Monday, April 1, 2019

Co-DMs for Boss Fights

I must reflect on an experiment from last month's TotalCon that worked smashingly well (likely my favorite event of the con). My friend and co-Wandering DM Paul invited me to join him for his recurring Sunday-morning "Boss Fight for Breakfast", a two-hour all-out fight between players and some major D&D bad guy in an interesting lair with various environmental hazards.

In this case he invited me to participate as something of a co-DM, namely, the dedicated brains behind the boss -- here, Flame, an ancient red dragon of maximum size, power, and spellcasting ability, from the Dungeon Magazine #1 adventure "Into the Fire".

Specifically, my role was this guy.

I was really thrilled by how this worked out. Sometimes with a single large bad guy there's a danger that PCs are going to swamp him with the "action economy" of getting lots of actions while the boss only gets one per round. There were 9 high-level PCs coming at me with lots of spells, magic items, cold abilities, magic detecting swords, etc., etc. -- which I was not allowed to inspect before the game -- so I was worried this was a distinct possibility.

Situation as PCs saw it at the start.

But as it turned out I was really quite happy with how challenging I could make this. I used illusions layered on illusions on top of other illusions to distract the players. I hit them with two 88-point flame breaths while they were carefully trying to avoid a major trap. I got one player to run to their death into a hidden chasm. Another, flying on a magic carpet, conked their head on a cavern roof hidden by magic. I hit a batch of them with a hold spell (although all but one made their saves), and managed to drop a portcullis trap on them. I even taunted them into using the one spell against which I had an item giving me immunity. I was defeated in the last 5 minutes of the session, but I think I put up a fair game.

Situation as everyone saw it at the end.

When we left the convention, both Paul and I shared the same observation; neither of us could have made that game work the same way working alone. As referee, your hands are definitely full going around the table adjudicating (high-level) player actions, questions, details on spells, saving throws and damage, etc., etc. When it gets to the monster turn, I would feel compelled to take an action in 5 seconds or so -- the same as I permit players, to keep the action fast-paced -- regardless of whether it was a very well-considered move or not. But by separating the jobs here, Paul could focus on rulings on player actions, while I had the whole 10 minutes or so to meditate on my options, look at my big hand of spell cards, estimate distances, reflect on player actions, etc., and come up with the best and most devious response possible.

In particular for these kinds of "genius-level" take-no-prisoners opponents, this approach definitely resulted in me running the most devastating boss monster that I've accomplished to date. I think that may be generally true; simply put, getting 100 times more processing power is going to make your simulation look a whole lot smarter than normal. That may not be something feasible all the time (e.g., in a campaign game where combat is not happening all the time, there wouldn't always be something for the boss-actor to do), but in climactic set-pieces with mastermind spell-casters, now I might think this is the best possible thing to do, if I can find a co-DM for it.

More: Our March 10th Wandering DM livecast was on the subject of Dragons, and lessons that we'd learned from the very game. Watch it here.

22 comments:

  1. It’s a good tool, having another person run the monster or monsters. I’m thinking of handing off the responsibility of moving the monsters and deciding their tactics to the players as an experiment this week. I’ll do the numbers for the monsters but they get to make them fight. See what happens.

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    1. That's awesome, I want to hear what happens!

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  2. As I recall, this role was called the "Adversary" in some larger games. Such roles, like the "Caller" and such, probably deserve a lot more attention than they get.

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    1. That's useful -- I was totally grasping for a particular title here.

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    2. Exactly right. It was in GURPS, maybe even Man to Man before that.

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    3. tapferwolf: I'm pretty sure that I had seen it used for some larger D&D games even before that.

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    4. We did this again in a game this weekend and we were calling the "Adversary", so thanks for that!

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    5. It's both accurate and evocative, so probably the best name for the player type/position. Glad that I could remember it and bring it to your attention!

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    6. Definitely, I agree so much. :-D

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  3. I have watched this episode of Wandering DM the other day while commuting... I need to try this out someday. I bet my players would have a blast in an experience like this.

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  4. This perhaps adds an interesting wrinkle to campaign play where the DM might arrange for situations where one of the players could be cast as the boss of a boss fight on a rotating basis. I wonder if there would be a way to do it that wouldn't run afoul of group dynamics, i.e. the players are used to operating as a team vs. the DM, would it cause too much static to pit one against the others from time to time. (While their character were offscreen or captive or something.)

    The only other option I could see would be to call in a friend for the occasional guest villain role, which would be cool too.

    Very interesting idea.

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    1. I think I do prefer the call-in-a-friend option. Another aspect here is that I had exactly zero awareness or prior affection for any of the PCs.

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    2. Yeah, I think I agree. Asking a player to turn against the rest, even for temporary, and even if they're supposed to be playing the villain for that session, could cause some grief. The only real benefit it has is convenience.

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  5. I had the pleasure of co-DMing the Bottle City level of Castle Greyhawk with Rob Kuntz at GenCon in 2007, and it was a lot of fun, particularly when the PCs entered into the Hall of the Gods and got to battle avatars of the imprisoned deities! :D

    Allan.

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  6. That sounds like a blast. I've been an adversary player/co-GM, and used them. I blogged about both, which might be helpful to people considering doing so:

    Lessons of Adversary Players
    A tale of two adversary players

    Short version - it's really helpful if you do it right, and you can do it without even having that extra GM/extra player at the table, on a campaign-level scale.

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    1. Those are really fantastic experiments/observations, thanks so much for writing them up and sharing them!

      In particular, I really like the notion that you're getting a reasonable slice of opposing PC party action (or co-DMs) with this technique. That started to dawn on me about a paragraph before you said it outright.

      Re: The D&D Known World, have you gotten your hands on module X10? I've been eager in the past to run that, really fully-formed for the kind of campaign you're talking about, with local PCs and play-by-email heads of other countries (e.g., Glantri). I think I prepped software at one point to help handle that, but other priorities got in the way.

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    2. You're welcome. It's something I'm really glad I did, because I got results I as a GM would never have gotten on my own.

      X10 Red Arrow, Black Shield is one of my favorites. I think it would work really well for a campaign that draws heavily on Adversary players. I never got to run it, because deep down I was the only hardcore wargamer in my regular mix of players. I played the wargame solo, though, and enjoyed it.

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    3. I hear that. For me, I tried to squeeze X10 into a nonstop weekend as the last thing my high school gaming group did before heading in different directions IRL. We got about 1/3 the way through the content, with pretty interesting action, and never resolved it -- so I've had this itch to "find out how it ends" ever since. As I recall, the War Machine rules as written really bogged me down (esp., the three melees per space per campaign turn).

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    4. The rules weren't the best hex-and-counter wargame rules I ever played with, yeah. But I love the concept of adventurers rushing around in an invasion, trying to rally support, the invaders equally trying to sway support . . . fun stuff. Although in most games, most players would have pissed off 90% of the countries they'd need to ally with by the time you pulled this out. There would be villages here and there they saved, but mostly, they'd have given the finger (figuratively) to too many authority groups to really pull off diplomacy. :)

      I will dig out X10 again, though, and re-read those rules and see how they feel now, so many years on.

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    5. Ha, you're probably right. :-) Maybe in high school in the X-module-path we didn't play that angle up so much.

      Ever since X10 I've been yearning for a useful, D&D-compatible offscreen war resolution system but still haven't found or designed one.

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