If there is a single takeaway line for this post, it's this:
Purely physical threats are weak in DF.
You can stop reading and just keep that in mind and you'll be okay. Naturally I have a lot more to say about it, with much longer and more complex near-run-on sentences, but that's the crux of it.
There are a few reasons for this.
- DF delvers are very tough. Right out of the game, they are experts at what they do. That especially includes fighting. Although the non-fighter types have a lot of trouble hanging with the main fighters, they're still pretty good (Wizards start with a 14 weapon skill, which is well above basic competency.) Not only that, they're generally set up for multiple defenses and multiple types of defenses quite well.
- GURPS Magic contains a lot of complete solutions. Any magic system used instead that apes the results of GURPS Magic does the same. Non-flying creatures can't really hang with flying delvers. Sight-hunting creatures suffer against Invisibility. Missile launcher types, no matter how lethal their missiles, just fail against Missile Shield. Fire monsters can't beat Resist Fire. Tough melee fighters can often be Levitated and left hanging in the air. And so on.
- It's generally cheaper to buff up than to kill in GURPS.
- It's easy to get better at dealing with physical threats. Most threats will either be physical or come with physical elements. PCs can and will react to this by raising defenses, adding armor, layering on cheap buff spells, etc.
With those things in mind, here are two of the best practices I've come up with.
Mundane foes need supernatural support.
First and foremost, don't just have purely physical foes. If all you can do is fight with missiles and melee, you're playing to the strengths of the delvers. You might exceed them, but it can get tiring to be a supposedly amazing human warrior but dungeons are packed to the walls full of Smallsword-30 goblins - given that skill just to be a threat. ST is nice, but you have to land a blow for it to matter. High DR and HP will keep you alive, but for how long before you whittled down, especially if it's not coupled with any real offensive threat?
This isn't to say physical foes can't be a threat. They just aren't a big threat solo, and aren't as big of a threat without supernatural support. A pack of dire apes is annoying. A pack of dire apes backed by an ape spellcasters with a ghost-ape ally can change the fight from "slaughter" to "keep the apes off the guy who can hurt the ghost!" I was looking at using a monster from another GURPS supplement for DF, and realized two spells and one Knight would fizzle all of his attacks and then kill him, respectively. The solution? Add supernatural powers suited to GURPS Magic. Done, real threat created.
Not only that, but delvers tend to place a high emphasis on supernatural support-based tactics. If your monsters can't attempt to counter those or remove those, or use their own, the playing field just won't be level.
Think Wizards and Clerics, not witchmen and shamans.
This goes for both the GM and the players. For a GM with an old-school D&D background especially, adding two or three weak spellcasters with a handful of low-level spells each adds a lot of juice to an encounter. It's tempting to say that out of 100 lizardmen or 30-40 bandits or a dozen trolls that one of them has some minor magical power. That generally won't cut it. Instead, take a cue from the frequency of spellcasters that show up in DFA1 and put them in to the dungeon in bunches. Instead of 300 gnolls having one spellcaster and his or her two pathetic apprentices, have 300 gnolls have one spellcaster per squad (62 point guys might be okay), and a couple of really good casters topped by a main wizard or cleric in the 125-250 point range not counting the racial template. Don't mess around - it's like the PCs will be better, have superior magical support, and will grow from the challenge. In a magical world with common spells that can end fights in a single go or shape the battlefield with ease, you'd be foolish to go around without support. If groups survive, it must be because they have more spellcasters. Put them in. Treat it like a military group would treat a squad without a light automatic weapon and anti-tank rockets - as if they're doomed.
For the players, you can't think "weak spellcaster" when you see the enemy spellcasters. There are weak ones, but they are numerous. Don't bet on being the only side bringing magic to a fight. Just because you chose "Wizard" as your template doesn't mean there aren't other Wizards out there.
Prefix, Prefix, Prefix.
There are a number of prefixes out there for DF. Some of them fundamentally change the threat level of monsters. Use them liberally. While a few just make you more of a physical threat (Determined, Juggernaut, Ravenous), others make you a very different threat (Distorted, Chaos, Undead, Ghostly.) Still others make you a repeated threat (Possessed, Psycho Killer, and the suffix . . . from Hell.) Don't overlook them. Even if you just want to use them for inspiration, realize that ten trolls is just ten trolls, but nine trolls plus a Distorted Elemental Psycho-Killer troll is a potential nightmare. And keep the above in mind - make one of the remaining nine into a wizard or cleric.
For the players, just be aware that the one owlbear you met or that eye of death you killed or that acid slorn you killed isn't the end-all and be-all of their stats. Use what you know, but be aware you don't know everything.
Use a variety of target-location methods.
This one I rarely see discussed. If all of your monsters hunt by sight, they're all doomed. Blur will penalized all of their attacks and Invisibility and Blackout will put them down to Wild Swings in no time. You must mix up how monsters sense targets.
I use a variety of: See Invisible. Discriminatory Smell. Detect (Precise, Reduced Time). Radar Sense. Hearing-based Detect. Vibration Sense. Occasionally Blind Fighting. And a few others, too. Plus I'm fairly liberal in handing out Night Vision, Infravision, and Dark Vision to depth-dwelling monsters. The really scary ones often have more than one!
It's not because I want to frustrate the casters of the three spells above. Not exactly, anyway. It's because it's necessary to constitute a real threat. If you just churn out monsters who can't sense foes unless they're looking directly at them in well-lit conditions, there is a one-spell solution to that. By all means reward use of supernatural concealment, Stealth, and so on - but equally, you need to challenge all the ways you need to sneak. Don't make it trivial to reduce monsters to ineffectiveness by making all of them spot targets the same way.
For players, keep in mind that you need to figure out how a monster spots you to defeat that with magic or tactics. Smoke might frustrate orc archers but not impress the Shaolin monkey men slingers. You can be invisible to sight and sound but Detect Life (Precise) will spot you right away. There is a No Smell spell for a reason, and it's not to make fourth graders laugh. Take precautions, but don't assume your precautions always work. And know that if you attempt to buff versus everything and layer anti-detection magic versus everything all at once on everyone, you're never going to get anywhere. And it still might not work . . .