Consider force multipliers when designing monster lairs

While no one is credited with coining the phrase as it is currently used, the concept of force multiplication in discussion of military tactics is probably as old as humanity. Essentially, force multipliers are conditions or advantages that increase the effectiveness of a combat force, allowing that force to fight more effectively than another force of similar size.

Although many force multipliers, like weather, are beyond a commander’s ability to control (at least in the real world), many more multipliers can be controlled through resource allocation and command decisions. The latter sort of force multipliers are the subject of this post; these multipliers can impact the ability Dungeons & Dragons monsters have in defending their lairs against heroic intrusion, and can function in a way similar to traps and hazards in encounter design.

Some force multipliers that could be applied to a D&D adventure design include:

Training and equipment. At first glance, employing this multiplier may seem to be counterintuitive for designing 4e encounters of a specific level, as changing the level (combat skill) of a monster or adding armor and weapons to significantly increase defense or damage output can change an encounter’s level altogether. Other forms of training and equipment, though, can impact combat without changing a monster’s combat statistics. Consider a group of crude humanoids – orcs, for example – who are advised by a well-trained human officer or mercenary captain, who has a score to settle with the heroes. Orcs under such command can benefit from the officer’s training by not making as many tactical mistakes, thereby fighting more effectively. In a similar vein, equipment doesn’t have to enhance raw combat statistics; equipping those orcs with polearms that don’t necessarily inflict greater damage, but can strike heroes on the far side of a five-foot-wide ditch, can make combat much more challenging for your heroes.

Terrain. While equipping our orcs with polearms was a mild stroke of genius, it could only work as intended if there was a ditch for the weapons to reach across. The ditch wasn’t created specifically to injure the heroes, so it isn’t a trap, and it is in plain sight and easily avoided, so it isn’t really a hazard, either. It does, however, enable our orcs to fight with greater efficiency, so it is a fine example of terrain as a force multiplier.

Technology (and magic, in a D&D game). This force multiplier applies when a force has more advanced equipment, or thinks of a new way to employ existing technology. Although most D&D games are set in low-technology cultures, magic can serve the same function as technology in the game. Although the fourth edition of the game accounts for more powerful magic when assigning monster level or through the non-player character (NPC) magic threshold, some forms of magical aid can’t be categorized. For example, consider a villainous warlock who has an artifiact – a chunk of primordial ice that drains heat from all creatures within a certain radius – assigning vulnerability 5 to cold damage to affected creatures. The warlock places this item in the nest of his ally, a white dragon. The nature of the item doesn’t lend itself to accounting through the magic threshold and can’t raise the level of the wizard or dragon, nor could it be truly classified as a hazard or trap. It does, however, make the party more vulnerable to the dragon’s attacks when the wyrm’s lair is attacked.

Intelligence. Not to be confused with the ability of the same name, the military connotation for intelligence involves gathering information about the enemy. All combatants want to know everything possible about enemy movements. Knowing where enemies are located, their number and strength, and the length of time before contact can be expected all present significant combat advantages. Certain heroic skills and abilities, such as stealth and invisibility, exist so that heroes may deny this advantage to monsters. Traps designed to alarm mosters of intrusion can foil these abilities and serve an intelligence function, but they can be assigned a level and be part of an encounter’s experience point budget.

Some circumstances, though, involve what some could call an “unfair” intelligence advantage for monsters, such as a construct that animates and attacks any living creature that doesn’t speak a command word that the heroes couldn’t possibly know. Monsters who know the command word and lair on the opposite side of the consruct will automatically know something is amiss when they hear their mechanical guardian stomping about in the next room, and they will have at least a little time to prepare for the heroes. A situation like that is best categorized as intelligence acting as a force multiplier.

Surprise. Related to intelligence is the multiplier of surprise, which is a goal of nearly every combatant. Having intelligence about where enemies are located is the first step toward surprising them. While the standard rules for surprise cover most situations, surprise becomes a force multiplier when, for practical purposes, monsters can’t be surprised but the heroes can. Encounters deliberately designed to surprise heroes, like ambushes in which the heroes automatically start an encounter with poor field position, are examples of surprise used as a force multiplier. In these cases, the encounter is much more difficult for the heroes, but the experience point reward is largely unaffected.

If the consequences of a force multiplier are serious enough, the dungeon master may decide to quantify that multiplier with a level and experience value, just as traps and hazards are.

Villains will seek to employ force multipliers whenever possible, but is imperative that dungeon masters employ these multipliers in accordance with villains’ intelligence and resources, and even then be used in the spirit of fairness. If the players get the impression that every opposing force is multiplied in some way, an adversarial DM-player relationship could develop. Instead, the concept of force multiplication should be used to force players to refine their tactics, thereby keeping challenges fresh.

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4 comments on “Consider force multipliers when designing monster lairs

  1. Philo Pharynx says:

    Some force multipliers are worth an ad-hoc XP modifier. If the PC’s are at a significant disadvantage, it should be worth an extra monster’s worth of experience. An extreme disadvantage would be worth even more. Since 4e uses an “XP budget”, sometimes you can use less powerful monsters with a big advantage. (though make sure they can affect the characters)

    One example would be a kobold lair where the characters have to cross a chamber with crossbow slits and force a door behind a pit before facing the kobolds. (The kobolds have planks behind the door so that they can cross easily). This gives the kobolds a few rounds where they are very hard to damage. But once the party gets to them, they go down very easily.

    • Alric says:

      True, indeed. And while the fourth edition of the game allows traps and hazards to represent a portion of combat experience points, players of earlier editions would benefit by your advice.

  2. […] before, during and after a D&D combat encounter. A handful of these principles, such as force multiplication and the five paragraph order, have already been discussed in other posts at the RPG Athenaeum. This […]

  3. […] as high ground, concealment, limited routes for ingress or egress, and other factors that could be force multipliers. Since the party is at its most vulnerable when at rest, every possible advantage must be seized […]

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