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So my players recently fought a big bad campaign boss. The (custom made) boss was a kind of solo beserker king, and the encounter difficulty was designed to be fairly moderate until the boss became bloodied, at which point he would frenzy and dramatically increase his damage output and the encounter difficulty.

However, once the boss was bloodied, the first thing the bard did on his next turn, was to use Knack for Success on a intimidate check. With a high roll, a naturally high charisma score and a +4 from KfS, he easily beat the simpleton/barbarian boss' Will (even with the +10 bonus for being hostile).

I hadn't considered this at all. This was the first time in maybe 8 levels that any of the players had used their Intimidate skill. The player in question was pretty excited as he had obviously studied and prepared to do this. He asked me directly, out of character, if the boss was immune to fear, which it wasn't (it seems some solo creatures are and others aren't - the solo monster I had used as a template wasn't).

I though it would be bad manners to suddenly add an immunity to the boss, especially after the bard player had prepared this strategy, but it really bummed out a few of the other players (and myself) who had saved resources and looked forward to the epic campaign-ending encounter, only to see it end prematurely and in such an anticlimax.

In the future I will definitely throw immunity to fear in with all important bosses, but I am wondering if there was anything I could have said or done in this specific situation that would've been better.

Another clarification: I did have the bard roleplay his intimidation speech, and it was pretty good. Not worthy of bonuses or penalties, but solid. The player was completely following RAW.

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"He asked me directly if the boss was immune to fear" - Why did you answer the player? You should only answer this if the PC would have the ability to determine that and if the PC does the legwork to find out. For example if your lvl 2 PCs come across a monster that reacts poorly to fire. The PCs would have to roll an INT check or have some other plausible reason (heard a legend, past experience, etc.) to know that such a critter is vulnerable to fire. The PCs don't just get to memorize the entire MM vol. 1-4 even if the player has. –  Freiheit Apr 30 '13 at 16:25
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First of all, he couldn't know this by memorizing the MMs, since the monster in question was custom made. Second, he had prepared for this situation beforehand, and when I tried to go "I don't think you can do that" his asking me if the boss was immune was a way of calling bullshit on me. I know I could've just lied to the player and said yes and that would've been that, but it would have been immensely unfair to the player. –  Ravn Apr 30 '13 at 18:31
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The question here is "Are your players trying to ruin your game?". If the answer is yes, consider asking yourself why. If the answer is no, then congratulate them for their cleverness. Even I, considered by my players to be the John Woo of tabletop gaming, have situations where violence is (usually accidentally) unnecessary, despite the fact that I wanted to have a massive battle and an even larger graveyard afterward. However, if your players want to do it, roll with it, and if you don't let it bother you you'll do well. That said, OOC questions are iffy at best. –  Kyle Willey Apr 30 '13 at 18:58
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7 Answers 7

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Sometimes a skill-focussed player can bypass entire obstacles with that skill. This is a shining moment for them (which you don't want to step on), but boring for the rest of the group.

The general principle I'd follow here is "Yes, but...", useful throughout GMing: Don't say no, but do say what obstacles arise as a result.

First, take a look at the rules. The skill description for Intimidate says that it can "force a bloodied target to surrender" or "cow a target into taking some other action". But that doesn't mean you control them. It doesn't say "unconditional surrender"; a typical minion might, but a King is likely to demand parole, the right to keep his weapons, and free passage for his men to leave - things the players might not be willing to grant. Also, the requirement for "bloodied" really means "the party has proved a convincing threat". I'd allow this check against non-bloodied targets in highly intimidating circumstances, and disallow it (forcing the second use of intimidate) in some cases - "berserk opponent" is pretty much an exemplar case.

Likewise, "taking some other action" just means that he doesn't make the attack he was planning. Maybe he gets cautious and retreats until he can gather more men. Maybe he agrees to negotiate, but he'd be negotiating from strength and likely to make demands the players can't agree to. (If this happened at the start I'd consider having him fight as normal, with a penalty for being uncertain - which goes away when he berserks. But you'd passed that point.)

The question to ask when you're deciding how he's cowed into taking some other action is: How does this guy behave when intimidated? Not all people react to fear by panicking: Some scream and run. Some keep their heads and run in a controlled manner. Some try to negotiate. Some look for another plan. Some get defensive and hostile. Some people get aggressive and hostile.

(And either of these last two are pretty likely for a berserker king. You said he wasn't immune to fear; you never said he didn't have berserk-refusal-to-surrender. Maybe he berserks, but has a -4 to defences the entire fight because he's swinging so aggressively that he doesn't defend himself. And he'll definitely attack the bard first - even if he's taking Mark hits from the Defenders for it.)

Finally, there's always "say yes, but reroute the plot to your ends". Suppose he's genuinely so scared of the group that he surrenders - how do his men react to this? Barbarian kingship involves keeping your throne by force - if he seems weak, probably his chief commander is outraged by his cowardice and challenges him for the throne on the spot. Describe a fight, and then whichever of them wins is angry enough to attack the players immediately - but they're already injured and berserk from the fight, so the players get to skip the first half of the combat, and they've used some of their powers up.

Or if he surrenders in return for letting his men go... another warchief is going to take them and attempt a rescue, or use the evil plan for himself, depending on loyalties.

That's the principle - let the party benefit from the skill, but the benefit isn't "miss all the fun".


If you want to avoid this situation in the first place, there's more work to do. A player who is entirely focussed on one skill will tend to beat any reasonable skill check you can throw at them. This isn't a bad thing; the opportunity cost of being that skill-focussed is not small and the player should get a benefit out of it.

For that reason, I would advise a solution other than "make it impossible in general". If you give every solo immunity to fear, you've not only removed the usefulness of Intimidate, you've also removed a range of possible villain personalities. Some arch-villains are cowards! (Not this one, obviously.)

(A berserker king probably should get Immunity to Fear when he's berserk anyway, so you'd be fine - but in this case you'd already passed that point. To give it to him all the time undermines what "fear" is.)

Instead, give solos resistance to fear. Make the player work for it.
(As GM I'd rule that the general +10 for "Hostile" isn't enough here. He's not just "enemy soldier" hostile, he's a berserker king being challenged at the height of his power by enemies who oppose a plan he's been putting great effort into, in a way that threatens his throne if he seems weak. That's good for a large circumstance bonus any day.)

Also, chaotic or neutral enemies may not feel bound to honour their surrender, if they get a chance to get loose.

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  1. Congratulate your player on solving a problem without fighting. Really. It does not often happen in FRPGs and yet even ancient cultures managed to avoid fighting most of the time.
  2. Talk to the group about whether they would like you to craft encounters where not-murdering-everyone was a viable solution.

Incidentally this seems very much the way a bard should solve problems - with brilliant speech. I would require the player to role-play the intimidation though.

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+1 for "I would require the player to role-play the intimidation though." In this case, depending on the quality of the RP, I would have the boss surrender or have it just make him madder. Or have the quality of the RP decide the amount loot the party will get. –  StuperUser Apr 30 '13 at 9:07
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While I absolutely agree that you should roleplay it out, having the outcome depend on the quality of that doesn't sit well with a lot of players. After all, part of the allure is to play someone able to do what you cannot. No one blinks an eye when the guy playing the Fighter cannot execute a perfect parry-parry-trip-step-strike sequence, or heh, the guy playing the Wizard cannot successfully cast fireball, so why does the guy playing the Bard have to be able to deliver a bone-chilling intimidation speech? Then again, the game is definitely a lot more fun if he can. –  KRyan May 2 '13 at 12:26
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Make it a climax instead of an anticlimax

This was the bard's crowning moment of awesome, I would treat it that way. Now, instead of having the barbarian king's head, you have his surrender. This would be better in most situations, and I would play that up heavily. Now depending on the reason for the fight the players have options including making him their vassal, dragging him back in chains, killing him anyway, or showing mercy after he changes whatever started the fight, or interrogating him for information.

In both fiction and real life, many great friendships start with a defeat in battle. In history, Rome in particular had a tendency of leaving the defeated leadership of their enemies in place so long as they would then swear loyalty to Rome and obey Roman law. In fiction, Zevran becomes your follower only after you defeat him in Dragon Age: Origins.

I would play up strongly how much better his surrender is than fighting to the end. Sure, it means the battle ends sooner, but against a solo encounter the same thing could come from a lucky crit by a striker after the boss was worn down a little, and most people would consider that a moment of awesome for the striker, I would make this a moment of awesome for the bard.

If you really want to prolong the fight, have a backup boss.

I would just let them keep the victory they got here. But if you really want to prolong the fight (without making intimidate useless by making all solos immune to fear) think about having a backup boss. This fits in really well with a lot of stories. There is an old saying about "Cut off the head and the body will die." This is true in a lot of cases, but not with a hydra...

So, they defeated the first boss too easily. But that boss had a henchmen or relative watching. For whatever reason (maybe the boss felt the need to do this himself, maybe the henchmen was rushing there and just arrived) the henchmen didn't play a role in the fight...until the boss went down too easily. Now he declares that the old boss was unworthy, but he is in charge now.

In a tribal setting this is could be easily believable. Personal combat can be a big thing with plenty of others watching. And if it were taken the death as that tribe's tradition demanded, the whole tribe would follow the results. (Certus per bellum - decided by battle) But if it is interrupted, even by a surrender, then it is null and void. The cowardly actions of the previous chief mean he is no longer fit to lead and the second steps right up. (Of course, mechanically the second is weaker, that is why he was second. And it means that the pcs aren't now facing a situation that is too hard after they have expended a lot of their resources on round one).

If you want to play up both sides, have the second step up, but when they defeat him they still have the first one there who surrendered. Meaning they still have options to make him their vassal, interrogate him, or ransom him back for more loot than they would have got otherwise, along with a longer combat for the more combat oriented type.

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I consider it a fine solution. Obviously I'd consider whether the boss being intimidated makes sense. If he is alone against many opponents, he surely could be intimidated (maybe even should). If the characters are not very skilled, or his group is large, or he has the advantage, it would be strange that he would surrender.

If you don't want him to surrender, because he is still in a strong position, make the intimidate result different. He could step back, leaving his minion combat while he recover his courage, or he could use only cautious attack. If the player has made him really scared, you could apply penalties for it, but still continue the combat.

Whatever your option, never simply ignore the skill. Make it meaningful.

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It has already been said many separate things. From myself would add the following options, which could be useful in a similar situation:

1) As a result of the success of the check can be CA for all, until end of your next turn for example. 2) The King of the barbarians, it is not Kobold minion: if the enemy is strong, one successful check is not enough - just make a challenge of intimidation skills. In case of success - the King of barbarians really give up, but until then he will continue to fight.

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I had a great grandfather who lived in something like a frontier town. He loved to tease my father (his grandson) by telling him stories about rounding up criminals. One of the things he always pointed out was that they never let their quarry surrender. Prisoners are difficult to guard, people fall asleep, handcuffs are rarely on hand, and knots can be squirmed out of or broken. There is a lot of risk taking someone prisoner.

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Whilst I'm not a DnD player, I've come across numerous such situations in my time GMing 7th Sea campaigns, especially with slightly belligerent players who refuse to understand properly how roleplaying works. Maybe the best way to deal with it is to set out from the offset of the campaign that "the GM is always right."

EDIT: Having said that, I might extend this to "the GM is always right, unless what the player suggests is more fun."

Whilst this maybe seems unfair and maybe ill-mannered, you can then make it your personal mission to make the game as fun as possible, bending the rules where necessary to make things more enjoyable for everybody.

EDIT: Furthermore, I would generally argue for the introduction of this method of play at the start of the campaign, and not arbitrarily introduce it into the campaign just for kicks. It seems to me to be a more fair (and fun) style of play than the old adage of "them's the rules, boyo."

In this instance, even if I hadn't set my boss to have immunity to fear (or in the case of 7th Sea immune to the Repartee system), I would just change this on the fly.

An alternative solution, which would perhaps keep everybody happy, would be to allow the intimidate, but not allow it to affect the total outcome of the match. Maybe the boss could be somehow incapacitated for a couple of rounds of combat. I think this is perhaps more realistic - a creature with an obvious power advantage over a rag-tag band of adventurers isn't going to be terrifically upset by something one of them says. I have used this in the past, and it seemed to please both the tanks and the skill-hoarders.

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+1 for alternative solution also, but agree that while the GM is always right, directly opposing a PC's plan as well as the RAW is often a quick way to ruin the fun despite your intentions. –  ioanwigmore Apr 30 '13 at 11:36
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-1 for moving boundaries on players and proposing Rule Zero as carte blanche for ignoring player actions that don't fit your story. –  Joshua Aslan Smith Apr 30 '13 at 12:21
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