Thursday, June 15, 2017

Powerful NPCs destroy verisimilitude

My current DM really likes throwing high-level NPCs at us now. I'm not super happy with this because it really brings us out of the game. Here's how it came about, as far as I can tell:

The DM has decided the CR system is ridiculous since we could easily handle many battles in the past campaign. In the last campaign, we did well with a lot of battles, but he's also remembering the past year of high-level play when we really could handle a lot of stuff. I think the earlier parts of Princes of the Apocalypse (before level 7 or so) were fairly well balanced modulo travel nonsense (see below).

As part of his play style, the DM tends to keep combats small, where I think the math of 5e makes a battle with fewer enemies than the number of players easy. Players can gang up on people, and with a few clever uses of some battlefield control can really keep one to three of the enemies out of combat to focus fire on the half of the group that is still a threat. Still, it's easier to keep track of 3 enemies' stats than 6 enemies' stats.

Another aspect of his play style is he tends to say yes, even to ridiculous requests at times. He was very willing to give surprise rounds and advantage right away, and still is at times. That makes stealth much more valuable, and I'm a little surprised we didn't make an all stealth party this time because of that. We've always got time to take short and long rests, and he doesn't pressure us for time usually, so we can really handle many battles with ease. The short rest mechanic also means many of us get some nice resources back after a rest (particularly when I played a warlock), so you can really handle battle after battle when he makes them easy (or easy for us).

On a related note, overland travel with random encounters is awful in 5e. Not only does our ranger ensure we'll never get lost or need to forage for food while traveling, but since all your resources come back after a long rest, there's really no point to doing these in 5e. I like random encounters to help set the mood or tone of a story, or to siphon off a few resources from the party, but travel in 5e (without the Adventures in Middle Earth fix where you can't get a long rest in the wilderness) makes the resource drain pointless.

Finally, I'm not sure if he nerfs the enemies intentionally or not, but he tends to ignore many aspects of the by-the-book stats. It may be a combo of not reading things close, being tired at the time, or lack of system mastery for the spells (He used crown of madness totally ineffectually tonight and didn't use the enemy's second winds). For the spells, I suspect some of it is by not really playing 5e much, you don't know off the top of your head what most of the spells do. That's easy to mess up, or having an archmage up-cast lightning bolt as a 9th-level spell is just not super useful. So he's not always using his enemies effectively. Some of the theater of the mind aspects of play also might hinder this, there's really not interesting terrain in the game for stunts, and we usually have trouble tracking where enemies are and which one is which (probably once or twice a night at least).

How does this lead to high-level NPCs? Since The DM has thrown out the CR system, we end up having three 6th-level PCs fighting things like two CR9 champions plus a CR6 warlock (this past week's tomfoolery). Or the end of Rise of Tiamat where there were just tons of archmages wandering around. Those archmates were functionally something like 14th level NPCs we just fought, it took everything we had to defeat them, and we got a short rest in the middle because we had been beaten (non-lethal damage on taking down the paladin and fighter/rogue). Obviously, we hunted the survivor down to take our money back, because D&D.

So we're left wondering why the noble was able to hire these very powerful mercenaries to chase us down (The druid made a deal to reincarnate his dead nephew for a lot of cash, but he wasn't going to pay us for it when the mother wasn't 100% convinced it was her son). So why are we the ones going to deal with the giant problems when there are these high-level mercenaries able to be hired?

In the last campaign, where he started out using obviously 20th-level NPCs as patrons for each faction, we also were asking ourselves multiple times why we were being sent to investigate things while the big powerful spellcasters (able to cast wish spells and the like) were doing nothing themselves. I have no explanation for that.

I think this is often a criticism of some of the published D&D worlds: when there are these massively powerful NPCs walking around (Elminster, the Seven Sisters, etc.) why are the PCs really needed to be heroes? It's now exacerbated by the inclusion of these NPC stat blocks in the Monster Manual and Volo's Guide to Monsters, and incongruent with the idea of tiers of play.

In by-the-book 5e, characters of levels 1-4 (Apprentice) are local heroes, levels 5-10 are regional heroes, levels 11-16 (paragon) are global heroes and levels 17-20 (Epic) are cosmic heroes. This means that those CR 6 NPCs that function as 14th level spellcasters are really high up there, and the ones beyond that are just basically god-like. In theory, the CR for one creature is equal to average party level for a 4-5 person party. So that CR 6 warlock is an average encounter for a 6th level party. Give the warlock some support henches and it's a good time. But what's the level of that CR6 warlock? The spell-casting says the warlock is 14th level. Clearly paragon. We could instead try to break monsters down into their tiers, but a proficiency bonus diagnostic doesn't quite map to the tier levels exactly. Nonetheless, it may be a decent stand-in: things with a proficiency bonus of +3 are regional-level threats. +4 spans the end of regional and beginning of global. +5 is solidly global, with +6 being epic. That might not work out properly though because the CR 6 warlock was a 14th level caster with a +3 proficiency bonus. I'm sure with some more time and math I could reverse-engineer something somewhat close though.

What it really means, is by using these high CR NPCs, the DM is telling us there are many powerful people in the world that could be doing our job instead of us. So we need something more of a real hook for the game, especially since the others poo-poo'd my idea of all being good-aligned.

What's the fix? I guess telling the DM. He should know that the one warlock with a couple veterans (CR 3) is much more believable, and something like four veterans, a gladiator, and the warlock might have been a much more believable set of enemies to face. The mage might have an apprentice and two hired bodyguards rather than being an archmage, or might have a bound elemental or demon servitor to defend him. It's difficult to point out NPC powers that I don't know about, but I do try to point out some of the stuff most of the time if it'd make an easy fight harder. I could also try to point out that doing 4 easier combats will drain resources so it's useful to utilize that in the right context, and that random encounters on the road in 5e just serve to bog the game down.

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