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“My Precious Encounter” — Boss Fights vs Trash Mobs

I learned a lesson early on, when running LMoP back in 2014, and though it stung at the time, it’s been something that has served me well over the years.

Some of the monsters that looked kind of like “boss monsters” were pretty much one-shotted by the party, while there were many character deaths and even near-TPKs from pretty much just random forest stirges, goblins or closet owlbears.

So the reaction a lot of DMs would have to that would’ve been “Man, I’m not letting my player’s characters die to some trash mob, I’m gonna fudge that crit” or “They were looking forward to that epic boss fight, it can’t die in the first round before even taking one action, I need to pad the HP a bit here”. And if that’s your solution and you’re committed to that solution, move along. You’ve found your path. This post is about another approach.

My takeaway was “OK. Holy shit. I am way less able to know or predict which fights are going to be epic than I thought.”

But this is not a bad thing.

I now know that they might easily handle Strahd but they might just as well easily die to random 3d6 wolves in the forest. They might kick Acererak but die to the zombie he animated. (Both of those things happened in our game btw. Dice are weird.)

Knowing this can help you give everything the gravitas it deserves.

3d6 wolves → “You might’ve seen a shadow moving between those trees, you’re not sure. Was that… did the night just flash row after row of yellow fangs at you?”

Big bad wizard guy who gets killed in first round before taking an action → “So you’ve come this far. This wizard that you’ve heard so much about, who has so many hordes of horrors cowering before him. You find as you rend his flesh that he’s just a man. He’s just a man. And your sword, it is steel. Like a snail is fragile in its shell, so he has taken shelter in this tower of stone. He himself is nothing to you now.”

Etc etc. You get the idea.

Don’t get too invested in what’s “going to” happen.

Just be really careful of “My Precious Encounter”. I mean, I even still kinda fall into that trap a little bit; yesterday there was this mermaid NPC, not even a fight or a threat, just a potential ally, and I was daydreaming of some ways to describe her. Like a wisp of brown smoke her form billows in the dark water. A warm smile as she sees your symbols of Hakiyah. “Hi! Did the Brine Hand send you? My name is Gali!” And in the end they didn’t even find her. And as much as that stung, that was just three seconds of daydreaming that I lost there. Let it go; forcing a “precious encounter” will wreck the game more than it’ll help it.

There are DMs that do these absolutely fantastic dioramas with 3d terrain and custom miniatures and paint and it looks so amazing and I’m like “But what if the party don’t even go there?” Whereas with a couple of buttons and chess pieces (or theatre of the mind) you could go anywhere in the multiverse. DMs, I’m not telling you to not do these things for your party because obviously the craft part is part of the hobby that you really love but I hope you have some idea on how to solve this problem. Maybe part of the solution is an OOC understanding with the players, I don’t know. But if I’ve spent hours painting a wizard it’s going to be tough to feel good about him being one-shotted in the first round.

Thanx for listening.

TL;DR: the world is epic and dangerous and there are no “thrash mobs”, it’s the living, monster-haunted wilds.