it because it forces concentration checks or worse. Rogues hate it because it ties them down. Is it really so bad, though? Does it really cost the party that much to buy one wand of Grease for the arcane spellcasters and the UMD rogue to share? A Grease spell does not negate all grappling, but it doesn't need to. It just needs to change the rate of success enough to make grappling more costly than beneficial to the enemy. If the Kraken is constantly having to re-Grab your tank because it fails a larger percentage of its grapple checks, it's wasting actions, doing less damage. Its whole game-plan was based on a quick snatch, or a single-tentacle snatch. Now it's spending its whole action economy just trying to keep hold of one character, and meanwhile your team is unleashing hell. Sure, being a slippery bar of soap is not what your fighter's player envisioned as his heroic destiny, but sometimes it's just what the situation needs. And it's sufficient to suppress the enemy's primary offensive capability.

Addressing the Spring Attack kite, do you really need to be able to tie him down completely, to negate his strategy, or is it enough to disrupt it? In Pathfinder, a trip attack is made as a combat maneuver in place of one iterative attack. If you’re a meleer, you have a good CMB even without specializing feats. Ready an action to trip the enemy. He springs, triggers the trip. He hits you with his AoO, but you’re a fighter. You can soak a few attacks. If the trip lands, he goes down adjacent to you and his Spring Attack is canceled. He might still make his attack, but he ends his turn prone in your threatened space. So you've taken two hits, but the initiative is now back to you, for a full attack against a prone target. Instead of receiving one per round and dishing one per round, you're taking two this round and dishing four. Furthermore, on his turn, barring some special features that most characters don’t bother with, he has to waste a move action just to stand up. Now, he can make one attack, but afterward he will still be in your threatened square, or he can move away, provoking an attack of opportunity from you, and then the dance begins again. So we're really talking two attacks from him for five attacks from you, or three attacks from him for eight attacks from you, whenever the trip succeeds.

Will the trip always hit? No. But need it? If he’s kiting you, it’s because he can’t stand toe to toe with you, dares not soak your full attack. Furthermore, you are a fighter with more feats than you have fingers and toes. Do you really need another feat for another +1 damage on your Master Sword, or can you spare a feat for Improved Trip? Being tripped has a significant effect on the action economy of a wide range of mobility-based combatants. The expenditure of one feat might give your party just what they need to disrupt such tactics, making them too risky or inefficient to use against you. In the above scenario, it removes his attack of opportunity, making the balance of attack actions one for four or two for eight in your favor whenever the trip hits, and the trip hits more often thanks to the feat's bonus. He won't pursue that math. You've negated his tactic.

Again, the objective is not overmatch. The objective is to find build elements or tactics which efficiently disrupt enemy capabilities just to the extent necessary for us to win.

Now, if you are tasked with hunting an enemy with one of these capabilities, such that the only victory criterion is a complete defeat (kill or capture) of the monster in question, then a suppressive or disruptive approach may not be sufficient.

For instance, when faced with a creature that makes Fly-By attacks (aerial spring attacks), it might be sufficient to counter this capability simply by giving everyone a ranged weapon. If every mundane combatant has a bow and every spellcaster has a wand or spell, even if no one is specialized in ranged combat, that steady trickle of ranged attacks and damage could easily be sufficient to make Fly-By attacks unprofitable. If the party can march along at Move speed while delivering three or four moderate hits every round, and the monster can only make one attack per round, it will likely be an unsustainable tactic. And this is all presuming that the party can’t simply stand under a tree or against the wall of a building, which makes Fly-By attacks geometrically impossible for large monsters.

These techniques, though, do not force the creature into a no-retreat contest. Once it becomes obvious that the creature can’t win the fight on its terms, it should retire from the battlefield. If it is strategically or operationally necessary to kill or capture the creature and prevent its escape, then simply making its Fly-By ability insufficient to defeat the party does not solve the greater problem. It might be a part of the solution, but in this example the real problem is the creature’s Flight capability. In this scenario, do we now see a need for overmatch, for a capability which completely negates the creature’s advantages of flight? Are we SOL if our party doesn’t have an even better fly speed than the enemy?

One should note here that Core Rulebook at no point says it is necessary to kill a monster in order to earn the rewards of character advancement. It uses the word "defeat." A party gains XP for "defeating" monsters in an encounter. And if the monster flies its lair, the party gains its loot hoard as well. A DM should assess well whether or not a dominant defeat, a kill or capture, is necessary in order gain full XP rewards, as this is not the letter of the law, and the structure of his campaign--the availability of certain powers, how he generally runs the behavior of certain monsters, etc.--will greatly affect whether kill/capture is a baseline victory condition or a superlative one.

If your DM plays monsters like videogame monsters which, once aggro'd, ne'er retreat but fight madly to the death even in an obviously losing situation, then k/c can be the baseline victory condition for full XP. If, however, your DM plays monsters more realistically--if, for instance, nonsentient predators attack the party in the mindset of predators, when their instincts indicate that the party is viable prey, and flee when the risk becomes excessive--then simply driving off an attacking monster might be a more appropriate definition of "defeat" for your campaign--especially if he has not furnished the party with a lot of abilities dedicated to immobilizing fleeing monsters or dramatically mobilizing the party.

If your DM is a big ol' meanie (like me) and has made flight non-trivial and difficult to gain as a Player Character capability, and he treats monsters realistically in terms of their tendency to play it safe, attack from the position of best advantage, use their own capabilities to maximum advantage, and retreat in the absence of an ideological or other motivation to be suicidal commitment--if all of this, and then he presents you with the challenging of hunting a flying foe to death or capture, then this should be presented as a problem-solving challenge. This should be a specific mission with the promise of greater reward than he would give for simply "defeating" such a monster according to his own normal rules. If the DM has specifically made an overmatching countercapability unavailable to the party, and is still asking you to dominate a principal capability of the enemy, rather than merely disrupt or suppress it, he is probably trying to get you to think creatively and engineer a solution from the game environment. This is when you begin constructing anchored grappling lines and arbalest-launched nets, or using Speak With Giant Eagle to negotiate air support.

Or, if you're my party, you teledrop (party dimension door or teleport) onto the back of the monster in flight. Those who keep hold of it deliver full attacks with the Grappled condition (i.e., at -2 and one-handed only). Those who fall off, the wizard dimension-steps again to catch them, and when the creature dies, he casts levitation to lower it and its remaining riders to the ground. (At level 16, flight is still only available to the two mages who can cast it as a spell, and only some of the rest even have Feather Fall devices, so when they teledrop onto a monster a thousand feet in the air, they are genuinely taking a risk. It's great fun.)

One may ask, is this not an artificial challenge, though? To artificially limit what the players can do and then ask them to do it anyway? Isn't that a bit cheap?

Snidely, I might remind one that Dungeons & Dragons is not real. It's a game. But I would never do that, because it would be rude. The point I would be making, though, is that DnD, like any game, is definitively artificial. A rule set is a set of restrictions. A game, any game, is a set of artificial restrictions under which the players must solve an artificial problem. A tabletop RPG offers greater freedom than other games, but it is a game only to the extent that it is limited. If the only limit was your imagination, then you would be in the contest of the gradeschooler: "My guy's strength is a thousand!" "Yeah, well, my guy's strength is a million!" "Ok, my guy's strength is infinity!" "Infinity times two!" "Infinity times infinity! Infinity squared!" "Infinity to the infinity power!"

This is not a game in any meaningful sense. It goes back to another question entirely, which is, what kind of game do you want to run and play in? Is it really an exercise of imagination to import rules to circumvent puzzles? Is it really an exercise of imagination to win at chess by adding laser sharks as a playable piece? One could say that it is, but it is a child's exercise, no different from the pseudomathematical explosion of the ten-year-old. In any real game, the rules are fixed and confined, structured to test the ability of the player to understand them and to see solutions within their framework.

This is a cooperative venture, to be sure. The DM must be a part of it, recognizing the limits he has imposed and rewarding players for faithfully and skillfully playing within those limits, especially if they create solutions he did not anticipate, especially especially if they create solutions which make his carefully crafted challenges trivial to defeat. The players are many, and the DM is one. There will be plenty of times when they play his own game better than he does. That should be a moment of celebration for all involved.

Meanwhile, the players are obligated to accept the game the DM has offered, once negotiations are complete on that matter. Play the game offered and enjoy it, or choose to play elsewhere. (And do the latter, if you must, with grace and mutual understanding, rather than after flipping the table.) If you ask for and the DM accepts a full Pathfinder splat kit with a hundred and seventeen classes and forty playable races, then so be it. But if the game the DM is offering is more restricted, and he declines to import a splat spell called Negate Spring Attack just because your build is weak against Spring Attacks, this is no imposition on your imagination. Rather, this is an invitation for you to use it, to solve the problem in a more skillful and more creative way.

Rest assured that the two approaches to the game are not equal. The childish tendency to write around any challenge that requires a moment's thought to defeat is just that, childish. The player who embraces restrictions, who says to the DM, "No no, don't make it easy. There's a solution to this. Just let me think for a moment…" is playing a superior game, with superior rewards. Believe it.

Your ability to play at this higher level is greatly expanded by a conscious understanding of foundational principals like capabilities assessment. Seeing the enemy as a set of capabilities, and recognizing that capabilities don't always have to be overmatched, but can be degraded or suppressed just enough to change the balance of a situation, will help you make decision at character generation and in play about the real value of various tools and abilities, and will allow you to be more versatile even with a specialized build, or will allow you to create a generalist build more effectively--not by simply spreading your numbers thin, but by carefully choosing a few specific tools which can be used in clever ways to undermine a wide range of enemy capabilities.

This is an excellent read. Thank you.

PS. I have some longspear and Stand Still for your Spring/Fly-by Attack. Fool me once.

PPS. I love the teledrop tactic, so baller.

Teledrop has proven to be a tremendously successful TTP. Sure, the wizard has spent his action, but the rest of the party, delaying to act just after him in initiative, execute their full turns immediately upon arrival. The action rules in DnD make it very hard to build a teleporting assassin, because teleport as a move action does not exist in the core rules, and for good reason. But coordinating in the way they do, the party acts as a single organism with exactly that ability, except far worse. To teleport as a pseudo move action, and then on arrival execute three characters' worth of full attack. On the ground, one meleer steps diagonally to the left, another diagonally right, five feet each, before they roll their attacks, so the rogue also has flank on the victim. They can easily deliver 300+ damage in a single salvo if the dice go their way. They have it down to a monstrous art. And this is in a core-rules-only game, as I mentioned in a previous post. Zero-splat builds.

In a roundabout but not at all unwelcome way it seems you've come to tread old ground. Actually milidly relieving having more or less stepped away from Pathfinder in favor of distant stars alien worlds.

One thing that most certainly helps particularly in the party building phase is picking a general strategy in order to fulfill a necessary combat role such as "support" or "damage" or "control" (though back in the day I used a more colorful metaphor to make it easier to remember and distinguish from the numerous pieces of gamer slang and jargon all of which carried significant and irrelevant baggage). From there you figure out the how's and whats.

It's still amusing to me that to this day one of the tactically strongest characters conceived that wasn't a full caster is still a switch hitter Ranger or variants thereof. More than a position addicted rogue or an overspecialized two handed fighter I've almost never been in a combat situation that the switch hitting ranger had no answer for.

Waxing nostalgic aside I've always asserted that positioning and actions were typically superior in all ways to numbers. A reason why typically mathematically superior pc's still get brought low by numerically and positionally superior kobolds. And I've been of the mind that players who understand tactics free a gm to make encounters genuinely dangerous and creative rather than the wave after wave of mindless mooks whose lives are encompassed in relatively few dice rolls.

TarkXT wrote:
And I've been of the mind that players who understand tactics free a gm to make encounters genuinely dangerous and creative rather than the wave after wave of mindless mooks whose lives are encompassed in relatively few dice rolls.

I would love to see examples, in another thread I would think to not derail this one, on what those encounters would be and some possible solutions to them. Too many times have I been in games that have lesser creative encounters that are typically due to the parry pattern emerging as non-cooperarive or non-synergistic.

Do you mean "party pattern?"

Dear OP

Please stop giving away my trade secrets.

Having a well rounded party can really free up the GM. If the party has good saves you can reasonably introduce them to scarier enemies with higher DC saves. If the party can consistently source their own food and water, you can make journeys longer. If they have sound strategy and good tactics, you can play encounters more fluidly.

As a GM, I wanted my party to succeed. The longer they survived, the more of my story they unfolded. And I didn't have to put training wheels on at any point because the party was prepared enough that one bad roll wouldn't take anyone out of the fight.

They still had failed saves, but they survived as a team without me having to pull any punches. I could have any encounter I wanted, in any environment I could dream of, and throw it at them full speed without fear of killing everyone because they can't make acrobatics checks to fight on a narrow ledge or whatever. They had good skills and could pass most checks, even in combat, but best of all they seldom compromised their party's security. Good spacing, covered movement, asking the right questions about their environment.

It was easy on me. And the party was rewarded for their efforts with epic encounters that wouldn't have otherwise been possible with a lesser prepared party.

Pathfinder Adventure Path, Companion, Lost Omens, Rulebook Subscriber

This is indeed one way to play the game. In fact, it is how I prefer to play.

I don't think though that it is "playing a superior game" or is necessarily a "higher level." There is a lot of fun to be had in roleplaying games, and a lot of valid approaches to having that fun.

People that prefer to simplify the combat system, including removing chucks that they don't find fun, and instead focus on other aspects of the game aren't doing it wrong.

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To Justus's point: Of course that comment serves the purpose of being deliberately provocative, but I stand by it as truthful also. To those who doubt: try it. Get good at skilled Pathfinder play--if you have the opportunity, with an equally skilled DM--and then see if 5th Edition still satisfies you. See if you don't find yourself able to have just as much story and role-play, and a deeper, more intense, and more rewarding experience as a gamer/power-gamer.

And then, while you're at it, try it with life, too. If you enjoy playing the driver/pilot in a game, try the real thing. If you enjoy simulated combat, step into the cage. If you love tactical sims, there's a place you can go where you might, if you're sufficiently talented and driven, have the opportunity to go down a fast-rope for real.

I love games. I love simple, cheap-calorie hack-and-slash. I like light, role-play-focused RPGs that don't make me work too hard to tell the story. But I've experienced higher level gameplay. And I've experienced higher level living. There's joy to be had at all levels, but the levels are not equal. If you're reading this and you're on the fence about trying something that scares you, hear me now: The scary things are the things worth doing. The worst that can happen is you die.

In response to Voodist: As you say, sir. The principal benefit of having players who play at a high level is that you can play on-level as the DM. You don't have to pull punches. You can play all-out.

Or, rather, you can play the threats honestly. You can focus on simulating how this creature would fight--what choices it would make based on its nature and its knowledge of the situation--rather than having to put your effort into making sure your players don't die and rage-quit. And that's the real ideal for a DM. A good DM isn't looking to play to the best of his ability against the party, just as he doesn't want to have to trim and tailor his threats around their weaknesses. What he really wants is to play the monster or villain honestly, free not just to use all of that monster's abilities, but to use them in a way that is truthful to the nature and story of that monster.

A classic and simple example would be the T-rex: Maybe in Diablo a T-rex would "do a bite," to quote the C-Team. But that's not how a T-rex kills. A T-rex, barring magical compulsion, doesn't "fight"; it hunts. It attacks prey which it thinks it has dead to rights and can kill with minimum risk of injury and minimum waste of energy, with the maximum chance of return on energy investment. It attacks with overwhelming force, biting, grabbing, pinning down, and tearing apart, or holding by the throat until dead. On a medium creature, it would bite and Grab, lifting the creature in its mouth with a successful grapple check and then, on subsequent rounds, rolling grapple to maintain and do bite damage (as it shakes and tears its prey), until it thinks its prey is dead and can be swallowed. (Just because it has Swallow Whole doesn't mean it's going to use that, except accidentally, on a live victim.) If the thing in its mouth stings, it might drop said prey, or it might attempt to pin it under foot and then resume chomping and tearing. On a Large or larger prey, it would more likely go for the bite+grab, followed by grapple to pin in round two, followed by bite attacks at -2 against the pinned victim unto death. If it's acting more in defense of territory, then it might engage multiple party-members, but it's still not going to do isolated bite attacks. It's going to grab one, and its instincts are going to kick in, and it's going to try to kill the one until it is sufficiently distracted. It might be bite+grab, chew, drop, grab the next one, repeat--like a cat in a hen house, distracted this way and that by one after another moving target it feels instinctively driven to dispatch. Or it might be more like a stray dog trying to kill your dog, or a mountain lion trying to kill your friend on a hike, such that it gets hold and goes for the throat even as you're beating on it. You can see its eyes on you, and it snarls as you strike it, but it won't let go of the enemy it's got until the damage from the second enemy begins to seem life-threatening. Id est, until soaking the damage from the second enemy becomes a greater risk than letting go of the first.

These are examples taken from how animals fight--birds, mammals, lizards, you name it--which give us clues as to how non-sentient beasts like a T-rex would engage a party. The result is a fight that is mostly grapple checks, or grab and then pin followed by attacks at -2 against the pinned creature. It's a brutal type of combat where the predator is specifically trying to negate the ability of its prey to harm it, in this case by grappling and pinning it down. No dance; just death.

As a DM, that's how I want to run a T-rex. Each enemy after its particular kind. Sword dancers dance. Zombies dog-pile. T-rexes go for the bite-pin-rend. Fortunately, my party doesn't complain about grapple rules. They acknowledge that T-rex gonna T-rex, they cast Grease on the fighter and send him in, and then while it's distracted with the slippery turtle they rush in and gut it.

The challenge to them is that they have to learn more enemy fighting styles, and figure out ways to counter more enemy capabilities. They have to have answers for all manner of enemy attacks. The upside to them is that the monsters play fair. If it's an animal, they can count on me to run it as an animal. They can treat it as an animal, rather than as a DM's animal puppet. They can look at that big mouth and those big claws and make an expert guess as to how it attacks prey. They can scare it away with fire if they want to. And if an animal does surprise them by doing something smart, they can reasonably interpret that to mean the animal is being controlled by a smarter creature.

The upshot of all of this is that every time we encounter a T-rex, or any other creature, I get to run it like a movie scene, rather than a tit-for-tat turn-based PRG. We're doing initiative and turns, but the action is very simultaneous, dynamic, and dramatic. Very Jurassic Park. Very viscerally violent. That tail slithers through the air overhead like a sky serpent. It sweeps the roof off a nearby cottage as the monster steps over you to get a better angle on your hiding spot under the fallen log. The Rex lands a hit (overcoming your cover bonus on its attack) and a grab, and those teeth are in you. You're pulled out, lifted into the air. You fail to resist the grapple, and on its turn it maintains the grapple, and you feel a moment of weightlessness as it tosses you like a bird tosses a fish, to readjust you in its mouth, before those teeth close again and you take another round of bite damage. You forsake the escape check and do a full attack at -2 with your one-handed weapon, stinging its face. It recoils (ending the grapple as a free action) and you fall, slamming into the mud on your back (1d6 fall damage), and then it comes down on you with its foot--a pure grapple check, which provokes your AoO, which hits, causing its grapple check to miss--as you stab into its toe and roll out from under those claws. You slash at its leg again on your turn. The foot retreats, like a tree uprooting and flying away from you as the monster shifts its weight again, and again comes that mouth. Bite+grab, it has you. You bash on its snout again, but this time it is persistent. It rolls to pin, driving you into the mud with its snout and then stepping on you again with that enormous, bird-like foot. You are pinned. You struggle to escape but fail. It snaps at you, again, bird-like, rolling bite attack at -2 and doing bite damage. You roll again to struggle against the pin and succeed, returning to the grappled condition as you get one hand free. It doesn't notice, continuing to bite at your armor and try to pull you apart (another bite at -2, hits, rolls damage). Again you roll your full attack with your one-handed weapon at -2 (grappled condition), slashing at its jaw and neck as best you can from under its foot even as it tries to rip your arms off. And at last your blows seem to tell. It barks and recoils at a particularly painful cut near its eye. You feel the weight come off you as it releases its grapple and steps back, Withdrawing out of your sharp reach, rubbing at its wounded face with its tiny arms--but it doesn't think to run away. It isn't scared; just surprised. It is the king of this jungle; has no concept of something so small being a potentially deadly threat. That is its fatal mistake. You five-foot step under it in its moment of distraction and lay about it with another full attack, slicing at its underbelly. It roars in dismay, rearing and wheeling away from you. Again that vast tail snakes across the sky, just out of arm's reach above you, and its legs like trees dig great furrows into the earth at it drives its vast bulk away from this tiny, horrible mistake which it has made. Another Withdraw action as it accelerates into a run. In its simple, animal mind it doesn't even have the capability of being humiliated by the fact that it is fleeing from such a tiny thing. It only knows that suddenly it is aware of a mortal danger.

Perhaps you mount up and ride it down, or perhaps you let it run. Either way, you've won.

This is, of course, just one example, but it excellently illustrates a theme. The rules are all there to run these creatures with narrative honesty, so to speak. To build fantastic, dramatic, truthful scenes of exquisite, delightful violence.

(Another example is zombies. I eschew entirely the "zombie slam." Zombies are the opposite of the T-rex: They grapple, then bite. And there's usually a lot of them.)

But they're only there so long as you don't strip them out.

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