Wednesday, February 6, 2013

Making Fights Tough in GURPS DF

I posted some advice on tougher fights in the past, in the form of some advice on handling many-on-one fights, aka boss fights.

Patrick Halter posted his thoughts on the subject, and a great description of GURPS's "maneuver economy" as well.

The thing with making enemies in GURPS tough is, you have to consider different avenues at once. D&D conflates hardness-to-kill with skill in combat - Hit Dice determine your HP and how often you hit a certain AC, as well. Rolemaster conflates the hit roll and the damage roll, so big strong guys can overcome a lack of actual skill with a huge stat bonus from strength. But GURPS breaks all of this up. You need to think along multiple lines:

Make Them Skilled - You have to be skilled enough to hit, and hit regularly, to be a threat. Skill 13 is probably the bottom for anything to be considered a threat in DF - it can sometimes hit you. Skill 15 is much better, since it opens up shots to the limb with a solid chance to hit (13 or less), and you've got better than a 50-50 shot at a Telegraphic Attack to the eye or chinks in armor over the torso.

They have no skill to leverage and not much protection, either.

A 13 skill is Parry 9, and rolls against a 13 when Feinted. A 15 is Parry 10 and rolls against a 15 when Feinted. Against the same 18-skill PC opponent (low for DF, but whatever), using a Medium Shield (DB 2), the first guy loses the contest by an average of 5 points and his Parry roll is a paltry 9+2-5=6. He'll die. Second guy? He loses by 3 on average and rolls against a 10+2-3=9. Much better! Add a Retreat and he's got a 50/50 shot of not getting hit, despite being feinted on one turn and attacked on the other by a much superior foe.

Skill 16 gives the best chance at a critical hit (3-6 instead of 3-5 for a 15, and 3-4 for anything lower). Skills in increments of 2 above that give you more targeting options, and, more critically, a real chance at Deceptive Attacks that matter.

Big strong monsters only get to overwhelm defenses if they have a really big weapon, so check the rules on Parrying Heavy Weapons and their addendum in GURPS Martial Arts if you're going to want your giants to just power down defenses despite their low skill. Unless they are really big, this won't happen, and if their defenses suck, they won't get more than a chance or two.

All of this helps, because you need to hit, and often hit multiple times, to get through the defenses of a front-line fighter. Case in point, the knight in my DF game has Two-Handed Sword-24 and a Parry of 16 (he has Combat Reflexes for a +1); thanks to a two-handed sword and Weapon Master additional parries are only -1 each, so he parries three hits at 16, 15, and 14, and he'll retreat to get a further +1 if he needs it. He's not likely to miss a roll. My own knight in GURPS Midgaard has a Parry of 18 and a Block that's not much lower. Either of those guys needs to be seriously swarmed and serious hit a lot per second before they will start to worry.

What's their Dodge? Dodge isn't dependent on skill, but on speed, so it's a good back door to make a monster that's hard to whack but isn't necessarily going to hit you too often. However, since it never goes down, and gets a +3 from Retreat, don't overdo it. A flying monsters with a high dodge and good magic resistance is going to smoke a party if it's also got a lethal attack, if only because they have no way to deal with it.

Make Their Attacks Strong Enough - can the maximum damage of this monster threaten the targets it can hit? If not, it's fodder at best, and harmless at worst. If the average damage can threaten the front line fighters where it can hit them, then it's beginning to get to a worthwhile level. If it can kill with an average hit, or at least incapacitate, it's lethal. But consider the kind of DR they should be able to break through. If that monster should be able to rend plate, or those orcs are meant to chop up mail-armored warriors with ease, their damage needs to reflect it.

Arm Them Appropriately - Watch for giving armed opponents weapons with a U parry, which prevents them from attacking and defending on the same turn, unless they have some other useful defense. Make sure the weapons they have, have the reach and damage to have the effect you want. And for unarmed attackers, consider giving them a pass on getting sliced up when parried.

Ranged Attacks - Consider how this monster deals with flying opponents. Or when the PCs cast Levitate on them, move them up a yard, and then turn them around and leave them there. Consider how they deal with guys who back up all the time.

Use Tactics and Terrain - Opponents are tougher if they force you to fight on their terms. So make your opponents fight that way. Ranked fighters work well to swamp the defenses of fighters with short weapons. Front rank with reach 1 weapons and shields, second and third ranks with spears and/or polearms. Back them up with ranged weapon fire or put archers on the flanks. Build barricades. Combined obstacles, bad terrain, and hazards (oil, caltrops, triplines, green slime puddles) together to slow down attackers and keep them in a kill zone.

And for goodness' sake give them magical support. Great Haste, Blocking spells, and attack spells that don't depend on a low "to hit" roll to have some kind of effect (Create Fire works wonders this way). Darkness spells and Mystic Mist are good, too.

None of this will help fodder be more than a brief obstacle, but at least they are trying.

Special Powers - A good catch-all - monsters with Injury Tolerance (especially No Brain or No Eyes or Homogenous), monsters with high rates of Regeneration or who have immunities to attacks (Insubstantially, say, or some kind of weapon immunity) might last longer. Creatures with Extra Attacks and/or extra limbs carrying more weapons for more defenses can be tough to kill simply for the same reason PCs would be - they won't blow a roll very often.

Monsters with the right special powers can really change the threat level. This is an easy way to increase their toughness without making major changes to a creature. They can be tougher without any real additional effort - a ghost with Affects Substantial or non-physical spells vs. a party without the correct spells is going to be a TPK, even if the same spells and same creature would be fodder if they had it. Which leads to . . .

Know the Strengths of Their Enemies - pitting undead against a Holy Warrior or Cleric with True Faith (w/Turning) doesn't work out well. It's very effective and makes low-Will undead helpless against them. Pitting mass numbers of low-damage monsters against an armored knight isn't a threat, because they'll ignore their attacks - Light Plate is DR 6, DR 9-10 is easy with magic and/or Armor Mastery from DF11. Pitting low-Will creatures against a wizard specializing in Will-based spells is equally a waste of time. Know that Weapon Masters will probably hunt up enough skill to Feint at a -3 and strike at a -3 using Rapid Strike and the rules from GURPS Martial Arts and kill most moderate-skill or moderate-defense monsters in a single second. Be aware of these things when you think about how an encounter will go.

Those are some ways you can make a monster tougher in GURPS. I hope this meandering mess helps someone!


  1. It's very helpful to me, at least. I like the mild numbers treatments you gave as well, since they're sufficient to drive the point and suggest solutions.

  2. One of the interesting and scary/nice things about high Parry/Block scores is that much like high-skill attacks can benefit from large Deceptive Attack penalties (my rule of thumb is always DA down to skill-14), you can - and should! - do the same thing with Riposte. If your parry is higher than 14, Riposte it down to 14. That's 90% chance to succeed in what you're doing, and lower than that you're on the steep end of the bell curve.

    For those who have nifty things that happen on crits, raise this by two. DA or Riposte down to 16 so you always get that 10% chance to crit.

    1. Unfortunately, Riposte was hit with the nerf bat in 4e. It does not stack with DA, only works fully against a single defense, and only works for one attack.

    2. That's not completely correct. It works fully against one defense, and at half effectiveness against the other defenses. I personally don't think stacking it with Deceptive Attack is that abusive, but I haven't actually tried that in play so I don't know if it would be in actual practice.

      As for "hit with the nerf" bat - in 3e, it was capital-B Broken, and played hell with turn order and the number of maneuvers you took. It was a massive FAQ and house rule generator.

    3. I read the "doesn't stack with DA" as being you can't attack a guy using DA AND do a Riposte during your own turn. I would definitely allow a Riposte from the previous turn to stack with a DA on your next attack.

      Also, you could potentially bypass this by saying that if you want to Riposte and DA on the same turn, have at it, but your Parry is based on your adjusted DA.

      So if you have Sword-18 and DA down to Sword-14 for -2, you may certainly Riposte on your own turn, but your base Parry is against Sword-14 (Parry-10 instead of Parry-12). You can bring your Parry down to 8, but you'd better have high DR.

    4. Peter, I said "only works fully against a single defense". I know it works at half power against the other defenses. It still works only for one of your attacks, and does not stack with DA.

      In 3rd ed, like all the fencing related stuff, it was capital B broken. 4th ed overcompensated IMHO.

      Douglas, unfortunately, that is not what is actually written, and it would be a logistical nightmare to implement anyway. as you would have to remember who you DA against, how much you DAed, because it would both alter your defense against select foes and because your previous turn actions may influence your current turn actions. Maybe it's realistic (no real idea, the only thing I know about real combat is that I don't want to be in one), but it certainly adds a lot of book keeping, that is certainly out of place in a DF game.

    5. Well, try a variation of Riposte and see how it works. Try using it with Deceptive Attack, and see if it's broken.

      Try it in play, and if it's not a problem, I'd say go with it. But I'd want to get actual play feedback. And it would need to not make Counterattack and/or Stop Hits useless - they are fairly finely tuned against one another.

  3. Personally, I designed encounters for TPK. My players are quite crafty, and anything not designed to be a TPK became a cakewalk.

    DF is quite different from your usual GURPS Fantasy game. Characters are tough as nails, and very well optimized by default. Consider that the weakest combatants in a DF party will have skill 15, and things go up from there.

    Also, on very quick dodging monsters, a single hit will usually cripple their dodge, and unless they also have a high skill, a single feint will ensure that hit.

    Also, word of advice, boss fights are extremely hard to tune. It's much easier if the boss has fodder that will cover it's flanks, force the party to defend it's weakest members, block retreats, target flanks, etc etc, while the boss goes around raining death. Without the fodder, the boss would need to be much tougher to provide a similar challenge, and so you would have much less room to maneuver.

    Also, I disagree with Peter here in that including monsters that one character is specially strong against (undead against holy warriors and clerics with true faith (turning),...) doesn't work well. It can work. the trick is to use combined arms. It will provide each character with a chance to shine, keep everyone feeling useful. If the party has a mass daze wizard, a true faith cleric, and a knight, opposition composed of a mix of mind control immune undead and demons, low will heavily armored orcs, and very skilled very damaging damaging but unarmored high will shadow elves will be much tougher than any of these foes taken separately. If you avoid the character's strengths all the time, the players will feel cheated, as they built their characters to be cool in their niche.

    1. Oh, mixed opposition will work. But how often does it make sense to have skeletons, orcs, demons, etc. all in one fight? Not often. And sometimes the players will just push the win button in fights. It's part of being badass adventurers is that sometimes you just flat out win.

      Boss fights and pre-planned "everyone is useful in this one!" brawls feel very game-y to me, and require a lot of work. I'd rather just throw monsters at the enemies and see what happens.

    2. Peter, it may not be appropriate for every fight, obviously, but even if you're fighting a bunch of orcs, they may have dire wolves (easy for the Druid to deal with, hard on the mind control bard or wizard), lowly goblins, big orcs, undead from a necromancer orc or demons fron a demonologist orc,... If you just have 30 identical orcs, then anything that deals with one of them will deal with all of them.

    3. Yeah, maybe. But any physical threat is merely a physical threat, and front-line fighters can mince them. And you can't always deploy combined arms everywhere, even if the players would be willing to push their PCs into them.

      I'm just not as convinced that extra weak fodder that can be pushed aside with True Faith or Panic spells or chopped up with impunity by knights will actually matter in a fight, either. Maybe I'm not doing it right, but weak is weak unless you make them threatening to the guys who can auto-beat them with an ability. That might mean a no-Sanctity zone for the undead, virulent poison on the goblin arrows, or whatever, but if they can't make themselves a threat to the PCs who can overwhelm them easily, they just don't seem like a threat.

    4. The extra fodder will keep that character tied for at least a round, maybe more. Of course, it has to be threatening fodder, even if it does quickly and/or has obvious weak points. It has to be something that will require SOME attention, or will put the players in a world of pain.

      The simplest example, the boss has some shield bearers that cover it's flanks, and have shield wall training, large shields, and Shield 16, for a block of 14. The are armed with spears, with skill 15, and wear little to no armor. Now, the boss, who probably has respectable stats, has an additional layer of defense, can't be surrounded, and anyone getting in melee with it will be targeted by a lot of spear thrusts, that may be easy to avoid, but they make in numbers what skill alone won't do. Of course, their low will made Panicking them easy, but the energy cost of that meant that the caster could not throw nastiness on the boss.

      Second example (from actual play in fact). The boss is a live necromancer with some living flunkies. He also commands some ghosts (reskinned flaming skulls and toxifiers). In fact it is working on a ritual to open the gates of death and bring more ghosts to this world, under his command, when the characters interrupt. There were 6 flaming skills and 6 toxifiers at the beginning of the combat, and each turn, one of each would come in. The cleric had to shuffle between casting and true faith, while the melee dealt with the living.

    5. Sure, but that supports the main thrust of my suggestions - they have to be a threat, or they aren't even time wasters. If they are a threat, you've done what I suggested and took the powers of the PCs into account.

  4. This is valuable.

    GURPS material so rarely breaks the fourth wall in order to lay out the implications of its own rules. That's one reason I'm glad to see an expansion of GURPS blogging....

    1. I'm always happy to help in that regard!

    2. This is hugely helpful, actually. I pregen'ed my group's first set of DF characters to use as "backup game" fodder, and the Knight maxed out his top weapon skill at 16. Clearly, I was Doing It Wrong.

      Also, what are the martial art rules you referenced about feint and rapid strike, a -3 and quickly killing medium-skill monsters? Were you just saying that a Rapid Strike used by a Weapon Master is penalized at -3, and one of those strikes can be a Feint, and thus a low skill monster is toast quickly?

    3. That's what I am talking about - use Rapid Strike at -3/-3, and substitute a Feint for the first attack, per Martial Arts p. 127 (Feints and Multiple Attacks).

      And yeah, skill 16 is low. For a DF knight, skill 16 only works if you take the third option of weapon skills and then not spend anything improving them or improving DX. So it's possible, but so is weapon skills in the low 20s, and a GM needs to be ready for that!

    4. This post inspired me to write a longer - and likely incomplete - expansion on melee skill levels. It'll show up within the week.


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