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This question inspired by Self-defeating Strategy that posits:

What happens when players outwit their enemies, leading to their easy defeat? In most other games, this is a perfectly valid, often the preferable and only way to win. However, in 4e the tactical wargame part is its own distinct source of fun, around which much of characters’ capabilities are concentrated. Fighting only half of the enemy force because the other half has been engaged by allies elsewhere is not actually fun if the full force made up a proper encounter. When players find a hole in the plot which lets them circumvent 3/4s of it, they are left wondering: “is that it?” Likewise, if they devise a clever strategy to beat their enemies before the swords are drawn, they win the conflict, yet lose the fun they would have had otherwise.

While the blog post mentions 5 possible strategies, it doesn't feel like it exhausts all possible (or even best) outcomes.

How can we preserve rewarding player ingenuity in 4e while making sure that same ingenuity doesn't sabotage the fun of combats?

Beyond that, how do I then encourage players to explore these unconventional strategies in a game that has trained them so thoroughly that set piece battles are both fun and inevitable? (And that bypassing them only leads to the crushing ignominity of a skill challenge).

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It's not just 4e. We KO'd the final boss in our 3.5e game in 2 rounds with only minimal injuries to ourselves (Plan Omega we called it at the time). There's lots of situations where you can cut short your gaming pleasure by winning too well. –  C. Ross Feb 6 '12 at 1:19
    
Mmm, but it's especially bad in 4e. At least I want this question to focus on 4e. Maybe do a spinoff Q for 3.5 and returning enjoyment to nova-actions? –  Brian Ballsun-Stanton Feb 6 '12 at 1:24
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The post applies to any combat-heavy game. But while other systems, including 3.5, can be used to run less combat-centric games, it would be counter productive to do so with 4e. –  Magician Feb 6 '12 at 2:16

5 Answers 5

up vote 9 down vote accepted

There's a very popular post on ENWorld about "Combat as Sport vs. Combat as War" that discusses this dichotomy.

I don't feel that eliminating combat rounds "removes the fun." In this week's game, we spent a long enjoyable time planning a combat strategy to use with a keep's end boss (Kikkonu the yamabushi tengu from Jade Regent) and when it came off we took him out without him getting a single shot in return. It was beautiful. And everyone was happy. We still used table time, it's just that much of it was thinking and planning rather than sword-swinging.

Your players would not be planning to get rid of the enemy in this way if they really wanted to do a three hour combat instead. If they wanted a three hour combat, they'd just run in like little Murlocs on the mini grid and do that. But they're not, so listen to what they want as reflected through what they're doing. It may not "line up with the creative agenda of the game" but no one gives a good Goddamn about that.

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As a player, I disagree with your third paragraph. If I see a good plan ahead of the group, I'm not going to say "but we shouldn't do it, because I want to do combat." I'm going to play my character to the best of my ability (either from an RP or decision optimization standpoint), and assume the DM planned for it all along. –  AceCalhoon Feb 6 '12 at 4:49
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He did plan for it - he planned to not make your decisionmaking pointless by throwing the same combat at you regardless of what you do. –  mxyzplk Feb 6 '12 at 5:19
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You know, instead of trying to figure out what the players want from what they do, wouldn't it be a little easier and more accurate to, y'know, ask them? There are a lot of nuances you just can't always figure out from looking. I, for example, would totally love combat-as-war but I get easily frustrated when a strategy doesn't come immediately to my mind; someone just observing would just assume that I prefer combat-as-sport. –  Yandros Feb 25 '12 at 23:08
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Asking the players is often by no means the most accurate method of determining what they want. If human psychology was this straight forward, then "self defeating strategies" wouldn't exist at all. If you get frustrated every or most time when you have to come up with a strategy, you don't prefer combat as war, even though you are saying you do. –  mxyzplk Feb 26 '12 at 1:42

Me and my group love skill challenges and hate random encounters. To our opinion, the fights in DnD-4e are fun only if the location is fun (traps, natural hazards, otherworldly landscapes...) or if the enemy is a "boss".

So I usually give my players some way of defeating enemies quicker if it's a normal fight. This is often a skill challenge during combat, or prior to combat. I even give them automatic successes if they are creative enough. If they fail the skill challenge, the encounter goes as normal, and that's their penalty for failing it.

The other thing is to use the terrain to their advantage. Usually the enemies prepare the terrain or traps, but I try to leave some way for the players to turn the terrain and/or traps against the enemies. Again this can be done with some skill challenge or by being creative.

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I'd handle such a problem in four possible ways:

  1. Meta-talking: Talk to your players what they'd prefer. Explain that being "too clever for their own good" in this case means boring encounters and perhaps much less show-time for characters' abilities (depending on the individual builds). Since noone attends a gaming session to be bored senseless, I think most players would understand it and cut it back a bit. Most fantasy movies are utterly stupid from a strategy pov (see also: How LotR should have ended) but still enjoyable because of other aspects of the story.

  2. Just let them have it: Don't adjust anything and run a boring and too easy encounter that doesn't remotely challenge anyone. Perhaps they like cakewalks instead of difficult fights and if that's the case that allows for a much greater focus on the story and social aspects of your game. Perhaps this is the very reason why players are doing this, because they don't want to spend so much time in combat but rather would do something else in the game.

  3. Adjust your encounters: Increase the difficulty of your encounters by any means (more - not tougher - monsters, traps, environmental hazards, ...) to such a degree that the players must engage in their planning to be able to succeed at all. This is what I call "Shadowrun difficult", since a run is doomed to fail without extensive planning and research. Just follow the saying, "Failing to plan is planning to fail", but still give your players plenty of opportunities to plan ahead and investigate their opponents.

  4. No tactical influence: No amount of planning ahead or research or clever thinking has a chance to influence any given single encounter. If the plot requires the party to encounter the enemy's general with his 4 troll guards than this will happen no matter of planning or diversion or whatever the characters are doing. Planning can only affect things on a strategic, larger scale, level. For example, instead of reducing the number of enemies in a given encounter, a clever plan may reduce the number of encounters instead. This will allow players to still have a tangible benefit from their planning efforts without screwing over the GM's plans for the evening or the plot.

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+1 for "Adjust your encounters." –  corvec Feb 6 '12 at 17:31

Bonus encounters!

Let's assume the trivial case where the adventure is purely linear. Encounter A leads to B leads to C and so on. If, as a DM, you expect that the group will get through three encounters in a session, prepare six. If they cleverly bypass encounter B, then do the following:

  1. give them a decent fraction of the reward for beating B

  2. let them hit encounter C without having expended the resources that they would have spent on B

  3. You'll be able to fit encounter D in for this session instead of saving it for next week. The plot advances further, etc.

If the game is less linear, presumably the group will be able to advance closer to their long-term goal faster; hopefully you're able to prepare just as far ahead, and can still provide the group its encounter-per-session quota.

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My problem with this is twofold: "decent fraction of B" means... a penalty, and in 4e the "resource expenditure" is absolutely not worth the discount in reward from B. Second: Going faster isn't actually a reward, since the players are missing out on fun content and the chance to use their powers. Or am I missing something? –  Brian Ballsun-Stanton Feb 6 '12 at 4:21
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I disagree that it's a penalty. Tonight, instead of doing encounters A, B, and C, we did encounters A, C, and D, and got some gold/whatever from dodging encounter B. Same number of encounters, same amount of fun. Just different fun. –  Jim Kiley Feb 6 '12 at 4:54

Personally, I think that outwitting the opponents rather than fighting them every time is more fun and excitement, but it sounds like your players like being "juggernauts" and knocking down all obstacles "head-on".

I think it's entirely appropriate and "realistic" to put in each adventure some encounter that is "too much" to handle with a plain and direct fight. Like arotter suggested, it's usually better to increase the number of opponents, rather than the strenght of the "boss fight". Let's make a stupid example: if you want to collect a fabled relict from a dungeon that is the home of a goblin clan, you can enter it openly and loudly, or use stealth; if you make too much noise etc. eventually you'll find yourself surrounded by the whole clan (and doomed), while if you sneak in quietly, using your magic and abilities, you may have a few fights with the relic custodians or with the clanmaster if you manage to catch them unprepared and cut off most of the rest of the clan, while you fetch your object and then run away in the confusion. Is it clear enough?... In general, I think that the possibility for the players to fight and actually die in each adventure adds quite a lot of fun and thrill.

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